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Monday, February 11, 2019

Old-Fashioned Love

LEGENDARY MEZZO-SOPRANO CATHY BERBERIAN developed a program in the early 1970s that presented a song recital as it might have been performed in 1909. She dressed accordingly and sang numbers ranging from “The Song of the Flea” to “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” It was recorded at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, so you can hear (if you can find the LP) the twinkle in her voice as she sails from one song to the next. It’s a wonderful conceit, but, without being too sardonically self-conscious, it’s as rooted in the 70s as it is in the aughts.

There are delightful chestnuts from the early 20th century, but they typically display an intensity of sentiment that we’ve long been too hip to indulge. Thus, when you do find performances of “On the Road to Mandalay” or “Trees,” the singer finds a way to telegraph this emotional detachment – usually through some manner of camp or other exaggeration.

This was not the case when John Charles Thomas sang these songs, or John McCormack, or Leonard Warren. And it was Warren’s work that inspired baritone Brian Mulligan not only to develop his own splendid operatic voice, but also to record a collection of 21 songs written between 1877 and 1939 – and to record them with nothing but the total conviction the material deserves.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Moscow on the Mohawk

From the Food Vault Dept.: I’ve been researching Russian cuisine for an upcoming dinner, which reminded me of a review visit I made in 1996 to an ambitious Russian entity. That it ceased to exist not long thereafter should come as no surprise. The mayor referenced below was trying to close down the city’s several strip joints at the time, a task that took much longer to accomplish, and even then I think the places simply died of boredom.


LATER, TRYING TO RECONSTRUCT THE EVENING, my wife and I had trouble ascertaining just what it was that pushed us into the realm of no-holds barred absurdity. The big birthday party, to be sure, and the Russian disco band. The mini-skirted, satin-bloused waitresses added an entertaining touch (and the worry that Schenectady’s fleshaphobic mayor might try to close down this place). Then there was the formidable menu, sporting such unusual items as “schti,” which our waitress wouldn’t describe because the kitchen was out of it, so why bother?

This photo has nothing to do with the article alongside.
Troika – the name refers to the team of three horses that pull a traditional Russian carriage – occupies a building that went through a few incarnations as an Indian restaurant, interrupted by a few years serving Korean food. To put a Russian restaurant there is a delightful idea. The location does seem to be a kiss of death, though.

So my first question would have been about that location. Unfortunately, my follow-up phone calls to manager Ella were unsuccessful – she was too busy with customers to talk one day, which is a good sign; but she couldn’t honor our phone appointment the next day, however, because “she’s having some trouble with the boss,” the phone-answerer whispered, explaining, “I’m just a friend who stopped by to visit today.”

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Torch Song

AS THE YOUNG WOMAN OBSERVES, it was Cousin Need, who “read all that Truman Capote all the time,” who told her about Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They are identified with spinning, measuring, and cutting, an activity we witness in the form of fuse-making. The fuses are awaiting future torchings by a professional arsonist, an unnamed but memorable character in the latest offering by New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre, proving once again that a small cast, a poetic script, and excellent acting can pack a thought-provoking plenty into a short stretch of time.

Sean Cullen and Jenny Jarnagin
Photo by Bryan Godwin
Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “The Arsonists” is getting its regional premiere here, directed by Denizen co-artistic director Ben Williamson. The experience begins as you move from the lobby into the black-box space along an overgrown, verdant pathway. And then we’re in the Florida swamp, where M, who otherwise is referred to as “Littles,” cowers in a cabin, her latest job an out-of-control failure that cost the life of her father, who taught her the business.

Triumphing in this difficult role is Jenny Jarnagin, who brings to it a sense of sorrow that’s imbued with determination to continue to struggle against everything that weighs her down – and, in this case, it’s just about everything: father, mother, identity, future. Jarnagin is a member of Manhattan’s Flea Theater, but she’s also a very committed activist who is creating theater to effect social change.

While there are no such axes to grind in “The Arsonists” (despite M’s facility with a hatchet), I would argue that any desire for social change begins within, and this show demands that you reassess yourself. If it’s going back to the Greeks to find thematic resonance, that’s only because these issues have a profoundly long-ranging provenance, and we can’t move forward without knowing our cultural past.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Bliss on a Bun

FIRST, A CONFESSION: I have only ordered burgers at this place. Yes, I need to try different things, and I've tasted some of the alternate offerings ordered by friends, but the pursuit of superior hamburgers is a calling, a mission, and I have been so called. What you’re getting at Dave’s Gourmet Burgers and More is both a gustatory and architectural marvel, a jumbo-sized creation tamed by a knife through its heart.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This incarnation of Dave Khan’s burger-joint concept has been operating in Schenectady for two years; his previous locations include a stint on Albany’s Fuller road. What he’s doing, and doing well, is offering an alternative to the more upscale burger chains. If you’re dining at McDonald’s, forget it: you’re not interested in flavor. But next time you’re thinking about Smashburger or Red Robin or Sonic or the like, try this place instead.

You won’t find fancy pre-fab decor – far from it. It has a couple of picnic tables in the center of the room, more tables against a wall; a reach-in cooler with drinks, a TV spitting out cable news, and walls covered with homilies, wise saws, and other such sayings. The restaurant is located in Rotterdam, on lower Broadway, with on-street parking and a few parking spaces in the rear.

If you’re not immediately welcomed by Dave, it’s because he has something on the stove. He’s the do-it-all factotum of the place, and the first thing he’s going to do is get an order of black fries cooking for you. Black fries? you wonder, and your gaze lights on a menu or wall notice informing you that unlimited black fries are part of your meal.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Mark Twain and the Dead Canary

Mark Twain Dept.: Sam Clemens gave a talk in Fort Plain, NY, on December 19, 1868, part of what he termed his “American Vandals” tour, consisting largely of his reading of excerpts from his soon-to-be-published Innocents Abroad (which became a bestseller). There he met George W. Elliott, associate editor of the Fort Plain-based Mohawk Valley Register. Elliott was known for his turgid verse, such as “Bonnie Eloise,” which became a popular song, and “The Dead Canary,” the story of a bird named Lillie who succumbs to a melancholy death after her two eggs are crushed by “mysterious fate.” The poem ends:

Ye murderers, unawed by fear,
Who bend at Herod’s crimson shrine! –
Turn once a scaleless vision here,
And view this lifeless bird of mine:
Then in your hell-born purpose pause!
Forsake the path so reckless trod;
Lest, while ye scoff at Nature's laws,
Ye feel the withering curse of God!

Elliott began deluging Twain with verse and song, trying to get some manner of praise. As Twain detailed in letters to Olivia Langdon, his soon-to-be wife, this was not about to happen.


Mark Twain
To Olivia L. Langdon
21 August 1869

That thief that wrote about the dead canary & sends me so much execrable music has found me out & is publishing extravagant puffs of me & mailing the papers to me, duly marked, as usual. I shall offer a bounty for his scalp, yet. He is one of the most persistent & exasperating acquaintances I was ever afflicted with.


To Olivia L. Langdon

6 and 7 September 1869 • Buffalo, N.Y.
In Bed, Monday Night

Livy darling, I got your letter this evening, though I looked for it this morning – I had forgotten that you told me to expect the letters in the evening hereafter. Yes, dearie, I will leave this letter unsealed until I get a Salutatory to send to you in the morning.

Friday, January 25, 2019


From the Vault Dept.: It now seems remarkable that we had John Cage hanging out in the area for a while, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. New York’s rural reaches have attracted many well-known folk to visit, vacation, and even reside for a while. In this case, the ambitious composer-performer Carleton Clay made sure to lure notable American composers to his Catskill Conservatory concerts, which for several years were the best introduction to such music. I reviewed Cage’s best-known work in this piece; but the review below celebrates his 1985 visit to the area. 


JOHN CAGE is one of the wittiest composers since Beethoven, an opinion Cage might not enjoy only because he’s not too crazy about Beethoven’s reputation. But both of them share the dilemma of being unrecognized for their wit – that is, the wit that informs their music.

John Cage
Nobody laughs when Beethoven is performed, which is a pity. Thankfully, the audience at Saturday night’s Catskill Conservatory concert was loose enough to laugh at the music by Cage.

Finding the West Kortright Centre is challenge enough: you get off Interstate 88 near Oneonta and proceed through a number of little towns, taking some turns and ending up on an undeveloped stretch of road populated, it seems, only by farmers. In the midst of it pops up an old church, built in 1850, that has served the area for the past decade as a cultural center. It is in fact where the Catskill Conservatory began giving annual concerts that lately have spread as close as Rensselaerville and that always include the works and presence of a distinguished American composer.

This was Cage’s second appearance with the group. He’s very genial for an enfant terrible, and the man who has stressed the importance of silence when music is considered is a delightful (though rather soft-spoken) public speaker.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Send in the Crooners

From the Vault Dept.: I discovered Rosemary Clooney during her 1977 tour with Bing Crosby, when they performed at what was then the Uris Theatre in New York. Tony Bennett’s Greatest Hits was a fixture on my parents’ turntable, so at the age of six I could lip-sync to “Rags to Riches.” I saw each of them perform individually several times over the years, but here’s an account of a joint appearance at the now-demolished Coliseum in Latham, NY, in 1986.


IT WOULD BE HARD TO FIND a pop-singer pairing more felicitous than Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, who packed the Coliseum Theatre Tuesday night.

Bennett and Clooney in 1991
Both have justifiable claims on the elusive term “song stylist”; both have impeccable taste in songs. Both survived rocky trips through the past two decades and emerged with followings that includes many younger faces.

Clooney took the stage for the first half with “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” sung to the swinging drive of pianist John Oddo, who plays in Woody Herman’s band. Oddo wrote most of the arrangements for Clooney’s songs. A large, locally contracted orchestra played them with zest
and polish.

An Ira Gershwin set included “I Can’t Get Started” (music by Vernon Duke) and brother George’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Strike up the Band.” Cole Porter’s “Why Shouldn’t I?” had a tasteful Oddo solo for accompaniment and, with the orchestra, Clooney reprised one of her biggest hits with “Hey There.”