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The Food of Love 

In which the Da Vinci becomes a shallot

Think of what we have come to refer to as "classical music" as an onion. At its core lies the germinal seed of diatonic melody, born in the plainsong and chant of the early Middle Ages and forming the basis of our melodic language. Surrounding that are concentric spheres, layered on over the ages as music becomes more and more complex -- the polyphony of the Renaissance; Baroque counterpoint; the form and structure of the Classical Age; the thickening vertical and extended harmonies of the 19th century, and the rhythmic energy and timbral diversity of the century just past. Our onion grows, thickens and matures, such that a full, modern symphony orchestra, playing some of the more ambitious works of its own era, might be akin to a Vidalia Sweet, one of those big, juicy suckers you slap on your summer burger.

But we in the Springs also have quite a variety in our pantry. Our chamber orchestra might be likened to a mid-sized onion, with all of the layers, but smaller in scale. And our chamber ensembles might be best compared to the family of smaller onions, pearls and such, understated but nonetheless piquant. And of these, it is certainly the string quartet that resembles the shallot, that diminutive and delicate member of the onion family that graces the most elegant of dishes.

The string quartet has undergone the same musical evolution as its larger brothers and sisters, but has always remained true to its original structure -- two violins, a viola and a cello, singing in four closely related voices. Its beauty lies in its ability to portray a range of musical emotion and expression with a transparency that allows a listener to hear each individual voice in relation to its neighbors. The resulting intimacy is a hallmark of what we call "chamber music," and listening to such music, regardless of when it was written, allows us a unique opportunity to look directly into the creative soul of the composer.

The Da Vinci quartet, now in its 21st season, is undoubtedly the region's most accomplished string quartet. Its members serve on the faculties of Colorado College in Colorado Springs and the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. The quartet performs locally in collaboration with the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and is scheduled to appear with the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs in April 2002. Their musical reach exceeds local venues: They have scheduled performances this season in Boston, New York, California and New Mexico. They have showcased their innovative "Heartstrings" program, which offers classical music in institutional settings, such as domestic violence shelters and alcohol treatment centers, on the "News Hour with Jim Lehrer."

The Da Vinci quartet opens its Colorado Springs performance season with two performances at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Music Room this weekend. The program includes works by Germaine Tailleferre, Joseph (Papa) Haydn (Quartet in C, Op. 33, No. 3 -- "The Bird"), and Antonin Dvorak (Quartet No. 8 in E, Op. 80).

This concert represents a great opportunity to experience the flexibility of the quartet, including works written over a period of almost 200 years of musical history and three decidedly different cultures. The Haydn quartet, an early work of this most prolific of classical composers, is comparatively austere and formal, from a period where such music played to the courts of Europe. The Dvorak, from the middle part of the 19th century, is a far more romantic and sensuous work, highly characteristic of the middle period of this revered Czech composer. But it is the quartet by Germaine Tailleferre that will intrigue even the most seasoned listener. Ms. Tailleferre, one of "Les Six," a disparate group of French composers who flourished in the early 20th century, is rarely heard any more in the concert hall. It is to the credit of the Da Vinci that this work appears on the program. Melodic yet modern, delicate yet substantial, it should be a delight.

Ideally, listening to a string quartet is a bit like enjoying a delicacy. One needs to savor each note, and to be involved with the delicate interchange of the four voices. Such discerned listening is not for everyone, but as the music they play is built upon many layers, so a Da Vinci concert can be enjoyed on many levels. It will, after all, be beautiful music beautifully performed. There will be music of decidedly different eras and styles. And the respite you'll find will bring a much-deserved sense of peace and introspection, for any onion worth its salt can bring a tear to the eye. Promise yourself to pamper your senses and give this lovely group its due. You'll be richer for the experience, and you won't gain a pound.


French Onion Soup Da Vinci

Most onion soups are dark, rich and heavily flavored with beef, overly salted and pretentious. This recipe yields a soup that, although not specifically made with shallots, is more representative of the string quartet -- delicate and refined.

3 pounds onions

4 tablespoons butter

1 clove garlic, finely minced

2 tablespoons flour

10 cups water

1 cup dry white wine

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh thyme, or half teaspoon dried

12 very thin (1/4 inch) slices French bread

2 cups Gruyere or Swiss cheese

6 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Peel the onions and cut them in half. Slice each half wafer thin. There should be about 12 cups. In a large, heavy, ovenproof casserole or deep skillet, heat the butter and add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring, until onions are wilted and start to brown, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the casserole in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.

Remove the casserole from the oven and sprinkle the onion mixture with flour, stirring to coat onion pieces evenly. Add the water and wine and cook over high heat, scraping around the bottom and sides to dissolve the browned particles. Add the bay leaf and thyme and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, put the bread slices on a baking sheet and bake until brown and crisp.

Increase oven heat to 450 degrees.

Fill 6 individual ovenproof soup tureens, or one large tureen, with the soup. If individual tureens are used, place 2 slices of toast atop the soup. If a large tureen is used, cover with toast, overlapping. Sprinkle the toast with the Gruyere, then the Parmesan. Place the tureens on a baking dish such as a jelly roll pan to catch any drippings. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the soup is piping hot, bubbling and brown on top.

Yield: 6 servings.

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