Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dharma Bumming

From the Fields Dept.: Much has changed for the Van Amburgh family since I wrote this piece. They moved to a larger farm in Schoharie County soon after, and became the subject of Rudd Simmons’s excellent documentary The First Season, chronicling the family’s sobering trip through a year as novice dairy farmers. They’ve come a long way since then, as a look at their website will tell you. But here’s where they were in 2006.


EXCEPT FOR THE OCCASIONAL BELLOW of an amorous boar, the farm seems oddly quiet. But we’ve driven through so much farmland, so much countryside to get here, the car windows down on this hot, muggy day, that we’ve grown accustomed to the rural clamor. In fact, blackbirds and robins are constantly shrilling, a flock of hens cackles in the distance, roosters crow and every now and then a 800-pound sow named Grumpy lets loose with a basso sigh.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
She’s a Gloucestershire Old Spot, a heritage breed so old it predates such record-keeping, and one that’s known for its particularly delicious ham and bacon. And that’s why she’s here, dining on organic grains and vegetables, sampling the best-quality hay, living in a style of comfort as different as can be imagined from the way your last ham-supplying pig was raised.

And that’s the purpose of this pig. She may weigh in as the most obvious occupant of the pastures of this farm called dharma lea, but she’s just one element in a harmony of husbandry that includes a way of human life as well.

French philosopher Rene Guenon defines “dharma” as “the essential nature of a being, comprising the sum of its particular qualities or characteristics, and determining, by virtue of the tendencies or dispositions it implies, the manner in which this being will conduct itself, either in a general way or in relation to each particular circumstance.” “Lea” is an Old English term for a meadow or garden.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Go to Hell

La favola d’Orfeo
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, Mass., June 21

THE GREATEST TRIBUTE to the power of Claudio Monteverdi’s music (and the damn fine story it set) occurred during the second half of Orfeo, as the title character made his way out of the underworld, his late wife behind him, she silently imploring him not to turn and look, he doubting the authenticity of the interdiction. The inevitable moment arrived. He turned. And a good portion of the audience gasped in dismay.

Mireille Asselin
Monteverdi’s Orfeo premiered in 1607 in what’s believed to be a fairly small room; compared to that, the Mahaiwe Theater would seem cavernous, but the 690-seat house proved to be a perfect size for this piece. The orchestra was seated onstage, with a brass ensemble upstage on risers for the opening fanfare.

These were true-to-the-period instruments, which typically don’t produce as large a sound as do modern ones, and there were fewer than 20 players, but the blend and the volume were perfect in the hall.

Music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs each wielded a long-necked chitarrone; with harpist Maxine Eilander, they created a shimmering texture of strummed strings behind the vocals, enhanced when Avi Stein turned from organ to harpsichord.

The setting was simple: a blue cyc lightened into a summer sky for the first half of the piece. The ensemble of nine singers and a dancer entered as strolling players, drawing masks and costume pieces from a cart before launching into the action.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Good Grief

The Epic of Gilgamesh
Directed and designed by John Sowle, Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill, June 20

BEFORE GOD, THERE WAS GILGAMESH. His story is one of the oldest known narratives, with many of its elements echoed in later sacred and secular epics. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the friendship between the title character, a demi-god king who has been oppressing his subjects, and the half-wild man created to reign in the monarch’s excesses.

Photo by John Sowle
As dramatized by John Sowle, at its heart is the experience of grief. As performed by Steven Patterson, it’s the grief we all have shared and will continue to share, his own manifestation of it so searing that to witness it is to feel again every sense of loss you thought you’d gotten past.

This Epic of Gilgamesh is a solo show for Patterson, and he inhabits the story with a commitment that makes every fantastic element seem real and of the moment.

Based on a verse translation by Herbert Mason, the poetry of the text is beautifully rendered by Patterson, in such a way as to make the moments he describes all the more memorable—which is where poetry and skilled acting are (but aren’t often enough) at their most magical.

We discover the actor in a sajdah position, facing a small flame. He is dressed in a white cotton kurta and pants. He is barefoot. “It’s an old story, but one that can still be told,” he tells us, so charmingly that we’re drawn into his confidence right away.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Double Fantasy Life

From the Bookshelf Dept.: And while we’re on the topic of books, here’s a revisit of my 2003 review of Bob Rosen’s Nowhere Man, a fascinating look at what became the last weeks of John Lennon’s life. It began life as an unpublished novel titled Rockjesus, had an unpublished incarnation in which diary entries were quoted – and settled into this entirely satisfactory form.


NOT LONG AGO, the Beatles put out a CD of their number-one hits and once again owned the Billboard list. Thanks to recently rediscovered tapes, more CDs are on the way. It’s safe to assume that they, too, will crown the charts.

Interest in the foursome never wanes, collectively and individually, and among the individuals, John Lennon proved to be the most complex, enigmatic and, ultimately, tragic.

You have to decide for yourself whether Robert Rosen’s book accurately reproduces material from John Lennon’s diaries. Famous for their post-mortem peregrinations, the diaries were swiped by one of Lennon’s assistants and stashed in Rosen’s apartment. According to Rosen, he worked 16 hours a day, every day for over a month, “fueled by coffee and amphetamines,” to transcribe those diary entries. “I said them out loud like an incantation, and I began to feel what seemed to be like Lennon’s energy flowing through me.”

The listings were extensive – “every detail, every dream, every conversation, every morsel of food he put in his mouth ... and it was all an enormous contradiction. Here was a man who aspired to be like Jesus and Gandhi as much as he craved money and carnal pleasures.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Staying in Tune

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Another journey back a quarter-century, for my review of a book that itself saluted the nautical traditions of an earlier day.


HARVEY OXENHORN TRAVELLED TO GREENLAND aboard a refurbished tall ship. Throughout his journey he was stymied by the challenge to “go aloft,” the frightening process of “climbing the shrouds and then slithering out along the yardarms to tend sails.”

It’s a nautical tightrope act, and it parallels the literary tightrope act of the book Oxenhorn wrote recounting his travels. A poet who was previously familiar with sailing only through the literature he taught, he has given us a well-thought-out, nicely detailed narrative that gives an unselfconscious account of his own growth throughout the tense trip.

On the face of it, it was an expedition to study humpback whales and other animal life in the arctic; for Oxenhorn, it was an escape into adventure. Although there’s a feeling that he was fleeing more than he reveals to us, it’s enough to understand that he had to get away. Then, showing what Leslie Fiedler identifies in literature as the “home as hell” syndrome, he sets out, Huck-like, on a raft on the river.

Only in this case it’s a vintage barkentine touring the Atlantic Ocean and the Labrador Sea.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

What’s Brewing?

WE’RE NEVER FAR from a cup of coffee, be it an overpriced Starbucks concoction or a cup of diner joe. We do unspeakable things to our coffee, lacing it with flavorings and sweeteners and even smothering it in whipped cream. We’re known internationally for our lousy preferences: A barista in Florence, Italy, told me that “coffee” in his country has long referred to espresso, but even the standard brew is strong enough that tourists have earned their own beverage sobriquet: “We call it ‘American’ coffee. That means it’s as weak as water.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But the worst thing we’ve done, in the unholy name of convenience, is stock our shelves and landfills with K-cups, the pods that have taken over a substantial portion of the household coffee market. I’m sure you’ve long been grinding fresh beans for your morning cup, but you can do Dad a Father’s Day favor and wean him away from that single-serve monstrosity.

Or, even worse, a percolator. I know this from experience. I grew up in a percolator household. My father, up at the crack of every morning’s dawn, had the urn a-bubbling even before his eyes were fully opened, but it produced a burnt-tasting brew that put me off the stuff for years. With the early-’70s introduction of drip-brew machines, coffee became palatable, and I’m happy to say that my dad is among those who made the switch.

The legacy of that percolator carries on in the moka pot, originated 80 years ago by Bialetti and now available in a variety of sizes and styles, from many manufacturers. The so-called six-cup model has become my standby. It purports to make espresso, but without the pressure that true espresso requires, you get something better regarded as strong coffee.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Something Fishy

From the Food Vault Dept.: I had to start somewhere, I guess, but the ignorance the review below reveals is staggering. And as noble as was my intent, the review didn’t help, and Sugi closed shortly after it ran – but reopened in Albany as Arita, on N. Allen St., in a space now occupied these past fifteen years by Pepper Jack’s. The chef of Arita went on to run Miki in Saratoga Springs for a few years; that, too, has closed.


“IS THIS YOUR FIRST TIME to order shabu shabu?” the waitress asked.

Yes, I told her.

“Oh. Many people who are not used to shabu shabu don't like beef in seafood broth.”

You can't intimidate me that way. Not even in a Japanese restaurant. Octopus, for example, looks gross on a plate. But sit me down beside someone who says yuck and you can bet I'll be smacking my lips over octopus.

The place: Sugi, a busy little restaurant the Schenectady side of the intersection of Route 7 and State Street. The time: a recent Saturday, early evening.

Dining rooms don’t get much less assuming. This is your basic paneling-with-drop-ceiling joint, but dressed with charming Japanese screens and fans to mask the plainness.

And there’s a sushi bar at the far end of the room to capture the eye, with a handful of chairs for the dedicated eaters of the raw fish delicacies.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Protean Pianism

CLASSICAL MUSIC LOVES SPECIALISTS, or, to put it a better way, is most comfortable with performers who are easy to pigeonhole. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has made a career of resisting such definition, and underscores this with two new Hyperion recordings.

He’s only in one of the two Shostakovich pieces recorded by the Takács Quartet, but they, too, are showing their versatility, introducing this composer to a catalogue of CDs that includes works by Bartók, Brahms, Schubert and (of course) Beethoven.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 dates from 1944 and reveals more of the personality that would inform the 13 quartets to come. It’s melodic, yes, but it’s a piece of contrasts and melancholy. The no-nonsense approach typical of this ensemble sits very well with Shostakovich, and you can hear its success in the work’s finale, which takes a series of surprising turns that, thanks to this interpretation, accumulates a logic.

Hamelin joins them for the Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57, a five-movement work that dates from 1940. It’s a little breezier, with an opening prelude and fugue that presages the astonishing cycle of 24 that would follow. The pianist displays his interpretive skill at the start, setting a compelling mood with his first few notes; by the time he enters as one of the fugal voices, his presence has turned ominous. It’s an uncomfortably passionate sound.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Easy Come, Easy Go

For no other reason than the melacholy joy of the arrangement and Wiley's smokey voice. Recorded 17 March 1934 with Johnny Green and His Orchestra, featuring Green on piano, Manny Klein on trumpet, and Benny Goodman on clarinet.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

So Many Sopranos

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s my Schenectady Gazette review – from a quarter-century ago – of a double-bill of fascinating contemporary operas, the kind of programming that’s far more elusive today.


Tom Johnson
ALL WORKS OF ART come with built-in appreciation devices. In theatrical pieces, we recognize the invitations to chuckle at the obviously amusing or to weep at tragedy, but some of those devices are less obvious. Satire, for example, requires that we and the artist hold some specific attitudes in common.

Tom Johnson’s chamber opera “Sopranos Only” dispenses with the common devices of plot and tension and finds instead a dramatic continuity in its own self-consciousness. It received its American premiere Monday night at the Goodrich Theater on the campus of Oneonta State University, in a double bill with Carleton Clay’s “Howcum, Oklahoma?”

Six sopranos complement one another and compete in exploring a haunting vocalise, sung to the spare accompaniment of flute, violin, cello and harp. At first sung wordlessly in a sort of round robin by successive sopranos, the theme is taken through a variety of texts and languages, usually with some kind of wordplay involved, and combined into choral sequences (with the attendant phase-shifting that so many soprano overtones will provoke) before ebbing to a quiet finish.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Generation Gap

Treading the Boards Dept.: My review of one of the summer’s offerings from Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass.


IT’S A CONFRONTATION between rival evolutionary biologists; between feminists of different generations with different generational opinions; between a mother and the daughter she gave up for adoption three decades ago.

Bridget Saracino and Tod Randolph.
Photo by John Dolan
The conflicts cross, of course, from one category to the next, in messy, all-too-human ways. Sarah Treem’s script is a clever one, and it comes from a playwright who has achieved considerable success in television. Unlike most TV programming, live theater offers the chance to let gray areas remain grayish and to leave the audience asking questions. But The How and the Why doesn’t effectively avail itself of those possibilities.

We get to know two complicated characters during the course of the show, their personalities and conflicts made all the more convincing by two terrific performances.

Tod Randolph, who was brilliant as Sonia in last season’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, plays Zelda, whose celebrated “Grandmother Hypothesis” brought her notoriety and a tenured teaching position. She also has evolved an almost-unflappable exterior, betrayed only by the frequent fixing of her hair.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Drinking from the Hose

Current Offerings Dept.: Metroland asked its writers to limn a memory of a food of summer and a ditto song. I discovered that even as a child I could be annoyingly effete.


ONE SUMMER REFRESHMENT stands alone in capturing the season’s hot, stinky essence. Its source lies coiled on the lawn, softening under the heat of the sun. Spin the valve on top of the hose barb that juts from the side of the house and the length of green hose stiffens a bit, coughs expectantly, then spits out its treasure, a not-very-cool drink of water tasting of rubber and algae. Back when I first met this treat, the hose fitting was made of brass, which added its own crisp flavor. Holding the hose vertically turned it into a fountain into which you lowered your face while slaking your thirst, ignoring your sister’s complaint that she, too, wanted a drink, wouldja hand it over already. And so you did, but part of the game was to slide a thumb over the hose end, turning flow into spray and dousing her before dropping the hose and dashing around the side of the house.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Visiting Normandy ...

... via Albany, as Susan Whiteman explains a characteristic  dessert.
6 June 2015 | Photo by Lily Whiteman

Friday, June 05, 2015

A Little Korea

From the Food Vault Dept.: Arirang was one of several short-lived Korean restaurants that have tried to gain a following in the Albany area. Its successor in that space is a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Yum that specializes in noodle soup and banh mi, so it’s still worth a visit.


DINING OUT CAN PROVIDE surprising shots of self-knowledge. While studying the menu at Arirang, I heard my wife and daughter toss back and forth the name of one of the popular Korean dishes: bi bim bab. “Sounds good,” my wife, Susan, said. “Rice, meat and vegetables. Bi bim bab.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Bi bim bab,” my daughter repeated, chuckling.

“Don’t be such tourists,” I growled. “Don’t make fun of the language.”

“I’m not!” said Susan. “I’m celebrating it. I like the sound of that phrase.”

To which my daughter added, “Lighten up, Dad.”

Was I really that uptight? Our server overheard the menu item being repeated and hurried to the table, graciously answering Susan’s query about the meaning of the phrase. “It means rice, that’s all mixed together with vegetables.”

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Island Paradise

Work for Hire Dept.: My ideal kitchen is a compact wonderland of stainless steel and tile. Just as there should be no wasted food, so should there be no wasted space. Restaurants learn to do this well. But when I was asked, many years ago, to write profiles of three home kitchens in the Albany area, it was work for hire, and I did it. Behold the result.


IN THE RESTAURANT, the steam table that squats between cooks and waiters intimidates with its ranks of soups and sauces, all simmering near the boil and aromatic. But it's a necessity: the cooks have more workspace, the waiters have a path to hurry along.

Photo by Rick Siciliano
In the home, that island can be just as important. It spreads out your workspace, and anyone who spends a lot of prep time in the kitchen knows that you need wide space, not deep space. And how can you do any serious entertaining without opening your kitchen to the guests? The island breaks up your floorspace, gives the guests an out-of-the-way place from which to watch you at work.

“WE WANTED A LARGE KITCHEN because everyone always gathers there,” said Marilyn Fisher. She and her husband, Jim, chose their house in Schenectady’s Stockade for many more reasons than kitchen alone, “but we needed a place that would be good for entertaining.”

The kitchen is the product of many hands over many decades, and combines the charm of old brick with the practicality of multiple appliances, most of which are doubled.