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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Goode for Beethoven

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s a look back to the opening concert of Union College’s 2007 season, when pianist Richard Goode burned up the Steinway.


RICHARD GOODE GAINED AS MUCH ACCLAIM AND ATTENTION as a classical-music artist is likely to get with his recordings of the complete piano sonatas by Beethoven, a formidable journey that he traversed with uncommon brio.

Richard Goode | Photo by Steve Riskind
We had a taste of that last week when he closed the first half of an impressive recital with Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, that warhorse of warhorses. Sighs of audience recognition punctuated the beginning of the piece, with its measured right-hand triplets and plaintive left-hand drone, a sense that probably turned to surprise (it did with me) as Goode established a brisk tempo and unusually relentless pulse.

Too fast? Not to my taste. There’s a “To be or not to be” quality to the opening of that sonata: It’s so famous that you’re tempted simply to get it over with. But I didn’t hear that in Goode’s approach, which pulsed with appropriate wistfulness, avoiding the too-easy route of shrouding the movement with melancholy.

This approach made more meaningful the little scherzo that follows, a lighthearted interlude that sets you up for a big, Beethoven surprise: the tumultuous finale, bursting forth with the fury of a tantrum and finishing so fortississimo that the Steinway’s strings seemed to be banging into one another.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Cato in Cooperstown

ET IN ARCADIA EGO” is inscribed on one of the trompe l’oeil stones forming the backdrop to Cato’s encampment in north Africa. “I am in Paradise,” the phrase suggests, and it’s an inscription often found on a tomb. Cato has fled after defeat in the battle of Pharsalus, and is pursued by his fellow-Roman and ambitious opponent Caesar.

Photo by Karli Cadel
At this point, these two have accumulated a lot of tumultuous history, so it’s not surprising that we seem to have arrived in medias res as the curtain rises on Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica. As it happens, there’s also an entire first act missing, so the Glimmerglass Festival’s production—the work’s American premiere—gives us a cinematic intro to the six characters and what they’re doing before launching the piece.

The info is projected onto a crimson scrim during the opening Sinfonia (itself taken from Vivaldi’s earlier opera L’Olimpiade) as the cast presents itself in silhouette, and the action takes place against a golden-red ruin behind which is desert and the setting sun, the sky an incongruously lovely Bouchard.

The bloody and the pastoral inform the text as well, as when Arbace, the Prince of Numidia (countertenor Eric Jurenas) advises Cato’s daughter, Marzia (soprano Megan Samarin) why she needs him as her husband: “If the lamb goes to pasture without the shepherd/One day she may go astray/And perhaps there will emerge/From its den or from the woods/Some savage beast/Who will devour her.”

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Best Beth’s

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: I made a brief return to the restaurant-review business this week so I could extol an out-of-the-way place called Elizabeth’s in Pittsfield, Mass.


SEEK THE SOUL OF AN ONION and you’re easily led astray. Its pungency is distracting and can drive you to tears. It tends to reveal its sweetness only under duress. Tom Ellis splits a Spanish onion and opens a world, softening its hemispheres with olive oil and honey before baking its sugars to the fore. It’s culinary homeopathy, resulting in an earth-brown confection, crisp at the edges, releasing flavors you never guessed were there before. As the menu insists: “Guys, a little wine, honest bread and ‘the onion’ and maybe, just maybe, she (or he) will be your baby tonite.” And $7 is a bargain price for a seduction tool.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Tom and Elizabeth Ellis have been helming Elizabeth’s, in Pittsfield, for nearly 30 years, an unexpected eatery on an unexpected street where a compact menu of Italian-inspired fare reflects Ellis’ honest, down-to-earth involvement with his ingredients.

Such as goes into the sausage he makes. “It starts with Berkshire pork, and I add herbes de Provence,” he says. “Personally, I like it spicy, but I tone it down for the customers. You can always add spice to the sauce. You had it with the polenta—”

This I did, a $24.50 dish that would have been overwhelmed by the perfect slice of polenta it sported were it not for the cataclysmic burst of flavor from every bite of the meatstuff.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

It’s Good, But . . .

COULD IT BE A MASTERPIECE? Is it possible that this thing, fashioned from whole cloth by one or more creative souls, has achieved a rare level of finished perfection?

It’s hard to tell. Most of the critics have been divergent in their opinions, each of them finding some manner of fault. The one who lauded it with unstinting praise seems – what? Uninformed, perhaps, lacking the critical apparatus to see through its surface sheen and into its faults.

This is the problem with our culture of dismissal. Intelligently appraising a work of art requires enough intelligence to understand the work in the context of time in which it was created and the context of similar pieces, and the experience of repeatedly encountering the work and its ilk.

How does a critic convey the extent of that intelligence and experience? It gets written into the review, where that context can be described and well-chosen comparisons can support any critical argument. It also helps if the review demonstrates a facility with writing, because that gives momentum to the review. Solecisms (and stupidity) get in the way.

But the culture of dismissal offers a facile shortcut. Decorate your appraisal with an adverse criticism and you’ve demonstrated penetrating insight. No contextualizing needed. In fact, specificity is the enemy of such dismissal. “She’s good, but isn’t she a little old for the part?” tells us nothing. Actually, it tells us plenty, but it’s telling us about the critic, who, by leaving the argument unsupported, is parroting the received attitude of a youth-obsessed, marketing-driven society. Something like “I would expect a character of that age to be more spontaneous in movement and less guarded in speech” redirects the criticism from ad hominem to advice that’s more legitimately couched in opinion.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cliburn Collected

From the Recorded Vault Dept.: Back in 1989, we still were looking for significant recordings from the LP era (and earlier) to make their way to compact disc. The Van Cliburn CDs described below have since been re-reissued, in better sound, and collected in multi-CD sets both cheap and costly, so you’ll have no trouble at all acquiring what’s mentioned.


A GREYING BUT STILL BOYISH-LOOKING VAN CLIBURN stares at us from the nearly-identical covers of these five recently re-released recordings; pictured elsewhere on the jackets are photos of the very boyish, almost spindly-looking kid who rode the crest of a Moscow competition to immense fame, then to a near-oblivion that he only recently is climbing out of.

These records are therefore testimony to what was and to what we may expect. The lineup of accompanying artists is a testimony to greatness of what can now bee seen as a bygone era: Eugene Ormandy conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra and Fritz Reiner leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for all of the concertos included in the set.

The five recordings – issued on compact disk and cassette – are sold separately but have been promoted as a set. They contain the following works:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Chávez y su Mundo

YOU CAN COUNT ON THE BARD MUSIC FESTIVAL for textural extremes. Last Saturday’s programs ran a gamut from a charming sonata for guitar and harpsichord by Manual Ponce to the outsized, relentless Piano Concerto by Carlos Chávez, the composer around whom this year’s program was built.

Carlos Chávez, drawn by
Miguel Covarrubias
Chávez was a terrific choice. Mexico’s best-known composer remains little-known north of the border, despite a strong presence on the North American concert scene a few decades ago, a presence at Tanglewood, and an enduring influence on Aaron Copland and others. If some of his work sounds Copland-esque, it turns out to be the other way around.

The first full day of the program began with a morning panel titled “Culture and National Identity: The Case of Mexico,” that began with a tour of the post-revolution muralists, Diego Rivera most notable among them. As Hunter College professor Lynda Klich explained, these artists were charged with creating a new identity for the country, one that integrated indigenous people into the social fabric. Thus was born the “revolutionary trinity” depicted in those murals: the peasant, worker, and soldier.

In the musical realm, works like Chávez’s Sinfonia india and (his student) José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango have become the sound of Mexico’s concert music—although Cornell’s Alejandro Madrid stressed that these too were written to order, encouraging the audience to buy into a manufactured national identity. But nationalism is always practiced from a distance, Columbia anthropology professor Claudio Lomnitz confirmed, and requires constant translation.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sam As It Was Before

From the Food Vault Dept.: Here’s my account of my first review of Sam’s in Albany, an institution well deserving of its solid reputation. The “Dorothy” referenced below actually was the midwife, Vicki, who caught Lily during the homebirth that we weren’t officially supposed to have had – thus the anonymity.


YOU NEVER WANT GOING OUT TO DINNER to be a chore, but I was feeling bogged down by a relentless schedule. “I need to eat,” said my friend Dorothy. “Bring the baby with you.” My wife was working late, and enviously approved the plan–which is why my infant daughter and I met Dorothy at Sam’s one evening shortly before the restaurant’s recent vacation.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This baby, who was born at the end of January, is still good for enough reasonably quiet behavior to allow for a meal, although I’m loath to take her into hardcore white-linen restaurants. Sam’s seemed a natural, because good Italian restaurants–the ones I term neighborhood joints, in the best possible sense–are family run and tend to celebrate the family. And this certainly was the case at Sam’s.

Salvatore “Sam” Rappoccio came to this country from Montemurro in 1956. He comes from a family of restaurateurs, with other establishments as close as Lenox and as far as Italy and Brazil. So it was natural that the grocery store he opened in 1965 should have evolved into a restaurant, which it did by way of a brief life as a pizzeria.

“Sam saw the supermarkets coming,” says his daughter, Carmella. “That’s one reason he changed his store into a restaurant, which he opened in 1971. It’s been remodeled three times since then. And I was literally born into this business.” She’s the one who greeted us on our way in, in fact, and checked to make sure our dinners were good. And praised my baby, which always wins points.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Light Years

NATURE IS SHAMELESS about offering its beauty, leaving it up to us to interpret the aesthetics. It’s easy to take it for granted—to stop looking and to see very little. Joe Schuyler never stopped looking, and Nature rewarded him with an abundance of beautiful raw material that he transformed, through lens and light and composition, into arresting stories wholly given over to natural elements. And he found a great place to do this.

Photo by Joseph Schuyler | from Truro Light
He photographed people and products, cityscapes and political rallies, and the best of them are dynamic and profound. But Nature inspired him to an even more profound level of accomplishment because the canvas is leaner. Free of faces and brick and steel, it rewards more richly the skilled use of light. And light is what Truro, Mass., has in complicated abundance.

The 116 portraits in Truro Light chart a journey across a strip of land that’s four miles wide at its widest, rising to curl around Cape Cod Bay until it gives way to Provincetown at Cape Cod’s tip. The quality of light reflected by ocean and bay inspired a unique painters’ colony to thrive in Provincetown, and the challenge of capturing that light is shared by lensmen such as Schuyler.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Monday, August 03, 2015

Unholy Mother

WHEN SAINT CATHERINE ADDRESSES the audience in Jane Anderson’s new play Mother of the Maid, it’s with the easy familiarity of someone versed in the current century’s attitudes. Then she introduces us to Joan of Arc, a 15th-century farm kid having saintly visions. It’s one of the delightfully anachronistic touches Anderson created for the piece because, as she explains, “I needed to shake it up to get it as far from Shaw as possible.”
Jane Anderson and Matthew Penn
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Mother of the Maid is having its world premiere at Shakespeare & Company, bringing Anderson back to the stage after significant work in television and film—including the teleplay for the mini-series Olive Kittredge, which just won the Emmy Award-winning writer another Emmy nomination.

But she’s delighted to return to this less-lucrative world. “I come from theater,” says Anderson. “It’s where my heart is. I’ve been lucky enough to write things for film and television that also come from my heart. As artists, I don’t think we should ever divide between them, because all of these mediums are strong and very, very exciting. Theater offers those beautiful, thrilling relationships that start in the rehearsal room and then continue with the audience.”

Saturday, August 01, 2015