Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mozart and Meritage

We ventured across the river to St. Paul, (which is like an instant vacation) one bright March morning recently to hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra perform some bright pieces, and also some dour ones. The theme was “nationalistic influence,” I guess. A young Mozart was attempting to wow the French with his very Italianate “Paris” Symphony, at a time when the French wanted their music to be distinctly French (and when have they not?) The other three composers, Honegger, Ravel, and Lutoslavsky, were all, in different ways, resisting the enormous sway of the Germanic style at a time when things German were no longer in vogue.

If I hadn’t attended the pre-concert lecture, however, I would have put an entirely different, and much simpler, spin on the program—sweet and sour. Both halves of the program consisted of a delectable confection followed by a heavy dose of cod liver oil. Mozart’s three-movement Sinfonie was never deep, but it had a pulse, texture, and ceaseless interest. And from our seats near the left-hand edge of the front row, the contributions of the various string sections were more pronounced than they’re likely to be on a perfectly-balanced recording.

All the same, as the symphony developed, my mind began to wander, and I asked myself why we enjoy revisiting that time of powdered wigs, cruelly unequal social classes, engrained legal exploitation of the masses, and a bigoted and venal higher clergy. It occurred to me, as I stared at the wood veneer on the edge of the stage in front of me, that it’s because though we have the same injustices and imbalances today, in those days they were more open and more personal. And I began to wonder, as I listened to the groaning and largely tuneless Lutyslovsky concerto that followed, whether it reflected the agonies, not only of a Polish nation that had been battered from both east and west in the course of the early twentieth century, but also the bewilderment of an individual who had lost his reliable, if not comfortable, position in the social world.

The donut holes that were served in the lobby at intermission put such ruminations to flight, and we returned to our seats to enjoy that orchestral chestnut, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Both the melodies are the textures are delectable, and the orchestra handled a number of very subtle shifts in tempo deftly. The Honegger symphony that followed seemed to have issued from the pen of a man who has mastered the elements of composition, but has found he has nothing to say.

After the concert we walked in the sun across the most urban square in the Twin Cities to what may be its best lunch spot, Meritage, which looks like a French bistro and serves food to match. Hilary’s pre fixe selection included a choice of “amusement,” and she ordered a puree of cauliflower topped with what appeared to be caviar. It was the size of a golf ball, but very tasty, as was her chicken sandwich. I chose the daily special—a hefty chunk of salmon resting on a little pile of green beans and turnips, with a purée of root vegetables underneath it that added a touch of sweetness to every bite.

Hilary generously shared with me a few bites of the espresso pot au crème that came with her meal. Mozart never had it so good.

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