Sunday, February 15, 2009
Further Adventures In Food And Music
8:00AM February 13
Saturday night Jaimie came over to our place for dinner. We had a real American meal: cheese hamburgers. As referenced before, they do sell hamburger patties here, and I cooked up some peppers to go along with the raw onions and lettuce on our burgers. We even had some potato chips around to make it an extra American meal. The potato chips are sold primarily by one company named San Carlo, and they’re pretty good. They’re not quite as tasty as American chips, but the duller potato flavor has got a different charm. As a second course, we had some espresso and soft biscotto that Adam bought earlier in the day. To go along with our dessert course, Jaimie, whose family is partially from Columbia, cooked up some savory tostones (fried plantain slices,) and I made some grilled bread to go along with it as well. I had a plantain and lettuce sandwich which was a great compliment to the espresso.
Sunday I offered to cook a large dinner for the girls and us as we needed an impetus to start making reservations for two coming trips to France in March. We are planning to spend spring break training across Italy and southern France to Nice, where we’ll spend four days. Using it as our hub-city, we can all split up for a variety of daytrips to nearby locations that may be a little more expensive to stay in. From there, we’ll continue onwards to Barcelona for another four days. Two weeks later we’re also doing a weekend in Paris, leaving on Thursday night, and getting back on Sunday. We’d been talking about moving forward on these trips all weekend, but something seemed to get in the way every night, so I got everybody together for dinner, at which point we could start planning.
I made an basil-alfredo sauce with chunks of slow-roasted tomatoes, which I served over a combination of spaghetti and spinach-ricotta tortellini. On the side, I made up some garlic bread. Whereas I usually just whip the butter together with raw minced garlic, I thought the flavors might come out better if I roasted the garlic first. Everything came out extremely well, particularly the garlic bread. It was an exceptionally tasty batch. I know I surprised everybody at the table by serving the spaghetti and tortellini together, but it makes for a nice combination of textures. When I was cooking the pasta, I wasn't sure whether the three pounds was too much, but it turned out to be just the right amount for this large group.
After dinner we went about planning our trips. The most surprising part was that it was significantly cheaper to fly to Barcelona than continue by train from Nice. The real frustrating part was that the quickest and cheapest flights went through Dublin and Paris, completely out of the way; in fact, with the layovers factored in, the flight through Dublin is faster even than the flight by way of Paris, by more than an hour. It’s helpful that John speaks French pretty well and has already been to Paris, so he began writing out a list of all the things we might want to do. I know I hadn’t really planned to travel outside Italy when I came over, I figured there’s plenty to see here, and hopefully I’ll get back to Europe at some other point to see some of the great cities. As my friends were all going to Paris for a weekend though, I found it hard to say no, so I jumped on board.
On Monday, Antonio informed me that he’d finally received my computer charger. It was quite a relief. For the last two weeks I’d been working almost entirely from the computers at school, which has been one of the reasons for the blog slowdown, as I have not been able to write anything back at my apartment. It came at just the right time too because I needed to write a short paper Monday night, and I didn’t have time at school to work on it, as my ensemble meets in the city on Monday nights.
Our ensemble leader, an ex-patriot trumpet player from Pottstown, PA trains in every Monday from Rome. He leaves enough time so that he can get to Florence and relax a bit without diving straight into the music, so he’s invited us to join him at the café across the street from our practice location for a little cappuccino before rehearsal. John Bishop, our drummer, went last week, and I know I could often use a pick-me-up by 6:00 on Monday, especially on somebody else’s treat, so I joined him for a really awesome cappuccino. I told him about my trip to Perugia, and then he informed me that some of the height to the city is because it is physically built overtop the old city of Perugia. Apparently for a few hundred euro you can go underneath the streets to see what remains of the old city.
On Wednesday night John and I walked home by way of Esselunga, the giant grocery store chain of Italy, not so coincidentally owned by their Prime Minister, Berlusconi. We had yet to find this rumored place, which is a little bit of a walk from our apartment, but they really did have a much larger selection of products, like an American supermarket, that we haven’t been able to find in the local grocery stores. I got decent cereal for once and even a pack of tortillas.
I made some fusili in a red sauce for dinner, and then we got dressed up and headed off to see the Tuscan National Orchestra. Antonio had gotten us relatively cheap tickets to go see a program that included Piazzola (father of the avant-garde tango nuevo), Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra, and Schumann’s fourth symphony. We sat exactly in the center, in the fourth deck, directly above the royal box.
Jaimie and Victoria at the Orchestra concert
The Piazzola was all right. I knew the piece well, and it was interesting to hear this arrangement for string orchestra—it would usually be played by a small group roughly composed of accordion, piano, guitar, violin, and bass. I mostly found that, either because of the arrangement or the fact that it was a European orchestra, the passion of Piazzola just got lost in translation. His music is really lively and provocative, and even though the notes were there, I didn’t hear that energy which his music usually brings.
The Rodrigo was again a bit tame. I didn’t love the guitarist, who seemed a bit nervous from the beginning, and he made mistakes throughout the performance. It didn’t help that he was not amplified and had to rely on the resonance of his guitar and the large opera hall (comparable in size to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.) He then played an encore that was quite showy but didn’t have much of a tune structure. I felt like he was more interested in showing off his technical chops, which several times failed him, than his interpretive skills on the instrument.
The Schumann was a revelation after these performances though. The Piazzola was played by the strings alone, and the Rodrigo introduced a few wind instruments, but the Schumann included the entire fifty-piece orchestra. As a large group, they didn’t shy away so much and played with a much greater understanding of the music. I have only recently been exposed to Schumann, but I have really enjoyed what I’ve heard of his work. The orchestra seemed much more comfortable in this setting, and they turned in a really spectacular performance that showed off the nuances of the music.
John, Me, and Adam at the Orchestra
Afterwards, Antonio encouraged us to go join the jam session at Jazz Club, so I went back to my room and grabbed my guitar. Isamu, one of the pianists here, had been asked to join the house band at this jam, which was pretty cool. Being an American jazz musician here still holds a lot of cache with the locals, so they were very encouraging of us switching in on stage. Even though there were two or three other guitar players there, the leader of the house band, a guitarist himself, looked to me first to sub in and play two tunes. I played on Billie’s Bounce, a blues by Charlie Parker, and then St. Thomas, a calypso-jazz tune by Sonny Rollins from his seminal album, 'Saxophone Colossus.' For the tunes I played there were some younger local musicians that I felt got in the way a bit, particularly the piano player, but I still played pretty well, and I thought I turned a few heads with my solo on the blues. It was a great feeling to play that well in front of a foreign audience; it is not that often that I get to play for so many strangers. Jeff and Evan, a drummer and bass player I used to play with a lot last year told me they thought I’d improved a ton in the last semester, which was great to hear. I’ll definitely try to keep attending the jam sessions.
The Arno by night on the way to the cafe
Thursday night we had our first jazz café in the upstairs of a little place just over the Arno. Antonio set it up so that our ensembles will host a jam session every Thursday night from seven to nine at this place. It was really cute, with seating for barely forty people. The piano and amplification system could be a lot better—I was barely loud enough coming out of a small boombox speaker—but we made the most of the situation. It was going along fairly well, when Tryson, another music student, stepped in to join us singing on a particularly slow and soulful version of Summertime. At first I was going to give him the stage, but then I stayed on and played licks off his melody. We had a great chemistry, and we really got the crowd into it. The song went some ten minutes with a few verses, both written and improvised, and we let the tune meander through several different feels, allowing it to groove as long as possible. Tryson even pulled out a rap overtop the tune that worked really well. Then he stayed on and did an equally poignant version of Otis Redding’s Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay. Again, Tryson and I played off each other really well, and we really sold it. It was an awesome feeling. When that was done, we gave the stage back up to the other ensemble here, whom we rotate with, and they played a while longer with a local sax player who’s friends with Antonio. Then a guitarist friend of Antonio’s joined in, and he played pretty well too. He told me he would bring his own amp next time though, which should be great. A lot of people came up to me after the show who were interested in joining us and to make the Thursday café a great conclusion to the school week. It should be fun to see where it goes in the future.