Search This Blog

Sunday, October 15, 2017

It’s the Way That You Do It

LISTEN TO THE OPENING TRACK on “Uptown Jump,” a recording by guitarist Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy Seven. It’s a tune titled “The Savoy Special,” and I defy you to find it any less enjoyable – and virtuosic – than a small-group recording from the likes of Basie or Lunceford. The tune itself is catchy, the rhythm never flags, the solos grab you right away, and there’s an easygoing insouciance about it that’s only the province of players completely at home with their material.

Glenn Crytzer | Photo by Lynn Redmile
But you won’t recognize the tune, because it’s a Crytzer original. It sounds absolutely 1930s because it’s catchy, it swings like mad, and it’s recorded with the peculiar warmth of a session from that time thanks to Crytzer’s fanatical attention to microphones and acoustics and the lost art of audio simplicity. And it holds that in common with the 17 other tunes on the album, all of them Crytzer originals. (I wrote about the album here.)

He’s planning to do it again, but on a more ambitious scale. “Ain’t It Grand” will be a two-disc set by the 14-piece Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, of which one disc will be originals, the other a set of vintage Big Band tunes – and all of the arrangements will be tailored by Crytzer for his band. “In order to write this album for these guys,” he says, “I’m going to have to find stuff that I can tailor to their voices in an interesting way. I’m pretty excited about having this enormously expanded color palette to work with.”

Friday, October 13, 2017

It’s All in the Mind

From the Vault Dept.: I was delighted to travel out to the Washington County lair of Tom Lopez in 1990 to interview the man behind a series of radio dramas I’d enjoyed. And he’s still going strong – you can find more info at his website.

                                                                          
                

IN TOM LOPEZ’S WORLD, characters trade snappy, pun-filled repartee over a music score that crackles with ironic counterpoint. Whether the adventures take place in the heart of the Amazon rain forest or in an extra-galactic city of organic shopping malls or even in nearby Saratoga Springs, we’re sure to meet a sharp, hip collection of people. And they all come to life only as voices because Lopez is a writer and producer of radio shows.

Tom Lopez
“Tape is my medium,” he suggests gently. “Radio is my gallery. Although I shouldn’t say that – some stations get offended.”

He speaks quietly and moves with litheness. This is a man whose past is as complicated as you’d care for one to get, a former sound engineer for Yoko Ono (“I left two months before she met John”) who now lives with his wife, Marcia, in the solitude of a Fort Edward farm and runs the ZBS Foundation, a state-of-the-art audio production facility.

Tom has toured South America and the Far East with his tape recorders, capturing sounds so vivid and exotic that he’s gotten many requests from sound effects producers to sell the tapes.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Greeley Goes West

Guest Blogger Dept.: Mark Twain captured his adventures as a newspaper correspondent out west in the book Roughing It, from which the following extract is drawn.

                                                                                           

Mark Twain | Photo by Matthew Brady
ON THE NINETEENTH DAY we crossed the Great American Desert—forty memorable miles of bottomless sand, into which the coach wheels sunk from six inches to a foot. We worked our passage most of the way across. That is to say, we got out and walked. It was a dreary pull and a long and thirsty one, for we had no water. From one extremity of this desert to the other, the road was white with the bones of oxen and horses. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that we could have walked the forty miles and set our feet on a bone at every step! The desert was one prodigious graveyard. And the log-chains, wagon tyres, and rotting wrecks of vehicles were almost as thick as the bones. I think we saw log-chains enough rusting there in the desert, to reach across any State in the Union. Do not these relics suggest something of an idea of the fearful suffering and privation the early emigrants to California endured?

At the border of the Desert lies Carson Lake, or The “Sink” of the Carson, a shallow, melancholy sheet of water some eighty or a hundred miles in circumference. Carson River empties into it and is lost—sinks mysteriously into the earth and never appears in the light of the sun again—for the lake has no outlet whatever.

Monday, October 09, 2017

King Solomon’s Mind

From the Slush Pile Dept.: As far as I can remember, this piece never ran in Metroland, for which I wrote it in 1996, prompted by a then-notorious incident on the floor of the House of Representatives. Gerald Solomon served another three years before retiring.

                                                                               
   

IF YOU’RE PLANNING TO READ a meter or deliver flowers in the greater Queensbury area, knock with a firm hand and identify yourself quickly. Otherwise, Mrs. Solomon might blow you away with an AK-47.

Rep. Jerry “Make My Day” Solomon once again proved that nothing beats paranoia to grab headlines in the political arena. Bickering on the house floor with Rhode Island rep Patrick Kennedy, the ex-marine pointed out that his wife “lives alone five days a week in a rural area in upstate New York. She has a right to defend herself when I’m not there, son.”

Despite the Senator Claghorn-esque syntax, Solomon’s point can’t be brushed away lightly. He probably believes what he’s saying, his point of view stoked by the $3.5 million worth of political support given to Republicans by the National Rifle Association. To listen to the NRA hotheads – next to whom Jeff Foxworthy sounds like a rampaging intellectual – your every step is dogged by miscreants who restrain themselves from robbing and raping you only because of all those well-armed NRA-ites waiting to rush to your defense.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Hitting the Limits

From the Vault Dept.: What a disappointing review! When I wrote it, I was heavily involved in improv performance myself, so I’m sure I considered myself all too much of an expert. I give you my Chicago City Limits review first, from a performance in 1996; what follows it is the advance I wrote the week before, while still filled with eager anticipation.

                                                                                         

Improvisational theater groups don’t work with scripts. They take to the stage armed with techniques of turning audience suggestions into fast-paced, funny skits. Chicago City Limits, a Manhattan fixture for almost 20 years, brought a fairly successful evening of improv to the Egg last Saturday, presenting a pair of shows geared toward younger and older audiences, respectively.

I didn’t see the afternoon kids show, but the group that took to the stage that evening was revved to a good energy level. The small theater was sold out, and the audience quickly warmed to the idea that they were expected to call out words and phrases.

The two-act show mixed set pieces with improvised sketches and songs; the first audience suggestion, “cub scout,” was turned into the theme of a blues sung by each member of the company in turn. To make it even tougher on themselves, they finished by passing the song around, phrase by phrase, still maintaining a sense of scansion and rhyme.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Poultry and Bach


 
 
Enjoy a deeply meditative experience with
two minutes of fascinating farmyard activity.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Chefs for Success

From the Recent Past Dept.: Schenectady County Community College has been giving the Culinary Institute of America some tough competition for many years, and the results of SCCC’s foodservice training was put on show back in February for an event I covered.

                                                                              
            

WHEN LAST YEAR’S Chefs for Success dinner at Schenectady County Community College was publicized with a brief online notice, someone responded by asking to see the menu. As the guests discovered at this year’s event, the ninth such, held at the college on Feb. 21, with the level of talent that was on hand, you don’t need a menu. You can trust the results.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The college is renowned for its culinary instruction, and Chefs for Success is an annual fundraiser for the program, bringing in a half-dozen accomplished area chefs to create the menu. We got a literal taste of what’s being funded as hors d’oeuvres were passed around, the creation of a current crop of students under the direction of chef-instructor Michael Stamets. Smoked salmon mousse, sauerkraut buns, and seared tuna bites were among them, generously offered even as the food stations aromatically neared readiness.

After introductions and acknowledgements, it became a walk-around, help-yourself kind of deal, and one of my first stops was to sample what seemed at first a rich pork dish – and which turned out to be butternut squash, seasoned with cumin and coriander and flecked with crisp bits of pancetta.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

New World Order

John Romeo | 29 Sept. 2017 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
In rehearsal for “New World Order,” an evening of works by Harold Pinter, directed by David Girard as the opening production of his new Troy Foundry Theatre.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Crystal Clear

From the Vault Dept.: As senescence creeps in, I’m often pleasantly reminded of the shows I’ve seen (but by now have forgotten) as I leaf through clippings in a desperate attempt to find meaning in my life. Here’s once such venture, which I made and wrote about in 1986.

                                                                                          

The tradition of Vaudeville, long since usurped by television and the movies, demanded that a comedian to prove himself in city after city, year after year. It wearied the bones but preserved material. A few TV shots allow the whole country to become instantly familiar with your act, and the anticipatory applause for Billy Crystal at Proctors on Saturday night proved that the audience was ready to hear it all over again.

Billy Crystal
But they didn’t. Not all of it, at any rate. Crystal is preparing for a Broadway show by bringing material around the country – so there still must be something to that tradition – and he charmed and convulsed a packed house with a show that was much more than a succession of “bits.”

I’ve never seen him on TV, but it’s impossible not to know the man’s reputation. Crystal does characters and bases his routines on them rather than on jokes. He dispatched a few of the audience-expected voices at the start, then launched into a comfortable account of his airplane trip to Schenectady, segueing into movies and then VCRs.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Boss Gorgett

Guest Blogger Dept.: Novelist Booth Tarkington served a single term in the 63rd General Assembly of Indiana, beginning in 1903, and, while he was grateful to leave politics forever behind as a career, he found it grist for a series of short stories that eventually were collected into the book In the Arena, published in 1905. Here’s one of those stories.

                                                                              
                

I guess I’ve been what you might call kind of an assistant boss pretty much all my life; at least, ever since I could vote; and I was something of a ward-heeler even before that. I don’t suppose there’s any way a man of my disposition could have put in his time to less advantage and greater cost to himself. I’ve never got a thing by it, all these years, not a job, not a penny—nothing but injury to my business and trouble with my wife. She begins going for me, first of every campaign.

Booth Tarkington
Yet I just can’t seem to keep out of it. It takes a hold on a man that I never could get away from; and when I reach my second childhood and the boys have turned me out, I reckon I’ll potter along trying to look knowing and secretive, like the rest of the has-beens, letting on as if I still had a place inside. Lord, if I’d put in the energy at my business that I’ve frittered away on small politics! But what’s the use thinking about it?

Plenty of men go to pot horse-racing and stock gambling; and I guess this has just been my way of working off some of my nature in another fashion. There’s a good many like me, too; not out for office or contracts, nor anything that you can put your finger on in particular—nothing except the game. Of course, it’s a pleasure, knowing you’ve got more influence than some, but I believe the most you ever get out of it is in being able to help your friends, to get a man you like a job, or a good contract, something he wants, when he needs it.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Feeling Fit at Forty

From the Arts Vault Dept.: I can find online references to the Albany League of Arts up until 2002, after which it mists away. When I wrote this piece, in 1986, the organization was celebrating its 40th anniversary.

                                                                           
            

THE ALBANY LEAGUE OF ARTS was born in that first baby-boom year, 1946, and has gone through many of the same problems that faced any other newborn of that era. The struggle for identity. The need to develop social skills. Above all, the need to be recognized. So even as the city of Albany whoops it up at 300, pay attention to this 40-year-old institution. You may have been taking its services for granted for years.

Maureen Salkin is acting director of the league, appointed in December after being a board member for several years. “We’re the second-oldest arts council in the U.S.,” she observes. “And yet people still aren’t sure what we are.

“Our most obvious service is the Community Box Office. We have four outlets, at Stuyvesant Plaza, the Empire State Mall, Proctor’s Arcade and Colonie Center. We handle tickets for local events, we’re a Ticketron outlet, and we even have tickets for State National Parks.

“The Ticketron people are always amazed at the business we do, especially at Colonie Center. The gross value of CBO is about $2 million a year.”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Not by Bread Alone: Perreca’s

From the Chef’s Table Dept.: Perreca’s, a century-old bakery in Schenectady’s Little Italy neighborhood, bakes the finest Italian bread you’ll ever sample. I wrote about it for Capital Region magazine in 1987 (you can read the piece here), and, when a restaurant called More Perreca’s opened on the premises, I reviewed that for Metroland. Twice, in fact, and both pieces are here. Below is my most recent update on the bakery and restaurant and the driving force behind it all, Maria Papa.

                                                                                         
               

“WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, seventeen years old, that was the disco era,” Maria Papa says, “and I would go out with my friends and then invite everybody over to my parents’ house at three a.m., and I’d start cooking. I would make the sauce form scratch, and serve a three-course Italian meal – it was four a.m. by the time I finished cooking everything – so the rest of my family would wake up on a Sunday morning to all these people, and all this food, around the table.”

Maria Papa | Photo by Richard Lovrich
Her parents were running Perreca’s Bakery, Schenectady’s legendary bread source, and she grew up learning to cook classic Italian dishes in the classic Italian way: from her grandmother. “I grew up living in the apartment above the bakery, and I was brought up by her because my mother was always working at the bakery.”

The bakery was started over a century ago by Salvatore Perreca, newly arrived from Naples. The recipe, which is no more than flour, water, salt, and yeast, hasn’t changed since then. The result is a crusty loaf that speaks of the coal-fired oven in which it’s baked, so addictive that I helped smuggle loaves to Kathleen Turner after she finished filming “Ironweed” in the area and was suffering withdrawal.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Jungle out There

AT NO POINT during his lengthy performance at the Troy Music Hall Saturday night did Randy Newman mention his new album, “Dark Matter.” It’s a significant release, both for its excellent material and because new Newman recordings come along only once every decade or so. He could have mentioned something about it when introducing any of the six songs he performed from that album. But no.

Randy Newman
Which underscored the irony of the concert’s opening number, “It’s Money That I Love.” It’s from his 1979 album “Born Again,” and typifies Newman’s songwriting genius, in this case putting a cynical lyric (“They say that money / Can’t buy love in this world / But it’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine / And a sixteen-year-old girl / And a great big long limousine / On a hot September night / Now that may not be love / But it is all right”) against a sprightly R&B accompaniment complete with an effective hook.

Three Dog Night had a hit with their rocking version of “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” but Newman, by contrast, performed it with an air of wry resignation. His own recordings tend to avoid the charts, but 1977's “Short People” (from the album “Little Criminals”) went to Billboard’s No. 2, earning it the roar of recognition brought by its first few instrumental bars as Newman performed it in Troy. (“Sounds kind of vicious,” he said of one of the verses as he headed into the song’s bridge.)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Of Times on the River

From the Concert Stage Dept.: The Albany Symphony Orchestra spent part of the summer on a rivergoing barge, performing works old and new at ports along the way. The concert I reviewed below was a kind of warm-up, presented in Troy, NY’s, newest performing arts center.

                                                                           
            

AS THE CLIMACTIC CONCERT in the week-long American Music Festival, last Saturday’s event was notable in presenting four new works – and two world premieres – with each composer on hand to provide insight into the music.

There also was a generational aspect. Composer Katherine Balch, whose “drift” premiered on the program, was recommended by an instructor of hers – Christopher Theofanidis, whose Violin Concerto closed the show.

Theofanidis’s concerto was born as a brief commission from the Principality of Monaco in 1997. At the request of violinist Sarah Chang, he enlarged the piece, first adding a second, slower movement, and then, a la Samuel Barber, giving it a high-velocity finish.

Soloist Chee-Yun was unfazed by the technical challenges, which ranged from those fast finale figurations to octaves that swept high up on the A and E strings – and with being heard over the rest of the strings when all were pitted together in the concerto’s bigger moments. She has a huge, gorgeous sound, well-suited to the romantic heart of Theofanidis’s writing.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Keeping It Anonymous

From the Vault Dept.: I wrote a handful of tech pieces for Metroland, back when the computer industry was hurrying through some of its most profound changes. Here’s a concept that never will stale, although the techniques described herein are terribly dated and most of the links are dead.

                                                                                                  

THOSE HACKERS BUSY MAKING HEADLINES during the past few weeks will get caught. That’s a psychological certainty – hackers do this kind of thing for the publicity, and someone soon will brag too much. But what those hackers did well was cover their tracks, and that’s difficult when you’re using the Internet.

Despite promises to the contrary, the Internet is not secure and much of the information you transmit and receive leaves traces. Online retailer CD Universe had its user database hacked not long ago, and the malefactors made off with user info that included credit card numbers. Right now the best approach is to treat online commerce with care, keeping records of what you buy and with what credit instrument – and keeping up with news of Internet intrusions.

But what about your own anonymity? On the Internet, as the cartoon goes, nobody knows you're a dog. But your web browser may be sharing more details about you than you’d care to reveal. Especially if you’re pursuing interests to which you’re not keen on having your name attached.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Incidentally

State of the Stage Dept.: A re-look at my recent review of a stunning show that touched down at Proctors in Schenectady last November.

                                                                                                   

THE POWER OF LIVE THEATER was nowhere more evident than during a moment in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which played at Proctors last week, when 15-year-old Christopher Boone is struck by his angry father. The audience reacted with a surprised groan; a man across the aisle from me twisted in pain.

It wasn’t a particularly convincing strike, nor did it have to be: the stylized gesture conveyed all the needed anger, and Boone’s reaction, as played by the superb Adam Langdon, was so hurt that we couldn’t let go of that feeling for quite some time.

Such was our emotional investment in these characters. They moved through a rectilinear space that functioned as chalkboard and screen and light-up display – an extension of the mind of an autistic teen whose contained environment is shattered when he’s accused of killing a neighbor’s dog.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Italian Marrow

From the Restaurant Vault Dept.: When I began reviewing restaurants in 1986, Schenectady still had an assertive array of Italian restaurants throughout the city, many of them not far from the city’s center. The area there now designated Little Italy only begins to suggest what was. Although Perrino’s is long out of business, its space has been occupied for many years by the excellent Cella Bistro. The Perrino’s review below ran during a period when Metroland didn’t always add a photo to the page, so I have borrowed one that’s related only in spirit. Although Perrino’s is long out of business, its space has been occupied for many years by the excellent Cella Bistro.

                                                                                         

ONE GOOD-SIZED SEATING of a weekday evening is a good accomplishment. At Perrino’s on a recent Wednesday the house was almost full at 6 when my party arrived; it began to fill again as we were leaving ninety minutes later.

The business has been operating at a hard-to-spot Rosa Road location for 14 years, and it probably will be Gilda Perrino who greets you when you come in.

With that kind of repeat business, it’s no surprise that the atmosphere is that of a private club, and a newcomer like myself can feel a little neglected.

But the club is not exclusive. By the end of the meal we, too, were a part.

That’s probably the secret, that and some tasty food.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Routes of Slavery

THIS IS THE MOST AUDACIOUS PROJECT that musical wizard Jordi Savall has put together – and he has come up with many a stunning program, saluting Joan of Arc, Christopher Columbus, Erasmus, music of the Balkans, and even a sweep of a century’s worth of music that defined an era of war that began four hundred years ago. In all of these multi-disc sets, published with lavish, multi-lingual books, Savall and his ensembles have sought to bridge the cultural gaps that thwart the pursuit of peace.

“The Routes of Slavery” is different in that it invites a more somber reflection on the centuries-old, centuries-long exploitation of African citizens. “Humanity is divided into two: Masters and Slaves” is the Aristotelian epigram, declaimed by Bakary Sangaré (known for his work with the Comédie-Française) before he begins the first in a series of recitations that remind us of the cold-blooded nature of the slave trade. To our ears, it’s an indictment; it was meant as a statement of facts, and it’s accompanied by the airy, emotionally indeterminate music of kora (a cross between harp and lute) and valiha (a cylindrical zither), from Mali and Madagascar, respectively.

What follows is a series of musical selections interspersed with more readings. The formal tones of Mateo Flecha’s “La Negrina” gives way to the high-spirited “Gugurumbé,” creating the pattern that keeps the programming so compelling.

Monday, September 04, 2017

As She Said ...

Platonic Relations Dept.: A recent review of an enjoyable mix of music and theater given at RPI’s EMPAC, where such innovations regularly await.

                                                                                         

KATE SOPER’S STARTLING, ENTHRALLING “Ipsa Dixit” begins, almost self-deprecatingly, with the question, “What is art?” Academics wrestle with the concept, but I’ve never known a true artist to feel any need to answer it. And therein lies the delightful dichotomy of Soper’s work: it pursues the question with the words of others, but words that are themselves turned into the art of which they speak.

Soper and members of the ensemble Wet Ink presented the piece in the theater at Troy’s EMPAC last Friday evening, in a black-box setting that facilitated the work’s multimedia aspect.

Three doorway-sized scrims hung in front of a projection screen; behind the centermost scrim was a platform. The show’s title was projected onto the screen, with the “X” landing on the platform’s scrim.

As the performers entered – flutist Erin Lesser and violinist Josh Modney stage right, percussionist Ian Antonio with marimba and drum battery at left, Soper mounted the platform and stood ready. Then time stopped for the next ninety minutes.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Off the Map

From the Vault Dept.: Let’s drive into the past and through the interesting geography of the country alongside Tom Rawls, whom I interviewed in 1990 on the occasion of his book Small Places, reviewed below.

                                                                                               

“EVERY PERSON HAS A STORY,” says Tom Rawls. “When I was helping start Harrowsmith Magazine, I suggested a series on small towns and the people in them. The idea was to find the distinctive in what at first glance may seem common.”

Rawls wrote the column, 15 selections of which are collected in a book titled Small Places (see accompanying review). His travels take him practically from coast to coast and north into Alaska's wilds. How did he choose the places he wrote about?

“It was a pretty unscientific mix,” he confesses with a laugh. “My intention was serendipity. Most of the places had some feature that caught my eye, or there was some outgrowth of the community that made it striking. In Nye, Montana, for instance, here was the country’s only platinum mine, so it was an opportunity to study the natural tension you get between cattlemen and miners.”

Rawls, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, came to writing by way of the editor’s desk. “I took up the pen five years ago, when I was 39,” he says. “Before I came to Harrowsmith I was an editor at Blair Ketcham’s Country Journal for six years. That was sold to a corporate entity and things changed. I guess we all have to make our Faustian bargains, but I left to come here.”

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Slidin’ into Schenectady

Safe at Home Dept.: Since this piece was published back in April, the Slidin’ Dirty Schenectady location has opened, a very welcome addition to the city’s downtown.

                                                                            
                              

IT’S TAKING LONGER THAN EXPECTED, this renovation, but, “We still feel pretty good about opening before the start of summer,” Tim Taney says. “It’s a big project, and we’d like to have all the contractors finish at the same time – but it doesn’t always work out that way.” He’s talking about the Schenectady location of Slidin’ Dirty, the food truck-turned-restaurant that has been such a success in Troy that he and his wife decided to add a second location just down the street from Proctors.

Tim Taney | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
You couldn’t get away from sliders, it seemed, back when he launched the Slidin’ Dirty food truck in 2012. Has the phenomenon peaked? “I think it may have come and gone even before we opened. But that’s okay. We don’t consider ourselves a trendy kind of place. We’re more about serving a unique product, and we want you to have a unique experience. When we’re putting together a menu, we ask ourselves how we can make things different. We’re a burger concept that doesn’t serve french fries.”

We’re speaking at the Troy location, on 1st Street, a space that has the warehouse look of exposed ducts and brickwork, offset by the warm wood of the bar. “We opened here in November 2014, right before Thanksgiving. The space was still boarded up when we first looked at it, so we couldn’t see it working here.” Taney was studying the lease for a space in Albany when he heard again from the Troy landlord. “He asked us to take one more look at his site. This time it was gutted, so we saw these beautiful bricks, and this arch, and decided that this was the space we wanted to be in, and Troy was the city where we wanted to be.”

Monday, August 28, 2017

No Strings, Good Times

THERE’S NO SOCIAL MEDIA, no presence of cell phones in “Company” – not surprising, considering that the musical had its Broadway debut in 1970, which now seems pretty antediluvian.  But the show itself does not, as brilliantly proven by the production at Pittsfield's Barrington Stage. This Berkshires-based company has gained a reputation for presenting shows – especially musicals – of such quality that their “On the Town” from 2013 transferred to Broadway for a healthy run.

Paul Schaefer, Aaron Tveit, and Lauren Marcus
This “Company” certainly cements that reputation. The show is rightly famous for its Stephen Sondheim songs; if the witty book by George Furth isn’t as lauded, this production should help change that, seeing how all the laughs and pain and absurdities come across with easy precision.

It’s an ensemble piece performed here by such strong talent that there isn’t a weak spot, even when they’re down a cast member, as happened the night I saw the show (one of the actors had to leave suddenly to be at the birth of his child). And it was performed with a excellent nine-piece pit band, relieving the actors of what’s become an overused gimmick of having to play their own instrumental accompaniment.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A More Perfect Mozart at Union

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s a visit to Union College’s Memorial Chapel for a performance by the superb Nash Ensemble that I reviewed for the Schenectady Gazette in 1990.

                                                                                

LISTENING TO MOZART in an ornate, antique hall while watching a steady snowfall through oversized windows is the most peaceful kind of fun you could ask for on a winter afternoon.

The Nash Ensemble
While cars smacked into one another outside on Union Street, the Nash Ensemble worked wonders with three of the juiciest pieces in the chamber-music repertory.

Anthony Pay came onstage with an odd-looking instrument that he helpfully identified as a clarinet such as might have been used in Mozart’s time. It was made of boxwood, blonde in contrast to the usual black, “and I like to think of the difference between this and the modern clarinet as the difference between a vintage car and a modern Ferrari. Newer models are more powerful and more able to cope with the dynamics demanded in today’s concert hall.”

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Bee

Guest Blogger: Mark Twain. Maurice Maetrlinck’s Life of the Bee is a wonderfully poetic record of observations and philosophy accrued during Maeterlinck’s years as an apiarist – and it inspired Twain’s essay below.

                                                                                            

IT WAS MAETERLINCK who introduced me to the bee. I mean, in the psychical and in the poetical way. I had had a business introduction earlier. It was when I was a boy. It is strange that I should remember a formality like that so long; it must be nearly sixty years.

Mark Twain
Bee scientists always speak of the bee as she. It is because all the important bees are of that sex. In the hive there is one married bee, called the queen; she has fifty thousand children; of these, about one hundred are sons; the rest are daughters. Some of the daughters are young maids, some are old maids, and all are virgins and remain so.

Every spring the queen comes out of the hive and flies away with one of her sons and marries him. The honeymoon lasts only an hour or two; then the queen divorces her husband and returns home competent to lay two million eggs. This will be enough to last the year, but not more than enough, because hundreds of bees get drowned every day, and other hundreds are eaten by birds, and it is the queen’s business to keep the population up to standard – say, fifty thousand. She must always have that many children on hand and efficient during the busy season, which is summer, or winter would catch the community short of food. She lays from two thousand to three thousand eggs a day, according to the demand; and she must exercise judgment, and not lay more than are needed in a slim flower-harvest, nor fewer than are required in a prodigal one, or the board of directors will dethrone her and elect a queen that has more sense.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Chopin and His World

THE THEME OF THE FESTIVAL was Chopin; it could as easily been termed “love,” provided we were warned that there would be pairings as unusual as human passion provokes. Chopin’s “Andante spianato and Grand polonaise brilliant,” for example, pairs disparate works, written at different times, in different keys, and for different instrumental forces – but Chopin sensed an overarching unity and/or ignorable differences, which describes many a human couple I know.

Painting by Maria Wodzinska
It was performed as the opening work on a concert that featured Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a massive symphonic poem written as a sort of anti-opera, with the vocal forces subordinate to the orchestra’s emotionally charged coloring. And this was the final concert in this year’s Bard Summerscape program, “Chopin and His World,” which ran Aug. 11-20 and gave us two weekends’ worth of lectures, concerts, and other events.

“Chopin’s Influence” was discussed and charted the afternoon of the festival’s final day. Is the resemblance of Wagner’s famous “Tristan” chord to a chord from Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 a coincidence? asked composer Richard Wilson during his witty, engaging pre-concert talk. His evidence was convincing: a Chopin chord progression build on the steps of a diminished seventh turns up in Debussy and Brahms, among others; and his suppositions were charming, such as the notion that Chopin built up the ornamentation in repeated passages (such as a Nocturne that Wilson demonstrated) because the composer grew bored.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

B-Minor Ass

From Bad to Verse Dept.: This was written to commemorate a visit my wife and I paid to our daughter in her Manhattan dorm over a year ago, an event that should have included dinner out and some show-seeing -- but she was felled by a stomach bug, the explosive results of which inspired me to take up my pen.

                                                                                   

WE KNEW THE KID WAS
     FEELING ILL,
Our lovely, busy, stressed-out daughter,
But still she rallied, hopeful still –
Until she drank that lemon-water.

Her illness played its grievous start
Upon the trumpet of her ass;
She ripped a double-forte fart
More poisonous than mustard gas.

That richly seasoned blast she blew
Began the oratorio;
She crab-walked to the nearest loo
And sang with all her glory. O –

That trombone’s raspy pedal, and
That bass bassoon she hooted through!
And while she led this hellish band
A thousand meals were blasted, too!

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Night in Ukraine

From the Recent Past Dept.: Here’s the long version of a review of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine that I wrote for The Alt back in February.

                                                                                            

PROKOFIEV, STRAVINSKY, AND SHOSTAKOVICH were the best-known Russian composers of the 20th century, a recognition that probably helped keep the ones who remained in the country alive. Stravinsky moved to Switzerland early on – visiting a summer house in his parents’ native Ukraine while he could – and ended up in Los Angeles by way of Paris. But it was rough sledding for Prokofiev, who quit a self-imposed exile during the 1920s to return to an oppressive regime, and Shostakovich, who never left the country.

Volodymyr Sirenko and members of the
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
Photo: Mykola Swarnyk for New Pathway
Seeing their works performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine gave an extra political frisson to those pieces. According to a pre-concert talk by the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Theodore Kuchar, the orchestra has weathered many decades of political vicissitudes. Its official history goes back to 1918, but even before that it existed in a variety of identities, most colorfully monikered of which may have been as the Imperial Music Society of the Great City of Kiev.

“Most Americans don’t know how lucky they are to have been raised in this country,” said the U.S.-born Kuchar. “The repression in the Soviet Union affected every artist and everything those artists created.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Hospitable Caledonian and the Thankless Viper

Guest Blogger Dept.: Guy Wetmore Carryl is back, with his oh-so-politically incorrect re-telling of an Aesop fable.

                                                                          
         

Guy Wetmore Carryl
A CALEDONIAN PIPER
      Who was walking on the wold
Nearly stepped upon a viper
      Rendered torpid by the cold;
By the sight of her admonished,
      He forbore to plant his boot,
But he showed he was astonished
      By the way he muttered “Hoot!”

Now this simple-minded piper
      Such a kindly nature had
That he lifted up the viper
      And bestowed her in his plaid.
“Though the Scot is stern, at least he
      No unhappy creature spurns,
‘Sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,’”
      Quoth the piper (quoting Burns).

Monday, August 14, 2017

It’s Not Dirty – It’s Art!

From the Smut Vault Dept.: Back in the early ‘90s, I made a decent amount of money writing for porn magazines under a number of different identities. For D-Cup, I was computer columnist Dr. Barry Tetons. What’s most interesting about this 22-year old piece is how fantastically dated what once was up-to-date technology has become!

                                                                                                 

SOME VISITORS ARE OBSESSED with checking medicine cabinets in other people’s houses. You and I look for the porno stash.

Christy Canyon
So it makes sense to look for the stash when you’re wandering around an online service like Compuserve. It’s been around for years, it’s huge, and there are plenty of electronic “rooms” where dirty pictures are hiding.

Keep in mind, though, that Compuserve doesn’t promote smut. If you’re rampaging through the forums calling for big tits, you’re in for the electronic cold shoulder. What’s there is art, of course, and what you’ll find are artistic figure studies. It just happens that some of those figure studies have whopping great bosoms. I’ve found old friends like Alyssa Alps and Christy Canyon, and some who became new friends very quickly.

Compuserve is the largest competitor of America Online, which we toured last month. Because Compuserve is rooted in the dull old days of character-based screens, before the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows made fancy graphics the standard, it took the Compuserve folks a while to put on as good-looking a front end as America Online sports. Now that it’s available, with a program called WinCIM, you can easily browse conferences and download images. Here’s how.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Rural Rhapsody

From the Vault Dept.: The several journeys I made back in the ‘80s to enjoy L’Ensemble performances in a Washington County barn contributed to my own move to a rural farm in 1990. Although I sometimes wish I’d taken the plunge and moved to Manhattan, it would be far less restful, even with all this lawn to mow.

                                                                              
                    

JUST AS THEY WERE ABOUT TO PLAY a piano quartet by Dvořák, violinist Barry Finclair noticed that cellist Andre Emilianoff's chair was squeaking – so he grabbed a replacement from against the wall.

Georges Enescu
An audience member in the front row observed that the crickets  outside were kicking up an even louder creak.

“I don't mind hearing the bugs,” said Finclair. “But I don't want to have to hear the chair.”

Which is what a L'Ensemble performance is all about. A very rustic setting in the heart of the Cambridge countryside where Mom Nature adds to the magic of the music.

The opening concert of this season was performed Saturday night and featured a typical L'Ensemble program: slightly eclectic and brilliantly done. When your artistic director is a soprano you can bet you'll hear songs, but Ida Faiella goes on to find worthy but not-often-encountered material, such as Charles Martin Loeffler's “Quatre Poemes,” Op. 5, written in 1904 to texts by Baudelaire and Verlaine.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Art of the Edible

“WE’RE VERY BUSY,” says Claudia Crişan, “and I’m always surprised about it.” Her modesty may be genuine, but there’s no cause for it, as she’s the force behind Crişan Bakery and Edible Art Gallery at 197 Lark Street in Albany. “We don’t do any advertising,” she explains, “so it’s nice that we’re doing so well.”

Claudia Crisan
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Well enough that, just over a year ago, she closed the café portion of the establishment in order to concentrate on the orders that pour in for specialty cakes and pastries. She and her husband, Ignatius Calabria, opened the bakery in 2008, and established the café as a place to enjoy a pastry, gelato, and coffee even while salivating over display cases of their incredible creations.

Actually, the café hasn’t vanished. It moved to the Albany Institute of History and Art, “where it’s similar to what we used to have here. And you’ll find many of our classics there, like the devil’s food cake, the porcelain cake – ” coconut, genoise – “our olive oil cake with lemon,
and a very nice carrot cake, because it was one of my obsessions to create a good carrot cake.”

As for her storefront, “we split the space in two,” she says, “so we have a tiny tasting room in front, and the back, where the cases were, is now highly air-conditioned, which is especially good for the summer.” If you’re in doubt about the cake for your wedding (or whatever function), she’s happy to meet with you in that tasting room to allow you sample your options. “And I love the weddings,” she says, “because it’s such a happy occasion for whoever’s ordering it.”

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Rite Stuff

From the Tech Vault Dept.: As CD-ROMs came into their own (over 20 years ago!), I was thrilled to see those capabilities put to use burrowing deep within some classical-music standards. Beethoven’s Ninth, of course, but then the discs I reviewed below were issued, focusing on a piece of chamber music and a game-changing orchestral warhorse. They were (and remain) great fun to explore.

                                                                                                   

WHAT’S FASCINATING ABOUT A GOOD PIECE OF MUSIC is its longevity. Not only will it stand up to repeated performance over the years, it will also sound fresh after you’ve cycled the CD player into its sixth consecutive session.

With that in mind, and taking advantage of the capacity of a CD-ROM to store both music and text, the Voyager Company recently issued two more titles in its interactive series that began with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” may never share a concert bill, but taken together they illustrate the diversity of focus this interactive format allows even as each disk pumps reams and reams of information at the interested auditor. Put together by UCLA professor Robert Winter, the accompanying material is impressively free of academic fustiness.

The “Dissonant” Quartet was written in 1785 and published as part of a set of six string quartets--for two violins, viola, and cello  – dedicated to Haydn, who pretty much formalized that instrumental structure. It earned its nickname by its use of unexpected harmonies, a shocking device that has lost much of its bite over the centuries.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Bel Canto, Bella Cantori

WHEN YOUR CAREER PASSION points you towards opera, it must be the arias of Donizetti that inspired you. He perfected bel canto, and, over the course of some 75 operas, offered plenty of compelling material. Works like “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “The Daughter of the Regiment” cemented his reputation, yet, amazingly, “The Siege of Calais,” his 49th opera, had to wait until now to get its American premiere.

Leah Crocetto and Aleks Romano
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
This is happening at The Glimmerglass Festival, where an astonishingly talented ensemble brings to life a torn-from-the-pages-of-history story of a beleaguered city driven to the brink of starvation at the start of the Hundred Years War – and the terrible bargain that could bring salvation.

Unhappy with the version that premiered in Naples in 1836, Donizetti tinkered with the piece, eliminating its ballet and shrinking it from three acts to two, but he never seems to have made peace with it and it dropped out of sight for decades. Glimmerglass Festival music director Joseph Colaneri restored it to its three-act glory (though sans ballet) and conducted the virtuoso orchestra.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Printer’s Error

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back P.G. Wodehouse – and an example of his light verse, much of which was written for Punch in the early 1900s. This one, I think, dates from the 1950s, when he again was contributing a column to the magazine. The literary organization P.E.N. was founded in 1921, which post-dates that early verse, and I’m guessing that Gerard Hoffnung’s illustration was contemporaneous. I have Americanized the punctuation.

                                                                            
                  

Drawing by Gerard Hoffnung
AS O’ER MY LATEST BOOK I pored,
Enjoying it immensely,
I suddenly exclaimed “Good Lord!”
And gripped the volume tensely.
“Golly!” I cried. I writhed in pain.
“They’ve done it on me once again!”
And furrows creased my brow.
I’d written (which I thought quite good)
“Ruth, ripening into womanhood,
Was now a girl who knocked men flat
And frequently got whistled at,”
And some vile, careless, casual gook
Had spoiled the best thing in the book
By printing “not”
(Yes, “not,” great Scott!)
When I had written “now.”

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Cel Service

From the Vault Dept.: Re-reading this after 26 years, I was astonished to find images from the movies discussed below bubbling up from the depths of my sluggish brain. That has to be a good tribute – or a neglected cerebellum.

                                                                                               

Like its long-running cousin, the International Tournee of Animation, the Animation Celebration offers a startling variety of film styles, none of them featuring live action. But it’s a collection of lighter-hearted fare.

Drawing from Bill Plympton's "Wiseman"
Cartoons from nine countries are on display ranging from traditional single-cel technique to claymation to realistic computer-generated animation. The twenty-five films include a terrific student project (“This is Not Frank’s Planet”) and works from established masters like Bruno Bozzetto (“Mr. Tao”) and Ferenc Cako (“Zeno Reads a Newspaper”).

If the animators have any common thread to their comic vision, it’s an obsession with the human body. What starts out looking like an animated remake of an old Ernie Kovacs television routine in John Schnall’s “Reading Room” turns into a splendid use of anamorphic exaggeration.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Tangle of Roots

From the Recent Past Dept.: Revisiting a highlight of this year’s concertgoing – David Bromberg at the Cohoes Music Hall, with Austin Shaw’s terrific opening set.

                                                                                
              

AMERICAN ROOTS MUSIC, as we now term that ferocious confluence of old, weird songs, has had a longtime exponent in David Bromberg, not only as a guitarist and singer but also as one who has penned many a song with that been-singin’-it-for-years flavor.

Suavek Zaniesienko and David Bromberg in Cohoes
Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk
“Diamond Lil,” is an example. It dates at least back to Bromberg’s second LP, released in 1972. “Go ahead and drink your whiskey,” it begins. “Run around and stay high all the time. It's your body and your soul – you save yours and I'll save mine,” then going into an enigmatic refrain that chants “A man should never gamble / More than he can stand to lose.”

The sentiment seems both novel and familiar, which is one secret of the power of the blues. Studies of classic blues songs have found lyric elements that attach themselves to song after song, plucked, as it seems, from the blues-tinted air. Thus, you “woke up this morning” in some manner of distress, typically associated with a now-vanished bedmate.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What's in a Name?

From the Vault Dept.: Dipping back into the Metroland archives, I found another of the utility pieces I cranked out so steadily. This is from 1984. Amazing what they let me get away with.

                                                                                                

THE NAME MUST HAVE SOMETHING to do with it. How many guys named Beethoven do you know? You associate it with music, that name, just as Shakespeare is the fellow who wrote those plays. (There was a Bill Shakespeare who played in the Ray Noble Orchestra during the ‘30s, but I’m convinced that he kept the name so he could have fun with phone operators and the like.)

Ruth Laredo
Photo by Christian Steiner
Beethoven’s achievements were so phenomenal that he has been given a godlike status in the classical music world, which in some ways is a shame. You lose sight of the Beethoven who hung around the streets of Vienna; the Beethoven who partied, who hustled concerts, who wrote mash notes to his attractive female students.

His music never will let you down – even his garbage is interesting – so it would be a shame to let snobby canonization of the man drive you away. Here, then, is all you need to know about him – at least to get you started.

He was born in Bonn in 1770. His dad was a musician at the court of a local prince, where young Ludwig got his first gigs as an organist. When he was 17, Beethoven played for Mozart, who was impressed: “Keep an eye on him,” the older composer told whomever it was who writes down such things. “He will make a noise some day.”

Monday, July 24, 2017

Notable Notation

From the Computer Vault Dept.: I learned music engraving in the pre-computer days when you needed compass and ruler and an excellent lettering hand. So I was happy to be invited to beta-test a computer-based engraving program, a massive, ambitious beast called Finale. I spent hours going through its tutorial and then throwing different challenges at the program, so I was well placed to write about the program after it was released in 1988. Below is my piece about Finale 1.1, which amusingly compares it to the long-defunct DTP program Ventura Publisher. My review of Finale 2.0 is here. The program has seen many an upgrade since, and there’s information about it here. And Coda Music is now MakeMusic, Inc., in Boulder, Colorado.

                                                                            
                                

FINALE COULD BE TO MUSIC ENGRAVING what Ventura Publisher is to writing. It’s designed for a much more specialized audience, true, but music copyists have a more demanding task even than typesetters.

Screenshot from Version 2.0. It's the earliest
version I could find for a graphic.
And, while Ventura is the program of choice for many desktop publishers, it’s not the only worthy runner in the field. Finale is also one of many available programs, but it happens to pack enough power to satisfy – and delight – many users.

The job of putting notes on paper has rules that require a knowledge of rhythm and harmony along with the mechanics of page design. It’s so specialized and ultimately subjective that there’s an art to effective engraving.

Satisfying the mechanics is easy with Finale – once you’ve gotten the hang of a challenging program. Using its MIDI interface, you can go from keyboard to page pretty quickly and enjoy acceptable output.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cuban Treat

From the Pantry Dept.: Enjoy this recent piece about Carmen’s Café in Troy, NY – but, even better, enjoy a meal there soon. As an update to this piece, Carmen and Jim were just married.

                                                                                          

WHEN CARMEN’S CAFÉ opened in 2005, it had a happy, haphazard look. A diner counter, a handful of tables, arresting artwork on the walls. The Cuban-inspired food was fairly simple, with a pork-and-pickles sandwich, the Cubano, a star of the lunches.

Carmen Gonzalez
Now that counter is made from carved slabs of ailanthus and there is flooring of birch and cherry and cedar, the handiwork of Jim Lewis of Springwood Studios. But only because he insisted.

The restaurant closed abruptly in 2009, after owner Carmen Gonzalez leased it to a chef who wasn’t able to keep up with the business and fled. “Jim and I were on a vacation,” says Carmen. “We came back and found the place closed. I said to Jim, ‘Let’s patch up the place and sell it,’ and he said, ‘No. We’re going to fix it up and make it an amazing place. It took six months to renovate, and we reopened in 2010.”

It looked charming in its original incarnation, “but now it’s really pretty. Jim did the renovations. It was a complete gut. We did the electrical, we did the plumbing – we did everything. We had a hard time getting people back, but we plugged away at it and we made it work.”

Friday, July 21, 2017

Rise Up Singing

WHEN MUSIC DIRECTOR John DeMain conducted “Porgy and Bess” for Houston Grand Opera in 1976, he presented it in a form as close to its operatic original as could be managed, and in doing so helped right a terrible injustice that had been done to the piece. It was the first major production in a quarter-century, and even before then, poor “Porgy” had been tampered with severely.

Justin Austin and Musa Ngqungwana
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Houston production reminded us that George Gershwin had produced a masterpiece, as deserving of a seat in opera’s pantheon as are his musicals entitled to their esteem in theatrical history. And, despite what Diane Paulus would have us believe with her recent Broadway production, the work is an opera, and was written on opera’s grand canvas with the emotional artillery of aria and recitative.

This is brilliantly proven by the Glimmerglass Festival production – the orchestra conducted, appropriately, masterfully, by DeMain – as a top-notch cast brings Catfish Row to life with a sense of honesty and urgency that reminds us of theater’s power to make the artificial seem all too real.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Gastronomic Guile of Simple Simon

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back Guy Wetmore Carryl, light versifier extraordinaire, with a selection from Mother Goose for Grown-Ups.
                                                                     

"Now Simon’s taste was most profuse"
Drawing by Peter Newell
Conveniently near to where
    Young Simple Simon dwelt
There was to be a county fair,
    And Simple Simon felt
That to the fair he ought to go
In all his Sunday clothes, and so,
Determined to behold the show,
    He put them on and went.
(One-half his clothes was borrowed and the other half was lent.)

He heard afar the cheerful sound
    Of horns that people blew,
Saw wooden horses swing around
    A circle, two and two,
Beheld balloons arise, and if
He scented with a gentle sniff
The smells of pies, what is the dif-
    Ference to me or you?
(You cannot say my verse is false, because I know it's true.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Raw Story

What a Carve-Up! Dept.: Here’s another restaurant review from my brief stint covering such places for The Alt.

                                                                            


THE TRUE DEATH OF CIVILIZATION began when food handlers in restaurants were forced to wear plastic gloves. There’s no question that the unclean walk among us and occasionally get their mitts on our grub, but this was yet another example of fear outstripping reason, with the consequence that a vital tactile component of professional cooking was proscribed. And it may be no more deeply realized than at the sushi-assembly level.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
A serving of nigiri-sushi is a well-chosen, carefully sized strip of seafood laid across a base of vinegar-piquant rice, and there’s a legend that the finest sushi chefs are able to form that rice so deftly that each and every grain is parallel to its neighbor. How can you do that with gloves on? And I won’t even go into our obsessive de-bacteria-izing of ourselves, except to note that it’s gone too far.

One of the beauties (and there are many) about Unagi Sushi, Troy’s four-month-old, much-needed eatery, is the pristine look of its fish, on display behind the counter at which you’re invited to sit. That right there wins my trust.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Hitting the High Notes

KINGSLEY AMIS’S 1976 NOVEL The Alteration imagined a world in which the Reformation never occurred, setting the stage for a boy’s struggle to remain intact as forces within the church seek to maintain his glorious soprano. It was such an obsession, this voice quality, that in the early 18th century there were thousands of boys being thus altered. And in the midst of it all, glorious operas were being written for the best of these singers.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The voice was needed once the Vatican forbid women from singing in church choirs, a ban that went into effect in the 16th century, and the voice was prized for a clarity of tone combined with the vocal strength such singers developed.

By the early 18th century, the London-based George Frederic Handel was at a peak of fame. His opera output was tremendous, with some 40 such pieces to his name. “Xerxes,” first performed in 1738, featured four high voices in its tale of misplaced love and mistaken identity, the title role intended for one of the soprano castrati the composer worked with.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Whose Land Is It, Anyway?

Woody’n You Dept.: Here’s a review of a recent performance by members of the Albany Symphony, performing a very welcome piece by their friend Michael Daugherty.

                                                                                   

WE WERE TEASED with a snippet of Woody Guthrie singing his anthemic “This Land Is Your Land,” and the concert’s first half finished with composer Michael Daugherty’s instrumental meditation on the song, a tune that he noted had pre-Woody identities as the Baptist hymn “O My Loving Brother” and the Carter Family’s “When the World Is on Fire.” That’s how a folksong evolves, and Daugherty’s variations found a place for fiddle and washboard effects, for a three-quarter-time dance, even for a reprise of a melody from an earlier number.

Michael Daugherty
“This Land Sings” is Daugherty’s multi-movement meditation on Guthrie’s life and legacy, and it received its second-ever performance with members of the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller during last week’s American Music Festival. Although there were plenty of recognizeable elements, Daugherty’s own voice was woven throughout, a reminder that intelligently and skilfully synthesizing surrounding sounds into a more formal setting used to be the job of what’s (insufficiently) termed “classical” music.

In truth, there’s no label that easily fits Daugherty’s creation. He describes it as a radio show – he served as announcer – and that’s a good conceit for the work’s aural theatricality. Biographical snippets introduced each of the 16 selections, and  the opener set the tone for what was to come.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Blowing in the Wind

“WHY DON’T YOU WRITE a piece about all kinds of prostitution – the press, the church, the courts, the arts, the whole system?” This was Bertolt Brecht’s reaction when Marc Blitzstein played for him a song titled “Nickel under the Foot,” a streetwalker’s lament, that Blitzstein had written as part of an unproduced sketch. This was in1936, when the American labor scene was about to undergo its most visible transformation, and Blitzstein was at its artistic center, bringing an awareness of history, a social conscience, and an immense talent to bear upon his ill-fated musical “The Cradle Will Rock.”

John Tibbetts and Scott Purcell
Photo by Gary David Gold
Blitzstein did exactly as Brecht suggested, finishing the piece in five weeks. It was true to its time. It was prescient. At the very end of 1936, workers at the Fisher body plant in Flint, Michigan, staged a sit-down strike that would lead, six weeks later, to the affirmation of the United Auto Workers to bargain for the strikers. It made national headlines.

While occupying the factory, the workers put together their own band and sang songs old and new. One of the new ones, “Sit Down,” is quoted in “The Cradle Will Rock,” along with folksongs like “Go in and out the Window,” the Yale fight song, Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, and even a Bach chorale. Believing in the power of theater to influence middle-class thinking, Blitzstein fashioned a giddy polemic that tears into capitalist greed with a Depression-era perspective, but in a tuneful, witty way. So appropriate was it for its time that the Federal Works Progress Administration, spooked by right-wing threats, shut it down just before its opening night.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Cinematic Classics

From the Vault Dept.: Speaking of music and movies (as was the case yesterday), here’s a trip down the memory aisle, to one of my earliest pieces for Metroland Magazine.

                                                                                           

IN A SHREWD PROGRAMMING MOVE, the new Crossgates Cinema 10 movie complex opened last weekend with three MGM chestnuts: “Gone With the Wind,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I saw 2001 a decade and a half ago, in its initial distribution, and was very frustrated by its ambiguities; since then, I’ve caught it a few more times, each time persuading me to enjoy it more. Last Sunday I went to see it with an eye (and an ear) toward discovering how director Stanley Kubrick’s inter-planetary vision has stood the test of what time has passed – and I came away most impressed with the endurance of the music he chose.

First of all, it was an ideal setting: “2001" in 70mm stereo is an audio-visual orgy, and Crossgates is equipped to project it as such. As you recall, the movie begins and ends with the first two minutes of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which inspired it to become the theme song for every half-assed automobile ad and basketball game during the ’70s. Still, it was an inspired choice.