Suzie Q – Mason City, Iowa

When I entered the Suzie Q Cafe I wasn’t expecting to make friends with two construction workers and witness magic tricks. In the corner of a parking lot on 2nd street is one of the oldest establishments in Mason City and the smallest restaurant I’ve ever seen. I was skeptical approaching the diner. Lets just say it doesn’t scream “fine dining.” It sits between a rusting lamp post out front and a beaten down red pick up truck parked behind. The restaurant is also the shape and size of a trailer. Not the typical dining décor my spoiled Los Angeles taste buds are accustomed to.

Outside, three picnic tables offer customers a splintery solace from the Midwestern sun. The outside of the trailer diner is covered in vertical red white and black stripes. I contemplated how this establishment holds up during a harsh, snowy Iowa winter. I entered the Suzie-Q and became overwhelmed in the best possible way with the scent of burger grease.

The ceiling was just a few feet from my head. The only seating consists of about ten red and white stools in an “L” shape configured around the counter, forcing the customers to get friendly with each other. I sat next to two construction workers in their full neon yellow gear who were enjoying lunch at the diner. Their wrenches and hammers peeked out of their tool belts as they jeered at me asking what the hell a 21-year old California college girl was doing in Mason City Iowa, population 27,000. I gave them my tired response, “I’m visiting my family.”

I turned my attention toward the deep fryer and grill, where Troy Levenhagen, the owner and main cook of the restaurant was wearing an apron splattered with grease. He took my order for the famous Suzie-Q “Spic and Span Tenderloin” sandwich and a Diet Coke, or “pop” as its called in the Midwest.

The restaurant has a nostalgic nature. Their first dollar bill is framed up on the wall next to a black and white photograph of the restaurant when it opened in 1948. Inside, it still feels like 1948 with cluttered menus on the walls and a cherry red analogue clock on the counter beside a soda fountain. The walls of this miniscule diner are decorated with cluttered menus and a license plate that reads, “SUZIE Q.” I watched the tenderloin sizzle in the deep fryer just a few feet away from me.

The sandwich was served on crispy toasted sourdough and perfected with mustard. The saltiness of the thin fries complimented the peppery tang of the tenderloin and combined with the pop, made a Midwestern trifecta.

I thought I could be left alone with my sandwich. That was until Mr. Levenhagen started to entertain me with magic card tricks. When he is not serving up award winning sandwiches at the Suzie Q,  Levenhagen doubles as “Levi the Great.” He made an egg appear from behind his ear and a penny vanish from his hand. As I got ready to leave, Levenhagen approached a particularly scruffy customer counting change and said, “It’s okay, why don’t you just help me with the dishes today.”

Levenhagen restores that Midwestern hospitality, comfort and entertainment at the Suzie Q.

The outside of the Suzie Q

Levenhagen mid magic trick

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Tesserae’s celebration of Giovanni Gabrieli, Beverly Hills, CA.

2012 marks the 400th anniversary of late Renaissance Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli’s death. He was celebrated by early music group Tesserae and a sold out audience on February 12, 2012 at All Saints Episcopal hurch in Beverly Hills, CA.

Gabrieli was a Venetian composer of the late Renaissance period. He is known for creating a polychoral structure within his music, meaning that groups of performers were positioned spatially around a performing space to sing, play and respond to each other’s sound. Gabrieli, when composing his music, pieced together choirs of voices as well as brass, woodwind and string instruments to create a sound that was intended to showcase the acoustics of a church. Gabrieli worked in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, and much of his repertoire was written for that space. Tesserae’s choice of All Saints in Beverley Hills was a successful one, although the commercialized nature of Rodeo Drive in 2012 served as quite a contrast to the cobblestone streets of Venice Italy during the late Renaissance.

Regardless of the difference in locale, the same high caliber of music was played by passionate musicians who have taken an interest in and perfected the art of this obscure genre of early music.

Tesserae is an early music group based out of Los Angeles that formed in 2010. They are devoted to small and large scale works of the early 17th century. During this particular arrangement, the ensemble leaned toward the large scale, seeing that they chose some of Gabrieli’s more influential instrumental and vocal pieces. There were 27 musicians, some of whom came from overseas to participate in this ancient musical celebration. International guest artists and early brass specialists from the U.S. also joined Tesserae and its chorus. It was a rare opportunity to hear some of these beautiful big works performed by such specialized, high quality performers who have dedicated their professional careers to early music.

The concert consisted of a mix of canzonas – all instrumental compositions written for a varying number of players (in this case up to 12 parts) – and motets of up to 14 parts. Motets are pieces involve the voice and lyrically contain biblical text. The most successful canzonas consisted of 3 choirs of 4 different instruments. My personal favorite was Gabrieli’s Sonata Con Tre Violini. During the early 17th century, cornetts and violins were commonly substituted for each other. Although this sonata was written for three violins, three cornetts played the piece. The leather covered, black curved cornett (a hybrid of brass and woodwind) has been described as the instrument that most resembles the human voice. It can also be brassy, mellow, and flute-like. Sonata Con Tre Violini could have been an audible personification of the long hair being braided on a Renaissance maiden, the three parts weaving in and around the others. The melodies were shared equally by these three cornettes as the instruments took turns relishing in the spotlight.

I must also mention that one of these cornette players was my father, Stephen Escher. He is a professional musician who specializes in Renaissance woodwind and brass instruments, hence his mastering of the cornette.

Observing this celebration of Gabrieli was like going to a Renaissance museum. The concert could also be seen as a demonstration or showcasing of Renaissance instruments such as the cornetto, sackbut, organs and the long necked theorbo; modern copies of existing historical instruments that are so rarely recognized. This was a beautiful and historically informed performance at its finest.