A Musical Journey on Chinese New Year

Image copyright Vince Giordano

Lang Lang, a Mongolian children’s choir, and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks—I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Walking in the rain last night through puddles of what was snow just that morning, I ducked inside the Greene Space in SoHo, where WQXR, for which my wife Martha works, was hosting a live concert and broadcast with Lang Lang, the flashy, masterful Chinese pianist, and Quintessenso Children’s Choir of Mongolia.

WQXR host David Garland, who I was meeting for the first time (and who, surprisingly, looks as he sounds on the radio—tall, with wavy, graying hair and wearing designer, architect-style glasses), began the evening with the children’s choir: twelve boys and girls wearing traditional Mongolian costumes. Ranging in age from 5 to 12, the choir sang their songs in all-but-forgotten dialects of nomadic Mongolian tribes from the grassy central regions.

Next came Lang Lang, who bounded on stage in a t-shirt, black sport coat, and hiking boots with red laces. Known for his flamboyant dress and performance style onstage, Lang Lang selected a subdued piece by Liszt, which he played with incredible grace and subtlety.

After the piece, Garland asked Lang Lang about his inspiration for Liszt. Lang Lang’s answer? Tom and Jerry cartoons—specifically, the one with Hungarian Rhapsody #2.

After the hour-long performance at the Greene Space, Martha and I took a subway up to the theater district where we escaped the rain into Sofia’s Italian restaurant, then descended the red carpet stairs to another era—the world of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, who were playing big band songs from the 1920s and 30s as they do every Monday night. (Giordano and this band perform the music for the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.)

It was an evening arranged by another WQXR host, Jeff Spurgeon, with daytime host Naomi Lewin. We were seated just as the band played their opening number in honor of the New Year, “Chinatown,” recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1931 and later by Louis Prima. The number ended, and the band followed that with two more Chinese-inspired novelty songs from the era.

At the table next to us sat Will Friedwald, music critic and author of some of the best-known books on The Great American Songbook. He wore a red, embroidered Mandarin shirt; others in the audience wore Mandarin caps with a black braided ponytail (most likely purchased at the Pearl River gift store in Chinatown).

A pair of what must have been professional ballroom dancers—looking for a live music opportunity for their fancy footwork—glided in a quick-step foxtrot across the floor. We drank Manhattans and glasses of wine as we watched.

In all, the festivity and celebration could have taken place at any number of clubs in the early 1930s.

At the end, Robert White, the son of a great 1920s crooner—Joseph White, better known at the time as the Silver Masked Tenor — took the mike. He sang from charts—or sheet music—from which his father had sung nearly a hundred years earlier. The song was “Brown Eyes Why Are You So Blue,” and with it, Bobby White, embodying the spirit and the music of an era that was palpably alive in that club last night, sang a beautiful tribute to his father to a standing ovation.

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How to beat the heat–lime.

It’s 104 degrees in the city today, and when it comes time for lunch. I’m thinking something refreshing, something tasty, something seasonal, something tropical. Lime.
Cocktail first: a martini glass of light rum with crushed basil and lime. Times 2.
First, a bruschetta spread with whipped ricotta and fava beans topped with a think slice of jalapeño.
Entrée, steamed hake with asparagus and an onion-chile vinaigrette (and lime).
For a side we had sautéed corn topped with manchego cheese, jalapeños (and lime).
Finally, dessert was a salted caramel ice cream, topped with candied popcorn, chocolate and whip cream. Alas, no lime.

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One of my favorite cookbooks this year

PW Best Books 2010: The Frankies Spuntino: Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual

Mark Rotella — October 26th, 2010

The Frankies Spuntino: Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual (Artisan)
Frank Falcinelli, Frank Castronovo, and Peter Meehan

You’ve got two bearded Italian guys in their 40s—both from Brooklyn, both named Frank—who knew each other from the old neighborhood and, later, crossed paths in the restaurant industry as French-trained chefs. They get together and, tapping into their culture heritage, form a restaurant, Frankies 457 Spuntino, that is equal parts nostalgic and hip. Not an easy feat.

Their book, which has an earthy 1970s feel, is complete with gilded pages and hand-drawn illustrations.

As for the recipes, you can’t get any more traditional and simple: meatballs (baked, not fried), and braciola, made with 8oz pork shoulder steaks (rolled with garlic provolone and parmesan). For starters, there’s a great recipe forscarol’ e fagiol’—escarole and bean soup.

Towards the end of the book is a detailed recipe that this Italian American, 40-something man would have loved years earlier—a timeline for preparing your grandmother’s Sunday gravy, or sauce (which includes the above-mentioned meatballs and braciola). It begins on Saturday with a visit to the grocery store, butcher shop and bakery. Sunday starts with 6 a.m. Mass, which ends in time to return home by 7 to begin the tomato sauce. (“We are not our grandmothers,” the authors note. “Wish we had their stamina.” And they adjust their schedules, sans church, to begin cooking at noon—with dinner on the table by 6pm.)

They further impart the unspoken wisdom from their grandmothers, gleaned only from years of observation:

Dig in. Eat and enjoy. Deny that it was any work when everybody asks if you’re tired.

Do it every Sunday.

Do it forever.


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One of my favorite cookbooks this year


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A Sammy State of Mind

It’s a damp, overcast day in New York City. I’m looking out my office window down along 6th Avenue and 23rd street–and I’m humming “Mr. Bojangles.”

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Waves I’ll never surf, and that’s OK

This time of year, I’ve usually surfed the Jersey Shore a few times, but the closest I’ve gotten so far was reading a book by Susan Casey called The Wave (which will be published in September, the same month as my own book). A quick and intense read about surfers and scientists and the waves that thrill them. I have an image of a wave that I know I will never surf, but somehow the image is just enough. Thanks, Laird.

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Welcome to the Enthusiast

Blogging to commence soon.

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