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Arts & Culture

This Thanksgiving, Indulge In A Buffet Of Musical Casseroles

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Whether it's green beans with a sprinkling of those crunchy onions or sweet potatoes with miniature marshmallows on top, it's hard to imagine Thanksgiving without casseroles. That is this year's theme for our Thanksgiving visit from commentator Miles Hoffman - musical casseroles. Happy Thanksgiving, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Thank you, Renee. Good morning.

MONTAGNE: I am sure, although it would be a lot of fun, we're not talking here about casseroles that break into song when you pull them out of the oven.

HOFFMAN: That would be fun, yeah - miracle casseroles. No, actually, I'm thinking more along the line of tasty musical dishes. Think of a good casserole. You take a whole bunch of contrasting but complimentary ingredients. You combine them in an imaginative way. You cook them together. And the result is delicious. Well, I think we can think of lots of musical pieces that way, too. Some of those pieces are beautiful. Some are funny. And some are just wild and crazy.

MONTAGNE: Well, it is Thanksgiving morning. A lot of our listeners are probably already stressed about getting that turkey stuffed and in the oven. So why don't we start with something beautiful that will take everyone's mind off the work ahead?

HOFFMAN: OK, something beautiful - how about the famous quartet from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera "Rigoletto." In this case, four characters are singing at the same time, but they're all singing completely different words. The character of the Duke is trying to seduce Maddalena, who's a woman of ill repute. Maddalena is teasing him. Gilda, who is madly in love with the Duke, is horrified. And Rigoletto, Gilda's father, who will later accidentally murder his own daughter, is trying to comfort Gilda. So somehow, all the parts fit together and make a beautiful and very moving scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "RIGOLETTO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: And that's lovely, Miles.

HOFFMAN: That's bella figlia dell'amore - beautiful child of love - the famous vocal quartet from Verdi's "Rigoletto" setting up a very, very tragic ending to the opera.

MONTAGNE: How about a musical casserole that's very far in spirit from that? In fact, you were talking about some pieces that are funny.

HOFFMAN: Well, if we can stick with vocal casseroles, Renee, again, with lots of contrasting but complementary ingredients, the finale from act two of Mozart's "Marriage Of Figaro," I think, is a terrific example. In this case, there are seven characters singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MARRIAGE OF FIGARO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

HOFFMAN: That's in the finale of act two of Mozart's "Marriage Of Figaro." It's not - the music itself is not laugh-out-loud funny, but the scene is pretty funny. Figaro wants to marry Susanna. Susanna wants to marry Figaro. Marcellina, who's Figaro's mother but doesn't know it, want to marry Figaro, too, and she's got a lawyer and a witness with her. And the Count, meanwhile, wants Susanna all for himself. And for the moment, it's just a big mess.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) Beautiful, though - a beautiful mess.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MARRIAGE OF FIGARO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

(APPLAUSE)

MONTAGNE: Went about a musical casserole that's made up, as some casseroles are wont to be, of especially unusual ingredients?

HOFFMAN: Unusual - there are many, but I get an unusually big kick out of a piece written in the 1920s by an English composer, William Walton. The piece is called "Facade," and it's a setting of kooky poems - very kooky poems by Edith Sitwell. And it calls for two narrators plus flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, percussion and cello. I think that's a pretty unusual set of ingredients.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM WALTON SONG, "FACADE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Thetis wrote a treatise noting wheat is silver like the sea. The lovely cheat is sweet as foam. Erotis notices that she will steal the wheat-king's luggage, like Babel before the League of Nations grew. So Jo put the luggage and the label in the pocket of Flo the kangaroo. Through trees like rich hotels that bode of dreamless ease fled she. Carrying the load and goading the road through the marine scene to the sea. Don Pasquito, the road is eloping with your luggage, though heavy and large. You must follow and lose your moping. Ride to my guidance and charge.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter).

HOFFMAN: That's an excerpt from Sir William Walton's "Facade."

MONTAGNE: Well, this comes pretty close to wild and crazy.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, it kind of does, doesn't it?

MONTAGNE: But I gather the next piece you have lined up for us is even wilder and crazier.

HOFFMAN: Actually, I'm thinking of Charles Ives. The second movement of his "Symphony No. 4" is also a slow-cooked piece. Some casseroles are slow-cooked. The piece took him about 14 years to finish. Actually, it might be more of a stew than a casserole. It's got a huge orchestra gone crazy with extra brass. And it even needs an extra conductor. And Ives quotes from at least eight different American popular songs just in this movement alone, including "Turkey In The Straw" and "Columbia, The Gem Of The Ocean." So this is from the second movement of Charles Ives' "Symphony No. 4."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES IVES SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

MONTAGNE: Wondering if Charles Ives left that one in the oven a little too long, Miles.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter). Could be. It's definitely what we would call an exotic dish.

MONTAGNE: Well, Miles, thank you for whipping up this buffet of musical casseroles for us. And happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

HOFFMAN: Thank you. You too, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and artistic director of the Peace Center Chamber Music Society in Greenville, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.