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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

For Your Classical Consideration

THIS HAS BEEN THE KIND OF YEAR that imprints its many aspects on all edges of our cultural life, and we need to go into 2017 with music that both heals and inspires. Here are some selections from the past twelvemonth with which to get started.

Lara Downes: America Again (Sono Luminus)


Although this CD was released a couple of weeks before The Election, it couldn’t convey a more necessary post-election message. “America Again” is the title of prolific pianist Lara Downes’s debut on the Sono Luminus label, taking its title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed – Let it be that great strong land of love,” a wish that will be tried and brutalized during the next four years.

The 21 selections offer compelling juxtapositions of works by composers synonymous with Americana and less-familiar voices, as when Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” (after a Nina Simone arrangement) is followed by Rican-born Angélica Negrón’s “Sueno Recurrente.” The 35-year-old pursued the dream of journeying from one America to another, ending up in Brooklyn with a varied and inspiring career.

Other highlights are Amy Beach’s evocative “From Blackbird Hills,” Duke Ellington’s appropriately titled “Melancholia,” an Art Tatum arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” and the traditional melodies “Shenendoah” and “Deep River” – along with short works by Lou Harrison, Florence Price, Scott Joplin, Harold Arlen, and others.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Road to Morocco

THANKS TO DENZEL WASHINGTON, we have a Moroccan restaurant in Schenectady. “I’d signed a lease on a building in Harlem,” says Aneesa Waheed, chef-owner of Tara Kitchen, “when the realtor called me and said that the owner was backing out of the agreement. That’s because Denzel Washington would be filming in the area and wanted to use the space–and would be paying $3,000 a day for it!”

Aneesa Waheed | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Waheed was upset, “but it was a blessing in disguise. I knew I would have been taking a huge risk, and, in the long run, I don’t think that would have been the place to do it.”

Tara Kitchen opened at the beginning of 2012 at 431 Liberty St., a couple of blocks away from Schenectady’s downtown, with Waheed and her husband, Muntasim Shoaib, putting in backbreaking hours while raising one small child and expecting another.

Waheed has a dynamic presence with an enthusiasm that’s contagious. And the courage to give up a very lucrative career. “I worked in publishing in New York City for ten years, but my life revolved around food. If I wasn’t thinking about what or where to eat, I was watching the Food Network. I grew up with seeing my mother cooking all the time. Indian culture revolves around food. While you’re eating breakfast, you’re planning lunch and dinner.”

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fiddler’s Peak

THERE WAS A TIME when it was considered unseemly to perform Bach’s solo violin sonatas without added piano, and Schumann was among those who obliged with accompaniments. That time is well behind us, and it’s now the mark of a fiddler’s mettle to record them solo, perhaps hitting them two or three times in the course of a career to show artistic development. Kyung Wha Chung has waited. Interpretive styles have shifted; the vogue of the historically informed performance style, which seemed obligatory twenty years ago, has eased, and Chung clearly has thought about how to color her approach to these monument.

Sonata No. 1 banishes any worry about a too-historically informed interpretation, especially in the second-movement fugue, where phrases are allowed to linger and twine to satisfy the odd contrapuntal requirements – odd only insofar as the violin’s physical limitations (you can only play two adjacent strings simultaneously) require some of the contrapuntal lines to be interrupted and thus implied. And that sonata’s gorgeous third movement also enjoys a richly bodied treatment.

The sonata finishes with a presto taken at an appropriately lively clip and with none of the interpretive pauses that plague other performances.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Dancing out of the Dark

Girding Our Loins Dept.: The national tour of “Dirty Dancing” landed at Proctors in Schenectady shortly after the election. The timing offered an unexpected insight into the show, as my review reveals.

                                                                                    

WHEN THE MOVIE “Dirty Dancing” premiered in 1987, it was looking back a quarter-century to a more agitated era. Civil rights demonstrations were bringing out firehoses in the South; the birth control pill invited sexual liberation, but abortion was still illegal. We’d struggled, we’d fought, we’d won, and the ambitious uncertainty of teenaged Frances Houseman, known as “Baby,” seemed quaint.

Christopher Tierney and Jennifer Mealani Jones
Photo by Matthew Murphy
In moving the movie from screen to stage, the filmic structure has been maintained, complete with video dissolves as it rushes from scene to scene with a near-constant musical accompaniment. It serves the sappy coming-of-age story well, but just after the Broadway tour arrived in Schenectady last week, everything changed. The key song of the piece no longer is “The Time of My Life.” It’s “We Shall Overcome,” poignantly rendered by Chante Carmel in a scene that plays out like a picnic that Pete Seeger is about to attend.

We’re picnicking at Kellerman’s, a Catskills resort, where the waiters and counselors are there to instruct and serve in whatever ways will please the guests – up to a point, as affirmed by hard-assed owner Max (a commanding Gary Lynch).

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Country Bistro

THIS YEAR'S THANKSGIVING theme was French Country Bistro, an excuse for making as many casseroles as possible, thus sparing me a lot of a-la-minute work. This was partly inspired by the research I've been doing on cast-iron cookware (article to come), research that won me over to the joy of make-ahead slow-cooking.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Great Pumpkin

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: What with Thanksgiving looming, let’s skip dinner and move right into dessert – or make dinner a little more interesting with a look at the old-fashioned uses of that favorite fall gourd, the pumpkin, as I noted in a Metroland piece a dozen years ago.

                                                                                           

IT’S NOT EXACTLY ON THE ORDER of Hallowe’en pumpkin smashing, but the noble gourd rated a mention in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor as those titular wives plotted to humiliate the fat, randy Falstaff.  “Go to, then,” says Mrs. Ford, as her friends help her set up an assignation. “We’ll use this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpion; we’ll teach him to know turtles from jays.”

The Greeks called it a “pepon,” or large melon; this got Gallicized into “pompon” before Shakespeare got hold of it. Early American settlers changed the second syllable to “-kin,” itself a version of the German “-chen,” and still used as in instrument of maternal torture in such formations as “my little lamb-i-kin.”

For all that European travel, the pumpkin itself seems to have originated in Central America; certainly the recipes that have endured are known to have crisscrossed the American continents for several thousand years. Now it’s grown in every continent except Antarctica.

Friday, November 18, 2016

On a Folksong Kick

From the Vault Dept.: Singer-songwriter-guitarist Jim Gaudet has been a folk scene fixture for enough decades to earn every accolade available. When I saw him in 1990, he’d already spent a few years building a catalogue of original songs to replace the covers he started out with. These days he works in the company of the Railroad Boys (bassist/vocalist Bob Ristau and mandolinist/guitarist Sten Isachsen), with a bluegrassier sound, but the same gentle wit and bashful presence. The long-gone Peggy’s, however, abandoned its coffeehouse fairly quickly.

                                                                                           

TO EFFECTIVELY REVIVE the coffeehouse spirit of 30 years ago means emphasizing stuff that’s bad for you. Coffee, for one thing, although it has its apologists (I’m one). Smoking – remember when such a club wore a pale blue haze? But it also can be done in song. Good thing we have singer-songwriters able to keep us aware of such hazards, and much more.

Jim Gaudet
Peggy’s Restaurant took a trip back in spirit, and, it’s hoped, forward in time with its first program in a Coffeehouse Revival series Thursday night. Local artist Jim Gaudet played and sang a concert comprising his own material (for the most part), an easygoing blend of sentiment and humor.

First the hall: the bar area/dining room that overlooks the Canal Square courtyard already has something of a coffeehouse look to it. One wall is brick, there are paddle fans in the ceiling, the chairs are kind of rickety.

It’s not as acoustically benevolent, however. The room is reverberant – glass-topped tables, tile on the floor – and last night’s patrons weren’t all used to the idea of paying attention to a troubadour.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Savor Schoharie Valley

THERE’S NO GOOD TIME for a flood, but late August has to be the worst for a farming community. The Schoharie Creek ran up over its banks when Hurricane Irene hit during that time of year in 2011, punishing the area in and around the town of Schoharie with a disaster that killed livestock, ruined crops, and left homes and business under water. Along with governmental assistance came help from the community, and one group, calling itself Schoharie Recovery, plunged into the thick of the disaster with food for the displaced residents. It was a successful enough program to suggest that there was cause to continue even after the damage had been cleared, and Schoharie Area Long Term (SALT) Development was formed.

Dining at the home of Emily Davis and
Mike Warner. Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Five years later, we’re still looking for new ways to move forward,” said Emily Davis, one of the dinner hosts. “The valley has always been oriented towards food. We have the Carrot Barn the Apple Barrel Country Store, and so many individual farmers.” With that in mind, SALT held its third annual Savor Schoharie Valley festival on Saturday, October 22, a blustery evening laced with rain that reminded us of the area’s seasonal volatility.

The festival is a fund-raiser that introduces people both to the county’s food and to its hospitality, and Davis was one of the hosts for the event, although it began and ended at Schoharie’s Lasell Hall. This is an imposing 18th-century tavern in the village center, a building now owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution who, several decades ago, established the town’s first library here, and who more recently restored the lower-level of the house from the damage it sustained in the flood.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Prometheus Rebound

TWO THINGS ARE HAPPENING on the stage of Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre this weekend: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” gets stripped to its dramatic, philosophical essence, and Steven Patterson gives the performance of a lifetime as he deftly portrays the many characters through whom we’re told this tale.

Steven Patterson as the Monster
Photo by John Sowle
 
Patterson took on this tour-de-force a decade ago at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, whose artistic director, Jim Helsinger, fashioned the script. And the piece is an appropriate choice for the young Bridge Street Theatre, which seeks fare that’s off the beaten path, especially if there’s some moral complexity involved. We saw Patterson’s versatility in last summer’s “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” another one-man show, but “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” pushes his characterizations to even more challenging (and successful) extremes.

The action plays out on a simple-seeming set of rough wood platforms and ramps that serve as shipboard, classroom, laboratory, dwelling, and even the mountains of Switzerland. An upstage curtain takes on a variety of colors and textures to accentuate the scenes, all of it the work of the theater’s Managing Director, John Sowle, who also directed. The superb sound design, by Carmen Borgia, set up atmospheric beds when appropriate, giving the sound of a ship creaking through ice or the birdsong of a meadow, and punctuated the action with appropriate effects.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Young at Heart

BY THE TIME LESTER YOUNG hit the studio in 1936 to make his first recordings, the 27-year-old already had developed a significantly original sound – no easy feat in an era when many original tenor saxophone voices were busily redefining jazz’s boundaries. Coleman Hawkins was a few years away from revealing his more mellow side, while artists like Ben Webster, Barney Bigard, the short-lived Chu Berry, and audacious Bud Freeman were emerging from the pack.

But Young was more different still, his rhythmic intensity dancing behind harmonically inventive solos rendered in a creamy voice. And he was helped, on this session, by a rhythm section so tight that they played as one person. The triumvirate of Count Basie, Jo Jones, and Walter Page packed a syncopated wallop in every bar they played even as their music seemed to stare at you through sleepy, half-lidded eyes.

“The first thing that you have to keep in mind as you listen to these four selections is that nothing like them had ever been heard before,” writes Loren Schoenberg, a jazz historian who also wields a mean tenor sax. “And in the young Lester Young there can be heard the reinvention of the tenor saxophone as well as the first recorded examples of a new vocabulary for jazz.”

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Here’s the Beef

In a Stew Dept.: I recently taught a very successful class about making French stews (at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Albany, NY), one stew of which was Beef Bourguignon. So when Schenectady’s Daily Gazette asked me for a piece on some manner of ethnic cookery, I wrote the following.

                                                                                 
          

THERE ARE MANY GOOD REASONS to revisit French cooking, and they don’t all involve butter and cream. There’s also alcohol.

Photo by Marc Schultz
Take the beginning of this recipe from Auguste Escoffier’s celebrated 1903 “Le Guide Culinaire”: “Lard the piece of beef along the fibres with large strips of salt pork fat which have been marinated in a little brandy ...”

That’s the first step in preparing his version of Boeuf Bourguignon, or Burgundy Beef, a peasant stew that acquired a fancier reputation once the likes of Escoffier got hold of it. Getting those nonprime cuts of beef to become tender and tasty is a challenge that’s usually met by slow-cooking it for a long time. (An exception is something like London broil, which achieves its tenderness mostly because it’s sliced very thin.)

What gives Beef Bourguignon (as it’s usually styled in English) its unique flavor is an overnight spent in a red Burgundy wine. This isn’t a marinade that tenderizes the meat — for that you need something more aggressively acidic, or with the kind of enzymes pineapple juice contains. As with most marinades, this one’s purpose is to enrich how the meat will taste.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Eyeing the Storm

IT’S EASY, THESE DAYS, to investigate the evolution of motion pictures, but live theater is an experience of the moment and wears its history only insofar as a contemporary play accumulates trends of the past. But those trends tend to get thrown off as theater evolves and a presentational acting style turns naturalistic and then more naturalistic still.

From left, Brett Owan, Alexandra Doggette, Elisabeth Henry,
Kane Prestenback, and David Smilow. Photo by John Sowle
By the time George M. Cohan wrote “The Tavern” in 1920, Eugene O’Neill was winning the Pulitzer Prize for “Beyond the Horizon” and Broadway was about to get his “Anna Christie,” while Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” was playing down the street. In the wings were such playwrights as Maxwell Anderson and Sidney Howard and that innovative juggernaut, The Theatre Guild, all poised to change the face of Broadway entertainment – but this also was the year of “Frivolities of 1920" and a revival of “Floradora.”

“The Tavern” opened in the midst of all this as a both a tribute to and satire of the simplistic melodrama that O’Neill et. al. sought to supersede. This kind of story must have bubbled in Cohan’s very bones, given his by-then very long theatrical career, both as a writer and performer. He grew up touring in vaudeville and minstrel shows, and, with a long line of successes behind him, became fascinated with a script deemed so lousy by another producer that he sent it to Cohan just to share a laugh.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Gypsy for Me

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Among of the highlights of my busy reviewing schedule thirty years ago were the trips into New York’s Washington County to a converted dairy barn where the chamber group L’Ensemble performed. This also dates back to when I typed my review into a terminal in the office of the Schenectady Gazette, and thus have no computer file in my archives. I assembled booklets of clips from that era, and have enjoyed going through my thirty-years-ago cultural history.

                                                                            
                  

THE FIRST SURPRISE FLUSHES OF FALL provided an atmospheric setting Saturday night for L’Ensemble’s “A Gypsy Summer” at the group’s not-too-modified barn-cum-concert hall in Cambridge, NY.

The spirit of the Hungarian fiddler was effectively captured in performances of mainstream classical chamber music with characteristic gypsy elements.

The idea for this program came to artistic director Ida Faiella last New Year’s Eve at a café in Budapest, she explained in her introduction; as a performer in the first half of the Cambridge concert, she sang Brahms’s “Ziegeunerlieder” with a vivacious understanding of the evocative poems.

Brahms spent some time performing with a violinist who shared with him the characteristic sounds and stylings of the gypsy’s music, so that the composer could inform even original melodies with an appropriately exotic flavor.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Vaudeville Revisited

From the Vault Dept.: The New Vaudeville still struggles to find a mainstream toehold, and I suspect it never will. Which, while it may help preserve its weird, antic nature, renders it hard to find outside of the biggest cities. Here’s a 30-year-old look I took at one such event, brought from Washington County into Schenectady’s Proctor’s Theatre.

                                                                            
             

SOMETHING WONDERFUL HAPPENED at Proctor’s Theatre Saturday night, although it left much of the audience wondering exactly what it was that had happened. It was funny, it was tricky, it sang, it danced, it disappeared.

It was the New Vaudeville Show from Hubbard Hall, originating just upstate in Cambridge, Washington County.

Now, it wasn’t vaudeville with potted palms and signboards, and there wasn’t a dog act anywhere near it. In fact, it was a collection of five acts with a cooperative attitude. Let’s look at them one by one.

George Wilson is a fiddler who looks the part: bearded, grey, red suspenders. He gave us a medley of contagiously fun rhythmic material that made you want to get up and dance, which is exactly what clogger Ira Bernstein did throughout the show. Joining Wilson for tapping or clogging, Bernstein started off in jeans and ended up in a modified tux, and in the course of things gave us the exuberance of Ray Bolger and the elegance of Astaire – with some down-home heel-kickin’ thrown in.

The Wright Bros. aren’t consanguineous brothers, as they explain in a comic song, and yet it seems as if they must be related. They must be. You get the feeling that this must be what the five Marx Brothers were like, but with a dash of Three Stooges thrown in. They juggle, they dance, they sing (with dreadfully funny results), they tear up the stage.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Gettin’ the ‘Cue

THERE’S NOT A BIG BARBECUE PRESENCE in Provincetown, Mass. Stroll down busy Commercial Street and you’ll be exhorted to try burgers and pizza and, of course, seafood. So my wife and daughter and I were delighted to learn of a fairly new place with a wonderfully impressive moniker.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The first surprise at Two Southern Sissies is that the barbecue on offer, which includes pulled pork and beef brisket, isn’t smoked. The second is that it’s nevertheless delicious. Not that it should be any surprise: although he was raised in upstate New York, co-owner Keith Lewis claims a Virginia heritage that goes back far enough to number explorer Meriwether Lewis among his forebears. “My father was the first in the family to stray farther than fifty miles from home,” Keith explains.

Thus, his recipes are taken from a long family tradition, but adapted to be more healthful than might otherwise have been the case. Hence the smoke-free slow-cooking, not to mention ingredients that come from grass-fed, humanely raised critters and, when possible, local farms.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Progretto’s Progress

MARTHA ARGERICH’S LUGANO FESTIVAL (Progretto Martha Argerich) is in its 15th year, with a just-completed schedule of events that bodes to be its last. Switzerland’s BSI bank has dropped funding – a move said to be unrelated to the bank’s indictment for criminal activity – and there’s no native sponsor who can replace the amount.

Which means that the three-CD set “Live from Lugano 2015" may be the penultimate such edition, and that’s a shame. The festival has spawned 13 three-CD sets, a four-CD set of concertos, and a handful of single CDs, and they’re all treasures. The Argerich imprimatur guarantees good performances, even when she herself isn’t participating. And the festival has always brought together old friends and fresh talent, the latter including such now-stars as the Capuçon brothers and pianist Gabriela Montero.

In other words, you can trust the performances, even if you’ve never heard of the players. Better still, you can trust the repertory, which always is shrewdly programmed to mix the unfamiliar with the warhorses. Typically there’s a big, familiar lead-off piece, although the recently issued 2015 edition pulls a small switcheroo by giving us Brahms’s Horn Trio, Op. 40, in the viola version.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Bard on Board

From the Concert Vault Dept.: I’m listening to some recent releases by Jordi Savall and will write about them in this space in the coming days; meantime, here’s a revisit to a Tanglewood concert of his I wrote about in 2009, which featured the excellent assistance of F. Murray Abraham.

                                                                               
        

ASIDE FROM THE MUSIC OF THE WORDS THEMSELVES, Shakespeare’s plays were bathed in a context of music – songs within the scripts, music summoned by various scenes, and a general sense that there were tunes being suggested even when not specifically mentioned.

F. Murray Abraham with Le Concert des Nations
Photo by Hilary Scott
And there’s been a huge industry during and since Shakespeare’s time of providing song settings, instrumental underscoring, overtures, ballets, operas, and more. Robert Johnson is the only composer known to have set songs in the first productions of Shakespeare’s plays, although his instrumental pieces aren’t as easy to place. It is reckoned that he contributed to “The Winter’s Tale,” so last week’s Tanglewood concert by Jordi Savall and his period-instruments group Le Concert des Nations commenced with lines from that play.

Thanks to F. Murray Abraham’s conversational but rhythmic approach to the texts, we also were treated to the musical nature of Shakespeare’s words.

This was no random pairing of actor and ensemble; Abraham and Savall joined forces late last year to present words and music from and inspired by “Don Quixote.” Uniting again for Shakespeare was therefore a natural extension.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nightmare on Main Street

From the Seller’s Cellar Dept.: Pennsylvania approved the sale of wine in grocery stores two months ago, prompting some talk of New York looking again at doing the same. It hasn’t been on Gov. Cuomo’s agenda, and the disadvantages of such a policy haven’t changed since I penned this piece in 2009.

                                                                       
                      

AMONG THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF BUDGET’S many breathless proposals to save, grab or re-claim money, the one of most concern to this column is a proposal to allow wine sales in grocery stores. It’s pitched to accrue something like $150 million over the next three years ($105 million the first year; far less thereafter), most of it coming from the licensing fees the supermarkets would pay.

Whether all 19,000 grocery and convenience stores across the state actually would pony up is but one of many variables projected into this proposal. But the Business Council of NY State has eagerly signed off on the issue, promising that it “will create new markets for upstate and Long Island wineries and convenience for consumers,” according to council president Kenneth Adams. “In addition, the proposal will generate new revenue for the cash-strapped state.” It’s a point of view no doubt shared by two of council’s board members with a large stake in the issue: Paul S. Speranza, Jr., General Counsel and Secretary to Wegmans, and Neil Golub, CEO of Price Chopper.

A fascinatingly patriotic drumbeat sounds under the pro-grocery-store rhetoric, suggesting that New York’s wineries will find a wonderland of new sales outlets in these supermarkets – and that New York’s customers will leave those supermarkets with piles of the state’s product in their carts.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Online Authenticity

From the Vault Dept.: Let’s go back thirty years to visit a piece I wrote about an issue that hasn’t changed much in the interim, except for phrases like “fire up your modem.”

                                                                             
             

ACTIVATE YOUR COMPUTER, fire up the modem, log in. Suddenly you’re wandering the labyrinthine halls of the Internet where info is cheap and people are plentiful.

How much of it’s for real?

Listen to the mainstream media and you’d think that the Internet is the world’s finest encyclopedia writ large across many nations. Key in a web page address and text screens unfold in a hypertext cornucopia. Can you count on its authenticity?

And who was responsible for posting it? The Internet also provides one of the finest smokescreens for those who like to keep identities secret. Do you really have a college prof at the other end, or is it a precocious 14-year-old?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Living for Art

A DAY AT BARD COLLEGE’S SUMMERSCAPE FESTIVAL is a journey through a well-planned series of events. For example, the program on Sunday, August 7, began with a panel addressing the topic of music and Italian identity, seeking to establish Puccini’s place in the country’s cultural history. The day’s second event gave us a mix of vocal excerpts from Puccini and his contemporaries to illuminate the search for Verdi’s successor. And the long, extremely satisfying late-afternoon performance treated us to Puccini’s first opera alongside a work by Jules Massenet chosen to remind us of the strength of his influence.

Giacomo Puccini
The scholarship behind the two August weekends that comprise the festival is profound, but the academic portions usually aren’t too academic. And the artistry on hand is superb. “Puccini and His World” was the theme this year and, as is customary, the programming included the composer’s predecessors, contemporaries, and successors – without neglecting his own works, particularly some lesser-performed ones.

Thus, a concert version of Puccini’s “Le Villi” gave us a look at the composer’s first thoughts about crafting an opera. Although the mantle of Verdi was formidable, we knew, thanks to the earlier events, that Puccini was heavily influenced by composers in Germany and especially in France. He crafted a one-act opera that he soon expanded into two (but it still runs barely over an hour) with an instrumental intermezzo.

Puccini knew “Le Villi” as a French story, although Heine had hold of it earlier. It’s a dance-based tale, and also forms the basis for Adolphe Adam’s ballet “Giselle.” Thus the opening featured a dance that would be mirrored by the gruesome finish. The principals – soprano Talise Travigne as Anna, tenor Sean Panikkar as her fiancé, Roberto – weren’t called upon for too much terpsichorean prowess, which is just as well: they performed in the small proscenium space between conductor and stage edge, and movement had to be stylized and kept to a minimum.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Schmeckt Gut!

From the Restaurant Vault Dept.: Jim and Ute Mehalick opened the Hofbrauhaus in Lake George in 1980, and ran it there for a decade; they relocated to Queensbury to operate The Grill at the Ramada, which, after a decade, they renamed The Old Hofbrauhaus, which they ran until a few years ago (the internet trail is a little vague). My 1987 visit to their Lake George location captures a lost moment in time both for the eatery and the village.

                                                                                          

HEADING UP PEACEFUL ROUTE 9 to Lake George Village puts you smack in the middle of an area that rivals Wildwood Beach and much of the Los Angeles area for tackiness in architecture. Although I'm particularly fond of oversized plaster lumberjacks with an arm raised in stiff greeting to traffic, I can do without the various houses of horror and souvenirs (the two go together; they're indistinguishable).

So it was with some surprise that we found a particularly pleasant German restaurant nestled amongst all the garishness.

The Hofbrauhaus does share the architectural weirdness of the strip, with its low-slung roof and large, sloping front windows; inside are the large dining rooms, salad bar, and an enclosed porch. It looks more like a bowling alley than a restaurant, but that's typical of this part of Route 9.

Inside, very early one recent Sunday evening, all was stille. The staff was finishing dinner, but we were quickly seated by one of the large windows that looks out upon the street.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Singing Suspicion

“I AM PROUD OF THE FACT that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.” – Pete Seeger, testifying before House Un-American Activities Committee chairman Francis E. Walter in 1955.

Brian Mulligan and Jamie Barton
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The witch-hunters in Congress recognized the subversive potential of song – and entertainment in general – and Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” paralleled that fanaticism with the witch trials of 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. The show opened – to tepid response – even as the HUAC hearings gathered more steam. By the time Robert Ward’s operatic version of “The Crucible” won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize in music, Miller had been called in to testify and Seeger still was unable to find mainstream jobs or make TV appearances.

The Glimmerglass Festival proves its mettle by presenting an opera like “The Crucible.” It is a stirring reminder that American opera had found a compelling voice by the middle of the last century, it’s a story that remains unfortunately timely, and it features a knockout cast in a superior staging.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Getting Married Today

From the Vault Dept.: Summer is when the Capital Region grows opera-rich, but that’s comparatively speaking. Twenty-six years ago it was far richer, enough so that I could catch two Marriages of Figaro in the space of two months. Here are the reviews I wrote when the NY City Opera (now struggling back from the dead) and the Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga) both took a shot at it.

                                                                                   

WATCHING THE NEW YORK CITY OPERA’S production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” you know you're in the presence of a classic.

The second of the short season's two offerings, “Figaro” was sung Thursday night in the amphitheater at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center by (as you’d expect from City Opera) a young, very talented cast. Where it worked, it worked splendidly.

Revolution was in the air when Beaumarchais wrote “The Marriage of Figaro,” his immensely successful sequel to “The Barber of Seville.” The Americans had been fought a successful war against the English, and the French soon would overthrow and execute their monarch.

Despite many skirmishes with censors and king, “Figaro” was a sensation when it hit the stage of the Comedie Francaise in 1784. Two years later it was set to music by Mozart, in which version it endures.

Although Beaumarchais was himself operatically-minded (he went on to collaborate with Salieri), he was a master at weaving the most un-dramatic device of satire into a dramatically successful form.

Mozart’s genius lay both in his skill at rendering characters in music and in preserving the theatricality of the piece. Although music alone could carry it through something as stripped-down as a “staged reading” version, there’s so much good stuff for an actor to do that it begs to be fully produced.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Words of a Feather

PERFORMING IN AN OPERA CAN’T BE EASY for any of the participants, but my vote for the hardest-working cast member in Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie,” receiving what amounts to its American premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival, is choreographer Meg Gillentine. As the title character, she moved among the audience gathered on the pleasant lawn before the show, never breaking from her avian persona, and she helped music director Joseph Colaneri conduct the overture (not that he needed it) before she took her place in an ornate onstage cage as the opera proper began. Her costume and makeup certainly helped reinforce her birdlike look, but her eyes had the fiery intensity of one who’s up to no good.

Allegra De Vita as Pippo and Rachele Gilmore as Ninetta
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
“The Thieving Magpie” is rarely performed – the company believes this to be its first Italian-language production in this country – and, compared to Rossini’s greatest hits, it’s pretty lightweight. But it’s nonetheless a charmingly accomplished piece that rewards excellent singers with fabulous solos and ensemble work.

The tale is slight. Ninetta, a servant, is accused of stealing silverware. Although she and her employers’ son, Giannetto, plan to marry, she is to be imprisoned. Despite the possibility of a reprieve, she thwarts the advances of the evil Mayor, which means she’ll be put to death. This kind of story, termed opera semiseria, seems to confound a modern audience. It’s the theatrical version of mixing savory and sweet, a practice more common in a 19th-century dish than in contemporary fare.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Merchant, Well-Met

AS WITH ANY RACIALLY CHARGED SUBJECT, there are many contexts in which “The Merchant of Venice” can be viewed. Jews were still barred from Shakespeare’s London, and the rich, complicated anti-Semitism of the time had just been jogged by the execution of the Queen’s physician, a converted Portuguese Jew accused of plotting against her. I’ve seen several recent essays of the play that defines the context of the analysis as “in a post-holocaust world,” which remains our inevitable lens, but some manner of holocaust has been going on for centuries, inviting varying degrees of awareness.

Erick Avari and Jonathan Epstein.
Photo by John Dolan.
In Shakespeare’s time – and well beyond – there was a stock-character Jew that could be relied upon to provoke hisses and laughs. He is an unnamed figure in one of the stories told in the 14th-century Italian collection “Il Pecorone,” but he specifies a pound of flesh as the penalty should Ansaldo (Antonio in “Merchant”) default on a loan.

But in expanding this story, Shakespeare made more dramatic sense of its elements. The unnamed lady of Belmonte became Portia, and her annoying habit of drugging suitors and stealing their goods changed to the situation wherein her suitors could win her only by choosing the correct of three caskets. Most importantly, Shakespeare humanized Shylock, his Jew, offering a more fully realized character driven by circumstance to seek his bloody revenge.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Sicilian Sunday Supper

From the Food Vault Dept.: I’m pleased to see that Minissale’s Wine Cellar Café still is going strong at its perch on the edge of Troy’s 14th Street. My wife and I recently were reminiscing about the finer family-oriented eateries we’d visited during my years as a restaurant reviewer, and recalled this meal with pleasure. I've updated the hours below, which changed since the piece was written, but left the text intact, so don't plan on stopping by on a Wednesday.

                                                                        
                                

THERE’S THIS PIZZA THAT’S BEEN ELUDING ME. It’s the one I share with my family, in an alternate universe in which my wife embraces pepperoni for the life-giving substance it is, and my daughter sees the thick, white-wheat crust as similarly salubrious.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
We were daughter-free on our visit to Minissale’s, and half of a menu page temptingly described the special pizzas they offer. The Augustus Caesar ($12/$18.75) promised the pepperoni, along with salami and garlic. Although my wife would never go for the Enrico Fermi ($8.20/$12.90), with its promise of “atomic” hot pepper sauce and plenty of hot peppers besides, perhaps the Dante ($9.45/$14.85), tempering hot peppers with their sweet brethren, would work. There’d be no problem with sausage-and-sweet-pepper strewn Dean Martin ($9.45/$14.85), and there’s always the build-your-own option, laden with choices.

Then we looked at the rest of the menu, heard the specials, and went off in completely different directions. Pork ossobuco sang but one of the siren songs.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

He’s Got Rhythm

PIANIST LINCOLN MAYORGA has been championing the music of George Gershwin with virtuoso accomplishment over the course of a long career, essentially picking up where Oscar Levant left off, but without the neurasthenia. But Mayorga is much more than a Gershwin specialist. Early-career piano soloists tend to get a lot of “Rhapsody in Blue” work en route to the European repertory, sadly affirming a received notion that Gershwin’s music is “light” music – and, by extension, that American music, unless it sounds European (MacDowell’s, Chadwick’s, e.g.), just ain’t as good.

That’s not what Mayorga is doing. If he pays more attention to American music – which includes the most compelling body of song since Schubert – it’s because he’s long been at home in that vernacular, performing professionally in radio orchestras and recording sessions that included work with Phil Ochs and Marni Nixon, among many others. He is a composer – he wrote music for the TV show “Fame,” and he’s a writer of popular songs and instrumentals. I first saw him in performance many years ago as partner to violinist Arnold Steinhardt, deftly exploring the classical repertory, and then was amazed to discover that he was a founder of the high-end record label Sheffield Labs, one of those rare entities that guarantees good listening by virtue of its reputation alone.

Mayorga has found a sympathetic partner in conductor Steven Richman, whose work with the Harmonie Ensemble / New York is the American equivalent of early Nicholas Harnoncourt recordings: they seek to redress the decades of well-meaning but wrong-headed re-interpretations of classic scores. Although it now seems heretical to suggest that Bach’s orchestrations could be bettered, Gershwin’s road to respect remains impeded by “improvements.”

Monday, July 11, 2016

Sweeney Agonistes

WHY WOULD AN OPERA AND THEATER DIRECTOR – a director with a long, long list of credits, thus implying a successful career – saddle a masterful work like “Sweeney Todd” with a concept so misguided and a succession of staging choices so at odds with the piece that the work is rendered painfully unwatchable? Christopher Alden’s version, which opened last Saturday at the Glimmerglass Festival, succeeds in what I’d think would be the difficult task of doing to “Sweeney” what Sweeney ends up doing to his customers: carving the life out of it.

Harry Greenleaf with ensemble members.
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
I doubt that it’s out of any overt contempt for the material, but there’s a sneaky subversive process that afflicts the creative, especially in theater. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the tendency of those with relatively lower skill levels to believe that they function with far more accomplishment than they do. Couple such a lack of perspective with the anti-intellectualism that characterizes too much of American culture and you easily can end up with “high-concept” approaches to theatrical works that serve to betray a creative team’s lack of creative intelligence.

It’s long been an epidemic with productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which too often are “improved” by directors ignorant of the origins of the works and unwilling to trust the integrity of the well-established words and music. The most obvious betrayal of this phenomenon shows in rewrites of Gilbert’s lyrics that display no understanding of the basic principles of rhyming, let alone the wit to top what’s already there.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Bohemian Grotto, Bohemian Grove

COMPARING CONTEMPORARY NEW YORK CITY with Belle Époque Paris is convenient insofar as income disparity obtains, and living conditions for artists still require great sacrifices. But we don’t see much death our daily lives, an insulation that gives a story like “La bohème” a touch of remoteness. But not much. Packing the rest of its canvas are the big emotions: Love, jealousy, ambition. “Opera is big, bigger than the spoken theater, bigger than life” said Leonard Bernstein in his wonderful 1958 Omnibus program “What Makes Opera Grand?” “And what makes it bigger? Music, sung music.”

Raquel González and Michael Brandenburg
 Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Discussing the opening of the third act of “La bohème,” Bernstein notes that it’s “not exactly a plot to set the world on fire.” But, after it’s performed to music, he asks, “Do you find yourself caring about the story? Of course you do. Why? The addition of perfectly glorious music. But it’s not just any glorious music. It is carefully planned by a theatrical wizard to take the characters and magnify them for us.”

Emotions are big, conflicts are simple, characters are drawn in deft, quick strokes. How best to suit this 120-year-old opera, considered a masterpiece by most? In the manner chosen by the Glimmerglass Festival to open its current season: big, simple, drawn in deft, quick strokes. It’s not a present-day piece – that’s the business of “Rent” – but it still packs a wallop when the production lets you believe that it speaks for itself.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Summer Stocked

The State of the Stage Dept.: A friend read my recently exhumed overview of the 1987 summer arts season, which skimmed over what would be happening in and around New York’s Capital Region. He, too, was skimming, and thus was alarmed to that different shows had been announced than he was expecting to see. So let’s clarify some of those seasons with a look at what will be performed around us in the weeks to come. In 2016.

                                                                              
          

LET’S START WITH some opera. The Glimmerglass Festival, near Cooperstown, presents a four-show season in repertory with one musical in the mix. This year’s offerings are Puccini’s “La bohème” (July 8-Aug 27); Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” (July 9-Aug 26); Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” (July 16-Aug 25); and Robert Ward’s operatic setting of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” (July 23-Aug 27). More info: glimmerglass.org.

Marisa Tomei
Opera Saratoga, which is in residence at the Spa Little Theatre at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, is presenting Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” with remaining shows July 9 and 15; the American premiere of Philip Glass’s “The Witches of Venice” (remaining shows July 11 and 17); Daniel Catán’s “Il Postino” (July 7, 10, and 16) and a one-night-only “Evening on Broadway” (July 14). More info: operasaratoga.org.

Saratoga Shakespeare presents two shows this summer, veering into the non-Shakespeare arena with Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” directed by William Finlay, which runs July 19-30, and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by David Girard, Aug 2-7. It’s a treat to see the many area actors that this company employs. More info: saratogashakespeare.com.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Summer of ’87 Cultural Museum

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s another in a lengthy series of workaday pieces I churned out over the years, a preview of such arts events as I covered for the summer of 1987, written for the Schenectady Gazette. It’s a fairly cursory run-down, but it accompanied detailed listings in very tiny type. But this harkens back to a time when the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Saratoga residency featured new works and a composer-in-residence, when the NY City Opera also visited the area, and when the Latham Coliseum still existed – and Perry Como still existed, too.

                                                                               
             

EVEN AS VISIONS OF ICE CREAM CONES dance in your head, summer promises warmth and relaxation. And entertainment, heating up all the more the conflict between those who like to be disturbed by their entertainment and those who wish merely to be distracted.

William Bolcom
This summer, the area offers both, leaning, not surprisingly, towards the latter.

The area expands as the days grow longer, so that what in winter would be a trudge to Massachusetts becomes instead a delightful trip to Tanglewood. Places like Woodstock and Cooperstown and Dorset, VT., figure into our itineraries.

Not to shortchange the close-to-home activities: they’re fewer, but they’re exciting. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center is bringing in William Bolcom as composer-in-residence this summer, a man who made a name for himself as a ragtime pianist but began composing, according to one biographer, “at a disgustingly early age.”

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Dineriffic

From the Food Vault Dept.: In the restaurant business, Mother’s Day is the busiest while Father’s Day typically is a walk in the park. Restaurant people know where your loyalties lie. Were I to venture out to dine on Father’s Day, however, I’d want to go to Don and Paul’s, described below in a 2011 review I wrote just before Thanksgiving. Prices probably have changed since then, but not much else.

                                                                       
                   

IF YOU BREAD IT AND DEEP FRY IT, they will come. I watched with fascination as the booths and counter cleared of a busy round of customers and the restaurant seemed to take a deep breath – and another wave came through the door and filled the counter and booths again. And all the while plate after heaping plate dinner items flew out of the kitchen. It was about 7 PM on a recent drizzly evening. The place couldn’t have seemed more homelike.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Are you from out of town?” asked our server. Not confrontationally: it was a question born of justifiable curiosity. We were strangers to the place, and I’m guessing strangers here lose their strangerhood quickly.

Don and Paul’s is on Waterford’s main drag. A tattoo parlor, a martial arts school and a Chinese restaurant nestle nearby, as do other eateries. It’s a welcoming vista on an evening-darkened street.

Inside seating choices are counter stools and tables and booths. You holler your choice above the din of a television, a back-room billiards game and the many conversations in progress.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Whole Blues

THREE CHORDS UNDERLIE the Blues, the same three chords that inform much of the more popular examples of western music. In a Blues song they pass in an inflexible order in an inflexible structure. But they’re subject to torture en route. Notes in the chords and notes in the scale are twisted and cry out in pain. The lyrics, too, are fairly inflexible: two lines of iambic pentameter, the first one repeated, that are supposed to rhyme but pay scant attention to Clement Wood’s rhyming rules.

David Bromberg and Nate Grower
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The Blues are the foundation of American music. They have an easy-to-overlook history, but anyone alive who has listened to any amount of music instinctively knows the form, which has saturated every possible genre.

Within the confines of the Blues, there is room, and plenty of it. Room to play with a lyric, room for call-and-response, room for rhythmic figuration. Like all great blues singers (I’ll drop the cap now), David Bromberg is comfortable with all that room around him. He makes a mansion out of it, with vocal inflections and guitar licks that skillfully serve the song. And the rest of his ensemble is right there with him.

Take “Walkin’ Blues,” a number associated with Robert Johnson. “Woke up this morning, feeling 'round for my shoes,” sang Bromberg, in concert at Skidmore College last Friday, as guitarist Mark Cosgrove laid down accents behind him. “You know by that, I got these walkin' blues.” As he repeated the line, Bromberg added bottleneck responses, compounding a sense of rebellious misery.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Welcome Aboard!

IN 1959, THE DAY AFTER my third birthday, my father flew me from our home in Cincinnati to visit his parents in Astoria. We traveled on a DC-7 Flagship, a jewel of the American Airlines fleet, from Greater Cincinnati Airport to New York's La Guardia. I have but the haziest memory of this flight, so I'm grateful that my father kept a giveaway booklet that he passed along to me a couple of years ago. It now stands as a compelling reminder not only of the world of commercial aviation back then, but also the world of family and business travel. Remember: don't fire up that Chesterfield until the Captain extinguishes the No Smoking light!


To read the pamphlet in its entirety, click here for a PDF. Bon voyage!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bearing in Mind

Welcoming You to the World Dept.: When I wrote the piece below, my wife was beginning her seventh month of pregnancy with our only child. Because she had turned 40, her gynecologist insisted that Susan was “high-risk” and would require all manner of tests and technology to facilitate her delivery. Instead, my wife turned to a community of midwives whose knowledge and experience was unrecognized by New York, and we planned what turned out to be a spectacularly successful home birth. The impediments faced by direct-entry midwives have eased since 1996, but as long as our culture continues to view birth as a medical emergency and view obstetricians as godlike, the denial of natural childbirth will remain a frustrating component of the marginalization of women.

                                                                                             
Birth rights: Protestors at the Governor’s
Mansion call for legal recognition of
direct-entry midwives. Photo by Scott Gries.

AMONG THE CROWD OF ABOUT 150 who jammed the sidewalk in front of the Governor’s Mansion on Monday were more than 50 distinctively garbed Amish people. They had traveled from Montgomery County to make a rare public appearance with the New York Friends of Midwives to support the legal recognition of direct-entry midwives – experienced midwives without formal medical training. For the Amish, midwife-attended home births are a way of life, but it’s not a legally recognized option in New York State.

Earlier in the day, Syracuse-based midwife Roberta Devers-Scott was sentenced to three years of probation and a $900 fine after being found guilty of attempted practice of midwifery without a license. She spoke at the Albany rally, promising to continue her fight against a state licensing practice that certifies only registered nurses as midwives.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” she said. “Direct-entry midwives exist. We need to get licensing and put an end to this system that excludes a vital profession.”

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Well-Trimmed Harmony

From the Vault Dept.: I suspect that, like bagpipers and Barack Obama, barbershop quartets inspire only the most extreme opinions. I took a whack at singing in a roomful of b.q. aspirants a couple of years before writing the piece below, and it increased my admiration for what these singers do. Here’s my review of a 1987 concert by the River Valley Chorus, which is a member of the Sweet Adelines, and which continues to meet – but since I wrote that piece, they’ve moved to Tuesday nights in Schenectady, and there’s more info here.

                                                                                              

THERE IS A CLOSE-HARMONY STYLE so distinctively American that any cliché image of the turn of the century includes a barbershop quartet.

Men, of course, with large mustaches, singing of the women idealized in the old (pre-Hearst) Life magazine or, more rudely, on the Police Gazette. But women have proved vocal equals of men in the close-harmony field, and the national association of Sweet Adelines has promoted clubs just as enthusiastic as that men's group with all the initials.*

The River Valley Chorus celebrated these traditions with a concert titled “A Touch of Memory” at the Egg Saturday evening, which at its best was a terrific show of showmanship. And showwomanship.

For the opening, a Hollywood theme. Silver jumpsuits and sky-blue blouses, with even a few well-coordinated dance steps for something of a Busby Berkeley feel. If all the elements of this show had been that good, it would have been dazzling throughout.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Blowing Fine

From the Vault Dept.: I’m revisiting old technology. More specifically, I’m digitizing cassettes that seem worth keeping, cassettes that have languished in a closet far too long. A recent candidate was a program by the Catskill Woodwind Quintet, some of the pieces on which were performed by the group in 1990 at a fascinating venue called the Windfall Dutch Barn. And here’s the review I wrote.

                                                                                 
                   

TUCKED INTO THE SOUTHWEST CORNER of Montgomery County, this little town has an agricultural history that still characterizes the landscape – and left behind an old Dutch barn that some neighbors had the good sense to restore a few years back.

The Windfall Dutch Barn is now a site for cultural events, and hosted a reunion of the Catskill Woodwind Quintet last night that featured a quartet of pieces written for the group throughout the previous decade.

I’ve never seen a more sylvan setting for a concert, in which the barn itself was a personality. A brief thundershower punctuated one of the works and the resultant changes in temperature and air pressure caused, as composer (and former barn neighbor) Harvey Sollberger observed, “the wood to sing its own songs.”

The four composers represented are living, working people – unlike, say, the composers represented on this season’s Metropolitan Opera bill – and two were on hand to introduce their works.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Kilt-y Pleasure

THERE’S A MYTH OF HEROISM handed down to young men that seems especially attractive as the teenaged years set in. It suggests that there’s an identity to be crafted through sporting events, and that the gridiron champ will prove irresistibly fascinating to the women he desires. It’s a myth obsessively exploited by the advertisers wooing this susceptible demographic, to the extent that a fellow easily can convince himself that a flagon of beer and a knowledge of sports-team statistics will summon beautiful women to his side. And this, in fact, is what happens at the Tilted Kilt.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
From a marketing standpoint, the concept is work of genius. Even a grumpy cynic like myself, whose teenaged years now seem to have occurred in the time of Noah and who cares not a bit for sports-related anything, can melt like butter when smiled upon by a shapely sylph in slightly immodest togs. I’d like to say that I’ll return to the Tilted Kilt in order to again try to pretend that I’m not staring at the cleavage on display, but my main motivation will be to enjoy another one of their burgers.

The Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery is a thirteen-year-old chain that started in Las Vegas as a sports bar with a Celtic theme – transplanting a Scottish sartorial tradition to Ireland, and further refining it by putting the titular kilt on the female servers in the scantiest of lengths. It distinguishes itself from Hooters, that flagship breastaurant, by not obsessing over heterosexuality. Hooters is a haven for the superannuated fourteen-year-old boy who still thinks sex is an act of random magic and who seeks a safe haven in which he may utter the unamusing double entendre. The Tilted Kilt doesn’t bother to play “let’s pretend it’s all about owls.” Here are the women, here are the TV monitors, here’s the menu. And it’s helped by the welcoming feel of the restaurant’s pub-like look.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Special Spring Theme-Throwback Double Header!

From the Nostalgic Dining Vault: Of the several review visits I paid over the years to Jumpin’ Jack’s, Scotia’s venerable seasonal burger mecca, this 1990 essay bears special testament to its longevity because it’s still going strong even as Stash & Stella’s, a wholly fabricated attempt to create a ‘50s dining atmosphere, has vanished with nary a trace.

                                                                             
            

AS FAR AS MANY AREA EATERS ARE CONCERNED, it’s enough to murmur “they’re open.” Spring begins when Jumpin’ Jack’s fires up the grill, ups the prices by a coin or two and throws open its service windows.

Both restaurants considered here today have a throwback theme. With Jumpin’ Jack’s, it’s completely artless. The places simply hasn’t changed in 36 years. Onetime supermarket employee Jack Brennan made a fortune with the place and sold it, but the tradition continues under Mark Lansing’s leadership.

There have been a few changes over the years. The tables have wooden roofs, for instance. But nothing has spoiled the carnival essence of the place.

For the uninitiated, Jumpin’ Jack’s is a fast-food joint on the bank of the Mohawk River just over the bridge when you take Route 5 from Schenectady to Scotia. You’ll see it down there on your right.

But no gimmicks are used to promote the product, which isn’t cooked in complicated, specially-built equipment. Your meal is made to order, as you can see when you follow the line of customers from ordering station to cash register.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Lewis on Brahms

BY THE TIME THE PIANO MAKES ITS ENTRANCE in Brahms’s Concerto No. 1, we’ve been through a great deal of tumult. The piece is in D minor, emphasized by a timpani roll on D echoed by long notes in low strings. But the first theme, introduced by the violins and cellos, plays havoc with the tonal center, especially when a trilled A-flat shows up every couple of bars, doubled by a trilled D-flat in the cellos.

But it’s really a C-sharp, which comes into play when that theme is repeated. This is the funky third tone of the concerto’s dominant-seventh A-major chord, which Brahms typically gives us in plangent inversion, thus throwing that C-sharp to the bottom. There’s considerable restlessness in the majesty of this opening, even down to the built-in uncertainty of the many trills. We feel a sense of resolution only when the soloist enters, quietly, ninety-one measures into the piece. “Of course we’re in D minor,” the piano says, dancing gently in the composer’s ballade voice. “And we really weren’t very far from it at all.”

This isn’t a showpiece, but it demands virtuosity of the highest caliber. It makes sense for Paul Lewis to be playing it, because he’s a pianist for whom the virtuoso moment lies in communicating the essence of a work, and not just its flashy architecture.

We saw this on March 18 at Schenectady’s Union College, where (after a hugely successful all-Beethoven recital last year) Lewis played a recital that included Liszt’s “Dante” Sonata as its finale. Not Liszt’s flashiest-seeming work, but a piece whose intense technical demands well serve its intense emotional content. It’s a work of orchestral dimension, and Lewis summoned sounds from the piano that invoked brass and drums and strings.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Get in the ‘Cue

From the Restaurant Vault Dept.: We’re only going back three years for this one because it’s important for you to celebrate the warming weather by satisfying your most basic culinary urge – barbecue. Here’s a good place to start.

                                                                          
                       

ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH MY MEAL – a pulled pork sandwich and half-rack of ribs ($17) – I napkin dabbed my brow and considered my status. The that’s-enough voice was murmuring, somewhat despairingly, but it was obscured by the need to continue to assault my senses with smoked meatstuffs.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It gets on your fingers; its aroma delights your nose. It awakens dormant neurons in the limbic brain. Although our species in general and this human in particular require little provocation to eat more than what’s needed, barbecue may be even more persuasive than ice cream and cake.

I considered the half-sandwich, still huge, and the several meaty ribs remaining and decided to pack it in. My thoughtful wife whisked the leftovers into a container she’d secured. Her own – the remains of a chicken, of course – already was packed. I allowed her to enjoy the illusion of me as someone proud to exert a measure of self-control. What I truly am is a failure, because I never shall tackle Wagon Train BBQ’s Graveyard Burger.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Getting Sentimental over Tommy

From the Recorded Vault Dept.: It appears now that most of the big-time record labels have run out of reissues. Boxed sets used to rain upon us, replete with scholarly notes and alternate takes and previously unissued material; now it’s a trickle. Back in the LP days, RCA Victor, the home label for Tommy Dorsey and many other swing-era artists, made a valiant attempt to issue TD’s complete output in a series of two-record sets (described below). Ten years ago, on Dorsey’s centenary, the label’s then-current incarnation issued a three-CD set that featured a nice, if brief, survey of a nice variety of the bandleader’s work. Here’s my decade-old review.

                                                                         
            

TOMMY DORSEY’S HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY came and went with nary a murmur, which isn’t surprising. In entertainment terms, a century has become a unit of measure with something seemingly Pleistocene at the other end, a point of view created, however inadvertently, by the recording industry. But Dorsey wouldn’t be remembered at all if it weren’t for recordings, a well-chosen set of which was issued in commemoration.

He was a hot trumpet player in the 1920s who put that instrument aside in favor of the trombone, on which he developed a matchless way with ballads. As a bandleader, he was tough and impulsive, easy to alienate, quick to patch things up. He hired some of the era’s greatest talent for his big band, which churned out an amazing array of hits beginning in 1935, popularly culminating in his recordings with a young Sinatra in the early ’40s – yet it was also Dorsey who gave a young Elvis one of his first TV appearances.

Back in the ’70s, RCA began a reissue project intending to cover Dorsey’s entire recorded career, but it died after eight two-record sets that only made it into early 1939. Many of the recordings were forgettable nonsense, yet there’s a combination of craftsmanship and worthy jazz talent that makes any Dorsey side worth hearing. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted the job of confining my reissue picks to three CDs.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Little Dog Found

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: Are you in the mood for some hot dogs? The secret of the little wieners we’re talking about is both that they give more snap per square inch of dog consumed and their unusual size throws off your rationing count. Where you might content yourself with a pair of full-sized frankfurters, you could find that it takes a half-dozen of these babies to slake your craving. This was written in 2003; both establishments are still going strong. The below-mentioned Troy Pork Store has closed, but Helmbold’s (also in Troy) now is providing the dogs in question.

                                                                               
                 

WE’RE DEALING WITH SHEER SENSUALITY HERE. It begins with the soft warmth of a bun, perched between fingers and thumb. A sweet aroma of onions and spices rises from the contents, a fat finger of a hot dog covered with mustard and chopped onions and homemade meat sauce. As you bring it to your lips, the aroma deepens as the sour smell of the mustard eases in.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
And then you take your first bite. It’s a ritual as solemn and as complicated as savoring sashimi, and it should be conducted with as much dignity. First your lips make contact with the meat sauce, and you should sneak a moment just with that flavor – a sensation enhanced by having such a strong presence of it under your nose.

Then you bite. The hot dog casing is just firm enough to protest briefly before yielding to your teeth, at which point a jet of roasted meat flavor mixes with the rest, prolonged by the spongy bread of the bun. Your second bite confirms the tastiness of the first; the third one finishes it off.

These dogs are barely four inches long. That’s why you can buy two of them for a little over a buck. The Troy Pork Store has been making these mini-sausages for years, but they need that meat sauce to really come alive.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

With Sword or Gun

From the Back of the Vault Dept.: Thirty-some years ago, composer Tom Savoy and I wrote a musical titled Presenting Lily Mars, based on a Booth Tarkington novel that harkened back to Tarkington’s theatrical days in the early 1900s. It told the story of an aspiring actress who rises through a company’s ranks thanks to her talent and charm, but whose rise proves disruptive. The book I fashioned was overlong and clumsy, and my lyrics (to Tom’s delightful melodies) were similarly clunky. But here’s a lyric from a song that we cut early on in the proceedings, which was to be sung as part of a show within the show. I share it here to remind myself how shamelessly I tried to emulate the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert, even when I had to force the hell out of scansion and rhyme.

                                                                                               














SEVENTEEN LONG YEARS AGO, my life in France was grueling;
Our fortune was extremely low, my father dead from dueling.
My mother fell too easily for the flatt’ry of another;
How horrible the way that he beguiled my charming mother!
And I am but my father’s son, and I guard my mother’s love –
This scoundrel was a nasty one, so I slapped him with my glove.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Stare

IT HAPPENS WHENEVER I ENTER a convenience store or restaurant or laundromat or – really, any place where two or more people are gathered. It takes place within a particular geography: the rural county where I live and its neighboring farming areas. It looks like this: As I cross the threshold, all of the faces turn towards mine, expectantly. More than expectantly: they seem to seek some kind of salvation, and stare at me as if I’m their last hope.

It’s unsettling. The stare persists long past the moment when politeness suggests you should look away. I’m the one who wrenches my eyes away from this gaze and that one, seeking a neutral place on which to focus.

This isn’t the saloon stare we know from Westerns. There’s no overt hostility on display. This stare seems to ask, “Are you here to rescue us?” Although I’m sure I’m reading into it.

I never encounter this in an urban area. Indeed, some places – I’m thinking of Manhattan’s tonier neighborhoods – fail to recognize my arrival at all, and this includes those ostensibly hired to sell me something or wait on me, depending upon the type of establishment I’ve entered. Oh, there may be a bit of expectancy displayed when I enter an urban bar, but, as I’m clearly not going to satisfy anybody’s dreamboat requirements, such gaze as there might be flickers away instantly.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Three Worlds of Music

From the Musical Vault Dept.: During the past few days, we heard from composer Vincent Plush and violinist Stephanie Chase as they prepared for a 1989 Albany Symphony concert, conducted by then-musical director Geoffrey Simon. Here’s my Schenectady Gazette review.

                                                                          
                    

TWO VERY DIFFERENT STYLES of 20th-century composition were displayed at the Albany Symphony Orchestra concert Friday evening when works by Leo Sowerby and Vincent Plush were performed. Both composers faced the challenge of shrugging off the influence of Europe, and did so with contrasting results.

Geoffrey Simon
Sowerby’s “Symphony No. 2" was written in 1927. It’s a three-movement work that hovers uncertainly between Brahms and the noisy dissonance that constituted American music for many composers of that era. The second movement, for instance, features what should be a lovely melody, introduced skillfully by French horn player David Saunders, but the tune takes an unattractive turn every time it threatens to sound pleasant.

The piece would sound very dated were it not for a bluesy quality to some of the writing, proof that Sowerby was moving in the right direction to shake the Germanic influence.

This symphony offers the players an opportunity to stretch out as one tutti after another kicks the forces into high gear. For rambunctious playing, however, Plush’s “Pacifica” can take on all comers.