07 October 2008

15 and 68

We now have internet! It is fast! And it follows me wherever I go in the house!

To mark the occasion, I have yet another summer story, written while internetless and waiting be wired so I could upload.


We spent a week in Amsterdam at the tail end of summer holidays so that the Mister could improve his Dutch. His workplace pays for a certain number of days of language instruction, anywhere in Europe, and besides paying for the class itself they provide a small stipend, which covered lodging (since we looked for the most reasonable B&B we could find) and a portion of our food costs each day. So basically, we figured, we had a subsidized vacation! Of course, he had four hours of intensive classes every day, which left him pretty brain-numb by the time we met up again in the afternoon. But I got to spend my mornings in museums, strolling through canal-lined streets, dodging bicycles, and sipping coffees.

For me, many of the highlights of the trip centered around the redeveloped area of the oosterdok, the thin spit of land off the edge of the city, out by the train station. The new city library there is wonderful, rivaling the great modern libraries of American cities like Seattle and San Francisco.

(Portions of the Oosterdok visible in the background.)

We also spent our last night in town in and around the oosterdok, with a meal at Jamie Oliver's restaurant,15, and a concert at the brand-new Musikgebow.

Slightly wary of the celebrity-chef-restaurant phenomenon, and having read some negative reviews of the 15 in London, I wasn't sure the dining experience would be a home run. But I think the principal idea is a great one, teaching disadvantaged kids (15 each year, thus the name) how to cook, serve, and run a top-notch restaurant. Plus, I like Jamie Oliver's style of cooking, at least as it comes through in the books: sturdy, unfussy, fresh flavors.

We had to eat early, because of the concert, so the vast industrial-style restaurant was nearly empty when we came in. The kids who greeted us and explained the menu seemed totally enthusiastic about both their jobs and the food they were serving, even if they tripped over some of the English terms. There is only one option on the menu, the fixed-price four-course meal (although we could choose from two options for two of the courses), and it was entirely Italian, at least on the night we were there.

The verdict? Home run. Nothing overly complicated or hard to figure out--I imagined I could even make some of the dishes myself, if I had time and the right ingredients, and the menu even printed the recipe of one of the simple sauces. But that didn't diminish just how delicious everything was. I was especially enamoured of my silver mullet with braised greens and oyster mushrooms. Silky and hearty at the same time, the dish was so satisfying that I was disappointed to have tucked it away so quickly. The young sommelier paired our courses with some slam-dunks as well. (Sorry about the overuse of sports metaphors. Don't know where that came from.) Altogether a perfect way to end our week in Amsterdam.

Yet, we still had a concert to attend! We licked up the last spoonfuls of white chocolate ice cream and plum tart, then rushed over to the concert hall and scooted into our seats just as the lights fell.

The musikgebow is a sight to behold, with its huge cantilevered overhang, vast glass walls with views of the sea, and several beautiful performance spaces. Earlier in the week, when we had gone to buy our tickets, we happened to catch the tail end of a free afternoon concert in one of the foyer areas. Everyone looked like they had enjoyed it, especially those who snagged the big turquoise pillows out front. A friendly white-haired lady gave us a free CD of the highlights of the last ten years of the summer music festival, of which both the afternoon and evening concerts formed part.

We hadn't understood much about the concert we chose to attend, except that it involved solo arias and names of composers who caught our eyes: Salieri, Czerny, Mozart. Sounded good, right?

The first singer, the mezzo, came out on stage with a big number 11 pinned to her dress. A voice from the darkness starts to ask her questions (in Dutch). Some sort of faux-audition? The audience chuckles. She introduces her song, In questa tomba oscura.

By the time the tenor, the soprano, the bass, and the alto again have come out with different numbers on their chests and sung different versions of the same text, after a short interview, we are able to piece together what's going on: the singers are answering as if they are the composers. There are 68 known settings of this Italian poem, and the concert's sctick is that each composer is "competing" for "best musical setting of In questa tomba oscura," or something like that. (Everything is in Dutch, so it's not that easy to follow.) We have a list in front of us of 68 composers' names, which correspond to the numbers pinned on the singers.

At the first intermission, we were happy to see that there were free drinks for the public. We strolled out to the deck with our wine and watched the light dwindle. But by the second intermission, we were wondering if they were really planning to perform ALL 68 songs? To squeeze them in, they even performed in the lobby during intermissions. Now matter how clever and funny the dialogues (to Dutch speakers, that is), no matter how lovely some of the arias, weren't they nuts to do them all? Seems that they were nuts. And I'm pretty sure the interview gimmick stopped being funny after thirty songs or so, judging by the much-dimished laughter. Three and a half hours in, half the audience had snuck out of the hall. We finally succumbed as well, although as a matter of pride we would normally never ditch a concert. I suppose the thing went on for four hours, but I was glad we didn't stick it out.

68 renditions of In questa tomba oscura is just a few too many for one night. Although in retrospect, the Italian food and the Italian arias made for a harmonious pairing.

(Unrelated shot of a rainbowy Schiphol airport.)

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