Monday, January 22, 2007

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

Ahh, Cincinnati. I just got home yesterday from a week's vacation in this metropolitan, midwestern city. Not that I really got out to see the town much - most of my time was spent visiting with family (though I did get out for a much needed excursion to the Skyline Chili on Ludlow with my sister Franny). I was lucky enough to be there when my little niece Gabby was there also, and it was certainly wonderful to have another chance to get to know this growing, spirited little girl, now two years old. This was my first time with her since she's been really talking, and she seems quite the smart cookie. I'll tell you, when a little one like her addresses you as 'uncle brian', it's near impossible to deny her whatever it is she wants, so we played several rounds of fun games until she tired of them, or until I tired of them and was able to distract her into a new activity. We played hide and seek, though Gabby hasn't got all the subtleties of the game down yet. When I'm counting and she's hiding, as soon as I yell "ready or not here I come" she runs out of her shady corner straight at me, laughing. We enjoyed several other activities, including sitting in the soft kitty beds at my Mom's house and playing the twirly game.

We also had lots of fun with my sister Esme. It was her birthday on Saturday. We played scrabble and had a chocolate cake, amongst other things. I had to leave Sunday morning during the biggest snow of the season so far, so I missed whatever snowball fights and snow sculptures were enjoyed, and only got the experience the stress of driving to the airport in it with my Dad.

I did get a touch of birding in, though that wasn't exactly a priority. As one might expect from some brief, low impact birding in mid-winter Ohio, there wasn't a whole lot seen, but some nice birds nonetheless. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers were seen on several occasions, Terry and I had a Pileated Woodpecker flyover at the Nature Center, fox sparrows at Spring Grove Cemetery and at Spring Valley, kingfisher, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, tons of red-bellied woodpeckers...the most interesting sighting of the week was at Spring Valley with my Dad and Lisa of a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds gathering on the ice in the center of the small lake there. I have never seen that before.

Anyway, it was a restful week with loved ones, and sorely needed. Back to work tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Simple Meal

Sometimes the best meals are the simplest. Well, not the simplest; in my world that would be cereal, or even a clif bar and a piece of fruit (which is in fact a staple breakfast of my early morning birding). So I guess I don't mean simple in the 'hard day at work, tired, just want to eat something, watch a little tv and go to bed' sense. I just mean a quick, nutritious meal prepared with a minimum of fuss. To tell the truth, many friends of mine, even fellow epicures, would look at what I fixed myself tonight and think that I'm out of mind to go to so much effort just for myself, and on a school night (so to speak, I have never gotten out of the habit of calling any evening when I have to go to work the next morning a 'school night'). But really, it took all of a half an hour, was delicious, and provided me with a well-rounded meal and a pleasant sense of accomplishment from the relaxing, creative energies invoked.

I had a couple of chicken legs defrosted, and had been considering a couple different recipes, a repeat of a chicken with za'taar from the new Ana Sortun cookbook Spice or a braised chicken with olives and saffron from Signor Batali's Molto Italiano. But I was tired, and it had been an irritating, if not particularly long, day, and I wanted quick and easy. So I put some rice in the rice cooker with a dollop of butter and a few pinches of spice from a turkish melange and turned on the broiler. I seasoned the chicken legs with salt, pepper and drizzled with a little olive oil and threw them under the flames. Checking the refrigerator, I found a few lonely pieces of leftover vegetables destined for the rubbish bin (mushrooms, a poblano chile and a couple stalks of broccoli) and cut them up, seasoned just like the chicken and threw them in the oven to roast while the chicken broiled below.

Once eveything was out the the oven and the chicken was liberally doused with my favorite hot sauce (actually, I have many favorites, but the best are made only from cayenne peppers, vinegar and salt) I had a meal fit for a king, or better still, perfectly fit for me and the quiet evening ahead. The chicken was well-charred but still juicy and flavorful (god bless thighs and drumsticks), the vegetables were smoky and piquant and the rice gave me a pleasant, starchy contentment. A half-glass of a light, minerally but juicy rose (don't ask me the grape, but it's not just for summer picnics anymore) made the meal as good as any I've had in a long time. And best of all, cold chicken leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Clouds Break

Okay, first an admission: I did not take this picture. I stole it from the Wikipedia website's article on the dovekie, that tubbly little seabird that sends birdwatchers crazy around here. I wanted to post a picture of it as it represents the high point of a strange, productive and thoroughly enjoyable day's birding on Cape Ann.

There are great advantages to birding in a group; apart from spending time with new or old friends and sharing expenses and driving duties, there is the valuable opportunity to learn from experienced and knowledgeable birders who usually know where the birds are most likely to be found. And, of course, there are all those eyes! Eyes darting everywhere, searching every little branch, wave, rock, whatever that might harbor something that flies (or swims and dives).

I went out with the Brookline Bird Club's outing today, led by Bill Drummond. We started in downtown Gloucester at the State Fish Pier, in a thick fog and intermittent rain (I would say the conditions were chilly except for the fact that we were actually about twenty degrees warmer than we should have been for early January) looking for gulls. In particular, the Common Gull, a possibly European vagrant that's been seen here recently. We didn't see it, but that was fine with me. I'm still in the infancy of gull identification (actually, I might have graduated to toddler this year) - these are difficult birds to distinguish from one another, and great patience is involved when looking for rarities in a giant flock of several hundred flying, swimming, resting and generally wheeling about everywhere in the Gloucester's inner harbor. But we found some others- Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull and Black-headed Gull along with the more common Herring, Great black-backed and ring-billed. I was especially excited by the Black-headed gull, which I've never seen before and is a smallish gull with a red bill. We watched two of these guys fly round and round a particularly productive stretch of water, occasionally fluttering just above the water and then crashing into it head first, usually coming back up and out with a small, wriggling fish held tight between their bill. Swallow fast or a big bad great black-backed gull will get you!

We moved on to the southern tip of Eastern Point where we saw a distant but recognizable Barrow's Goldeneye. As we walked out the long jetty that is Dog Bar Breakwater, the skies lightened and the temperature rose, but we could see the dense fog still lying thickly about downtown Gloucester.

We kept moving. The whole experience of birding in a group like this is somewhat comical - I would be tempted to make fun of it if I didn't enjoy it as much as I did and respect the other folks who I was birding with. Oh well, I can make fun of myself, can't I? Though we carpooled, there were still several cars full of birders; we kept in touch by FRS radio walkie talkies, which have a range of anywhere from twenty feet to about a mile. As we drove there was constant chatter such as "Redwing, this is falcon one; do you have the eared grebe? Over." or "Put on your left blinker and turn into the Dunkin' Donuts. After a quick pit stop we'll cruise by the Elks Lodge to look for the King Eider. Redwing out." You might have guessed by now that this is a far cry from walking softly in the wilderness; however, once we are out of the cars and in the bird's territory, we are very careful and respectful (of birds as well as private property and general etiquette).

Anyway, we had some good birds, we got the eared grebe and the king eider, as well as purple sandpipers and guillemots and kittiwakes, but the highlight came when we stopped for lunch at Andrews Point, which is just south of Halibut Point (possibly my favorite piece of real estate in Massachusetts). The sun came out here in full force, and I mean full force. Many of us went down to t-shirts at this point and there was actually a warm breeze. Though I find this weather somewhat disturbing and the spectre of global warming frightening, for the hour and a half that we sat on the rocks at Andrews Point I was seriously loving it. Of course it doesn't hurt that we saw the dovekie, and had truly stellar views of it.

Stellar views of a dovekie are different than the stellar views you might have of many other birds. In the dovekie's case, it means several repeated sightings of the bird for the one second it spends at the surface between dives, hopefully from a close enough vantage to actually recognize it. It helps that there's nothing else quite that small, that tubby, with that distinctive tuxedo black and white plumage.

I'm not too humble to mention that I was the first person in our group see it positively - I saw a brief flash of white as something small dove about forty yards off the rocks. I mumbled something about seeing 'something' and kept my binoculars at the same spot, hoping it would come back up within the same view. About ten seconds later it did, and was unmistakably a dovekie, at which point I somewhat overexcitely called it out and somewhat awkwardly tried to describe exactly where it was, or exactly where it wasn't as it kept diving about exactly one second after surfacing. But I kept seeing it rise again and again, about seven times or so, slowly moving left before we finally lost sight of it. Not everybody saw it at this time, which I felt bad about (and wondered if I could have pointed it out better) until we picked it up again about fifteen minutes later. This time, it came in as close as about ten yards and two or three times rested on the surface as long as three or four seconds, a lifetime to a dovekie watcher. Of course, the sun was shining and the warm breeze was blowing, and everybody, myself included, had a very nice smile on their face.

A very nice day all in all. I saw several birds I didn't see all last year: glaucous gull, black-headed gull, king eider, eared grebe, black-legged kittiwake, black guillemot. A nice first outing for 2007.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Wonderful Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson

I came under the spell of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's voice rather late - not in my life, but in hers. She died this last summer at the age of 52, just a few months after I first heard her singing on a recording of two Bach cantatas with Boston's Emmanuel Music on the Nonesuch label. This is an extraordinary recording. Almost every comment I've read about it refers to its 'luminous spirituality', and I can't really say it any better than that. There is an immediacy to her voice, an intimacy in her expression that both astounds but also holds the listener very close, sometimes painfully so. It is hard not to think of her and her illness and of her early death from breast cancer when listening to these pieces; one almost feels she is whispering to you from her bedside (in fact there was a concert staging of these with her in hospital gown).

I've now been listening to two newly-released live recordings of hers, both issued this year after her death. Both are five-song cycles written for her by her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson, both based on sonnets by well-known twentieth century poets. The first, recorded with the pianist Peter Serkin, has settings from Rainier Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. The second is from selected love sonnets of Pablo Neruda.

The Rilke Songs, as befits the piano accompaniment and the introspective, metaphysical speculations of the poetry, have a stark intimacy, full of space, angular melodic lines and thin, dense harmonies. This is music that leads one's thoughts into startling, unexpected directions, with few if any resolutions. By contrast, the Neruda songs, as befits the opulence of this most fecund of poets, are lush, and scored for voice and full orchestra, here provided by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Levine. The warmth here is profound, the love palpable. It is in these recordings (or maybe the Bach) that I think I most hear Ms. Hunt-Lieberson's professional beginnings as a violist before her singing career took off, in the nuance of her phrasing, in the clear yet unexpected articulation of her expression. There is humor and play here also, from gentle but deeply embedded latin syncopations to sprightly recurring motifs that arch between the separate pieces. Mesmerizing.

That's all I'll say for now, except to urge anybody and everybody to listen to this music. I can only wish I'd discovered her earlier and taken the opportunity to see her sing live, which by all accounts was normally spellbinding. I'm looking forward to acquiring another recently issue recording of her singing songs by New England stalwart composer John Harbison.