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Friday, August 07, 2020

Devilish Reaping

From the Vault Dept.: Advances aren’t nearly as interesting as reviews, but this piece looks at a theater piece with dance that presented a fascinating meditation on the Shaker heritage, which is part of the Albany area’s history. I saw the performance that the piece below tried to persuade you to attend, and I recall a small house with an embarrassingly inattentive audience – but there’s no review in my files. We shall content ourselves with this.


SHAKER LEADER ANN LEE, who emigrated from England in 1774 with eight followers, was known to her flock as “Mother Ann,” an ironic designation when you consider that she never cared for sexual activity and had children only as the result of a forced marriage – four stillbirths and four kids who lived to be no older than six.

Production photo by Rob Strong
Her community, based in New England and, locally, not far from Albany, took its name from the vigorous shaking that members performed in the throes of spiritual ecstasy, which was as close as they (officially, at least) came to getting laid. This tension between carnal asceticism and the sexual imperative is at the heart of “Angel Reapers,” a theater piece with dance written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and renowned choreographer (and Piloblus founder and MacArthur Foundation award-winner) Martha Clarke. It plays a single performance at Proctors Theatre at 8 PM tomorrow (Friday).

“Alfred approached me about the project in 2005,” says Clarke, speaking by telephone from her home in Connecticut. “He said he’d become obsessed by the Shakers. I looked at him as if he were somewhat cracked. But I have so much admiration for his work that I agreed to do it.” The piece had its first workshop at Lincoln Center not long afterward, “but it was in a very different form, more of a traditional play then. Now there’s much more dance, and I think of it as a tone poem on the Shakers.”

Monday, August 03, 2020

Olde Bryan’s Bill of Fare

From the Food Vault Dept.: The Olde Bryan Inn in Saratoga Springs has a venerable history, which includes two review visits that I paid during the course of my Metroland tenure. Here they are, beginning with my first visit, early on in my restaurant-reviewing career, in 1986, and a follow-up eight years later.


LEGEND HAS IT THAT AMERICAN INDIANS, several centuries ago, discovered the healing properties of the strong waters at High Rock Spring, now the site of Saratoga’s Olde Bryan Inn. It was here that Sir William Johnson was carried in 1771 after being stricken, and his remarkable recovery brought notoriety to the place.

The strong waters are of a different variety today as the Olde Bryan continues to flourish as a tavern in a building more than 200 years old. You may, in fact, sample the strong waters inside or out: summertime finds a small outdoor bar area in full swing.

And the restaurant features a menu that should satisfy the gustatory needs of any situation, before or after concert or track.

Our party congregated at an outdoor table while waiting for a table within. The restaurant takes no reservations, so there may be a wait when it’s busy. But it is a large-capacity house, laid out and lighted for an atmosphere of intimacy.

The main dining room’s pre-revolutionary look is accented by stone walls, rough-hewn beams, and a shallow fireplace at one end. On the walls hang antique cookingware along with period paintings; red-globed fixtures shroud the lights.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Fontaine Fables Foibles

From the Musical Vault Dept.: Monday’s post recalled a warm Saturday night when I enjoyed a program at Robert Conant’s Greenfield Center (NY) studio of music for lute and theorbo. I was back the following day to review another concert there: this one.


REMEMBER THAT SCENE in the movie “The Third Man” when Joseph Cotten is watching a play in Vienna, in German, unable to understand a word and looking surprised when the rest of the audience laughs?

Jean de la Fontaine
It could have been like that at the Festival of Baroque Music concert in Greenfield Center Sunday afternoon, when the French Art Theatre presented selections from the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, performed in costume and in French, a language fairly mysterious to me. But it wasn’t.

These three actors were terrific and, with a little help from English-language synopses provided in the program, the meanings were nicely transparent.

It’s an unusual kind of presentation to find on a program of Baroque music but this eclecticism characterizes the work of Robert Conant’s enduring festival.

James Lewis has a dignified but expressive James Mason kind of face that looked just right beneath his long, curly wig. As he began the tale of “The Wolf and the Lamb,” Ellen de la Torre seated herself by an imaginary stream and became, with wide eyes and a moue, the woolly animal, while dark-bearded Julio de la Torre assumed the guise of the predator, in a delightful fable that illustrates that might does, in fact, make right. A chomp on the neck proved it for us.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Baking before the Baroque

From the Music Vault Dept.: It was good and hot at the end of July 1986, and the temperature in a small studio out in the woods on a hot day can seem oppressive. But good music-making took the edge off, as recalled in my review of a long-ago event.


HOT, HUMID FRIDAY NIGHT wasn’t a good evening for lutes and theorbos (a lute is a gourd-shaped guitar, used through the baroque era. A theorbo is a long lute with many extra strings – sort of a cross between 12-string guitar and electric bass).

"The Attributes of Music" by Anne Vallayer-Coster

At Robert Conant’s Festival of Baroque Music concert at his studio in Greenfield Center, it seemed as if there was as much tuning as there was playing and singing. There wasn’t, of course, and to sit through the tuning was a small price to pay for the splendid music making.

You’re smack In the middle of the woods out there, off Wilton Road, in a specially designed studio that seats no more than a hundred. So there is intimacy and a close association with Nature, two important characteristics of the music of three centuries ago. With the bonus of no royalty hanging around (early-music composers found their best support in the palaces) to steal all the attention.

The Ensemble Chanterelle made its fourth appearance with the festival in a program of songs and instrumental music from 17th-century Italy, France. and England. The trio comprises soprano Sally Sanford, Catherine Liddell on theorbo, and Kevin Mason alternating on theorbo and lute.

Friday, July 24, 2020


Guest Blogger Dept.: One of the best-selling novels a century was Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, a collection of stories in the popular genre of Peck’s Bad Boy that was partly inspired by the behavior of his own nephews – and which inspired two sequel books (and one orphaned short story). Here’s a chapter celebrating a boy’s twelfth birthday, very much of its time and yet timeless in many ways.


THIS BUSY GLOBE which spawns us is as incapable of flattery and as intent upon its own affair, whatever that is, as a gyroscope; it keeps steadily whirling along its lawful track, and, thus far seeming to hold a right of way, spins doggedly on, with no perceptible diminution of speed to mark the most gigantic human events—it did not pause to pant and recuperate even when what seemed to Penrod its principal purpose was accomplished, and an enormous shadow, vanishing westward over its surface, marked the dawn of his twelfth birthday.

To be twelve is an attainment worth the struggle. A boy, just twelve, is like a Frenchman just elected to the Academy.

Distinction and honour wait upon him. Younger boys show deference to a person of twelve: his experience is guaranteed, his judgment, therefore, mellow; consequently, his influence is profound. Eleven is not quite satisfactory: it is only an approach. Eleven has the disadvantage of six, of nineteen, of forty-four, and of sixty-nine. But, like twelve, seven is an honourable age, and the ambition to attain it is laudable. People look forward to being seven. Similarly, twenty is worthy, and so, arbitrarily, is twenty-one; forty-five has great solidity; seventy is most commendable and each year thereafter an increasing honour. Thirteen is embarrassed by the beginnings of a new colthood; the child becomes a youth. But twelve is the very top of boyhood.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Winter Jazz Journey

THERE’S A SCHUBERT SONG known as Ständchen (D. 957 No. 4) that Liszt transcribed for solo piano; a simpler transcription became a very popular parlor-piano piece back when the music-category lines were far more blurred. So it’s no surprise that it was also picked up by pop-music groups: It became “Shivaree” in a 1920 recording by the Six Brown Brothers, a saxophone sextet, and (as “Serenade”) in 1939 by the John Kirby Sextet. Which is only to note that Schubert is among the many classical composers whose music has made its way into jazz.

Madre Vaca’s “Winterreise” may be the most audacious such journey yet. This Florida-based jazz ensemble has recorded ten of Schubert’s 24 heartbreaking songs in arrangements by drummer Benjamin Shorstein that prove that, with a little bold inventiveness, these songs can flourish in any setting. And the selections certainly hit the melodic and mournful highlights of the cycle.

Here’s the lineup, recorded at the end of May 2019 at Shorstein’s Jacksonville home: Juan Rollan, saxophone; Steve Strawley, trumpet; Lance Reed, trombone; Jonah Pierre, piano; Jarrett Carter, guitar; Mike Perez, bass; Milan Algood, percussion; and Shorstein on drums.

The cycle here begins and ends as Schubert’s does, so we start off with “Good Night,” depicting a lonely man’s weary trek through the snow as he abandons a vigil of his beloved’s house. Pianist Pierre takes the first solo, establishing that this is jazzland, not Vienna. Trumpeter Strawley then gives a little bit of New Orleans before saxist Rollan smooths things a little. Behind them, Carter adds the vintage sound of banjo strumming. It’s a collective sound created specifically for this song, which is also the opening one of the Schubert cycle.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Badge of Honor

RON CHERNOW'S MIGHTY BIOGRAPHY of Alexander Hamilton stares at me, unread, from a nearby bookshelf. I’m also unfamiliar with the massively popular Broadway musical. What I know of our colonial statesman was gleaned in history classes, and suggested that Aaron Burr was a far more interesting character.

Two things are quickly apparent about Jack Casey’s new novel Hamilton’s Choice: It’s challenging to draw a compelling portrait of a textbook hero when that hero is up against so fascinatingly dissolute a character as Burr – and Burr comes off sounding an awful lot like Donald Trump.

I don’t know how long Jack Casey spent working on this book, and I’m suspecting that the Burr-Trump connection wasn’t deliberately intended. We’re simply dealing with two narcissistic sociopaths. As to the first point, Casey succeeds admirably in giving us a flesh-and-blood Hamilton by using the tools available to the novelist. It’s very evident that the book was scrupulously researched; in addition, we’re given scenes and dialogue invented around those kernels of history.

That’s what brings the novel to life. We’re inside the heads of these dynamic characters. Burr, of course, is shooting sparks all the time as we follow his inner rage into the tragic climax of the story. Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth (née Schuyler), comes to life through the dialogue and inner monologues. And it’s especially helpful for Hamilton himself, who can come off as too much of a goody-good without the credible speculation of his thoughts and ambitions.