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Friday, August 17, 2018

East Side Story

SASHA MARGOLIS IS A VERSATILE VIOLINIST, an accomplished actor, a witty novelist – but at heart he’s a tummler. He wants you to enjoy yourself, and he’s going to make you laugh along the way. His summer gig is playing violin in the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra. As he has done in previous summers, he gave the audience a single performance of a different kind of show. Margolis leads a klezmer band called Big Galute, a five-piece ensemble that spreads this unique style of music into the classical world and beyond.

Sasha Margolis, Mary Hangley,
Richard Sosinsky, and Robin Seletsky.
Photo by Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival
Their performance at the Glimmerglass Festival on Tuesday, August 14, followed a matinee of “West Side Story” and so, as is their tradition, they saluted the piece in their finale. But it wasn’t only Bernstein whose music was tweaked. Brahms entered the Gypsy realm with his set of Hungarian Dances, inspired, Margolis explained, by the composer’s evenings in a coffeehouse where such music was played – and at a time when the terms Hungarian and Gypsy were used interchangeably to describe music heavily influenced by Jewish tradition.

Thus we were treated to Brahms’s Dances Nos. 17, 11, and the superstar 5. It’s amazing how much a work’s character changes when you add an accordion oomph on the off-beats. With mandolin adding atmosphere to the slow intro, the piece soon took off with a clarinet lead and accompanying figures from the fiddle. The next dance had a theorbo in its rhythm section, the outsized instruments twangy sound giving a bluegrass feel. Brahms didn’t write clarinet glissando into the piece, but I’m sure he would have approved, especially when he had enough caffeine in his system. And 5 is 5, which means you have to equal or better every version of it that’s ever been featured in cartoon or commercial, and this they did.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Savory is Sweet

DUTCH SCHULTZ IS SUPPOSED TO HAVE buried his $5 million fortune in the Catskill woods; his delirious deathbed confession has sent countless treasure-hunters searching for the stuff and, as far as we know, to no avail. The rumor of a treasure-lode of historic jazz recordings was more credible: Bill Savory had played some of the many airchecks he accumulated to friends, and Benny Goodman even made a successful commercial release of some of the sessions in which he was featured. But Savory remained circumspect about the rest of the stuff. When he died, in 2004, the status – and extent – of his collection was unknown. Six years later, thanks to a campaign among jazz collectors, Savory’s son authorized the sale of the collection to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

The serpentine tale is recounted by several of its principals in the booklet accompanying the Mosaic Records release of The Savory Collection 1935-1940, but the recordings themselves tell an even more exciting story, The six-CD set begins with an astonishing Coleman Hawkins “Body and Soul” and finish with Lester Young, at his peak with Count Basie. In-between is a hodgepodge of treasures, recorded off-the-air by Savory at a time when you needed uncommon equipment – and very special know-how – to do so. Airchecks differ from studio recordings in significant ways. They’re one-time-only performances, not necessarily mistake-free. They’ve usually got an audience, which often adds a discernible level of excitement to the playing. Records were keepsakes; broadcasts let fans get familiar with their favorites.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Fable of How Uncle Brewster Was Too Shifty for the Tempter

Guest Blogger Dept.: George Ade was a best-selling author in his day, and his legacy persists among those who honor the encomia paid the Chicago-based writer by the likes of S.J. Perelman and Jean Shepherd – and Shepherd wrote a book about him! Any idea what a “Joe Miller” is? (It also shows up in a Cole Porter lyric, which inspired me to go to a damn library in those pre-internet days and look it up.)

                                                                             
        

WHEN UNCLE BREWSTER had put on his Annual Collar and combed his Beard and was about to start to the Depot, his Wife, Aunt Mehely, looked at him through her Specs and shook her Head doubtfully.

Drawing by Clyde J. Newman
Then she spoke as follows: “You go slow there in the City. You know your Failin’s. You’re just full of the Old Harry, and when you’re Het Up you’re just like as not to Raise Ned.”

“I guess I can take keer of myse’f about as well as the Next One,” retorted Uncle Brewster. “I’ve been to the Mill an’ got my Grist, if any one should ask. I ain’t no Greeny.”

With that he started for the Train, which was due in one Hour.

As he rode toward the Great City he smoked a Baby Mine Cigar, purchased of the Butcher, and told the Brakeman a few Joe Millers just to throw out the Impression that he was Fine and Fancy.

After he had Registered at the Hotel and Swelled Up properly when addressed as “Mister” by the Clerk, he wanted to know if there was a Lively Show in Town. The Clerk told him to follow the Street until he came to all the Electric Lights, and there he would find a Ballet. Uncle Brewster found the Place, and looked in through the Hole at an Assistant Treasurer, who was Pale and wore a Red Vest.

“I want a Chair near the Band,” said Uncle Brewster. “How much does one of ‘em Fetch?”

Monday, August 06, 2018

Pointing the Way

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Again, from the pile of magazines that recently turned up, a piece I wrote in 1994 about the variety of portable pointing devices then available. (I reviewed some of these devices in a similar piece that’s here.) Some of the info here actually isn’t outmoded, but it’s amusing to look that far back in time. I also found the unedited version of the piece, which tends to have cleverer wordplay than the magazine’s editors could tolerate. So that’s what’s below.

                                                                           
        

THE GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE was a relative latecomer to portable computers, but it’s here, it’s pretty, and it requires a pointing device. The portable alternatives to the desktop mouse are varied and creative, and sometimes even successful. But that depends upon how success is judged--there are plenty of competing criteria. As portables get smaller, real estate is more and more of a problem. And many hours of usability research have yet to come up with one perfect and perfectly comfortable solution.

With the exception of some truly oddball devices like the IsoPoint roller, which was the size of a chunk of soda straw positioned near the space bar, built-in pointing devices are either some form of trackball or an isometric device like IBM’s TrackPoint II and Zenith’s J-Mouse.

From the pea-sized model on Panasonic’s notebook series to the large, centered unit on the old Apple PowerBook, portable trackballs show the greatest variety in placement and design. Although pointing accuracy is enhanced by software interpretation of your physical manipulation, you still need something physical to manipulate. Which is why the size of the ball itself is so important. A rash of tiny trackballs infected a recent wave of notebook computers, causing a backlash of user complaints. Not only was the rolling surface too small, but it also picked up oil and grime from the fingers, attracting dust and clogging the internal mechanisms. All trackballs need regular cleaning, but these needed to be cleaned only after a couple of hours of comprehensive use.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Put Yourself Online

From the Computer Vault: Back before the Flood, computerists had to call one another to share files and such, and an enterprising techie with a good computer and plenty of disk space could run a what was called a bulletin board system (BBS). Some were free; some (especially the ones purveying porn) charged subscription fees. Needless to say, the World Wide Web wiped them all out, but not before I wrote this how-to piece for Computer Life magazine. Let’s go back to 1995.

                                                                                    

MY PHONE BILLS were getting way too high. “What are these calls to Florida and Oregon and Virginia all about?” my wife would ask. Because there is no alternative, I’d tell her. “Why do you have to call these BBSes all over the country?” she asked, adding reasonably, “Why can’t they call you?”

Thanks to a recent upgrade ripple in the house, I had enough pieces left over to put together a 386-based PC clone. Once a screamer, with an 80MB hard drive and 4MB of memory, it is now the last and least of my machines.

Perfect for a dedicated bulletin board system.

In my case, it’s intended to provoke lively conversation, with an emphasis on the writer’s craft. I’ve hosted writers’ conferences on other systems; this would be a chance to bring it home. And to save on those long-distance expenses.

Your reasons for setting up a BBS can be as varied as they are creative. If you’ve sampled any of the many to be found in every city all across the country (throughout the world, in fact, if your phone bill knows no fear), you’ve seen hobbies and interests of all sorts represented. Computer-based companies offer software and utilities on their BBSes; other businesses are now joining in, offering troubleshooting tips, product ordering facilities, and even a way for employees to stay in touch with each other and the central office.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Born of Disappointment

From the Food Vault: The expected life of a restaurant is, sadly, brief. Unless it’s a chain with endless advertising money behind it, able to drum its culinary marching orders into the skulls of the frightened masses, a restaurant has to succeed on merits that too much of the dining public fails to appreciate. Thus it is that both of the places mentioned below – MOD Gourmet Café and Retriever Rasters – have departed from Catskill. As my review suggests, it wasn’t my fault.

                                                                       
               

WE PERFORM AN ACT OF GREAT TRUST when we order from an unfamiliar restaurant. Much anticipation may lie behind it: a long stretch on the highway, a diversion for the family, a gathering of colleagues. Our palates are whetted by remembrances of meals past, our hopes sharpened by the menu’s promises.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
And then we’re served the driest, most flavorless omelette imaginable.

“It’s fair to say that our restaurant was born out of disappointment,” says Mary DiStefano, co-owner of MOD Gourmet Café on Catskill’s Main Street. “So often you sit down for food that you hope will be good – and it never is.”

She and partner Dana Wegener worked in a number of restaurants before opening their own place nearly three years ago, and MOD Gourmet Café excellently satisfies any reasonable breakfast and lunch expectations.

We’re not talking about old-school diner fare, however. Three-egg omelettes ($7) are crafted around spinach, feta and sun-dried tomatoes, or home fries, cheddar and hot sauce, or home-grown herbs and goat cheese, among other cheese-rich combos.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Brooklyn Rides Again

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Eight years ago, the avant-garde quartet Brooklyn Rider snuck into Schenectady to inflict its adventurous programming upon the unsuspecting not-quite crowd (as happened when a sibling ensemble, The Knights, played in Troy in 2012). Here’s my Brooklyn Rider review.

                                                                               
        

FOUR STRING PLAYERS with impressively diverse performance credentials founded Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that brought a brilliant program to Union College’s Memorial Chapel last Sunday and justified the adventurous bill of fare with playing that was more than equal to the music’s demands.

Brooklyn Rider
There’s been a tendency in the classical music world to sacrifice integrity to the supposed audience appeal of brainless pop-music stylings. There’s also a way to do it that enhances of the worlds thus straddled, and that’s where Brooklyn Rider lives. They’re a traditional string quartet. That said, they’re exploring sounds of that combination that go well beyond the Haydn-to-Bartok tradition.

Sunday’s program was anchored in Debussy’s appealing string quartet, written in 1893 but eagerly breaking from the sounds of Brahms and his Debussy’s own compatriot, Cesar Franck. Although it’s in the traditional four movements, the piece favors melodic invention over development, and has Franck-ian cyclical tendencies. It offers enough unique rhythmic and melodic nuggets to inspire a slew of tributes; thus the opening work, Colin Jacobsen’s “Achille’s Heel.”