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Monday, May 22, 2017

The Happiest Corpse

WHEN “CABARET” OPENED ON BROADWAY a half-century ago, it was the edgy exception to a lineup of musicals that included “Mame,” “Sweet Charity,” the sentimental two-hander “I Do! I Do!” and “Cabaret” director Harold Prince’s previous, unsuccessful production of “It’s a Bird ... It’s a Plane ... It’s Superman.”

Although we’re now farther time-removed from 1966's “Cabaret” than it was from its setting in 1930 Berlin, the show’s message remains as relevant as ever. And it has struck a chord with audiences through the years: Its original run lasted nearly 1200 performances; the 1998 Broadway revival had almost twice as many shows.

The production that visited Proctors in Schenectady last week is based on the 2014 revival of the 1998 version, itself an import from a 1993 London revival by Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Violin Variations

THE LAST PIECE I’D EXPECT TO SEE first on the program is Beethoven’s first violin sonata. In fact, I’m surprised to see this runt of litter anywhere, overshadowed as it is by the composer’s later works for the same instrumentation. It’s an example of Beethoven’s Mozartean roots, but it’s still Beethoven, and Anne Akiko Meyers mined it for its surprise and intensity.

Anne Akiko Meyers
Which was a harbinger of her approach to the works that followed. Her fascinating programming array otherwise was rooted in the 20th and 21st centuries, including pieces written at her behest.

Beethoven’s first sonata emerged from a tradition of letting the piano grudgingly share some of its sound world with the violin, although by the time he got hold of the form the partnership was gaining equality. The opening phrase features arpeggios that sound at home on both instruments, but the first movement’s exposition culminates in a chord-rich call-and-response that asserts the violin’s own identity – the more so because Meyers gave it no unwonted sentiment, even roughening the edges of the notes at times.

This was an effective contrast – and Beethoven’s music is all about contrast – with pianist Akira Eguchi’s role as a nimble virtuoso almost daring his music partner to keep up with his fleet-fingered fun.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Perreca’s: More and More

From the Food Vault Dept.: I profiled Perreca’s bakery in a 1987 issue of Capital Region magazine, at which point I’d already been convinced that they made the finest Italian loaves to be had anywhere. This opinion hasn’t changed. I was delighted to see a restaurant appear as a bakery offshoot, and reviewed it in a 2010 issue of Metroland. But one of the hazards of the one-unannounced-visit approach is that you can catch a place at a bad moment that doesn’t reflect its true nature. I tried to draw attention to a problem without being overly negative, because I found plenty to enjoy about the place. But read to the end for more.

                                                                            
                     

A POSTER ON THE WALL of More Perreca’s reproduces an article about Jack Nicholson’s discovery of Perreca’s bread while he was in Albany filming “Ironweed,” and the lengths to which he’d go to keep supplied. What never got chronicled (so you’re reading it here first) is that his onetime co-star Kathleen Turner also became a big fan of the stuff.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This was when a longtime friend of mine named Christine worked as a personal assistant for Turner, and took a couple of Perreca’s loaves back to Manhattan after a visit here. From then on, as long as Christine was in her employ, she was under orders to do the same after every such excursion. I even recall a time when I put a couple of loaves on a bus to the Port Authority Terminal, where Christine retrieved them.

Perreca’s bakery has been operating for nearly a century, turning out one thing only: bread. Dense, crusty loaves of Italian bread that have defined the way this bread should break and taste. The small North Jay St. shop offers a small selection of deli-type goods, including pizza slices, and the recently added cupcakes also have been a success. So it stood to reason that, as Schenectady’s Little Italy takes shape, they should add a restaurant.

But that’s almost too intimidating a word for what’s there. It’s like an outdoor café brought inside, airy and casual and with an engagingly retro feel – and there are a couple of sidewalk tables, too.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tales of Schumann

ROBERT SCHUMANN’S MENTAL VOLATILITY worked its way into the music he wrote not in a stormy Wagnerian way but as something that agitated in the heart of his romantic-era voice. His piano works erupt in storms of thick harmony, then lay back for the sparest of melodic sighs. His Fantasie in C, Op. 17, seems sometimes to boil with rage, even as that rage shimmers into exultation. Release yourself to the music and you’re buffeted along an emotional switchback that leaves you, as the final section eases to its end, drained and yet hopeful.

How extreme should those extremes be rendered? If pianist Mitsuko Uchida’s recent Schenectady performance is any guide, they can be contained within a context that never punishes the keyboard, and is all the more effective for that restraint. We’re asked to listen with 19th-century ears, and, once we surrender to that restraint, we enjoy an intensity of feeling rendered all the more intense by the claustrophobia of it.

Uchida performed as part of the Union College Concert Series, and she has reputation enough to inspire a long line of restive patrons to start forming an hour before the show, just filling the hall before it started.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Hops Do It

ONE OF THE STORAGE SHEDS on my Montgomery County farm property sports a side room finished with lath and plaster, which usually is only found in old houses. A savvy neighbor explained that it was a hops drying room, the legacy of an industry that once dominated this and several neighboring counties, and then died out with nary a trace.

Photo by Dietrich Gehring
Hops were probably an ingredient in Babylonian beer, and the Romans used them as a vegetable, in which guise they arrived in Britain. But the only edible portion is the young shoot, which requires so much effort to harvest that it counts among the priciest of nibbles. The earliest written reference to hops as a beer component dates from 1079.

Hops were shipped to New World settlers until 1640, when colonists began growing their own. New York’s first romance with hops began at the beginning of the 19th century, and by the time the Erie Canal opened, the crop was fetching $1,000 per ton. By 1855, three million tons were harvested; by the end of the century, 40,000 acres of hops were being grown in the state, with a harvest of 60 million tons, some of it grown on my property and dried in my barn.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Traveling with The Phoenicians

THE PHOENICIANS RESTAURANT opened in 2007 in an unassuming building on Albany’s Central Ave., not far from Fuller Road. Business has increased enough during the past decade that owner Robert Rahal dreamed of moving – and found a spot in a Fuller Road strip mall. “We opened there on Black Friday,” says Rahal, “November 25 of last year. But I’d been working for 725 days to get into this space. Working non-stop. Believe me, it’s been a project of love.”

Robert Rahal and Joe Marino
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
He has traded 800 square feet for a space well over ten times larger. If you visited during its Deli Warehouse days, you won’t recognize it: it’s been transformed into an array of differently functioning spaces. There’s a bar to your left as you enter; before you are few tables in a casual dining area. The formal dining room is to the right, and it’s flanked by a private dining room and a hookah lounge with couches and pillows. “I’ve been doing a lot of the work myself,” Rahal explains, “to make sure I get the place the way I want it to be.” 

But there’s even more. A deli section is being developed, and a banquet hall will be opened later in the year. There’s also a space near the front of the building that brings it full-circle, in a way: This is his jewelry store, which is the business with which he first greeted Albany. Robert’s Fine Jewelry also had a Central Avenue storefront; now they will be combined.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Out in the Cold

A YOUNG MAN, spurned by his beloved, sets off on foot across a chilly winter landscape, exploring a range of volatile emotions as he surveys the countryside. Dogs bark at him as he halts by them; a cemetery casts an inviting spell. These are elements of Wilhelm Müller’s “Die Winterreise,” a cycle of poems set to music by Franz Schubert in 1828.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Tenor Ian Bostridge, a frequent “Winterreise” performer, combined personal impressions of the work with an insightful historical and philosophical overview in his book Schubert’s Winter Journey, wherein he notes that it’s “Odd ... perhaps, that we always give the cycle in a warm hall, that we never feel the cold or live in the silence of the snowy landscape. How often do the audience really imagine it? Should it be part of the recipe?”

We got the answers on Saturday, Feb. 11, when baritone Christopher Herbert gave a brilliant performance of “Winterreise” in Saratoga’s Spa State Park – outdoors, in the snow, clad in duffel coat, boots, and watch cap.