What's for Dinner?

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Apr 19, 2010 - 5:35:36 PM in reviews

Art – of all kinds – is what Sunday’s evening’s concert:nova presentation at the Midwest Culinary Institute, was all about.

To call it a “concert” would be too narrow, since boundary-busting is what concert:nova is all about.

Entitled “The Four Seasons,” the program encompassed music, of course, and not just Vivaldi’s iconic “The Four Seasons." Inter-linked with movements from the Vivaldi were Astor Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” and American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ “The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine (1991).

Kernis’ work introduced another layer of artistry, drama and the spoken word, with guest narrator Naomi Lewin. Lewin is well known in Cincinnati for her distinguished career with radio station WGUC-FM, where she was a popular announcer, a creative programmer (the award-winning series “Classics for Kids”) and a personality/performer in her own right, having done guest narrations for numerous arts groups in town. Lewin is now afternoon drive-time announcer for classical radio station WQXR in New York City, but she likes to re-visit her former home (which she still misses, she says).

A team of MCI chefs led by Ed Smain carried the “Seasons” theme further by creating a meal for concert attendees in the Summit Restaurant. There was videography, also, to enhance the program. During the concert, a film of the chefs preparing dinner in the MCI kitchens was projected onto a screen behind the musicians. Created by Chris Higgenbothom, the film was cleverly synced with the music, making for some interesting “culinary commentary.”

The event’s seasonal theme also celebrated Earth Day (April 22).

It was a natural for concert:nova, which since its founding three years ago has presented multi-media programs of unusual creativity and breadth. (My favorite still remains Samuel Beckett's “Waiting for Godot” with Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” at Christ Church Cathedral in 2008).

Concert:nova artistic director Ixi Chen introduced the program, though she did not participate musically (she is a clarinetist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra). The 12-piece ensemble comprised strings, plus Lewin and pianist Julie Spangler in the Kernis. Soloists were violinists Tatiana Berman and Maureen Nelson in movements from the Vivaldi concertos and Mauricio Aguiar and Anna Reider, who took turns performing the Piazzolla.

The concert was divided into four parts according to the seasons, beginning with autumn. Each season was introduced by Lewin, who was accompanied by violinist Manami White, cellist Christina Coletta and Spangler in the corresponding movement from Kernis’ work. His "Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine" is a setting of texts from F.T. Marinetti’s “The Futurist’s Cookbook,” which takes a satirical whack at the Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th-century. Taken together, the program made for a sumptuous mix of styles and sounds, from Italian baroque to Argentine tango and Kernis’ post-modern reflection on some of the overblown aspirations of the past century.

“We stand on the last promontory of the centuries,” declared Lewin in the “Manifesto” that opens Kernis’ work to melodramatic flourishes by the piano and strings. What the new century needs is a new cuisine, one able to nourish a population fit to cope with an “evermore high speed airborne life.”

Seasonal first was Kernis’Autumn Musical,” a rumbling, atmospheric movement depicting a peasant woman preparing chick peas in oil and vinegar, “seven capers, 25 liqueur cherries, 12 fried fishes,” a sip of wine and a roast quail the diners are only permitted to sniff before they rush out into the darkness.

Violinist Nelson followed with the considerably more contented peasants of Vivaldi’s "Autumn" ("L'autunno," first movement only). On the video screen were images of MCI cooks chopping vegetables briskly. Then it was Reider’s turn in Piazzolla’s “Autumn"("Otono"). Cellist Theodore Nelson introduced the to-die-for melody, which Reider took up with ravishing sound and considerable flair.

Kernis’ “Heroic Winter Dinner” followed, with Lewin describing the gustatory prescription for a group of soldiers about to depart for combat. This included raw meat, decadent sweets and a “final pellet of Parmesan cheese steeped in Marsala,” all set to appropriately turbulent music performed by White, Spangler and Coletta.

Berman put Vivaldi’s “Seasons” in "Winter" mode ("L'inverno”) with a brisk, beautifully ornamented performance of the Largo. She took the concluding Allegro at blitz speed to the final tumble on the ice. On screen, chef Jean-Robert de Cavel and others could be seen preparing onions, pineapple, garlic and potatoes.

Aguiar stepped up with Piazzolla’s “Winter" ("Invierno," which is actually summer in the Southern Hemisphere), a lush movement that conveyed passion, sweetness and a tongue-in-cheek quote from the storm in Vivaldi’s “Summer.”

After intermission, Lewin gave a delightfully stilted reading of Kernis’ “Springtime Meal of the Word in Liberty.” It opened with a parody of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, appended with quotes from Richard Strauss, Bruckner and Wagner (“Grail” theme) for a Futurist style thumb-nosing of Romanticism that waxed positively passionate. The meal, for a pair of young, amorous scholars, included peppers, garlic, rose petals, bicarbonate of soda (“the infinitive of all culinary and digestive problems”), cod liver oil, tortellini and finally a bowl of strawberries poured over their heads by a buxom young girl. Members of c:n provided a riot of barnyard sounds in response.

Vivaldi’s "Spring" (La primavera,"first and second movements) was performed by Berman as de Cavel trimmed the skin from a chicken on the screen. Her exquisite Largo (with violist Heidi Yenney as the barking dog) unfolded as the chicken was wrapped in pastry.

Piazzolla’s frisky, slinky ”Spring" (Primavera”) had Reider sounding a soulful tango with plush pizzicato accompaniment by double bassist Boris Astafiev.

“Nocturnal Love” is the title of Kernis’ summer movement. Hot and steamy it was, too, with Coletta and Spangler floating a languorous melody as a pair of lovers relax on a patio in Capri. What do they get to eat? Ham soaked in milk, said Lewin, also oysters and Asti Spumante as they decide to follow the “fatigues of the table” with those of the bed. The audience was treated to Lewin’s trained mezzo voice, too, as she serenaded them at the end with “O sole mio.”

Violinist Nelson performed Vivaldi’s “Summer” ("L'estate") complete, loosing the full-blown storm movement with muscle and musical conviction after an appropriately timorous Adagio. Aguiar returned with Piazzolla’s “Summer" (Verano”) a lively movement with double-stopped slides, a quote from Vivaldi’s “Winter” (naturally) and lots of fun by the c:n strings, who joined Aguiar with slides of their own, plus playing behind the bridges of their instruments to produce a squeaky sound and a last soft exhalation like air escaping from a popped tire.

There were four stations to graze at the dinner which followed in the Summit Restaurant, one for salad (greens, goat cheese, raspberry vinaigrette), two for entrees (jambalaya and a meat/pasta combination) and one for dessert (ice cream on a cookie crust with cream), plus a choice of red and white wines. Musicians and guests mingled to bring the artful evening to a delicious close.

The event, which was sold out, repeats at 7 p.m. tonight (also sold out) at Via Vite Restaurant on Fountain Square, with post-concert dinner by Chef Cristian Pietoso.