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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Piatigorsky in Concert

“The discrepancy between the conductor’s and the soloist’s attitude toward the score was so vast and disturbing . . . that it seems hard to believe that Boulez would have willingly acquiesced in choosing Piatigorsky at all – except, of course, that he has a deservedly distinguished name, and that people who have admired him over the years would be happy to come and pay him homage.”

– Alan Rich, New York Magazine, Oct. 9, 1972

                                                                           

MY CLASSICAL-MUSIC SENSIBILITY developed at the tail end of an age of celebrity performers rooted in very romantic traditions. With the superstar exceptions of Heifetz and Toscanini, an array of interpreters for whom personality was the key had put individual stamps on their performances. You wouldn’t mistake violinists Kreisler for Elman, pianists Hoffman for Cortot.

And Toscanini’s great conducting rival, Stokowski, was as free-spirited in his conceptions as Toscanini was cling-to-the-score.

My first big-time classical concert visit took place on my thirteenth birthday, a trip to Carnegie Hall to see the 87-year-old Stokowski conduct the American Symphony Orchestra in a program that included Beethoven’s Seventh, Ravel’s “Bolero” (with what seemed like three times the amount of percussion usually called for), Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” and the conductor’s own orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

“Wonderful Russian music!” Stokowski declared after calming the post-Pictures ovation. He played a couple of Russian encores and then, when the audience wouldn’t quit, asked the men to sing their lowest note. He got a somewhat bovine basso response, which he had the bass clarinet blat back. More applause; this time the women and their highest note, to which the piccolo answered. I had no idea live music could be so much fun, especially when steered by a weird octogenarian.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Golden Hours on Chicken Wings

Wings Have a Prayer Dept.: During a 2001 tour with the musical "A Tale of Cinderella," which I performed with the NYS Theatre Institute, I took advantage of a stop in Buffalo to explore the city's eponymous chicken wings.

                                                                                

YOU MIGHT AS WELL ask for an authoritative origin of mashed potatoes or beef stew, but what makes the chicken wings story wonderfully amusing is that the origins go back only a few decades, as we obsessively chronicle our age.

In his 1983 book of food research, Third Helpings, Calvin Trillin sought to get to the bottom of the story, and even as thorough a reporter as he couldn’t pinpoint the truth. Still, we can credit Buffalo, NY, as the original location, and the story told at the Anchor Bar has been re-told so often that it might as well be true.

A neighborhood Italian restaurant since 1935, it asserts that the dish was invented in on a Friday night in 1964, back when Catholics routinely avoided meat on that day of the week. Dom Belissimo, who ran the place with his parents, Frank and Teressa, asked his mother to prepare something special for a group of his friends who dropped in shortly before midnight. She grabbed some chicken wings that had been destined for the stock pot, chopped off the tips, separated the two halves that remained, fried them and dipped them in a spicy sauce. To complement the plate, she grabbed some celery sticks from an antipasto platter and added a serving of blue cheese dressing.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Digital Dexterity: An Audio Primer

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Please don't try to make it through this piece. It's four thousand words explaining digital audio technology as practiced twenty years ago, and thus probably has more value now as a museum piece. But, damn, there's a lot of authorly splendor packed into it, which is one reason I'm sharing it. The other is to remind myself that there was a time in my life, ever so long ago, when I actually got paid for this shit.

                                                                                   

BACK IN MY REBELLIOUS teen years, I discovered that I could listen in on my parents’ whispered discussions by running two wires from the woofer of their low-fi record player under the carpet, out the window, up to my room and into an AUX jack on my slightly better stereo. Aside from its usefulness in planning my day, it demonstrated the simplicity of analog sound reproduction.

Sound itself – whether it be speech, music, or the angry whispers of frustrated parents – is a series of changes in air pressure. The old string-and-cups telephone system demonstrates how a flexible diaphragm can intercept that sound – much as the eardrum does – and, by tugging on an attached string and stimulating another, similar diaphragm, reproduce it.

Edison’s phonograph, patented in 1877, used a cone to capture and focus sound, with a needle taking the place of taut string. The needle inscribed a series of pits in the tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. Sending the needle over those pits again reproduced it. And the quality of the reproduction was so impressive to early auditors that many claimed it was gimmicked, with a talking human hidden nearby.

The cylinder was flattened by Emile Berliner in the 1890s, and mass- production of 78s – familiar to turn-of-the-century Caruso fans and late-‘40s boppers – was the result. The 78 was, so far, the longest-lived format, but it went through noticeable changes. The most significant was the transition from acoustic to electrical recording in the ’20s. Before then, performers gathered in a cramped studio in front of a big horn, which funneled the sounds they produced into a cutting stylus. In other words, the earliest recordings were “direct to disk,” a technique that resurfaced, albeit more cleanly, in the waning days of the LP.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Guilty Pleasures

From the Recent Past Dept.: A Metroland essay from a couple of years ago, which failed to win me a single dinner invitation. Oh well.

                                                                                        

RARELY AM I INVITED to anyone’s house for dinner. The cry is, “I’m not going to try to cook for you!” If I’m visiting a house where food is being served and my occupation is revealed, the invariable and annoying question is, “Are you gonna review this?”

Back in the ’70s, a New York City-based electronics retailer called Crazy Eddie ran a series of TV commercials featuring a wide-eyed pitchman named Jerry Carroll who ended each frenetic spot with the phrase, “His prices are insane!” Carroll and his wife showed up one night at a restaurant where I was cooking, and the chef insisted they be shown to the kitchen.

The Carrolls were fine-dining enthusiasts, and we invited them to a special thank-the-customers party given each January. There I watched one annoying diner after another recognize Carroll and say, “Hey! It’s Crazy Eddie! Hey, hey – Eddie! Do the Crazy Eddie thing!”

Jerry would smile bashfully and say, each time, “Oh, I only do that for money.” A charming, delightful fellow. I’ve swiped that response for my own purposes, trying to insist to party hosts that I don’t view every meal as a gourmet test and they're certainly not going to be graded.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Your Philosophy, Horatio

From the Cradle Dept.: Here’s the 100th item for this blog. To celebrate I’ve dipped about as far back as I can go in my published writings. Some similarly unassimilated high-school friends and I called ourselves the Pickwick Club. We grew up in a town very aware of its history, from the Revolutionary War through a time when notables like Eugene O’Neill and Walter Hampden lived there – and it’s still a refuge for well-off Manhattanites. The Ridgefield (Conn.) Press, a weekly that’s still going strong, gives generous attention to things historical, and agreed to publish a few pieces that my fellow Pickwicks and I wrote in which we tried to capture the spirit of such oh-so-serious musings.

To that end, we invented a Pickwick Club that was founded by misogynistic Ridgefieldians in 1895. We posed for photos to accompany the articles, as with the one below. And we had a great time putting our fictional counterparts into situations that would be amusing reading for those in the know. I have to credit Craig Borders with devising much of the Tweedy history below – he even went so far as to writing Socratic dialogues describing the philosophy we invented – and co-writing much of this article. But forgive us its awkwardness: we were not yet twenty.

The photo was posed in Ridgefield’s Richardson Park, not far from where Michael Chekhov had an acting school in the 1940s. Left to right: John Montanari (Jack O’Diamonds), Byron Nilsson (George Gordon), Craig Borders (Milo Wumbek), and Rod Fyfe (Moisha Fish). Not pictured: Ned Popkins (Neddie Seagoon). The article was bylined “David Lawrence,” who, we were told, was in the process of writing a full-length study of the club.

                                                                                    


ONE OF THE MORE interesting and little known aspects of the turn-of-the-century Pickwick Club in Ridgefield was the unique philosophy they adopted as a result of the doctrine which came into the hands of Milo Wumbek in his capacity as a historical consultant to the New York Public Library.

To preface a discussion of “Futilitarianism,” as it came to be called, a short biography of J.J. Tweedy, the “Father of Futilitarianism,” should be related. Mr. Wumbek pursued research along those lines, and supplied me with the following details:

In 1795, J.J. Tweedy (there is no record as to his full first two names) was born to a shepherd and his wife in Scotland. Although common practice would have been for the boy to follow in his father's footsteps, he left to join the Royal Navy in 1810, where he served on board the H.M.S. Perseverance. Ship’s records indicate that during a skirmish with an American ship (in which the British were attempting to capture sailors), Tweedy got lost in the shuffle. As he later appeared in the United States, it is speculated that he was left on board the enemy ship.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Guest Blogger: George Ade

Ade was a Chicago newspaperman at the dawn of the 20th Century, and made his name with the 1901 collection Fables in Slang. Here's a notable excerpt. (Illustrations by Clyde J. Newman.)

                                                                             

George Ade
THE FABLE OF THE PARENTS WHO
TINKERED WITH THE OFFSPRING

A married Couple possessed two Boys named Joseph and Clarence. Joseph was much the older. His Parents brought him up on a Plan of their Own. They would not permit him to play with other Boys for fear that he would soil himself; and learn to be Rude and Boisterous.

So they kept Him in the House, and: his Mother read to him about Little Rollo, who never lied or cheated, and who grew up to be a Bank President, She seemed to think that a Bank President was above Reproach.

Little Joseph was kept away from the Public Schools, and had to Play Games in the Garret with two Spindly Little Girls. He learned Tatting and the Herring-Bone Stitch. When he was Ten Years of age he could play Chop-Sticks on the Piano; his Ears were Translucent, and his Front Teeth showed like those of a Gray Squirrel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Where Is the Love?

Read the Manual Dept.: We seem headed for an early spring, when Nature gets all meltish and randy. Here's a piece I wrote a couple of years ago on spec for a publication that decided not to use it. And I can see the point: their demographic was well past the point of requiring such advice.

                                                                                       

THIS WAS A MOMENT of truth. You don’t get many so monstrous. This was the moment when his manhood would be tested, but more than that – this would establish him as a lover. Or a schnook.

We’ll call him Albert. A childhood friend, with whom I’d staggered through an adolescence of misinformation and fantasy. On top of him lay a beautiful, incredibly desirable woman. She had dark hair and shiny dark eyes and a heart-shaped, light-olive face set off by fabulously pliant lips that at that moment were pressed against his. We’ll call her Victoria. She was about his age at the time, which was 18. He was a virgin. She was not.

Sex is a collection of straightforward equations of cause and effect, if you’ll indulge a nerdish point of view. Don’t immediately touch here when you can enjoy a more effective journey from here to here to (eventually) here. To be effective, romance requires strategy. But we’re now in the early 1970s, the height, that is, of the sixties, a far more innocent time.

To recap: he’s supine, she’s prone, their lips connect, his left hand wanders. He’s heading for a complicated piece of anatomy with which he’s experientially unfamiliar. But he’d hit the books  beforehand.

“I grew up looking at my mother’s OB-GYN texts,” he told me. “Which meant that I knew women’s bodies as a cutaway view with lots of squiggly areas. It was a totally unsexualized thing.” Puberty changed his perspective. Assuming a general unavailability of women willing to disrobe for his inspection, he sought other sources of information.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Heart of the Guitar

From the Vault: An ambitious classical-music website was launched in 2001, when andante.com offered essays, reviews, streaming music, and even its own boutique label. Even better, it commissioned several articles from me during its heyday and paid well and on time. But the work dried up two years later, after it was taken over by a French music entity, and in 2006, the site itself went dark. Here's a CD review I wrote ten years ago. The recording is still in print, so you have no excuse not to procure it.

                                                                               

The Segovia Collection
Andrés Segovia, guitar
Symphony of the Air  |  Enrique Jorda, conductor
(Deutsche Grammophon)

WHEN ANDRÉS SEGOVIA made his American recital debut in 1928, the audience at New York’s intimate Town Hall was filled with jazz and classical players alike. The former were the most immediately enthusiastic – and you can still hear that enthusiasm in recordings by jazz players like Eddie Lang and George Van Eps. Segovia’s classical legacy, in which the self-taught guitarist used his fingertips (and nails) to produce a unique array of tone colors, was passed to many, many younger players, John Williams and Oscar Ghiglia notable among them.

DG’s handsome four-CD collection gathers material recorded for Decca between 1952 and 1969, material that has had some previous CD issues but that never sounded this good. Most of it was produced by Israel Horowitz, who diligently worked with the temperamental maestro to create recordings that hold up excellently today.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Four Wheels and Flies

DESCRIBING THE LARVAE of Brachyceran flies, Brian Handwerk revealed the surprising benefit these creatures offer in a 2003 article for National Geographic News, which read, in part:

“Five to ten maggots are placed on each square centimeter (0.2 square inch) of a wound, which is then covered with a protective dressing that allows the maggots to breath. For the next 48 to 72 hours, the maggots dissolve dead tissue by secreting digestive juices and then ingesting the liquefied tissue and bacteria. The maggots grow from about two millimeters (0.08 inch) to nearly ten millimeters (0.4 inch) while doing the doctor's dirty work.”

They’re more commonly seen (and smelled) as a scourge, a feature of hot summer days and rotting, meaty organics. With that in mind, come visit a couple of restaurants with me. I promise that this will be a trip you won’t easily forget.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ghost Town in Texas

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Fearing the loss of any claim to hippiedom, my wife and I took a cross-country drive 23 years ago. We spent a month traversing the United States in a VW camper, close enough quarters to quickly teach you what love and ripeness really mean. I wrote a couple dozen articles along the way, pieces published by the Schenectady Gazette. Here's what we found (and didn't find) in the southwestern desert.

                                                                                   

OVER A THOUSAND MILES of desert and not a single skull. I was disappointed.

Skulls are available if you want to pay for them. You’ll find them, bleached or colorfully painted, at many of the roadside concession stands. “My brother looks for them every morning,” a young Navajo woman explained at her jewelry stand in Arizona. “Then he paints ‘em. They sell pretty fast.”

But buying one isn’t as romantic as finding one lying amidst a desert stand of crisp brown grass. I announced this ambition to Susan, who quickly squelched it. She’s had enough of dead animals.

Normally a peaceful driver, she hit a rabbit as we left the Grand Canyon. In New Mexico she squashed an armadillo. And she’s always behind the wheel when the biggest, ugliest bugs smack into the windshield. So she wasn’t enthusiastic about discovering more deceased wildlife. “If you want to see something dead, let’s find a ghost town,” she suggested.

We were driving from Santa Fe to San Antonio that weekend. On Friday, the sky had a low, dreary-colored layer of clouds that looked as if someone had spilled a box of dirty cotton balls above our heads. But weather systems are self-contained in that part of the country, where it can rain on one side of the street and burn you with sunshine on the other.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

George C. Stops the Show


LET’S GET ONE THING out of the way. There are times in one’s life when one suffers such a buildup of nasal excrescence that one has no choice but to try to dislodge it. As discreetly as possible. A fingertip is the time-honored tool of choice. The fastidious among us tend to object. Should said dislodgement be conducted too publicly, behavior modification is recommended. I was subjected to a particularly horrifying version of that one day.

As a teenager, I developed what would become an ongoing love for film and stage, and availed myself of any opportunity to be in an audience. Living less than ninety minutes from Manhattan meant I could put in a day racing from movie to movie, from the Thalia on West 95th to 12th Street’s Cinema Village, stopping at the Guild 50th and maybe even a first-run at the Ziegfeld en route. (My one-day record was six.)

Access to plays also was easy, especially with a couple of friends making their way in the business who could sneak me in here and there. But the siren was Broadway, and I decided that it was more worth my educational while to skip high school on occasional Wednesdays in order to take a bus to the city and catch a matinée.

Just before the finish of my senior year came a star-studded revival of “Uncle Vanya.” Mike Nichols was at that point the most in-demand director on Broadway, having had a string of hits with “The Apple Tree,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Little Foxes,” “Plaza Suite” and more. And it didn’t hurt that he had films like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate” behind him.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Going in Style

Vintage Showroom Dept.: This piece, from a 1987 issue of Metroland, enjoyed some reprints in other alternative weeklies. Sure, much of the technology described herein is dated, but I think the sentiment endures.

                                                                            

WHEN I WAS 16 and learning to drive, a high-school friend took me out in his dad's BMW to give me some pointers they don't teach in Driver Ed.

“You know that ‘hands at ten o'clock and two o'clock' stuff?’” he said. “Forget it. You only need one hand to steer with. Leave your right hand free. Let it kind of dangle near the stick so you're always ready to shift.”

He was teaching me style, that most ephemeral quality – a quality that  resists being taught. It's not enough, his lesson suggested, merely to get out and drive; you need to look cool while doing so.

Driving benefits from that sense of style more than any other occupation save, perhaps, polo. It's your only means of communicating with fellow drivers (unless, of course, you use a CB radio, which right away is a fatal breach).

Style isn't leather gloves and hood ornaments of discreet nudes; an old Dodge Dart has style if it's driven stylishly. The key is the driver's attitude, sparked by a few more techniques I'll suggest.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Keeping Classical Music to Ourselves

Heartbreak of Rejection Dept.: I wrote program notes for several CDs issued on the Dorian Recordings label when it was based in Troy, NY, and used a nearby, acoustically steller old music hall for its sessions. Most of the assignments came through my good friend Brian Levine, who, after Dorian's demise, went on to become executive director of the Glenn Gould Foundation. Most of the artists I worked with told me that they enjoyed my writing, which was gratifying because my earliest music education came from such notes, and I like to pass along that tradition while keeping what I write cheerful and accessible. Only once were my notes rejected, and with a rather resounding thud. Judy Linsenberg, director of the Baroque ensemble Musica Pacifica, decreed that what I wrote for a CD featuring music of Francesco Mancini sported a style "much more informal and chatty than I am comfortable with." There would be no salvaging the notes, she decided. "(I)t would make the most sense just to have them rewritten by someone else." Needless to say, someone who could pound the information into the dry, academic submission that sounds smart to would-be scholars. But now you can buy the CD – and it's a delightful program that I highly recommend – and throw away the notes that come with it. Because here are the ones that belong there.

                                                                          

Francesco Mancini: Concerti da Camera

Nero made a special stop in Naples just to be able to sing with the locals. That’s how culturally important the city has been through the ages. During the 13th and 14th centuries, a synthesis of French and local culture resulted in a flowering of artistic activity in Naples that attracted visits from such literary masters as Boccaccio and Petrarch. When the Kingdom of Naples came under Aragonese rule in the middle of the 15th century, its cultural life grew even more active and important: A magnificent library was established, great architecture flourished, and musical life in the chapels achieved renown.

Naples became home to so many outstanding organists in the 16th century that it became known for its innovations in keyboard music. Within a century, it was the place to go for musical studies.

That’s also because of the large orphanages the city ran. They derived a significant part of their operating income from participation of the figlioli, the children, in local church services. In order to command good fees, it was important to keep the youngsters in good training. Music schools sprang up at these institutions, schools that eventually gained world renown.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Start That Restaurant!

Old Numbers Never Die Dept.: Re-reading the review I wrote about the short-lived restaurant D'Lites got me admiring the shortsightedness of an owner who sinks a tremendous amount of money into a place and then fails to staff and run it properly. How much money? I investigated that 25 years ago. I suspect the numbers now are different.

                                                                                     

Jim Rua, 1987  |  Photo by Joseph Schuyler
SO YOU WANT TO start a restaurant? There are dreams much more unusual and ambitious – but you'd be hard put to find a dream that's more expensive, unless you're into things like funding a Federal space research program.

As a cook at a snazzy place in Fairfield County, Connecticut, I was astonished to  hear reasonable people confess to a desire to get into the business. To me it was a kind of madness, a dream world peopled with crazy chefs and crazier waiters.

Nevertheless, my wife (another who has done time in various kitchens) and I have caught ourselves thinking about that oh-so-wonderful little bistro we'd like to open and run.

So what does it really take before you broil that first steak? You find a building, let’s say, with a dining area for 50 or so and a perfect little room for a kitchen – then what?

You have to get it inspected. That’s a local matter. In Schenectady it might be Andrew Suflita, a senior public health sanitarian, who visits you. “The health department fee is $50,” he explained, “and you’ll be inspected two or three times a year. We’re placing a major emphasis on food handling now – temperatures, storage and so forth.”

Monday, February 13, 2012

Splendor of San Simeon

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: When my wife and I crisscrossed the USA in 1989, our California stops were the Napa Valley, San Francisco, and, thanks to Citizen Kane, San Luis Obispo, which gave us access to a tour of the Hearst castle. It was a destination frozen in time, so I suspect you'll find much the same there now.

                                                                                

WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST never got to be president, but he built a monument to himself that attracts more attention, national and international, than anything left behind by  his political betters.

And whether Hearst and his papers liked it or not, the movie Citizen Kane captured the flavor of that setup pretty well. The place is fairy-tale immense, with trees and wildlife still a testimony to a man’s ability to surround himself with beautiful things found in nature – but not necessarily found close by.

The trees that line the long driveway to the castle, for instance. Some two dozen varieties shade the drive and hillside, and not one of them is native to the area. Like all of the Hearst castle doodads, they were trucked in. At an expense you and I don’t care to hear about.

“He never grew up,” said tour guide Bob Doyle. “He collected things with a little boy’s mania.”

The estate, a would-be white elephant, now belongs to the State of California – and it has proven more profitable than anyone could have predicted. The four tours that are conducted daily bring in the money. And I don’t mean four tours a day – I mean four separate tour routes that are each travelled several times a day. Take one of them and you’re hooked. You have to see more. That’s why the motels in the surrounding villages do so well.

It’s also why Highway 1 is kept open the year round.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Half-Filled

THIS WEEK I HIT the halfway point in a novel I’ve been working on for a while. It’s not the first such effort of mine, but it’s one that I still think is pretty good.

Its gestation began on the long drive back from a Cape Cod vacation a couple of years ago, when my wife and I were still basking in the comfort we’d enjoyed for a few days. I’d toured some of the Wellfleet galleries, and was startled by an art scene that celebrated what seemed to me a core of ho-hum beachside scenes. Work by some very skilled artists made it worthwhile, but I had to wade through an excess of the cutesy and too-profound. With nary a non-representational piece to be seen anywhere.

It’s tourist-driven, of course, and I begrudge nobody a successful artistic life supported by tourist dollars, but it got me wondering what kind of reception the work of an abstractionist would receive.

Not long before the vacation, I’d talked with a friend who confessed a growing sense of dissatisfaction with her life. Marriage and motherhood weren’t playing out in the dreamy, romantic way she’d been led to believe they would (thanks, populist culture!), and, although she saw no drastic changes ahead, she dreamed about what a new-found freedom might be like.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fast Food Follies

From the Food-Review Archives Dept.: When I review restaurants these days, I rarely give an all-out assault on a place. If it's a bad experience, I give it another chance. If it remains lousy, I usually don't write about it. Places like that can go under without any prodding from me, and I believe it's more important as a critic to offer constructive commentary – even though that denies the mean-spirited a chance for vicarious vitriol. But here's one from the archives that I find amusing. It's kinder than the place deserved, given the level of incompetence my wife and I witnessed. But the restaurant went out of business shortly thereafter, and I doubt my contribution to its demise was significant. The place was its own train wreck.

                                                                             


D’Lites, 35 North Pearl Street, Albany, 463-1808. Fast-food service from 7:30 AM-6 PM Monday-Saturday. A cash operation.

Food: ★
Service: ★ ★
Ambience: ★ ★

A couple of summers ago my wife and I watched as our across-the-street neighbor labored over a barbecue grill on his porch, a forty-five minute process that ended with white coals and a shimmer of air current. Then he plopped a bunch of fat burgers on the rack, turned them, scraped them off, and disappeared inside.

“He'll be back,” Susan predicted.

He was out again in no time, this time to stand by impatiently while the meat cooked through.

We were reminded of this during a recent visit to the brand-new D’Lites in Albany, a fast-food joint with pretensions of class.

Opened by a one-time Wendy’s manager, the D’Lites chain seeks to cash in on consumer faddishness by playing up the “lite” aspects of a meal, affecting a nutrition-conscious attitude that pays significant lip-service to a style of eating much easier to preach than to practice.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Oral Organics

THE CHALLENGE OF “Hora Staccato” is to make the long, descending phrase that gives the piece its title sound smooth and crisp. It’s one of a violinist’s toughest challenges, and became a hit for Jascha Heifetz when he started playing the arrangement he made from a Grigoras Dinicu piece. Then the piece exploded into the mainstream. You can catch an old movie of Harry James wailing it on trumpet, and I once found sheet music for a version for ukulele quartet.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise issuing from Larry Adler’s mouth organ. He’d already played a movement from a solo violin sonata by Bach. But he was performing in a Manhattan jazz club, in a set that included Gershwin and Porter and a short, effective version of Ravel’s “Bolero.” “Ravel never allowed this piece to be changed in any way,” Adler told the audience. “But he gave me permission to do this, and he enjoyed it.”

It’s Larry Adler’s birthday, as good a reason as any to pay tribute. I saw him perform a couple of times at that club, when I lived nearer to New York, and at some point in the 1980s when he played at a theater in Woodstock with Ellis Larkins at the piano.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Be an Artist at the Gas Range

Drew Friedman is one of the great portrait artists of our (or any) time. That he has focused much of his attention on also-ran celebrities has only sharpened the irony that stipples out of his pen. (Check such books as Warts and All, Too Soon?, and the Old Jewish Comedians series (1, 2, and 3)). But I've asked him here today to share his cookbook collection, which tells us far too much about our culture's history of persuading people back into the kitchen. What, for example, is that alien thing atop the angry-looking salmon in Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book? Why has my wife never husband-tested a recipe? And how can you not admire Kate Smith for allowing (we assume) her phys to share a cover with a huge chocolate cake?


Drew Friedman's Cookbook Collection.


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Working in a Coffee House

ROGER DE COVERLEY reporting in. There’s no question that I get more writing done in coffee houses than ever takes place at home. What a shameful admission. But inevitable.

At home, I have surrounded myself with all manner of comfy distraction. There’s music – oh, there’s music. There are pets always eager to play. There are projects: house improvements, electronics maintenance, the endless organizing obsessive collectors like me set themselves. And there’s food, and I know how to cook it.

There’s food at coffeehouses, of course, but I’m less likely to punish myself with an excess when I’m on public display. A display more hopeful, I’m sure, than actual, but still. As a fat guy, I feel the collective scorn of my skinny neighbors when I tuck into that toothsome scone.

So I’m usually slurping a cup of coffee. A latte, if I feel like splurging. Fortunately, I’ve never developed a taste for the sweetened versions topped with whipped cream.

I found an extra-life battery for the machine on eBay, but there’s usually an outlet within reach. And WiFi makes it easy to do the research all writing requires.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Monday, February 06, 2012

Mighty Casey

When I parodied the poem "Casey at the Bat" for my 2004 election admonition (posted yesterday), I was following a tradition of many such re-workings of Ernest Thayer's famous saga. It found initial fame in 1888, the year it was written, when it was declaimed from the stage by popular performer DeWolf Hopper, who later recorded it. It has been portrayed in movie and cartoon and on television. Sequels have been written. And, inevitably, there are musical settings. One of the most enjoyable is Johnny Bench's declamation of the verse to a score by Frank Proto, but the best one I've seen is William Schuman's one-act opera, written in 1953, but touched up a bit for Cooperstown's Glimmerglass Opera in 1986. This production was so acclaimed that it helped move the company from a high-school auditorium to the beautiful lakeside facility it continues to enjoy.

                                                                                     

IT WAS THE BEST 75th birthday party a composer could want: Congratulations from the president, a first-rate production of an opera dear to his heart, and an enthusiastic crowd to share in the fun.

Composer William Schuman has been an avid baseball fan as long as he can remember (“lt was my youth,” he once confessed) and, in 1953, he combined hobby and profession by writing a one-act opera based on the poem “Casey at the Bat.”

This season’s performance by the Glimmerglass Opera Theater salutes Cooperstown’s bicentennial and the 50th anniversary of the Baseball hall of Fame.

Schuman was on hand at Wednesday night’s opening to share in a tribute to these occasions from President Reagan before the company launched into a performance that burned from beginning to end with the wonderful fire of inspired production.

Everything — cast, musicians, dancers, setting — came together for a thrilling event.

And that included the second one-act opera of the evening, Puccini’s merry “Gianni Schicchi,” as different from “Mighty Casey” as could be imagined.

Ernest Thayer wrote his famous baseball poem in 1888, reacting to a newly organized sport that already had become an obsession. In the florid language of the period, the pomp and glory of the home team’s critical game takes on a hollow sound when hero Casey fails to come through in a ninth-inning clutch.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Kerry at the Bat

Apologies to Ernest L. Thayer Dept.: With the Nevada caucus results now in, the ever-more-depressing reality of the circus we'll suffer for the next several months is much too apparent. When we went through this eight years ago, it culminated in a surreal and unbelievable win. This was my analysis of it.

                                                                                    

THE OUTLOOK WASN'T BRILLIANT
    for the Democrats, they say;
They couldn’t seem to get a 
    heavy hitter into play.
And when Dean went nuts in Iowa, 
    and Gore stayed just the same,
We worried that the Dems would fold 
    its hand and quit the game.

A straggling few declared themselves 
    so fraught with deep despair
They’d even vote for Nader if he 
    showed up anywhere.
The rest of us thought four more 
    years of Bush was way too scary,
And watched with mounting interest 
    as the party went for Kerry.

Who’s Kerry? we all asked ourselves, 
    and answered back, Yes, who?
A Massachusetts senator, but what did Kerry do?
Details began to circulate, far back as Vietnam,
As Kerry hit the hustings with a kind of chilled aplomb.

At last! we thought, we’ve got our man, this guy can really win!
While deep inside, our patience started growing kind of thin.
The Elephant went after him with all its trademark skill,
And little Donkey Kerry drew a roadmap for the kill.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Meeting Ruggiero Ricci

AS NOTED YESTERDAY, when I had the opportunity to meet Alec Guinness, I chickened out. “I was so awed,” I wrote, “that it didn’t occur to me to say anything.” Well: I was awed, all right, but I was also scared to death.

Here’s a story with a different outcome.

When I was in third grade, the music teacher, Edmund Finaldi, occasionally would play his violin for the class. “The Hot Canary” was a favorite, and I fell in love with the instrument. I took it up in fourth grade and have been dreadful at it ever since. But I got to know the violin repertory inside and out and still amuse myself by struggling to play it.

Around 1970, violinist Ruggiero Ricci was featured in a recording titled “Bravura,” playing works of astonishing difficulty. But these were a Ricci specialty.

A segment from a Locatelli concerto, a solo segment titled “Harmonic Labyrinth” features nonstop arpeggios, which requires a keen right arm as the bow skitters back and forth over the fiddle’s four string.

Franz von Vecsey’s “The Wind” puts a murderous series of double-stops in chromatic series, while Ernst’s “Variations on ‘The Last Rose of Summer’” starts with a pleasant rendering of the familiar tune and gets more devilish as it goes along.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Meeting Alec Guinness

IN HIS SECOND VOLUME of reminiscences, My Name Escapes Me, Alec Guinness mentions his appearance in John Mortimer’s play “A Voyage Round My Father” in connection with a backstage visitor. I read this passage trembling with anticipation. Could it recount some alternate-universe phenomenon I desired but never actually enjoyed?

Not at all. The visitor was Sir Harold Acton.

My own trip backstage took place on Feb. 23, 1972. It was at the Haymarket Theatre in London, a gorgeous 18th-century structure that’s one of the oldest continually operating theaters in the city. But first some backstory for this tale.

I was on the brink of 16. Theater had become my overwhelming passion, it being a more participatory form of show-biz than the movies I loved. Especially seeing as how those movies were older titles I found on late-night TV.

New York’s channel 5 (WNEW) had introduced me to the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, Cagney and Bogart, and the best of Busby Berkeley, so I trusted its taste. Its weeknight 11:30 movie often ran to a five-night theme, and one week they promised a bunch of Alec Guinness titles, an actor with whom I was unfamiliar.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Happy Heifetz's Birthday

It’s the big one one one for the master violinist today. I’ve pursued his recordings since my teenhood, and, while I never met the man himself, I was privileged to have a couple of interviews with his recording producer, Jack Pfeiffer, who shared much information and many off-the-cuff stories about working with the violinist. By 1988, when the following piece was written, we’d already had a first round of CD reissues of classic LPs, and it seemed as if the audio engineers in charge had little idea of what they were doing in the digital realm. Subsequent remasertings were an attempt to offer improved sonics.
                                                                                  

THE VIOLINIST'S SOUND emerges with recognizeable clarity and firmness, a clarity and firmness that characterizes even the noisy, tinny 78s of the 1920s. But these are recordings made three decades later, by the fiddler who most dominated the concert scene throughout his long career. And they’ve been remastered onto compact discs, extending the legacy of Jascha Heifetz into the digital age.

Earlier this month, RCA Records,1 for whom the violinist recorded almost exclusively since 1917, issued six CD sets to inaugurate the budget-priced Gold Seal line, including the ten sonatas by Beethoven and the six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas by Bach.

A collection titled “Music of France” features sonatas by Saint-Saëns and Faure along with a handful of shorter works by Debussy, Ravel, Ibert and Poulenc; “Showpieces” is an orchestral setting comprising Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole” and pieces by Sarasate, Chausson and Saint-Saëns.
   
lthough the albums are a fitting memorial to the artist, who died last December at the age of 86, the planning began last fall. “We were mastering the recordings in November,” says John Pfeiffer, Heifetz’s producer since 1959. “One of the biggest challenges is to equalize all the different sonic qualities so the sound is consistent. For instance, most of the works on the ‘Showpieces’ set were recorded at Republic Studios in California in 1951. But the Chausson ‘Poème’ was recorded a year later at a different studio and there are subtle differences in the acoustics.”

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Bahamian Personality

Three-Day Vacation, Final Day Dept.: Some were natives, some transplants, some wanderers who found the easygoing climate conducive to staying for a while. Here are some of the people I met during my first visit, 22 years ago, to Nassau, Bahamas.

                                                                             

Michael Holly
IN THE MIDST of the most sedate supper you can imagine, a riot of noise erupts in the restaurant. A mob of male voices yelling in anger or pain, it seems. An astonishing contrast to the formal trappings of the Riviera, the premier restaurant of Carnival’s Crystal Palace Resort & Casino.

The chaos is heading toward our table, revealed as a dozen waiters singing a raucous, rhythmic “Happy Birthday,” completely unlike the version we know. The maitre d’, singing as loud as the rest of them, bears a candlelit slice of cake.

If it’s possible to come up with a nationalistic generalization after only a few days’ visit, I’d pick contrast as a distinguishing feature of the Bahamas. It hides behind those placid days of balmy, tropical weather, bursting forth with the intensity of one of the rainstorms that will suddenly spatter one side of a street.

“You must have brought this with you,” says Basil Neely as we ride from the Nassau airport to a Paradise Island hotel. Basil is driving the limousine through a burst of rain. He has a rumbly, musical voice with the colorful vowel sounds partly inherited from the English.

Years of British colonialism brought stiffness and too much formality to the tropics, where collar buttons never should be buttoned. While friendly politeness persists, you can feel the relief when a Bahamian cuts loose with a spontaneous giggle. The candor also is impressive.