15 March 2017

a shading of jazz.

Recently, I’ve gradually been working through my blog history and archiving my posts – all 641 of them and counting – to my hard drive. It occurred to me that my ten-year blogging anniversary is this year (September 21, to be precise), making this little space my longest lived blogging endeavour to date, and the impending milestone made me realise how very sad I would be if I were to lose a lot of this writing to the internet’s penchant for impermanence (or, more specifically, to Google’s penchant for killing off their services without much warning). In the course of doing so, I have been able to revisit the sort of things I used to share in this space and realised that I no longer talk about music as much as I did. Which is a shame, because music is great! And I spend the majority of my waking hours listening to it! So, in the spirit of my old music share posts, here’s some of what has captured my aural imagination as of late.

Sometime over the last week, I tumbled down a Bill Evans rabbit hole and haven’t been able to clamber out of it since. I’m not entirely sure how this happened, given that jazz isn’t a genre of music to which I listen with any regularity. I imagine that, as with many a layperson, my acquaintance with the work of Bill Evans began with Kind of Blue, where he provides the piano backing to Miles Davis’s trumpet stylings. (Aside: I was introduced to Kind of Blue by my high school music history teacher, himself a jazz musician. He described it as a jazz album even people who hate jazz love. So, if you haven’t yet, you owe it to yourself to listen through the record at least once before you die, though, afterwards, you may be too full of inchoate emotion to leave the house for a few days. Do not fret, that is perfectly natural.) Every once in a while, I would reach for Evans’s solo album, Alone, but it rarely rose above the status of background music. Then, perhaps a month ago, I had my radio tuned to Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on the local NPR station (sorry, I’ll try to sound more like the living, walking stereotype of an east coast liberal elitist next time) when I heard the guest, whose name now escapes me, perform a rendition of a piece called “Waltz for Debby” written by none other than Bill Evans:

♪ Bill Evans Trio – Waltz for Debby (Take 2)

Is there such a thing as a delayed-onset earworm? For some reason, it floated to the surface of my consciousness last weekend, and, since then, I’ve been obsessed. Completely obsessed. Like, I-can’t-bring-myself-to-listen-to-anything-else obsessed.

If I knew anything at all about jazz theory or history, this would be where I explicate, in my admittedly amateurish way, the brilliance of Bill Evans, but the truth is that I am approaching his music in almost a complete vacuum of intellectual preconceptions. In some ways, this is a bit frustrating: I suspect that, as with any art worth its salt, one’s appreciation of jazz is strictly increasing in the amount that one knows about it. In another way, however, it has proved quite liberating. Instead of book learning, I must rely on music intuition. There is less thinking and more feeling.

What is it that Bill Evans’s music makes me feel? His brand of jazz runs cool in temperament. It is unruffled, contemplative, lyrical, and just a touch melancholy at the edges. It is suffused with a fundamental innocence. “Waltz for Debby,” after all, was written for his niece. In that sense, it reminds me of Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye” (“Mother Goose”), an orchestral suite that was originally written as a piano duet for two children that shares the same earnestness and lack of pretension.

♪ Maurice Ravel – Ma mère l’Oye: Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra with Yannick Nézét-Séguin, conductor

That, I think, gets to another reason that Bill Evans’s music has attached itself so firmly to my heart. For me, it is impossible to not hear, lurking behind the jazz inflections, a classicism that hearkens back to the piano works of the French Impressionist composers in particular. I imagine that must make Bill Evans an easier sell to me than other jazz musicians because I feel like he and I speak the same language, if rather different dialects thereof. Indeed, I find myself wanting to try playing some of his pieces on the piano, and I haven’t had the urge to personally try my hand at jazz since high school (I was convinced for about a month that it would be a good idea to expand my musical boundaries a bit, only to discover that my classically trained brain just couldn’t handle the rhythm and syncopation). Take, for instance, this other piece of his:

♪ Bill Evans Trio – Some Other Time

The double bass plucking out a broken perfect fifth in the very first bar of music – one could hardly find a simpler gesture, yet its supreme unhurriedness frames everything to follow. This made me think of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies”, which, in spite of their ubiquitous presence on compilations of Relaxing Classical Music™, really are beautiful in their compactness and simplicity.

♪ Erik Satie – Gymnopédie No. 3
Pascal Roge, piano

And there are a few chromatic runs in the piano part that trace out a whole-tone scale, of which Claude Debussy, among other composers, made extensive use.

♪ Claude Debussy – Preludes, Livre I: Voiles
Pascal Roge, piano

And, in a twist that I am sure is far from coincidental, “Some Other Time” shares almost the exact same beginning as “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue.

♪ Miles Davis – Flamenco Sketches

I wonder if maybe the time of year has something to do with it too, caught as we are in the fitful transition between winter and spring (though, given recent meteorological events, there is no question as to who has the upper hand there). There is a yearning for warmth and the angled sunlight of longer days, but, until then, I will have to be content with dreaming of it.

2 March 2017

nesting update & introducing BARToC.

Now that I’ve been living in this apartment for almost seven months and survived most of an Ithaca winter (albeit an unusually warm one), it seems like a good time to provide a quick update on goings on at Chez Malin. Although not too much has changed from my original setup, I have made a few improvements at the margin, along with one very big addition that I am excited to introduce!

First, in my bedroom, I rearranged my reading nook. As enamoured as I was with it, it did have a few problems. Because the rocking chair was set into the corner of the room and slightly behind the bookshelf, something I did in order to make the reading nook as compact as possible, I often felt boxed in when I sat there – not really the feeling I want to have when in search of a relaxed state of mind. The ottoman-cum-sidetable was on my left-hand side, which, as a right-handed person, made reaching over for whatever hot beverage I would be nursing at the time a tad awkward.

new reading nook.

Here is a shot of the reading nook in its current form from exactly the same angle. Having tested it out thoroughly, I can confidently say that the two problems described above have now been fixed! There have also been a number of new tweaks to the space. I framed some prints that I cut out of a 2016 Rifle Paper Co. calendar and hung them next to my antique Washington, DC map. I have placed on the ottoman a portable bluetooth speaker that had been languishing, unused, in my home office. These days, I use it primarily to listen to podcasts while I do chores (any other Friends of the Pod out there?!) and WQXR while winding down at night. Within arm’s reach of the rocking chair is a mint green and white-striped fabric bin. Deemed my “basket of fun,” it holds a “Cuddly Bunny” Pillow Pet, a pair of fuzzy socks, a hot water bottle, and a cupcake-bearing Pusheen plushie that my sister gave me for my last birthday – basically, all the things I could ever need to make my reading time that much cosier.

basket of fun.

Another cosy addition to my room has been this butterfly chair from Target, nicknamed “Floof.” It fills this otherwise dead corner of the room nicely, and, when I prop my feet up on my desk chair, I have myself a ridiculously comfortable place to watch movies/TV/sports on whatever mobile device I happen to have on hand. (It was from this spot that I watched the Federer-Nadal 2017 Australian Open final on replay, the ultimate act of consecration.)

floof.

The most challenging room to deal with has been the study room, especially as the temperature outside started falling. Beyond the fact that the walls are not well insulated, it features a door that leads to an outside porch area that does not seal very well, plus three extremely drafty windows. With judicious placement of towels and the use of copious amounts of packing tape to seal up the windows and doors, I’ve at least managed to ensure that the study is just about the same temperature as the rest of the apartment. Any lingering chill can be mostly dealt with by layering on a vest and throwing a fleece blanket over my legs. Conveniently, I keep both items – along with more fuzzy socks – in a fabric bin right next to my office chair.

basket of cosy.

The study houses the newest member of my lineup of personal computing devices: a brand new, custom-built desktop! As I mentioned in my New Year’s resolutions post, my objective was to have a machine more powerful than my laptop to handle the computational burdens of my research. The tech geeks among you can read more about the build here. In the tradition of supercomputers with funky names, I was extremely keen on baptising my PC with a nifty moniker. I thought that “MAHLER” would be appropriate given my love for classical music and dear old Gustav’s penchant for composing beastly symphonies but couldn’t think of a suitable phrase for which “MAHLER” could serve as an acronym. Eventually, I turned to his Hungarian almost-contemporary, Béla Bartók, for inspiration. The “k” became a “c,” then “BARTOK” became “BARToC,” short for “Big Academic Research Ten-Core Computer.”

BARToC.

On a more practical note, the switch from using a laptop to a desktop computer as my primary machine of choice required me to redesign my workspace (my laptop now stays put in my departmental office, and both are bound by the magical powers of Dropbox). Although I had initially wanted to have a dual-monitor setup at home, the one large monitor I already had on hand has proved to be more than sufficient. My desk, as a result, feels far less cluttered and more spacious than it did before, and I want to believe that has had a salutary effect on my work productivity.

Another positive productivity shock, I hope: while upgrading to BARToC, I treated myself to this mechanical keyboard with the Cherry MX Blue switches. Typing on it is an absolute pleasure. As someone who types with a rather heavy touch, I appreciate the higher activation force, and the clicky sounds are literally all I have ever wanted out of my keyboarding experience. These switches, however, are definitely the sort of thing I can likely only get away with because I live on my own, as I could see the sounds being rather irritating to other people. Being a hermit must have its benefits, after all!

27 February 2017

on the interview trail.

Having made some progress in finally getting my blog up to speed, I will now hop in the time machine and go back to winter break, when I had the pleasure of being a plus one on the medical residency interview trail. For those who are unfamiliar with it – I mean, perhaps this is widespread knowledge among some of you, but I personally couldn’t tell Step 1 from PGY1 until I started dating a med student – here is a quick primer. From an initial pool of applicants, the most promising ones are selected for an interview. This is a process that entails travel at one’s own expense to a potentially far-flung city (and possibly at last minute’s notice), a dinner with the other interviewees and some current interns and residents, requisite information sessions and tours of the hospital, and, naturally, interviews with select members of the faculty. In form, these interviews are not dissimilar to flyouts on the academic job market, but their purposes are rather different. Whereas the latter, at least in economics, are all about the presentation of the job market paper, residency interviews are less interested in academic qualifications, research experiences, or anything else that could be read off a CV and personal statement and instead place more emphasis on characteristics like sociability and collegiality. After all, I was told, when you are working 80+ hours a week and, like, actual people’s lives are literally in your hands, the last thing you want to deal with is a sociopathic coworker. (If I were in a snarky mood, I might quasi-seriously remark that the academic job market in fact selects for sociopathy.)

As a plus one, I was invited to join the dinners, an experience that proved to be rather edifying even beyond the fact that I got some pretty good free food out of it. On each occasion, I was one of only a few people present who had no background in medicine whatsoever. More often than not, my fellow outsiders were residents’ very young children, who were not there of their own volition, and I couldn’t very well huddle in a corner and commiserate with them. I spent the first dinner, after the generic social pleasantries were behind us, mostly staring pleasantly at some point off in the vaguely defined distance as snippets of medical jargon whizzed just beyond the reach of my comprehension. For all of the progress that I have made over the last year and a half to navigate the ways of the wonderful world of medical education, when plopped in the middle of it, I was still a stranger in a strange land.

This initial bewilderment underscores my primary motivation for accompanying the boyfriend on these interviews whenever possible. To pursue a graduate degree of any sort is to undergo an almost comically absurd degree of specialisation. While incentives are such that attaining that degree of specialisation is inseparable from one’s own academic and professional success, it does make talking across disciplines a bit tricky – especially in a case like mine, for I had spent my entire life running as far away as I could from med school (sorry, parents). It was a matter of first-order importance to me, though, to break down that barrier as much as I could. The kind of mutual respect and understanding that I want in a relationship demanded as much, and immersion is the only surefire way to pick up an unfamiliar language. These interviews seemed like the best way to achieve this, since I can’t very well follow him onto the hospital floor (“Hey, honey, why are you sticking that horrifying looking needle into that poor man’s gut?”). Fortunately, the dinners did get easier with each iteration, and, soon, I too could nod knowingly when someone around me said “pulm crit care.”

A secondary motivation was the chance to go on succession of road trips. When his schedule permitted it, we were able to do some sightseeing together. Meanwhile, I got very good at scouting out coffee shops, lunch spots, and places to work near academic medical centres when he was at his interviews. As my #econgradstudentlife is rather stationary (like a well-behaved AR(1) series – God, I’m so hilarious), it was a pleasure to lead, if only for a little while, the life of an itinerant scholar. What follows is a documentation of where the interview trail ended up taking me.

--

Charlottesville, VA

Yes, I ended up back in Cville for the second time in two months. Getting there was a story unto itself: I took a Greyhound bus from Ithaca to Philly, where I met the boyfriend and his car. We went from there to Virginia but not first without making a detour to WaWa. A PSA to all the haters and losers: it is the Greatest Motherfucking Place on This Entire Goddamn Planet. I had the pleasure of ordering hoagies for the two of us: my first since I tragically lost my Pennsylvania residence and his first ever. A momentous day, truly.

reunited with wawa.

We happened to catch Praise when we were in town, and the three of us met for a nice lunch at Hamiltons’ at First and Main on the Downtown Mall. There is a very special frisson of joy that I get when I have the opportunity to introduce two important people from different spheres of my life to each other. Of course, the irony here is that the three of us were all studying at Oxford at the same time, but, somehow, their paths failed to cross back then. Following lunch was a stop – and a return visit for me – to the Pie Chest. I weep to look upon this pie’s beauty anew.

the pie chest.

As it had been raining the last time I was on the Downtown Mall, it was nice to see it under fair weather conditions.

downtown mall.

UVA’s campus was as charming and stately as I remembered, and, after dinner that evening, we were able to catch the Rotunda all decked out for the holiday season.

uva.
uva.
christmastime in cville.

With the boyfriend off at his interview the next day, I shamelessly parked myself in Grit Coffee for an entire morning. I had intentions to get work done but ended up engrossed in J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling instead. Alas.

grit coffee.
--

Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh and I have a long history. My aunt lived there for many years, so a stretch of my childhood is littered with memories of twice-yearly drives from one edge of the state of Pennsylvania to the other. My most recent trip to the city occurred back in early 2007, when I flew there for a scholarship interview with the University of Pittsburgh. That trip would also prove memorable for an entirely different reason: while waiting for my return flight to Philly at the airport, I completed my first ever novel, which I had started the previous November.

The boyfriend’s Priceline skills had scored us a room with a view at the Sheraton Pittsburgh Hotel at Station Square. I only mention this because (1) this view, seriously, and (2) the rest of our accommodations were quite budget-conscious, to put it euphemistically, and eminently forgettable.

pittsburgh at night.

The interview dinner was at a vaguely hipster-ish Mexican restaurant downtown. We strolled by the public ice skating rink by PPG Place afterwards and were momentarily tempted to partake in such recreation as well.

ppg place ice rink.
ppg place ice rink.

Another city, another coffee shop: this time, Crazy Mocha. Located near UPitt’s Oakland campus, I suspect that it would have been quite bustling had the semester not already ended. As it was, I found it a bit lacking in atmosphere. For lunch, some Yelp stalking convinced me to check out the nearby Red Oak Café. It was thronged with locals on their own lunch break, many of whom I suspect were employees of the nearby hospitals (the scrubs kind of gave it away). When travelling alone, I have often found it comforting to sink into the surrounding din of anonymous conversations.

red oak cafe.

After I grew tired of sitting still, I pulled out my trusty camera and started wandering in the general direction of UPitt and Carnegie Mellon. UPitt’s Cathedral of Learning is the only landmark that I recall from my last visit – hardly surprising, given how disproportionately large it is relative to the surrounding buildings.

cathedral of learning.
forbes ave.
carnegie museums of pittsburgh.
carnegie library of pittsburgh.

After the boyfriend’s interview ended, we strolled around the inside of the Cathedral of Learning for a bit –

cathedral of learning.
cathedral of learning.

– then we drove to the neighbourhood of Mt. Washington, which offers a scenic outlook over the entire city and the rivers that bound it.

mt. washington scenic outlook.
mt. washington scenic outlook.
--

Boston, MA

This interview necessitated a very early alarm and a harrowing drive through rush-hour traffic; I am still giving thanks to whatever higher powers may exist for having survived that. One positive consequence of getting a head start on the day, though, was the ability to walk through Boston Public Garden and down Commonwealth Avenue while both were still reasonably deserted – I, the lone tourist in a sea of commuters shuffling off to work in the cold. It felt like I had the run of the place, which was a rare privilege indeed.

boston public garden.
commonwealth avenue.
newbury street.

I enjoyed a reading breakfast at the Newbury Street location of Thinking Cup. As befits a coffee shop with such a name, the walls were adorned with framed musical instruments and old newspaper clippings could be found underneath the glass overlays at the tables. I had recently finished acquiring all of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books and had brought along his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, for this trip.

thinking cup.

And where else would I work but the eternally splendid Boston Public Library?

boston public library.
boston public library.

I would be joined by Katherine in a few hours’ time, and, after one last attempt at getting some work done, we walked over to the recently opened Eataly, located in the Prudential Center. I ate the pasta too quickly to take pictures of it.

--

New Haven, CT

From Boston, we drove straight to New Haven, which would be my final stop on the interview trail. I had been here last in 2006 when I was visiting colleges during my junior year of high school and Yale was on the itinerary. Four years later, I found myself chatting with some British students at Oxford and being asked about how the Yale’s residential college system compared to the Oxbridge model. With a slightly contemptuous wrinkle of the nose, I explained to them that, on paper, they might look similar, but, whereas most Oxbridge colleges are the result of organic development over the centuries, Yale’s colleges were simply grafted on after the fact and named after rich men who never tired of seeing their names etched into the side of a building. Easy enough to levy so dismissive a judgement from the perch of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, but, having spent the last three and a half years of my life imprisoned in the aesthetic desert known as Cornell, I almost cried to find myself surrounded by all of this.

yale university.
yale university.
yale university.

After fuelling up at the aptly named Blue State Coffee – good coffee but utilitarian decor and not particularly worth photographing – I worked out of the Sterling Memorial Library for the remainder of that day. The library’s main hall could have passed for some Gothic cathedral, and the reading room where I passed most of my time, with its wood rafter ceiling, green leather-backed armchairs pressed flush against long tables, and filigreed scrollwork above the doorways, could not have pressed more of my buttons.

sterling memorial library.
sterling memorial library.

I’m so sorry, Yale. I was young and foolish, and I take it all back now, I swear.

--

A postscript: the boyfriend calculated that, between the start and end of interview season, he had logged 4,500 miles on his car. I was present for 2,400 of those miles.

24 February 2017

orchestre national de lyon at the new jersey performing arts center.

Now that my sister and I are both finished with college (and thus firmly flown from the nest), our life cycle appears to have crossed paths with that of our parents. Whereas she and I are at various stages of struggling to be an adult of some sort, my parents are all of a sudden having so much more fun than us. (Of course, I should say that nobody deserves that more: 老爸老妈,你们辛苦了!) They do Cool Things now like work out at the gym, perfect their cooking skills, and take trips into the city. One of their pastimes involves attending concerts at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, apparently the result of many years of my dragging them to the orchestra. NJPAC is one of the rotating homes of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra but also hosts many other artists/ensembles across a variety of genres of not insignificant calibre. I still like going to see the New York Philharmonic with them on the other side of the river when I can, but NJPAC does have the virtue of being extremely convenient, Newark being all of fifteen minutes away from their house by car.

When I was coerced to come home during my recent February break – not that I needed much persuading to find being fed delicious home-cooked food and otherwise pampered in every which way possible a pleasant prospect – my visit happened to coincide with one of their regular classical music appointments at NJPAC. They asked me if I wanted to join, and when was the last time I ever turned down the chance to see an orchestra, especially when it’s on the parental dime?

For half a Sunday afternoon, I was treated to a performance by the Orchestre National de Lyon, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. This was the programme:

  • Maurice Ravel – Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie
  • Leonard Slatkin – Kinah
  • Franz Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S. 124
  • Hector Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique

Whenever I’m at a classical music concert, I enjoy pondering the rhyme and reason behind the programme. Why were these works of music chosen? How do they contrast with each other? What kind of conversation are they having, though they may be from different eras? Sometimes, the answers to such questions are quite obvious, but there are other times when they can only emerge after the music has been played in the precise sequence in which it has been planned. It did not surprise me that an ensemble hailing from France would choose to perform works by two French composers, Ravel and Berlioz. Both composers are known for their talents in the realm of orchestration. But why the Liszt? And was the Slatkin work present only because the composer and the conductor were the same man (I suspect, though, that this was a necessary condition)?

One would, of course, expect a meticulous handling of tone colour by Maurice Ravel. His famous Bolero is, after all, a study in how different instruments in the orchestra and combinations thereof can spin the repetition of a single musical idea into an ever more wild kaleidescope of sound. I was not familiar with this overture of his, and for good reason, it turns out: Shéhérazade is Ravel’s earliest surviving composition for orchestra and was only published in 1975. The programme also noted the piece’s debt to Debussy – it begins with a sinuous oboe solo, à la the famous flute solo that kicks off Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had himself written a Shéhérazade a while earlier. (Fun fact from my past life as a figure skating fan: Michelle Kwan skated her 2002 long programme to that work!) Consequently, it really didn’t sound like Ravel: there was neither the sentimental whimsicality of his Ma mère l’Oye suite nor the elegant jazz-inflected sylings of his piano concerto. To that end, Ravel’s Shéhérazade is a curiosity, a bit of juvenilia through which the composer passed en route to his more mature and full form.

Slatkin composed Kinah in 2015 in tribute to his late parents, who were themselves musicians and founders of the Hollywood String Quartet. The piece was appropriately elegiac, rooted by the strings in a lush and melancholic mode (Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, an orchestral work of mourning par excellence, came to mind). Rounding out its sonic universe were some brass instruments, harp, celesta, percussion, and what I could have sworn was a glass harmonica, lending the music a sense of otherworldliness. What made the piece intensely personal was the following: as explained by Slatkin himself in the programme notes, his father passed away two days before he and his wife were due to perform Brahms’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello together for the first time. A fragment from the opening line of the slow movement from that concerto is woven into the score of Kinah, played by a violin and cello located off-stage and floating over the proceedings. Here, I thought of Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, whose stormy first movement eventually collapses into a plaintive coda that quotes a few bars from a late Beethoven song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. It seemed to me that something similar was at work in Kinah, that some half-remembered wisp of a memory could nevertheless carry within itself such unimaginable pain and love.

♪ Franz Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S. 124: Allegro maestoso
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, and Montreal Symphony Orchestra with Charles Dutoit, conductor

A piano concerto would ordinarily be the highlight of any concert for me. When I saw that it was one of Liszt’s, however, I admit that my spirits sank a bit. Though widely performed – largely, I suspect, on account of the in-your-face virtuosity of the piano part – his two piano concertos have long struck me as being somewhat lacking in imagination. The motif that unifies Piano Concerto No. 1, for instance, has all the melodic charm of a hammer striking a brick (“DUUUUN, dun-dun-dun, DUN-DUN-DUUUUN”), never quite going anywhere as the piano and orchestra passed it back and forth.

Yet this concerto would demonstrate two things. First, there is nothing like a live performance to force one to re-evaluate a work, no matter how familiar I think I am with it. Details that escape my notice in the flat environment of a recording are, quite literally, in my face when there is nothing else to distract me from the music, the errant coughing of nearby concertgoers notwithstanding. Second, how I feel about a particular work can very well be influenced by the context in which it is presented to me. Here I cycle back to my earlier musing about the importance of programming. With the Ravel and the Slatkin piece in the rear-view mirror and the Berlioz yet to come, it had become apparent to me that this programme had been designed to showcase the full range of the dazzling spectrum of colours that an orchestra in flight can produce. Revisiting the concerto from this perspective, I could see/hear more precisely how Liszt exploited it to give greater texture to his music. In the first movement, which I’ve shared above, there are solo flourishes delegated to various members of the orchestra, including one rather beautiful passage where it almost sounds like the piano is accompanying the violin. And, of course, there is the piano itself. The contrast between its tone colour and that of the orchestra writ large is what gives the piano concerto as a form its fundamental dramatic charge, and, if Liszt’s writing for the instrument does not quite have the lyricism of, say, Chopin, it is nevertheless a dense and grounding force in this piece, driving it forward with percussive chords.

I should note that the piano part was handled ably by one George Li. He is all of twenty-one years old. Because I really needed more reasons to feel like an unaccomplished sack of shit.

♪ Hector Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14: Song d’une nuit du Sabbat
London Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta, conductor

Then, finally, the Symphonie fantastique after the intermission. This was the piece I was most excited to hear. I’ve loved it ever since my high school music history class, when my teacher walked us through its last movement, “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath” (above), as a illustration of tone colour. It has almost too many delightful (and demonic) moments to name: the mocking E-flat clarinet with its borderline squeaky character, the bells tolling mournfully in the background, the brass section intoning the Dies irae as the double basses rumble from deep within the burning pits of Hell, the maniacal witches’ cackle embodied to perfection by the violins. It is insane and wonderful, and that isn’t even touching on the rest of the symphony. I mean, it is basically the Romantic symphony equivalent of a fever dream. To quote Leonard Bernstein (by way of Wikipedia), “You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”

Every once in a while, I am on the receiving end of a query to provide an entrée into the world of classical music to someone with limited prior experience with it. There are more and less systematic ways for me to attempt this, and, because I am the person who just sat here and vomited more than 1,500 words into a text file about a concert I saw, I tend to err on the pretentious side of things. That said, I suspect the most straightforward way of doing it is to point that person in the direction of pieces that make a visceral grab for the heart and refuse to let it go. The finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird suite comes to mind. The very famous Beethoven symphonies are irresistible, obviously, and, while I am heavily biased towards anything with a piano in it, I would be hard pressed to leave Rachmaninoff’s second and third piano concertos off this list. Having now fallen under the spell of seeing the Symphonie fantastique performed live, though, I am starting to wonder if it perhaps has a claim to being the most palatable introduction to classical music for a complete newbie. One, it can counter the common complaint of “But what is this music actually about?” by virtue of the fact that all of the movements have actual names (in lieu of, for instance, allegro ma non troppo) and the symphony as a whole follows a prescribed narrative structure. Two, it is a superb demonstration of everything an orchestra can do, as it evokes everything from a stately ballroom waltz to birdsongs in the countryside to a witches’ sabbath. Third, it’s just an absolute romp, and, really, why shouldn’t classical music be fun?

Slatkin and the orchestra seemed to think it is. They offered two brief encores excerpted from Bizet’s Carmen: the beautiful intermezzo, followed by a completely bonkers arrangement of the famous overture that sounded like Aaron Copland by way of a bluegrass band, replete with an orchestra member yelling yee-haw! throughout, and left the audience in quite possibly the most cheerful spirits imaginable.

6 February 2017

my week with blue apron.

I’ve been without a car for almost three weeks now as it undergoes repairs in the shop. For the most part, this hasn’t been too much of an issue: there is a bus to take me to campus, and, the occasional retail therapy session at Target notwithstanding, I tend not to do too much additional running about. One area where this has been a bit of a problem, though, is the acquisition of groceries. I know that I feel better when I am able to prepare my own meals, so I still wanted to preserve some ability to do so and not have to live on, say, canned soup day after day. Over the break, the boyfriend had discussed the possibility of using Blue Apron, one of those meal delivery services whose promo code-bearing flyers have probably ended up your mailbox at some point, when he starts his internship this summer and time needed to plan out meals and go grocery shopping becomes almost impossible to fit into his schedule. He happened to have a promo code on hand, I happened to need a way to make due without ready access to Wegmans – thus, I agreed to be a Blue Apron guinea pig for a week.

I signed up for the 2-person plan, which, for a shade under $60/week, delivers a box of ingredients sufficient for making two servings each of three included recipes for a total of six meals. Other corners of the internet have done more thorough analyses of the cost effectiveness of a service like this; as always, I would say that it will depend on one’s existing food shopping habits. I tend to be on the more frugal side – I never buy locally sourced or organic if given a choice, the recipes I tend to favour tend to not require very expensive ingredients, and I try to keep eating out to a minimum – so I suspect that Blue Apron marks a step up from my usual level of food expenditure. Of course, as we all learned in our introductory microeconomics courses, implicit costs matter too: planning out my meals, driving to Wegmans, and fighting my way through the produce section all require time.

Meanwhile, what does $60/week get you? Higher quality ingredients, to be sure (salmon that’s been caught in the wild? yes, please). The delightful cessation of the mental energies required to answer the question, “How will I ensure that I do not starve this week?” And, perhaps more importantly, the restoration of a sense of fun in the kitchen. The impression I have is that, compared to other meal kit services, Blue Apron’s recipes are designed to appeal to the amateur cook’s desire for novelty. I can find my way around a kitchen serviceably well, but I am in general not particularly daring about what I choose to make. And, more often than not, I resort to making a huge batch of something or another over the weekend and eating very little else over the days that follow. To that end, simply for making the otherwise rote act of feeding myself exciting again, I deem my Blue Apron experiment an unqualified success.

But enough rambling. Here are the three meals that I sampled over the course of my Blue Apron trial run. (I apologise for the less than ideal lighting in these photos, but natural light is very difficult to come by in my kitchen. Especially, you know, at night.)

Indonesian-Spiced Salmon with Freekeh & Marinated Radishes
indonesian-spiced salmon.

This was easily the most adventurous recipe of the three: I got to work with the aforementioned freekeh (a kind of grain, rather hearty in taste and quite textured), along with tamarind concentrate and coconut milk powder, none of which I had handled before. Also, I love salmon and was extremely pleased with the amount provided, seafood being rather expensive and one might guess the most natural place to cut corners.

As you can see from the link above, Blue Apron’s recipes are extremely precise vis-à-vis when constituent parts of the meal have to be cooked. Afraid that my food prep would be too slow, I decided to do things out of order. This was a mistake, as, at one point, I ended up standing around for fifteen minutes just waiting for the freekeh to finish cooking. In this regard, one would do best to trust the recipe.

Yet personal judgement cannot be entirely abandoned. When making the radish and onion side salad, I interpreted “use up to half the onion” as “use exactly one half of the onion.” This, combined with the raw garlic in the marinade plus the scallion garnish on top of the fish, meant the dish was entirely too heavy on onion flavours (and I say this as someone with a generally high tolerance for onions): I spent the remainder of the evening nursing a vague burning sensation in my mouth and stomach. When I had the leftovers for dinner the next day, I discarded the onions from the salad and the result was much better. This minor snafu notwithstanding, I enjoyed this recipe quite a lot, the sauce topping the fish being particularly rich.

Pibil-Style Pork with Spinach & Citrus Rice
pibil-style pork.

The most exciting part of this recipe was being introduced to the cara cara orange. The flesh was very sweet and didn’t quite have the same zing of a standard orange, making it quite mild in taste. In concert with cilantro, scallions, lime juice, and pickled jalapeño peppers, it made for a most flavourful salsa that complemented well the spices in which the pork had been marinated. No complaints here.

Seared Chicken & Mashed Potatoes with Kale, Mushrooms & Verjus
seared chicken and mashed potatoes.

Nothing too outré here. Even in this classic setting, though, the recipe had something interesting to contribute. Now, although my demographic characteristics (read: twentysomething and female, with a predilection for occasional displays of basicness) might suggest otherwise, I am rather wary of kale. Sautéing with mushrooms and then letting it cook in a mix of crème fraîche, verjus (juice made from young wine grapes), and thyme, however, did wonders in mitigating the natural bitterness of the vegetable, transforming it from barely tolerable to actually quite delicious. This is definitely a dish I want to recreate at some point.

All in all, I was extremely satisfied by this selection of meals and pleasantly surprised by how much I took to the Blue Apron approach. In additional to the various benefits outlined above, I appreciated the pedagogical overtones – it’s not a stretch to think of services like these as self-guided cooking classes, and Blue Apron has an accompanying app where one can read up on certain ingredients and watch video demonstrations of kitchen skills – and the care that was taken to ensure that each meal has sufficient nutritional content. While Blue Apron cannot replace grocery shopping altogether, I look forward to using it to supplement my usual rotation of recipes and plan on having a box delivered to me around once a month. Consider me converted.