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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Among the Gourmets

Striking Your Fancy Dept.: The Fancy Food Show is back in Manhattan, its first revisit since 2010. I’m about to step into the giddy morass of specialty treats, putting me in mind of the last time I visited, as described below.


THEY WERE AS DIFFERENT as chocolate and cheese, the items on display at the 55th annual Fancy Food Show in Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Center earlier this week, but they had in common a handmade determination. The 2,400 companies with products on view thus tried to straddle the concepts of corporate production and small-batch precision.

Photo by Lily Whiteman
Tapestry chocolates, for instance, is an 18-month-old offshoot of Daffin’s Candies, which started more than a century ago as a small Ohio retailer and now has a series of shops in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Tapestry displayed an all-new range of tasty items that included toffee, mint and peanut butter melt-aways, chocolate-covered pretzels, and good old gourmet-styled chocolate bars with the likes of caramel or peanut butter within.

“We’re introducing everything here,” said spokesman Stan Lefes, making sure we enjoyed a range of samples. “But because this is a higher-end product, we’re looking to get into specialty retail stores.”

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Chefs in the Making

Culinary students, CIA, Hyde Park, NY
21 June 2013 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Helluva “Town”

Tars in Bars Dept.: The world woke up to the phenomenon of Leonard Bernstein in 1943, when he made his conducting debut with the NY Philharmonic as an emergency replacement for an ailing Bruno Walter. It was a nationally broadcast triumph that landed him, the following day, on the front page of the NY Times. He was already working on the ballet “Fancy Free,” a commission from Jerome Robbins, a newly hired dancer with Ballet Theatre, which premiered the following April to great acclaim. Oliver Smith, who’d created the ballet’s scenic designed, proposed that Robbins’s basic idea, of three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave, could be turned into a musical. “On the Town” hit Broadway at the very end of 1944.


THE BARRINGTON STAGE PRODUCTION of “On the Town” is one of the finest revivals you’re likely to see in a long, long while. Director John Rando prepared for it in the best possible way: by directing the successful 2008 City Center Encores! production, from which he also brought the show’s emotional center, Tony Yazbeck, who plays the lovelorn sailor Gabey with heartbreaking intensity.

Elizabeth Stanley, Clyde Alves, Deanna Doyle,
Tony Yazbeck, Alysha Umphress and
Jay Armstrong Johnson. Photo by Kevin Sprague
Why does the show work so well? The obvious answer is Bernstein’s score. This was the first of a threesome of hit shows culminating in “West Side Story,” and it’s the most traditionally musical-theatery of them. If it seems at times like a revue, that’s not surprising – librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green were alumni of a Greenwich Village nightclub act called The Revuers, and knew how to craft material with sophistication and wit.

Much to the annoyance of conductor Serge Koussevitzy, one of Bernstein’s mentors, the young composer was as comfortable with clubs and theater and pop songs and jazz as he was with the classics, and Bernstein unselfconsciously informed “On the Town” with rambunctious, brassy, syncopated music, while giving the score (particularly the ballet numbers) more orchestral complexity than Broadway was accustomed to hearing – what the show’s original director, George Abbott, termed “Prokofiev stuff.”

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cattle Prods and Coffin Nails

Heigh-Ho, Opera! Dept.: Although current Glimmerglass Opera artistic director Francesa Zambello has a reputation for high-concept stagings, her time in Cooperstown has curbed many of the excesses described in the review below. I anticipate the current season, therefore, with great eagerness.


AS THE LIEBESVERBOT OVERTURE churns to its finish, Ryan MacPherson, as Luzio, sashays in front of the curtain and Elvis-ishly gyrates as he plays with his Elvis-like hair. He lights a (stage effect) gasper; he zips his fly. Which welcomes us to another phallo-centric Glimmerglass Opera version of a piece that either should have been treated with more respect or left to molder in deserved obscurity.

Juliet Petrus, Richard Cox,
Mark Schnaible, and Ryan MacPherson

Photo by Cory Weaver / Glimmerglass Opera
Das Liebesverbot was Wagner’s second finished opera, a piece inspired by (but rewritten from) Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. We’re shifted from Vienna to Palermo, but the new Regent, Friedrich (Mark Schnabile) remains, in Wagner’s words, “as German as possible.” He is on a campaign to shut down all entertainment, and has death-sentenced the unfortunate Claudio (Richard Cox) pursuing “free love” with his girlfriend – who, in the original, has borne him a child. But wait.

Wagner termed this a comedy, and there are flashes of Rossini-esque merriment here and there. But the piece has a somber center that unconvincingly anticipates Rienzi, its successor. John Conklin’s stage design makes excellent use of Glimmerglass’s unifying unit, which suggests Shakespeare’s Globe, but it’s put in the context of German Expressonist look that also informs costumes and lighting, making it seem at times that you’ve stumbled into Wozzeck.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Single Girls Guide

Say It with Music Dept.: We can’t have too many musicals, and with Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre set to premiere The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers by Lori Fischer and Don Chaffer July 9-Aug. 4, I’m recollecting another recent musical premiere there.


IT’S A NOVEL APPROACH to Women’s History Month. Send Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse 150 years into the future, where she practices her matchmaking by toiling as an agony aunt – Auntie Agatha, to be specific, a long-dead Dear Abby whose column she ghosts. True to the 1960s zeitgeist (and the spirit of Helen Gurley Brown), she knows there can be more to a woman’s life than mere marriage and seeks to liberate her readership of housewives from social and sexual oppression.

Photo by Joseph Schuyler
The Single Girls Guide is an intimate (nine-actor) musical that romps through the era with a Brill Building sound, but which, thanks to skillfully written songs by Tommy Newman, doesn’t imprison itself therein. For every number with period licks and doo-wop echoes, there’s one with a more complex musical-theater construction – such as the opening, “Dear Auntie Agatha,” where every needed aspect of time, place and character is nailed even as a trio of Housewives pulls off Newman’s tricky cascade of overlapping lyrics.

And that only serves to introduce Kate Loprest as the redoubtable Emma, staring at us with steely eyes (under a red bouffant) across her typewriter, lamenting that the advice she gives only serves to make a woman a cross “between June Cleaver and Anne Boleyn.” She wants to be taken seriously as a reporter, to do “Something Important” with her life, “instead of wasting away every day giving answers/Like which fork and how to hold your knife.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven

Guest Blogger Dept.: This is the first longer-than-a-quatrain poem I memorized, probably around the age of twelve. I was fascinated by the language, having never encountered such virtuoso rhyming before. Its author, Guy Wetmore Carryl (1873-1904), was by ambition a novelist, but if his reputation persists at all, it’s for the light verse that appeared in such periodicals as Life (the pre-Luce humor magazine), Harper’s, Collier’s, and many others, collected in such books as Grimm Tales Made Gay and the in which the piece below appeared, Fables for the Frivolous, published in 1898. Other delightful poems of his include “The Embarrassing Episode of Little Miss Muffet,” “How Jack Found that Beans May Go Back on a Chap,” and “How Rudeness and Kindness Were Justly Rewarded.”


Drawing by Peter Newell
A RAVEN SAT upon a tree,
And not a word he spoke, for
His beak contained a piece of Brie,
Or, maybe, it was Roquefort:
We'll make it any kind you please –
At all events, it was a cheese.

Beneath the tree’s umbrageous limb
A hungry fox sat smiling;
He saw the raven watching him,
And spoke in words beguiling.
J’admire,” said he, “ton beau plumage.”
(The which was simply persiflage.)

Two things there are, no doubt you know,
To which a fox is used:
A rooster that is bound to crow,
A crow that’s bound to roost,
And whichsoever he espies

He tells the most unblushing lies.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Backyard Musical Talent Ignored

Sadly Prescient Dept.: We roll back to 1984, near the start of my reviewing career. It took me but a few forays into the world of classical-music performances to realize how anti-provincial was the Albany area’s provincialism. At the time of Pola Baytelman’s Union College recital, reviewed below, she was an instructor at the college. She has since become Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Saratoga’s Skidmore College, where she gave the 2006 Moseley Lecture-Recital, which is quite an honor.


Pola Baytelman
THERE SEEMS TO BE a reverse chauvinism at work among the classical nusic audience, causing them to disregard local, established talent in favor of the headline artist who blows into town for a very fat fee. It’s the audience’s loss. Where do they think those headliners come from but areas very much like this one, culturally rich enough to allow (if not to patronize) burgeoning talent?

A recital by pianist Pola Baytelman at the Union College Memorial Chapel in.Schenectady had, sadly, none of the crowd which throngs the chamber music series there. They missed a splendid concert.

Ms. Baytelman is a piano instructor at Union. She also is a concert artist who has appeared in concert halls and with orchestras all over the world; given the polish and brio she gave to Tuesday’s performance, it is easy to understand why.

The opening selections, from “Iberia” by Isaac Albeniz, are evocations of his native Spain. The first is titled, appropriately, “Evocacion”; the second, “Fete-Dieu a Seville,” depicts the Festival of Corpus Christi. They are romantic pieces that benefitted from Ms. Baytelman’s ability to draw out the emotional content, although in the second piece she tended to get so expressive that the march-like character lost its impact in the more raucous sections.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Morning Breakfast Time

Counting on Calories Dept.: “For it’s Sunday morning breakfast time, / A time all men adore. / Why don’t the poets go into rhyme / And rave about it more?” – Cole Porter, from Jubilee (1935). I did what I could, Mr. Porter, albeit in prose.


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BREAKFAST? It was supposed to be the most important meal of the day – according to the staff of the Mayo Clinic, it “refuels your body, jump-starts your day and may even benefit your overall health” – yet we now honor that concept by throwing carb-laden crap into ourselves or, worse, skipping the damn thing entirely.

In which case, you’re denying yourself a slew of benefits that the Mayo docs go on to detail. “When you eat a healthy breakfast,” they advise, “you're more likely to eat more vitamins and minerals, eat less fat and cholesterol, have better concentration and productivity throughout the morning, control your weight and have lower cholesterol, which may reduce your risk of heart disease.”

They’re not talking about an Egg McMuffin, I suspect. Although that critter is supposed to weigh in at 300 calories, you’ve got 12 grams of fat, 260 mg cholesterol and nearly a gram of salt.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Days, My Friend

Gazette’s Loss Dept.: In 1990 the idea was floated around the Schenectady Gazette that I might merit a column. I wrote a few samples for the arts editor. Nothing ever came to fruition. I’ve posted other examples here and here; below is a piece depressingly prescient. Since the departure of Charles Dutoit as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Saratoga-season music director, the programming has grown more ridiculous still. (But you can see Dutoit conduct the BSO at Tanglewood this summer Aug. 3, 4, and 6.)


I'M BETTING THAT Charles Dutoit is going to give the Saratoga Performing Arts Center the musical personality it needs. It’s been touch and go since Eugene Ormandy died, a man whose charisma may have been exceeding his conducting ability towards the end.

Charles Dutoit
The Dennis Russell Davies interlude of the past few summers was a proud and exciting period, forcing a bemused crowd of racing enthusiasts to confront the works of such non-mainstream composers as Lou Harrison and Philip Glass and William Bolcolm (guys still alive, yet).

Brahms and Schubert and Beethoven were in there, too, so as not to make the name-chasers too nervous. Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma have been tossed at us fairly regularly because it’s nice to see someone live whom you’ve seen on Johnny Carson.

But Dutoit has already been making comments in the same wild, no-nonsense manner he adopts with the baton. Confronted with the charge that this summer’s programming for the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC is too heavily weighted with warhorses, he tossed the ball right back to Philadelphia.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

At Home

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Bill Bryson has a new book coming out in October. One Summer: America 1927 looks at that particular point in time to chart the overlapping stories of such luminaties as Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Shipwreck Kelly, Herbert Hoover, and even Silent Calvin Coolidge. I trust Bryson to pull this one off with ease. After all, he wove a fascinating book out of nothing more than a look at his own house, as described in my 2011 review.


I KNEW THAT FALLING DOWN your own stairs at some point is nearly inevitable. I knew that it can be lethal, especially to oldsters. I didn’t know that you can blame the staircase for it. Thanks to Bill Bryson’s relentless exploration of his living space – an old rectory in eastern England – I’ve learned that “unmarried people are more likely to fall than married people, and previously married people fall more than most of those.”

As for the stairs themselves: “Poor lighting, absence of handrails, confusing patterns on the treads, risers that are unusually high or low, treads that are unusually wide or narrow, and landings that interrupt the rhythm of ascent or descent are the principal design faults that lead to accidents.”

Having chronicled such activities as a trek along the Appalachian Trail and a trek across Australia, not to mention giving us A Short History of Nearly Everything, the bestselling Bryson had turned his engaging voice and penchant for obsessive research to the taken-for-granted aspects of life at home.

Specifically, his home, which means that we’re treated to the particulars of a time and place unique to Bryson’s life but offering resonance for anyone who’s ever wondered how the rituals and appurtenances of life at home developed.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Guest Blogger Dept.: Once again, Booth Tarkington takes the blogger seat, with an excerpt from one of his most famous novels, Penrod. Young Penrod is in a classroom, suffering the droning of the imperious Miss Spence. He has amused himself by dipping the pigtails of Victorine, the girl who sits in front of him, in the inkwell of his desk; he has recollected the inspiringly melodramatic adventures he enjoyed during a recent, illicit trip to a picture-show. But it’s more challenging still to escape the tortures of mathematics. Enjoy this journey back to the first decade of the last century.


Drawing by Gordon Grant
HALF THE MEMBERS OF THE CLASS passed out to a recitation-room, the empurpled Victorine among them, and Miss Spence started the remaining half through the ordeal of trial by mathematics. Several boys and girls were sent to the blackboard, and Penrod, spared for the moment, followed their operations a little while with his eyes, but not with his mind; then, sinking deeper in his seat, limply abandoned the effort. His eyes remained open, but saw nothing; the routine of the arithmetic lesson reached his ears in familiar, meaningless sounds, but he heard nothing; and yet, this time, he was profoundly occupied. He had drifted away from the painful land of facts, and floated now in a new sea of fancy

Maturity forgets the marvellous realness of a boy’s day-dreams, how colourful they glow, rosy and living, and how opaque the curtain closing down between the dreamer and the actual world. That curtain is almost sound-proof, too, and causes more throat-trouble among parents than is suspected.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bolder Baroque

Liner Notes Dept.: Another in the series of program notes I wrote for Dorian Recordings, this one for a CD by the sixteen-piece Boulder Brass – Colorado based and still going strong. The CD is out of print, but this will get you started.


Birth of the Brass

THE SOUND OF A brass ensemble summons an image of ceremonial splendor. If you see it set within the stratospherically vaulted sanctuary of an ornate cathedral, then you’re enjoying an image that also suits the beginnings of the brass ensemble, which first gained prominence backing Venetian choirs at the turn of the 17th century.

If the powers that were in pre-Baroque Rome had their way, no instruments ever would be allowed to intrude into the churches. Fortunately, 250 miles north of Rome in Venice, the situation was different. Venice was a freer, more adventurous city, and that included musical attitudes. Venetian composers welcomed instruments into the churches, none more enthusiastically than Giovanni Gabrieli.

We’re still a couple of centuries shy of the birth of the modern brass ensemble, but Gabrieli’s tone-painting, in combining instrumental and vocal forces – often multiple sets of them – paved the way. Unfortunately, not many instruments were as versatile as the voice back then. Keyboards, of course, and fretless strings, but of the brass family only the trombone could alter its pitch as readily as a singer. Trumpets and other horns were rudimentary, valveless, capable only of  natural harmonics.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Straw Hat Circuitry

Summer on the Boards Dept.: Once upon a time, summer was the season of an incredible array of plays presented in repertory at venues seemingly everywhere. While the number of such things has dwindled, the greater Albany area teems with promise – if you don’t mind driving to Massachusetts and Vermont and beyond. And you shouldn’t. Here are a couple of shows I reviewed at theaters that still, 26 years later, are going strong.


OSCAR WILDE'S The Importance of Being Earnest meets Noël Coward's This Happy Breed in a new play at the Dorset Theatre Festival. Thom Thomas wrote Without Apologies as a whimsical suggestion of what may have happened to the main characters of Earnest some two-score years later.

And so, surprisingly, Algy is married to Gwen and Earnest has wed Cecily – not what we were led to expect as the curtain went down in 1899.

Furthermore, Algy and Gwen are making do in a smallish house in a not entirely fashionable part of London with octogenarian Lady Bracknell tucked into an upstairs room except for her weekly pilgrimage downstairs to listen to the wireless. And they let rooms to a lodger, a musician.

Into this set-up come Earnest and Cecily and their blowsy, 30-year-old daughter, Brenda, desperate for lodgings.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Byron’s Listening Den

Cool & Strange Dept.: I had the pleasure of contributing to Dana Countryman’s Cool & Strange Music! Magazine during its brief, glorious run. I wrote features about song-poems and Ian Whitcomb, and also contributed CD reviews. Here’s a pair of unlikely reviews from Issue #15.


Louis Philippe: Delta Kiss/Sunshine
Cherry Red Records

An industry unto himself, Louis Philippe shares a moniker with pre-Revolution French royalty and a singing style with countless Vegas crooners who warble with Wayne Newton-esque intensity.

“Delta Kiss” and “Sunshine” put two ten-year-old albums in one two-disc CD package, and they’re two of Philippe’s more relentlessly pop excursions, with lots of easygoing percussion, not-at-all-bashful use of echo, and the Covent Garden String Orchestra for that extra taste of smoothness.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Anything Goes"

Singing at Proctors Theatre on Cole Porter's birthday.
Photo by Patrick Dodson/Schenectady Gazette.

Friday, June 14, 2013

In Praise of Counsel

Poetry Slam Dept.: Not that I haven't enjoyed my time on the alienist's couch, but it does seem as if we're lately unable to function in any capacity whatsoever without the salve of such sessions. At least that's how it seemed when I wrote this several years ago.


(To the tune of “McNamara’s Band”)

O, MY BROTHER tried some fratricide when I was only three,
My father changed my underwear, my mother watched me pee;
I had a hunch I’d hate the bunch for what I’ve undergone,
But now that I’m in counseling, I know I led them on!

There’s a counselor for him and her, and one for little Jane;
There’s one for when you’re happy and there’s one if you’re in pain;
And on the street you’re bound to meet a counselor or two,
They counsel one another when there’s nothing else to do!

It’s a splendid thing, this counseling, it crawls into your mind,
You never know what secrets all the counseling will find;
What Doctor A may say today is like the third degree,
And then it’s contradicted when you talk to Doctor B!

O, it feels so good I'd hope you would consider what I say,
And find yourself a counselor to talk to every day
To ease your pain and dull your brain and make the world look nice –
Consider me a counselor, now take my damn advice!

– 24 January 2005

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Danny Rides Again

Once and Future Jazz Dept.: Dan Levinson is as protean a talent as they come in the jazz reeds department. He plays regular gigs in the NYC area, as the schedule on his website indicates, and every recording of his I’ve heard is a winner. He has performed in the Capital Region many times; here’s my account of small-group concert in 2005.


BY THE TIME THE BAND got to “Fidgety Feet,” they were in such a swinging groove that each solo topped the one that came before, topped it in inventiveness, intensity and that looseness of rhythm that would give any metronome a nervous breakdown.

Dan Levinson | 30 September 2005
Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Dan Levinson is a Manhattan-based clarinet and sax player with a passion for vintage jazz and the chops to play any of it in any style. At Friday night’s performance as part of Schenectady’s “A Place for Jazz” series, he sounded like Goodman, he sounded like Pee Wee Russell, he even, during his solo in “Satanic Blues,” aped the style of Sidney Bechet without the nervous vibrato. And that was just on clarinet.

Protean though his playing can be, he also sounds like Levinson, a player who has assimilated those classic styles and sees them through a post-bop lens. He can reharmonize a solo in a surprising way (although it’s arguable that Bix Beiderbecke already was doing that in 1924). As a leader, he assembled a septet of some of the finest players from his neighborhood and ours and led them through a series of tight, tricky arrangements paying tribute to a group that performed and recorded together for one year only, in 1939.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

. . . And Everything Nice

From the Spice Rack Dept.: My kitchen is a wonderland of herbs and spices, from the commonplace to the exotic, expanding each time I experiment with a new cuisine or pass another street-fair display of possibilities. Here’s my 2006 disquisition on the topic.


SPRING CLEANING, in my house, starts in the kitchen. Even as I’m tossing out crusty old jars of Gulden’s and those desiccated piles of capers that collect in the corner of the fridge, I’m considering the most formidable of my culinary battlegrounds: the spice cabinet, which also serves as an extended pantry.

Street Fair, NYC | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s a cabinet not far from the stove (bad idea number one: storing the spices near heat), with three shelves of herbs and spices, tea and powders in a mish-mash of old jam jars, tiny Tupperware caskets and crumpled glassine bags. They’re arranged in something that once was alphabetical order, a habit I’d might as well confess to, but that order deteriorates with each fancy meal.

Consider, first, the herbs and spices. I grew up, as you probably did, with a spice rack in the kitchen, a rack that boasted a dozen and a half identical containers cheerfully labeled and faded with age – especially the spices themselves. For years I thought paprika was a tasteless powder of dull orange, and didn’t see its brilliant redness until I got into the restaurant business.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My American Diary

Guest Blogger Dept.: Here’s a curio by Noël Coward, the first chapter of Terribly Intimate Portraits, published in the U.S. in 1922, reworking material from A Withered Nosegay, published earlier that year in the U.K., and adding what’s below. I won’t annotate the references because you should do your own damn research.



Noël Coward, author of My American Diary
Drawing by Lorn MacNaughtan
I felt that some sort of scene was necessary in order to celebrate my first entrance into America, so I said “Little lamb, who made thee?” to a customs official. A fracas ensued far exceeding my wildest dreams, during which he delved down – with malice aforethought – to the bottom of my trunk and discovered the oddest things in my sponge bag. I think I'm going to like America.

I have very good letters to Daniel Blood, Dolores Hoofer, Senator Pinchbeck, Violet Curzon-Meyer, and Julia Pescod, so I ought to get along all right socially at any rate.

It would be quite impossible to give an adequate description of one’s first glimpse of Broadway at night – I should like to have a little pocket memory of it to take out and look at whenever I feel depressed. I shall feel awfully offended for Piccadilly Circus when I get back.

God! How I love frosted chocolate!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Actor’s (and Playwright’s) Dream

Tony Award Lookback Dept.: Being an offbeat, Off-Broadway kind of writer, Christopher Durang racked up Obie Awards for Sister Mary Ignatius, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and Betty’s Summer Vacation. He was nominated for a Tony Award for A History of the American Film, and finally won one of those things last night for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Here’s one of my early encounters as critic of his work, followed by the advance I wrote before the review.


DID YOU KNOW that your stay in purgatory can last anywhere from 300 years to 700 billion years? So says Sister Mary Ignatius, who adds that such really isn’t a long time in terms of eternity.

Christopher Durang
In Christopher Durang’s one-act tribute to botched Catholicism, this formidable nun delivers a lecture on life and destiny with a bouquet of dogma and half-remembered scriptural quotes.

As performed last week by Carol King, she had a small audience at RPI shrieking with laughter. And checking for bolts of punitive lightning.

Durang discharges mighty artillery in this script, and the Rensselaer Theatre Company’s production treated the script as gospel, giving it to us in its entirety. When performed on a double bill, an extensive nativity pageant may be omitted – but who would want to miss out on the sight of the baby Jesus being dropped from a two-person camel?

Consistent with Durang’s work, this play fires off a terrific premise that bogs down by the finale. Sister Mary is confronted by a quartet of former pupils, each of whom has in some way failed to live up to the high Catholic standards, one of whom is bent on revenge.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

So You Want to Run a Restaurant?

Blind Ambition Dept.: Such a fabulous dream, to see yourself helming a busy, successful restaurant. I can’t begin to imagine how much money has been wasted in ill-qualified pursuits of that dream. Here’s a piece from four years ago that looked at three new beginnings for some of the Albany area’s most acclaimed and experienced chefs. New World Bistro Bar continues to flourish, but Dale Miller now helms Sperry’s in Saratoga Springs, while Créo has burned through a couple of chefs since Andrew Plummer left the place – and he’s gone freelance.


IT WAS A “SOFT OPENING.” Ric Orlando’s return to Albany, the New World Bistro Bar (300 Delaware Ave.) quietly welcomed its first customers this week. On the first day, Orlando buzzes about the kitchen, tasting and correcting the sweet potato mash, streamlining the pantry prep station, sharing a delicious taste of his signature menudo (a tripe and posole stew). An electrician works in the middle of the kitchen, fixing the steam table’s outlet.

Ric Orlando at Albany's New World Bistro Bar
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Of course I have time to talk to you,” Orlando insists.

Running a restaurant is a peculiar dream, misunderstood by the many who succumb to the charm of a good food and hospitality without glimpsing the ferocious behind-the-scenes work. Many years ago, when I was cooking professionally and trying to assemble enough money to replace a dead car, I hitchhiked to work and back. Every other person who picked me up reacted to my destination by saying, “You know, as soon as I retire, I’m going to open a restaurant.” I hope for their sake that the madness passed.

But thank goodness that there are talented, determined individuals who nevertheless pursue that dream. Three of our finest area chefs have opened or will open in the Albany area lately, and shared their advice and experiences. Of course, I was talking to hospitality professionals, none of whom is going to say anything remotely negative about the business, other restaurants, or you.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Lily Goes Out

From the Sentiment-Steeped Past Dept.: I came across this little essay during yet another attempt to make sense of the computer files I have strewn across various hard drives and backup discs. I don’t know why I wrote it, and can’t remember why I wrote it in the third person. But it certainly captures a moment in my early stages of fatherhood.


LILY WAS AN independent-minded girl who had yet to turn two.

One afternoon, she woke from her nap, slid off the couch where she’d been sleeping, and hurried to where her father sat in front of his computer.

Lily's preferred costume in 1998.
She patted his leg to get his attention, then wrapped her hand around his finger and pulled him to his feet.

She pointed to the front door. “Out!” she said.

“You want to go out?” her father asked, somewhat needlessly.

“Da!” she said, nodding her head. “Da” was a simpler and more sensible form of “yes.”

“Let me check your diaper,” her father said, sliding an index finger behind the elastic of her pants. “Yep. As I suspected – that’s a pretty wet diaper. I want to put a dry one on you before we go out.”

Lily shook her head. She sang the word “no,” making it sound like a siren.

“Your butt’s all wet,” said her father. “It’ll just take minute.”

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Open Bookcases

Guest Blogger Dept.: We return, as always we should, to Robert Benchley, whose essays expanded on a tradition of self-deprecating humor found in the delightful blusterings of Mark Twain, while tempering the very American art of exaggeration by humanizing the fantastic. Here’s a good example, examining a problem of admirable insignificance.


THINGS HAVE COME to a pretty pass when a man can’t buy a bookcase that hasn’t got glass doors on it. What are we becoming – a nation of weaklings?

I thank them and walk into the
nearest dining-room table.
Drawing by Gluyas Williams.
All over New York city I have been trying to get something in which to keep books. And what am I shown? Curio cabinets, inclosed whatnots, museum cases in which to display fragments from the neolithic age, and glass-faced sarcophagi for dead butterflies.

“But I am apt to use my books at any time,” I explain to the salesman. “I never can tell when it is coming on me. And when I want a book I want it quickly. I don’t want to have to send down to the office for the key, and I don’t want to have to manipulate any trick ball-bearings and open up a case as if I were getting cream-puffs out for a customer. I want a bookcase for books and not books for a bookcase.”

(I really don’t say all those clever things to the clerk. It took me quite a while to think them up. What I really say is, timidly, “Haven’t you any bookcases without glass doors?” and when they say “No,” I thank them and walk into the nearest dining-room table.)

But if they keep on getting arrogant about it I shall speak up to them one of these fine days. When I ask for an open-faced bookcase they look with a scornful smile across the salesroom toward the mahogany four-posters and say:

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Big Band Boxes

From the Record Shelf Dept.: Yesterday’s piece about my time at radio station WMVI reminded me of my passion for swing bands, and to honor that I’ll share my reviews of a couple of excellent reissues – of two clarinet-playing leaders who probably wouldn’t wish to share a column.


MOSAIC’S RECENT-YEARS POLICY of reissuing only selected items from a given recording session has infuriated a few fortissimo posters on jazz-based internet message boards, but it gives us such treasures as the recently issued seven-CD Artie Shaw set, spanning the years 1938 to 1944, when Shaw and his orchestra were at the peak of their popularity.

And it starts with a bang: Shaw’s hit recording of “Begin the Beguine,” the Cole Porter song that had been deemed unrecordable because its unusual length would never gain popularity. It was his first session with a newly formed band on a newly signed contract with Victor Records, and went on to sell phenomenally.

But Shaw didn’t come from nowhere. A much-in-demand studio clarinetist in the 30s, he first put together a band with strings, a band that flopped even in the wake of Benny Goodman’s sudden popularity. He retrenched, redefined and put together “the loudest goddamn band in the world.” And was off like a shot.

That June 1938 Victor session also produced the only recording featuring the band with vocalist Billie Holiday (“Any Old Time”), who left shortly thereafter because of a myriad of racial issues. That vocal is included in the set, but 68 others were passed over, 43 of them by the reliable but not terribly jazzy Helen Forrest.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

“Say Hi to Lee!”

“DOC SEVERINSON USED TO SAY that whenever I appeared on the cover of Down Beat, that’s the issue the boys took into the men’s room.” Thus boasted Betty George, and I had no doubt of her story’s authenticity. Especially when I saw one of those covers.

Thanks to the movie “Behind the Candelabra,” anyone with a Liberace story to tell is telling it. Writer Mark Evanier has a great one here. Mine is comparatively lame, but it’s awash in background info that might interest Albany-area folks of, as they say, a certain age.

In 1983 I was dealing with chronic joblessness. I’d spent less than a week pushing vitamins at a GNC mall store, but decided, once my wife announced she was moving out in order to spend more time with her boyfriend, that such work was beneath me. In the shittiest, luckiest day of my life, I went on a date the night my wife vacated the apartment and through a convoluted series of circumstances ended up on another date that night – with the woman who would become my second and, as things look now, final wife.

Bad enough that I was married. Being jobless made me look like a complete failure, something I prefer to reveal in increments. So I got hired in the kitchen of Schenectady’s Mohawk Club, serving the self-styled elite (whom I later would take a swipe at in this article). And I pitched myself to the local newspapers as a classical music critic, resulting in some dribbles of such work that year and then, in early 1984, an offer to write regularly for Albany’s Metroland Magazine.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Always Looking

Art Isn’t Easy Dept.: In case your Metroland reading is intermittent – or you breeze on past whatever follows the food page – here’s a book review I have in the current issue.


THE RANKS OF WELL-KNOWN cartoonist-writers include James Thurber and Lou Myers, but unlike Robert Hughes, who moved from cartooning to art criticism, or Ad Reinhardt, whose cartoons were criticism, John Updike never professionally pursued his own drawing ability. In that regard, he’s like the early-20th-century writer Booth Tarkington, whose sketches livened the horrible penmanship of his letters.

Both of them wrote about art late in their respective careers. Tarkington’s Some Old Portraits (1939) paid gossipy but insightful tribute to a selection of 18th-century works; the 23 essays in Updike’s first collection, Just Looking (1989), introduced us to a novelist unafraid to summon beautiful language to examine his relationship with the pre-Abstractionist world. From Vermeer in the 17th century to the still-living Richard Estes, the collection also gave a nod to cartoonists like Ralph Barton and fellow writer-cartoonists like Goethe, Poe, Oscar Wilde and Flannery O’Connor.

Another collection, Still Looking, followed in 2005, focusing on American art and covering such painters as Copley, Homer, Whistler, Hopper, Pollock and Warhol as well as photographer Alfred Stieglitz. After Updike died in 2009, enough uncollected essays remained for a final celebration. As a title, Always Looking tops the first two with its comforting, if Olympian, declaration of continuity; as an essay collection, it’s broader-based, but also solidifies the range of Updike’s favorites.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Good-bye Sunshine

First Light of Day Dept.: I wrote a series of sample columns for the Schenectady Gazette in 1990, hoping to develop regular appearances in that capacity. This failed to transpire, especially as the newspaper was changing its identity at the time and I soon would be shitcanned even as a reviewer because I was too opinionated. Here’s a piece that now sees its first publication, and it speaks for itself. I’ll note only that Reeve was successful in his campaign.


BY THE TIME old man Proctor built his theaters in the Capital Region, the lot of actors had improved. Silent films were a big help, once they were accepted by the public, bestowing cult-hero status on performers who a few decades earlier were generally scorned by the public.

Christopher Reeve
That was when actors had to struggle to find accommodations on the vaudeville circuit. No respectable boarding house would have them. They wrote bad checks, fooled around with your daughters and lived a topsy-turvy, unpredictable life. They drank and stayed up late and probably cussed and gambled.

Their only moment of legitimacy, not to say power, was achieved on that stage as they impersonated fictions of a playwright’s fancy.

With actors now able to draw multi-million-dollar salaries and actually stay married for a few years, you’d think that ne’er-do-well image would have changed. But John D’Alessandro doesn’t think so.

D’Alessandro is spokesman for Latham’s Inter-Power of New York Inc., the outfit that’s all hot to put a 210-megawatt coal-fired generator on the Hudson at the south end of Halfmoon.