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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Travelin’ Man

FOUR IDENTICALLY DRESSED MEN, their drab suits and bowler hats suggesting the English civil service, line the stage. From them the presence of Henry Pulling emerges. He’s at the crematorium where his mother’s remains are about to be cooked. He is retired, but finds it “difficult to occupy my time. I had never married. I had always lived quietly and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I had no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited to be at my mother’s funeral.” He meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta, unseen by him for decades. She uses the occasion to inform Henry that her sister – his mother – wasn’t actually the woman who bore him. As we enter the topsy-turvy world of Graham Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt,” this will prove to be Henry’s re-birth as he is yanked out of his dull complacency to discover that there’s no life without passion – and nobody more passionate than his aunt.

Dan Jenkins, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Jay Russell
Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt” was published in 1969, a picaresque in an uncharacteristically light-hearted vein. The novelist described it as “the only book I have written for the fun of it. Although the subject is old age and death – a suitable subject to tackle at the age of sixty-five – and though an excellent Swedish critic described the novel justly as ‘laughter in the shadows of the gallows,’ I experienced more of the laughter and little of the shadow in writing it.” 

It was followed in 1972 by an unexpectedly bland film, a rare misfire for George Cukor, especially considering the cinematic qualities of the fast-moving, trans-continental tale. In adapting it for the stage, Giles Havergal opted to present its shifting landscape through mere suggestion, a springboard on which to let the characters of Henry and Augusta to grow.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mostly Martha

From the Back Pages Dept.: Martha Argerich’s recordings for DG and Philips have been released in a 48-CD box set, which I’ll be writing about shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a look back at my reviews of some of her live performances, back when the pianist was a regular visitor at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. These concerts took place in 2008.


YOU CAN EASILY FILL Saratoga’s Spa Little Theater with the area’s Martha Argerich cult followers, which happened last Monday. They cheered the performance of a less-than-minor Beethoven piece with the ardency of a stadium of Springsteen fans.

Martha Argerich
Put the same Argerich-ites in the SPAC amphitheater, and they barely make a dent. Which happened last Friday, when a less-than-half-filled hall cheered a major minor-Beethoven piece.

The program featured the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit, with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon joining frequent collaborator Argerich in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and first-chair violist Choon-Jin Chang as soloist in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy.” Had it been booked in Carnegie Hall, or any hall in a major international market, it would have been a sellout.

But the Capital Region remains culturally timid, hamstrung by a “that’s good enough for Albany” mentality that settles for the second-rate, the also-ran. Pursuing seats at a classical music concert might make you seem as if you’re putting on airs.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Alone Again, Gastronomically

“You can put me at the table in the corner in the back unless you’ve got one in the telephone booth;
I’m here and I’m alone again, it’s sad but it’s the truth.
No, I’m not expecting anyone, is that beyond belief?
Give me the menu, take away the candle, never mind the aperitif.”

– Loudon Wainwright III, “I Eat Out.”

IT CAN SEEM TO BE THE ODDEST PLACE to enter alone. And it’s not just any eatery. Nobody minds grabbing a solo seat at a diner or fast-food joint. But when there’s a hint of the upscale about the place, you must be a social misfit if there’s nobody with you. Even a relative or casual friend will do.

A hilariously moronic entry on the website WikiHow offers advice on “How to Eat Alone in a Restaurant,” broken down into nine easy-to-follow steps. "One: Choose a lively dining spot with food you like that has quick service." Yes, you must be a misfit, so make sure there’s noise to cover your lonely mastication, and make sure you’re out of there fast.

This topic has won some recent attention thanks to a study in the August Journal of Consumer Research by Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton, which asked people what they preferred to do in groups and what alone. The study “suggests that I,” (Jesse Singal, writing in New York magazine, “and all the other solo-outing-phobic folks out there, might be wrong. If we’d just actually fight through our fears and go to that movie or restaurant alone, we’d have a good time. We’re missing out on a potentially fun experience because of ill-grounded fears.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Pola Express

From the Vault Dept.: Although I haven’t seen her in concert recently, here’s another review (here’s the first) of pianist Pola Baytelman, who settled into Saratoga Springs a few years ago as a Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Skidmore College.


PIANIST POLA BAYTELMAN HAS THE KIND OF TALENT that stamps a personality upon any concert she plays. That's a special mark of accomplishment placing her in the front line of soloists.

Pola Baytelman
She set herself a program for a recital at the Siena College Chapel Monday evening that was a terrific blend of the familiar and momumental, the modern and nationalistic. And she looked hardly the worse for wear when it was finished.

Despite the rush to period instruments for performances of antique music, Baytelman remains in the ranks of those who play Bach on the piano. She gave herself the cruel challenge of his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor to open the program, beginning with a daunting sweep of killer runs that got the bugs out in a hurry.

Characteristic of her style, obviously inspired by the early-20th-century masters, is a commanding, Romantic approach to the music. So that Bach, whose music works well in an austere, rhythmically-acute setting, was given more lushness than the Pinnock-Bilson school suggests.

Which only works in the abovementioned context of an artist's personality. The Fantasy and Fugue then becomes a big, Cesar Franck-like work that succeeds nicely as a concert opener.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Murder, They Wrote

AS A DIZZYING SET OF INTRIGUES continues to build through act two, we’re taken to the apartment of Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), who’s been briskly murdering his way to a dukedom. He is amorously closeted with the beautiful, flighty Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) when he is unexpectedly visited by a more recent acquaintance, Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), who is there to say, “I’ve Decided to Marry You.”

To sing, that is, in what becomes a dazzling trip as Monty tries to keep Sibella hidden and ignorant of what’s happening, even as he assents to Phoebe’s decision. The staging literally revolves around a pair of doors with lightning-crisp choreography (thanks, Peggy Hickey!) and music that has charm and wit that’s been scarce on Broadway these days.

Kevin Massey and Mary VanArsdel
Gentleman's Guide
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder opened there in 2013, and its first national tour was just launched at Proctors with the necessary technical rehearsals and a week of performances.

The delightfully dark story began life as a 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by actor-writer Roy Horniman, and became the 1949 film classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. The novel’s half-Jewish protagonist was turned half-Italian for the movie, which was a shrewd choice: A brutal war was a recent memory, and the novel has mistakenly been charged with anti-Semitism over the decades.

Its message of discrimination is rooted in class distinction, which is why its Edwardian-era English setting is too apposite to change. The screenplay preserved other character elements and some choice funny lines, but otherwise turned it into an Oscar Wilde-like comedy of manners, lightening the murders with caricature and brilliantly casting a young Alec Guinness as all eight victims.

Gentleman’s Guide preserves this structure, allowing the versatile John Rapson not only to inhabit nine members of the D’Ysquith family but also to sing and dance while doing so. He makes each of his characters charming enough to enjoy during what we know will be a truncated meeting and obnoxious enough to help us enjoy that truncation.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Low and Slow

From the Dutch Oven Dept.: With the onslaught of colder weather, we should be preparing those slow-cooked meals of second cuts of meat, which warm the house (or at least the kitchen) en route to warming your viscera. Here’s a piece I wrote on that topic five years ago.


THROW A COUPLE OF STEAKS on the fire and you satisfy a primal gustatory urge. In the snobby suburbs where I grew up, those steaks was a sirloin or, better still, its augmented sibling, the porterhouse. And ordering filet mignon in a restaurant was the height of refinement.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
My parents had fled their working-class families, where costly steaks were a rarely tasted luxury. Conspicuous consumption is a mark of the middle-class arriviste, and there’s no better forum for showing off than the backyard grill. Which kept my childhood diet relatively pot roast-free.

But the brisket and flank and chuck are significantly less expensive than the shell and tenderloin cuts, and the longer cooking time and creative techniques required give those cuts more fascinating flavors. While saving money is one of the imperatives of the new economy, enjoying even tastier meals is the luxurious byproduct. And that’s where braising comes in.

It seems to have become one of the least-used cooking techniques. Its premise is simple:  cook a tough cut of meat with a small amount of aromatic liquid in a sealed container until the tough collagen gelatinizes, rendering the meat tender.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Surviving Twin

Sing It Loud Dept.: Loudon Wainwright III returns to the Egg in Albany tonight (Friday) with a program that explores his father's life and work and issues of family in general. He's been here before, and you can check out my reviews of his performances in 2007 and 2013. Below is a short piece I wrote in anticipation of tonight's show.


“THE STRANGEST STORY EVER TOLD/Was how I got to be this old.” That’s the opening couplet from the opening song on Loudon Wainwright III’s 2012 CD release Older Than My Old Man Now. The 69-year-old singer-songwriter-actor began his musical career at the beginning of the 1970s with a pair of acoustic albums on the Atlantic label, and turned up (with his guitar) on a few episodes of the TV series MASH.

Loudon Wainwright III
As his starkly confessional songs attest, he grew up in posh Westchester County, the son of the same-named Life magazine columnist. “I think it’s natural for people to escape or even surpass their parents,” Wainwright says, speaking by phone from his home in California. “It’s a normal stage of development.” But it was a struggle for him as each of his parents died.

His album History, from 1992, documented his own challenges as a dad, with songs like “Hitting You” and “A Father and a Son,” and, in “A Handful of Dust,” set lyrics by his own father. The song “Surviving Twin,” which first appeared on the 2001 album Last Man on Earth, is a kind of reconciliation with his dad.