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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lamb from Slaughter

Recipe Me This Dept.: Although I need no excuse to tuck into a dish made from lamb, Easter offers a chance to make it the centerpiece of a family meal. In other words, a chance for the chef to show off.

As I discussed with my butcher the purchase of a leg of the beast, he mentioned that another customer cubed the meat and made a stew. This sounded at once appealing and distressing – distressing because I had my mouth set rolling the meat around a feta-and-spinach stuffing, appealing because a stew would force me in a different direction.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
With the help of my daughter, Lily, I came up with a recipe that proved very successful, if a touch complicated. I encourage you to try it, or bring me another leg of lamb and promise to murmur blandishments and I’ll make it for you.

Lamb Lamb Olla

The meat is prepared two ways, so that part of the name is no accident. We were planning to cook it in clay, which I’d recommend, but the quantity exceeded our olla’s capacity, so it ended up in a traditional roasting pan.

We were inspired by a Moroccan tagine preparation, hence the apricots and a seasoning called ras-el-hanout that you should be able to find in a specialty store or online – or make your own. I use a meat grinder attached to my stand mixer, which becomes a sausage extruder when I put a phallic attachment on its end.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Great White Way Dept.: I don’t often get the chance to take a critical whack at a Broadway show, but I saw one recently and decided, for your enlightenment and mine, to weigh in.

                                                                                       

PLAYWRIGHT CHRISTOPHER DURANG and his old friend Sigourney Weaver return to Broadway for the first time since 1996's short-lived, much-disliked “Sex and Longing,” in a play that – because it’s by Durang – is unsurprisingly funny but with a surprisingly tender side.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" offers a delightful exploration of the price of fame, ruined lives, late-in-life love and, of course, explosive family dynamics

Domestic tranquility: Kristine Nielsen,
David Hyde Pierce, and Sigourney Weaver
Make no mistake: the show’s determination to drag laughs out of you has the fervor of a manic circus act, and it does so with every tool in the typical Broadway arsenal. Which means we see mugging, outright overacting, improbable physicality, and random pop-culture references (Snow White! Sunset Boulevard!), all carried out within a snob-appeal framework of the world of Chekhov.

There’s even a little voodoo thrown in.

It’s vintage Durang, insofar as it throws together characters with enough inner and inter-character conflict to keep things snapping, but it builds a pleasing backbone as an ensemble of well-developed characters is revealed, shimmering in and out of Chekhov-land as they examine the lives they’ve achieved at the onset of late middle age.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Once and Future Jack’s

From the Kitchen Dept.: Today’s Metroland features my profile of Jack’s Oyster House, an Albany mainstay celebrating its centenary. I’ve written about the restaurant several times over the past quarter-century, beginning with my first unannounced-visit review in 1986, which you can find here. Below are my appraisals of three subsequent visits.

                                                                                       
            

JACK ROSENTSTEIN OPENED his restaurant in 1913, when he was 20. It wasn’t very far from where the present Jack’s stands, and the sense you get walking into Jack’s is that it isn’t very far, sentimentally, from the old days of eighty years ago. Of course, Albany is a different place – much different – characterized by legislative-induced torpor instead of colorful rum-runners. But a tradition of hospitality endures at Jack’s, a formula so simple, so effortless to maintain that it’s astonishing how rarely you encounter it in eateries these days.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Jack’s defies business custom in another way: management has passed twice from father to son, with no dramatic changes. Brad Rosenstein, young and dapper, carries on his grandfather’s tradition. He stands at the counter by the door and greets us as if we’re old friends, tells us that our table is ready with so much pleasure in his voice that I wondered if he’d built the table himself.

The instant we were seated bread and butter appeared – a basket of Parker House rolls, in fact. The menu is prefaced with a page of specials, some drawn from inside the menu. Which, when you plunge inside, sports several pages appetizer and entrée choices, most of them seafood-oriented. Plus a large map of the Albany area with Jack’s at the center. And an essay by William Kennedy that takes up the back page, an Esquire piece from ten years ago that reminds us not only of the vanishing flavor of old Albany, but also the vanishing flavor of superior journalism.

You sit in a large room with a high ceiling, a row of chandeliers reinforcing the old-fashioned feel of the place. Share no secrets: you will be very close to the people at the next table. There are many dining rooms in Manhattan like this, especially at the old hotels that haven’t been pushed into refurbishment. But in this region it’s an exception.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tough Times for Critics

Guest Blogger: P. G. Wodehouse. He was the drama critic, among other writing duties, for the U.S. version of Vanity Fair during the century-ago ’teens (he wrote for the U.K. version a decade before that), just as he was gaining Broadway success as lyricist for shows written with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. This Wodehouse essay is subtitled “They Want to Be Blithe and Gay, But Their Life Is Just One Derned Play After Another.”

                                                                                       

BEFORE I REACH for my hammer and endeavor to work off the cold fury engendered in me by the early productions of the spring theatrical season, let me first say a word on behalf of dramatic critics. A dramatic critic is a misunderstood man. There is a general impression that he loves to knock. Such is not the case. He starts out at the beginning of his career, full of joy and optimism, glowing with happiness at the thought that, while other men are digging down into their gents’ trouserings for the price of admission, he, because he is a critic, can slide into theaters free.

P. G. Wodehouse
So buoyant does this reflection make him that at first he thinks he is going to like everything be sees. But gradually the modern dramatist sours him. The catch in being a critic is that you cannot pick and choose; you have to take the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad; and there is so much more bad than good. If life were all “Fair and Warmers” and “Cohan Revues” and “Hit-the-Trail Hollidays,” I should be the sunniest little creature on earth—a sort of Josephus Daniels. Instead of which, I go about the place with a black scowl on my face. My dog cringes when he sees me. Children scream and have fits if they encounter me unexpectedly in the street. And all because I have had to see “Pay-Day,” “The Blue Envelope,” “A King of Nowhere,” and “The Heart of Wetona” on successive nights.

“PAY-DAY” IS IN A class of its own. It is not really a play at all. It is a galvanized corpse like that one of which the late Edgar Allan Poe wrote so breezily and with such arresting attention to detail. It started out by being a good, honest, decent failure, such as we all have written in our time. It really died on the opening night, but was artificially stimulated into a grisly parody of life by an enterprising management.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Glorious Feeling

From the Vault Dept.: Schenectady’s Proctors Theatre recently announced its 2013-14 Broadway season, and as a reminder that they’re old hands at bringing in what’s recently been sprung from the Manhattan stage, here’s my review of one such show that arrived a quarter-century ago.

                                                                      
               

THE SUCCESS THIS MUSICAL has had on stage is a tribute to the ghosts it must overcome. Written as it was for the screen, and showcasing the dancing talents of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, it was a big hit for MGM in 1952, a peak of collaboration among Kelly, co-director Stanley Donen, and scriptwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

A far more recent production.
They had a built-in success factor with the songs, by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, and an irreverent, self-referential story that poked fun at the emergence in the late '20s of talking pictures.

Perhaps the wisest act of the producers who placed the show onstage was to stay very close to the original. Choreographer Kathryn Kendall has stayed close to the original Kelly-Donen routines, too, so in many ways it's like revisiting the motion picture – the same formula that works for the stage version of The Wizard of Oz.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Juggling Careers

Balls in the Air Dept.: As was the case with violinist Julia Fischer, I’ve reviewed the Flying Karamazov Brothers more than once – more than four times, in fact, but how the hell much can you bear? Here are some samples, illustrating how much has changed – and how much hasn’t – over the years.

                                                                                   

The Flying Karamazov Brothers
Proctor’s Theatre, Oct. 8, 1994

When you’ve mastered juggling and don’t have an Ed Sullivan Show as an outlet, your choice of performance style tells a lot about you. The Flying Karamazov Brothers have the kind of talent easily swallowed by the juggernaut of glitzy Las Vegas-style show-making, but they have an anarchic sensibility that keeps them fresh.

“Club Sandwich” is their newest show, and the most scripted yet (except, perhaps, for the Shakespeare they’ve done). Woven from bits of film noir and vaudeville tradition, livened with ad libs and shameless puns, it’s a fast-moving two-act tale of mystery and suspense, not the least of the latter being the group’s classic challenge to the audience to provide unusual juggling fodder.

This moment came at the end of the first half, letting us see how adept the Karamazovs are at playing off of an audience. They wove bits of business around the items – which included such strange offerings as a couple of shoes, a small cactus, a large Slinky and a stick of butter – before settling on a small stool, a greased cylinder made wobbly by a couple of heavy balls inside, and a half-gallon of ice cream. Minus its container.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Fischer Queen

From the Classical Vault Dept.: We in New York’s Capital Region were lucky to have a few visits from violinist Julia Fischer as her career was beginning to skyrocket. Here are my accounts of three of those appearances. I make no apology for my unabashed fandom.

                                                                              

Julia Fischer, violinist, and Milana Chernyavska, pianist
Union College Memorial Chapel
Oct. 28, 2005

Julia Fischer
I HEARD HER PLAY; now I’m a believer. The 22-year-old violinist Julia Fischer has been charting a meteoric rise throughout the world, with significant performances this year throughout the U.S. That we got her here in Schenectady, on the heels of triumphant performances of the fiendish Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony, is a tribute both to series organizer Daniel Berkenblit’s foresight in choosing talent and to Fischer’s own love for playing chamber music.

And thanks to our dedicated Homeland Security forces, what should have been a trio was reduced to two when cellist Danjulo Ishizaka, no doubt packing plastique in his Stradivarius, was denied a visa. Fischer and pianist Milana Chernyavska came up with a program just as compelling as what had been planned, with an added bonus: We got to hear Fischer make her way through the pinnacle of the violin repertory, Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

What’s to follow will be a shameless paean to Fischer’s performance, so I want to make sure to emphasize that in her partnership with Chernyavska – they played sonatas by Schumann and Franck – the two of them worked together as one. In a trio, the pianist is understood to have an equal footing. As a duo with violin, there’s a too-long tradition of being a back-seat player.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Thoughts on Writing Criticism

From the Classroom Dept.: Several years ago I was invited into an area high school as an artist-in-residence, charged with preparing a group of seniors to see Shakespeare & Co.’s traveling production of “Hamlet.” I wrote the essay below to help inspire them when it came time to write the required post-performance essay. It was a lost cause. Granted, I may not be the most riveting instructor, but even as I entered the classroom miasma of hostility hung in the air. And the resultant essays only confirmed the appalling state of semi-literacy of diploma-clutchers today.

                                                                                          

A CREATIVE PRESENTATION, whether it be of drama, music, dance, art, film, or that never-never land termed “performance art,” offers the interpretation – rendered by one or many artists – of the human condition and environment. We of the audience hope to be moved in some manner: delighted, perhaps, by a knockabout comedy; enraged into action by an agit-prop drama; saddened yet energized by a Sibelius symphony.

We react; we bring home a memory of that reaction. We share our thoughts with friends. We’re all critics. Putting those thoughts to paper, however, allows you to become part of the artistic team. Performers perform and creators create for an audience, and the critic becomes the for-the-record voice of that audience. Although it’s often dismissed as the bastard runt of the creative arts, criticism invites us to take a creative spin around the presentation, offering encouragement, constructive commentary, and informed opinion.

As you contemplate your essay about the production of Hamlet you’re about to see, consider the following:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Fat Man's Diet (Part Two)

Lost Masterpieces Dept.: Many years ago, I wrote a few sample chapters of a tome titled The Fat Man's Diet, which included essays on the joys of being fat, a selection of rich recipes, and mini-biographies of the fat and famous. I sent it to publishers and agents, most of whom ignored it, although I was told by a couple that the book was too confusing. Is it a cookbook? A humor book? What? These are the concerns of the excessively skinny, of course. Here's the second section. (You’ll find the first chapter here.)

                                                                            

II. APPETIZER
The oil in the pan is about to smoke: just right. The Fat Man takes the pan in one hand and, with the other, ladles a measure of batter into it, swirling the pan to cover the bottom with a nearly translucent layer.

It’s a rhythmic process, one the Fat Man performs with the pride of an acrobat. He is cooking crepes, the thin French pastries that will then be filled with meat or fish, fruit or ice cream, or possibly swirled in a flaming bath of orange liqueur.

His guests regard him with awe. He waited until they arrived before beginning this process, for he knows how impressive he looks upon this, his most comfortable turf: the kitchen.
Cooking at Home

Nero Wolfe
Stove, refrigerator, countertop, sink. A contemporary work ethic demands that success be measured by time away from home, time spent workaholically locked in an office. That’s why contemporary apartments cram the kitchen into a space even a small cat would find uncomfortable.

The Fat Man has no tolerance for this attitude. His kitchen is a workplace, and artist’s studio. Ideally, he will have a six-burner, two-oven stove, one of the big black units by Garland or Vulcan that restaurants use. In fact, with so many restaurants going south these days (the price they pay for catering to the thin), such stoves are always available second-hand.

A two-barrel sink is preferred, as is an oversized refrigerator and stand-alone freezer. Plenty of counter space is essential, because the Fat Man loves his cookery toys almost as much as the food itself.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Foods of Spring

From the Vault Dept.: Just to emphasize the disconnect between the snow on the ground and the start of spring, here’s a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the food of love, such as there is.

                                                                                          

OGDEN NASH, IN “Reflections on Ice-Breaking,” epitomized it thus: “Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker.” Chocolate and booze are distinguished staples of courtship, but sometimes you just want to hit the sack. Is there any grub that will help?

We are an admirably goofy species. We name a favored destination “pudendum,” from a Latin word (phrase, actually) meaning “something of which to be ashamed,” and go on to obsess about it. We note that nature has scattered phallic and pudendal whatnots hither and yon, and decide that if it’s in the least bit edible, it will send magical powers to the thus-aped place. From the travesty of killing rhinos for their horns to the silliness of wolfing down forests of asparagus, we’ve ingested plenty in pursuit of a reliably randy-making nostrum.
   
Recently I presented a class on this theme, where we looked at a list of putatively aphrodisiac foods and cooked and sampled some of them. Although I can’t vouch for any farther-reaching effects, I can tell you that nobody’s morals were challenged during our time together. Herewith, a few recipes. Try them as part of your own Valentine’s Day tête à tête, but keep in mind that the most effectively phallic items on your table are the candles with which you illuminate the meal.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Wine Maven

From the Wine Cellar Dept.: Sure, we’ve got wine stores a-plenty throughout the Capital Region. But this was nowhere near the case 25 years ago, when Mortie Schwartz toiled tirelessly and cheerfully in his small shop on Albany’s New Scotland Avenue, sharing his incredible knowledge and endless inventory. When I wrote the article below, for Capital Region magazine, he was 85. He died six years later, but it’s a tribute to his legacy that the store endures.

                                                                                    

DECEMBER 5, 1933: With the kindly insight that Americans shouldn’t be forced to be both poor and sober, the government has repealed the Volstead Act. Liquor sales are about to begin again. Legally, that is.

Mortie Schwartz;
photo by Russell Ley
Standing in front of a shop on Albany’s State Street that day were young Mortie Schwartz, his brother and a friend. “We hired a truck and driver,” Mortie recalled recently, “and as soon as we got word that Prohibition was over, we drove to Troy, to a wholesale druggist who had a liquor license. He gave us 14 or 15 cases of liquor – that’s all he would let us have – and we got back to State Street to find a crowd waiting in front of our store. They helped us carry the cases in and rip the tops off, and in 40 minutes we were sold out.”

This was how he began in the business of selling strong waters, and he has continued to do so ever since with ever-increasing acclaim. Today, Mortie Schwartz is recognized as one of the world’s most knowledgeable wine merchants, and in this age of hyperbole, that’s a literal fact.

Like the product he favors, he has aged well. Dry and mellow, with a good nose and sturdy legs. His hearing isn’t what it used to be, but he aids it with electronics. At his age – a fact he’d just as soon keep to himself – few can lay claim to the survival of most of the senses; Schwartz has sacrificed the one sense that isn’t important to a wine connoisseur.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dear Mr. Dixon

“I ENJOY YOUR BOOKS very much,” the letter probably began. I never kept a copy of it. I was eight or nine when I wrote it. It was my first piece of fan mail, written to the man whose impressive body of work fueled my reading enthusiasm during those early, crucial years.

Stories of any kind fascinated me, and I couldn’t wait to be able to read them to myself. My mother obliged with long sessions during my pre-school years in which she’d read to me and insist I read right back to her, “with expression,” she’d say. “Make believe you’re the character who’s speaking.”

Which meant that I brought to The Poky Little Puppy a dramatic intensity that might well have set author Janette Sebring Lowrey into a swoon. I could read it to myself when I was four; by the time I entered kindergarten, any kid’s book was fair game, and I was given the task of reading aloud to my fellow students at the end of the day as the teacher straightened up the classroom.

My family had just moved to Glen Rock, New Jersey, where they bought a large stucco-sided Craftsman bungalow. It seemed a place of endless warrens, and I found great play places in attic and basement. But best of all was the discovery of a box of books: a couple of dozen Hardy Boys mysteries. Once again, I needed parental assistance in getting the words off the page, and I was terrifically frustrated when I had to wait for that help.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hear My Song

Critical Blarney Dept.: Seems to me that the Capital Region was a lot more Hibernian in its mid-March entertainment in years past, before we devolved into celebrating merely by coloring our beer and our bagels green. Here’s one such account of mine from 1988.

                                                                                          

WEARING CABLE-KNIT SWEATERS and ale-freshened grins, the Clancy Brothers and Robbie O’Connell gave a St. Patrick’s Eve performance at Proctor’s Theatre with the practice of entertainers who’ve been touring for a good long time and the enthusiasm of those who don’t seem to tire of touring.

The Clancy Brothers
They had friends aplenty in the crowded house, friends who joined in with gusto when such old favorites as “Wild Rover” and “Tom Finnegan’s Wake.”

“You just go ahead and sing along,” Tom Clancy invited, “and if the fellow next to you looks at you funny, just belt ‘im!”

All such rowdiness took place within the songs, however, that told of drinking and battling and drinking and working and drinking and ... you get the picture.

Each of the brothers – and nephew O’Connell – has a style and personality that gives the family feeling of the performance a variety as well.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Love One Another or Die

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Neither the piece below nor the pieces described come from too many years back, at least by clssical music’s calendar. But the publication – andante.com – is dead and the push for new music is hampered by a superannuated audience that seems to want only to hear those damn (last three) Tchaikovsky symphonies again and again.

                                                                                         

SIX CONCERTS IN THIS YEAR’S Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood were devoted to “American Music of the Past Fifteen Years.” The first of those six was an entertaining and occasionally maddening mix of orchestral and chamber works, with a set of hauntingly gorgeous song settings by William Bolcom at the center.

Frank Zappa
Toward the end of his life, Frank Zappa wrote extensively for the Synclavier, a computer-assisted keyboard that allowed him to fashion works that otherwise would be unplayable – picking up from the work of player-piano wizard Conlon Nancarrow. “G-Spot Tornado,” a fury of delicious riffs and bumptious rhythm, appeared on his Wal-Mart-forbidden instrumental album “Jazz from Hell.” Undaunted, the Berlin-based Ensemble Modern worked with Zappa to make an instrumental transcription of the piece (not surprisingly, they’ve effectively done the same with Nancarrow etudes) and it opened the Tanglewood concert with a virtuoso flourish.

The players, a mix of students and faculty at the summer-long Music Center program, certainly had the chops to get through the work, and conductor Laura Jackson kept the difficult rhythms intact. The only problem was instrumental balance – the string ensemble in front of the group was completely obscured by the rest.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Laura

Guest Blogger: Saki. It was the Farsi pen name of Burma-born, Scottish writer H.H. Munro, who was born in 1870 and whose mother died two years later as the result of an accident with a cow. Like P.G. Wodehouse, Saki was raised by aunts. He began his writing career as a journalist, but soon was publishing his macabre, amusing short stories. Although officially too old to serve in World War I, he joined a battalion of Royal Fusiliers and was killed by a German sniper in 1916. The story below comes from his 1914 short-story collection, Beasts and Super-Beasts.

                                                                        
    

H. H. Munro (Saki)
Photo by
E.O. Hoppé
“YOU ARE NOT really dying, are you?” asked Amanda.

“I have the doctor’s permission to live till Tuesday,” said Laura.

“But to-day is Saturday; this is serious!” gasped Amanda.

“I don’t know about it being serious; it is certainly Saturday,” said Laura.

“Death is always serious,” said Amanda.

“I never said I was going to die.  I am presumably going to leave off being Laura, but I shall go on being something.  An animal of some kind, I suppose.  You see, when one hasn’t been very good in the life one has just lived, one reincarnates in some lower organism.  And I haven’t been very good, when one comes to think of it.  I’ve been petty and mean and vindictive and all that sort of thing when circumstances have seemed to warrant it.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fraud at the Cybertrough

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Although this piece dates back thirteen years, most of its advice still holds true (and the credit bureau phone numbers are still good). Having just been the victim of a counterfeited credit card, I know the pain of some of the nastiness described below.

                                                                                                    

THE INTERNET IS a terrific source of information, but some of it may be hitting too close to home. You’ve no doubt seen the e-mails offering tips on how to “find out anything about anyone” – what if that anyone is you? Are your credit card numbers out there, waiting to be swiped? Is somebody out there grabbing hold of your whole financial identity?

Identity theft is one of three particularly nasty scams awaiting the unsuspecting Internet user; we’ll introduce them and offer some tips to avoid becoming a victim. Of the three, theft of identity is the worst, with the potential of damage that can take years to correct.

If you’re looking for bargains on the Internet, beware the proliferation of counterfeit goods. Big-ticket items peddled on the net aren’t always what they’re supposed to be – you’re taking the same chance you take buying that Rolex off a street vendor.

And just as rogue e-mail can cripple your system, clever hackers can worm their way into your computer, steal passwords, and ultimately cripple your machine. Just being online makes you vulnerable, but we’ll show you some software programs that add a firm layer of protection.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fraud on the Loose

MY WATERSHED MOMENT came a couple of Sundays ago, as pianist Vladimir Feltsman returned to the stage of Union College’s Memorial Chapel and played the last of the Chopin nocturnes. It was an encore to a concert that had finished with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” about as grand a display of virtuosity as you can get this side of Alkan.

Vladimir Feltsman
And then he played the Chopin piece which, in that context, was more compelling than any Chopin performance I’ve heard before. That’s when I realized that, as a critic, I’m a fraud. I try to render judgment in terms of absolutes. It makes me sound smart. When I force myself to confront myself, I see that I’m making it up as I go along.

How could I judge this piece? This concert? The experience was riddled with paradox. For one thing, I didn’t particularly care for the way Feltsman played the nocturne. It was too loose-limbed, its opening notes too melodramatic. But after the thunderous close of “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the last of the preceding pictures, the churn of emotion in the hall was so high that the touch of melodrama – which soon disappeared – made a perfect transition, easing down on the brakes.

I have this belief that perfection in Chopin’s nocturnes was achieved in the recordings of Arthur Rubinstein and few others. Which reveals another facet of my fraudulent thinking. I’ve let myself be a victim of the dance-with-the-girl-you-came-in-with phenomenon, believing that the first recording I got to know of a particular piece was the true and only one. I try not to admit that, especially to myself. It didn’t hurt that I was listening to Rubinstein and Toscanini and Heifetz. I learned some great interpretations. Or maybe it did hurt: I became obsessed with precision.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dance Double Feature

Straight to the Barre Dept.: Once upon a time, dance was a vital component of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The amphitheater was built so that the stage would replicate that of the NY State Theater, home of the New York City Ballet, and, beginning in 1966, the company spent three weeks each summer in residence there. That, of course, was before the current crew of pecksniffs and poltroons took over the running of SPAC, and dance there has declined to an embarrassing degree. Here’s a pair of pieces I wrote in 1985, two years after the death of George Balanchine. Patricia McBride is now associate artistic director of Charlotte’s North Carolina Dance Theatre; Sean Lavery recently retired from NYCB and the School of American Ballet.

                                                                                          

Patricia McBride with Edward Villella
EVEN BEFORE WORK BEGAN on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Patricia McBride had danced in the area. “Edward Villella and I performed up at Skidmore College when they were making plans for the center,” she says. “I got to see what was on paper, and it all seemed pretty fantastic. But not as fantastic as seeing it actually get built!”

When the New York City Ballet arrived for SPAC’s first season in 1966, McBride recalls, she danced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the piece that will open this year’s season – SPAC’s 20th.

“I’ve seen such growth about the place,” McBride told me in a recent interview. “In more ways than one. I remember the first year there, the trees at the entrance had just been planted, and they were tiny little babies. At the same time, the audiences weren’t as large as they are now: that’s a huge place by New York City standards, with something like 5,000 seats in the amphitheater, and I remember times when it wasn’t even half full.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Russian Seasoned

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Last month, the Tokyo String Quartet made a stop in Troy on its farewell tour, and one of the pieces the performed was written for them by the Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach. Here’s a link to my review of that concert. It reminded me of a concert over a decade ago, when Auerbach visited the area with Gidon Kremer’s ensemble. Update: A review of the same concert that I wrote for classicstoday.com appears at the end. 

                                                                                    

BETWEEN CONCERTS IN CHICAGO and Manhattan, Gidon Kremer and his virtuoso string orchestra made a stop in Schenectady. They don’t get much more world class than this group, yet it’s pretty much the norm for the Union College Concert Series, which has presented this level of talent for 30 years.

Julia Korpacheva, soprano, with Kremerata
Baltica at Union College, 28 April 2002.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Although he’s one of the world’s top violinists, Kremer prefers the role of iconoclast to icon. He plays the standard repertory, but you’re more likely to find him behind a new work – probably one that he commissioned. During the past few years he has celebrated the music of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla with concerts and a series of recordings; he is also closely allied with the music of Schnittke, Vasks, Pärt, Adams and others.

He formed Kremerata Baltica in 1997 to bring together talented string players from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Rehearsals are reputed to be lengthy and exhausting, but the results, to judge from last Sunday’s concert, are amazing. The big familiar work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” written for string sextet but so bursting at the seams that it worked just as well in a version for string orchestra.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Friday, March 08, 2013

Don Quixote and His Last Windmill

Guest Blogger: Ben Hecht. He co-wrote the play “The Front Page” and screenplays for “Underworld” (which won him an Academy Award), “Scarface,” “Twentieth Century,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Gunga Din,” “Wuthering Heights,” “His Girl Friday,” “Spellbound,” “Notorious,” and hundreds more. But he was a newspaper reporter before, among other assignments churning out a column in 1921 for the Chicago Daily News. He collected 64 of those columns into the book 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, from which this selection is drawn.

                                                                                       

SHERWOOD ANDERSON, THE WRITER, and I were eating lunch in the back room of a saloon. Against the opposite wall sat a red-faced little man with an elaborate mustache and a bald head and a happy grin. He sat alone at a tilted round table and played with a plate of soup.

Ben Hecht. Caricature by Gene Markey (1923)
“Say, that old boy over there is trying to wigwag me,” said Anderson. “He keeps winking and making signs. Do you know him?”

I looked and said no. The waiter appeared with a box of cigars.

“Mr. Sklarz presents his compliments,” said the waiter, smiling.

“Who’s Sklarz?” Anderson asked, helping himself to a cigar. The waiter indicated the red-faced little man. “Him,” he whispered.

We continued our meal. Both of us watched Mr. Sklarz casually. He seemed to have lost interest in his soup. He sat beaming happily at the walls, a contagious elation about him. We smiled and nodded our thanks for the cigars. Whereupon after a short lapse, the waiter appeared again.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Bach is Coming Back, PDQ

From the Concert Vault Dept.: Peter Schickele recently announced that he is going to “reconvene P.D.Q. Bach concert touring in the 2013-2014 season.” It’s been three years since he last did so, and devotees of the composer whose works Schickele tirelessly has discovered over the years know that the once-annual Manhattan concerts are a thing of the past. He’s offering two programs: The Jekyll and Hyde Tour and The What’s Your Sign? Tour.  Both of them, he writes, “provide large doses of P.D.Q. Bach music with some Peter Schickele music thrown in just to provide some relief from the madness.” In celebration, I offer a look back at a P.D.Q. appearance at Proctor’s Theatre back in 1986. My Schenectady Gazette review is followed by my Metroland advance, with a bit of Heifetziana thrown in because it was on the same page and I don’t know where else to put it.

                                                                                         

WHEN PROFESSOR PETER SCHICKELE presents the music of P.D.Q. Bach, there are two formats he commonly employs. One is a concert with full orchestra, as happens at the end of every year in New York City. The other is called “The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach” and utilizes a small ensemble of piano, singers and stagehands. The latter was brought to Proctor’s Theatre Monday evening and proved yet again that show holds its own after 15 years of steady touring.

This is Schickele at his most theatrical. The musical discoveries, themselves hilarious in their own right, take a back seat to the onstage carryings-on, all committed in the name of lampooning concert traditions.

There is much to lampoon. If you’ve ever seen, say, a concert pianist glowering over his shoulder at latecomers, you would appreciate the hard time stage manager William Walters gives those slinking in ten minutes after showtime.

Schickele himself works from a lectern (after a dilatory arrival) and tells outrageous stories about this ersatz composer and his ersatz music, suffering the hisses and catcalls of a delighted audience as he cracks pun after pun.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Pierce’s 1894 in 1991

From the Dining Room Dept.: In its heyday, Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant drew customers not from New York’s Finger Lakes wine country but also the Watkins Glen racetrack. It began in 1892 when Crawford Pierce won the Elmira property in a lottery, which cost him $200. He opened a hat factory. Soon after, the Double Decker Cigar Factory opened upstairs. By 1894 there was a lunchroom in operation. Guest rooms were added. A bowling alley went in. But it was the restaurant that soon came to dominate. At a dinner there in 1984, what was then the world’s most expensive bottle of wine – an 1806 vintage valued at $28,000 – was shared among 22 guests. Sadly, the business closed in 2008 and the many antiques inside were auctioned off. Here’s my account of a wine dinner I enjoyed there in 1991.

                                                                                                    

“YOU DON'T TOAST the birth of a child with a scotch,” said New York Wine and Grape Foundation president Jim Tresize in his welcoming speech, “and Jesus didn't turn water into gin. Wine is special.”

The dining room at Pierce's.
Wine, particularly New York’s wine, was celebrated in its proper context as Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant presented its annual barrel dinner last month at an elegant eatery just south of the Finger Lakes, home to many of the state’s wineries.

It’s not as much of a barrel dinner as was the case a decade ago; that is, not as many unreleased vintages are being offered for consideration. But it’s still an excellent opportunity to sample and compare recently-released selections while enjoying the art of pairing those wines to splendidly prepared food.

Pierce’s has been run by the same family since it opened at the end of the last century and the family is still very much involved. Joe Pierce is the dynamo currently charged with maintaining the high standards that have given the restaurant a superb reputation. He’s a brusque but affable fellow who does what surprisingly few others in the business appreciate: support the local winemakers.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Saving the Fallen

From the Drama Vault Dept.: Sometimes the subject to be reviewed suggests, by its nature, a style of writing that echoes the subject. I most often find this practice annoying. Which doesn’t mean I’ve never succumbed. Here’s my review of a classic temperance melodrama that played at the Cohoes Music Hall in 1986.

                                                                                  

IT CANNOT BE DENIED that the problems of intemperance are worthy of the full dramatic treatment such as was rendered Sunday night at the Cohoes Music Hall. Surely the reaction of the crowded house proved that many are so affected in private life and are grateful to find expression of a topic so difficult otherwise to discuss.

“The Drunkard, or The Fallen Saved” also is a welcome relief from the hectorings of temperance lecturers, some of whom have visited this self-same hall of late. The grim story is dressed in the fine clothing of melodrama, adorned with charming and instructive melodies, and acted by a professional cast who have poured heart and soul into their impersonations.

Particularly riveting is the performance by Mr. Edwards, from New York, of the hero Edward Middletown, who was received with cheers from the audience. It was whispered that Mr. Edwards could not possibly have given so fine a pantomime of the effects of delirium tremens had he not an actual experience to draw upon, but it must be remembered that he is, after all, resident of a city in which far worse may be glimpsed in tavern and street.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Great Caesar

From the Vault Dept.: He played saxophone with Benny Goodman and has performed in a Metropolitan Opera production. And those are the least of his credits. Sid Caesar revolutionized television and sketch comedy in 1950 when “Your Show of Yours” debuted. He parlayed TV success into work in movies – “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Grease” are among them, as well as a number of films by his onetime writer, Mel Brooks. Now 90, a much-diminished Caesar is in a California nursing home but, as Brooks recently noted, he still knows many of his old routines. Some of which he performed at Proctor’s Theatre in 1988, as my review below indicates.

                                                                                    

LET'S LOOK FIRST OF ALL at what Sid Caesar doesn’t do: he doesn’t do smut. Last night’s show at Proctor’s Theatre was about as G-rated as they can come. He doesn’t do political material, he doesn’t take swipes at particular people or cities. That gives his act a timelessness.

Sid Caesar
When he tells jokes, he puts them in the context of a character or a bit. Because his humor is planted in the vaudeville tradition of showing an audience to itself. “I do comedy about the truth,” he declared at the outset of his act, but it’s more than that: it’s comedy of pain, which is about as universal a truth as you’ll find.

There’s no face in show business that shows pain so well and in such agonizing detail. The eyebrows take on a life of their own; the eyes bulge; that nervous tongue flickers like a nervous snake’s. And then the body begins to bend, to cringe, as the face tries to assure us that it’s okay, it’s under control. Thus Caesar can spend a precious several minutes just showing us the tribulations of a young man at a dance who can’t decide where to place his hands.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Curious Story of Lewis Fish

From the Depths of the Vault Dept.: Not to inflict too much of my juvenalia, but here’s a piece I co-wrote with friends and placed in our town newspaper, the Ridgefield (Conn.) Press. As noted here, we styled ourselves as the Pickwick Club in high school, creating a series of parallel characters who ostensibly lived in fin-de-siècle Ridgefield and eschewed the companionship of women (we didn’t date much). The article is filled with in-jokes, some of which are so obscure that I can’t even recall the antecedents. But I’m pleased with the accompanying photo, which we worked together to style and which I snapped. My character, named George Gordon (you easily can reckon why), wasn’t in the old club at whatever moment we were capturing, so you’re spared my visage.

                                                                                      

WHEN THE PICKWICK CLUB was founded in Ridgefield in 1895, it was intended as a vehicle for Milo Wumbek of South Salem Road and Reddingite Jack O’Diamonds to protest their unfair treatment at the hands of a fickle young woman. What might have been an effective organization never appreciably materialized, however, because too many members tended to forget themselves when faced with temptation.

The Ridgefield, Conn., Pickwick Club, c. 1920
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Of the 19 men who joined during the Club’s 78 years, apparently only Wumbek and four others remained true to the cause and shunned the society of women. It is not certain how obsessive this was with them; the Club’s charter was very specific about forbidding “only the extended and emotionally compelling liaison” with women, recognizing, in another clause, “the unhealthy effect of extreme separation.” In spite of such leniency, 14 avowed bachelors were delinquent enough to warrant Club action. Of those 14, the story of Lewis Fish is perhaps most remarkable.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Friday, March 01, 2013

Block Full of Nuts

MY FIRST CAR, which I bought when I was 17, was a three-year-old orange VW Karmann-Ghia, its discounted price of $600 the result of damage to the right side of the body as well as a trio of bullet holes in the passenger-side door. The damage, incurred, the seller told me, when she was forced off the road by a too-aggressive driver, was so side-localized that the car looked fine when viewed from the left. The bullets had been fired into it while it was parked on a street in Waterbury, Conn., where the seller lived. Three rusting holes perforated the door; the slugs themselves had traveled into the driver’s-side door. You could hear them rattle when giving the door a shake.

Not my actual Ghia.
At the time, I had a part-time job in record store in a new strip mall in Ridgefield, Conn., where I’d lived for the preceding decade and from which high school I’d (barely) graduated. My family had moved the year before, so I room-rented from a friend’s family. My expenses were fairly low, but my income was pathetic.

I figured I’d save money by doing my own car repairs. This I learned from a legendary book: How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, by John Muir, a spiral-bound volume the grease-stained pages of which indicated which procedures I performed most often.

Thus I was changing oil (no filter – just a drain screen to clean), changing and gapping plugs, setting valve clearances, replacing shocks and brakes, learning that the tools needed for the tasks cost more than part-time work was netting. Following a brief, unhappy stint working at an electronics assembly bench, I went into the restaurant business.