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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Afghan Retreat

From the Food Vault Dept.: Kabul Night closed a little over a year after I reviewed it, opened again after five months, then closed for good after several months more. So much for whatever boost I tried to give. Afghan fare is too scary for Schenectady. As of this writing, the building hosts an operation called Canvas, Corks, and Forks, about which you can learn more here. On to my review.


PURELY FROM AN ANECDOTAL STANDPOINT, I look at an ethnic diversity of restaurants as the key to a city’s health. In the Capital Region, Schenectady has long been the laggard. But a five-month-old Afghan restaurant is a mighty shot in the arm, tempting this culinarily cautious clientele into new territories. Shrewdly, the place is located about equidistant from downtown and Union College, not doubt hopeful that the latter will provide a doughty customer base.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Kabul Night is on Union St., a couple of blocks east of Erie Blvd., in the former Night Sky Café building, itself a former storefront with its front door inset between a pair of presentation windows, now sporting tables.

The restaurant is owned by Karima and Shafi Rasoully, city residents for a dozen years and onetime owners of Arizona Pizza. They’ve bravely forsaken that simpler cuisine for the kabobs and curries of their native land, and offer a menu rich in traditional manifestations of chicken, beef, lamb and a veggie variety.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tars in Bars

Helluva Town Dept.: The production originated at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires two summers ago, itself an outgrowth of a City Center Encores production. It moved to Broadway last October and already has run longer than the show’s previous two revivals, and is halfway to overtaking “On the Town’s” debut run in 1944. You should see it, of course, but now there’s a recording of it should you not be Broadway bound anytime soon.


WHEN HOLLYWOOD CAME CALLING to put “On the Town” on film, it gave the show a wonderful cast, headlined by Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, and included some terrific location work, rare for a musical – or any movie – in 1949. But Leonard Bernstein’s score, his first for Broadway, was deemed too difficult for the movie-going public, and ten of the numbers were jettisoned in favor of a bunch of mush composed by Roger Edens.

There was no original cast recording, but Bernstein led a session in 1960 that featured such original cast members as the one-of-a-kind Nancy Walker and book writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. (And LB himself in a brief, amusing cameo.) The gorgeous-sounding stereo LP could fit only so much; the CD issue restored a couple of numbers.  And it set a very high standard that Bernstein himself might have bested had he lived long enough to add this show to the series he recorded for Deutsche Grammaphon toward the end of his life. With his protégé Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm instead, it carried on the practice of putting opera singers in the major roles, which significantly weakened the earlier “West Side Story” and did little good for this one.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Arden Wooing

From the Classical Vault Dept.: The Union College Concert Series is about to wrap up its current season. Tomorrow night the Emerson Quartet performs music by Bach, Purcell, and Britten – and series founder Dan Berkenblit will be honored (85th birthday!) afterward. Here’s a look back at the closing event of the 1986-87 season.


THE PIANO TRIO is a relic of many centuries B. E. (before electronics), an antique that survives too often in fossilized form.

Can't find a promo shot.
The Arden Trio closed the Schenectady Museum-Union College concert series Tuesday night with a performance at Union College’s Memorial Chapel that had all the trappings of antiquity.

Pianist Thomas Schmidt and cellist Clay Ruede wore tails, violinist Suzanne Ornstein was dressed in an old-fashioned white gown. And they sat like a daguerrotype on the stage of the old church to play music older than any of my surviving relatives.

Such ancient tunes survive for two contrasting reasons: they offer no threat to the cautious ear, or they contain mysteries still to be revealed.

The Arden Trio is in it to seek out those mysteries. That explains the terrific sound they get out of the music.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sing of the Devil

Spuyten Duyvil knows the Great American Songbook. Not that Great American Songbook, but the earlier one that was given to us by Harry Smith in his Anthology of American Folk Music, giving us a glimpse of what Greil Marcus termed the “old, weird America” in a series of late-’20s, early-’30s recordings.

It inspired young musicians in the 1950s – folk and rock wouldn’t sound as they did and do without it – and it continues to be re-discovered and re-celebrated, especially now, when music-making has grown more personal and more easily disseminated.

Spuyten Duyvil named itself after a section of the Bronx that was so-dubbed by its Dutch settlers because of an angry creek that flowed through the area. The creek is gone, but the Yonkers-based band has given new life to what threatened to be no more than a Metro-North stop, and it’s a felicitous moniker for an ensemble that brings a delightfully off-kilter jug-band sensibility to its playing.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Lily and Jane

Lily Whiteman and Jane Fonda in rehearsal.
24 April 2015 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, April 24, 2015

Singers of Song of Songs

From the Music Vault Dept.: Checking in with an earlier recording by the dynamic choral ensemble Stile Antico. The term refers to a Baroque-era style of composition harkening back to the Renaissance; the ensemble has covered that era as well as material older and new.


WHEN A RECORDING OF CENTURIES-OLD CHORAL MUSIC tops the classical charts in this country, it’s news. The last time I remember this happening, it was the freak success of a set of Gregorian chants. Now it’s a collection of songs from the Renaissance inspired by the Songs of Solomon. And they’re sung by a leaderless ensemble that informs every phrase with a richness and intensity that makes you wonder why such songs aren’t always sung this way.

There’s no easy answer for that. Why were Toscanini’s orchestras so galvanized, in a way no other conductor could summon? What make Horowitz’s phrasing seem so fresh and right? The most brilliant performers serve not merely as conduits for the tunes behind the notes, but also as interpretive carburetors, adding sparks to what’s taken in so as to ignite the result. Not with bombast, but with a confident understanding of the heart of a song.

This UK-based ensemble comprises a dozen or so singers not out of their twenties, whose previous two recordings already showed their knack for imaginative programming and faultless singing. Here, they’ve trumped even those superior efforts.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Come to the Harder They Come

Author Alert Dept.: As I noted in this earlier post, novelist T.C. Boyle will be reading from his new novel Friday morning (April 24) at Troy’s Hudson Valley Community College. Details – and an interview – are below.


“IT’S ABOUT A TOPIC that has stirred me, and I presume most of your readers, through a long, long while: American gun violence. What is this all about? How can it be? So I wrote this novel to try to find out.”

T.C. Boyle | Photo by Jamieson Fry
T.C. Boyle’s fifteenth novel, The Harder They Come, opens with an unexpectedly violent event as 70-year-old retired ex-Marine Sten Stenson, with a group of vacationing oldsters in Costa Rica, confronts a trio of robbery-bent thugs. The novel follows the consequences – emotional as well as incidental – through the eyes of Sten, his troubled son Adam, and Sara, a 40-year-old farrier who too-fervently clings to a philosophy of contempt for the U.S. government.

Boyle will be reading from the novel in his own unique way at 11 AM Friday (tomorrow) at Hudson Valley Community College’s Bulmer Center Auditorium. 

“I love to perform,” he says, speaking earlier this week from a book-tour stop in Miami. “I love to turn people on, especially young men, who don’t necessarily know the joys of literature, because for them it’s only some horrible thing they have to read for the dreaded term paper in class.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Magic Flutist

From the Vault Dept.: What I remember most fondly about my interview with Chris Norman, which took place over the phone, was his reaction to a unique piece of news I offered. My daughter had been born less than a month earlier, and the very first piece of recorded music she heard was one of Norman’s CDs. He was delighted to learn that. Here’s the article, a concert advance, that resulted from that call.


FLUTIST CHRIS NORMAN plays polkas and reels and other traditional dances with breathtaking joy and virtuosity. As a member of the Baltimore Consort, we’ve heard him recreate more formal music from centuries ago. Saturday night at the Troy Music Hall, he’ll combine those talents as he presents a program of classical music for traditional flute, in a performance with Argentina’s Camerata Bariloche.

Chris Norman
“The three pieces on the program are based on traditional folk tunes,” says Norman, “which you would sort of expect from me. Some of them I commissioned; one I sort of unearthed and worked on over the years.”

Norman is a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and counts among his earliest musical memories the Newfoundland songs his father played and sang. Canada’s maritime provinces have a wide range of unique music, much of it with a Gaelic flavor, so Norman commissioned Canadian composer Brian Packham to develop some of the themes from Cape Breton, which lies between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, into a work for flute and orchestra.

“I’ve known Brian for a long time,” Norman explains, “and he knows my playing very well. Although he has pretty much been a straight classical composer, he’s had a burgeoning interest in traditional music.” Norman provided cassettes of Cape Breton tunes and shared ideas about how those tunes are played, and Packham turned it into a three-movement work for flute and strings that has been performed several times already.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Stone Turns

Where Did I Dine a Decade Ago? Dept.: The Turning Stone Resort has revamped its restaurant lineup considerably, replacing the one that’s the focus below with TS Steakhouse. Peach Blossom remains; Piano Bianco has become Piano Pronto. And they’re now offering liquor. But the focus on hospitality – a challenge when you’re accommodating people hellbent on scoring winnings against impossible odds – remains.


ALTHOUGH THIS IS OSTENSIBLY A PIECE about a single restaurant, it’s so much a part of the Turning Stone Resort in general that you a larger perspective is necessary. But first, to the restaurant.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s a churrascaria, which is the name given to a restaurant that specializes in churrasco, a tradition in southern Brazil born of the gauchos who slow-roasted meat over open fires after a hard day on the pampas.

Those fires are now contained behind glass, in a room you’ll see as you enter the restaurant. One rotisserie bar after another spins slowly, the captive beef and pork and lamb sparkling with marinade.

But your first course is at a salad bar, a buffet unlike any found in this area. Again, Brazilian cuisine is the theme, and chef Ruben Lopez offers such staples as feijoada, a black bean and sausage stew, a tomato and onion salad with hearts of palm, a compote of jicama, corn and tomatoes, piquant and tender calamari ceviche, beets, oranges and fennel tossed in a sweet salad, a slaw of cabbage and roasted red peppers finished with a chipotle aioli and one of the most amazing potato salads I’ve ever sampled, taking its flavor from apples and much more I couldn’t identify.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Oil Boy

Table reading of my new play at Albany's Cafe Capriccio.
Photo by Lily Whiteman

Friday, April 17, 2015

Major Miniature Moments

Pianist Jonathan Biss presented a program of Romantic-era music at Union College’s Memorial Chapel last Sunday that began with its end and finished with – you get the idea.

His inspired choice of opener was Alban Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1, written – or begun – in 1908, and, once the composer accepted his teacher’s suggestion that the single movement was enough, no need to fret that others weren’t forthcoming, published as a ten-minute work.

Jonathan Biss
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
But ten minutes of well-crafted Berg is wellspring of richness. Biss’s performance emphasized its lyrical nature, even if you might be hard-pressed to walk away whistling any of it. It’s decidedly atonal, but its seeming cacophony isn’t dodecaphonic. That was down the road, and that’s where the Romantic era ended.

Although it’s filled with melodic gestures, the emotional pull of the piece comes from its rising and falling motions in the rhythm, dynamics, tempo, and, ultimately, form – there’s a sonata-allegro framework lurking within.

It was championed in the 1960s by Glenn Gould, whose interpretation since has been criticized as excessively slow and mannered. Biss took a more contemporary approach to this old-fashioned work, keeping the tempos crisp while still informing it with interpretive nuance.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spring into Winterreise

Ian Bostridge will be performing Schubert's glorious, daunting "Winterreise" at Schenectady's Union College Memorial Chapel at 3 PM Sunday, April 19, with pianist WenWen Du. Bostridge has written a book -- Schubert's Winter Journey -- that introduces the song cycle and his relationship with it, but here's a lecture that he gave last fall that covers the gist of it, to get you ready for Sunday.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Boyle before Reading

From the Vault Dept.: T.C. Boyle will be at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY, at 11 AM Friday, April 24, to read from his latest novel, The Harder They Come. I’ll be talking to him in advance of that date, so watch this space next week for more info. Meanwhile, I was reminded of the last time I spoke to him, which was in 1988, for another reading.


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE acknowledges that writing was an unlikely choice of career. He grew up in the Peekskill, N.Y., area, he says, “mainly interested in vandalism, fast cars and drugs.”

T.C. Boyle
Now the author of four acclaimed books – two novels and two short story collections – he will read from his soon-to-be-published fifth at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the State University of New York at Albany.

But don’t expect a run-of-the-mill reading. “I like to put on a show,” he says with a laugh. “It even becomes a stand-up comedy routine at some junctures.”

Even the prospect of an audience of tweedy academics doesn’t daunt him. “I love that. Love to entertain them. And sometimes they’re in the most need of entertainment.”

He acknowledges that a reading can’t always do justice to a written work, “but there’s a magic to a good reading that’s different from the magic of seeing the words on a page.”

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Cooler Climate

Back to the Books Dept.: Another of the book reviews I’ve written over the years, allowing another look at what’s otherwise an unfortunately transient enterprise. At least until my collected reviews are published in book form, delaying their obscurity for a little while.


I HAVE AN UNCLE who gets nervous at the sight of what he calls “small books.” He wants to prop the latest fat Michener opus on his knee and feels slighted if he hasn't got several hundred pages of soul-stirring adjectives parading before him.

But a novel like Zena Collier’s A Cooler Climate could change his attitude. It’s a mere slip of a book, but it demands that you look at it closely so as not to miss the delicate scrollwork.

It’s her first published novel, for what that’s worth – she has lots of other published material to her credit. So don’t be surprised by the journeyman technique. Special skill is required to create the characters and atmosphere in this novel, because it’s done with strokes so deft you hardly notice how quickly the narrative power builds as you read it.

The story recounts an awkward but ever more common situation: Iris Prue, 45, is divorced, alienated from her only child, and lacking the skills to enter a job market she never thought she’d need access to.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Uptown Jump

Let’s say Charlie Christian led a group with Roy Eldridge on trumpet, his old boss Benny Goodman on clarinet, Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Basie at the piano with Jo Jones on drums beside him and Jimmie Blanton, over from Duke’s band, on bass. A dream lineup, and it’s the effect you get from Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy Seven, an ensemble that knows its jazz history well enough to give us eighteen Crytzer originals with an uncanny feel of the ’40s in “Uptown Jump.”

It’s guitarist Crytzer’s first full-length recording with this NYC-based septet, a crowdfunded album that sparkles with polish and taste. I thought there’d been a mistake at first: it’s a mono recording made with two vintage Neumann microphones, so it couldn’t sound more warmly ’40s, lacking only the groove noise of 78s. And the players have such an effortless-sounding, brink-of-bop feel to their playing that

“The Savoy Special” gets us off to an up-tempo start that would seem frantic if these guys weren’t so essentially cool, and then “Hop on the Mop” gives us a bright riff tune characterized by the quick mordent Dizzy Gillespie liked to put in his solos. Right away, trumpeter Mike Davis establishes his Eldridge debt (and that’s a good debt to carry), while Dan Levinson goes the full Hawkins on us.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Blooming Molly

From the Vault Dept.: For many years, the Albany-based chamber group L’Ensemble presented a summer series of concerts in a scenic, incredibly atmospheric barn in NY’s Washington County. They have since moved to Bennington, VT, for the series – here’s info about a concert that will take place on April 19, 2015. But I unearthed an advance I wrote 25 years ago heralding a new work by Victoria Bond, who was based for a while in the Albany area, and whose music is always a delight. I missed the concert that this piece describes, but the work was recorded soon afterward with these artists on the Albany Records label.


LIKE DETECTIVE SAMUEL SPADE, composer Victoria Bond doesn’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble. And she’s expecting it, or better to say preparing for it, as part of the reaction to her new work, “Molly Manybloom,” for soprano and string quartet.

A setting of text from James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s the interior monologue of a woman considering many aspects of her life – including the graphically sexual.

“I’m thinking of dedicating it to Jesse Helms,” says Bond with a laugh that’s a little bit bitter. “One of the episodes contains a discussion of the, oh, anatomy of Molly’s lover. Jesse wouldn’t like it too much.”

The piece will be premiered this weekend in a pair of concerts by L’Ensemble to finish their season in Cambridge. Artistic director Ida Faiella will sing the solo part; performing with her are violinists Barry Finclair and Ruth Waterman, violist Paul Cortesy, and cellist Beverly Lauridsen.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

In Passing: Too Piercing

Stan Freberg has died at the age of 88. I’m about to pass you along to an excellent summary of his life and work, written by his friend and colleague Mark Evanier, but I want to confess the terrible thing I did to Mr. Freberg – or “Freberg,” as he styled himself in conversation.

I believe the occasion was the 1999 release of “Tip of the Freberg,” a retrospective of his work spread across four CDs and a VHS tape. I figured I could get an interview with the man and parlay that into a piece for one of the periodicals I wrote for – but either I was beat to the punch by a wire-service piece or there was no interest. No interest? In Stan Freberg? Such is the level of ignorance I’m doomed to deal with.

Anyway, I arranged the interview, which had to take place one weekday afternoon when I was in a play rehearsal. I had the interview hour free, but I was stuck at the theater and had to use my cell phone, which got decent reception at a particular corner of the building. I ended up huddled outside, unable to record the call (o, those pre-app days!) or take notes (not that it mattered at that point), but I had a delightful conversation with the legendary satirist, who was not at all bashful about assessing his achievements (“What they needed was Freberg in there ... ”) and certainly had earned the right to do so, especially as the stories he told were as well-crafted as the records he’d made.

And now, for an excellent Freberg tribute, here’s Mr. Evanier.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Straightforward Steak

From the Food Vault Dept.: The piece below didn’t help much. Kirker’s closed about 14 months after it ran. Owner John Adams blamed it on a lack of business spurred by a lousy economy. It was then rumored that Quintessence, an Albany eatery, would expand into the space; it went into a onetime diner in Malta, instead, before it, too, folded. Here was my review of Kirker’s just before its waning days.


ALL THAT’S MISSING to make this a true throwback steakhouse is a salad bar, but I can’t say I missed it. Menu options are plenty, there certainly are enough extras included in your meal to keep you from starving – and you wouldn’t enjoy as much of Kirker’s personable service if you had to trudge to the greenery trough.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
In an age when senators typically serve longer than restaurants, Kirker’s longevity – it was opened in 1953 by Harry Kirker – is astonishing. Susan and John Adams bought the restaurant from Kirker almost 20 years ago, and have been guided by their own experience (they owned the Trolley Restaurant on Central Avenue) while keeping the menu and style intact.

The dining room sports a look of rustic elegance. Nautical artwork decorates the walls. Sturdy wooden tables, with crimson-backed chairs or banquettes, get the elegant touch of white napkins. And those tables and booths fill quickly, as I’ve seen during a number of visits over the past several years.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Shame of Schubert

From the Vault Dept.: A bunch of Metroland writers was asked a few years back for an essay on the topic “A DJ Who Changed Me.” Mine happened to be a platter-spinning grade-school teacher.


MY MUSICAL REDEMPTION would be my social undoing. What seemed wonderful at the age of eight turned me into a bitter nine-year-old, sent to purdah for preferring the wrong records. Here’s how it happened.

My third-grade class was interrupted, once a week, by the arrival of a large, angry woman pushing a clattery utility cart upon which lived a large, institutional record player. This she fed magnificently ruined old LPs bound for yet another spin under the two-pound tone-arm.

Music class typically consisted of forced group singing of dorky old folksongs or forced group quiet while a record played. The day that changed my life began as the latter.

“I want you to listen to a beautiful symphony,” the music teacher said. The class groaned as one. This was 1964. We were in thrall to the Beatles, whose music WABC disc jockey Cousin Brucie couldn’t play often enough. You tuned your transistor radio to 770 and he did the rest, and we merrily sang along with “She Loves You,” “If I Fell” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” each of which I still know by heart.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Speaking of Bands ...

Artie Shaw at Nola Studios (not the present Nola on W 54th), 2 Sept. 1941; with
Artie Baker, bass clarinet; Mickey Folus, tenor sax; Chuck DiMaggio, clarinet;
Morey Samel, trombone; Les Robinson, clarinet; Jack Jenney, trombone;
Ray Conniff, trombone; George Auld, clarinet; Hot Lips Page, trumpet.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Forward into the Past

SPEND AN EVENING AT THE IGUANA, on Manhattan’s West 54th Street, on a Monday or Tuesday night when Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks perform and you time-travel back to the 1920s and ’30s through the most effective of sensory manipulators: Music. They play it as if they were born to play it, and they probably were. It sounds hungry, driven. It’s the sound of a country celebrating unprecedented prosperity and a calamitous slide into ruin. While not being legally allowed to drink.

Vince Giordano and an octavin
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But the ’20s was one of the most significant decades in the country’s musical development, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among others, defining jazz. And the ’30s was when jazz learned to swing and arrangements grew even more harmonically complicated.

Giordano brings home the importance of this music – and it’s unbridled fun – with an eleven-piece band made up of New York’s finest jazz musicians in performances that present the original charts from those decades in a manner as alive as anything sporting this year’s copyright.

That’s Vince towards the back, surrounded by a fleet of bass-voice instruments: tuba, bass sax, string bass. And a microphone for the occasional vocal. I’m guessing that he knows the lyrics to a few thousand songs. If he seemed like a dinosaur when he was playing this music in the 1970s, he’s been vindicated by the popularity of his three soundtrack recordings from the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” in which he and the band appear – as they did in Martin Scorcese’s “The Aviator” and many other period-set movies.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Giving Voice

From the Vault Dept.: A fairly straightforward piece from a few years back wherein I reveal my oddball relationship with Sinatra recordings, digging, as I do, his youthful Dorsey stuff over much of the (considerably) later recordings – although his album “Only the Lonely” remains one of the best things ever recorded by anyone.


TEN YEARS AGO, Pete Hamill came out with a book titled Why Sinatra Matters, a slim volume that cut through the singer’s posthumous hagiography and returned us to the Voice. Not surprisingly, Hamill points to Sinatra’s early-50s recordings as the singer’s best. To my ears, what I term the “ring-a-ding-ding” period is where I lose interest. So it’s the late-Columbia and early-Capitol stuff that I yank from the shelf to remind myself how good even mediocre songs can sound when sung by a master.

Here’s a further confession, and I know I might lose you here. I like the Dorsey recordings, too. I think of them as showcasing a different singer: an ambitious kid still trying to be a tenor, honing his instrument into spectacular form.

The new Sony Legacy four-disc set starts with Sinatra’s very first records with the Harry James orchestra, and switches, on disc one, to a generous sampling of those Dorsey sides, finishing with a couple of the singer’s breakout recordings with Axel Stordahl at the podium. It’s a comprehensive and enjoyable study of a singer in progress, and by the time you reach disc two, covering 1943-49, we’re well on the way to Sinatra’s vocal maturity.

There’s a different twist to the last two discs. For CD 3, subtitled “The Great American Songbook: 1943-1947,” we get early versions of “It Had to Be You,” “All of Me,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “One for My Baby,” all of which Sinatra re-recorded, usually quite differently. Disc four, which takes us to 1952, is styled as a preview of the Capitol sound, and is well stocked with splendid orchestrations by Stordahl, along with contributions by the unsung George Siravo, among others.