Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

To Bert Williams

Guest Blogger Dept.: Bert Williams died on 4 March 1922 at the age of 47. He was a top stage entertainer, a headliner with Ziegfeld, with his hit song, “Nobody,” a best-seller in the days of 78s. W.C. Fields termed him “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.” Newspaperman Ben Hecht, still years away from a renowned career as playwright and screenwriter, penned a tribute to the late Williams for the Chicago Daily News that later appeared in Hecht’s book 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. The use of dialect would have been unremarkable to the newspaper-reading public of that time.


“WELL,” SAID MR. BERT WILLIAMS, in his best “Under the Bamboo Tree” dialect, “If you like mah singin’ and actin’ so much, how come, you bein’ a writer, you don’t write somethin’ about youah convictions on this subjeck? Oh! It’s not youah depahtment! Hm! Tha’s jes’ mah luck. I was always the mos’ unluckiest puhson who ever trifled with misfohtune. Not his depahtment! Tha’—tha’s jes’ it. I never seems to fall jes’ exactly in the ri-right depahtment.

Bert Williams
“May I ask, without meanin’ to be puhsonal, jes’ what is your depahtment? Murder! Oh, you is the one who writes about murders and murderuhs foh the paper! Nothin’ else? Is tha’ so? Jes’ murders and murderuhs and—and things like tha’? Well, tha’ jes’ shows how deceivin’ looks is, fo’ when you came in heah I says to mahself, I says, ‘this gen’le-man is a critic of the drama.’ And when I sees you have on a pair o’ gloves I added quickly to mahself, ‘Yes, suh, chances are he is not only a critic of the drama, but likewise even possuhbly a musical critic.’ Yes, suh, all mah life I have had the desire to be interviewed by a musical critic, but no matter how hard I sing or how frequently, no musical critic has yet taken cognizance o’ me. No, suh, I get no cognizance whatsoever.

“Not meanin’ to disparage you, suh, or your valuable depahtment. Foh if you is in charge o’ the murder and murderuh’s depahtment o’ yo’ paper possuhbly some time you may refer to me lightly between stabbin’s or shootin’s in such wise as to say, foh instance, ‘the doomed man was listenin’ to Mr. Williams’ latest song on the phonograph when he received the bullet wound. Death was instantaneous, the doomed man dyin’ with a smile on his lips. Mr. Williams’ singin’ makes death easy—an’ desirable.’

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lo Porto Forever

From the Vault Dept.: My recent review of Troy’s Lo Porto Ristorante Caffè is actually my fourth such essay. I’ve tried to visit somewhat regularly since the place opened, and have accumulated some 3,000 words on the place, not counting the latest. To give you a unique historical perspective on the place, I’ve gathered those words below.


PROCTOR’S THEATER – the one in downtown Troy – represents the city itself to a certain extent. It has an attractive, old-fashioned facade but there’s nothing within. The fact that Troy has been neglected for so long (try explaining to your kids why it still calls itself the “collar city”) is working out to its benefit: it’s so good-looking that it boasts an inadvertent attractiveness.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson

It was chosen to represent turn-of-the-century Manhattan for Martin Scorcese’s new movie, based on Edith Wharton’s marvelous novel The Age of Innocence, and, as Scorcese himself discovered, it features some of the area’s best restaurants.

One of the newest of which is Lo Porto, open for just a year. Having earned a number of rave reviews already, the business is so good that you must have a reservation for one of the seatings if you’re trying to dine there on a weekend.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Terpsichore’s Day

DO YOU DANCE? Sure you do. I don’t. Or, at least, I try not to. It’s out of kindness, sparing the world any chance of witnessing my body attempting what’s for me some fairly complicated patterns of motion.

I want to tell you about an event where you can dine and dance and enjoy some terrific music, and then I’m going to reveal my surprisingly complicated dancing history.

The event takes place from 5 to 9 PM Friday, May 4, 2014, at the Old Daley Inn at Crooked Lake, which is a gorgeous venue that boasts excellent food service as well. It’s the annual fundraising gala by and for Musicians of Ma'alwyck, a chamber-music group known for its innovative programming.

The theme takes us back to Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, a time when the world’s most creative composers and artists and writers were gathered in that city and changing the world. The music of that era was particularly memorable, and Musicians of Ma'alwyck will be performing both popular and classical tunes of the period.

And there will be dancing. You’ll be dancing, no doubt, and you’ll be among professional dancers from the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Latham. You’re paying $130 per ticket, which gets you not only the music (and dancing) and food and wine – and a custom beer by brewmaster George de Piro – but also live and silent auction items to which, I’ll confess, I contributed.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Taste of Innocence

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: This week’s review is a re-visit to Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe in Troy.


I FIRST WROTE ABOUT Lo Porto in 1992, a year after the restaurant opened. Martin Scorcese had just chosen the city of Troy for exterior shots for his movie The Age of Innocence, representing Manhattan in the 1870s. This, I noted, was a tribute to the Collar City’s neglect of itself, sparing the historic buildings from the wrecking ball of “progress.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
What I wasn’t supposed to write was that Scorcese had also discovered Lo Porto, and was making himself at home in the restaurant. I hinted at it with, “Don’t be surprised when Marty shows up during the next few weeks.”

By the time of my next review visit, six years later, chef-owner Michael Lo Porto had taken over operations at the Sign of the Tree at the Empire State Plaza, and had put a CIA grad in the Troy kitchen. The food was as excellent as ever, but Michael himself more often was at the other restaurant. The next time I checked in was in 2004. The Lo Porto sense of family had been reinforced with the addition of Michael’s nephew, Carmello, as executive chef. The small (50-seat) restaurant had expanded into an adjoining space to gain a banquet room. During that visit, I sampled one of the mugnaia dishes that still are offered, which puts your choice of seafood (scallops, sole, trout, red snapper or a mixture) in a light cream sauce with olives and capers.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


James Occhino as Tennessee Williams
24 April 2014 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, April 25, 2014

Rethinking Romeo

From the Marley Dept.: Prokofiev’s original version of his “Romeo and Juliet” ballet left the lovers intact. Commissioned for the Bolshoi Theatre by artistic director Vladimir Mutnykh, the project went awry after the 1936 Pravda denunciation of Shostakovich and subsequent arrest of Mutnykh. By the time the “tragic ending” version premiered in Russia in 1940, much else had been changed, usually over the composer’s protests. The original version turned up recently, and Mark Morris premiered a dance to go with it at the Bard Summerscape Festival in 2008. Here’s my review.


IS IT A BAD IDEA to keep Romeo and Juliet alive at the end? If so, it joins the many other bad ideas Mark Morris has turned into virtues during his career – and never better than in his choreography of the ballet “Romeo & Juliet,” created for a recently discovered first-draft score by Prokofiev. Following a scenario he created with Sergey Radlov, Prokofiev reimagined (and re-titled) the work, crafting a fourth-act finish in which love triumphs over familial adversity.

It’s not giving away anything to note that the new (old) version finishes with an otherwordly pas de deux for the reunited lovers, as close to a traditional dance as Morris gets. It’s classical by way of modern by way of Morris, which means that attitude becomes Attitude, with a heightened sense of characterization – a maturity, a timelessness – told through the bodies and movement.

From the start, there’s characterization in this ballet as complex as in the original. Look beyond the leads and you see a busy background of continual interaction, with hands and arms especially important.

As richly detailed as this was, with a convincing build to the feuding, I was less convinced whenever the Prince of Verona (Joe Bowie) entered to quell the fights. Bowie has a terrific presence, but these scenes require a contrasting consonance that didn’t come across. I’m suspecting that it will ease into place over time; some aspects of this production looked a little under-rehearsed.

Allen Moyer’s set is minimalist – literally. Against the wood-grained ochre of the walls he places pint-sized buildings to represent the village.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kicking and Screaming

Tuning Atonally Dept.: Hilary Hahn stopped by the Troy Music Hall last week to give a recital of works that proved a bit too demanding on the ear for the squirmy audience. I’m afraid it pissed me off a little, as my Metroland review suggests.


O Hilary: Why do you seek to drag us into the 21st century? Or the 20th, for that matter? You’re an international star, one of the finest of violin soloists, and you could have eased into last week’s recital at the Troy Music Hall with something familiar and therefore easy on our nervous ears—but you started with Arnold Schoenberg.

Hilary Hahn
Nine minutes of aggressively unpretty music, that Schoenberg “Phantasy,” written at the end of the composer’s life, densely adhering to his mathematic principals, music with no desire to reach out in friendship. The thing is, we love melody. Oh, sure, there’s all that business about melody just being the drapery over a harmonic progression the tension and release of which is what actually makes us happy, and Schoenberg forged paths of tension and release not dependent on dominant to tonic resolution—but, see, we like those V7s to Is. We’re baffled by a strident-sounding tension-release sequence where the release is only slightly less tense than the tension itself.

But good lord you do play the hell out of that instrument. Both of you, in fact, because, although pianist Cory Smythe didn’t have false harmonics and acrobatic leaps from the G to the E string to deal with, he still had to make his way pretty swiftly around the keyboard (in an opening marked Grave, no less) and deal with an astonishing variety of rhythmic challenges, not least of which the hemiola in the Lento section.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Working in Coffeehouses, Bagels Edition

ALBANY MAY BE THE only minor major metropolitan area without bagel wars. My perspective surely is warped by the proximity of New York City, but that’s also probably one of the reasons passions around here run so low on the topic. The proximity of New York City is probably one of the reasons passions around here run so low on almost any topic.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I don’t include sports, which, for all the team-based partisanship they provoke, really don’t follow geographically based determinants. One picks a team to follow for a variety of reasons but, just as a particular team no longer presents a roster connected in any meaningful way to a particular city, so too can your choice be based anywhere. You can start with the team nearest your natal city and carry it with you as you travel through life; you can pick a team based on a star-of-a-moment player.

And I don’t include guns, because I live in an area rural enough to regard its weapons as religious icons and to season that worship with the fear-based conviction that the enemy (urbanites, homosexuals, Democrats, intellectuals) has a secret agenda to wrest away all firearms.

I remain unmoved by those passions, although I do have an NRA cap I wear from time to time to piss off my wife. Bagels, however, are another matter.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Tapas Dancing

The Rain in Spain Also Falls on the Pimentón Dept.: After writing this piece, I ordered a couple of pounds of the paprika in question. There will be some excellent experimentation in my kitchen during the next few weeks.


IT WAS ON HIS SECOND TRIP back from the Americas that Columbus carried peppers (not to mention corn and tomatoes) to his royal patrons, opening Spanish cuisine to ingredients from which it soon would become inseparable. “Like so many developments during that time, it went behind the walls of the monasteries,” says Alfonzo Blasquez, sales manager for Pata Negra, “where the monks discovered that the peppers could be added to meat as part of the preserving process. Eventually it came out from behind those walls, and every village in Spain developed its own chorizo recipe.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Authentic Spanish chorizo is a stiff pork sausage with a compelling, oily sweetness to the meat, aided by the sweet-spicy tang of garlic. The best chorizo gains most of its complexity from pimentón de La Vera, a smoked paprika grown and processed in the Tiétar river valley in western Spain. And that chorizo is now being made in Gloversville, using a very old recipe and some very new technology.

I toured the Pata Negra plant, which is in a small industrial park in that city, with general manager Ignacio Sáez de Ibarra, shortly after it opened last November. “Locating the plant in Gloversville was a matter of both geographical and financial convenience,” he told me. “It gives us access to the Northeast, and the local economic development council has been very generous and helpful.”

The meat is ground, seasoned and packed in casings in one large room, and there are four more rooms where the sausages are air-dried. “It’s a combination of artisan craftsmanship and technology,” Sáez de Ibarra explains. “In the old days you would have a building with many windows high on a mountain where the drying took place. A master chorizo maker opened and closed the windows according to his sense of what the sausages needed.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Getting a Rise out of Me

I’M NOT IN THE HABIT of dressing any too quickly when I know I’ll be working at my desk in the morning, so when visitors showed up at my door a few days ago, I was clad only in bathrobe and slippers, unshaven, still waiting for the coffee to kick in. A pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses strolled onto the porch and up to my door. Two young, attractive women, each clutching a Bible and a stack of Awake! and Watchtower magazines.

My introduction to that sect, as a young teen, was through a kid named George who lived up the street and shared the bus to junior high school. He came over to play one day and went on and on about his fabulous religion, the only detail of which that impressed me was the threat to disbelievers of a succubus showing up in the night and forcing you to have sex. “What’s wrong with that?” I asked excitedly. “That’s FORNICATION!” he declared, which seemed unnecessarily judgmental for one who, like myself, surely must be provoked by the merest suggestion of forbidden flesh to a frenzy of self-abuse.

Each of my visitors had wide-eyed, rosy-skinned faces, and if there was an inviting glisten to their lips, I can only ascribe it to the fuzzy border that must exist between evangelism and erotic desire. They wanted me, surely, but I could count on that border being well-patrolled.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

I'm Happy Just by Myself ...

" ... playing with my collection of glass cocktail stirrers."
As Lawrence in Christopher Durang's "For Whom the
Southern Belle Tolls." 17 April 2014 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Confiding Peasant and the Maladroit Bear

Guest Blogger Dept.: Say hello again to Guy Wetmore Carryl, here to give us another of his Fables for the Frivolous. You’ll love the kicker. (It roused my spouse from early
sleep / “The punchline?” she opined. “It’s cheap.”)


A PEASANT HAD a docile bear,
Drawing by Peter Newell
A bear of manners pleasant,
And all the love she had to spare
She lavished on the peasant:
She proved her deep affection plainly
(The method was a bit ungainly).

The peasant had to dig and delve,
And, as his class are apt to,
When all the whistles blew at twelve
He ate his lunch, and napped, too,
The bear a careful outlook keeping
The while her master lay a-sleeping.

As thus the peasant slept one day,
The weather being torrid,
A gnat beheld him where he lay
And lit upon his forehead,
And thence, like all such winged creatures,
Proceeded over all his features.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Trapped in the Net

From the Bookshelf Dept.: I remember reading the book; I remember writing the review. I just can’t figure out who I wrote it for. Local newspaper? Computer magazine? My archives are mum on this point, but re-reading the review reminds me that it was a pretty prescient volume.


WE ALL KNOW THE DESTINY of that new personal computer destined for the home: no matter how ardently you declare it to be for personal productivity, it becomes a game center and a frivolous Internet access screen. And, to a large extent, a waste of time.

The scenario isn’t all that difference in a business environment. As financial trading, for example, became more computer based, two problems emerged: the abstraction of moving money with a computer, and the undiscriminating tools of automation. Both of which probably contributed to the stock market crash of Oct. 1987:

“Many experts blamed [the crash] ... largely on computerized trading programs,” writes Gene I. Rochlin in Trapped in the Net, “which kicked in at the first steep decline, turning what would otherwise have been only an unusually bad day into an automated panic, driven entirely by electronic transactions.”

Rochlin, a professor of social science at the University of California, Berkeley, has been studying the effects of computerization on a number of critical areas affecting our lives, such as finances, the airline industry, the military and nuclear power plants. While computers are installed with the promise of better control and job simplification, nasty far-reaching effects are emerging, without a lot of public scrutiny.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Peint o Gwrw

What’s on Tap? Dept.: There’s a Welsh pub in Chatham, which is really all you need to know before heading there for a pint – peint, that it. But here’s more of the story, from the current issue of Metroland.


“IF I LIVED NEAR THE PLACE, I’d be there all the time,” a friend of mine said, and I had to agree. It’s been decades since I’ve shared a neighborhood with a tavern, let alone one that bursts with character.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Styling Chatham’s Peint o Gwrw as a Welsh pub has been more than a marketing gimmick for owner Tom Hope. It salutes his heritage—he has determined that it’s one of only four such pubs in the country, with two of them in St. Louis—but also gives him a forum in which to offer the food and hospitality he finds meaningful.

“I’ve been living here for 20 years,” he says, “and I realized soon after I moved in that there was no place nearby where you could get a pint. I had to drive 15 minutes into Hudson.

He’d been working at his wife’s quirky retail store, American Pie, in downtown Chatham when a realtor told him that the price of a building across the street had dropped. He looked at the place and made an offer. “And suddenly I was in the pub business,” he says. Had he run one before? “I didn’t have a clue. I still don’t.” And it was an unluckily timed opening, occurring as it did at the beginning of September 2001, but the operation has grown and thrived in the succeeding years.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Russian Revisit

CAN YOU EVER RECAPTURE the thrill of a first-time experience? Second visits often have a lot to live up to, which also applies when musicians re-record favorite works. Conductor Valery Gergiev won his appointment as the London Symphony’s principal conductor thanks to his outstanding series of the complete Prokofiev symphonies in 2004, which were recorded during those concerts and issued to great acclaim.

Now he’s got another Fifth Symphony to offer, recorded eight years later and with the Mariinsky Orchestra, from the St. Petersburg theater where Gergiev is artistic director. If the performance seems a shade less exciting than his LSO release, it’s because the earlier one brims with a fineness of orchestral texture that rarely makes it onto recordings. What we have with the Mariinsky ensemble is in itself a triumph, sculpted more as a four-movement journey than the earlier version’s spiky sight-seeing tour.

The greatest interpretive challenge is to balance the composer’s lyricism with his (usually sardonic) wit, at which Gergiev is masterful, notably in the bumptious scherzo and the movement that follows, an adagio. The latter is a brooding meditation on a sinewy theme that grows loud and uncooperative by the movement’s end, and to make sense of it means unraveling a tangle of technical elements, including the sounds-wrong harmonies and unexpected dynamic changes. As the most familiar of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies (eight, if you count the re-worked fourth), it nevertheless can pass by the ears pretty easily. Gergiev’s new recording helps remind us of the riches packed into the piece.

Monday, April 14, 2014

European Tour at SPAC

From the Vault Dept.: I wrote in an earlier post about the experience of meeting conductor Erich Leinsdorf, who had invited me to get together with him at Saratoga’s Gideon Putnam hotel, where he stayed while conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at the nearby performing arts center. This invitation was the result of a lengthy phone conversation that strayed into the realm of music education and of what use are critics. Here, somewhat anti-climactically, is the four-square piece I wrote after that phoner.


“THIS ‘EUROPEAN TOUR,’” says conductor Erich Leinsdorf, “was meant to give these concerts attractive points of reference, and, of course, it was done a little tongue-in-cheek. So, on the ‘Music from Paris’ evening you find Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring,’ which, of course, had its controversial premiere in Paris.”

Erich Leinsdorf
The European tour in question is a four-concert series Leinsdorf will conduct with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, beginning tonight with “Music from Vienna.”

Pianist Yefim Bronfman will play Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 and the program also includes Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the ‘Titan,” as it was termed back when every lengthy piece had a nickname.

Saturday night the stop in Vienna continues with another Mozart piano concerto, No. 20, played by Malcolm Frager, and the Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C, the “Great” – so called to distinguish it from another symphony in C by the same composer, rather than to represent its dimensions.

Wednesday and Thursday will be evenings in Prague and Paris the former features Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony (No. 38) and two works by Dvořák: the Violin Concerto, played by Yuzuko Horigome, and the Symphony No. 8 in G. Pianist Michel Beroff plays Ravel’s Concerto in G the following night; that concert also promises Ravel’s “Rhapsodie Espagnol” and the “Rite of Spring.”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Art of the Lute

Notes on the Notes Dept.: One of the most fascinating interviews I enjoyed while writing liner notes for a series of Dorian CDs was with lutenist Ronn MacFarlane, who knows his instrument and its history well. And now that I have a lute-obsessed daughter who is learning to play one, the story below has added family appeal.


“THE FIRST TIME I picked up a lute was at a local music store,” says Ronn McFarlane. “I’d been studying guitar, and I’d already learned a lot about the lute, so I was surprised to discover how awkward it was to hold and how disappointing and difficult it was to try to play. Very frustrating, like a foreign thing.

“But I wasn’t dissuaded. I found a way to buy one and worked with it and gradually it became comfortable, comfortable to the point where it became like an extension of my body. And that’s the ideal with any instrument.”

The lute family is varied and multi-national, stretching back to before recorded history. The instruments McFarlane plays on these recordings are based on the European lute, itself based on the Arabic oud, which arrived in Spain in the 9th century during the Moorish occupation. The oldest surviving instruments date from the early 16th century, when the lute repertory also began to make its way into print.

Following the Baroque era, the lute gave way to the guitar; in McFarlane’s case, the opposite transition occurred. “At the time I switched to lute, my guitar repertory was loading up more and more with Renaissance pieces, which I loved. Also, there was something about the lute itself that had a magnetic pull. It seemed to be a natural instrument for me.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Backstory in Blue

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Rare it is that a music book gets behind a moment – and the consequences of that moment – with the insight found in such titles as Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic and Cecil Brown’s Stagolee Shot Billy. Here’s my review of a book that did a splendid job of figuring out just what went on one memorable day in Newport.

DUKE ELLINGTON WAS FOND OF NOTING that his band was born in Newport in 1956. Despite a career that stretched back some 30 years before that and an immense surge of fame during the big band era, Ellington’s band became a mid-’50s millstone, one of the very few that didn’t vanish entirely as post-war economics and changing popular tastes took their toll.

Jazz was still hip in the ’50s, but even jazz had seen its share of change. As bop gave way to cool, ensembles dwindled in size. The mainstream audience moved on.

Then a small, wholly unpredictable miracle occurred. This lumbering dinosaur of a band, verging on bankruptcy, hit a groove one summer night in Newport and transported its audience, made the cover of Time magazine and issued a hit record of the event, a record that’s stayed in print ever since.

It was Goodman at the Palomar, Hendrix at Woodstock: a defining moment. “Ellington at Newport,” the record, was studied the way “Potato Head Blues” was studied. The 22-chorus sax solo by Paul Gonsalves joined Jess Stacy’s “Sing Sing Sing” solo as one of those transcendent moments for which you’re thankful that a microphone was nearby.

One of the significant salutes of Ellington’s hundredth birthday, in 1999, was the second CD reissue of this album, this time revealing that much of the original recording had been re-created in the Columbia studio shortly after the concert to compensate for the band’s lack of preparation. “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” the Gonsalves showpiece, was authentic, but not much else.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Harps and Angels

From the CD Shelf Dept.: Here’s a review I wrote in 2008, when the “Harps and Angels” was released – but it never ran, and I debut it here. Because, like me, Randy Newman is timeless.


“A FEW WORDS in Defense of Our Country” debuted as an internet presence, its lyrics trenchant enough to warrant placement as a NY Times Op-Ed piece. The song takes an easy swipe at the current administration, in a damned-with-faint-praise voice with which Randy Newman enthusiasts are familiar – and which allows him to savage the White House and the Supreme Court with freshness and unexpected humor.

“A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now too/But I defy you, anywhere in the world/To find me two Italians as tightass as the two Italians we got/And as for the brother/Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either.”

Newman never seems in much of a hurry to put out a record; this latest release, “Harps and Angels,” follows “Bad Love” by almost a decade. In the meantime, there have been several movie soundtrack albums and a newly recorded collection of older songs.

But the first notes of the CD’s title song puts us happily into that rarefied world of three-minute masterpieces for which the singer-songwriter is famous. And he’s still, spiritually at least, in the age of vinyl: the ten songs on this disc time out to 35 minutes.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Classical Masters

TWO APPROACHES SEEM TO WORK best for box-set re-packaging in the classical music world. There’s the lavish set that reproduces original artwork and, if we’re lucky, program notes, with some value-added notes or discs – as in the recent sets honoring conductor Fritz Reiner and guitarist Julian Bream. Then there’s the bare-bones set, lately embodied by Sony Classical’s “Classical Masters” collections, which sell for next to nothing.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Although they’ve been available in Europe for quite some time, and have thus been obtainable online for reasonable prices, a slew of them have recently been given official domestic releases courtesy the Naxos distribution network. Something here will strike your fancy.

They range from four CDs (Paul Crossley plays Debussy’s piano music; George Szell conducts Haydn symphonies) to 14 for Wagner’s Ring, although that Ring illustrates the challenge of CD collecting. It was recorded in the early 1980s with Marek Janowski conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, featuring such notables as Theo Adam (Wotan), Rene Kollo (Siegfried), Jeanine Altmeyer (Brunnhilde), Peter Schreier, Matti Salminen, Siegfried Jerusalem, and Jessye Norman.

This early digital recording stands up well in terms of sound quality, and as of this writing the new Classical Masters release can be found for about $35. But the same price gets you the identical recording in a more lavish release from a year ago, with a libretto that includes an English translation by Stewart Spencer.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Chorizo Real

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: Hungry? You might want to check out a terrific place I reviewed recently.


IT COULDN’T BE LESS PREPOSSESSING. In my zeal to find the holy grail of cash-poor restaurant reviewers, I found it in Schenectady (which makes sense), on a stretch of State Street in the city’s Woodlawn area.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
La Mexicana has been open since 2010 as a grocery store, with the restaurant added a year later. The grocery side is packed tight with foodstuffs from big guys like Goya and, more interestingly, many smaller producers, and there’s a hot sauce section that alone is worth a visit. The restaurant, in an adjoining building, is an almost charmless room with a scattering of tables, a bar, a big speaker system for entertainment nights and some colorful decorations (the peacocks are my favorites) relieving the monotony of the walls. Tables and chairs suggest a meeting room.

But you know what’s coming. It’s listed on two menu pages. Fifteen items, most of them familiar, like nachos ($9), which include your choice of meat (beef, chicken, pork—carnitas or al pastor—chorizo or lengua—beef tongue) along with beans and sour cream and guacamole; burritos ($7), again with your choice of meat, served with rice and beans, guacamole and Mexican sour cream, which is a delicious form of crème fraîche; fajitas ($15), the classic sizzle-platter dish, and $2 tacos.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Here Comes My Ball and Chain

I AM AN ENTHUSIASTIC FAN of train travel. I’ve had reason to shuttle between upstate New York and Chicago on several occasions, and hopped the Lake Shore Limited whenever possible. I can’t sleep during the overnight trip, but I have difficulty sleeping anyway. This is the story of a visit I paid to my Chicago-based family members in November 1993, a date that’s easy to remember both because I was carrying a Motorola MicroTAC cell phone and because my sister and I saw a production of the show “Assassins” at a downtown theater on the 30th anniversary of the event that climaxes the show.

More specifically, this is the story of how I learned how effortlessly racial harmony can be achieved. As my weeklong visit ended, I had to dump a rental car at a location a few blocks from Union Station, from which my train would depart. I’d given myself a few extra hours during which I could explore the downtown streets. My mother’s house, where I’d been staying, was in the northwestern suburb of Buffalo Grove, and, except for the hard-won trip into the city on the 22nd to see that show, my vehicle sat idle in the driveway.

But by the time I hit, after I’d walked from the rental place to the train station, lugging an ever-heavier bag, I’d lost my wanderlust. There’d been too much mom. I wanted to get the hell out of Chicago. A haircut, a little something to eat . . . then a long, relaxing train ride home. And there’d be a note of romance in that train-station barber shop, a throwback to the old days when you could get your face shaved and your shoes shined without leaving that chair.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Identifying as American

From the Vault Dept.: The Albany Symphony performs Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at 7:30 PM Saturday April 5 (2014) at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with four fine soloists and Albany Pro Musica as chorus. More info is at the orchestra’s website; I’m seizing it as an excuse to look back a few years at one of their concerts.


THE IDENTITY CRISIS that continues to worry American composers has at its root mixed feelings towards the music that truly can be defined as American. We heard two different reactions to that problem at Friday night’s Troy Music Hall concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, as Julius Hegyi conducted works by a pair of Americans.

Amy Beach
Amy Beach’s “Le Bal Masque” demonstrated the old style. Written in 1894 as a piano solo, orchestrated at the turn of the century, it is a pleasant, three-quarter-time work, American only insofar as it has none of the ethnic eccentricities that might identify it with a particular other country. It sounds nonspecific, European.

This impression could be partly the fault of the conducting, for Hegyi brought to it his characteristically inscrutable baton, resulting in wildly incompatible changes of tempo throughout the brief piece.

Ellen Zwilich wrote her Concerto for Piano and Orchestra for a premiere just a year ago. Like any contemporary American composer, she has the varied legacy of this century to reckon with; like many, she has “gone European” in the sense that her work has more in common with the tunelessness of the Virgil Thomson school than with our very melodic, domestic heritage.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Ahead of Schedule

Guest Blogger Dept.: We’ve given you Wodehouse the poet on several occasions, but Wodehouse the short story writer is a master of comic dialogue – especially when compared to what passed for funny when this story originally appeared, which was in November 1910. Specifically, in The Grand Magazine, a pulp published as a companion to The Strand, itself best known as the launching pad for Sherlock Holmes, of which stories PGW was a great admirer. “Ahead of Schedule” predates the appearance of Jeeves and Bertie, but the elements clearly are in place.


IT WAS TO WILSON, his valet, with whom he frequently chatted in airy fashion before rising of a morning, that Rollo Finch first disclosed his great idea. Wilson was a man of silent habit, and men of silent habit rarely escaped Rollo’s confidences.

“We aren’t going to dine in this forsaken
old mausoleum. I’ve sent in my resignation today.”
‘Wilson,’ he said one morning from the recesses of his bed, as the valet entered with his shaving-water, ‘have you ever been in love?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said the valet, unperturbed.

One would hardly have expected the answer to be in the affirmative. Like most valets and all chauffeurs, Wilson gave the impression of being above the softer emotions.

‘What happened?’ inquired Rollo.

‘It came to nothing, sir,’ said Wilson, beginning to strop the razor with no appearance of concern.

‘Ah!’ said Rollo. ‘And I bet I know why. You didn’t go the right way to work.’

‘No, sir?’

‘Not one fellow in a hundred does. I know. I’ve thought it out. I’ve been thinking the deuce of a lot about it lately. It’s dashed tricky, this making love. Most fellows haven’t a notion how to work it. No system. No system, Wilson, old scout.’

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Pub, Unchained

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: Let’s check in at the eatery featured in this week’s Metroland review.


I’D BEEN AVOIDING THE PLACE for years. Any possible convenience of chain restaurants is offset by their stultifying sameness. When O’Toole’s opened many years ago in Albany’s Kohl’s Plaza, I figured it to be yet another cookie-cutter joint.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But something unusual happened a few years later. The Toronto-based chain let go of its American units – of which there were about a hundred – and most of them closed. Others, such as the units in Albany and Queensbury, became independent.

My wife and I gave the place an awful test. We showed up on a Saturday. In the restaurant business, there are days of the week, and then there’s Saturday. A different kind of clientele emerges. The kind for which chains are a cradle, and who may not see much of a difference between O’Toole’s and an Applebee’s.

Which means O’Toole’s has to work that much harder to keep those customers – as well as the rest-of-the-week crowd – returning. It does so with an easygoing, unsurprising menu that’s priced incredibly low, and a personalized approach to service.