Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bao Bao is pure "Wow Wow!"

Well, I finally made it to Cara Stadler's new Portland restaurant, Bao Bao. About all I could say immediately afterwards was "wow, wow!"

Since it's opening about a month ago, the place has been packed every time I've walked by, but tonight, getting out of work early, I noticed a couple of spaces open at the bar and took a break from my own cooking.

It's impossible to describe the transformation of the former West End Deli, which I've visited more times than I can count over the past 13-15 years. Other than the entrance the space is entirely unrecognizable and now one of the coolest spaces in Portland. The enormous, wall filling dragon sculpture is only one of many dramatic touches in the dining area, with a stunning carved ceiling, large, starkly elegant chandeliers outsized artwork and a knockout of a bar, lowered like an orchestra pit on the bartenders' side all had me turning my head in every direction like a first time tourist (which, technically, I was).

The menu is small - one knows this going in, four apps, a half dozen or so dumplings, greens in oyster sauce and beef noodle soup. The cocktail menu is slightly exotic (with nice twists on old classics), with a decent beer and wine selection. At the bartender's recommendation I ordered the Beet Yozu Martini. Juices of beets, yuzu and lemon, mixed with Thai basil and Tanqueray in cool low glass with a sour sugar rim . . . far from my typical drink but providing the first of several "wows" of the evening.
To start I choose the spicy pig ear appetizer, a large portion of sliced ears, tossed with Napa cabbage marinated in spicy, sour Shanxi-province vinegar that initially tasted pickle-ly, with a mild heat that intensified with each ensuing bite. I wasn't expecting the dish to be served cold, and expect its "odd food" status will make this one of the less popular menu items.

Next up, my single order of dumplings (which come boiled, steamed or pan fried, I chose the last). Six beauties stuffed with a sausage ball of lamb, black bean, peanuts, and chilis, served with a homemade tomato relish/ketchup. I will likely order these every time I return. I was sorry I didn't order the Hake dumplings which looked amazing . . . but I need something to look forward to next time.

The staff was young, attractive with a slight hipster-edge that dominates the food scene right now, my bartender warm, friendly and helpful even while working up a storm.

By the time I left, around six, the place was already packed, with hopeful diners waiting outside to be sided. To have this gem only a couple of blocks from home could be dangerous.

No pics of the interior yet, but google them to see some stunners.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall

Thanks to this marvelous, sometimes frustrating technology, I was able to watch it live in real time on Medici TV, so while not quite the same as actually being there, it's the next best thing . . . and a very good thing, too.

Applying the theme "A Journey Through Venice," to the program, allowed the mezzo and her marvelous pianist David Zobel to examine a wide spectrum of music devoted to one of earth's most celebrated cities. Through the music of Vivaldi, Rossini, Hahn, Faure and
Michael Head, DiDonato revealed why she's one of today's most versatile and unique singers, approaching everything with a freshness and sense of wonderment that is infectious to the listener, drawing one in as though being gently pulled by a friend from a large party into a side room for one-on-one.

So fluidly did DiDonato move through the two gorgeous, elegant arias from Vivaldi's "Ercole su'l Termodonte," "Onde chiare che sussurrate" and "Amato ben," which opened the recital, revealing a precision and elegance smoothly seguing from the virtuosity of the first into the delicate intimacy of the second, and applying a hushed intensity to this music that was breathtaking.

Hot on the heels (after a bit of banter from the singer) came Fauré's delightful set Cinq mélodies 'de Venise, the first of which feels more like Poulenc or Debussy than one usually gets from this frequently introspective composer. With her quick vibrato and slight reedy quality, DiDonato sounds almost as though born to sing French music and hearing this entire set made me curious to hear what she might do with his Pénélope. Whether or not that happens, more Fauré, please, Joyce, it suits you like an elegant glove.

The first half of the recital closed, and the second half began with Rossini, a composer one frequently identifies with this singer, his outsized La regata veneziana contrasting nicely with Desdemona's Assisa al piè d’un salice ... Deh, calma. Again a single composer providing two sides of the same coin and an opportunity for this singer to color, bend and stretch - to play with the music - in a manner many singers seem incapable of, or uncomfortable in doing.

A bit more banter ensued as DiDonato described Michael Head's Three Songs of Venice, written for Dame Janet Baker, and still sounding mighty good from another singer in the here and now.

The crown (for me) of the recital was "Venezia" the "Venice" set of Reynaldo Hahn, long one of my favorite songwriters. They were, of course, glorious sounding, with DiDonato interrupting herself to describe how, if time allowed she'd enjoy being able to change into a costume for "Che peca!": "I would go into a white sleeveless t shirt that's about 20 years old . . . a couple stains and holes, because I would be that man who sits on his porch . . . over the canal, and I envision this song with the man whose had a lot of pasta in his life and he likes a bad cigar, and he's had it . . . and this is what he would sing about." DiDonato struck a swagger-ish pose and presented a sort of artificial huskiness and sprechstimme (built into the song) that was hilarious, and felt natural and it was clear who was having the most fun of the night.

After a warm ovation, and before presenting her two encores, Rossini's "Canzonetta spagnuola" DeCurtis great hit "Non ti scordar di me," both marvelously sung, DiDonato spoke from the heart:

"I know I'm a bit of a Pollyanna about this, but when you look at the world today and it can get a little discouraging at times . . .right? This is our teacher, right here . . . because here we are of different gender, different religion, different politics, different everything . . . and yet in this moment there is harmony and there is peace. This is our teacher, and our goal is to take this that we create here and go out. So that's why . . . and I hope I'm not lecturing you all, I just want to share with you how amazing it is that we get to do this."

Amen, sister.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer: More Lies, Anger and Confusion

I continue to find it remarkable that people who don't like John Adams' music (or what they "think" is his message) go on the attack of those who do appreciate his work . . . and there are lots of us who do. I don't give the proverbial rat's ass if someone hates his music, but what I find appalling is the notion being pushed that it should not be performed. This notion comes from many who say they are not arbiters of music, yet they would deny opportunity to others who can and do want to be moved by his music, particularly, as in this instance, "The Death of Klinghoffer."

I read the puff piece in The Wall Street journal and could only shake my head at some of the comments variously describing the composer as a "Jew Hater," with several guessing Adams next work will be an opera about Auschwitz told from the Nazi perspective (with a scene of an old Jewish man singing as he's wheeled into a gas chamber).

Another accuses Adams of being one of a charlatan - unmusical with "little talent and even less artistic taste."

The idiocy abounds with collective outrage demonizing his "celebrating" and "endorsing" the brutal murder of Mr. Klinghoffer, and he thinks it's must be okay to murder a handicapped man "because he is Jewish." Then there are the continued accusations of Adams making the Jews look bad and the terrorists into "sympathetic characters." Have any of them seen this opera? The person who comes off the best is the title character, who courageously confronts the terrorists (let's call them what they are) saying, "somebody's got to tell you the truth . . . We're human, we are the kind of people you want to kill . . . there is so much anger in you, and hate . . . Old men at the Wailing Wall get a knife in the back, you laugh. You pour gasoline over women passengers . . . and burn them alive. You just want to see people die."

Do we ever read these words quoted in the condemnation of this opera? Nope. Not ever. What we read instead are cherry picked like "wherever poor men are gathered they can Find Jews getting fat," always taken out of context and never mentioning these words are sung by Rambo, one of murderers, who also goes on to denigrate not only Jews,but America. By this same logic these people (few if any of whom know anything about this opera) may assert that Adams not only hates Jews, but hates America as well. Gimme a break.

When I reviewed the film version of the opera, several people from Opera-L sent private me e-mails that I could hardly believe, one proclaiming me as "guilty as any Nazi or any other terrorist," another (who I had only pleasant exchanges with previously) inundated my inbox with graphic descriptions of Israelis being raped, tortured and slaughtered by Palestinians telling me since I "got off" watching Klinghoffer murdered I should enjoy these. Then there was the dear lady who suggested I and Mr. Adams begin a defense fund for Abu Abbas so he could get out and kill more Jews. Lovely.

What one also rarely hears is how Adams concludes his opera with the terrorists' arrest, followed by a heart-wrenching aria from Mrs. Klinghoffer, singing of her love for her husband, as anger and grief swell within her, powerfully putting everything into perspective. We never read about this though, because it's an opera about celebrating terrorism and killing Jews.


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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

For several years now I've resisted watching Mark Herman's film, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," having read a number of mixed reviews and thinking I knew what to expect. Once again, I was wrong.

Newly promoted Nazi officer, Ralf (David Thewlis), moves his young family (wife, Vera Farmiga, son Bruno, Asa Butterfield, and daughter Gretel, Amber Beattie) from their comfortable Berlin home to a large manor in the countryside near the concentration camp he is now commandant of. The family adjusts except for Bruno who suffers from ennui and loneliness.

In an act of defiance to not go out back, Bruno escapes the confines of the home and after wandering through the woods arrives at the electric fence of the came whereupon he meets, an eight year old Jewish boy, Schmeul (Jack Scanlon). Despite the barricade of the fence, the boys strike up a friendship though neither understands the positions they are in or why their lives are so dissimilar.

A tutor is brought in for Gretel and Bruno, but all they are taught is propaganda, and the history of The Fatherland retold through Nazi eyes and lies. Bruno can't comprehend any of it, but 12 year old Gretel (who has an eye for a teenage Nazi soldier assigned to her father) buys into all of it with a chilling, coldblooded fascination.

We witness what appears to be daily bucolic life in the country, punctuated by terrifying brutal inhumanity towards the Jews (who Bruno is repeatedly told are not really people).

Kept in the dark as to her husband's business, the Commandant's wife begins putting the pieces of the terrible puzzle into place, reacting in horror. It's clear she wants no part in any this and can barely face her husband whose atrocities she can only imagine. Farmiga performance here is remarkable and heartbreaking as she tries to remove her children from the madness.

From this point on the story hurtles with an inexorable deftness to its final, inevitable tragedy.

Herman gets great results from the cast, nowhere more so than from his two juvenile leads.

Like the storytelling itself, James Horner's score nudges us into the film with its gentle opening motif that expands, contracts, and floats before screeching into the films finale.

Lacking the sensationalism of many anti-war films (particularly WWII films) "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" packs as strong an emotional punch to the gut as any in recent memory.

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