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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.