Saturday, December 11, 2010

Music I'm Listening to: Gil Shaham, The San Francisco Symphony

Heard a moderately disappointing concert in San Francisco last night, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. On the program were Henry Cowell's Synchrony, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 (Gil Shaham soloist), and Harmonielehre, by John Adams--choices that seemed a rather odd juxtaposition of the modern and the classical. I didn't particularly care for the Cowell, although I'm not sure it got the most sympathetic of readings from MTT. I'm afraid I would have to say the same about the Mozart. Shaham played well, but MTT's direction seemed flat and lifeless, particularly in the middle movement, which had a rather droning effect. The dramatic swelling effects of the third movement seemed stifled, the dynamics all wrong. Was it just me? Also, the sound seemed distant and muffled. I've had that sensation once before at Davies Symphony Hall, when hearing Itzhak Perlman in October 2009. Last night I was in seat Y107. At the Perlman concert I was in AA107--same seat two rows back. I wonder if there's a dead spot there? Still, that doesn't explain MTT's apparent apathy during the Mozart.

The night was saved by hearing what I thought was an excellent performance of Harmonielehre, by modern composer John Adams. To my surprise, Adams (pictured) appeared onstage afterward. He seemed very pleased with the performance, and the audience was very appreciative as well. Harmonielehre, nominally a minimalist composition, doesn't suffer from the monotony the word "minimalist" often conjures up. I felt like I was riding a scintillating wave throughout, but particularly in the rousing first and third movements of this long (40-minute), three-movement composition from 1985. It was almost hypnotizing in places, but never boring. I'm sure it is a taxing piece for the musicians to play (the cellos, for example, have to bow identical patterns over and over again, and the percussion has to maintain the same difficult rhythms for long stretches, although I noticed that the cello section had been divided where possible, so that one group would take over while others rested briefly). The San Francisco Symphony rose to the challenge, and the conductor seemed engaged in this case. Very enjoyable.

Photo of John Adams by Deborah O'Grady, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Books I'm Reading: The Story of Sushi

I've just finished reading Trevor Corson's The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (Harper Perennial, 2008--originally published 2007 in hardcover as The Zen of Fish).

I was a bit disappointed when I first opened the book. It starts with details of the day of a student at an American sushi school. I had not been expecting a narrative about Americans learning to make sushi in the United States--but that turned out to be only a small part of the book, a core around which author Trevor Corson has wrapped a rich roll of facts about everything from the origins of sushi as a way of preserving fish that developed in parts of southern China, Laos, and Northern Thailand to the extravagances of inside-out sushi roll innovations that developed in Los Angeles. Along the way, there's a great deal about the biology of the fish we eat (and their parasites), about how we perceive flavors, about how this fermented fish dish turned into a cheap snack food in Edo (today Tokyo) in the 19th century, and how Japanese-style sushi was transformed into the trendy international food it is today, mostly by chefs in the US. The stories of students struggling (and ultimately triumphing) at the California Sushi Academy has its own interest. It's not only a vehicle for conveying the wealth of information about sushi this book contains. It helps to give us a look at the future of sushi, and it adds a poignant note. I was left wondering how these young chefs will fare in a world of rapidly growing demand for fresh fish from sources that are already alarmingly overfished in many cases.

Having lived in Japan for nearly 20 years, I know that my experience reading this book will have been somewhat unusual. I suspect people less familiar with Japan and sushi will struggle to fully grasp some of the ideas. How many will be able to immediately visualize a gunkan--the little seaweed-skirted "battleships" that are used to serve soft, loose toppings such as ikura (salmon roe), kaibashira (adductor muscles of various shellfish), and uni (sea urchin), or see in their mind's eye a sushi chef doing katsura-muki? To their credit, the author and publishers have included a useful glossary, a good index, and an impressive bibliography--not that the latter would be immediately helpful. Perhaps it doesn't matter, though: most people today will simply turn to the Internet if they want more on a gunkan (try a Google search on "sushi gunkan").

The author wants the reader to understand what a traditional sushi bar is like in Japan, and what the experience of eating sushi is like with a trusted chef. Much of what passes for sushi in America seems slapdash and overblown to a traditionalist. At the same time the author is not judgmental. He doesn't criticize what sushi has become in the United States. He merely reports on it, in one or two places letting his characters convey their sense of loss stemming from the way sushi has changed (but note that the "characters" are all real people with their real names given; this is not fiction. Their conversations were recorded on the spot or taken down in interviews, sources and dates meticulously noted). The author seems to accept that there is evolution in all things and that there will always be those that celebrate the new and those that treasure the traditional. He seems to say there is room enough for both approaches.

Having said that, Corson's longing to help non-Japanese understand the true ethos of the sushi bar is palpable. The author points out that there are three ways to order sushi in Japan--you can order a set course at a fixed price; you can order favorites by the piece (okonomi); or you can allow the chef to prepare a course of what he (and in Japan it's invariably a he) believes to be the day's best selections and in the order that shows them--and the chef's skills--off best (omakase). Corson suggests that it's only through this last approach that the most sublime of sushi experiences is possible. He is probably right, but there are caveats that I think need to be emphasized.

Because sushi bars in Japan generally don't have menus (beyond indications of daily specials on chalkboards or on handwritten pieces of paper tacked up on the wall), ordering okonomi or omakase is often a gamble--particularly when you're a first-time customer. Not knowing what your meal will cost ahead of time is not entirely unknown in the West (you've probably ordered a "special" before without asking your server its price), but it's a fundamentally alien concept, especially in the US. Trying a new sushi bar can be surprisingly expensive (emphasis on "surprise"). There are unscrupulous chefs that overcharge, charge according to their mood, or charge more or less because they like or dislike the customer. That's unfair and it feels like being taken for an unnecessarily long ride in a taxi in an unfamiliar city. In my view, Corson underplays the potential for abuse in the system, but he is right in saying that by establishing a relationship with an honest and talented sushi chef (becoming a regular customer and being open to new things), there can be a great deal more to the sushi experience than plates of excessively sauced-up rolls full of the fattiest fishes on top of piles of overdressed greens--which is what sushi in America often is. An excellent read. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Pine Siskins (December 10, 2010)

Another rainy day today. Sitting idly by the window, watching the bird feeder, I noticed a bird that looked unfamiliar. From a distance I think I would have dismissed it as a female House Finch, but the streaking was too strong, the bird was too small for a House Finch (about the size of a Lesser Goldfinch), and I noticed a hint of yellow in the folded wings--all of which said Pine Siskin to me. Eventually five showed up, quite aggressively shooing away other birds that tried to use the feeder.

I suppose Pine Siskins have been in the yard before. I probably simply never bothered to look closely enough to tell. A new feeder closer to the window probably helped. This, however, is the first time I've had a good look at one and known what I was looking at. That brings my Sonoma County total to 200 species, my life total to 325, and makes a 54th yardbird. I got a good photo of one of them, despite shooting through a window. Got a nice shot of an Oak Titmouse as well (below).

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Birding Spots

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rain: Clear Now After Three Days of Drizzle (December 6-9, 2010)

It's finally cleared this afternoon after nearly three days of rain and drizzle. At this location we got another 0.85 inches of rain, bringing our 2010-2011 precipitation total to 11.95 inches. The historical average for this time of the season is about 7.5 inches, so we remain well ahead of normal for the moment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2006 Bodegas Eguren "Mercedes Eguren" Shiraz/Tempranillo

I picked up the 2006 Bodegas Eguren "Mercedes Eguren" Shiraz/Tempranillo--a wine made in Spain's Castilla region--at Oliver's Market in Santa Rosa a few days ago, not really knowing anything about the wine. I was interested in large part because I have enjoyed a few good Shiraz wines made in this part of Spain recently and thought this one might be worth a try, although it's 50% Tempranillo. I'm glad I decided to try it. I enjoyed this and thought it reasonably priced, at $8.99 a bottle. Tasting notes follow.

The wine had a rather interesting color. It was a fairly pale medium red--not at all the inky purple-black that Shiraz wines often are. Although this is only 50% Shiraz, I still expected the wine to be darker in color. The wine didn't look especially young or old either. The nose was initially suggestive of caramel and cranberries, although rather closed at first. Later there was something of the white pepper scent Shiraz wines often have. On the palate the wine came across as fairly simple but refined and immediately appealing, with a soft, sweet fruitiness. The tannins were restrained, but the wine had enough grip to make it seem at least somewhat substantial. The tannins were delicate and integrated with a woody sweetness, mostly on the mid-palate. Good length. Sweetish, woody, delicately tannic finish. Overall, not a profound wine, but clean, well made, easy to drink, and of sufficient character to keep it interesting for more than just the first glass. Recommended for everyday drinking. 

Found Art: Frosted Leaf (December 7, 2010)

Although it was comparatively warm overnight and in the morning today, last week saw some of the coldest nights we've had so far this season. It's always interesting in the morning afterward to see what temporary paintings and sculptures the frost has made. I particularly liked this frosted gum tree leaf in someone's lawn, looking rather like a starfish, I thought. Found art. Beautiful.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Evening Grosbeaks

I drove over to Apollo Way, in southwestern Santa Rosathis morning pursuing reports that there were migrating Evening grosbeaks to be seen. After a little searching, I found a tree full of them. There were about 30. These are fairly unusual birds in Sonoma County--and very pretty. They look rather like giant goldfinches with oversized beaks.

The birds were eating the red berries of the Chinese pistachio tree (or Chinese pistache), which mostly attracts bluebirds in my neighborhood. This is Pistacia chinensis, not Pistacia vera, the tree that produces the familiar pistachio nut. The upper photo here is a male grosbeak, the lower photo shows a female. This sighting brings my Sonoma County species total to 199, my life total to 324.

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots

Miscellaneous: Rain (December 4-6 2010)

Today was the first clear day in several days. It rained throughout the weekend, adding another 1.2 inches of precipitation here. That brings our 2010-2011 total to 11.1 inches. Average historical rainfall in Santa Rosa is about 7.49 inches for December 6, so we are well ahead of normal so far this rainy season.
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