2006 May at John Mackey's Blog



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  • May 29, 2006

    NYC : Part 1. Jean-Georges and Bryant

    It’s a bit delayed, but here is entry number one from New York…
    AEJ and I flew direct from LA to JFK, so the flight wasn’t that bad — about 5 hours. We were tired, but neither of us can sleep on a plane. The guy next to us, though, had no such problem. Yes, the newspaper is resting on his face.

    Newman and Melissa picked us up at the airport, saving us the $50 cab ride. Back at his place, Newman got to work on his side job of taking phone orders for Victoria’s Secret.

    This is one of their cats. Say hello, kitty.

    After settling in a bit, we headed to dinner at a great Chinese place in their neighborhood. I love Chinese food, but it’s strangely hard to come by in our neighborhood back in LA.

    Newman, always the courteous host, had purchased this bunch of “bananas” for us. This picture is not color-enhanced. This is actually the color of the “bananas.” We thanked him graciously, but politely refused his offer of nuclear bananas.

    The next morning, we got breakfast at a cute little place a few blocks from their apartment. I had this delicious (and huge) slice of coffee cake.

    Then AEJ and I headed uptown. Our first stop: the new Apple Store on 5th Avenue. The whole store is underground, but much of the ceiling is open to the street level above, via this enormous glass cube. You walk in and either descend the curved glass staircase, or take the clear, round, glass elevator down a floor to the store itself.

    Here’s a shot from the store, looking up through the glass floor.

    We wanted to see our old neighborhood, so we walked through Central Park. Here’s the lovely AEJ.

    This is my old building. It looks exactly the same.

    Some things did change, of course. This used to be Caprice Cafe, a regular stop for drinks with Robert Battle. Robert always used to drink free there, because whenever he’d go, he’d bring a gaggle of beautiful young female dancers with him. The owner rewarded Robert with free drinks, which, as far as I can tell, given Robert’s love of Jack & Soda, put the restaurant out of business.

    Lunch was at a tapas place just a few blocks from the old apartment. Fortunately, the place is still open, and they still serve the most delicious empanadas.

    That night, we went to Lincoln Center to hear Steve Bryant‘s new orchestra piece, “Alchemy in Silent Spaces.” The two outer movements are essentially orchestra transcriptions of Steve’s original work for wind ensemble. The new middle movement is for solo flute and strings alone. It’s a stunner. I love the first movement in its original scoring, but with full orchestra, the piece just glows. And wow, Steve has tremendous courage. For minutes and minutes, the piece seems to be static and almost motionless with the occasional splash of color, and then, the strings finally really come in with everybody else, playing this gorgeous major7 chord, and it’s scored in an amazing way that makes it feel like clouds have parted, and the biggest, most beautiful flower you’ve ever seen has just bloomed before your eyes. When I describe it, it sounds cheesy, but it couldn’t have been more authentic and gorgeous. The middle movement was equally beautiful, but with only one hearing, I’m reluctant to write much about it — but I loved it. It went back and forth between hints of Mahler and Corigliano-flavored harmonies. It’s exactly the kind of music I wish I could write. The last movement is the big barn burner, and the crowd ate it up. Bravo, Mr. Steve.

    So, that’s the poster, hanging out there at Lincoln Center. Impressive, right? I mean, it takes some doing to perform at Lincoln Center. It’s not like they’ll let just anybody in. No, you have to be truly talented, and have something special and unique to offer the music world.
    Or, you have to have appeared on American Idol.

    Yeah, that’s Kevin Covais, AKA “Chicken Little,” recently of American Idol “fame.” He’ll be singing with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. And I won’t be going.

    AEJ and I had to leave the concert at intermission to make our way to dinner at Jean-Georges, our favorite (and, I think the highest-rated) restaurant in New York. I mean, even the bathroom at this place is nice.

    Dinner always starts with an amuse bouche — which AEJ spelled for me. It’s like three little bites of food before the meal really gets started. Here, from right to left (that’s how you’re directed to eat it) is salmon belly sashimi, a fresh strawberry with blue cheese and dill, and then carrot soup with a layer of tarragon and passion fruit foam on top.

    Course Number 1 : Egg caviar.
    I’d never had this much caviar before, and I liked it more than I expected. It tasted a lot like smoked salmon and capers.

    Abby’s Course Number 2 : Sea trout sashimi draped in trout eggs, lemon, dill, and horseradish.
    This might have been my favorite thing of the entire dinner. I’d never had trout sashimi, and to have it lemony like this, and with the crazy dill flavor (that green stripe is dill, painted onto the side of the bowl) — damn. Wow.

    My Course Number 2 : Sea scallops, caramelized cauliflower, and caper-raisin emulsion.
    I love scallops, and these were delicious, as expected. The caramelized cauliflower was a fun touch.

    As I’ve written about before, one of the cool things at Jean-George is the way they serve things at the table. Jean-George says that some of the best smells occur when certain ingredients are first combined, and that usually happens in the kitchen where the diner misses it. His solution is to add broth or the base of the soup or a certain sauce right there at the table. It’s fun and theatrical, but it really does accomplish his goal of saving the first exposure to certain smells at the table.

    And here’s what was being served above. Course Number 3 : Young garlic soup with thyme, and sauteed frog legs.
    I’d never had frog legs before, and I’d heard they tasted like chicken. Well, I’ll be a sonofabitch, they really do. It’s like the tiniest little chicken leg ever. The waiter told us that he makes this soup at home for his kids, and he just substitutes actual chicken fingers for the frog legs. (Well, not actual chicken fingers. Chickens don’t have fingers. Can you imagine, though, if chickens had opposable thumbs?! We’d be screwed! They’d take over the world!)

    Good thing I was eating with AEJ, or I would have messed up at this point in the meal. Because we’d just finished a course that used our fingers, the waiter brought these bowls of rose water. Before I could drink it, AEJ mentioned that it was intended to clean our fingers. Whew — ’cause it looked refreshing.

    They bring out different utensils for every course. (It was funny last year when they brought AEJ the wrong utensil for one of her courses, and three of the waiters had a little conference off to the side about it, and how best to remedy it before her plate was presented.) I don’t know what this spoon was invented to do, but now they bring it so you can scoop up the delicious sauces. I wonder what sauce was on the way…

    Yum. It’s Course Number 4 : Turbot with Chateau Chalon sauce.
    This was a perfect piece of fish, but the best part, like it often is with these French guys, was the sauce. I used that funny little spoon for every last drop. I was tempted to start licking the plate. If I hadn’t been in my suit…

    Oh boy, oh boy. This is the course that keeps us coming back to Jean-Georges. For AEJ, it’s the best thing she’s ever eaten, and for me, it’s up at either number 1 or number 2. It’s Course Number 5 : Black sea bass crusted with nuts and seeds, sweet and sour jus.
    There’s really nothing to say about this except that I can’t recommend it enough. If you eat at Jean-Georges, and you order one of the big tasting menus like we did, but this course is not offered, get it as a substitution. Do not leave the restaurant without trying this dish.

    And Course Number 6 : Broiled squab, onion compote, corn pancake with foie gras.
    There’s a lot of meat on that tiny little bird.

    Here’s a shot from another angle, so you can see the greens and the little corn pancake with foie gras.

    I was getting pretty full, but we still had Course Number 7 : dessert.
    At Jean-Georges, you’re presented with the choice of one of four themes — chocolate, citrus, exotic fruit, or rhubarb
    AEJ chose chocolate : Jean-Georges’ chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream; Granite, gelee, coffee-cardamom meringue; milk chocolate-peanut cake with salted caramel ice cream; and white chocolate, yuzu, mint, and pink peppered sable (a cookie).

    And I chose citrus: creme fraiche cheesecake with meyer lemon jam; bitter caramel custard (how you make caramel bitter, I’ve no idea) with grapefruit confit; kumquat strudel and chartreuse ice cream; and blood orange sorbet with tarragon.

    When I mentioned a few entries ago that I would be eating at Jean-Georges, Kevin Howlett wrote a funny comment about David Cross’ rant about how the gold-leaf topped chocolate dessert was the ultimate “F-you” to poor people. So, Kevin, this photo is dedicated to you.

    We’re done! Oh wait – we’re not. Next they brought us fresh hand-cut marshmallows (which they cut at your table), and these homemade jellies.

    Oh, and these little things that look like tiny candy Big Macs.

    And chocolates.

    And THAT was all. Dinner took about three hours. If you think of it as taking as long as dinner and a Broadway show, the price seems about right — and to us, it’s more fun. Just unbelievably delicious and fun and surprisingly casual. I mean, it’s definitely a formal restaurant, but they make it feel completely comfortable. No snootyness or attitude. Just the best food I’ve ever had.

    The first 36 hours in NYC : fantastic. And I still hadn’t even started rehearsals with the National Wind Ensemble! Obviously, there’s a lot more to come…


    May 23, 2006

    Final Trip : NYC & beyond

    Tomorrow morning, I leave for my final big trip of the “year.” (I never thought I’d revert back to referring to the academic year as the “year,” but it’s happened. I suppose I could say “final big trip of the season,” to imply that my calendar follows the concert season, but really, that would just make it sound like I was trying to seem hoity-toity.)

    The first stop on this trip is both for work and vacation: New York City. AEJ and I haven’t been back since we moved to LA in September. I’m excited to go, but I’m also a little worried that it’ll depress me at least a little. I love living in LA, but nothing is like NY, and this is the perfect time of year to be there. The weather will be beautiful. I almost wish we were going in mid-August when the humidity is oppressive. Ten minutes on a NYC subway platform in mid-August and I’d forget how great that city can be. But, we’ll be there when it’s lovely — 77 degrees and sunny.

    We’ll arrive tomorrow afternoon, and Newman is going to pick us up at the airport, saving us the $50 cab ride. (Thanks again, Newm.) Tomorrow night — presumably dinner with Mr. & Mrs. Newm. Then on Thursday, things really get rolling. We don’t know what we’re doing in the early part of the day (which will be quite late in the day by the time we get up, thanks to the jet lag), but I’m planning to attend the ASCAP Concert Music Awards on Thursday evening. This is a huge annual schmooze-fest, and by chance, I’ll be in town for it, and it seems a shame not to go. I’d originally planned to drag AEJ, but the more I think about it, the more I think she’d be bored to tears, so that part is up in the air. After the ceremony and a few minutes of continued schmoozing at the reception, I’ll run across Lincoln Center to Alice Tully Hall for the premiere of Steve Bryant‘s orchestra version of “Alchemy in Silent Spaces,” performed by the Juilliard Orchestra and conducted by James DePriest. And THEN, as if the day won’t have been long enough, AEJ are heading to our food temple, Jean-Georges, for dinner. There’s no way to describe how amazing this restaurant is. I wrote about it when we went last year. It sucks to have to wear a suit to a restaurant, but for this place, I’d wear knickers. (This kind, not this kind. Perv.)

    On Friday, AEJ and I are having lunch with her father, and then heading to John Corigliano’s place for a bit. Later that afternoon, we might check out some of choreographer Robert Battle’s rehearsal. (Robert is the choreographer with whom I collaborated on Juba, Damn, Breakdown Tango, Mass, Rush Hour, and other pieces. He’s also a dangerously entertaining drink buddy.) Then on Friday night, we have reservations for dinner at a great place called Artisanal. Fondue, here we come.

    Sadly, AEJ leaves first-thing on Saturday morning. She’s heading to St. Croix for a family vacation, but I’ll be sticking around Manhattan for a few more days — the “work” part of the trip. I’m working with H. Robert Reynolds and the National Wind Ensemble, preparing for their performance of “Redline Tango” at Carnegie Hall on Memorial Day. I’ll rehearse with the group on Saturday and Sunday, then a little at the dress rehearsal on Monday, and the concert is Monday night at 8pm.

    On Tuesday, I leave New York to join AEJ on that family vacation in St. Croix. I don’t do well in the sun (have you seen how pasty I am?), and I can’t swim (maybe I’ll write a piece about my fear of drowning), so my potential activities in St. Croix might be limited. It’ll be great to spend a few days in the Virgin Islands with AEJ and her family, though. And you can bet that there will be a whole lot of pictures — both from there, and from those fancy NY dinners.


    May 20, 2006

    Shopping once again

    AEJ and I did some rather spontaneous shopping on Thursday. We kind of accidentally bought a new computer.

    On Tuesday, Apple announced new consumer laptops (as opposed to their “pro” laptops, now called Macbook Pro). AEJ called around to find out what stores had the new MacBook on display, and having located some, we headed to the Apple Store at the Beverly Center. The Apple Store there is nice and calm. The Beverly Center is one of those malls that, as far as I can tell, used to be really nice — and crowded. Now everybody goes to The Grove, the fancy newer mall that looks like a village and where you might actually see it snow in LA.

    So we headed out to the Beverly Center, and they did, as promised, have the new MacBook on display. It’s a very cute machine, available in glossy white or matte black. The keyboard is Chicklet-style, and feels somehow retro. Under the hood (on the top model) is a 2 GHz dual core Intel processor — basically meaning it has two 2 GHz processors on a single chip. (For those who didn’t know this, Macs now run on Intel processors. You can even boot them directly into Windows, if, for some reason, you hate yourself.)

    We played with the white model for a few minutes, but they didn’t have a black one in stock, as they’d sold out within minutes of putting them on sale that morning. One of the sales guys heard us talking about the black one, though, and said that he had one in back. It wasn’t for sale, but he was willing to bring it out so we could see it in person. This is why the Apple Store at the Beverly Center is our favorite Apple Store. (That, and because when AEJ’s iMac died a few months ago, the tech at that store’s Genius Bar told AEJ how to get it fixed for free, even though it was out of warranty. Turns out that she had an extra year of warranty on it because she’d bought it with an AmEx. So, thank you to Aaron for pointing that out, and saving us $928.)

    Well, the black one was sweet. As I said, though, they were sold out. So the next morning, AEJ got on the phone and called around to the local stores again to see if any of them had received a shipment of black models. Turned out that the store at The Grove had a bunch — enough that the guy on the phone figured we could come anytime within the next few hours, and we’d get one. We left right away, and we were there in 20 minutes, and by then, they only had one left. These things are selling like mad, it seems.

    We bought one and brought it home. Loki was pretty curious about it, as he’d never seen such a small computer box.

    With Apple, even the boxes are nice.

    The handsome protective styrofoam.

    The laptop’s remote, so you can control music and DVD playback from across the room.

    Can you see it? I know, it’s hard! It almost disappears on AEJ’s black pants!

    And hooray — it works!

    We actually did have one scare on Thursday when we tried to install the new RAM. Even though we thought we’d pressed as hard as we possibly could, the RAM apparently wasn’t seated properly, and the machine appeared to be dead. AEJ used her tremendous strength, though, and managed to get it all the way in, and since then, the machine has been great.


    Northern Arizona University

    A few days ago, I received a CD from Northern Arizona University. Daniel Schmidt conducted a performance of “Sasparilla” there on April 26, and as per my rental agreement, they sent me a CD of the concert. WOW. It was just first-rate. I had been told that Daniel would give a good performance, but I had no idea it would be anything like this. The group really “got” the piece, and Sasparilla is a piece that just doesn’t work if the group and the conductor don’t get it. It’s technically really difficult, but it needs to sound crazy, not hard.

    I think I can tell even more about a conductor from a Sasparilla performance than a Redline Tango performance. With Redline Tango, if a group plays what’s on the page, it sounds fine. Lots of room for interpretation to make it much better, of course, especially in the tango solos, but the real challenge is finding groups that can even play what’s on the page. With Sasparilla, though, the group has to do even more, because the notes have to be played with a certain attitude and style. Really, the notes aren’t the most important thing at all. The conductor has to know what’s funny in the piece, and why, and where it’s appropriate to go beyond what I wrote down. The tempo transitions are also much harder in Sasparilla. Although the individual parts are easier than Redline Tango, I think Sasparilla might be even harder to conduct — or at least harder to interpret.

    And that’s why I was so excited when I heard this recording. It was funny, and had this amazing energy, like the players were so excited to be playing. The group was even nice enough to email me a few photos from the concert, which I’ll share here. If you listen to the recording, you’ll hear the crowd start laughing before the piece even starts. What was going on? I figured it was because of the accordion player. I mean, hey, accordions are funny. I chuckle, too, when I see it. But that wasn’t it. I mean, it was the accordion player, but the accordion itself wasn’t the funny part. It was… Ah, hell, here’s the shot.

    So, okay, it’s supposed to be a cowboy piece, and the group has put a new spin on it: hick. The dude isn’t even wearing shoes. All he’s missing is a piece of straw in his mouth.

    But what’s happening in this photo? The band is still playing, but where did Daniel Schmidt, the conductor, go?

    A little side note. The most effective part of Sasparilla is the tenor sax solo, where the tune is played vulgarly and sleazily. It’s supposed to sound like the cowboy has gone upstairs at the town brothel. The solo is fully-notated, and I usually prefer that the soloist play pretty close to what’s on the page, but make it sound improvised. When I heard the NAU recording, I was like, “hey, that’s not quite what it says on the page… wait a sec… okay, that part was better. Oh, and that part was better, too. This player is awesome. Damn, he’s tearing it up! This is the nastiest this solo has ever sounded! This rules!” Well, as it turns out, the reason Daniel left the podium for a minute was to go backstage — and get his tenor sax.

    Yep, that’s the conductor taking the big tenor sax solo. How cool is that?! Daniel told me that his students had never heard him play before. I’m honored that he chose Sasparilla for his first solo appearance. So, a HUGE shout-out to Daniel Schmidt and his players at Northern Arizona University for this exciting, vulgar, screaming performance. (I mean, just check out the trombones!) I strongly encourage you to check out this recording.


    May 16, 2006

    Fresh Baked Bread

    I just finished my annual ASCAP PLUS award application. This is the award that ASCAP gives to members as a way to subsidize what could be a small amount of license payments — due, say, to the fact that ASCAP doesn’t pay for all college performances. (They will, though, starting next year, thanks to my little lobbying effort.) It was kind of crazy year, and seeing it in a single list, it feels like an embarrassment of riches. Of the performances I knew about — some slipped through the cracks, being chamber performances of sold pieces, etc. — I had 114 performances. That’s 114 different concerts that contained at least one of my pieces. In one calendar year. I suspect it’s all downhill from here.

    In other miscellany, AEJ and I bought a bread machine. We thought it would be cozy to fill the house with the smell of fresh bread. Our first loaf on Sunday wasn’t the most aromatic choice, but it was tasty. We opted for a cheddar sour cream loaf.

    The slices were nice and thick, and made for a delicious — if somewhat heavy — sandwich. We ate lunch on the deck for a change. I know this looks like a Diet Pepsi ad, but I was really trying to feature the ham and pepper jack sandwich.

    That night, we somehow found it in ourselves to eat again. (It’s amazing how that happens.) We went to one of my favorite places to pick up a pizza, and found that they’d changed the name. Everybody knows how I love Pizza Huat.

    Yesterday, I drove out to UCLA to work with the wind ensemble on “Redline Tango.” First, we had lunch. Gordon had invited several of the grad students, and it was nice hanging out with them a bit before rehearsal. I had a mozzarella sandwich.

    I’d worked with the group a few weeks ago, and they sounded good then, but now — wow. Great, great group. Gordon Henderson, who is guest conducting the concert, has really done a fine job with them. I’ll be in New York next Wednesday when they give their concert, but if you’ll be in LA then, I hope you’ll attend!

    Well, I’m heading out for a run, and then I need to get back to work on the new piece. And tonight — American Idol. Will this be the Clive Davis week?