The good folks at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra have no qualms about taking non-standard approaches to building concert programs. Case in point: their annual “Westside Connections” series of three events curated by Margaret Batjer, LACO concertmaster, attempting to link music to the designated topic-of-the-year. This year’s edition looks for links between music and food. Each concert invites a different member of the culinary world to add his or her own thoughts and contributions to what would otherwise be a purely musical get-together.
The second of these events, held Thursday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, matched food critic Jonathan Gold with an eclectic mix of music that seemed a worthy metaphor for the kind of random, off-the-beaten-path restaurants that he has been known to champion.
It proved to be an amusing and entertaining evening. If there were no “a-ha” moments that illuminated a previously unrealized connection between food and music, chalk it up to the presenters wanting to have fun with the premise without over-intellectualizing it.
Consider for a moment the five traditional human senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) and try to pair up any two of them. Go ahead, I’ll wait. . . .
Things can get a little weird once you get past the usual suspects of “sight & sound” and “taste & smell.” For example: unless we’re talking about a scratch and sniff book, “touch & smell” seems like a playground dare.
Of all the possible pairings, taste and sound would probably be the most disparate. It’s not that food and music don’t go together in some way — anyone who’s ever fiddled with a Hollywood Bowl picnic basket or sat in any W Hotel restaurant while Thievery Corporation played in the background knows that they do. Food and music can often occupy the same space and time, yet one tends to dominate the other, mixing without ever truly blending.
They connect indirectly with more success. Good food certainly can inspire the creation of great music and visa versa. Additionally, trying to describe either in words can be challenging, though the language used for one can often be repurposed for the other. I’ve certainly been known to attempt some of that, comparing the Franck Symphony to Lobster Thermador or some pretty special bacon donuts to a Wagnerian hero, among other examples.
The undisputed king of such descriptive endeavors is Mr. Gold, LACO’s special guest for the evening. He has become legendary as the only food critic ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. What is less well known is that he trained as a cellist, and as coincidence would have it, was a stand partner of Armen Ksajikian, LACO’s Associate Principal Cello, when both were members of the American Youth Symphony.
As Mr. Gold described in his pre-concert talk, this experience as a “failed cellist” (his words, not mine) helped to shape his writing style. Phrases such as “a crescendo of flavors” or “a jammy resonance” can be traced back to his musical roots, along with his use of “staccato,” “shrillness,” and “contrapuntal” as culinary adjectives. Such peeks into his point of view, his background, and a few amusing anecdotes comprised the bulk of his remarks (with a story comparing palates of classical musicians with those of pro basketball players being particular fun). He made little attempt to connect with or comment directly on the program that followed him, and that was fine.
Three very different works featuring soprano Elissa Johnston started off the musical proceedings. Bach’s “Ich esse mit Freuden” (I eat with joy) from Cantata No. 84 for soprano and small ensemble was a cheery curtain raiser, though the Broad Stage’s bottom-heavy acoustics made it a little tough for Ms. Johnston’s voice and Ms. Batjer’s violin to be heard over the other instruments.
The next two pieces, with accompaniment provided solely by Jeffrey Kahane on the piano, gave Ms. Johnston a better opportunity to show off her vocal, comedic, and dramatic skills. Donning an apron and looking the part of TV chef, she performed Bernstein’s La Bonne Cuisine — Four Recipes for Voice and Piano in English, seemlessly moving between operatic and theatrical singing styles. She fought her way through the relentless staccato of “Plum Pudding,” then soared through the “Queues de Boeuf (Ox-tails),” “Tavouk Gueunksis,” and ” Civet a Toute Vitesse (Rabbit at Top Speed).”
Finally, she traded the apron for an English fascinator and matching magenta shawl for Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise, William Bolcolm’s send-up of a mostly inedible recipe as described by a quintessential British matron in charge of proper lady’s club. Ms. Johnston imbued her sing-songy character with a good-natured comedic obliviousness, allowing the silly lyrics to take the humor over the top. The appreciative crowd gave her a warm ovation for her collective efforts.
Timothy “Timo” Andres took some time away from preparations for his concerto appearances at this weekend’s LACO concerts to add his own contribution to this musical potluck. He played Sorbet, his composition for solo piano. It is a light, nine-minute piece with a slightly bluesy quality and an underlying three chord descending motif that is reminiscent of Gershwin’s 2nd Piano Prelude. There is perhaps a little bit of Debussy thrown in too, though the overall feel was much more fresh and contemporary than historically referential.
Mr. Gold then returned to the stage to share his experience with a multi-course meal highlighting the culinary delights of spam. He had the audience laughing and squirming as he described how a local Filipino chef prepared a tasting menu of unlikely dishes: “crispy pata” where the traditional pork is replaced with spam; thinly-sliced spam carpaccio; puff pastry wrapped “spam Wellington;” and finally, the traditional Filipino dessert, “halo-halo,” served in an empty spam tin.
Halo-halo — literally translated into English as “mix-mix” from the original Tagalog — is an assortment of fruits and sweets usually served in a cup with shaved ice, evaporated milk, and ice cream. That seemingly random collection of ingredients which ended his meal seemed to match up with the piece ending the concert.
While Dohnányi’s Sextet in C major for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet and Horn, Op. 37, has no food-related inspiration, it does feature a non-standard collection of instruments, and it mixed and matched them up differently in each movement. Moreover, each movement seemed to reflect a different musical style: thickly romantic in the first; a touching, Sibelius-like second; a clarinet and piano paired up to open the third; and a forward-looking fourth that often sounded like Bernstein or even Sondheim. Despite the work’s seeming randomness, the LACO musicians gave it an earnest performance, full of beautiful phrases and moments.
As the concert ended and the audience gave one final ovation, the gentleman next to me offered a short, but punchy, belch. In many cultures, that would be considered a compliment to the chef for a meal thoroughly enjoyed. I chose to interpret it as such, and could not imagine a more appropriate end to the night.
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra “Westside Connections:” March 22, 2012; The Broad Stage (Santa Monica)
Jonathan Gold, food critic
Elissa Johnston, soprano
Jeffrey Kahane, piano
Margaret Batjer, violin
Allan Vogel, oboe
Armen Ksajikian, cello
Patricia Mabee, organ
Timothy Andres, piano
Sarah Thornblade, violin
Robert Brophy, viola
Joshua Ranz, clarinet
David Everson, horn
BACH “Ich esse mit Freuden” (“I eat with joy”), from Cantata No. 84
(Ms. Johnston, Ms. Batjer, Mr. Vogel, Mr. Ksajikian, Ms. Mabee)
BERNSTEIN La Bonne Cuisine—Four Recipes for Voice and Piano
WILLIAM BOLCOM Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise
(Ms. Johnston, Mr. Kahane)
TIMOTHY ANDRES Sorbet
DOHNÁNYI Sextet in C major for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet and Horn, Op. 37
- Allegro appassionato
- Intermezzo: Adagio
- Allegro con sentimento
- Finale: Allegro vivace, giocoso
(Mr. Kahane, Ms. Thornblade, Mr. Brophy, Mr. Ksajikian, Mr. Ranz, Mr. Everson)
- Jonathan Gold: courtesy of Hometown Pasadena
- Elissa Johnston: Eric Scot
- Actual Size, Edward Ruscha: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / © Edward J. Ruscha IV