Mar 182017
 

Today is the birthday (1844) of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (Никола́й Андре́евич Ри́мский-Ко́рсаков) a Russian composer who was a member of the group of composers known as The Five or The Mighty Handful: a late 19th century group intent on promoting a distinctively Russian style of music. I have covered two other members here:

Borodin: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/alexander-borodin/

Mussorgsky: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/modest-mussorgsky/

Rimsky-Korsakov was known among The Five as a master of orchestration. His best-known orchestral compositions—Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade—are staples of the classical music repertoire, along with suites and excerpts from some of his 15 operas. Scheherazade is an example of his frequent use of folk subjects with magical components. Rimsky-Korsakov believed in developing a nationalistic style of classical music. This style employed Russian traditional lore married to exotic harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements and only reluctantly used traditional Western compositional methods. Rimsky-Korsakov appreciated Western musical techniques more after he became professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. He undertook a rigorous three-year program of self-education and became a master of Western methods, incorporating them alongside the influences of Mikhail Glinka and fellow members of The Five.

For much of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov combined his composition and teaching with a career in the Russian military—at first as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, then as the civilian Inspector of Naval Bands. He wrote that he developed a passion for the ocean in childhood from reading books and hearing of his older brother’s exploits in the navy. This love of the sea probably influenced him to write two of his best-known orchestral works, the musical tableau Sadko (not to be confused with his later opera of the same name) and Scheherazade. Through his service as Inspector of Naval Bands, Rimsky-Korsakov expanded his knowledge of woodwind and brass playing, which enhanced his abilities in orchestration. He passed this ability to his students, and also posthumously through a textbook on orchestration that was completed by his son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.

Rimsky-Korsakov left a considerable body of original Russian nationalist compositions. He prepared works by The Five for performance, which brought them into the active classical repertoire, and shaped a generation of younger composers and musicians during his decades as a teacher. Rimsky-Korsakov is therefore often considered to be the main architect of what the art music world considers the Russian style of composition.  These days I have two problems with Rimsky-Korsakov’s activities in this sphere. On the one hand, his orchestrations of works by other members of The Five, notably Mussorgsky’s, is often considered as meddling these days, and it is sometimes difficult to find the original that Mussorgsky intended under Rimsky-Korsakov’s “improvements.”  On the other hand, nationalism in its many forms is toxic to my soul, not least Russian nationalism (although I hate it wherever it lives). I can certainly appreciate the desire on the part of young Russian composers to break away from the mold of what they saw as German or Italian styles of music, but the nationalism of The Five (as noted below) can get a bit too heavy handed for my tastes at times.

Rimsky-Korsakov is sometimes seen as a transitional figure between the generally self-taught members of The Five and the professionally trained composers who became the norm in Russia by the closing years of the 19th century. Rimsky-Korsakov’s style greatly influenced two generations of Russian composers, but also non-Russian composers such as Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Ottorino Respighi.

For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on Rimsky-Korsakov’s most popular piece “The Flight of the Bumblebee” which is very frequently played on its own as a bravura solo. Isolating the piece from its operatic context and from its original scoring does it an injustice in my humble opinion. Let’s start with a fairly standard solo version for trumpet, preceded by a worthy pep talk from the soloist.

This is familiar stuff, whatever the solo instrument may be.  But Bumblebee is a small, one might say insignificant, part of a large-scale operatic treatment by Rimsky-Korsakov of a Russian folk tale from Pushkin. Pushkin’s original is known in English as The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of His Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan.  The première of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera was held in Moscow on 3 November (O.S. 21 October) 1900 at the Solodovnikov Theatre.

Pushkin’s narrative, adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov is as follows:

The tale concerns three sisters whom the tsar spies on. He chooses the youngest as his bride (tsaritsa) because when he overhears them discussing what they would do if the tsar were to marry them, the eldest says she would make a sumptuous feast, the middle sister says she would weave fine cloth, and the youngest says she would bear him a son. When he chooses to marry the youngest, he orders the other two sisters to be his royal cook and weaver. They become jealous of their younger sister, so when the tsar goes off to war and the tsaritsa gives birth to a son, Prince Gvidón, the elder sisters arrange to have the tsaritsa and the child sealed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. The sea takes pity on them and casts them on the shore of a remote island, Buyan. The son, having quickly grown while in the barrel, goes hunting. He ends up saving an enchanted swan from a kite bird.

The swan creates a city for Prince Gvidon to rule, but he is homesick, so the swan turns him into a mosquito to help him. In this guise, he visits Tsar Saltan’s court, where he stings his aunt in the eye and escapes. Back in his realm, the swan gives Gvidon a magical squirrel. But he continues to pine for home, so the swan transforms him again, this time into a fly. In this guise Prince Gvidon visits Saltan’s court again and he stings his older aunt in the eye. The third time, the Prince is transformed into a bumblebee and stings the nose of his grandmother.

In the end, The Prince expresses a desire for a bride instead of his old home, at which point the swan is revealed to be a beautiful princess, whom he marries. He is visited by the tsar, who is overjoyed to find his newly married son and daughter-in-law.

In the opera, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is a musical interlude in Act 3 between scenes 1 and 2 representing the prince’s initial transformation into a bumblebee and his flight to the ship that will carry him to his homeland. In the opera, the Swan-Bird sings during the first part of the “Flight” but her vocal line is melodically unrelated and so can easily be omitted. Because of this feature and the fact that this section conclusively ends scene 1, it can stand alone.  Here is a link to the full opera. I find the heavy-handed nationalism a little hard to stomach, but it is useful to hear “Flight” in its musical context.  You’ll find it at 1.27.00.  If you rewind to 1.25.00 you’ll hear the lead in, and be able to note the leitmotifs that appear in various places throughout the opera, and which are incorporated in “Flight.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsqZU9y1FMk

For my money “Flight” sounds much richer and more fully developed as an orchestral piece than as a solo act. Here it is extracted  from the opera:

What do you think?

For Borodin and Mussorgsky I gave full blooded Russian recipes from St Petersburg, so there is no need to alter course with Rimsky-Korsakov.  I have chosen pirozhki (Пирожки) for today – a savory or sweet  bread-dough encased pastry that can be baked or fried.  In keeping with Rimsky-Korsakov’s fame as a master of orchestration I am going to give you a choice of three fillings and instructions for baking or frying. In truth they can be stuffed with all manner of things: meat, cabbage, fish, rice, fruit, etc. Take your pick. You can make a decidedly Russian lunch by serving pirozhki with borshcht.

Pirozhki

Ingredients

Dough

1 (⅜ oz) package dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 ½ cups milk
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup oil or butter
4 ½ cups flour

Filling #1 (Braised Cabbage)

1 large onion, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1 tsp paprika
1 small head cabbage, shredded
10 white mushrooms, diced
salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic cloves, finely minced
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced

Filling #2 (Beef and Onion)

1 lb ground beef
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp flour
½ cup stock
3 tbsp sour cream
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
salt and black pepper

Filling #3 (fruit)

2 ¾ cups peeled, cored and finely diced apples
¼ cup sugar
lemon juice

oil for frying (if necessary)
beaten egg (if necessary)

Instructions

Dough

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let it stand 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the flour and add the milk, egg, oil and yeast. Combine to make a soft dough. Knead for about 10 minutes.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl cover with a tea towel and let rise until doubled in size (one half hour to one hour).

Filling #1

Sauté the carrots, onion, mushrooms and bell pepper in a large pan with a tablespoon of butter or oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute. Add the cabbage, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Set aside to cool.

Filling #2

Brown the beef in a dry skillet over high heat, then add the onions and continue to cook the mixture for a few minutes until the onions have softened. Combine the flour with the stock and pour over the meat.  Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat.

Add the sour cream, boiled eggs, dill, and salt and pepper to taste and stir thoroughly to mix.  Set aside to cool.

Filling #3

Toss the apples and sugar in a mixing bowl with some lemon juice to prevent browning. Set aside.

To Bake

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

Pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of dough, flatten it with your fingers or roll it out in a circle to ⅛” thickness. Place 2 tablespoons of filling in the center and bring the opposite edges of circle together. Pinch the seam securely. (The traditional shape is a plump center with tapering ends). Repeat.

Let the pirozhkis rise on a lightly greased baking tray, seam side down, for 30 minutes.

Brush with beaten egg and bake until golden brown (approx 20 minutes). Serve warm.

To Fry

Heat your deep fryer to 360°F.

Roll out dough circles as for baked pirozhki and fill them in the same way, making sure the seam is tight and no filling is in the seam. Deep fry them in batches immediately until they are golden (that is, do not let them rise).  Drain on wire racks and serve warm.

Jul 022015
 

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Today is the birthday (1714) of Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck, a German composer of Italian and French opera in the late Baroque/early Classical period. After many years at the Habsburg court at Vienna, Gluck brought about the practical reform of opera’s dramaturgical practices that many intellectuals had been campaigning for over the years. With a series of radical new works in the 1760s, among them Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, he broke the stranglehold that opera seria (“serious opera” as opposed to comic opera) had enjoyed for much of the century. The old operas were an aristocratic indulgence that trumpeted the lavish lifestyles of the emperor and his court, with no real plots, but were instead vehicles for virtuosic arias by the principals.

The strong influence of French opera on Gluck in Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, encouraged him to move to Paris in November 1773. Fusing the traditions of Italian and French opera into a new synthesis, Gluck wrote eight operas for the Parisian stages. One of the last of these, Iphigénie en Tauride, was a great success and is undoubtedly one of his finest works (though now rarely performed), being a sort of summing up of his operatic career via the use of borrowings from previous works, as well as a certain amount of plagiarism (conscious or unconscious) from Bach. Though he was extremely popular and widely credited with bringing about a revolution in French opera, Gluck’s mastery of the Parisian operatic scene was never absolute, and after the poor reception of his Echo et Narcisse he left Paris in disgust and returned to Vienna to live out the remainder of his life.

Nowadays Gluck is largely forgotten by general audiences, which is a great shame. Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph noted that British opera houses shied away from celebrating his works in 2014, his 300th anniversary year:

Apart from Orfeo ed Euridice – or rather its Housewives’ Choice favourite “Che faro?”, as sung by Kathleen Ferrier – nothing by Gluck has ever been widely popular and he will doubtless always remain a specialist taste.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Npe-EabNBY

One can immediately hear why: his greatest music is marked by a measured dignity that doesn’t offer easy entertainment or sensual charm for audiences craving instant gratification. A reformer by nature and a neo-classicist at heart, he deplored the florid excesses and amorous intrigues of conventional 18th-century opera and aspired in works such as Iphigénie en Tauride and Alceste to return to something redolent of the moral and spiritual grandeur of Greek tragedy.

Rather than showy arias designed to show off prima donnas’ techniques framed by fanciful plots, Gluck cultivated a purified style shaped by expressive declamation, dramatic dialogues and solemn choruses, underpinned by simple orchestration and unchromatic harmonies.

Gluck himself remarked, “Simplicity and truth are the sole principles of the beautiful in art.”

Francesco Algarotti’s Essay on the Opera (1755) was a major influence in the development of Gluck’s reformist ideology. Algarotti proposed a heavily simplified model of opera seria, with the drama pre-eminent, instead of the music or ballet or staging. The drama itself should “delight the eyes and ears, to rouse up and to affect the hearts of an audience, without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense.” Algarotti’s ideas influenced both Gluck and his librettist, Calzabigi. Calzabigi was himself a prominent advocate of reform, and he stated: “If Mr Gluck was the creator of dramatic music, he did not create it from nothing. I provided him with the material or the chaos, if you like. We therefore share the honour of that creation.” You won’t go broke overestimating the egos of Italian librettists.

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What amazes me is how much Gluck’s operas were changed over the years by Gluck and others to adapt to changing musical tastes as well as of necessity. Take Orfeo, for example. The opera was first performed in Vienna at the Burgtheater on 5 October 1762, for the name-day celebrations of the Emperor Francis I. The first singer to play Orpheus was the famous castrato Gaetano Guadagni. Orfeo was revived in Vienna during the following year, but then not performed until 1769. For the performances that took place in London in 1770, Guadagni sang the role of Orpheus, but little of the music bore any relation to Gluck’s original, with J. C. Bach – “the English Bach” – providing most of the new music. Haydn conducted a performance of the Italian version at Eszterháza in 1776. During the early 19th century, Adolphe Nourrit became particularly well known for his performances of Orpheus at the Paris Opera. In 1854 Franz Liszt conducted the work at Weimar, composing a symphonic poem of his own to replace Gluck’s original overture.

Typically during the 19th century and for most of the 20th century, the role of Orpheus was sung by a female contralto, and noted interpreters of the role from this time include Dame Clara Butt and Kathleen Ferrier, and the mezzo-sopranos Rita Gorr, Marilyn Horne, Dame Janet Baker, Susanne Marsee, and Risë Stevens (at the Metropolitan Opera). Butt’s rendition of “Che faro?” is my favorite of all time:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqiKeqacQbw

Gluck revised the score again for a production by the Paris Opera, which premiered on 2 August 1774 at the second Salle du Palais-Royal. This version, named Orphée et Eurydice, had a French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline, which was both a translation of and an expansion upon Calzabigi’s original text. Gluck expanded and rewrote parts of the opera, and changed the role of Orpheus from a part for a castrato to one for high tenor or the so-called haute-contre – the usual voice in French opera for heroic characters – as the French almost never used castrati. This version of the work also had additional ballet sequences, conforming to the tastes that were prevalent at the time in Paris, and included the long “Dance of the Furies”, originally from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan, and the famous “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” for flute and strings. By 1825 operatic castrati themselves had virtually vanished, and performances of the original version for castrato became increasingly rare. The modern practice of approximating castrati by using counter=tenors as replacements only dates to 1950.

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From 1784 to 1859 the Parisian diapason (concert pitch) rose steadily from 820 to 896 cycles per second, thus Gluck’s French version for haute-contre became increasingly impractical. When Adolphe Nourrit sang the role at the Opéra in 1824 his music was altered. Giacomo Meyerbeer suggested to the French contralto Pauline Viardot that she should perform the role of Orpheus. The composer Hector Berlioz was a close friend of Viardot and the leading expert in France on the music of Gluck. He knew the score of “the largely forgotten Italian original as thoroughly as he knew the French”, and agreed to prepare a version of the opera – in four acts – with Viardot’s voice in mind, adapting the role of Orphée for a female alto. In his adaptation, Berlioz used the key scheme of the 1762 Vienna score while incorporating much of the additional music of the 1774 Paris score. He returned to the Italian version only when he considered it to be superior either in terms of music or in terms of the drama. He also restored some of the more subtle orchestration from the Italian version and resisted proposals by Viardot and the theatre’s director Léon Carvalho to modernize the orchestration. In the end Camille Saint-Saëns, who was acting as Berlioz’s assistant on the project, did some of the minor rewriting which Berlioz had declined to do. The Berlioz version was first presented at the Théâtre Lyrique on 18 November 1859 with Viardot as Orphée. The production was a popular and critical success, filling the house every night, and was given a total of 138 times by the company.

By 1860 most theaters in Paris had lowered concert pitch to diapason normal. This was not as low as in Gluck’s time: “a Commission had lately recommended that the pitch in France should be lowered from an A of 896 to 870 vibrations.” Still this was apparently enough that later in the 19th century the role of Orpheus came to be sung almost as frequently by a tenor as by a contralto.

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Berlioz’s version is one of many which combine the Italian and French scores, although it is the most influential and well regarded. Since about 1870 three-act adaptations of the Berlioz score, translating it back into Italian and restoring much of the music from the 1774 French version which Berlioz had left out, were common. An 1889 edition for contralto, published by Ricordi, became the most popular. On occasion the role of Orpheus has even been transposed down an octave for a baritone to sing. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey are two notable baritones who have performed the role in Germany.

All of this changing of the role, and other roles, by Gluck and later composers is fascinating to me, although I cannot elaborate here. Is there a central core to Orfeo or are there many Orfeos? Can there be said to be an “original” to which we can return? What differences are brought to the role by a castrato, counter-tenor, mezzo, contralto, tenor, or baritone? And so on.

Gluck deserves to be heard and written about more, but instead I will turn my attention to 18th century Viennese cuisine which Gluck must have known well. Viennese cuisine is often treated as equivalent to Austrian cuisine, but while elements of Viennese cuisine have spread throughout Austria, other Austrian regions have their own unique variations. Viennese cuisine is best known for its pastries, but it includes a wide range of other dishes. In fact, dishes heavily dependent on meat make up typical Viennese cuisine: Wiener schnitzel (veal coated in breadcrumbs and fried), Tafelspitz (boiled beef), Beuschel (a ragout containing veal lungs and heart), and Selchfleisch (smoked meat) with sauerkraut and dumplings are typical of its cooking.

The best known sweet Viennese dishes include Apfelstrudel (strudel pastry filled with apples), Millirahmstrudel (milk-cream strudel), Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes served with fruit compotes), and Sachertorte (cake of two layers of chocolate cake with apricot jam in the middle). These and many other desserts are available at the many Konditorei of Vienna, where they are generally eaten with coffee in the afternoon.

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Apfelstrudel is an absolute favorite of mine. I first watched it made as a teenager by a friend of the family and was flabbergasted. I also adored the eating part too. The oldest known strudel recipe is from 1696, a handwritten recipe housed at the Wienbibliothek im Rathaus. Whether as a type of sweet or savory layered pastry with a filling inside, the strudel gained popularity in the 18th century through the Habsburg Empire (1278–1780). Strudel is related to the Ottoman Empire’s pastry baklava, and came to Austria via Turkish to Hungarian and then Hungarian to Austrian cuisines. Apple strudel is considered to be the national dish of Austria along with Wiener Schnitzel and sometimes Tafelspitz.

Apple strudel consists of an oblong-ish strudel pastry jacket with an apple filling inside The filling is made of grated cooking apples (usually of a tart, crisp and aromatic variety, such as Winesap apples), sugar, cinnamon,raisins, and bread crumbs. Strudel uses an unleavened dough. The basic dough consists of flour, oil (or butter), egg, and salt although as a household recipe, many variations exist.

Apple strudel dough is a thin, elastic dough, the traditional preparation of which is a difficult process. The dough is kneaded by flogging, often against a table top. Dough that appears thick or lumpy after flogging is generally discarded and a new batch is started. After kneading, the dough is rested, then rolled out on a wide surface, and stretched until the dough reaches a thickness similar to phyllo. Cooks say that a single layer should be so thin that one can read a newspaper through it.

Filling is arranged in a line on a comparatively small section of dough, after which the dough is folded over the filling, and the remaining dough is wrapped around until all the dough has been used. The strudel is then oven baked, and served warm. Apple strudel is traditionally served in slices, sprinkled with powdered sugar.

There is no quick and easy way to make apfelstrudel, and since I am not a baker here’s a good video from someone who is.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZcXjDMD_y4

Dec 272014
 

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Today is the birthday of Kuang Jianlian (鄺健廉) better known by her stage name Hung Sin-nui (紅線女), but also known as Hong Xian-nu, Hong Sin-lui, Hung Hsien-nu, Hong Sin-loi. She is now considered a national treasure as a Cantonese opera star and movie actress in China and Hong Kong.
She was born in Guangzhou with the name Kuang Jianlian or Kwong Kin-lin in 1924. Her ancestral hometown is Kaiping, Guangdong. With her aunt Ho Fu-lin as her mentor, she began to sing Cantonese opera at the age of 12. She started from Mui Heung and her first stage name was Siu Yin Hung. She took to the stage from 1939, adopting the stage name Hung Sin Nui (Red Line Girl).”Red line” in Chinese signifies important relationships, especially marriage.
She moved to Hong Kong during World War II. She played alongside Ma Shi-tsang, her then husband and well-known Cantonese opera singer and actor in productions including The Spoiled Brat and Her Groom, Bitter Phoenix, Sorrowful Oriole and Wang Zhaojun Marries beyond the Great Wall. She established her official diva status during the period and began her movie career. Her screen debut was Unforgettable Love in 1947. Here’s an example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uJMlywy0_Y
Hung made 105 films in her career from 1947 to 2009, but the bulk was during the late 1940s and 1950s.Her notable movies include The Judge Goes to Pieces, A Mother’s Tears, Everlasting Love, Wilderness, The Pretty Tigress, Searching the School and Guan Hanqing.
In 1955, Hung gave up her career in Hong Kong and joined the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Troupe on the mainland on the invitation of premier Zhou En-lai, where she performed until1961. She also founded the Hongdou Cantonese Opera Troupe where she trained and mentored many Cantonese Opera actors and actresses. During the Cultural Revolution Hung’s career halted. She was branded as “Black Line Girl” (disreputable girl) and banished to the countryside as a “street sweeper.” She and her family were sent to labor camps. She recalled she would sing inside her heart at a time when she was forbidden to sing out loud. She would hold a note and practice when she raised chickens, and when no one was looking she would practice, and would sing in high pitch during thunder storms. After the death of Mao Zedong, Hung slowly re-emerged on the renascent Cantonese opera scene. She also appeared in two films in 1990 and 2009 before her career ended.
Hung died on 8 December 2013 of a heart attack at the Guangdong General Hospital in Guangzhou, where she had retired in her last years.

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Hung was married twice, first to well-known Cantonese opera actor Ma Shi-tsang from 1944 to 1955 and then to a writer Hua Shan from 1970 to his death in 1985. Hung had two sons and a daughter from her first marriage. Her daughter, Hung Hung, was also a Cantonese opera star. In 1981 she escaped to Taiwan and criticized the Chinese Communist government for what they had done to her mother. She eventually emigrated to Canada and wanted her mother to come with her, but Hung preferred to stay in China.
Hung is regarded as one of the greatest treasures of Cantonese opera and Hong Kong cinema. She is famous for her unique sweet, crisp, smooth and coquettish “Hung tone” (紅腔) of singing which incorporated the techniques of Beijing Opera, Kunqu, and Western opera singing styles. She was invited to leave a handprint at the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong. Much of Hung’s work and documents of her career are preserved at the Hungxiannu Art Center in Guangzhou, which was opened 1998 by the Guangzhou city government to commemorate and preserve her contribution to the art of Cantonese opera.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqZl_nTZQ6s

Her son Ma Ting-sing said “mother can be described as ‘never abandoning or wavering, with neither complaint nor regret’ toward Cantonese Opera. Whether it was in the midst of war or when the market was light, she still insisted on performing and teaching. Even when she faced 70% empty seats she still performed at will and persisted on that passion for Cantonese Opera.”
Nowadays Chinese traditional opera is in decline in popularity here in China. It is considered old fashioned by young people and is little known in the West. But I love it. Every Sunday in the park near where I live there are performances; the audience is nothing but older people (me included). Hung has a voice that moves my soul. I wish I could have heard her live.

I can’t say that I am enamored of Cantonese cuisine these days even though it is considered one of the eight classic cuisines of China.  It was the basis of “Chinese food” in the West for decades (suitably modified for Western tastes).  Now I find it rather bland in comparison with the rainbow of tastes I get in Yunnan.  But I did cook in that style for many years.  It’s hard to replicate in the West mainly because Western stoves don’t get hot enough to stir fry properly.  You need to get a wok or frying pan up to about 500°F or more to do a decent job.  Here in Kunming they use huge propane jets that could fuel a rocket ship.

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What I suggest is that you get some tender beef, onions, mushrooms and bell peppers, cut them all into strips.  Heat a wok or frying pan as hot as you can.  Just put it on the highest heat and let it heat until it is smoking.  Then add a small amount of vegetable oil and dump the ingredients in.  Knock them around for a few minutes.  They will cook quickly.  Then add the savor of your choice.  It could be a mix of hoisin sauce and chicken stock, or oyster sauce, or whatever.  You can get them at the average supermarket.  But this is cook’s choice.  Even a mix of soy sauce, stock, and cornstarch will work.  Serve with rice of course, and eat with chopsticks !!!

 

 

 

Oct 062014
 

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Today is the birthday (1820) of Johanna Maria Lind, better known as Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer, often known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” She was one of the most highly regarded singers of the 19th century, performing in soprano roles in opera in Sweden and across Europe, and undertaking an extraordinarily popular concert tour of North America beginning in 1850. She was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music from 1840. For me one of the most interesting things about Lind is that it seems clear that she was not necessarily the most accomplished of singers, and there were certainly better sopranos than her in her day (now forgotten). This is not to say that she was mediocre by any means. She had great singing qualities. But she had some serious flaws which critics of the day noted. However, what she did have was great PR, especially when she was under contract to P.T. Barnum in North America. Maybe she is the first singing superstar to have had her reputation created by publicity? Unfortunately there are no recordings of her voice so it is now impossible to tell. We must rely on contemporary critics – not the safest of bets – whose statements do, to me at least, seem to the point and balanced.

Lind was born in Klara, in central Stockholm, the illegitimate daughter of Niclas Jonas Lind (1798–1858), a bookkeeper, and Anne-Marie Fellborg (1793–1856), a schoolteacher. Lind’s mother had divorced her first husband for adultery but, for religious reasons, refused to remarry until after his death in 1834. Her parents married when she was fourteen.

Lind’s mother ran a day school for girls out of her home. When Lind was about nine years old, her singing was overheard by the maid of Mademoiselle Lundberg, the principal dancer at the Royal Swedish Opera. The maid, astounded by Lind’s extraordinary voice, returned the next day with Lundberg, who arranged an audition and helped her gain admission to the acting school of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, where she studied with Karl Magnus Craelius, the singing master at the theatre.

Lind began to sing on stage when she was ten. She had a vocal crisis at the age of 12 and had to stop singing for a time, but recovered. Her first great role was Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1838 at the Royal Swedish Opera. At age 20 she was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and court singer to the King of Sweden and Norway. Her voice became seriously damaged by overuse and untrained singing technique, but her career was saved by the singing teacher Manuel García, with whom she studied in Paris from 1841 to 1843. So damaged was her voice that he insisted that she should not sing at all for three months, to allow her vocal cords to recover, before he started to teach her a secure vocal technique.

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After Lind had been with García for a year, the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, an early and faithful admirer of her talent, arranged an audition for her at the Opéra in Paris, but she was rejected. The biographer Francis Rogers concludes that Lind strongly resented the rebuff; when she became an international star, she always refused invitations to sing at the Paris Opéra. Lind returned to the Royal Swedish Opera, greatly improved as a singer by García’s training. She toured Denmark where, in 1843, Hans Christian Andersen met and fell in love with her. Although the two became good friends, she did not reciprocate his romantic feelings. She is believed to have inspired three of his fairy tales: “Beneath the Pillar”, “The Angel” and “The Nightingale.” He wrote, “No book or personality whatever has exerted a more ennobling influence on me, as a poet, than Jenny Lind. For me she opened the sanctuary of art.” The biographer Carol Rosen believes that after Lind rejected Andersen as a suitor, he portrayed her as The Snow Queen with a heart of ice. Curiously, music critics often described her singing as cold.

In December 1844, through Meyerbeer’s influence, Lind was engaged to sing the title role in Bellini’s opera Norma in Berlin. This led to more engagements in opera houses throughout Germany and Austria, although such was her success in Berlin that she continued there for four months before leaving for other cities. Among her admirers were Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz and, most importantly for her, Felix Mendelssohn. Ignaz Moscheles wrote: “Jenny Lind has fairly enchanted me … her song with two concertante flutes is perhaps the most incredible feat in the way of bravura singing that can possibly be heard.” This piece, from Meyerbeer’s Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (The Camp of Silesia, 1844; a role written for Lind but not premiered by her) became one of the songs most associated with Lind, and she was called on to sing it wherever she performed in concert. Her operatic repertoire consisted of the title roles in Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria di Rohan, Norma, La sonnambula and La vestale, as well as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Adina in L’elisir d’amore and Alice in Robert le diable. About this time she became known as “the Swedish Nightingale.” In December 1845, the day after her debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus under the baton of Mendelssohn, she sang without fee for a charity concert in aid of the Orchestra Widows’ Fund. Her devotion and generosity to charitable causes remained a key aspect of her career and greatly enhanced her international popularity even among the unmusical.

At the Royal Swedish Opera, Lind had been friends with the tenor Julius Günther. They sang together both in opera and on the concert stage, becoming romantically linked by 1844. Their schedules separated them, however, as Günther remained in Stockholm and then became a student of García’s in Paris in 1846–1847. Reunited after this in Sweden, according to Lind’s 1891 Memoir, they became engaged to marry in the spring of 1848 just before Lind returned to England. However, the two broke off the engagement in October of the same year.

After a successful season in Vienna, where she was mobbed by admirers and feted by the Imperial Family, Lind travelled to London in 1847, where her first performance, at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 4 May, was attended by Queen Victoria. The Times wrote the next day, “We have had frequent experience of the excitement appertaining to “first nights”, but we may safely say, and our opinion will be backed by several hundreds of Her Majesty’s subjects, that we never witnessed such a scene of enthusiasm as that displayed last night on the occasion of Mademoiselle Jenny Lind’s début as Alice in an Italian version of Robert le Diable.”

During her two years on the operatic stage in London, Lind appeared in most of the standard opera repertory. Early in 1849, still in her twenties, Lind announced her permanent retirement from opera. Her last opera performance was on 10 May 1849 in Robert le diable; Queen Victoria and other members of the Royal Family were present. Lind’s biographer Francis Rogers has written, “The reasons for her early retirement have been much discussed for nearly a century, but remain today a matter of mystery. Many possible explanations have been advanced, but not one of them has been verified.”

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In London, Lind’s close friendship with Mendelssohn continued. There has been strong speculation that their relationship was more than friendship. Papers confirming this were alleged to exist, although their contents had not been made public. However, in 2013 George Biddlecombe confirmed in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association that “The Committee of the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation possesses material indicating that Mendelssohn wrote passionate love letters to Jenny Lind entreating her to join him in an adulterous relationship and threatening suicide as a means of exerting pressure upon her, and that these letters were destroyed on being discovered after her death.”

Mendelssohn was present at Lind’s London debut, and his friend, the critic H. F. Chorley, who was with him, wrote “I see as I write the smile with which Mendelssohn, whose enjoyment of Mdlle. Lind’s talent was unlimited, turned round and looked at me, as if a load of anxiety had been taken off his mind. His attachment to Mlle. Lind’s genius as a singer was unbounded, as was his desire for her success.” Mendelssohn worked with Lind on many occasions and wrote the beginnings of an opera, Lorelei, for her, based on the legend of the Lorelei Rhine maidens; the opera was unfinished at his death. He included a high F sharp in his oratorio Elijah (“Hear Ye Israel”) with Lind’s voice in mind, and even though this was technically outside of her range.

In July 1847, Lind starred in the world première of Verdi’s opera I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s, under the baton of the composer. Four months later, she was devastated by the premature death of Mendelssohn in November 1847. She did not at first feel able to sing the soprano part in Elijah, which he had written for her. She finally did so at a performance in London’s Exeter Hall in late 1848, which raised £1,000 to fund a musical scholarship as a memorial to him; it was her first appearance in oratorio. The original intention had been to found a school of music in Mendelssohn’s name in Leipzig, but there was not enough support for that in Leipzig, and with the help of Sir George Smart, Julius Benedict and others, Lind eventually raised enough money to fund a scholarship “to receive pupils of all nations and promote their musical training.” The first recipient of the Mendelssohn Scholarship was the 14-year-old Arthur Sullivan, whom Lind encouraged in his career.

In 1849, Lind was approached by the American showman P.T. Barnum with a proposal to tour throughout the United States for more than a year. Realizing that this would yield large sums for her favored charities, particularly the endowment of free schools in her native Sweden, Lind agreed. Her financial demands were stringent, but Barnum met them, and in 1850 they reached agreement.

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Together with a supporting baritone, Giovanni Belletti, and her London colleague Julius Benedict as pianist, arranger and conductor, Lind sailed to America in September 1850. Barnum’s advance publicity made her a celebrity even before she arrived in the U.S., and she received a wild reception on arriving in New York. Tickets for some of her concerts were in such demand that Barnum sold them by auction. The enthusiasm of the public was so strong that the U.S. press coined the term “Lind mania.”

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After New York, Lind’s party toured the east coast of the U.S., with continued success, and later took in Cuba, the southern states of the U.S., and Canada. By early 1851, Lind had become uncomfortable with Barnum’s relentless marketing of the tour, and she invoked a contractual right to sever her ties with him; they parted amicably. She continued the tour for nearly a year, under her own management, until May 1852, and donated all her earnings to charity.

In July 1851, the 20-year-old American poetess Emily Dickinson gave an account of a Lind concert:

…how bouquets fell in showers, and the roof was rent with applause – how it thundered outside, and inside with the thunder of God and of men – judge ye which was the loudest; how we all loved Jennie Lind, but not accustomed oft to her manner of singing didn’t fancy that so well as we did her. No doubt it was very fine, but take some notes from her Echo, the bird sounds from the Bird Song, and some of her curious trills, and I’d rather have a Yankee. Herself and not her music was what we seemed to love – she has an air of exile in her mild blue eyes, and a something sweet and touching in her native accent which charms her many friends. … as she sang she grew so earnest she seemed half lost in song. …

Benedict left the party in 1851 to return to England, and Lind invited Otto Goldschmidt to replace him as pianist and conductor. Lind and Goldschmidt were married on February 5, 1852, near the end of the tour, in Boston. She took the name “Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt” both privately and professionally.

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Lind and Goldschmidt returned to Europe together in May 1852. They lived first in Dresden, Germany, and, from 1855, in England for the rest of their lives. They had three children: Otto, born September 1853 in Germany, Jenny, born March 1857 in England, and Ernest, born January 1861 in England.

Although she refused all requests to appear in opera after her return to Europe, Lind continued to perform in the concert hall. In 1856, at the invitation of the Philharmonic Society conducted by William Sterndale Bennett she sang the chief soprano part in the first English performance of the cantata Paradise and the Peri by Robert Schumann. In 1866, she gave a concert with Arthur Sullivan at St James’s Hall. The Times reported, “there is magic still in that voice … the most perfect singing – perfect alike in expression and in vocalization. … Nothing more engaging, nothing more earnest, nothing more dramatic can be imagined.” At Düsseldorf in January 1870, she sang in Ruth, an oratorio composed by her husband. When Goldschmidt formed the Bach Choir in 1875, Lind trained the soprano choristers for the first English performance of Bach’s B minor Mass, in April 1876, and performed in the mass. Her concerts decreased in frequency until she retired from singing in 1883.

From 1879–1887 Lind worked with Frederick Niecks on his biography of Chopin. In 1882, she was appointed professor of singing at the newly founded Royal College of Music. She believed in an all-round musical training for her pupils, insisting that, in addition to their vocal studies, they were instructed in solfège, piano, harmony, diction, deportment and at least one foreign language.

She lived her final years at Wynd’s Point, Herefordshire, on the Malvern Hills near the British Camp. Her last public appearance was at a charity concert at Royal Malvern Spa in 1883. She died, aged 67, at Wynd’s Point on 2 November 1887 and was buried in the Great Malvern Cemetery to the music of Chopin’s Funeral March.

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There is a once popular tune, Jenny Lind Polka (composed by Anton Wallerstein c. 1850), the first two parts of which are used for morris dancing. On a morris tour of the Malverns several years ago, my friends and I danced the Jenny Lind at her grave. Here’s the tune (the vid does go on a bit). Sorry, the photos of the dancing are on my HD in New York.

There are no recordings of Lind’s voice. She is believed to have made an early phonograph recording for Thomas Edison, but in the words of the critic Philip L. Miller, “Even had the fabled Edison cylinder survived, it would have been too primitive, and she too long retired, to tell us much.” The biographer Francis Rogers concludes that although Lind was much admired by Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, the Schumanns, Berlioz and others, “In voice and in dramatic talent she was undoubtedly inferior to her predecessors, Malibran and Pasta, and to her contemporaries, Sontag and Grisi.” He notes that because of her expert promoters, including Barnum, “almost all that was written about her was undoubtedly biased by an almost overwhelming propaganda in her favor, bought and paid for.” Rogers says of Mendelssohn and Lind’s other admirers, that their tastes were “essentially Teutonic” and, except for Meyerbeer, they were not expert in Italian opera, Lind’s early specialty. He quotes a critic of the New York Herald, who noted “little deficiencies in execution, in ascending the scale, which even enthusiasm cannot deprive of their sharpness.” The American press agreed that Lind’s presentation was more typical of Germanic “cold, untouching, icy purity of tone and style,” rather than the passionate expression characteristic of Italian opera of her time, and the Herald wrote that her style was “suited to please the people of our cold climate. She will have triumphs here that would never attend her progress through France or Italy.”

The critic H. F. Chorley, who admired Lind, described her voice as having “two octaves in compass – from D to D – having a higher possible note or two, available on rare occasions; and that the lower half of the register and the upper one were of two distinct qualities. The former was not strong – veiled, if not husky; and apt to be out of tune. The latter was rich, brilliant and powerful – finest in its highest portions.” Chorley praised her breath management, her use of pianissimo, her taste in ornament and her intelligent use of technique to conceal the differences between her upper and lower registers. He thought her “execution was great” and that she was a “skilled and careful musician”, but felt that “many of her effects on the stage appeared overcalculated” and that singing in foreign languages impeded her ability to give expression to the text. He felt, however, that her concert singing was more admirable than her operatic performances, although he praised some of her roles. Chorley judged her finest work to be in the German repertoire, citing Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn’s Elijah as best suited to her. Miller concluded that although connoisseurs of the voice preferred other singers, her wider appeal to the public at large was not merely a legend created by Barnum, but was a mixture of “a uniquely pure (some called it celestial) quality in her voice, consistent with her well-known generosity and charity.”

In the culinary field, a new variety of potato with blue ‘eyes’ was named for her, as was a melon (the association here was not recorded) a cake, and her famous soup with sago and eggs – which “have always been deemed very beneficial to the chest and throat.” Singer’s soup!

Here’s the soup from A Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy” (1857)

JENNY LIND’S SOUP.

Make about three quarts of stock, which strain through a fine sieve into a middle-size stewpan; set it to boil; add to it three ounces of sago; boil gently twenty minutes; skim; just previous to serving break four fresh eggs, and place the yolk, entirely free from the white, into a basin, beat them well with a spoon; add to it a gill of cream; take the pan from the fire, pour in the yolks, stir quickly for one minute, serve immediately; do not let it boil, or it will curdle, and would not be fit to be partaken of. The stock being previously seasoned, it only requires the addition of half a teaspoonful of sugar, a little more salt, pepper, nutmeg; also thyme, parsley, and bay-leaf will agreeably vary the flavor without interfering with the quality.

The cake is a bit more of an enigma because there seems to be a number of recipes available. I gather, however, that the original was a plain cake made in three layers. Two of the layers (top and bottom) are plain, and the middle one is flavored with a mix of sweet spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon and contains raisins. The layers are held together with a puree of brandied peaches.

May 192013
 

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Today is the birthday (1861) of singer Helen “Nellie” Porter Mitchell better known by her stage name, Nellie Melba.  Her father, David, was a successful building contractor and brick maker, and her mother, Isabella, played several instruments, and served as Nellie’s first music teacher. Nellie first sang in public at the age of eight in the new Richmond town hall. She performed in a community concert for 700 spectators as part of the town hall’s grand opening. She sang three songs, accompanying herself on the piano. The audience was enraptured. Local reporters wrote enthusiastically about her performance, saying she was a “gem,” “incomparable,” and “a musical prodigy.”

Nellie went to a boarding school in Richmond, and then as a young lady enrolled at the Presbyterian Ladies College, where she studied piano and voice. On her mother’s death in 1880 she left school and moved with her father to Queensland where she met her future husband Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong.  They married in 1882 and she had a son, George. But Armstrong was verbally abusive, and Nellie hated the tropical climate. So in 1884 she packed her bags, took her son, and moved back to Melbourne to pursue a musical career. After several attempts at reconciliation on his part she divorced Armstrong in 1900.

Nellie sang in Melbourne and, later, Sydney, making a name for herself as an operatic soprano. She then moved to London, where she made the connexions necessary for pursuing a career in earnest. In 1886 she began performing in concerts organized by Wilhelm Ganz, a singing coach at the Guildhall School of Music. Though she found some success in London, she was not satisfied with her career’s progress. A patron from Melbourne had written Nellie a letter of introduction to famed German mezzo-soprano, Mathilde Marchesi, so Nellie traveled to Paris to meet her. Marchesi agreed to take her on as a singing pupil and had a great influence on her career. It was Marchesi who was responsible for convincing Nellie to take the stage name Nellie Melba; Melba deriving from her home city of Melbourne. Nellie made her operatic debut in 1887 as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, in Brussels.

Over time Nellie gained great popularity, singing in principal opera houses in Europe and the United States, most notably Covent Garden in London and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She was well-known in high-society circles, and was asked to perform for kings and queens, including Tsar Alexander III, Emperor Franz Joseph, and Queen Victoria. She became the turn of the century equivalent of a rock star, with crowds gathering to see her when she appeared in public.

It was in London, whilst performing at Covent Garden, that Nellie first met the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier. It is fair to say that Escoffier is the father of French haute cuisine.  His cookbook is still the bible for classic French dishes.  Every French chef owns a copy and knows it by heart.  Even I, a humble home cook, own one (though I don’t know it by heart). There was a cooking series on television some years ago where contestant chefs were given the ingredients for a classic Escoffier recipe (without knowing ahead of time what it was), and asked to replicate the dish perfectly, from memory. The judges critiqued the dishes down to the minutest details, also from memory. Bear in mind that there are thousands of recipes in the book.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century Escoffier partnered with César Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), and made a name for himself as the head chef of the restaurants located inside the famous Ritz hotels. His meals were known for being elaborate and fancy, sometimes having as many as 11 courses, all heavy with rich sauces. His dishes became the hallmark of fin de siècle indulgence, decadence, and wealth.

Nellie often ate at Escoffier’s restaurants whilst performing in Covent Garden. Escoffier says in his autobiography that he first created an early version of Peach Melba whilst Nellie was a guest at the Savoy Hotel, where he was chef. On one occasion Nellie sent Escoffier tickets to her performance in the Wagner opera Lohengrin. The production featured a beautiful boat in the shape of a swan. The following evening, Escoffier presented Nellie with a dessert of fresh peaches served over vanilla ice cream in a silver dish perched on top of a swan carved from ice. He originally called the dish Pecheau Cygne, that is, Peachy Swan. A few years later, when Escoffier opened the Ritz Carlton in London with César Ritz, he changed the dish slightly by adding a topping of sweetened raspberry purée. He renamed the dish La Pêche Melba, or Peach Melba in English. Escoffier also created Melba toast for her several years later when she was sick in bed at the hotel and having trouble eating.

Here is the original recipe for Peach Melba, translated into English from Escoffier’s own words. Use the very best vanilla ice cream you can find, homemade if possible, using sugar flavored richly with fresh vanilla beans (you don’t want the vanilla paste directly in the ice cream because for the dish to look attractive the ice cream must be creamy white). High quality essence of vanilla will also work.

La Pêche Melba (for 6)

Choose 6 tender and perfectly ripe peaches. The Montreuil peach, for example, is perfect for this dessert. Blanch the peaches for 2 seconds in boiling water, remove them immediately with a slotted spoon, and place them in iced water for a few seconds. Peel them and place them on a plate, sprinkle them with a little sugar, and refrigerate them. Prepare a liter of very creamy vanilla ice cream and a purée of 250 grams of very fresh ripe raspberries crushed through a fine sieve and mixed with 150 grams of powdered sugar. Refrigerate.

To serve: Fill a silver timbale with the vanilla ice cream. Delicately place the peaches on top of the ice cream and cover with the raspberry purée. Optionally, during the almond season, one can add a few slivers of fresh almonds on top, but never use dried almonds.

Additional notes:

It is a good idea to put the peeled peaches in a large bowl of cold water to which you have added 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, and letting them soak for 10 minutes.  Then drain them and pat them dry with a paper towel.  The acid prevents the fruit from oxidizing and turning brown.

Naturally you can cheat and use all store bought materials: canned peaches, good quality vanilla ice cream, and bottled raspberry syrup.  I’ve done it and none of my guests has ever complained. This way it takes minutes to prepare and can be made right before serving.  Just remember to put the can of peaches in the refrigerator the night before.

Obviously you need to pit and slice the fresh peaches if you are following Escoffier’s recipe.

In modern times you can make the raspberry syrup by making a purée of fresh raspberries in a blender or food processor and then forcing them through a fine mesh sieve (fine enough to catch the seeds). I sometimes use a regular sieve lined with a double layer of cheesecloth.