February 09, 1976 12:00 PM

“You may notice the faint odor of sesame about me,” grinned the curly-haired virtuoso violinist, Sergiu Luca, as he disembarked from his New York flight at the Portland, Ore., airport. “But,” he explained, “there were some sauces I wasn’t sure I could obtain here. So I brought the jars wrapped in my underwear.”

Luca, 32, was back in Portland to reward patrons of the city’s Chamber Music Northwest with a lavish Chinese meal which he would cook himself. In five years Luca and an immensely supportive citizenry have built the chamber music festival into the biggest on the West Coast. In downtown Portland, they would collaborate on a $100-a-plate, 10-course Mandarin banquet. “Chinese is by far the most varied cuisine,” Luca enthused, as he headed for the Rice Bowl, a recently opened Chinese restaurant. “If I had to eat just one kind of food for the rest of my life, it would be Chinese.”

For two hectic days Luca took over the restaurant kitchen and proved as adept at wielding a wok as stroking a fiddle. (As a chef, he is largely self-taught.) Wearing an apron that read “Flavor of the Week: Orange Schubert” (“Put Your Brahms Around Me” and “Get a Load Off Your Bach” are highly prized T-shirts at the festival), Luca discoursed on the culinary challenge. “This meal is the kind presented in Peking when Mr. Kissinger visits,” he explained. “Mandarin cuisine is essentially an assemblage of the best dishes from all over China. Most people think of Chinese food as bland: it’s not true. It can range from the fiery hot to the perfectly spiced to the bland.”

“This meal is in three parts,” rhapsodized Luca, “just like a violin concerto. The first movement will be chicken wings, my own invention, with sherry. The guests will sit down and have hot-and-sour soup and chicken breasts hand-torn into tiny pieces with a sauce. Then the big guns enter in the middle movement: Peking crab which is red, broccoli which is green, and dark brown duck—a balance between fowl, the sea and greens. Next, to clear the palate, a winter melon soup, trailing off with two simpler dishes, Sa-Cha beef and Moo-Shu pork. Then at the end, lychees on a mound of orange sherbet.”

Luca’s own background is a bit of a chop suey. Born in Bucharest of a family of accountants (even his mother) which emigrated to Israel, he started playing the violin at 4, tutored by a gypsy. As a student in Switzerland, Luca pestered Isaac Stern for an audition. Stern then helped bring Luca to the U.S., where he got a full scholarship to the Curtis Institute and made his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1965. Since then he has captivated audiences by his technical mastery combined with offbeat programming and easy onstage charm. Favoring turtlenecks and velvet jackets, Luca often chats informally with audiences about the music he is going to play. A banquet is one of his favorite gimmicks to attract support for the Portland festival. “I consider no level too low to stoop,” he says, “to get people into a concert hall.”

His long-range project is to make Portland a chamber music mecca, including an academy “which would be the first of its kind.” The festival this summer will be six weeks in length with 18 different concerts. Luca intends to keep Portland’s music lovers eating out of his hand. If the Mandarin banquet was any test, he will succeed. “I ate so much I will have to be lifted out of bed in the morning,” groaned Portland’s mayor, Neil Goldschmidt. With a wink, Luca allowed that if the guests would ante up $500 each next year, he would consider dropping three dishes from the menu. But for the moment he admitted to a slight post-performance letdown. “I think,” he said reflectively, “I won’t cook for several weeks now.”

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