Aspen Times Weekly: Baroque Show

by Amanda Rae


On the menu at the Benedict Music Tent on July 8, according to composer Nicholas McGegan:

BACH, C.P.E.: Flute Concerto in D minor, H.484.1

“Bach liked eating larks and little birds. He lived in Hamburg, but would import them from Leipzig, where he lived as a child. He wasn’t all beef and beer, he was a gourmet.”

MOZART: Andante for Flute and Orchestra in C major, K. 315 (K. 285e)

“He indulged himself, even when it was beyond his resources to do so. Among his favorites were trout, liver dumplings with sauerkraut, chicken paprikash with späetzle, and uccelline (similar to veal scaloppini). I have a copy of a Viennese cookbook from the year that Mozart wrote “Don Giovanni” and a friend of mine cooked a dinner from it. Delicious!”

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92”

“Beethoven liked mac and cheese with as much Parmesan as it could possibly take. He also was a bit of a wine snob. He liked white wine from the Rhine region, where he was born, to drink out of crystal glasses. Though there’s very good wine in Austria, he liked the stuff from his native region. Must be a nostalgic thing.”

BRUCH Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, op. 26

“This is a chestnut (of a piece), shall we say. I don’t know a thing about Bruch but since he was from Cologne, Germany, I am thinking that he drank a lot of beer!”

HOTEL-BOUND IN SARASOTA, Florida, Nicholas McGegan is craving quality espresso. Unfortunately, the closest boutique coffee shop is located some five miles away, and he’s without transportation. Instead, the renowned conductor, harpsichordist, and 30-year music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is sipping a cup of subpar English Breakfast tea in his room.

“I normally travel with my own tea, not because I’m British, but because I like good tea: Scottish Breakfast, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Jasmine — the sort with the flowers,” he says. “Makes my suitcase smell nice, too.”

While tea and coffee may be simple pleasures, in McGegan’s world they are not open to dramatic interpretation as, say, the 18th century Baroque classical music for which he is known. When performing in concert halls around the globe, the 66-year-old self-proclaimed “gastronaut” leaves that to the food.

“So much of the world now is the same — you can go to Starbucks in practically any city on this planet,” McGegan says. (He’s quick to note that the chain is not his cup of, uh, Joe.) “If I’m in Kuala Lumpur I can probably get the same cup of coffee that I could get in Washington, D.C., but you certainly don’t eat the same. That’s the thing I relish when traveling: to have what you can only find there, in season.”

“I love picnics. For a Brit, the chance of eating outdoors without getting rained on is, of course, a risk, but one always worth taking. The food tastes different, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and one has the joy of going somewhere beautiful to spend time with friends—a solitary picnic isn’t much fun.”—Conductor Nicholas McGegan

McGegan, who returns to the Aspen Music Festival and School on July 8 to present a program of Baroque works featuring French flutist Emmanuel Pahud and young violinist Simone Porter, shares a few tidbits on experiencing a place through taste, food nostalgia, and cooking for culinary royalty in his Berkeley, Calif., neighborhood.

Welcome back to Aspen! What are you excited to eat here?

“One of the great joys of Aspen is the Saturday Market. I’m lucky that [the Aspen Music Festival and School] always gives us a place where we can cook. I’ll get elk from one guy, some terrific goat cheeses, great breads, pies, tarts, empanadas. I always try to go to Zocalito, too. I’ve been to Oaxaca and the dishes are absolutely lovely — duck, guava — very different from the Mexican food we have in California. Anything with chocolate, like mole, I’m so happy. And I’ll eat those fantastic Colorado red trout. That’s something I look forward to because we don’t have them on the West Coast.

So you enjoy absorbing local culture through food when traveling?

I make a point of it. I was just in Baltimore and there’s a place called Woodberry Kitchen, which only serves food from Maryland. They make their own ice cream with Maryland milk and stone fruit…but there was a storm just as the cherry trees were flowering so there will be no apricots, plums, peaches or cherries this year. Normally you’d just get (these fruits) from Georgia, but they just won’t. I went twice in one week because it was so good.

I go to Hungary a lot, and I do love Hungarian food. I’m not a great eater of cakes — except in Vienna and Budapest. They’re irresistible! My recipes ( are a reminder of the places I’ve been.

How does your musical style translate to your love of food?

Baroque music is sort of like 18th-century jazz. You improvise—it’s not all written down. I like to make music without a safety net. In other words, I don’t believe in musical microwaving. The audience will come with you.

Similarly, I’m a bit of a gastronaught—I like being adventurous. I love trying wine I’ve never had. Once at Rustique Bistro, we were early for a dinner. We looked at the wine list at the bar, I saw a Slovenian wine, and I had to try it. Since then I’ve been to Slovenia and I can attest to the many bottles we had there that they are still fantastic, and I found out about them at Rustique 10 years ago. It’s a constant adventure. Safe eating and only drinking French wine is terribly tedious!

Any foods you don’t enjoy?

Barbecue is one of the few things that doesn’t turn me on. We didn’t have barbecue in England—the weather is not conducive. But I do love eating outdoors. It makes me think of holidays in France and Italy, and, of course, living in California.

That’s one great pleasure of the Aspen Music Festival and School: picnicking during performances.

Being serenaded while you have a picnic is a tradition that goes back centuries. Classical music adds to the atmosphere and to the sense of occasion. It’s great for younger audiences who don’t want to sit bolt upright in a chair and be totally silent, like, “You will listen to this and have a miserable time.” Put them outside on a blanket, give them an ice cream, and listen to the music.

So food is a natural match for this style of music?

Eighteenth-century music is full of serenades, like [Mozart’s] “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.” Music wasn’t only played in concert halls. An awful lot of Mozart’s big symphonies and concertos were played in a restaurant, not a formal concert hall. The Prater in Vienna had a big band; famous singers would come to sing, then go off to dinner.”

What was your most memorable meal?

During rehearsals at Versailles, a bunch of us went down to the canal. We had a couple of French baguettes, unsalted butter, French radishes, and sea salt. And a whole (bag) of white peaches cut up and sprayed with a tiny bit of rosewater. And rosé, of course. We put the bottle in the canal to keep it cool. Every time I see white peaches I think of that particular lunch in France. Food has a Proustian effect on me.

So food can transport you to place just as music?

Totally. It’s another place, and the people associated with it. I’ve been lucky living in California and spending time in Europe, I know several winemakers, so I try to find their wines. Montagna (formerly at The Little Nell) had my Austrian winemaker friend Heidi Schröck’s wine, so we had to order it. There it was—7,000 miles away—a bottle of her wine. It’s like getting a postcard.

Nostalgia and food are inextricably linked for you then?

There are certain things I ate as a child, like Marmite, which to Americans is anathema — a friend of mine likened it to oven scrapings — but I just love it! On the other hand, root beer, which every young American drinks gallons of, I never had it as a kid because it tastes like the back of stamps to me. I just can’t get my tongue around it. It’s not a food of my childhood. I don’t have that taste memory.

What’s it like to live at the heart of California food culture?

I get a bit spoiled in Berkeley, because we live very close to Chez Panisse.

Mollie Katzen, who wrote the Moosewood cookbooks, is a neighbor. It’s kind of scary to cook for her. Alice Waters has been over the house, but it was a pizza party. All you really have to do for those grand ladies is cook good, honest food. Pretentious food is not on. And you don’t make a tomato salad in December. That’s just silly. Good, honest food, a nice bottle of wine, and jolly good company is all you need.

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