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Friday, August 26, 2016

The Bard on Board

From the Concert Vault Dept.: I’m listening to some recent releases by Jordi Savall and will write about them in this space in the coming days; meantime, here’s a revisit to a Tanglewood concert of his I wrote about in 2009, which featured the excellent assistance of F. Murray Abraham.

                                                                               
        

ASIDE FROM THE MUSIC OF THE WORDS THEMSELVES, Shakespeare’s plays were bathed in a context of music – songs within the scripts, music summoned by various scenes, and a general sense that there were tunes being suggested even when not specifically mentioned.

F. Murray Abraham with Le Concert des Nations
Photo by Hilary Scott
And there’s been a huge industry during and since Shakespeare’s time of providing song settings, instrumental underscoring, overtures, ballets, operas, and more. Robert Johnson is the only composer known to have set songs in the first productions of Shakespeare’s plays, although his instrumental pieces aren’t as easy to place. It is reckoned that he contributed to “The Winter’s Tale,” so last week’s Tanglewood concert by Jordi Savall and his period-instruments group Le Concert des Nations commenced with lines from that play.

Thanks to F. Murray Abraham’s conversational but rhythmic approach to the texts, we also were treated to the musical nature of Shakespeare’s words.

This was no random pairing of actor and ensemble; Abraham and Savall joined forces late last year to present words and music from and inspired by “Don Quixote.” Uniting again for Shakespeare was therefore a natural extension.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nightmare on Main Street

From the Seller’s Cellar Dept.: Pennsylvania approved the sale of wine in grocery stores two months ago, prompting some talk of New York looking again at doing the same. It hasn’t been on Gov. Cuomo’s agenda, and the disadvantages of such a policy haven’t changed since I penned this piece in 2009.

                                                                       
                      

AMONG THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF BUDGET’S many breathless proposals to save, grab or re-claim money, the one of most concern to this column is a proposal to allow wine sales in grocery stores. It’s pitched to accrue something like $150 million over the next three years ($105 million the first year; far less thereafter), most of it coming from the licensing fees the supermarkets would pay.

Whether all 19,000 grocery and convenience stores across the state actually would pony up is but one of many variables projected into this proposal. But the Business Council of NY State has eagerly signed off on the issue, promising that it “will create new markets for upstate and Long Island wineries and convenience for consumers,” according to council president Kenneth Adams. “In addition, the proposal will generate new revenue for the cash-strapped state.” It’s a point of view no doubt shared by two of council’s board members with a large stake in the issue: Paul S. Speranza, Jr., General Counsel and Secretary to Wegmans, and Neil Golub, CEO of Price Chopper.

A fascinatingly patriotic drumbeat sounds under the pro-grocery-store rhetoric, suggesting that New York’s wineries will find a wonderland of new sales outlets in these supermarkets – and that New York’s customers will leave those supermarkets with piles of the state’s product in their carts.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Online Authenticity

From the Vault Dept.: Let’s go back thirty years to visit a piece I wrote about an issue that hasn’t changed much in the interim, except for phrases like “fire up your modem.”

                                                                             
             

ACTIVATE YOUR COMPUTER, fire up the modem, log in. Suddenly you’re wandering the labyrinthine halls of the Internet where info is cheap and people are plentiful.

How much of it’s for real?

Listen to the mainstream media and you’d think that the Internet is the world’s finest encyclopedia writ large across many nations. Key in a web page address and text screens unfold in a hypertext cornucopia. Can you count on its authenticity?

And who was responsible for posting it? The Internet also provides one of the finest smokescreens for those who like to keep identities secret. Do you really have a college prof at the other end, or is it a precocious 14-year-old?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Living for Art

A DAY AT BARD COLLEGE’S SUMMERSCAPE FESTIVAL is a journey through a well-planned series of events. For example, the program on Sunday, August 7, began with a panel addressing the topic of music and Italian identity, seeking to establish Puccini’s place in the country’s cultural history. The day’s second event gave us a mix of vocal excerpts from Puccini and his contemporaries to illuminate the search for Verdi’s successor. And the long, extremely satisfying late-afternoon performance treated us to Puccini’s first opera alongside a work by Jules Massenet chosen to remind us of the strength of his influence.

Giacomo Puccini
The scholarship behind the two August weekends that comprise the festival is profound, but the academic portions usually aren’t too academic. And the artistry on hand is superb. “Puccini and His World” was the theme this year and, as is customary, the programming included the composer’s predecessors, contemporaries, and successors – without neglecting his own works, particularly some lesser-performed ones.

Thus, a concert version of Puccini’s “Le Villi” gave us a look at the composer’s first thoughts about crafting an opera. Although the mantle of Verdi was formidable, we knew, thanks to the earlier events, that Puccini was heavily influenced by composers in Germany and especially in France. He crafted a one-act opera that he soon expanded into two (but it still runs barely over an hour) with an instrumental intermezzo.

Puccini knew “Le Villi” as a French story, although Heine had hold of it earlier. It’s a dance-based tale, and also forms the basis for Adolphe Adam’s ballet “Giselle.” Thus the opening featured a dance that would be mirrored by the gruesome finish. The principals – soprano Talise Travigne as Anna, tenor Sean Panikkar as her fiancĂ©, Roberto – weren’t called upon for too much terpsichorean prowess, which is just as well: they performed in the small proscenium space between conductor and stage edge, and movement had to be stylized and kept to a minimum.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Schmeckt Gut!

From the Restaurant Vault Dept.: Jim and Ute Mehalick opened the Hofbrauhaus in Lake George in 1980, and ran it there for a decade; they relocated to Queensbury to operate The Grill at the Ramada, which, after a decade, they renamed The Old Hofbrauhaus, which they ran until a few years ago (the internet trail is a little vague). My 1987 visit to their Lake George location captures a lost moment in time both for the eatery and the village.

                                                                                          

HEADING UP PEACEFUL ROUTE 9 to Lake George Village puts you smack in the middle of an area that rivals Wildwood Beach and much of the Los Angeles area for tackiness in architecture. Although I'm particularly fond of oversized plaster lumberjacks with an arm raised in stiff greeting to traffic, I can do without the various houses of horror and souvenirs (the two go together; they're indistinguishable).

So it was with some surprise that we found a particularly pleasant German restaurant nestled amongst all the garishness.

The Hofbrauhaus does share the architectural weirdness of the strip, with its low-slung roof and large, sloping front windows; inside are the large dining rooms, salad bar, and an enclosed porch. It looks more like a bowling alley than a restaurant, but that's typical of this part of Route 9.

Inside, very early one recent Sunday evening, all was stille. The staff was finishing dinner, but we were quickly seated by one of the large windows that looks out upon the street.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Singing Suspicion

“I AM PROUD OF THE FACT that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.” – Pete Seeger, testifying before House Un-American Activities Committee chairman Francis E. Walter in 1955.

Brian Mulligan and Jamie Barton
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The witch-hunters in Congress recognized the subversive potential of song – and entertainment in general – and Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” paralleled that fanaticism with the witch trials of 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. The show opened – to tepid response – even as the HUAC hearings gathered more steam. By the time Robert Ward’s operatic version of “The Crucible” won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize in music, Miller had been called in to testify and Seeger still was unable to find mainstream jobs or make TV appearances.

The Glimmerglass Festival proves its mettle by presenting an opera like “The Crucible.” It is a stirring reminder that American opera had found a compelling voice by the middle of the last century, it’s a story that remains unfortunately timely, and it features a knockout cast in a superior staging.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Getting Married Today

From the Vault Dept.: Summer is when the Capital Region grows opera-rich, but that’s comparatively speaking. Twenty-six years ago it was far richer, enough so that I could catch two Marriages of Figaro in the space of two months. Here are the reviews I wrote when the NY City Opera (now struggling back from the dead) and the Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga) both took a shot at it.

                                                                                   

WATCHING THE NEW YORK CITY OPERA’S production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” you know you're in the presence of a classic.

The second of the short season's two offerings, “Figaro” was sung Thursday night in the amphitheater at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center by (as you’d expect from City Opera) a young, very talented cast. Where it worked, it worked splendidly.

Revolution was in the air when Beaumarchais wrote “The Marriage of Figaro,” his immensely successful sequel to “The Barber of Seville.” The Americans had been fought a successful war against the English, and the French soon would overthrow and execute their monarch.

Despite many skirmishes with censors and king, “Figaro” was a sensation when it hit the stage of the Comedie Francaise in 1784. Two years later it was set to music by Mozart, in which version it endures.

Although Beaumarchais was himself operatically-minded (he went on to collaborate with Salieri), he was a master at weaving the most un-dramatic device of satire into a dramatically successful form.

Mozart’s genius lay both in his skill at rendering characters in music and in preserving the theatricality of the piece. Although music alone could carry it through something as stripped-down as a “staged reading” version, there’s so much good stuff for an actor to do that it begs to be fully produced.