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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.

Monday, February 13, 2017

All in the Family

A BEAUTIFULLY ACTED, cracklingly funny study of some of the indignities of dating had its world premiere at The REP last week, shrewdly melding two disparate demographics through a story that probably plays out in one form or another in many a family: the search for love after the death of a longtime partner.

Sol Katz (played with irascible cheerfulness by Barry Pearl) isn’t so busy mourning his just-deceased wife that he hasn’t time to ramp up a romance with bridge partner and longtime friend Edie (Cheryl Stern) – to the horror of his son David (Brian Sills), who deftly undermines the relationship.

Bob Morris, who has written often for the NY Times Sunday Styles section among many other publications, captured this autobiographical story in his memoir Assisted Loving; adapting it for the stage has given him the opportunity to broaden characterizations beyond the confines that memoir imposes, inviting us on a two-hour journey through some difficult and compelling character developments.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Happy Heifetz Birthday

THE FANTASTIC FOOLISHNESS of Groundhog Day has been worsened for me since my early teens, when I fell under the spell of violinist Jascha Heifetz and soon realized that my coevals didn’t know who he was and had little interest in sharing my enthusiasm – and chattered each February 2 about a rodent in Pennsylvania.

Heifetz was born in Vilna, Lithuania, on this date in 1901 (some say 1900), studied in St. Petersburg with the renowned Leopold Auer, from whose school enough famous violinists emerged to prompt George Gershwin (a Heifetz friend) to write a song in 1921 titled “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha,” a tribute to the renown of Elman, Heifetz, Seidel, and Jacobsen. Heifetz made his American debut in 1917, became a citizen of this country soon thereafter, and concertized and recorded into his early 70s, when he decided he couldn’t maintain his own high standards.

He shares a birthday with Fritz Kreisler, another extraordinary fiddler, but my household celebrates the Kreisler birthday on February 1. In lieu of cake, I offer a morceau by Mozart:

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Walled Off

Oh, No, Not Poetry! Dept.: One of the most unique theatrical/musical events I’ve ever been involved with takes place (as of this writing) quite soon, when Musicians of Ma’alwyck join forces with Nacre, a Saratoga Springs-based dance troupe, and Creative License, an Albany theatrical company, to present a program titled “Suite of Love” at 7:30 pm Sat., Feb. 11 at the Cohoes (NY) Music Hall and at 2 pm Sun., Feb. 12, at Schenectady County Community College. A dozen musical works ranging from Henry Purcell to Cole Porter will be performed by a trio of flute, violin, and guitar (my arrangement for them of “Night and Day” contains an obscure musical surprise) between scenes of narrative verse performed by a quartet of actors, myself among them. And there is an impressive variety of dance to the words and music and even moments of stillness. I also crafted the texts for this event, which look at a variety of the manifestations of love and its exciting offshoots, and offer below one of the more overtly political poems.

I EMIGRATE towards your heart
But you Ellis Island me with suspicion.
Do I look like you? I don’t.
Does it matter?

It matters to me, says your eye –
Which, as a child, saw beauty alone
But since has been carefully taught
That beauty resembles your twin.
No touch of the tarbrush,
No renegade blood.