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Friday, December 29, 2017

Nina

Here's a peek -- shot during a very casual rehearsal -- at what'll be on tap when Malcolm Kogut and I bring our cabaret show to Steamer No. 10 Theatre (500 Western Ave., Albany, NY) at 7 PM on New Year's Eve.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Good Sports

From the Food Vault Dept.: It’s nice to report that Maggie’s Café and Sports Grill is still going strong. It’s not a place I’d visit regularly – I have trouble when so many TV screens surround me – but I paid a pleasant visit a decade ago, as the report below attests.

                                                                                             

AS THE COWBOYS AND THE PACKERS TOOK to the field, a roar went up from the throng. “I can’t believe how many people are here tonight,” said Maggie Smith, whose eponymous café recently reopened, after a ten-month hiatus, as a sports pub. “This is my busiest night in a long time!”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Formerly an Italian restaurant, Maggie’s suffered a fire last November – “Just as I was about to do all my Christmas parties,” she laments – and had to undergo extensive renovations. During this period, she decided to change the style of the place.

“People don’t want to pay too much for food,” she reasons. “Not with gas prices and other expenses being what they are.” And so she changed the layout, the look, the menu. All pretense of fanciness was dropped, pub fare moved to the fore, and TVs went in. Lots of them. Eighteen jumbo-sized high-definition screens, surrounding you with a numbing area of visuals and sound, typically tuned to any number of simultaneous sporting events.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Staying on Your Toes

From the Vault Dept.: This year, the Albany Berkshire Ballet gave its 43rd annual tour of “The Nutcracker,” which played at The Egg in Albany on Dec. 9 and had performances as far afield as Pittsfield and Springfield, Mass., and Burlington, Vermont. Here’s my review of what came to Proctors in Schenectady 30 years ago.

                                                                         
           

ISN'T IT ASTONISHING how far-fetched a plot can be and still convey a spirit of Christmas? “The Nutcracker” is downright absurd, wandering as it does through fantasy into sci-fi, going from simple anthropomorphism into a snowbound ethnic pageant.

A more recent "Nutcracker" photo
from Albany Berkshire Ballet
Yet there’s magic in the ballet yet, as was evidenced by the Berkshire Ballet’s production yesterday afternoon (and evening) at Proctor’s Theatre. Princes and queens, fairies and angels and a swarm of children took to the stage to present the tale of the little girl who saves her Christmas nutcracker from destruction by a horde of angry mice – and is rewarded by a trip to the Kingdom of Sweets.

Ashley White danced the part of young Clara for the matinee with laudable grace; she played the part of the holiday-happy kid with no affectation, and did the most difficult part – watching the Act Two progression of fancy dances – with perfect aplomb.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Magic Baton

ARTURO TOSCANINI WAS BORN IN 1867, and this sesquicentennial year has been marked by events that include a significant new biography by Harvey Sachs, a number of reissues of Toscanini recordings, and a tribute by conductor Steven Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble/New York.

Given Toscanini’s significant reputation on the podium – and its recorded evidence – this was a rather brazen action. Richman has his own praiseworthy recording legacy, with repertory ranging from Gershwin and Grofé to Stravinsky and Copland; “Toscanini 150th Anniversary” (Bridge Records) features some of Toscanini’s less-frequently programmed works, all of them in the pops-concert realm.

The point of it is not to re-create Toscanini performances, and there really is no need to compare. Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble do excellent work here. And the game of comparison is throttled from the start, because the disc starts off with Verdi’s “Aida” overture, which isn’t what you typically hear in front of that opera. As Sachs’s liner notes point out, Verdi discarded this overture in favor of the originally written prelude that endures as the opening, but Toscanini was able to recreate this unpublished work from memory for a single performance – 14 years after a study session of a score lent by Verdi’s heirs. Not surprisingly, it’s a stirring work, and I can’t help but think of Toscanini as I hear the forceful attacks and exciting dynamic contrasts Richman achieves. So much for not comparing!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Stompin’ at the Savoy

From the Recent Past Dept.: Here’s a recent look at the current occupant of a key Lark Street space that helps give Albany what little reputation for hipness it might enjoy.

                                                                                        

IT WAS A TRIP BACK IN TIME, but with more of a hipster look. My wife and I visited the year-old Savoy Taproom on Albany’s Lark Street one weeknight last week, for which we parked in the nearby park and strolled the neighborhood where our decades-ago courtship took place. And once again we threaded our way past the busy bar to the dining-room entryway, where we were seated at one of the dozen tables that ring the small room.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s the old Justin’s all over again. Yet it isn’t. As co-owner Jason Pierce explained, one of his goals “was to create an atmosphere in which people of all ages and from all walks of life could come in and enjoy a drink and conversation and music and have a plain old good time.”

He partnered with Lark Street Business Improvement District chairman Dan Atkins to open the place. Atkins has been in the restaurant business all his life: “I used to be general manager of the Brown Derby, and I’ve been in kitchens since I was nine.” He echoes Pierce’s thought, saying, “You can come in in work boots or in your suit – there’s something for everybody. We get a nice, diverse crowd, and brunch has done well – we get a lot of families. We had to buy highchairs, which is something we’d never thought of, but we were happy to do that.”

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sing Hallelujah!

Where Was I Again? Dept.: Not far from this piece in my files was another holiday event I took in three decades ago. And how much less misanthropic I sound here than in this recently written screed!

                                                                                           

WE GET SO ACCUSTOMED to Proctor’s Theatre as the sort of area uncle of show business, introducing us to talented friends, that it’s a surprise to be reminded of the theater’s own production ability.

Allen Mills
A few times a year, almost shyly, the theater sponsors its own show, but its Christmas bash tops them all. And this year, the fourth such, it topped anything that has come before. We could get used to this sort of thing.

“The Christmas Show” – they dropped the “Old-Fashioned” from the name this year – brings together a roster of local talent that covers most of the entertainment bases. There’s the Mighty Wurlitzer, of course, under the deft hands of Allen Mills; but add to that a couple of choruses, dancers galore, and scenery and effects aplenty.

Under the direction of Maria Bryce, this edition of what ought to be an annual event at least until the second coming took the best of what we saw a year ago and improved it. Making full use of the stage certainly helps. As if to flex their muscles right at the start, the crew gave us a village street complete with the Mohawk Valley Chorus, overcoated and scarved, singing “White Christmas” under a snowfall.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Winter Lights

IT’S BRUTALLY COLD TODAY, with a wind that crisps the edges of the cold air and chases it up your trousers. I’m in a coffeeshop – a food co-op, actually – working in the pleasant coffee-consumption area even as my ankles grow numb. The front doors are whistling. When customers enter, they’re hunched and red-faced, gripping their collars. A light snowfall blows at a forty-five degree angle.

Such weather works alongside the commercial pressures of holiday ads and music to never let us forget that Christmas approaches. There may have been a time when this holiday offered a pleasant distraction from the weather’s changes; now it seems to be an additional burden.

I recently acquired a $20 laser gadget that shines a merry dance of green and red pinpoint lights against whatever you wish to thus illuminate. Having long wished to drape Christmas lights over a large pine tree that adjoins my house, but lacking the resources to bring in a cherry-picker to facilitate the task, I aimed the gadget at the tree and was rewarded with a light show somewhat approaching the result I desired. It delights my wife. Can’t ask for more.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Mankind Was My Business

Where Was I? Dept.: Looking back thirty years, I was reviewing my butt off. Here’s one example, one of the many productions of this piece I’ve seen, which doesn’t count the productions I’ve been in, including several teen years playing Marley’s Ghost, lifting my characterization wholesale from Michael Hordern. Matt Kamprath made a career out of playing Scrooge – the accompanying photo is very recent.

                                                                                        

THE NEBRASKA THEATRE CARAVAN’S highly literate version of “A Christmas Carol” filled the house at Proctor’s Theatre Thursday night as the saga of stingy Scrooge was given a Currier & Ives look and a top-notch performance.

Matt Kamprath as Scrooge and Sarah Kloster as the
Ghost of Christmas Past | Photo by Christian Robertson
Charles Jones’s adaptation made generous use of the Dickens original as we moved from street to countinghouse to bedchamber; the familiar lines of the opening narrative were given to some of the merchants of the town even as they set a holiday mood with traditional songs of the season, songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Wassail.”

The few pieces of set turned or were flown to create scene after scene; combined with authentically detailed costumes and an imaginative lighting design, there was a film-like feel to the flow of action, very appropriate to this dreamlike story.

Matt Kamprath played Scrooge with a good portion of wit sprinkled over the nastiness, enough to make us believe that the man truly was redeemable. Short of stature, with a nasal Lionel Barrymore voice, he pranced around in nightshirt and cap with the energy of a dozen Gilbert & Sullivan patter song men.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Cursive Curse

IT WAS A BIRTHDAY GREETING for my wife, many years ago. A gift, lavishly wrapped (for me, the introduction of scotch tape into the wrapping process makes it lavish), with a handwritten letter detailing my adoration. “I love the present!” she cried, tearing the paper off the whatever-it-was. “And a letter!” She peered hopefully at the page, then lowered it. “But I can’t read it.”

The author with his Smith-Corona, c. 1975
Not many can make sense of my scrawl, which isn’t surprising: I never learned to write. In other respects, I was a precocious little bastard, a fluent enough reader by kindergarten that I was invited to read to the other kids at the end of the day while the teacher cleaned up. In first grade, when we were split into learning-to-read groups, I was given one of them to instruct. Needless to say, my classmates despised me.

We are speaking of a time in the dim, pre-computer past, when a number-two pencil was a needed companion and the taking of classroom notes required not only a written approximation of the teacher’s talk but also a sequence of margin-busting doodles, visiting ever-greater horrors upon the cruelly rendered teacher as that talk droned on and on.

During the opening weeks of second grade, it was decided to skip me to third. Friendless as I was, I hoped for a fresh chance with these fresh faces – but I was an interloper. In the long run, I was ruined both socially and academically, and it started with penmanship.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Yates of Heaven

From the Food Vault Dept.: Thirty years ago I decided to pack it in as a restaurant reviewer. I’d done it for two years and the grind had worn me down. I took a two-year respite and was begged to resume – which I would do for another quarter-century. That’s a lot of pasta. Here’s my penultimate piece before that break, visiting an eatery that won a great reputation, closed after a couple of years, re-opened briefly as The Pasta Factory, and then gave way to an intermittent succession of bars, more suited to the neighborhood. As sometimes happened in my reviews, I tried a different approach, the intended whimsy of which now seems to me pretentious.

                                                                                
               

COME ALONG AND BE MY DATE for dinner: we’re going to Yates Street in Albany, a restaurant that has as its name its own address, and I’d like you to take a look at what makes this place so special.

Its location, on an out-of-the-way but attractive street, reminds you of the little gems of restaurants tucked away on the side streets of New York, London, Montreal. But it isn’t on a street of restaurants: there’s a laundromat nearby, and the inevitable Price Chopper.

Inside you’ll see first of all the old, long bar, a big mahogany affair installed around the turn of the century by a local brewery. Beyond it, the dining room, its walls lined with dark wainscotting that meets, halfway up, the cream-colored tin that also covers the ceiling.

There’s the look of an old saloon about it: appropriate to a place that once served the men who ruled Albany. About four years ago the building was bought by partners Linda Leyden-Bernal and Ken Linden, who turned it into a top-notch restaurant – something Albany always canuse – that, despite favorable reviews from as far away as Manhattan, still could attract a few more clients.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Love Is in the Air

WHAT’S MOST ENDEARING about the story that gives us “She Loves Me” is its improbability. We need to see two lonely people despise one another even as they pine for an idealized version that the other represents through correspondence. It’s a musical with a Christmas theme, and as holiday entertainment, it’s more probable than seeing a succession of ghosts show up – and less overdone.

Marc de la Concha, Julia Burrows, Michael McCorry Rose,
and David Girard in theREP's "She Loves Me."

As theRep’s December offering, it couldn’t be better – as a choice and as a production. It’s old enough to be fresh, and timeless enough to be up-to-the-minute.

It’s a ‘30s story (a play, in fact) that became a ‘60s musical – although it also spawned three motion pictures. It fell naturally into the hands of director Ernst Lubitsch, a German refugee, whose 1940 film “The Shop around the Corner” took the wistfulness of Miklós László’s play into the unique Lubitsch world of romantic longing and sexual sophistication.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Come, They Told Me

THANKSGIVING SEEMS MORE AND MORE subsumed into the Christmas frenzy, if the displays of lights in my neighborhood are any sign. Not all waited until Friday to flip the switch, although the blow-up Santas didn’t start billowing until this week.

Artie Shaw
Visually startling though some of these buildings and lawns may be, they don’t provoke anything approaching the trauma that hits me when the Christmas Muzak comes to town. It used to ease into our ears, with one such song only once in a while as December began. Thirty-some years ago I worked for an AM daytimer, a low-watt radio station that played big bands and jazz, and the general manager gave me a formula for slipstreaming in the holiday juice: “First week of the month, one song out of every four. Second week: double that. Don’t make it all Christmas music till a week before.”

Would that were still the case. From gas station to coffee shop to shopping mall, we’ll be hearing the angels on high non-stop from now. Perhaps this has helped fuel my Christmas retreat, as my wife and I haven’t bought (or stolen) a tree these past couple of years, and we celebrated last Christmas in the Jewish style, with dinner at a Chinese restaurant, which we plan to do again in a scant few weeks.

Let me harken (or herald) some previous thoughts on the matter: There’s this piece, a fuller look at my relationship with the end-of-year music, and this piece, in which I found more to gripe on pretty much the same topic. You’re welcome to listen to whatever you wish, but I prefer to exercise choice and attention. Which probably means I’ll be spending the holiday with the likes of Artie Shaw.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Delhi Meet

SOMETHING (FOR US) COMPLETELY DIFFERENT was the watch cry as this year's Thanksgiving planning commenced, and somebody (my daughter, I'm sure) came up with the idea of Indian fare -- a few of the classic Punjabi dishes we know from Indian restaurants. We turned some late-season tomatoes into a terrific chutney, and we were off. I found seasonings like asafoetida and fenugreek leaves in local Indian-food stores, and soon we were wringing panir out of curdled milk and coloring basmati rice for the right biryani look. The only item I purchased were the papdum. Thanks to a recent acquisition of chafing dishes, we presented it as a buffet, breaking the theme only for dessert. Menu below. And here are links to 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and all the menus before then.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Among Your Souvenirs

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Some of us simply worship Florence Foster Jenkins, and have done so since long before the movie came along – and even before Stephen Temperley’s play hit Broadway. It was a relief, when seeing it there, to note that her legend was well respected, and I was delighted to see the same degree of respect in the production that played earlier this year in Catskill and Fort Salem, two small New York towns where theater is a luxury.

                                                                       
                          

Perhaps it was a more genteel time back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The salon audiences for whom Florence Foster Jenkins performed stifled their laughter and applauded their support. They were a patrician bunch. Cole Porter never missed her Ritz ballroom concerts.

Jay Kerr and Alison Davy | Photo by John Sowle
The consensus is that Mme. Jenkins was wildly deluded, her lack of musical awareness probably aggravated by the syphilis she contracted as a teen. Thanks to a comfortable inheritance, she became a society dowager and indulged her passion for music with a voice so dreadful that those who heard her live swore that the handful of recordings she left behind barely do justice to the awfulness of the experience.

Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir” is subtitled “A Fantasia,” and the playwright uses the facts of the woman’s life to imagine what might have driven her to inflict her unique performing style upon her friends – and, eventually, to a gloriously sold-out night at Carnegie Hall.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Floor It! The New 56K Modems

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Strictly for those who enjoy the intersection of technology and nostalgia, here’s my comprehensive look at the then-blazing 56K modem technology. It ran on CNet’s site in 1997, complete with appropriate graphics – none of which I retained. So it’s all the drier in the form below.

                                                                            
                   

THEY KEPT TELLING US it couldn’t get faster. Each time, something faster happened. For several years, modem speeds regularly doubled. When we reached 28.8 kilobits per second, however, we were told that was it. Nevertheless, a year ago the rate crept up to 33.6K (but just try to find many ISPs at that speed). And once again we were told that was it: analog phone lines had hit their limit. The only thing faster is digital, but ISDN lines are expensive and hard to get.

Now, suddenly, we have 56.6K modems. For ease of marketing, they’re referred to as 56K modems, although U.S. Robotics, a company with massive modem market share, terms its brand X2, while Rockwell, the firm that makes the modem chipsets for the majority of other modem companies, calls theirs K56flex. Thanks to these modems, Web pages are now flying onto screens at breathtaking speed – over plain old phone lines. But the two implementations of 56K technology, while based on similar principles, are incompatible. And it’s likely that the standard eventually ratified by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) won’t be exactly one or the other. In its long history of ratifying transmission standards, the ITU has never simply adopted a single company’s proposal, so it’s not expected to happen this time – this time being around mid-1998.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Up in Flames

From the Food Vault Dept.: The life expectancy of most restaurants is brutally brief. Sakura, a hibachi steakhouse that I reviewed a decade ago, hung on for only a couple of years. It was replaced, early in 2010, by Ala Shanghai, an excellent eatery that continues to persevere.

                                                                                              

HIBACHI DINNERS – also known as teppanyake – are a cross-cultural phenomenon, making them about as authentically Japanese as many another ethnic-restaurant mainstay. But if that’s the dinner you’re looking for, you’re probably not worried about authenticity. Let that therefore not be an issue.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s dinner and a show rolled into one, and, goofy as it seems as a concept, it’s no end of fun when the knives flash and the spatula spins. I’m sure you know the way it works. Start with a meat. At Sakura, your choices include chicken ($16), shrimp ($19), two grades of steak ($19 or $21), lobster ($26) and an economical veggie array ($14). Not to mention higher-priced combos ($21 to $36).

You’re sitting, of course, at a large table with a griddle in the middle. Possibly you’re seated with several strangers – it’s a communal kind of meal. A bowl of hot, easygoing miso soup starts you off, bits of tofu and scallion texturizing the broth.

An iceberg salad topped with ginger dressing follows, a dressing my daughter is so nuts about that I’m still trying to replicate it at home.

Then the show begins.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Shadow of the Rainbow

From the Vault Dept.: For no studied reason, except that this piece of mine appeared in Metroland almost exactly 21 years ago, here’s a look at the kind of musical premiere that used to be more common in the Capital Region.

                                                                                         

ALTHOUGH THE IDEA OF A REQUIEM, composed for full orchestra and chorus, is very old-fashioned, ideas of death and dying, grief and conciliation remain very current. While writing “In the Shadow of the Rainbow,” composer Timothy Luby found a compelling link. “As a singer, I was familiar with most of the major Requiems,” he says. “But I’d never studied the text before from a larger, literary standpoint.”

Timothy Luby | Photo by Martin Benjamin
The traditional Requiem Mass follows the sequence of prayers from a burial service, although Luby, like many other composers, took some liberties with the texts. He’s a traditionalist at heart, however, and was pleased to discover a reassuring aspect of the Requiem as he prepared his text. “The sequence of prayers follows the sequence of the grieving procedure. The five stages of a dying person’s grief, as described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – which also can be seen as sanctification. You find this mirrored perfectly in the text of the typical Requiem.”

Luby’s Requiem was commissioned in 1991 by Dr. Rudy Nydegger in memory of his father, Vernon Nydegger, a musician whose last few months of life were eased by Hospice care. As a founding board member of Capital District Hospice, Rudy Nydegger also wanted to draw attention to the benefits of Hospice, so the world premiere – which takes place at 8 PM Sat., Nov. 16 at the Troy Music Hall – will benefit Schenectady’s Capital District Hospice and St. Peter’s Hospice of Albany.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Great Vibrations

AS THE KING’S SINGERS eased into the end of Billy Joel’s “Lullabye,” the sonority of the shifting chords produced one of those silent audience reactions that every performer hopes for: a sense of transformation touched with a sense of awe. Six men comprise the ensemble, as has been the case for the group’s half-century of existence. The personnel has changed over the years, but slowly, slipstreaming in those replacement members to keep the sound the same.

The King's Singers | Photo by Marco Borggreve
The performance Tuesday evening at Proctors in Schenectady was a welcome return for the group, last seen here in 2010. They’re not a house-filler, which is a shame, but some intermission eavesdropping suggested that many in the audience were themselves ensemble singers and longtime fans.

A programming style has evolved over the years, placing sacred works and commissions towards the beginning, then moving into madrigals and the more popular stuff. With a just-released 3-CD set celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary to promote, most of the selections were drawn from that playlist, starting with “The Founder’s Prayer,” a decades-old setting (by Henry Ley) of a centuries-old text (by Henry VI). The closing “amen” had a slight raggedy moment in synchronizing that second syllable, and that was the last such problem I picked up as the concert moved elegantly on.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Prokofiev and a Premiere

IN ORDER TO COMMISSION THE DISCOVERY of P.D.Q. Bach’s “Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra,” pianist Jeffrey Biegel enlisted sixteen ensembles from around the world to accompany him – and one of those stops was in Troy last Saturday, where the Empire State Youth Orchestra joined him for the work’s New York premiere.

The music of P.D.Q. Bach, thoughtfully discovered by composer Peter Schickele since the early 1960s, has been a reliable antidote to the stuffy conventions of classical-music concertgoing, and gave rise, for a few of those decades, to holiday-season concerts in Manhattan as well as performances elsewhere where the entire event was suffused with laughs. Does the music work as well when free of that context? It does, although it took a little while to loosen this particular audience – but we’ll return to that point.

This was the opening concert of music director Helen Cha-Pyo’s final season with the orchestra, a 15-year run that has maintained the vital tradition of grooming students to be the music-lovers of tomorrow, whether continuing as music professionals or not. The P.D.Q. Bach concerto was a challenging confection that shared a program with a pair of warhorses, but let’s look at the premiere piece first.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Seoul Food

From the Food Vault Dept.: In the twelve months since the piece below ran, Sunhee’s in Troy has continued to gain an enthusiastic following while owner Jinah Kim maintains an important presence in the growing Troy restaurant scene.

                                                                                                    

JINAH KIM’S OBSESSION with helping fellow immigrants began at an early age. She grew up in Latham, transplanted from her native Korea at the age of three. “I watched the struggle my parents went through,” she says. “As I grew up, I learned what was happening in North Korea, with people there fleeing or being forced to migrate, and the more I heard the more I realized I needed to learn more – and the more I wanted to dedicate myself to helping people.”

Jinah Kim | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
She has turned her sense of social responsibility to a project that only seems to make more and more sense as you examine it: a restaurant that also serves to help area immigrants.

Sunhee’s is a casually appointed space that serves an array of popular Korean items. Order at the counter, where employees are eager to help you make your choice, and the food tray is delivered to your table.

Among the rice bowl items are beef-based bulgogi ($13) and the popular bibimbap ($10), made with fiddleheads, spinach, turnips, bean sprouts, and mushrooms. A Korean New Year’s soup ($12) features dumplings and egg strips, and a spicy soft tofu stew ($11) also sports garlic and green squash. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options abound.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Where the Heart Is

THERE’S A COMPARTMENT in my emotional makeup that remains closed and locked, containing, as it does, the most miserable memories of my childhood. These memories are largely set in the house where I lived, and most of those are tumultuous, alcohol-fueled domestic battles. What peace I’ve made I made through turning a few of those moments into darkly funny stories, stories that give me control over what I certainly couldn’t control back then. I tell these stories to people who note, admiringly, how candid I am. But I’m not. It’s a trick, a sleight-of-mind.

Carly Gold, Robert Petkoff, and Kate Shindle
Photo by Joan Marcus

The National Tour of “Fun Home,” the 2013 musical drawn from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 memoir, opened for a week at Proctors in Schenectady on Hallowe’en, giving me one of the scariest experiences I’ve had in many years. There weren’t any monsters on stage, save for the everyday fiends known as family, but it was enough to unlock that compartment of mine and force me to look at what remains, for me, scarily unresolved. It’s that kind of story. So when I assert that it’s a hugely entertaining piece of theater, I mean it in the best sense: it’s a show that moves you and stays with you and burrows deep.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Conscience of the King

HARVEY SACHS WROTE THE DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY of conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1978. He just did it again, this time producing a book that’s about two and a half times longer. The first book did much to straighten out the conflicting stories hanging in the air, moderating the exaggerations and dispelling the lies that accrued in the wake of a career that spanned nearly 70 years and made Toscanini the most famous conductor in the world. But we should have know there would be more. As more Toscanini-related material emerged over the years, Sachs wrote a series of essays for a variety of publications, many of which found a home in his Reflections on Toscanini in 1991.

But it was The Letters of Arturo Toscanini (2002) that broke the information dam. Sachs selected and edited about 700 letters, most of them recently discovered, giving a much more confessional look at the conductor’s career. Taken by themselves, the letters – many of which were written to a handful of mistresses over the decades – are emotional snapshots of a man with a mercurial temper. The final ingredient in the new biography is a series of recorded interviews that the conductor’s son, Walter, made without his father’s knowledge during Toscanini’s final years of life.

Why do we need a new biography? Toscanini: Musician of Conscience is the title of this tome, giving one answer to that question. The story that emerges – more ruggedly than ever before –  reinforces the maestro’s commitment to human rights, from his refusal to conduct in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany to his recommendation of African-American conductor Dean Dixon as a guest conductor of the NBC Symphony (something that didn’t please all of the players). Another reason is that we still need relief from Joseph Horowitz’s 1987 screed Understanding Toscanini, which threw the maestro under the academic omnibus of Adorno-styled revisionism.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Finding Your Fun

THE MUSICAL “FUN HOME” got its start as a graphic coming-of-age novel by Alison Bechdel, and, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, it had a five-year development that led to an Off-Broadway debut in 2013. It moved to Broadway in 2015 with much of its original cast, and ran for nearly 600 performances.

Susan Moniz
“This is such a unique piece,” says Susan Moniz, who plays the role of Alison’s mother in the national tour. “I have an incredible amount of love and respect for this piece of theater. It’s so beautifully crafted that you can’t help but love doing it, because it’s such a beautiful show and because of the responses it gets from people – how it touches people.”

The tour has been traveling around the country for a year. “A full year,” says Moniz. “We opened in Cleveland last October.” She spoke last week from Boston, and the tour arrives at Proctors in Schenectady on Oct. 31, playing eight performances through Nov. 5. (Here’s ticket info.)

Moniz notes that it does get tiring living out of hotel rooms, “but it’s been wonderful being able to visit everywhere. I’d never been to Seattle and had friends there to visit. I visited friends in L.A., and I haven’t been in Boston in years. Right now we’re doing a lot of one-weekers, so you have to prioritize your sight-seeing a little more. You try to get a little flavor of every city. It’s what makes it fun.”

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Dead Again

From the Cinematic Vault: I found this years-old review of “Dead Again” lurking in the vault in a “Misc.” folder. Its original formatting suggested web-based publication, but I can’t recall where that might have been. And its brevity suggests there was a word-count imposed, as this is far shorter than I usually write.

                                                                                                

With a gorgeous interplay between film noir nastiness and the neo-natural ‘90s, Kenneth Branagh’s second as-director movie “Dead Again” is a superb suspense thriller, laced with just the right amount of comedy and very tongue-in-cheek tribute to great films of the past. The 30-year-old Branagh, who scored an immense critical success with “Henry V,” is going to be the popular darling of Hollywood once this film starts ringing what are bound to be substantial receipts.

Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson
Real-life wife Emma Thompson is a frightened, mute beauty who turns up at a Catholic boys school in Los Angeles. She’s handed over to amiable P.I. Mike Church – played by Branagh – who tries, against his better judgment, to find her family. Instead, thanks to the looney ministrations of shrink-turned-grocer Robin Williams and antique dealer-hypnotist Derek Jacobi, we’re thrown into a roller-coaster ride that involves the 1949 murder of a concert pianist (Thompson) by her composer husband (Branagh). It’s just possible that the modern-day couple is a reincarnation of the ill-fated musicians.

Friday, October 20, 2017

From Nine to Five

Guest Blogger Dept.: Robert Benchley returns us again to the essays of yesteryear, when a little self-deprecation went a long way.

                                                                                                      

ONE OF THE NECESSARY QUALIFICATIONS of an efficient business man in these days of industrial literature seems to be the ability to write, in clear and idiomatic English, a 1,000-word story on how efficient he is and how he got that way. A glance through any one of our more racy commercial magazines will serve nicely to illustrate my point, for it was after glancing through one of them only five minutes ago that the point suggested itself to me.

Robert Benchley
“What Is Making Our Business Grow;” “My $10,000 System of Carbon-Copy Hunting;” “Making the Turn-Over Turn In;” “If I Can Make My Pencil Sharpenings Work, Why Can’t You?” “Getting Sales Out of Sahara,” etc., are some of the intriguing titles which catch the eye of the student of world affairs as he thumbs over the business magazines on the news-stands before buying his newspaper. It seems as if the entire business world were devoting its working hours to the creation of a school of introspective literature.

But the trouble with these writers is that they are all successful. There is too much sameness to their stuff. They have their little troubles at first, it is true, such as lack of coördination in the central typing department, or congestion of office boys in the room where the water cooler is situated; but sooner or later you may be perfectly sure that Right will triumph and that the young salesman will bring in the order that puts the firm back on its feet again. They seem to have no imagination, these writers of business confessions. What the art needs is some Strindberg of Commerce to put down on paper the sordid facts of Life as they really are, and to show, in bitter words of cynical realism, that ink erasers are not always segregated or vouchers always all that they should be, and that, behind the happy exterior of many a mahogany railing, all is not so gosh-darned right with the world after all.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

One for the Road

Ethan Botwick and John Romeo | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
From one of the six short plays by Harold Pinter being presented as the inaugural production of Troy Foundry Theatre, directed by TFT's artistic director, David Girard. I created the show's sound design. Performances are at 8 PM Oct. 19, 20, and 21 at The Meader Little Theatre at Troy's Russell Sage College, and 8 PM Oct. 26 and 27 at Hangar on the Hudson, 675 River St., Troy. Performances are free.

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.”