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Thursday, May 28, 2015

My Literary Passions: Shakespeare

Guest Blogger Dept.: We visited the work of William Dean Howells in “A She Hamlet,” his discourse upon Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in that role. Here’s another piece from the same collection, expounding (elegantly and at length) upon his passion for the playwright.


William Dean Howells
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF OUR PAPER in the village where there had been none before, and its enlargement from four to eight pages, were events so filling that they left little room for any other excitement but that of getting acquainted with the young people of the village, and going to parties, and sleigh rides, and walks, and drives, and picnics, and dances, and all the other pleasures in which that community seemed to indulge beyond any other we had known. The village was smaller than the one we had just left, but it was by no means less lively, and I think that for its size and time and place it had an uncommon share of what has since been called culture. The intellectual experience of the people was mainly theological and political, as it was everywhere in that day, but there were several among them who had a real love for books, and when they met at the druggist’s, as they did every night, to dispute of the inspiration of the Scriptures and the principles of the Free Soil party, the talk sometimes turned upon the respective merits of Dickens and Thackeray, Gibbon and Macaulay, Wordsworth and Byron. There were law students who read “Noctes Ambrosianae,” the “Age of Reason,” and Bailey’s “Festus,” as well as Blackstone’s “Commentaries”; and there was a public library in that village of six hundred people, small but very well selected, which was kept in one of the lawyers’ offices, and was free to all. It seems to me now that the people met there oftener than they do in most country places, and rubbed their wits together more, but this may be one of those pleasing illusions of memory which men in later life are subject to.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Raising the Brunch Bar

From the Back of the Fridge Dept.: This was the last of the handful of reviews I wrote in exchange for a fully-comped meal. In order to inaugurate Metroland’s food column with no budget for dinners out, we begged a freebie from the restaurant. Soon enough, there was a budget. However, Rexford’s has long since vanished, replaced these many years by a Taco Bell.


HERE’S SOMETHING YOU MIGHT WANT TO check out before the Hudson Valley Community College kids discover it: Rexford’s Café, just across the street from the campus. Not that it's really any secret from the student populace, a few of whom were in evidence the other Sunday when I brought a pair of professional food-samplers to the café to investigate the brunch, rumored to be quite a treat.

Photo by Drew Kinum
It was. It’s not a near-to-the-college kids’ hangout by any means, but rather a tastefully-appointed full-service restaurant with terrific food, the quality of which is overseen by chef Leland Armsby, himself a graduate from just up the hill.

“I’ve been here almost one year,” he explains. “We’ve been doing a lot of business, and a lot of lunches. I started an early bird menu that’s been popular. And about four months ago we started serving a brunch which hasn’t really been discovered yet. I think the problem is that people think we’re a jacket-and-tie kind of place, but we’re not. I just want the people to come in, try us out. We’re not stuffy.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Winning Wines

From the Cellar Dept.: Here’s an account of one of my more embarrassing moments, when I was invited, as part of a select group of local press people, to participate in a blind tasting comparing some forthcoming Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves from Robert Mondavi with a trio of supposedly similar French wines. Trouble was, I grew up on those French wines . . .


SUPPOSE YOU COULD STAND at Picasso’s side while he sketched a new painting on canvas. Around you, in the studio, hang a number of works that affirm the artist’s reputation. And if you’re willing to make a commitment to buy the new product, sight unseen, you’ll get it at a substantial discount.

Futures have long been a viable commodity, but creatively-based futures are a more recent twist. And earlier this month, representatives from Robert Mondavi, the California-based winemaker known for his premium product, were in the area selling wine futures.

The 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve has been blended. Although it won’t be released until 1991, Mondavi is offering it at a discounted price to restaurateurs and distributors, a number of which met locally at the Stone Ends Restaurant to sample the product.

While the new blend has yet to attain the significant features only obvious after many months of maturation, the presentation cleverly placed it in the context of a “vertical tasting”; that is, a comparison of Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves from 1985, 1986 and 1987. And, to make the comparison all the more compelling, three more wines were added to the assortment, all from France’s splendid 1985 Bordeaux harvest: Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau LaTour.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Why I Love to Fly

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty-eight years ago at this time of year I traveled from Chicago, where my parents then lived, to spend Memorial Day at home. (Interestingly, to me at least, the holiday was on the 25th that year, just as it is in this one.) The following piece appeared in Metroland shortly thereafter.


I CAN PROVE that an animal smells fear. I've been sitting for forty-five minutes waiting for my Albany-bound flight to leave O’Hare Airport as runway after runway gets shut down, other flights get cancelled – all due to a nasty, dry thunderstorm, the kind of weather that makes this Chicago field famous for delays.

So I sit with my chin in my thumb, elbow on the armrest, staring out the window of a 727. My index finger is pressed to my upper lip.

We are finally assigned a runway position (“We’re number ten for take-off,” the Captain announces) and the plane begins a series of fitful advances. In Chicago, this involves taxiing over a bridge across a highway. Which may help to explain why the city’s traffic is so weird.

It’s nearly ten, or eleven, at night, depending upon whether you’ve prematurely adjusted your watch for Eastern time. Like I anxiously did. And I’m thinking: not much to do in Albany at half-past midnight anyway, wouldn’t mind starting out fresh on a sunny morning. And O’Hare has nice accommodations, right? Sensing my thoughts, the Captain plunges us upward and into the storm.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Once and Future King

State of the Stage Dept.: It was a pleasure to interview actor John Rubinstein, both because of his brilliant way with a story but also because we spent a little time talking about his father, pianist Arthur Rubinstein – with John insisting, quite rightly, that his father’s recording of the Brahms violin sonatas with Henryk Szeryng are the finest versions of those pieces.


WHEN JOHN RUBINSTEIN TAKES TO THE STAGE as King Charles in Pippin at Proctors May 26 (Tuesday) through the 31st, there will be no doubt that his is a regal presence. Rubinstein has earned it: he’s been in feature films since debuting in an Elvis Presley vehicle in 1969; his television appearances are legion. And he’s just as likely to be found on stage, where he won a Tony Award for Children of a Lesser God.

But he made his Broadway debut in 1972 in the title role of a new musical called Pippin. Does he have any problem returning to the show all these years later in such a different role?

“Not in the least. I felt lucky and blessed to get to do it.” He’s speaking by phone from Florida, where the tour has settled in for a while. He’s such a known quantity that choosing him for this role probably was simple. It was that first time wherein hangs a tale.

“Oh, all showbiz stories have some history,” he says with a laugh. “There was this company called ABC Pictures that was making a movie called Zachariah, which they called ‘an electric Western.’ It was basically Siddhartha, translated into a cowboy movie. I played the title character, which I got just by auditioning, auditioning, auditioning—I did a screen test, and I got the part.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Armory Plated

From the Food Vault Dept.: A friend recently dined at Parillo’s Armory Grill in Amsterdam and wondered if I’d ever been there. Let’s go back eight years so you may wonder no more.


AMSTERDAM’S SOUTH SIDE hugs the appropriate shore of the Mohawk River, a community that has seen fewer upheavals than the mill town to the north, but one which nevertheless continues to bleed away its ethnic identity. But you can’t blame the Parillo family for that.

Jackie Parillo | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
They opened the Armory Grill, above which the Amsterdam Armory towers, in the early 1970s. They have since added another restaurant nearby and family members operate other Montgomery County eateries.

A cheerful amalgam of restaurant and bar, the Armory Grill is a neighborhood watering hole, meeting place, party location – it’s eager and versatile, and serves the kind of food that makes it an ongoing destination.

“You didn’t have the Jack Daniels steak?” Jackie Parillo asked me. “You have to try it. You’re just going to have to come back and try it.” She and her husband, Ralph, own and run the place, which also means they run the kitchen, aided by an young and enthusiastic crew.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dinner at Eight

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: Having been a fan of Casa Visco products for as long as I’ve lived in the Capital Region, a profile of the family-run operation was long overdue. I posted a photo of the bottling process yesterday; here’s the piece itself.


EIGHT AT A TIME. That’s how the sauce jars are filled at Casa Visco. An eerily intelligent electronic eye counts off eight glass jars, typically in 16- or 32-ounce sizes, and regulates the conveyor on which they’re traveling so that the chosen eight can pause below a row of nozzles and receive their bounty. They move on to the capping station even as the next eight elbow their way into place.

Adine Viscusi | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The huge, steam-jacketed tanks that fill much of the processing room aren’t so tall that you can’t see the simmering redness of their contents. The jars are filled with red. Even the floor is red, but that’s the color of the floor.

Those jars, once filled, then parade through an x-ray scanner. “It’s more than what’s required,” says Casa Visco owner Adine Viscusi, “but nothing goes out in those jars that shouldn’t be there. The machine even picks up impurities in the glass.” To prove her point, one of the jars is kicked out of line to await further inspection. The problem will prove to be a glass irregularity.

Today’s sauce is one of the company’s own recipes, and each jar gets an inkjet spray of its “best used by” date and a label that bears the familiar Casa Visco logo, featuring a warm-looking Tuscan house.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ugly Child

Working in Coffeeshops Dept.: There’s a spectacularly ugly child sitting at a table not far from me. So hideous is his aspect that I’m trying not to look his way, yet I can’t keep my gaze from straying there, much as I’d covertly study a grisly crime scene.

His parents aren’t to blame, I’m sure. All they did was commingle some DNA; the rest was a crapshoot. Although they do sport a proto-Brooklyn appearance: she with long hair framing her thin, ardent face, a face that says “I’d give even more to my local NPR station if my co-op membership and yoga lessons didn’t cost so much”; he in shorts and flip-flops and a legible tee shirt, and with all of the hair on his face and head shaved to stubble. This they have yet to pass on to their offspring, who wears the traditional toddler gear of jeans and juice-stained tee.

We’re programmed to anthropomorphize any facelike arrangement of items, thus giving us a man in the moon and Jesus on toast, a process that begins with babyhood, when the infant seeks a pattern that should resolve itself into a mother’s face. I’m sure this is a survival tactic in more ways than one. It gets the kid fed, we hope, but it’s also an endearing maneuver. Because, let’s face it, a baby fresh out of the chute looks so horrifically disfigured that the sane, survival-of-the-fittest reaction would be to immediately kill it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Eternal Harp

From the CD Shelf: I was asked to provide liner notes for a Dorian release that would collect tracks from eleven previously released albums, focusing on a variety of uses of the harp. “Make it atmospheric,” I was told, “more about the instrument than the tracks themselves.” Here’s the result.


LIKE THE MISTS that obscure the Celtic moors, the harp’s history is clouded by the impressive age of the instrument. A string is stretched and plucked: a pleasing tone emerges. The string is stopped or its length is changed: the pitch of the plucked note is different. Then an even more wonderful discovery, that strings of different lengths can be combined into one portable instrument. Not surprisingly, it was judged a voice of the gods. Apollo played it. That most musical of Biblical figures, King David, was depicted as a harpist in the iconography of Europe as far back as the 8th Century.

Although the variety of instruments is stunning, the components pretty much stay the same. A row of strings stretch from a neck, where they’re pegged in place, to a resonant soundbox, often a hollow piece of wood with soundholes. We’re also used to seeing a forepillar connect the neck and soundbox, giving the triangle its third side. The strings of a harp run perpendicular to its soundbox; run those strings parallel and you’ve got a psaltery.

Some of those early harps also were given a set of angled pegs where the strings and soundbox meet. The pegs, called brays, could be set to touch the vibrating strings, adding a buzzing quality to the sound. At one time it was thought that such a sound was able “to speak every profound feeling,” as one poet of the Middle Ages put it. On a practical level, a bray-equipped and -engaged harp gained a quality of sound that helped cut through the raucous noise of an open-air festivity.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Fable of the New York Person Who Gave the Stage Fright to Fostoria, Ohio

Guest Blogger Dept.: Another from the pen of George Ade, a Chicago Newspaperman who Gave the Lie to the Notion that the Middle-West was a backwaiter in which your Average Citizen would be spooked by a set of well-tailored spatterdashes. Fables in Slang ran in the Chicago Record before being published in book form in 1899.


A NEW YORK MAN went to visit a Cousin in the Far West.

The name of the Town was Fostoria, Ohio.
Drawing by Clyde J. Newman

When he came into Town he had his Watch-Chain on the outside of his Coat, and his Pink Spats were the first ever seen in Fostoria.

“Have you a Manicure Parlor in this Beastly Hole?” asked the New York Man, as they walked up from the Train.

“What's that?” asked the Cousin, stepping on his own Feet.

“Great Heavens!” exclaimed the New York Man, and was silent for several Moments.

At Dinner he called for Artichokes, and when told that there were none, he said, “Oh, very well,” in a Tone of Chastened Resignation.

After Dinner he took the Family into the Parlor, and told the Members how much they would Enjoy going to Weber and Fields’. Seeing a Book on the Table, he sauntered up to It and said, “Ah, one of Dick Davis’ Things.” Later in the Evening he visited the only Club House in Town. The Local Editor of the Evening Paper was playing Pin-Pool with the Superintendent of the Trolley Line. When the New York Man came into the Room, they began to Tremble and fell down on their Shots.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Oaxacan Journey

Remembrance of Restaurants Past Dept: Casa Oaxaca was a charming little eatery close to Albany’s downtown, a place that never achieved the crticial mass of customers despite Metroland’s best efforts to promote it. The glut of Moe’s and Chipotle outlets ensures that a majority won’t look beyond the pre-fab to find the authentic.


“PEOPLE ASK ME WHAT I RECOMMEND,” says Casa Oaxaca co-owner James Santaski. “I tell them to stay on the right-hand side of the menu.” On the left are “north of the border favorites” – gringo food, the burgers, wraps and such. On the right: items that seem initially familiar, items like tacos, tostadas and tamales, until the ingredients and preparation reveal more complexity than usual. And by usual, I mean as presented in the Americanized version of Mexican restaurants that have become the norm.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The only precedent we’ve had for this cuisine came one of the previous tenants of this space, La Familia. That restaurant was a labor of love for hard-working Francisco Vazquez, who, in one of life’s comic ironies, also worked for Fresno’s at the time. Both places closed, so when Santaski and his partner, Fransisca Vidal, bought the restaurant, they were able to hire Vazquez and his wife to oversee the kitchen.

That’s why the current menu will look familiar to Familia fans. Which also means we once again have recipes featuring rich, dark mole, sauce made from Oaxacan chocolate that’s taken in a flavor direction in which sweetness isn’t a significant factor. A palate-filling complexity takes over instead and, when combined with a simple chicken breast sauté, you dine on a dish that’s sui generis – certainly without precedent in roadside America’s menus.

Friday, May 08, 2015

No Contest

Better for Verse Dept.: Doggerel written while I was on a business trip (during my computer magazine-writing days), sitting in a hotel bar in Dallas, missing my wife. I sure can get sentimental, can't I?


FEATS OF STRENGTH, acts of will,
Make you think I love you still.
Acts of will, cheating death;
Let me catch my breath.

I love you (upside-down);
Where the hell is out of town?
Out of town, on the road —
What a row I’ve hoed.

Settle down, marry me;
Why the hell should we be free?
Marry me, take my hand —
Sure, I understand.

So we stay side by side,
Ain’t no place where I can hide;
So I stand, naked still;
Honey, cure the chill.

Take my hand, marry me —
I’m for you and you’re for me.
Move right in, share my place —
Get right in my face.

Feats of strength, acts of will
Make me think I love you still.

— Dallas, 14 October 1995

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Bach in Your Own Backyard

THE CONCERT FINISHED ABRUPTLY, in mid-phrase. The players lowered their instruments and it became clear to the puzzled audience that, for whatever reason, the piece they were playing had finished.

The reason is that Bach died before finishing the climactic quadruple fugue (with a motif based on his name also worked therein) that would have completed his Art of the Fugue. Or maybe he didn’t, and the pages are lost. Scholarship swirls around this issue as well as around the piece as a whole, which has no indicated instrumentation, thus pitting harpsichordists and organists against one another in ownership claims.

 The Emerson Quartet: Lawrence Dutton (viola),
Paul Watkins (cello), Philip Setzer
and Eugene Drucker (violins).
Which allows ensembles like the Emerson Quartet to move in. They presented a generous set of the work’s sections: all of the odd-numbered contrapunctus movements, three of the four canons, and, of course, the unfinished “Fuga a 3 Soggetti.”

The art of The Art of the Fugue lay in Bach’s realization of the contrapuntal possibilities of a brief, plaintive musical subject. A fugue can pit the theme against itself in a staggered succession of entrances; the theme can be turned upside-down, played backwards, speeded and slowed, and pitted against the various variations.

It’s as much a festival of mathematics as music, and gives Art of the Fugue a certain asceticism that keeps it from achieving audience-favorite status. But the Union College Concert Series doesn’t shy away from the intellectual, for which I’m grateful.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

So Sousa Me

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Wish I’d actually seen this concert. The description is enticing enough (at least to my taste) that I must have had a severe scheduling conflict. Here’s a trip back in time to more than 20 years ago, for a look at some all-American musical fare.


ST. CECILIA ORCHESTRA CO-FOUNDER Robert Taylor, like all violinists, has watched his instrument’s repertory fall prey to the transcriptionists as flutes, guitars, trumpets and others crowd the territory. “But now we’re getting even,” he says, “for all those Canadian Brass arrangements of string music.” Brass band territory doesn’t get much more sacred than in the realm of John Philip Sousa’s many marches, but the St. Cecilia Orchestra plunders that territory during this weekend’s concerts, with four Sousa marches on the program – arranged for strings.

John Philip Sousa
The arrangments are by Troy-based composer and professor William Carragan, who is more often found working with the likes of Bruckner and Schubert – he has finished both of their unfinished symphonies – than in the concert band. But he shares with Taylor an appreciation of Sousa’s talent, and was pleased with the challenge of achieving a band-like tonal color working only with strings.

Like Sousa, Carragan studied both string and brass instruments. He stayed with French horn, studying with Boston Symphony member Ralph Pottle, “who is a great all around musician. He taught me music as well as the horn.” As a Bruckner scholar, Carragan is in constant demand to write and lecture about the composer, so it may come as a shock to those who move in such rarefied circles to find Carragan working with such seeming trifles as the Sousa marches.

But they’re not trifles, he insists, and his work with them is very serious. “I want to emphasize that my arrangements are in no way satirical,” says Carragan. “Sousa was an American Johann Strauss. He wrote over 130 marches and I haven’t found a bad one yet.” He selected familiar and lesser-known marches for the set of four. “‘Nobles of the Mystic Shrine’ was written for a Shriners gathering, where a combination of bands made it possible to have some interesting sound effects. They had regimental trumpets, for example, which are straight, valveless instruments. My challenge is to create the same emotional effect. There’s also a part for a glockenspiel, so to produce an effect that would be the equivalent of that bell sound, I have the violins play pizzicato except for the first desk players, who use their bows.”

Monday, May 04, 2015

Brudie’s Pickle

Guest Blogger Dept.: Booth Tarkington already was a best-selling novelist by 1916, from his 1899 debut with The Gentleman from Indiana through titles like Monsieur Beaucaire, The Flirt,  Penrod, and Seventeen. He would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes – for The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. Here’s a story characteristic of his observations of life in the area of his native Indianapolis.


“I’M A FORTY-EIGHTER!” said the oldest Mr. Albert Alberger on the morning of his ninetieth birthday. “I'm a Forty-Eighter, and don’t you fergit it, Brudie! Don’t you once ever fergit it for one second ever once at all!”

Illustration by Arthur I. Keller
He spoke with vigour, addressing his grandson, the youngest Mr. Albert Alberger. “I got good enough eyesight yet,” the old man went on, tapping with his cane upon the little oblong of cardboard which had dropped from his grandson’s pocket to the floor. “I got good enough eyesight to see it’s a caller’s card. So much airs you got to go pudding on!”

“That isn’t ‘airs.’” Albert protested. “Everybody has their cards.”

“Business cards, yes. Caller’s cards, no! I got good eyesight — anyway, I got good enough through my spegtickles to see if it ain’t a caller’s card. Hand it to me, you Brudie.”

The youngest Alberger picked up the card and placed it upon the extended palm of his grandfather, whereupon the latter shuffled to the strong light of the open window.

“Caller’s card! Didn’t I knew it?” he cried. “You got a new name?” he demanded, after a second scrutiny of the card. “You got a double name?”

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Cough It Up

When you perform for a living, breathing audience, the crowd offers a number of signals to signify their reaction to your work. Applause, of course, which also becomes the end-of-show payoff. Laughter, a good thing when presenting comedy, a disturbing thing when not. Assuming you can’t see their faces, there’s also a less-easy-to-classify dynamic offered by the way the audience sits and breathes. You know when they’re with you. You know when they’re in suspense. You can feel when they’ve lost interest, but that’s not always a silent thing. As ennui sets in, your audience will cough.

It’s the deadliest of reactions, even without the spray of germs that typically accompanies the gesture. It tells you that the folks you wish to entertain are mentally drifting away. And once that first person coughs, a legion of others check their throats and the staccato outbursts resound.

Cough-happy crowds have prompted performers to stop; to berate the coughers; to hurl cough drops their way.

Alva Noë tackled this issue in a piece for NPR, writing “So why do people cough at live performance? Well, one answer is clear. They are uncomfortable. They are uncertain. They are, very often, bored out of their minds. And they are under pressure not to cough.”

He goes on to note that many kinds of performance are difficult, if not boring, for an audience today, and seems to suggest we juice them up, like blockbuster movies, somehow. And he concludes that we must “embrace the audience, and embrace their need to make noise and be heard. Artists and audiences both need to acknowledge that this discomfort is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s what the audience is paying for. Coughing at shows is not a problem.”

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Friday, May 01, 2015

Hello, Angie!

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: There was a period back around 1990 when the Cohoes Music Hall enjoyed a glorious run of small shows shepherded onto the stage by David Holdgrive, a wildly talented fellow who also co-authored a musical called The Wonder Years that should have gone places (and had nothing to do with the TV series). Here’s my review of another of the musicals that premiered there.


A theater company that starts a season with a world premiere is tops in my book, and Heritage Artists has given us a provocative, tuneful drama that is like nothing else you’re bound to see in the coming months – here and on Broadway.

Barry Kleinbort
Angelina is Barry Kleinbort’s new book-rich musical that packs a small, psychologically intense story inside a very large frame. It wears the story pretty well, although conventional expectations will get in the way.

Based on a 1967 play by Frank Gilroy, itself a version of the Greek legend of Phaedra, Angelina presents a portrait of a woman in a loveless marriage who becomes obsessed with her husband’s bastard son, a charming teenager who arrives unexpectedly one summer.

Set in New York’s Little Italy in 1963, James Wolk’s stage design shuttles us between Mulberry Street and an apartment thereon, with an ever-watchful trio of neighbors observing from above.