High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

This is fiber optic cable, which is the future. This is culture, which is delicious.

Saturday, February 01, 2003


I got a last-minute invitation from L. to accompany him to the CSO this evening on tickets he inherited from a friend. He called me when I was driving home from the lab, so this meant that I had about 28 minutes to go from men's pajama bottoms and my Goose Island "Master of Beer Appreciation" shirt to . . . something not jammie based. The lack of time to shave my Yetti-like legs further limited the wardrobe options, but I made do.

It's been a long while since I've been to Orchestra Hall (and I believe the last time I was there, it was also at the pleasure of the good Mr. H to hear the LSO playing a bit of Sibelius), and I've never sat in the terrace seats. These are behind and just barely above the orchestra, facing the conductor. They're awesome. We were front row and center, but I had sadly left my pea shooter at home, so the brass section went unmolested. Well, relatively so.

You see, just after the first piece, I dropped my program and it vanished. I was sitting directly next to a gap in the front of the balcony, and when I couldn't find the program immediately, I became convinced that it had somehow contrived to wriggle through the crack and drop on to the stage. I spent the second piece waiting for the fuzz to show up and give me a heartfelt escort out of the place. Pretty thorough investigation failed to turn the thing up, so I can only assume that I am suddenly gifted with the ability to destroy mass entirely. In your face, Newton!

What appeared to be a dubious program (3 pieces by fairly unremarkable English composers and a Strauss Sinfonia) turned out to be a lovely evening of music. The first piece, Vaughan Williams, Overture to The Wasps, was a really fun nine minutes or so, with a handful of themes tossed around from instrument to instrument while the brass kept up a rhythmic series of variations on buzzing.

The second, Butterworth's Shropshire Lad, based on Housman, was nice enough if unremarkable except for the program notes on it, which were nothing short of bizarre. It referenced the Stoppard "Invention of Love," which features conversations between Housman and Oscar Wilde. The author of the program notes speaks of Housman as being a tragic character, presumably in contrast to Wilde's tripping-through-daisies existence.

The final piece of the first part of the program was Delius's Brigg Fair, which actually started out in a very promising way. The opening has the winds weaving a lazy circular tune that's strangely exotic for something that's supposed to evoke the English countryside. However, it works, at least for the first several dozen measures or so. It reminded me of "Araby" from Dubliners---the mysterious East as envisioned by someone who'd never travelled farther than his own backyard. Unfortunately, it never really seemed to go anywhere, so it was my least favorite of the evening.

The Strauss Sinfonia Domestica, though, was absolutely the highlight. I'm not sure that I was able to envision the "erotic love" scene in the Adagio as promised by the program notes. By the end of it, though, one of the minor downsides in the terrace seating became apparent: It's dangerous to be so close to the brass when there's a triple fugue going on. Watching Mark Elder, the guest conductor in the last 8 minutes of this was quite a treat. He was energetic and animated throughout, but he really seemed out of himself by the end of the Strauss. I'm looking forward to seeing him conduct at Lyric for A Masked Ball in a month or so.

We made it to the Tasting Room afterward, so I guess the third time's the charm. This is a relatively new wine bar in an up and coming neighborhood. it seems like (and I assume it genuinely is) a converted industrial space with two stories. The walls are bare brick and there's plenty of explosed duct work, etc. Like Webster's the proprieters are down with the advantages of subdued lighting.

Much of it is quite nice. They appear to have put themselves into the hands of some enterprising Room & Board clerks and told them the sky was the limit. There are numerous conversation areas of varying sizes, some with a couple of overstuffed armchairs and a square table, others with large leather sofas, and even one with an l-shaped plush sectional. Near the windows, there are also several tall tables with the same stools that flank the bars on each floor.

However, there are several crimes against fashion and good sense. There are several four-seater tables that are so bland, they would look more at home in a real Alice's Palace type dive. The chairs around these are a very light, glossy beech-finish laminate with sea green upholstery. They're not only ugly, they're not even harmoniously ugly. They've also got a handful of round tables with high-backed, armless upholstered chairs. These aren't bad in concept, but the group closest to the table we picked were a dismal oatmeal color with enormous bronze flowers. My grandmother would have thought them busy.

The wine list is not as comprehensive as Webster's, but the had a number of things (most notably some Australian blends) that I don't recall seeing up north. Their food was sort of a mixed bag. We had the farm cheese flight, which had some of the best bleu cheese I've had in a long while. The breads left a bit to be desired, and the al fredo pizza wasn't a patch on the roughly equivalent one from Webster's. The phallic cheese sticks were both tasty and symbolically rich to much.

I had the truffle flight for dessert, and L. had the chocolate soufflet cake. The REAL truffles were fantastic---bitter chocolate rolled in a sort of curry powder. They were a bit surprising on first bite, but it was really a yummy combo. The white chocolate were . . . well, white chocolate. Waxy, powder, too hard, etc. Your basic white chocolate nightmare, but what do you expect? The soufflet cake was pretty delish and came with two stinky cheese mini-tartlets, which seemed an odd combo.

The worst facet of the experience cannot be blamed on the Tasting Room at all. The people sitting at the low table next to us were unbearable. It seemed to be two couples engaging in a three-way conversation and completely excluding one of the women, who didn't utter a syllable the entire time. The guy who did most of the talking pontificated in a horribly nasal tone and clearly had no concept of an "indoor voice." In addition to being obviously obnoxious he made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Quotable quotes included: "My bathroom was DOPE!" and "You can't trade against the llamas!" or possibly lamas. Neither made sense in context, and he repeated phrases incuding the word "llamas" (or "lamas") numerous times. Most baffling.

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