2010 May at John Mackey's Blog



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  • May 29, 2010

    Honorary Doctorate

    I had a great visit to Ball State University several months back — great people, great performance. The highlight, though, was something that, well, I didn’t want to boast about. I’ve been reading about all of the famous people receiving honorary doctorate degrees at this year’s college commencements, and the fact is I have everybody beat.

    Because when I was at Ball State, I was awarded a (fake) honorary doctorate. In… Grade 2 Band Composition.

    It’s endorsed with signatures from the Ball State University Mascot (chirp chirp!), the Chairman of the Thespian Society (shout-out to Thespian Troupe #513 at Westerville South! Woot!), Lexie Ann Skyler (Head Cheerleader), and Ball State’s unappreciated music librarian (Fanny Mendelssohn).  Thomas Caneva, Director of Bands, who arranged the whole thing, somehow neglected to sign.

    I’d asked them if I could have an honorary degree in something like dentistry, but this was the best they could do.  (Wouldn’t it rule to open a dentist’s office with, “John Mackey, DDS (hon.)” on the door?  Who wouldn’t trust a doctor with an honorary medical degree?)

    Dentistry, Grade 2 Band Composition — what’s the difference, really?  Regardless, you can all now refer to me as Doctor Mackey.


    May 26, 2010


    It appears that “Asphalt Cocktail” should come with some kind of warning.  Over the past year, a percussionist at Oklahoma State (you can hear their phenomenal recording here) sliced his thumb open on the sheared metal of the crushed trash can, splattering blood onto his part when he returned to the tambourine to play the last few bars of the piece…

    In March, a percussionist playing the same part at Gresham High School nearly broke her pinky during a rehearsal.

    Then there was the picture that Cody Birdwell sent me from the emergency room after he stabbed his fancy graphite baton all the way through his thumb during an Asphalt Cocktail rehearsal.

    The cake, though, goes to Daniel Pritchett, the conductor of the band at Valparaiso High School in Indiana. After their performance a few weeks ago, Dan sent me this note…

    The students will remember that piece all of their lives. And so will I, as my pacemaker/defibrillator went off during the piece on our two local concerts!! I was in the hospital Wed. night and Thursday of last week trying to get my heart regulated.

    He’s not joking. The piece nearly gave the man a heart attack.

    I don’t know whether to be impressed, flattered, or horrified. I think I’m going to start including a liability waiver with the rental agreement, though.


    May 20, 2010

    Gran Partita

    After receiving several emails from people who wondered why I was dissing the Mozart Gran Partita in my last blog entry, it seemed that I should clarify what I meant.  The piece: obviously great.  It’s place on that program: not good at all.

    I understand that tradition puts the concerto on the first half, and the big symphony on the second half, but the Gran Partita is not a big symphony.  It’s chamber music, and maybe my assumption on this is way off, but I’ve always thought it was intended as background music for parties and fancy-pants dinners.  I didn’t think it made sense to follow Jennifer Higdon’s very exciting Violin Concerto — with full orchestra accompaniment and Hilary Hahn — with a piece for a dozen wind players.  If the Gran Partita had been the first half of the concert rather than the second, my attitude about it would have been much better.  This was a meal where the appetizer was served as dessert.

    My other issue was that this performance took every single repeat.  Every one!  Do I really need to hear every minuet theme twice?  And it made the whole thing last 45 minutes.  For my taste, that’s too much Classical period background music.  Yes, it’s great background music — probably the best.  But I can’t hear that after the Higdon concerto with Hilary Hahn and not feel that the Mozart is a bit sleepy by comparison.


    May 16, 2010

    Higdon and Samar

    AEJ and I spent the day in Dallas yesterday. Well, we spent half of the day in the car (it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive each way), and some of the day in Dallas. We drove up to hear Jennifer Higdon‘s Violin Concerto, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year. (The program also included the Mozart Gran Partita, a 45-minute snoozer after the Higdon. But I digress…)

    Jennifer’s concerto alone was worth the trip, and the performance by Hilary Hahn and the DSO seemed flawless to my barely-passed-ear-training ears. The first movement of the concerto was my favorite, with great shape and pacing and brilliant colors. It starts with solo violin harmonics, which then move to the violin section players. There are cool George Crumb-inspired colors in the percussion, like crotale on the timpani — a sound which I’ll be stealing soon (how had I forgotten about this sound?!) — and crotales struck with knitting needles. There are great back-and-forths between the soloist and the violin section — a sort of call-and-response of glissandos, with the section’s responses sounding almost mocking. (AEJ likened the mocking to what Loki does with us.  “Loki, NO!”  And then Loki replies in his typically derisive tone, “naaaaaoooo.”)  The cadenza is a tour-de-force with finger-straining double-stops in insanely difficult intervals like 7ths, every one perfectly executed by Hahn. The movement ends with a return to the harmonics. This movement deserved the Pulitzer on its own, and there were two more great movements to follow. I’ve read a few articles that compare Higdon’s concerto to the Barber concerto, but I don’t really hear it, except maybe in the last movement, which is short and fast like the Barber, but the similarities sort of end there. Oh, and the fact that this one is sure to become a staple in the repertoire — all the more impressive when you consider that there’s no shortage of violin concerti.

    We got to talk to Jennifer and her partner Cheryl for a while after the concert, and Jennifer asked me, in what would be the surreal moment of the evening, “so, did you sell your iPad?”  It seems she’s a reader of the blog.  When we were leaving the hall, we told them about the great dinner we’d had before the concert, and she asked, “will there be pictures in the blog?”  Why yes, yes there will…

    On Friday, I’d emailed human Zagat guide, Jerry Junkin, asking him for a pre-performance Dallas restaurant recommendation.  He had several good suggestions, but the one that sounded best was a restaurant called Stephan Pyles, a restaurant with a ceviche bar (I love ceviche) and appetizers like a banana empanada with cardamom-scented spit-roasted suckling pig.  It sounded fun and unlike anything we have in Austin.  (We have great TexMex and steak, but the food here is a lot more conservative than the politics. There aren’t too many areas where “conservative” is our preference.  Well, maybe in regards to cheese. I’m not big on stinky, challenging cheese. But anyway.)  I tried to get a reservation at Stephan Pyles, hoping for a 5pm reservation, but the best they could do was 7:30.  On Monday.

    Turns out that the same chef has another place called Samar by Stephen Pyles, just a block from the concert hall.  I called to make a reservation, and learned that unless we had a party of six or more, they only took walk-ins.  I explained that we needed to be at the hall by 7pm for the pre-concert talk, and that I hoped to be seated for dinner around 5:00.  “The bar opens at 4:00.  You could come then, get on the list for a table, and have a drink at our bar.”  Okay, twist my arm.

    At 4pm, they unlocked the doors, and we took a seat at the nice onyx bar.

    We had an hour to kill, so we may as well have that cocktail…

    AEJ ordered the Samartini, consisting of Grey Goose, fresh citrus sour, and pomegranate. There’s also a little layer of sugar at the bottom. It was delicious, and because of the different layers, the flavor changed as you worked your way down.

    I ordered the same thing, but our bartender — Alex, who was just about the best bartender I’ve ever met — suggested I try something different, just to keep it interesting. I ordered the house margarita, which turned out to be — and this is no exaggeration — the best margarita I’ve ever had. It’s made with muddled lime (I watched him muddle the fresh lime by hand in the shaker), fresh citrus sour (lemon and orange, fresh-squeezed), a gold tequila, and something I’d never heard of called liqueur 43. He rimmed the glass with fresh citrus and salt. Wow.

    Wow, those were good. Is it time for dinner? No? It’s only 4:25? Then I guess we should order another cocktail…

    AEJ went with the “Sensualite,” made with muddled lime, mint, Sky pineapple vodka, and cava (a Spanish sparkling wine). It smelled like spring.

    I chose the “Chaitini” — iced spiced chai tea, spiced ru, and Disaronno (a kind of amaretto), with a few tea leaves sprinkled on top as a garnish. It was tasty, but (not surprisingly) a little heavy. It was sort of like a chocotini, but with chai instead of chocolate.

    Ooo! Snacks! Spiced nuts! And we’re talkin’ crazy-good spiced nuts, that seemed to be spiced with some sort of curry.

    Hey, what was that drink in the last picture? That’s their homemade red sangria. We’d been watching them prepare it — red wine, brandy, blackberries, cherries, and cranberries — and I asked Alex how it was. He gave us a “sample” — which was more of a free, full glass. We loved this guy.

    By this time, it was 5pm, and our table was ready. We were having such a good time at the bar with Alex, though, that we decided to just stay and eat there. The menu at Samar is divided into three regions: Spain, India, and Eastern Mediterranean, and it’s all tapas (very small tasting-size servings). I love food like this. I tend to get bored pretty quickly with a dish, and the more variety I can have during a meal, the happier I am. Alex suggested starting with the Spanish menu, since those items were the lightest. He hadn’t steered us wrong yet, so we ordered “queso y aceitunas marinado en hoja santa” — Idiazabal cheese with olives marinated with garlic and hoja santa (and herb)…

    … and “pimientos de padrone” — “blistered” green spanish chiles with hickory smoked sea salt. These were delicious — mild, but with the occasional very-spicy pepper tossed in as a surprise. The charred bits with the salt crystals were the best bites, and made for a great contrast when you alternated between this and the creamy cheese of the other dish.

    Without even asking, Alex poured us another free drink sample — his new experiment, a white sangria. This one was citrus-based (whereas the red sangria was red berries), and it was light and bright and went well with the food. We ordered two full glasses after tasting his (very generous) sample.

    Our next dishes were from the Eastern Mediterranean menu. I’ll admit that Mediterranean food is one of my least favorite, but we did avoid the lamb dishes, opting for the fun “kibbeh maa tzatziki” (crispy bulgur wheat croquettes with golden beet tzatziki). Who doesn’t love a deep-fried dumpling?

    We paired this with something from the Indian menu — something that we always enjoy, but found to be exceptional here: samosas. This is their “tandoori subji ka samosa,” a samosa stuffed with tandoori vegetables, spinach, and paneer, with a garbanzo chaat, and a tamarind-chipotle chutney on the side. DAMN. I could eat these every meal.

    Next was the one thing that didn’t quite work: “tandoori gomi ka phool” — a saffron and cumin infused tri-colored cauliflower with “kerala poryal” (no idea). Whereas you could eat most of the dishes with your hands (always fun), you really needed to cut these with a knife and fork, but they were very hard to cut, as the stems were pretty tough.

    Besides the difficulty of actually eating these, the other issue was… the flavor of two of them. I didn’t know there were even three colors of cauliflower, but there are, and they have very different flavors. Turns out I like “normal” cauliflower, but the other two colors — not so much. I mean, purple cauliflower looks very cool, but the taste was a little challenging and sulfurous.

    Now it was all Indian — one of our favorites. Alex highly recommended the “murgh makhani” — tandoori chicken butter masala with tomatoes and fenugreek (an herb that, according to the Internets, may help increase your milk production. Yeah, that’s what it said.). We ordered this with some naan and a dish of the tamarind-chipotle chutney. This was all kind of extraordinary — certainly the best Indian(ish) food we’ve had in Texas. If you like tikka masala, you’d love this.

    Alex starting mixing a crazy-looking drink in front of us. AEJ asked him what it was, but he wouldn’t say — and then he gave it to her as (yet another) free treat that he’d improvised on the spot. It had midori, and it was, again, yummy. Where her earlier cocktail tasted like spring, this tasted like Hawaii. (We’ve never been, but this must be what Hawaii tastes like — except maybe less fishy.)

    What? It’s time for dessert? Oh, I couldn’t. I couldn’t pick one, that is, so we ordered three.

    I might have resisted this one based on the description — candied ginger stuffed semolina croquetas with natilla — but this may have been the yummiest thing the whole night. It was like a hot, gooey, ginger donut.

    This is the caramelized apple empanada with cinnamon ice cream. Guess what! It was great.

    And this is the hot chocolate samosa with candied rose petal sauce. The samosa was incredible, but it turns out that I don’t love candied rose petal sauce. (I’ll keep that in mind the next time I see that on a menu.)

    We were there two-and-a-half hours, during which we had no fewer than nine cocktails, no fewer than three presented as gifts from our bartender. (If you want a 30% tip, this — plus exceptional service all around — is the way to accomplish that.) Samar is, hands down, now our favorite place in Dallas. It was so good that AEJ is considering riding up to Dallas again with me next week when I drive up for a clinic at Martin High School — just so we can eat there again. If you find yourself in Dallas, particularly in the arts district, you owe it to yourself to visit Samar — and I recommend sitting at the bar, particularly if Alex is working.

    It was a great day in Dallas. One more thing about Jennifer Higdon… Is there a nicer composer out there? I don’t think I’ve met one.  She is, as another blog described her, “graciousness personified.”  She’s kind of making the rest of us look like nasty jerks.


    May 8, 2010

    Dinner at home

    AEJ has been studying for finals this week (she’s studying philosophy at UT), and I’m doing, well, basically nothing this week, so I thought it would be nice to make dinner last night.  The menu: two recipes from Ina Garten’s cookbook, Barefoot Contessa at Home.  The main course would be lemon fusilli with arugula, and dessert would be apple, pear, and cranberry crisp.  Step one whenever cooking at home: a cocktail.

    I managed to do all of the shopping for this dinner at our local food co-op, Wheatsville CoOp. I’ve raved about this store before, with their locally raised (whenever possible) organic produce, meat, and eggs. This place rules. And unlike a lot of grocery coops, they don’t require you to actually work at the coop. The Brooklyn Coop, on the other hand, insists that all members/owners work a certain number of hours at the store every month. I think if I were a member there, I’d probably hire a homeless guy / grad student to cover my shift.

    Since the timing of the dessert was less critical, I worked on that first.  Step one is to peel and chop the apples and pears.

    The apples, pears, and cranberries (which, for some reason, morphed from “cran-apples” to what we’ve now termed “crapples”) go into a bowl, along with lemon zest and orange zest.

    You stir all of this together with cinnamon, nutmeg, fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juice, and a little flour, and you get this sticky, yummy mess.

    Ina Garten suggests pouring the whole bowl of fun into a single casserole dish, but it’s more fun to use individual ramekins. Individual desserts in your own little bowl are more fun.

    Next I worked on the pasta. It’s easy, but it’s a bunch of steps. You make the sauce, which is heavy cream, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, salt, and pepper. While that’s going, you boil the pasta.  While those were both going, I blanched some asparagus, which I’ve never done in my life (but it’s literally as simple as boiling water).

    Next up: halve the grape tomatoes.

    Then you just mix everything together: the cream sauce, the pasta, the tomatoes, and baby arugula.

    Oops — almost forgot to add the asparagus.

    That’s it! All done.  It was really pretty spectacular.  All of the lemon brightens up the cream, and the different textures of the pasta, still-crispy asparagus, juicy tomatoes, and arugula make this feel fresh and healthy (especially if you pretend the cream isn’t there).

    And don’t forget dessert! You cover the fruit with a mixture of sugar, brown sugar, butter, and oatmeal, and bake it all for 50 minutes. When it’s done, you have seven of these.

    Dinner was tasty. Damn tasty. Good thing, because we’re going to be eating the leftovers for days.

    (Oh, and we’re pretty sure that AEJ, as usual, aced her final this morning.)