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Monday, April 16, 2018

The Innocent Ear

MY DAUGHTER MADE HER RADIO DEBUT IN MANCHESTER not long ago, and how this came about is worth the telling. We begin in 1972.

I was a high-school junior, freshly enamored of theater having made my stage debut with roles in Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace.” This was in suburban Connecticut, so it was only natural that the Theater Arts students should be invited to spend a show-going week in London in February. A mere $300 bought airfare, hotel room, and tickets.

The first show we saw was a musical version of “The Canterbury Tales.” I didn’t like it very much. Next was “Never the Twain,” a quirky mash-up of works by Kipling and Brecht, which was far more appealing, but by then I realized that some of my favorite actors were performing on the West End, and I forsook the rest of the scheduled offerings in favor of such fare – beginning with Alec Guinness in John Mortimer’s “A Voyage Round My Father,” which I wrote about here in 2012.

Three years later, I received this email message:
I was crawling around, looking up a show I was once in, when I came across yr blog, where you write about a trip to London in Feb 1972, and a theatre-binge you went on. Hah - I'd been in Canterbury Tales in 1970, which you thought crap, and was in Never the Twain, a Brecht-Kipling conflation you thought more interesting.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Artie Shaw: Again for the First Time

THERE ARE JAZZ BANDS AROUND THE WORLD TODAY dedicated to presenting the music of the Swing Era (and many another jazz era), but to tackle the Artie Shaw legacy requires an extraordinary amount of talent and fortitude. Shaw himself did it in 1968 and during the 1980s, with Walt Levinsky and then Dick Johnson taking over for him in the clarinet department; when James Langton decided to put together a band to play Shaw’s music, he wisely turned to clarinetist Dan Levinson to provide the needed virtuosity.

Levinson is as versatile a player as you’ll find on the jazz scene. Although he’s got a solid grounding in the world of swing, he can take you back to the earliest decades of jazz and make it sound as fresh as it must have seemed a century ago. He has collaborated with Langton on Benny Goodman tribute concerts, during which he sounds convincingly Goodman-esque, but going into Shaw territory requires a significantly different approach.

You can hear the result on “The Unheard Artie Shaw,” a disc recently issued on the Hep Records label, which has done a wonderful job of getting and keeping older jazz recordings in print – and they’ve done especially well by Shaw, issuing a number of his 1940s sides and airchecks.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Nightmare Music

AS NIGHTMARES GO, it wasn’t all that awful. But, having no recall of any other nightmares I may have encountered during the past couple of decades, it was significant in the amount that it frightened me. And it was remarkable in being a two-part horror, separated by a period of wakefulness.

Herbert von Karajan and Friends
I must have come out of part two with a shout, because my wife groggily asked what was wrong. “A nightmare,” I said while struggling to keep the details in mind so that I could enthrall her with my suffering. I never got the chance. “Aren’t those nightmares awful?” she mumbled, and went back to sleep.

You get to hear it instead.

I was staring at some sheet music. That’s the first thing I remember. It was a piece I didn’t know, a vocal work, and I understood that I’d been brought in to sing the bass part. That I could hear an orchestra tuning up nearby meant that something – rehearsal, I hoped – was imminent, but as I hadn’t worked on the music at all I was feeling incredibly nervous. I can’t sight-sing. I’m pretty good with a tune once it’s been inculcated, but to pluck it off the page seems to me like witchcraft.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Thai Score

From the Food Vault Dept.: I was delighted to discover this restaurant a decade ago, and am even more delighted that it endures, because I’m thus able to treat myself to a regular dose of khao soi, a dish like no other – and prepared here with a particular richness I haven’t found at the few other Thai restaurants I’ve visited that serve it.


IT’S NOT JUST THE EXCELLENT THAI FOOD that awaits. It’s the fact that you can order a $7 bowl of khao soi for lunch ($8 for dinner) and enjoy an amazingly fulfilling meal. It features chicken and two types of noodle along with other flavorful leaves and shoots, and it swims in a coconut-scented curry that livens the palate without causing incendiary damage.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
In short, this can be one of your more economical stops. You can also dine (as I often do) as if you’ve not eaten in weeks, and make your way from appetizer to miso soup to this entrée and that, guaranteeing that you’ll leave laden with take-home containers.

And this is happening in a most unprepossessing space in an unlikely part of Albany. Not far from the intersection of Central Ave. and Everett Rd. is a Home Depot. Enter the parking lot, but veer left. A small strip mall sits near the highway, and you’ll find, after a glance or two, the frills-free space that is Capital Thai.

How long has it been hiding here? Seven months, I was told during a recent visit. Three months, I was told a month ago. No matter. It’s here and, based on the dinner crowd that arrived during my own dinner last week, it’s being discovered.

Monday, April 02, 2018

How They Did Love

ALL ROMANCES ARE POSSIBLE; any enduring outcome is unlikely. We work hard to stay united. We’re given little in the way of helpful precedent. If communication is the most important tool (my experience says it is), then Terrence McNally’s 1987 off-Broadway hit “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is a two-hour master class in discovering our secret selves, delivered with discursive dialogue that’s whip-crack smart.

Rita Rehn and Steven Patterson
Photo by John Sowle
As a one-set two-hander, it’s a natural for a theater looking to economize without artistic compromise, but it requires a creative team that’s as smart as the script. The stellar production at Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre puts two fabulous actors on a set (designed by John Sowle) just stylized enough to alert us from the start to expect touches of fantasy.

We’re not merely observes of Frankie and Johnny. We’re voyeurs, eavesdropping darkly on their cries of carnal passion (conducted to the strains of a Goldberg Variation). When the lights come up, Johnny (Steven Patterson) is laughing, laughing too much, to the discomfort of bedmate Frankie (Rita Rehn). The reason? It’s a joke that sets the tone of the play, a joke that takes a conventional premise into a nicely surprising payoff.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Background to Ambler

HIS LITERARY CAREER began with a parody and soon reinvented the genre he’d mocked. But Eric Ambler first wanted to be a playwright, and had a few brushes with moderate success in 1930s London. He paid his bills writing advertising copy, and surprised himself – and his bosses – by writing copy persuasive enough inspire a run on an outmoded car headlamp that had been all but abandoned by its manufacturer. Could he turn the power of the written word into an espionage thriller?

Eric Ambler
It was a genre that included significant work by John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps) and W. Somerset Maugham (Ashenden) – both later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock – but it also was clogged by routine works of reliable cliché. “It was the villains who bothered me most,” wrote Ambler in his autobiography, Here Lies. “Power-crazed or coldly sane, I no longer believed a word of them.” As for the story’s hero, “all he really needed to function ... was abysmal stupidity combined with superhuman resourcefulness and unbreakable knuckle bones.”

The parody aspect of The Dark Frontier, with which Ambler entered the genre in 1936, has itself grown as creaky as that which it lampoons; fortunately, that aspect fades as the narrative gathers speed. What remains significant about the novel is its prediction of an atomic bomb as weapon, and a mise en scène that incorporates plausible (if not downright factual) aspects of European political history. This sense of history would characterize Ambler’s next few novels, beginning with Background to Danger (Uncommon Danger in the UK), published the following year.

Monday, March 26, 2018

From Stuttgart with Mozart

From the Classical Vault: It turns out that the my review below celebrated the first American visit from the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra with conductor Patrick Strub, part of a sixteen-city tour, which was followed by another such tour the following year. Strub is longtime artistic director of the Christophorus-Symphony-Orchestra Stuttgart, comprising students en route to professional careers, and he’s the founder and music director of Arcata Stuttgart, a chamber orchestra.


TROY – The toughest slot to fill when programming a concert is that first piece. It's the one that sets the standard for the rest of the show.

Patrick Strub
Classical groups have got this convenient store of goodies that are used repeatedly, almost all of it by Haydn or Mozart. Which should be an honor to those composers, but it often seems as if that opener is a throwaway piece the group warms up on.

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra performed at the Troy Music Hall Tuesday evening; sure enough, there was a Mozart Divertimento to kick things off.

Conductor Patrick Strub makes his American debut with the orchestra on this tour. He is a young man (40 is young in the classical world) who entered confidently and, with a little flourish, gave the downbeat to the 17-member ensemble of strings.

And they played that little Mozart piece with more joy and affection than I've ever heard in concert. It was perfect Mozart. Every phrase was a song without words.