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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.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Chasing Beethoven

From the Vault Dept.: Yesterday’s post reprinted my 1989 interview with composer Vincent Plush, who had enlightening and envy-provoking things to say about the state of music in his home country of Australia. He was in the Capital Region for a performance of his tone-poem Pacifica by the Albay Symphony; he recently noted that that was the last time he’s been in this area. Also on that ASO program was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, performed by Stephanie Chase, who grew up in the same Connecticut town as I did. The old-home-week portion of my interview with her, written for the Schenectady Gazette, didn’t get into the piece, but it was fun to catch up with her.


ALTHOUGH STEPHANIE CHASE performs Beethoven's mighty Violin Concerto with the Albany Symphony Orchestra this Friday and Saturday, it was near the bottom of the list of choices.

Stephanie Chase
Not that she has any objection to playing it: as she explains it, she and ASO music director Geoffrey Simon were talking about a very different facet of the repertory when her appearance with the orchestra was first mentioned.

“In our first discussions,” she said, “he said, ‘I understand you like playing contemporary works.’ I said I did and we thought of a few concertos: Berg, Stravinsky, Panufnik, and a couple of others. Then he called again and for one reason or another each of the pieces we’d talked about wouldn’t do. Somebody with the orchestra didn’t like it; whatever. So he asked me to look at other pieces.”

Conductor and violinist already had established a good rapport when Chase appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1986 with Simon on the podium. They have recorded together once and are planning another that features three big pieces for violin and orchestra: the concerto by Glazounov, Bernstein’s “Serenade” and Ravel’s “Tzigane.”

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Australia to Albany

From the Vault Dept.: The issue of America’s musical identity has dogged this country since its founding, and, more than any other topic, has revealed a deep insecurity. We attempt to categorize our music, we’ve tried to assign it an intellectual caste system, we seem to do all manner of things to it except listen. It’s different down under. I had an ear-opening conversation with Australian composer Vincent Plush in 1989, on the eve of an Albany Symphony performance of one of his works, and here’s the piece I wrote for Metroland back then.


THANKS TO VINCENT PLUSH, Australians are better informed about American music than are most Americans. His broadcasts on Australian radio – hundreds of hours’ worth – have inspired an sharp increase in the number of American works programmed by Australian orchestras.

Vincent Plush
The Albany Symphony Orchestra returns the favor this weekend. Plush’s Pacifica will be performed as part of the orchestra’s observance of Australia’s bicentennial. “Last year about a dozen Australian composers were based on campuses throughout the U.S.,” says Plush, “and I took an appointment at Rollins College in Florida because it was the quietest. There wouldn’t be another composer within 150 miles, which meant I would have to hear no contemporary music.”

Plush is in the area this week and spoke over afternoon tea about the piece – and Australian music in general. Despite the seeming British-ness of the set-up he’s a revolutionary who has evolved a musical identity based in part upon defying the European traditions.

“In the mid 1960s it occurred to several of us who were writing music in Australia that Europe, being 1600 miles away, really shouldn’t be regarded as a major influence. I mean, we’re in a country where there’s almost no snow and the Fiji Islands are nearby. What’s led to an Australian sound, then, is a new attitude that you don’t have to obey European rules or American rules. You can have your own voice without apology or condescension.”

Monday, April 04, 2016

Enjoying the Burden

From the Food Vault Dept.: The seasonal eateries are coming back to life, which means that you can crowd into Kay’s on Burden Lake where there’s a party atmosphere the whole summer long. Possibly a bit muted by our late-arrival snow, but I’ll enjoy Kay’s pizza in any weather. Here’s my 2011 review. I’m sure the prices have changed.


IF YOU LIVE IN, grew up near or frequently visit the Burden Lake area, you’re already nodding your head in anticipation of a good review of a place you revere. That’s what it is. That’s what it has to be. Gourmet fare? Hardly. Fancy dining? Far from it. A completely unique and satisfying experience? You bet. Provided you’re not ochlophobic.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The crowd probably begins in the parking lot, as those intending to leave remain caught up in chatter with friends, some of whom may be in line for a table. As you press closer, you see that the dining room looks full, its long red-and-white check-covered tables lined with people and pizzas and pitchers and plates. Others crowd the bar; some (younger, disenfranchised) work the videogame consoles.

If you’re new to the place, the prospect of a seat of your own will appear daunting. Don’t be discouraged. “First come, first served,” hollers one of the young, busy servers, abandoning you to what seems to be a non-line going nowhere. This is when you plunge in and have faith. And get ready to meet people, because chances are that the space you find will be at a table with someone else’s party.