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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

All-American Whirl

From the Classical Vault Dept.: The Albany Symphony just finished this year’s American Music Festival (I’ll post reviews later), and is about to embark (literally) on a tour of the Erie Canal, which, these days, is the Mohawk River, fitted with locks to accommodate such passage. Each of the canalside concerts they’ll perform features Handel’s “Water Music” alongside music by living composers written in celebration of the event. Here’s a schedule and info. The ASO has been doing this kind of thing for quite some time, and here’s a piece I wrote in 1999 that looks at what was happening then.


WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE classical piece? Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”? Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata? Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot”?

David Alan Miller
If you haven’t got the last-named on your list, a pair of weekend concerts might revise your thinking. And, for the dozens of students who play in the bands at Guilderland and Tamarac High Schools, the concerts will affirm what they’ve been learning from the Common Sense Composers’ Collective: Good music resists categorization.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra kicks off a two-week American Music Festival at 7:30 PM tomorrow (Friday) with a Bandjam Concert at the Guilderland High School. In the spirit of the classic battles of the bands, ensembles from the Guilderland and Tamarac schools will premiere variations on “Zoot Suit Riot,” a theme chosen by the students for their work with the eight composers who comprise the Common Sense Collective.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Family Spirit

IT MAKES SENSE that Mouzon House would have a resident ghost. The apparition is described as mischievous but kind, a spirit who is heard to rearrange the furniture upstairs. And that fits in with the spirit of rebellion that informs the history of the building, a handsome structure bought by the eponymous family in 1919, when Ardel Mouzon-McCoy, a Cherokee Indian, took possession of the place. She married a dark-skinned man of Creole descent, and her daughter, Mia, was said to be the first “woman of color” to graduate from nearby Skidmore. The house became the target of Saratoga’s relentless pursuit of raze and rebuild during the 1970s and 80s, but Mia refused to sell even as the rest of the Spring Valley neighborhood disappeared.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
When she sold, she sold to Dianne and David Pedinotti, who had opened One Caroline Street Bistro a decade earlier. “We don’t actually own the Caroline Street building,” David told me, “so we thought it would be a good idea to have one that we do.”

He describes the menu of the earlier eatery as “that of an Italian family living in New Orleans. Mouzon House is a house in France, or a French family in New Orleans.”

There’s a French Quarter quaintness about the house, which was built in 1883. The brick structure has a pair of covered porches, one of which sports the bar and a playing area for musicians; there also is a row of tables in the open air. The rooms within the house have been converted to discrete dining areas; an easy-to-look-into kitchen sits behind the bar area.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Happiest Corpse

WHEN “CABARET” OPENED ON BROADWAY a half-century ago, it was the edgy exception to a lineup of musicals that included “Mame,” “Sweet Charity,” the sentimental two-hander “I Do! I Do!” and “Cabaret” director Harold Prince’s previous, unsuccessful production of “It’s a Bird ... It’s a Plane ... It’s Superman.”

Although we’re now farther time-removed from 1966's “Cabaret” than it was from its setting in 1930 Berlin, the show’s message remains as relevant as ever. And it has struck a chord with audiences through the years: Its original run lasted nearly 1200 performances; the 1998 Broadway revival had almost twice as many shows.

The production that visited Proctors in Schenectady last week is based on the 2014 revival of the 1998 version, itself an import from a 1993 London revival by Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Violin Variations

THE LAST PIECE I’D EXPECT TO SEE first on the program is Beethoven’s first violin sonata. In fact, I’m surprised to see this runt of litter anywhere, overshadowed as it is by the composer’s later works for the same instrumentation. It’s an example of Beethoven’s Mozartean roots, but it’s still Beethoven, and Anne Akiko Meyers mined it for its surprise and intensity.

Anne Akiko Meyers
Which was a harbinger of her approach to the works that followed. Her fascinating programming array otherwise was rooted in the 20th and 21st centuries, including pieces written at her behest.

Beethoven’s first sonata emerged from a tradition of letting the piano grudgingly share some of its sound world with the violin, although by the time he got hold of the form the partnership was gaining equality. The opening phrase features arpeggios that sound at home on both instruments, but the first movement’s exposition culminates in a chord-rich call-and-response that asserts the violin’s own identity – the more so because Meyers gave it no unwonted sentiment, even roughening the edges of the notes at times.

This was an effective contrast – and Beethoven’s music is all about contrast – with pianist Akira Eguchi’s role as a nimble virtuoso almost daring his music partner to keep up with his fleet-fingered fun.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Perreca’s: More and More

From the Food Vault Dept.: I profiled Perreca’s bakery in a 1987 issue of Capital Region magazine, at which point I’d already been convinced that they made the finest Italian loaves to be had anywhere. This opinion hasn’t changed. I was delighted to see a restaurant appear as a bakery offshoot, and reviewed it in a 2010 issue of Metroland. But one of the hazards of the one-unannounced-visit approach is that you can catch a place at a bad moment that doesn’t reflect its true nature. I tried to draw attention to a problem without being overly negative, because I found plenty to enjoy about the place. But read to the end for more.


A POSTER ON THE WALL of More Perreca’s reproduces an article about Jack Nicholson’s discovery of Perreca’s bread while he was in Albany filming “Ironweed,” and the lengths to which he’d go to keep supplied. What never got chronicled (so you’re reading it here first) is that his onetime co-star Kathleen Turner also became a big fan of the stuff.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This was when a longtime friend of mine named Christine worked as a personal assistant for Turner, and took a couple of Perreca’s loaves back to Manhattan after a visit here. From then on, as long as Christine was in her employ, she was under orders to do the same after every such excursion. I even recall a time when I put a couple of loaves on a bus to the Port Authority Terminal, where Christine retrieved them.

Perreca’s bakery has been operating for nearly a century, turning out one thing only: bread. Dense, crusty loaves of Italian bread that have defined the way this bread should break and taste. The small North Jay St. shop offers a small selection of deli-type goods, including pizza slices, and the recently added cupcakes also have been a success. So it stood to reason that, as Schenectady’s Little Italy takes shape, they should add a restaurant.

But that’s almost too intimidating a word for what’s there. It’s like an outdoor café brought inside, airy and casual and with an engagingly retro feel – and there are a couple of sidewalk tables, too.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tales of Schumann

ROBERT SCHUMANN’S MENTAL VOLATILITY worked its way into the music he wrote not in a stormy Wagnerian way but as something that agitated in the heart of his romantic-era voice. His piano works erupt in storms of thick harmony, then lay back for the sparest of melodic sighs. His Fantasie in C, Op. 17, seems sometimes to boil with rage, even as that rage shimmers into exultation. Release yourself to the music and you’re buffeted along an emotional switchback that leaves you, as the final section eases to its end, drained and yet hopeful.

How extreme should those extremes be rendered? If pianist Mitsuko Uchida’s recent Schenectady performance is any guide, they can be contained within a context that never punishes the keyboard, and is all the more effective for that restraint. We’re asked to listen with 19th-century ears, and, once we surrender to that restraint, we enjoy an intensity of feeling rendered all the more intense by the claustrophobia of it.

Uchida performed as part of the Union College Concert Series, and she has reputation enough to inspire a long line of restive patrons to start forming an hour before the show, just filling the hall before it started.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Hops Do It

ONE OF THE STORAGE SHEDS on my Montgomery County farm property sports a side room finished with lath and plaster, which usually is only found in old houses. A savvy neighbor explained that it was a hops drying room, the legacy of an industry that once dominated this and several neighboring counties, and then died out with nary a trace.

Photo by Dietrich Gehring
Hops were probably an ingredient in Babylonian beer, and the Romans used them as a vegetable, in which guise they arrived in Britain. But the only edible portion is the young shoot, which requires so much effort to harvest that it counts among the priciest of nibbles. The earliest written reference to hops as a beer component dates from 1079.

Hops were shipped to New World settlers until 1640, when colonists began growing their own. New York’s first romance with hops began at the beginning of the 19th century, and by the time the Erie Canal opened, the crop was fetching $1,000 per ton. By 1855, three million tons were harvested; by the end of the century, 40,000 acres of hops were being grown in the state, with a harvest of 60 million tons, some of it grown on my property and dried in my barn.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Traveling with The Phoenicians

THE PHOENICIANS RESTAURANT opened in 2007 in an unassuming building on Albany’s Central Ave., not far from Fuller Road. Business has increased enough during the past decade that owner Robert Rahal dreamed of moving – and found a spot in a Fuller Road strip mall. “We opened there on Black Friday,” says Rahal, “November 25 of last year. But I’d been working for 725 days to get into this space. Working non-stop. Believe me, it’s been a project of love.”

Robert Rahal and Joe Marino
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
He has traded 800 square feet for a space well over ten times larger. If you visited during its Deli Warehouse days, you won’t recognize it: it’s been transformed into an array of differently functioning spaces. There’s a bar to your left as you enter; before you are few tables in a casual dining area. The formal dining room is to the right, and it’s flanked by a private dining room and a hookah lounge with couches and pillows. “I’ve been doing a lot of the work myself,” Rahal explains, “to make sure I get the place the way I want it to be.” 

But there’s even more. A deli section is being developed, and a banquet hall will be opened later in the year. There’s also a space near the front of the building that brings it full-circle, in a way: This is his jewelry store, which is the business with which he first greeted Albany. Robert’s Fine Jewelry also had a Central Avenue storefront; now they will be combined.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Out in the Cold

A YOUNG MAN, spurned by his beloved, sets off on foot across a chilly winter landscape, exploring a range of volatile emotions as he surveys the countryside. Dogs bark at him as he halts by them; a cemetery casts an inviting spell. These are elements of Wilhelm Müller’s “Die Winterreise,” a cycle of poems set to music by Franz Schubert in 1828.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Tenor Ian Bostridge, a frequent “Winterreise” performer, combined personal impressions of the work with an insightful historical and philosophical overview in his book Schubert’s Winter Journey, wherein he notes that it’s “Odd ... perhaps, that we always give the cycle in a warm hall, that we never feel the cold or live in the silence of the snowy landscape. How often do the audience really imagine it? Should it be part of the recipe?”

We got the answers on Saturday, Feb. 11, when baritone Christopher Herbert gave a brilliant performance of “Winterreise” in Saratoga’s Spa State Park – outdoors, in the snow, clad in duffel coat, boots, and watch cap.

Monday, February 13, 2017

All in the Family

A BEAUTIFULLY ACTED, cracklingly funny study of some of the indignities of dating had its world premiere at The REP last week, shrewdly melding two disparate demographics through a story that probably plays out in one form or another in many a family: the search for love after the death of a longtime partner.

Sol Katz (played with irascible cheerfulness by Barry Pearl) isn’t so busy mourning his just-deceased wife that he hasn’t time to ramp up a romance with bridge partner and longtime friend Edie (Cheryl Stern) – to the horror of his son David (Brian Sills), who deftly undermines the relationship.

Bob Morris, who has written often for the NY Times Sunday Styles section among many other publications, captured this autobiographical story in his memoir Assisted Loving; adapting it for the stage has given him the opportunity to broaden characterizations beyond the confines that memoir imposes, inviting us on a two-hour journey through some difficult and compelling character developments.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Happy Heifetz Birthday

THE FANTASTIC FOOLISHNESS of Groundhog Day has been worsened for me since my early teens, when I fell under the spell of violinist Jascha Heifetz and soon realized that my coevals didn’t know who he was and had little interest in sharing my enthusiasm – and chattered each February 2 about a rodent in Pennsylvania.

Heifetz was born in Vilna, Lithuania, on this date in 1901 (some say 1900), studied in St. Petersburg with the renowned Leopold Auer, from whose school enough famous violinists emerged to prompt George Gershwin (a Heifetz friend) to write a song in 1921 titled “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha,” a tribute to the renown of Elman, Heifetz, Seidel, and Jacobsen. Heifetz made his American debut in 1917, became a citizen of this country soon thereafter, and concertized and recorded into his early 70s, when he decided he couldn’t maintain his own high standards.

He shares a birthday with Fritz Kreisler, another extraordinary fiddler, but my household celebrates the Kreisler birthday on February 1. In lieu of cake, I offer a morceau by Mozart:

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Walled Off

Oh, No, Not Poetry! Dept.: One of the most unique theatrical/musical events I’ve ever been involved with takes place (as of this writing) quite soon, when Musicians of Ma’alwyck join forces with Nacre, a Saratoga Springs-based dance troupe, and Creative License, an Albany theatrical company, to present a program titled “Suite of Love” at 7:30 pm Sat., Feb. 11 at the Cohoes (NY) Music Hall and at 2 pm Sun., Feb. 12, at Schenectady County Community College. A dozen musical works ranging from Henry Purcell to Cole Porter will be performed by a trio of flute, violin, and guitar (my arrangement for them of “Night and Day” contains an obscure musical surprise) between scenes of narrative verse performed by a quartet of actors, myself among them. And there is an impressive variety of dance to the words and music and even moments of stillness. I also crafted the texts for this event, which look at a variety of the manifestations of love and its exciting offshoots, and offer below one of the more overtly political poems.

I EMIGRATE towards your heart
But you Ellis Island me with suspicion.
Do I look like you? I don’t.
Does it matter?

It matters to me, says your eye –
Which, as a child, saw beauty alone
But since has been carefully taught
That beauty resembles your twin.
No touch of the tarbrush,
No renegade blood.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Post as Romantic

PROKOFIEV’S FIRST PIANO SONATA is over a hundred years old; he finished his ninth and last in 1947. There hasn’t been a time more tumultuous in music before or since that period, yet he rode through it with his Romantic banner held high. Being Prokofiev, however, he redefined musical romanticism, and his piano sonatas exemplify this progress.

I’m hoping that Alexander Melnikov’s recording of three of those sonatas is the harbinger of more. This Russian-born pianist (a Richter protégée) made his mark with a recording of Shostakovich’s formidable Preludes and Fugues a few years ago, offering performances both electrifying and unifying, letting the composer’s distinctive voice shine in these Bach-homage settings.

That’s also what sets this Prokofiev recording apart from the pack. If you’re looking for music that’s relentlessly pleasant, don’t look here. The sonatas give an illusion of accessibility, but even at their most melodic, those melodies are in service to an architecture of unease.

The composer’s life was bracketed by wars. He exiled himself to Paris between them, but returned to his homeland as it entered its most repressive phase. This is the story being told in the Sonata No. 6, which was finished in 1940. He began work simultaneously on the ten movements that would comprise the sonatas 6, 7, and 8, eventually concentrating on the four for number 6 – and it’s one of the most difficult and disconcerting works in the piano repertory.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

On the Other Hand

Given the Choice Dept.: When The Alt debuted in New York’s Capital Region last November, I wrote the piece below to celebrate the concept of culinary alternatives.


WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE when your larder isn’t yielding what the recipe demands? We’re familiar with some of the common ones: use white sugar and molasses in place of brown sugar, try yogurt in place of mayonnaise, add a little vinegar to some tomato sauce in place of ketchup – although if you’re running out of ketchup before the tomato sauce is gone, then your diet may need more than this article for help.

Such tips, once buried in the end pages of books like The Joy of Cooking, are now at the easy other end of an online search. But what’s the alternative when you just don’t want to eat a particular item? It’s a more subjective path, but it’s a path that opens new culinary vistas.

For example: You need protein, and you want to turn to the garden for more of it. The leading candidate: Kale. It’s way up there on the green-leafy protein scale, with 2.9 grams of protein in one cup (67 grams) of the chopped-up stuff. The only drawback is that kale is vile, a tough tangle of stems and resistance that probably costs you a gram or more of that protein in chewing alone. The alternative: Arugula. Although it contains only 0.6 grams of protein per cup, a cup of arugula weighs only 10 grams. On an equal-weight basis with kale, 67 grams of arugula contains 4.2 grams of protein, and a mere 6 calories versus kale’s 33. Of course, that’s a hell of a lot of arugula to chew through, and it needs dressing, so there go your calories.