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Friday, July 31, 2015

Hitting the Street

From the Musical Vault Dept.: I discovered the King’s Singers in 1982 and continue to admire not only their repertory of Renaissance material but also their many arrangements of material you wouldn’t think would work for six voices and the commissions they’ve made. Their occasional forays into schlock seem to be behind them, and I’m not including in that category such effective material as “Good Vibrations” and “Blackbird.” Here’s my review of a CD that also includes the equally admirable percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

AFTER TWENTY YEARS of strong, innovative music making, the six-man King;svocal group went through a protracted personnel upheaval and seemed to be repeating a tiresome novelty repertory to death. They switched record labels, settled on a roster of performers, and each successive release got better.

The latest, Street Songs, is what this group is all about, and it’s as good as anything they’ve ever done. This despite the fact that you see marketing written all over it. They’re paired with Evelyn Glennie, one of BMG Classics’ current money makers, and the CD’s title comes from a song cycle by Steve Martland, who has enjoyed a vogue as a writer of loud, accessible music.

But the high point of the disc is the group’s re-recording of “Lalela Zulu,” a suite of six songs written for the group over 20 years ago and first recorded as part of a monster tenth anniversary concert. Although the new version lacks the antic verve of a live recording, it hangs together better musically and is every bit as exciting–and the songs themselves, with music by Stanley Glasser and texts by South African writer Louis Nkosi, each song reflecting a different aspect of Zulu life in Johannesburg.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ciao Bound

From the Fridge Dept.: Fourteen years ago, we visited a Chatham restaurant called Ciao, as described in the review below. It doesn’t seem to have been in a favorable location. Among the restaurants that since have come and gone in that space are Chaseo’s, MJ’s Sports Bar and Grill, and the Clock Tower Grill (because you could see the town’s clock tower from there). But Susan, my wife, has an even longer history with it, as noted below.


MY WIFE IS A SPENCERTOWN NATIVE who has seen her little town and its surrounding area transmogrify into yet another outpost for Manhattan exurbanites. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Chatham restaurant we recently visited. Susan recalled a night, twenty-five years ago, when she met a cousin (with much more of an inclination to whoop it up than Susan ever sported) at a shabby saloon near Chatham’s downtown.

Downtown Chatham, with Clock Tower
“There was nothing pretty about the place,” she recalls. “It had absolutely no decor. So I walked in and ordered a whisky sour.” This threw the bartender into a panic. She saw the man surreptitiously consult an Old Mr. Boston’s guide, then try to follow its instructions to make this simplest of mixed drinks. “He’d probably never been asked for a whisky sour before. And I saw that, all down the bar, everyone was drinking beer.”

Refurbished a year ago by new chef-owner Salvatore Taccetta, it’s now called Ciao and it’s presenting a nice range of Italian cuisine. Taccetta moved from New York City, where he had a restaurant called Il Giardinetto.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Best of All Possible Worlds

THE GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL is presenting Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” as its musical-theater offering this season, and it’s an excellent choice both because Bernstein worked as well in that genre (which is to say, with genius) as he did in every other he took on, and because “Candide” itself has had such a topsy-turvy history that it benefits from any good production it can get.

David Garrison and Andrew Stenson in "Candide."
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Good production? This one should be required viewing for any fan of musical theater. It’s a lesson in how imaginative, dynamic staging gives life to every moment that helps build a momentum that heightens the excitement of the work.

Festival artistic director Francesca Zambello helmed this one, sculpting a satisfying, often surprising arc to each scene. A good example is the celebrated “Glitter and Be Gay,” sung with virtuosic ease and a deft sense of character by Kathryn Lewek. She revealed two sides in this staging: the aria was introspective and ranged emotionally from anger to remorse; her face and movement showed us the diffidently manipulative beauty caught in her own snare of deceit. By the end of it, as she scattered jewelry across the stage, the number had built to peak both musical and dramatic – and it’s tough for the drama to compete with that tune.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Air for the E String

A recent issue of  Metroland aggregated the thoughts of its various writers about those times when technology seems to have gone too far. I challenged myself to come up with something that didn’t involve a personal computer. (Yes, the Snark qualifies as a computer, but you know what I mean.)


ONE OF THE GLORIOUS MYSTERIES of music lies in the fact that each note contains the seeds of its own harmony. An overtone of a fifth lurks in that sound, more prominent than other overtones, reinforcing the structure of the diatonic scale, in which the progression from that fifth back to its root tone is the resolution that brings most pieces of music to a satisfying end. Yet if you tune a piano according to those overtones alone, two Cs played together at each end of the keyboard will clash. The tuning system that’s been used for several centuries is, in that sense, artificial.

My biggest achievement as a young violin student came not through superficialities like mastering left-hand pizzicato (which I haven’t) or a clean spiccato bow stroke (ditto), but in learning to tune the instrument by ear. The violin’s four strings have intervals of a fifth between them. (It’s the same with viola, cello, and bass.) Although my rental instrument came with a pitch pipe, my teacher, Mr. Finaldi, eschewed the thing, getting his A from the carefully tuned piano in his living room and tuning the other three strings merely by listening.

These days it’s rare to see any stringed instrument without a Snark perched on its neck. Play an open string and this little gadget listens to it and offers a pitch meter that indicates how far out of tune you are and which direction is needed to adjust it, and then it glows a cheerful color to tell you you’re home. It’s so handy that there are many knockoffs available, and the inevitable phone app has followed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Gunning for You

The Long Walk, Opera Saratoga

AS BRIAN CASTNER and three of his fellow Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists are driving back to base from yet another mission while deployed in Iraq, the tension of the moment is jolted by a pigeon. It lands on their Humvee. Over the orchestra’s rumbles and squeals, the quartet sings in beautiful close harmony about the nature of their relationship. This is, says one, the place where he belongs.

Daniel Belcher and
Heather Johnson
Back home in Buffalo, Castner still perceives danger, and the first act of The Long Walk ends with the image of him sitting at the top of the stairs of his house, cradling his AK-47, guarding his children from—what?

Adapted from a memoir by Castner, the opera—receiving its world premiere with these Opera Saratoga performances—is a shattering, very moving portrait of mental imbalance, right up there with Wozzeck in its use of music and lyrics and the tools of theater to explore the contrasting, contradictory facets of a war-damaged soldier.

Like Wozzeck, it’s episodic and makes intelligent use of musical form. But where you might expect again an atonal approach, The Long Walk is surprisingly lyrical, with solo moments suggestive of late Strauss.

Baritone Daniel Belcher, in the role of a lifetime, is Castner, a pleasant-looking average Joe who is running as we meet him, running, he explains, through the is to escape the was. Not that there’s any escape.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Al Together

From the Vault Dept.: Al Gallodoro was nearly 90 when I saw the concert reviewed below. His amazing career included stints in the orchestras of Paul Whiteman and Arturo Toscanini. He recorded with the Dutch ensemble The Beau Hunks. He appeared as a street performer in “The Godfather, Part II.” And at Caffè Lena, he still wielded his sax like the master he was.


YOU EXPECT, WHEN HEARING A JAZZ SAXOPHONIST TODAY, to hear some trace of the Big Influences. At the very least, there will be Coltrane and some Lester Young. There are exceptions: Scott Hamilton bypasses Trane in a sound that channels Ben Webster. And Al Gallodoro goes back even farther, with a sound that’s squarely in the Jimmy Dorsey-Frank Trumbauer camp.

Al Gallodoro
Like Trumbauer, Gallodoro fashions solos that extend the harmonic range of the tune in question without taking you far from its melodic center. Performing last Saturday at Caffè Lena, he and pianist JoAnn Chmielowski ran through a batch of standards and surprises that thoroughly delighted the far-from-capacity crowd. An added bonus was the two numbers in which they were joined by Addie Boyle, of Addie & Olin fame.

Gallodoro opened with a romping “All of Me” that set the pattern for many of the tunes to follow: a fairly straightforward but swinging statement on sax for 32 bars, then a hot chorus in which Gallodoro let loose a torrent of notes that played with the outer reaches of the harmony of the changes. Unlike many post-bop players, he’s not reharmonizing the tunes but rather finding the fun and tension in exploring 11ths and 13ths and such. Next a solo chorus by Chmielowski with a fluid, often single-line left hand and chord blocks in the right, followed by another piano solo in which she syncopated the left-hand rhythm into something approaching a habanera. And finally Gallodoro wrapped it up with another hot chorus that went stratospheric, typically and improbably ending on a high concert E-flat.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Woods So Wild

The Magic Flute, Glimmerglass Opera, July 10

The Magic Flute
is a mess of an opera that defies narrative convention, keeps you guessing at who’s the good guy, and lets the wrong person rescue the ingenue, among many other weirdnesses. None of which has curbed the insane popularity of the piece. It has great tunes, but you expect that from Mozart.

Sean Panikkar as Tamino
Photo by Karli Cadel
Re-setting its time and place is so irresistible to opera directors that it’s become a potentially embarrassing fetish, but the production that opened the Glimmerglass Festival’s current season takes us to a forest with Native American overtones, on a glorious set by Troy Hourie, whose impressive artwork also can be found on the Festival grounds.

Director Madeline Sayet didn’t stage the overture until its very end, for which I’m grateful, and even then it was a necessary device to show Tamino’s transition from the fury of the modern business world into the forest where the magic would occur. Sean Panikkar sang splendidly in that role, maintaining a wide-eyed innocence even as he takes on the challenge of rescuing a maiden whose portrait causes him instantly to fall in love.

He meets Papageno, originally a birdcatcher, now a hunter, incongruously costumed in camo and blaze orange. Ben Edquist, who was Jigger in last season’s Carousel, has a dynamic, acrobatic presence and a voice to match. This is the role that Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, wrote for himself, giving himself two great solos and an endearing duet, among other numbers. Edquist was more than up to the task – literally more, slipping into the tendency to telegraph the jokes in the texts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hamburger Heaven and Hell

From the Vault Dept.: An unpublished piece that was replaced, that particular issue of Metroland, by one of my restaurant reviews. Yet the need for burgers will never abate, the quest for good ones never end . . .


BIG MACS HIT IN 1968; within four years, my high school friends and I were so addicted that we’d risk detention by skipping an afternoon class, piling into somebody’s car and gorging on the tasty, greasy burgers. And it wasn’t even the meat itself that tasted good – the negligible portion of cheap chopped beef was tricked up with cheese and pickle slices, Russian dressing and a dab of pale mustard. Lots of bread, too, in that double-decker package, and the things were cheap. Cheap enough for a high school-kid budget.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
As teen-aged rebels, we were aligning ourselves with the Tartars of old, who wrenched their dinner meat from tough Asian cattle, shredded it and cooked it over their shields. By the 14th century, this practice had been introduced into Germany, where it was eaten raw or cooked by the poor folk. It picked up its moniker in Hamburg, but it was known, with a touch of irony, as a Hamburg steak.

From there it made 19th-century trips to England and America. In England it became the pet of wacky food doc J.H. Salisbury (yup, the Salisbury steak guy), who insisted that all food be shredded and who wanted you to eat beef three times a day. In America, it arrived with German immigrants, and its name shortened from Hamburger steak to hamburger. Its companion bread bun also appeared around this time, and the two were firmly connected by the time of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where the sandwich was called, simply, “hamburg.”

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Piecing out Imperfections

IT’S ALMOST INSULTING to our received images of warfare, this Battle of Agincourt, with a handful of black-clad actors suffering slo-mo agonies while the stage is littered with drapes of red. Since scenes of actual carnage are now denied us by television news, we thrill to Hollywood’s relentless re-creations. This chamber-music version of battle highlighted only its emotional content–the uncomfortable part–and the subsequent actions of the politicians of the time.

David Joseph, Ryan Winkles, and Caroline Calkins.
Photo by John Dolan.
Because it’s the 15th century, the politicians are royalty, and Shakespeare’s enduring saga of Henry V shows us a youthful king facing both internal insurrection and war with France. He’s fresh from the playwright’s pair of Henry IVs, which portray him as a rakehell palling around with the dissolute Falstaff. As played by Ryan Winkles, in his 10th season with this company, the young king tempers his sense of duty with a sense of humanity. There’s enough ambiguity in the script to challenge the actor, as a comparison of filmed performances will show, but Winkles makes a good choice–particularly in this bare-bones version—to show us Henry’s emotional accessibility.

He still makes the most of the big speeches, which take on a more compelling flavor when they’re not uttered as Olivier-ish pieces of bombast, and he’s very at home in the wooing of French princess Catherine, played with steely coquettishness (and a convincing accent) by Caroline Calkins.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Water Main

From the Back of the Fridge Dept.: Where did I dine 15 years ago? is not a question typically asked in my household, but the exigencies of exhuming old stories provoke such queries. And here’s the answer: The Main Street Grill, on Williamstown’s Water Street, an eatery that traveled from Vermont and brought with it its name. It has long since closed – it’s now a restaurant called Hops and Vines – and chef Drew Nicastro moved around the Berkshires, eventually settling in at the Richmond Grille in North Adams.


WITH THE VILLAGE CENTER dominated by the gorgeous old buildings that house the college and the theater, Williamstown looks like a hand-colored postcard. Even with a thunderstorm brewing, it makes an oily, overcast sky look attractive. So the first challenge for a fine-dining restaurant is to look good, which the Main Street Café accomplishes with the simplicity of a restored old brick building and the well-tended garden that graces the front.

Downtown Williamstown
We’re there well before the storm breaks, with bits of sun still struggling through. Inside the restaurant, the late afternoon light falls nicely on the windowside tables, throwing long mullioned shadows across the floor. We’re led from the bar, which also sports a few cozy tables, down a bright hall to a large dining room with French doors at one end, leading to a few outdoor tables. We take a table near an inside wall, next to the bright pastels of a Saul Steinberg drawing. Skylights in the high ceiling brighten the room, with a grid of pin spots poised to take over once darkness arrives.