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Monday, June 11, 2018

Venezia Millenaria

JUST WHEN YOU THINK you’ve heard everything, the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh starts to sound in a chamber-ensemble arrangement, and then soft voices creep in, singing, in French, “The night is dark ... let us go forth (to) wage war against the godless.” It’s a 19th-century cantata penned by the exiled Neapolitan Luigi Bordese, set to music by the composer who famously reversed his high opinion about Napoleon upon learning that the latter had declared himself emperor of France.

This oddball piece closes the new two-CD portrait of the musical beginnings of Venice, a place that long stood apart from other Italian cities. While this is unmistakably a Jordi Savall collection, it may have the most variety of material he’s ever presented. Which is very much the point, as “Venezia Millenaria” presents over a thousand years of material, from around 700, when the Byzantines began to inhabit it, to 1797, when Napoleon invaded, soon to cede Venice to Austria.

Savall recorded this material in 2016, and the musical portrait sparked a Carnegie Hall-based festival in February 2017 (coincident with Venice’s own Carnevale) at which Savall and his musicians performed, and which included lectures, museum shows, and other concert events  throughout Manhattan.

But this recording remains a most compelling souvenir. To make these musical points, Savall enlisted his usual ensembles: the instrumental groups Le Concert des Nations and Hespèrion XXI, and vocal ensemble La Capella Reial de Catalunya. Added to them are Salonica’s Orthodox Byzantine Vocal Ensemble and a quartet of specialist players comprising Driss El Maloumi (a previous Savall collaborator) adding wicked percussion lines on the oud; Dimitri Psonis, santur (hammered dulcimer) and morisca (a small guitar); Hakan Güngör, qanun (a zither cousin); and Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian on the oboe-like duduk and the lute-like belul.

Friday, June 08, 2018

A Cure for Insomnia

Guest Blogger Dept.: We’re revisiting To Think of Tea! by Agnes Repplier, one of America’s finest essayists. As I wrote earlier, her keen mind and colorful, precise prose style ensured a successful career. As a child, she quickly memorized and recited the poems her mother read to her, but resisted her mother’s efforts to teach her to read, which she did on her own at the age of ten. Apparently an unruly child, at 14 she was kicked out of Eden Hall, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and then asked to leave Agnes Irwin’s West Penn Square Seminary for Young Ladies three times because of her rebelliousness. By the time she was 20, her writing began bringing in enough money to help support her family. She died in 1950 at the age of 95 in her native Philadelphia.


THERE WAS NO AILMENT – none at least known to the uninstructed seventeenth century – of which the new drink was not discovered to be the cause or cure. “Every remedy,” it has been pleasantly said, “has its appropriate disease”; but tea had so many appropriate diseases that, if we may believe Dr. Cornelius Bontekoë, of the University of Leyden, the moral as well as the physical world stood waiting for this great regenerator.

Dr. Bontekoë had the good or the ill fortune to cherish opinions which were well in advance of his day. It was his wont to express these opinions in terms which insured him opponents, so that he never lacked the cheerful stimulus of a quarrel. His treatise on “The Most Excellent Herb, Tea,” claimed for this “wondrous distillation” qualities more potent and more salutary than ever lay hidden in the Fountain of Youth. The author was no mean-spirited advocate of abstinence. He did not cherish tea because it cheered without inebriating. On the contrary, he denounced water in unsparing terms as being the most dangerous, as well as the least comforting, of drinks. Wine and rum were admirable in their way, but demanded temperance. They were ill-suited for continuous or excessive drinking. Tea and tea alone was innocent of offence. It warmed the stomach, cleared the mind, strengthened the memory, befriended learning, and lent substantial aid to the acquirement of wisdom and piety. It was, moreover, a supreme remedy for heaviness of spirit and for all melancholy humours. It promoted the sober and moderate cheerfulness which the Dutch rightly valued, and the stubborn courage which had won for them the apprehensive respect of Europe.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Running a Round: La Ronde

IMMERSIVE THEATER has become the rage, which angers a theater-going friend. “I go to plays to be entertained,” he grouses. “Why can’t they do O’Neill? Or ‘Macbeth’?”

Fisch and Botwick in "La Ronde"
Troy Foundry Theatre closes its inaugural season with an immersive “La Ronde,” the Arthur Schnitzler play so controversial when it was published in Germany at the turn of the last century that it was banned by censors and not performed until 1920. The play’s no-holds-barred depictions of freewheeling sexual affairs invited equal measures of scandal and acclaim, but it’s at heart a look at the contrasting, though often similar, mores of a rigidly class-structured society. (Schnitzler probably is better known these days as the author of “Traumnovelle,” which inspired Stanley Kubrick’s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.”)

So what if, instead of watching the ten short encounters of “La Ronde” in sequence on a single stage, they were take place simultaneously in a number of rooms (and a staircase)? This is the conceit of director Brenna Geffers’s production for Troy Foundry Theatre, and it’s set in the lovely old Frear House, part of the Russell Sage College campus.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Sydney Greenstreet: The Story Now Told

MY INTEREST IN MOVIES as an art form was sparked by a TV viewing of “The Maltese Falcon” one afternoon. Although the film was cut to fit a ninety-minute ads-filled slot, its unique style, unforgettable cast, and surprising finish were enough to set me searching for more information about this movie. One of the first books I consulted (and I can’t remember its author or title) identified Sydney Greenstreet as a stage actor who specialized in playing butlers. How insufficient a description that turns out to be!

Greenstreet made his motion-picture debut in that film at the age of 61 in the unforgettable role of the chuckling, booming villain Kaspar Gutman. He was nominated for an Academy Award and worked steadily in Hollywood for the next eight years, appearing in 24 movies – although, as his fame skyrocketed, some of those appearances were mere cameos trading on his notoriety.

Yet there’s been a dearth of biographical material. Greenstreet has been included in several “Character Actors of the 1940s”-type anthologizes, and merited mention in books by or about Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and others. Why the lack? Peter Lorre, with whom Greenstreet appeared in several films, has merited book-length studies, and a joint study of the two by Ted Sennett offered a tantalizing amount of biography before spending most of its length on a film-by-film analysis.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Worthiest War

Guest Blogger Dept.: Who better to celebrate Decoration Day with than Mark Twain? Here’s a selection from Albert Bigelow Paine’s massive four-volume biography of Twain, published in 1912, to be followed by The Boy's Life of Mark Twain (1916), Mark Twain's Letters, (two volumes, 1917), A Short Life of Mark Twain (1920), and Mark Twain's Speeches (1923). This excerpt finds Twain in Vienna in the winter of 1989.


CLEMENS AND HIS FAMILY, as Americans, did not always have a happy time of it. It was the eve of the Spanish-American War and most of continental Europe sided with Spain. Austria, in particular, was friendly to its related nation; and from every side the Clemenses heard how America was about to take a brutal and unfair advantage of a weaker nation for the sole purpose of annexing Cuba.

Charles Langdon and his son Jervis happened to arrive in Vienna about this time, bringing straight from America the comforting assurance that the war was not one of conquest or annexation, but a righteous defense of the weak. Mrs. Clemens gave a dinner for them, at which, besides some American students, were Mark Hambourg, Gabrilowitsch, and the great Leschetizky himself. Leschetizky, an impetuous and eloquent talker, took this occasion to inform the American visitors that their country was only shamming, that Cuba would soon be an American dependency. No one not born to the language could argue with Leschetizky. Clemens once wrote of him:

Friday, May 25, 2018

Weekend Update

BACK IN 1968, when I was a slip of a boy, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which affixed Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, removing the flotation quality it (and three other secular holidays – there’s a contradiction in terms!) had sported when it was affixed to the 30th of that month. The Veterans of Foreign Wars decried this over a decade ago, noting that the three-day weekend thus presented “has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

It was known as Decoration Day up until around World War II, when the current moniker was affixed. It draws on a long tradition of decorating gravesites once the weather has warmed, and became particularly meaningful after the horrors of the Civil War, which was when the late-May practice began to become ritualized enough to warrant an official observance. Naturally, there’s some jockeying among those towns claiming to have been first, with the Finger Lakes-region town of Waterloo, NY, claiming a precedent that was officially endorsed by President Johnson in 1966, which would have been the centenary of that first celebration except for a newspaper error that set that event two years earlier than it actually occurred.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Teddy Wilson Touch

WE’RE TALKING ABOUT the most poised, the most elegant of jazz pianists. It’s no surprise that Teddy Wilson trained in classical music at first – the mighty influence of Bach alone has been acknowledged by keyboard wizards ranging from Fats Waller to Keith Jarrett, with a significant stop at Bill Evans. The influence shows in Wilson’s technical facility, of course, but there also is evidence in his harmonic language and in the construction of his solos, which build with a rare combination of logic, inevitability, and surprise.

You know him as part of Benny Goodman’s breakout trio and quartet configurations in the 1930s, when jazz was given its most visible portrait of racial integration; you also know him as the leader of Billie Holiday’s favorite recording ensemble. The Wilson recordings you’re missing are massed in a lavish seven-CD box set from Mosaic Records (which makes the term “lavish” redundant) that collects his work from 1934 to 1942.

The 21-year-old Wilson hit the recording studio for the first time in October 1933 for a couple of sessions with Benny Carter; the following May he cut four sides with a Goodman ensemble, and a week later recorded his first solo sides, which is where the Mosaic collection begins. Although new to recordings, he’d been performing long enough to have the beginnings of a distinctive style in place.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Fable of the Brash Drummer and the Peach Who Learned That There Were Others

Guest Blogger Dept.: Oh, my stars and garters! We haven’t heard from George Ade in a while. S.J. Perelman regarded Ade as the greatest American humorist, and who am I to argue? Here’s one of Ade’s wonderful Fables in Slang.


Drawing by Clyde J. Newman
A WELL-FIXED MORTGAGE SHARK, residing at a Way Station, had a Daughter whose Experience was not as large as her prospective Bank Roll. She had all the component Parts of a Peach, but she didn't know how to make a Showing, and there was nobody in Town qualified to give her a quiet Hunch.

She got her Fashion Hints from a Trade Catalogue, and took her Tips on Etiquette and Behavior from the Questions and Answers Department of an Agricultural Monthly.

The Girl and her Father lived in a big White House, with Evergreen Trees and whitewashed Dornicks in front of it, and a Wind-Pump at the rear. Father was a good deal the same kind of a Man as David Harum, except that he didn't let go of any Christmas Presents, or work the Soft Pedal when he had a chance to apply a Crimp to some Widow who had seen Better Days. In fact, Daughter was the only one on Earth who could induce him to Loosen Up.

Now, it happened that there came to this Town every Thirty Days a brash Drummer, who represented a Tobacco House. He was a Gabby Young Man, and he could Articulate at all Times, whether he had anything to Say or not.

Friday, May 11, 2018

You’re the Pops

From the Vault Dept.: There was a time when major orchestras visited the Capital Region with alarming frequency. True, they didn’t draw much of an audience – this is a stubbornly middlebrow crowd – but some ensembles, like the Boston Pops, have enough of a non-threatening reputation to fill lots of seats. Here’s my report of their visit in 2000, followed by an interview with conductor Keith Lockhart (now in his 23rd year helming the group).


“DOESN’T THE GYM LOOK GREAT TONIGHT?” So exclaimed Dom DeLuise before he launched into a reading of Clement Moore’s Visit from St. Nicholas with the Boston Pops last week, and he certainly captured the essence of the ambiance.

Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops
Because the Boston Pops gave a sell-out performance at Proctor’s Theatre two years ago, this year’s appearance was booked into the much larger arena. The orchestra was placed on risers at one end of the rink, the bulk of the floor space given to tables at which the best-heeled guests were seated, sipping wine. The rest of us took to the plastic chairs in the risers.

Two very contrasting characteristics were at work during this concert. First, of course, is the excellent orchestra and its dynamic conductor, Keith Lockhart, whose energy is so infectious that he could conduct a road repair crew and make it sound exciting. The orchestra is famous for its sound, but that quality was lost thanks to the second characteristic: the hall.

Monday, May 07, 2018

When My Movie Snarls at Me

From the Projection Booth Dept.: The Bobs have officially disbanded – they stopped by Caffe Lena, a longtime local performance venue for them, to sing goodbye to area fans – but we can still enjoy this unique a cappella quartet through their many recordings and this delightful documentary, which I reviewed a decade ago.


OVERWHELMING MAINSTREAM SUCCESS is given to but a handful these days, and typically results more from marketing than talent. The Bobs, an a-cappella foursome, never have had a hit record, they have grown a maniacally loyal, Internet-connected fan base that buys the recordings and supports the group’s cross-country – and international – tours. Not bad for a foursome sans instruments.

Lacking the pulsing drumbeat of most pop music, close-harmony singing appeals through texture and innovation. So right away your fan base is going to be that much hipper. In “Sign My Snarling Movie,” a new documentary celebrating the Bobs’ quarter century, we see those fans exult over this group, and learn that they pursue the Bobs’ concert appearances as avidly as any Deadheads.

Most of the performance footage is drawn from recent anniversary get-togethers at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, bringing together seven of the eight past and present Bobs. Founding members Gunnar Madsen and Matthew Stull reminisce about their start as members of San Francisco’s Western Onion Singing Telegram Company, which inspired them to go out on their own – adding bass Richard Greene and soprano Janie Scott along the way.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Force of Your Nature

From the Theater Vault Dept.: This was a show I missed during its development and eventual success in NYC, so I was glad to see it when the tour hit Schenectady last year. Following my review is an interview I did with Euan Morton.


HANSEL SCHMIDT, growing up in a walled-off East Berlin, is a divided person seeking a unity only, it seems, to be found in myth – an Aristophanean myth of a third gender. We meet him after he has transitioned into Hedwig Robinson, a wanna-be glam-rock queen whose self-deprecating wit and compelling way with song and story propels a heart-rending and ultimately uplifting saga of a search to which we’re all subject.

Euan Morton as Hedwig | Photo by Joan Marcus
The clash between self-determination and forces of nature drives “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” through a story too improbably not to believe, and Euan Morton, as Hedwig, is his own force of nature, tearing up the stage in high-heeled boots as he delivers high-energy, hard-rocking numbers like “Angry Inch” (describing the botched sex-change operation that leaves her in an even more indeterminate state), and, eventually, ballads like “Hedwig’s Lament.”

The theme of dismemberment runs through many of the numbers, explored in physical and psychological ways. Hedwig is pursuing an ex-boyfriend, the far-more-successful rock star Tommy Gnosis, who is performing in a nearby arena.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Faux McCoys

Twenty-five years ago, I drew the above to celebrate Susan's and my recent acquisition of a Montgomery County, NY, farm. Our friend Lily Bartels appropriately dubbed it "The Faux McCoys." The silo was sold a few years thereafter; the cupola came off the barn during a re-roofing and, as it's not original to a Dutch design, remained off. Asta, our Australian Blue-Heeler puppy, aged into oblivion. The portrait remains a nostalgic reminder of what's now a generation ago.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Highland Fling

From the Food Vault: I wrote this review in 2011, but when you’re dealing with a place that has been successfully operating, with little change, since 1936, you’re liable to lose your chronological bearings, as I note below. Prices have increased a bit since this visit, but you can get updated info at the restaurant’s website.


YOU MAY THINK YOU WALKED INTO THE WRONG PLACE, as I thought. Not that the Highland doesn’t look sufficiently restaurantlike – but it looks like you’ve entered an Italian joint from your parents’ (or, you stripling, grandparents’) childhood. Which already probably projects the Highland into its own future. It opened in 1936.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Twenty years is an eternity in this business. Three-quarters of a century is freakish. But another anachronistic phenomenon kicks into play here once you’re seated and studying the menu. You feel like you’ve been here before – been here often enough that your server’s easy familiarity was earned by those repeated visits. Why else would anyone be so friendly?

Read the online reviews and you’ll learn it’s the nature of the place. Nothing in the experience of my recent visit proved otherwise. It was a Sunday evening, going on 7. Downtown Pittsfield was sepulchral, with open-for-business lights peeking only from an occasional convenience store. My GPS, grumpy for getting the wormy downtown streets wrong, tried to send me to Lenox, but I wrestled it to the destination.

Monday, April 23, 2018

According to Alice

From the Theater Vault Dept.: As the father of a theater major, I’m no longer easily persuaded to avail myself of child-centered entertainment. But this production of “Alice in Wonderland,” I was told by a very reliable friend, was exceptional. It was.


THANKS TO ITS ROBUST WORDPLAY and surrealist approach to the fears of childhood, this is a story that resists the transition from book to other media. Which only seems to encourage those adaptations. “Alice in Wonderland” is one of nearly a dozen children’s shows devised by the Prince Street Players beginning in the late 1960s, with book and lyrics by Jim Eiler, who co-wrote the music with Jeanne Bargy.

Charlie Barnett IV and Taylor Fuld
It’s the current offering of the Theatre Institute at Sage, and gets a superb production from an all-student cast who take over the stage with the aplomb of Broadway veterans. You won’t mistake it for a performance by polished pros, but this is as good as community theater gets, which is very good indeed.

The adaptation captures the best-remembered moments from “Alice in Wonderland” and even incorporates a bit of “Through the Looking Glass” in a music hall sequence that’s very entertaining even as it stops the momentum of the rest of the story.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Italian Without a Master

Guest Blogger Dept.: We call once more upon the redoubtable Mark Twain to enlighten us, this time with reflections upon his vacation residence in Florence. It first appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1904, with the six illustrations by Albert Levering reproduced below, all of which were collected in The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories, which Harper and Brothers issued in 1906.


IT IS ALMOST A FORTNIGHT now that I am domiciled in a medieval villa in the country, a mile or two from Florence. I cannot speak the language; I am too old now to learn how, also too busy when I am busy, and too indolent when I am not; wherefore some will imagine that I am having a dull time of it. But it is not so. The “help” are all natives; they talk Italian to me, I answer in English; I do not understand them, they do not understand me, consequently no harm is done, and everybody is satisfied.

In order to be just and fair, I throw in an Italian word when I have one, and this has a good influence. I get the word out of the morning paper. I have to use it while it is fresh, for I find that Italian words do not keep in this climate. They fade toward night, and next morning they are gone. But it is no matter; I get a new one out of the paper before breakfast, and thrill the domestics with it while it lasts. I have no dictionary, and I do not want one; I can select words by the sound, or by orthographic aspect. Many of them have French or German or English look, and these are the ones I enslave for the day's service. That is, as a rule. Not always. If I find a learnable phrase that has an imposing look and warbles musically along I do not care to know the meaning of it; I pay it out to the first applicant, knowing that if I pronounce it carefully he will understand it, and that's enough.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Innocent Ear

MY DAUGHTER MADE HER RADIO DEBUT IN MANCHESTER not long ago, and how this came about is worth the telling. We begin in 1972.

I was a high-school junior, freshly enamored of theater having made my stage debut with roles in Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace.” This was in suburban Connecticut, so it was only natural that the Theater Arts students should be invited to spend a show-going week in London in February. A mere $300 bought airfare, hotel room, and tickets.

The first show we saw was a musical version of “The Canterbury Tales.” I didn’t like it very much. Next was “Never the Twain,” a quirky mash-up of works by Kipling and Brecht, which was far more appealing, but by then I realized that some of my favorite actors were performing on the West End, and I forsook the rest of the scheduled offerings in favor of such fare – beginning with Alec Guinness in John Mortimer’s “A Voyage Round My Father,” which I wrote about here in 2012.

Three years later, I received this email message:
I was crawling around, looking up a show I was once in, when I came across yr blog, where you write about a trip to London in Feb 1972, and a theatre-binge you went on. Hah - I'd been in Canterbury Tales in 1970, which you thought crap, and was in Never the Twain, a Brecht-Kipling conflation you thought more interesting.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Artie Shaw: Again for the First Time

THERE ARE JAZZ BANDS AROUND THE WORLD TODAY dedicated to presenting the music of the Swing Era (and many another jazz era), but to tackle the Artie Shaw legacy requires an extraordinary amount of talent and fortitude. Shaw himself did it in 1968 and during the 1980s, with Walt Levinsky and then Dick Johnson taking over for him in the clarinet department; when James Langton decided to put together a band to play Shaw’s music, he wisely turned to clarinetist Dan Levinson to provide the needed virtuosity.

Levinson is as versatile a player as you’ll find on the jazz scene. Although he’s got a solid grounding in the world of swing, he can take you back to the earliest decades of jazz and make it sound as fresh as it must have seemed a century ago. He has collaborated with Langton on Benny Goodman tribute concerts, during which he sounds convincingly Goodman-esque, but going into Shaw territory requires a significantly different approach.

You can hear the result on “The Unheard Artie Shaw,” a disc recently issued on the Hep Records label, which has done a wonderful job of getting and keeping older jazz recordings in print – and they’ve done especially well by Shaw, issuing a number of his 1940s sides and airchecks.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Nightmare Music

AS NIGHTMARES GO, it wasn’t all that awful. But, having no recall of any other nightmares I may have encountered during the past couple of decades, it was significant in the amount that it frightened me. And it was remarkable in being a two-part horror, separated by a period of wakefulness.

Herbert von Karajan and Friends
I must have come out of part two with a shout, because my wife groggily asked what was wrong. “A nightmare,” I said while struggling to keep the details in mind so that I could enthrall her with my suffering. I never got the chance. “Aren’t those nightmares awful?” she mumbled, and went back to sleep.

You get to hear it instead.

I was staring at some sheet music. That’s the first thing I remember. It was a piece I didn’t know, a vocal work, and I understood that I’d been brought in to sing the bass part. That I could hear an orchestra tuning up nearby meant that something – rehearsal, I hoped – was imminent, but as I hadn’t worked on the music at all I was feeling incredibly nervous. I can’t sight-sing. I’m pretty good with a tune once it’s been inculcated, but to pluck it off the page seems to me like witchcraft.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Thai Score

From the Food Vault Dept.: I was delighted to discover this restaurant a decade ago, and am even more delighted that it endures, because I’m thus able to treat myself to a regular dose of khao soi, a dish like no other – and prepared here with a particular richness I haven’t found at the few other Thai restaurants I’ve visited that serve it.


IT’S NOT JUST THE EXCELLENT THAI FOOD that awaits. It’s the fact that you can order a $7 bowl of khao soi for lunch ($8 for dinner) and enjoy an amazingly fulfilling meal. It features chicken and two types of noodle along with other flavorful leaves and shoots, and it swims in a coconut-scented curry that livens the palate without causing incendiary damage.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
In short, this can be one of your more economical stops. You can also dine (as I often do) as if you’ve not eaten in weeks, and make your way from appetizer to miso soup to this entrée and that, guaranteeing that you’ll leave laden with take-home containers.

And this is happening in a most unprepossessing space in an unlikely part of Albany. Not far from the intersection of Central Ave. and Everett Rd. is a Home Depot. Enter the parking lot, but veer left. A small strip mall sits near the highway, and you’ll find, after a glance or two, the frills-free space that is Capital Thai.

How long has it been hiding here? Seven months, I was told during a recent visit. Three months, I was told a month ago. No matter. It’s here and, based on the dinner crowd that arrived during my own dinner last week, it’s being discovered.

Monday, April 02, 2018

How They Did Love

ALL ROMANCES ARE POSSIBLE; any enduring outcome is unlikely. We work hard to stay united. We’re given little in the way of helpful precedent. If communication is the most important tool (my experience says it is), then Terrence McNally’s 1987 off-Broadway hit “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is a two-hour master class in discovering our secret selves, delivered with discursive dialogue that’s whip-crack smart.

Rita Rehn and Steven Patterson
Photo by John Sowle
As a one-set two-hander, it’s a natural for a theater looking to economize without artistic compromise, but it requires a creative team that’s as smart as the script. The stellar production at Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre puts two fabulous actors on a set (designed by John Sowle) just stylized enough to alert us from the start to expect touches of fantasy.

We’re not merely observes of Frankie and Johnny. We’re voyeurs, eavesdropping darkly on their cries of carnal passion (conducted to the strains of a Goldberg Variation). When the lights come up, Johnny (Steven Patterson) is laughing, laughing too much, to the discomfort of bedmate Frankie (Rita Rehn). The reason? It’s a joke that sets the tone of the play, a joke that takes a conventional premise into a nicely surprising payoff.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Background to Ambler

HIS LITERARY CAREER began with a parody and soon reinvented the genre he’d mocked. But Eric Ambler first wanted to be a playwright, and had a few brushes with moderate success in 1930s London. He paid his bills writing advertising copy, and surprised himself – and his bosses – by writing copy persuasive enough inspire a run on an outmoded car headlamp that had been all but abandoned by its manufacturer. Could he turn the power of the written word into an espionage thriller?

Eric Ambler
It was a genre that included significant work by John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps) and W. Somerset Maugham (Ashenden) – both later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock – but it also was clogged by routine works of reliable cliché. “It was the villains who bothered me most,” wrote Ambler in his autobiography, Here Lies. “Power-crazed or coldly sane, I no longer believed a word of them.” As for the story’s hero, “all he really needed to function ... was abysmal stupidity combined with superhuman resourcefulness and unbreakable knuckle bones.”

The parody aspect of The Dark Frontier, with which Ambler entered the genre in 1936, has itself grown as creaky as that which it lampoons; fortunately, that aspect fades as the narrative gathers speed. What remains significant about the novel is its prediction of an atomic bomb as weapon, and a mise en scène that incorporates plausible (if not downright factual) aspects of European political history. This sense of history would characterize Ambler’s next few novels, beginning with Background to Danger (Uncommon Danger in the UK), published the following year.

Monday, March 26, 2018

From Stuttgart with Mozart

From the Classical Vault: It turns out that the my review below celebrated the first American visit from the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra with conductor Patrick Strub, part of a sixteen-city tour, which was followed by another such tour the following year. Strub is longtime artistic director of the Christophorus-Symphony-Orchestra Stuttgart, comprising students en route to professional careers, and he’s the founder and music director of Arcata Stuttgart, a chamber orchestra.


TROY – The toughest slot to fill when programming a concert is that first piece. It's the one that sets the standard for the rest of the show.

Patrick Strub
Classical groups have got this convenient store of goodies that are used repeatedly, almost all of it by Haydn or Mozart. Which should be an honor to those composers, but it often seems as if that opener is a throwaway piece the group warms up on.

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra performed at the Troy Music Hall Tuesday evening; sure enough, there was a Mozart Divertimento to kick things off.

Conductor Patrick Strub makes his American debut with the orchestra on this tour. He is a young man (40 is young in the classical world) who entered confidently and, with a little flourish, gave the downbeat to the 17-member ensemble of strings.

And they played that little Mozart piece with more joy and affection than I've ever heard in concert. It was perfect Mozart. Every phrase was a song without words.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Eternal War

From the Stage Vault Dept.: How best to put an epic like The Iliad on the stage? Why, with a solo actor and the assistance of a cellist, as Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation showed us a year ago at Albany’s Capital Rep.


A LENGTHY RECITATION of the world’s major wars would seem more numbing than dramatic, but as spoken by David Barlow in “An Iliad,” it becomes a frozen moment of pain as the fantastic events of ancient Greece are dropped onto the map of places like Syria and Iraq.

David Barlow in An Iliad
“An Iliad” retells Homer’s epic as you might hear it in a tavern – “Or ‘bar,’ as you call it,” says the Poet, as Barlow’s character is called, as he orients himself to his current locale. He’s a drifter with a suitcase and a bottle of gin who greets us in Greek, then switches to English to begin the tale that will grip us for the next ninety minutes, but warning us, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”

O, but he’s more than mere poet. It’s one thing to sing of these mighty events, and quite another to fully inhabit, as he does, the characters thus presented. The angry hauteur of Barlow’s Agamemnon contrasts convincingly with the stubbornness of Achilles and with Hector’s boyish energy. Even the minor characters, like flighty Paris and good-ole-boy Patroclus, are limned with deft detail.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Selling the Schelling

From the Musical Vault: The Albany Symphony has a new recording out of music by Michael Daugherty, with whom the ensemble has long been associated (here’s a review of a performance of one of his more unusual works), and, while preparing a review of the new CD, I ran across this review of a 1998 concert featuring an obscure work by a (now) obscure composer: Ernest Schelling. Few recordings of his works are out there; most significant is the disc mentioned below.


BOTH ERNEST SCHELLING AND GUSTAV MAHLER were composer-conductors, but the New Jersey-born Schelling, 16 years Mahler’s junior, made his name initially as a piano virtuoso. Despite many concert appearances, two years as conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, fifteen years of teaching and a number of published compositions, Schelling is as unknown as Mahler is revered.

Ernest Schelling
Pianist Mary Louise Boehm is on an Albany Records CD with an hour’s worth of his solo works, so it appropriately was she who appeared with the Albany Symphony last Friday as part of Schelling’s bombastic, episodic and sometimes downright goofy 1915-vintage “Impressions from an Artist’s Life,” subtitled (for all such works must be subtitled) “Symphonic Variations for Orchestra with Obbligato Piano.”

We’re not talking one of your flashy show-off works. This isn’t Rachmaninoff, although there’s a feel of that composer’s style in the introduction, which showcases the soloist. I suspect Schelling wrote it this way to satisfy those expecting to see his virtuoso side. Intro out of the way, the work settles into a pleasing theme and 18 variations, each section paying tribute to a friend or concept. So we veer from a lighthearted nod to Fritz Kreisler, as piano and violas play a variation reminiscent of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1, to a huge warlike segment with tattoos of trumpets and drums (this was the time of the Great War) that slams into the Dies irae, the familiar “day of wrath” melody from the Roman Missal.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Portion out of Control

From the Food Vault: Ten years ago, I wrote about this strip-mall restaurant, which endured for several years before giving way to the Mexican eatery that now occupies its space.


AS THE NAME SUGGESTS, it began as a takeout business. This was five years ago, when chef-owner Gerry Cunsolo decided to offer customers the opportunity to enjoy at their own homes the cooking he grew up with at his home. But people do like to dine out, so about a year ago he took advantage of a newly-empty next-door space to expand and offer table service.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The result is a comfortable hybrid, with anything from pizzas to full dinners crossing the take-out counter, which is what you’ll see upon entering, to a more relaxed dining room where you’ll enjoy the same meals but with a styrofoam delay.

And that’s because the portions are so gravity-defying large that you’ll still leave laden with take-out containers.

Carmen Plaza sits on a stretch of Route 146 between Guilderland and Schenectady, home to the usual strip-mall array, and it’s obviously a work in progress, with several vacant spots awaiting tenantry. The huddle of cars in front of Chef’s Take Out when we visited made it easy enough to find, although the huge signs promising pasta and pizza also helped.

We were put through an interesting phenomenon I’m sure you’ve noticed often. Despite the several empty tables in the dining room’s center, any one of which comfortably would have seated our threesome, we had to wait until a booth was cleaned and re-set. Booths run along two of the room’s walls, and that’s where most of the diners were seated (the exception was a six-top at the back of the room).

Monday, March 12, 2018

Élégance baroque

OUR EARS HAVE GROWN ACCUSTOMED TO a range of rhythm and harmony that probably would baffle or even antagonize someone living a couple of centuries ago. By the same token, the music that pleased that long-ago listener isn’t going to grab us with the intensity it had at its birth. Not only are we pummeled with plangent sounds but we’ve also been background-musicked to a point where it’s easy for most tunes to seem to disappear.

Can you send yourself, as a listener, back to an earlier time? This could mean, if your destination is the 18th century, eliminating things like automobiles and the landscape that goes with them. Which also means that the notion of time itself is different. Travel takes days, not hours. Communication is conducted in person or by slow correspondence. Life is hometown-centered.  Life is slower. Listening is different.

With a casual auditing, the music of Antoine and Jean-Baptiste Forqueray can slip into the background. There’s a sameness to the pieces, especially when taken over the course of a new four-CD set of their complete works. Listening with 18th-century ears, however, reveals the richness of the pieces, which turn out to be complex and varied. And, according to the composers’ contemporaries, difficult to play.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Fantastic Voyage

DESPITE THE BEST EFFORTS of my elementary-school science teachers, the world of biology only really opened up for me as I thrilled to the exploits of Arthur Kennedy, Raquel Welch, and Donald Pleasance as they were shrunk to microbe size and sent into the bloodstream of a wounded scientist to effect a cure. Nothing brought home the battles fought by our bodies’ antibodies as did the skirmishes in the movie “Fantastic Voyage” – nothing, that is, until the book The Hidden Half of Nature put it into a compelling story that moves between the biosphere without and the microbiota within.

Authors David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé have written a book that also sends you on a thrilling trip through the bloodstream – alongside voyages through the digestive tract (where the colon is the underslung hero), and the soil, and the earthworm .. and through a succession of laboratories as researchers through the centuries uncover the intricacies of growth and disease. In their way, these travels are even more fantastic than anything that movie could imagine – and they’re a tough reminder that, as a culture, we’re ignoring the lessons they teach at our peril.

Although we begin by looking at the garden that Biklé cultivates at their new Seattle home, we’re soon drawn into an examination of the exhausted soil below, soil that came to life as the couple began feeding it organic matter: wood chips, coffee grounds, a substance called “zoo doo” made available by the city’s Woodland Park Zoo. It’s all in service of the microbes.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Beauties of the German Language

Guest Blogger Dept.: Mark Twain’s diaries finally have been published in their entirety, and they’re a joy. (At least until you get halfway through the third and final volume, where you’ll bog down in an appendix in which Twain details the perfidy of a pair of employees.) Here’s a delightfully politically incorrect excerpt. The story has been told by many, but rarely so well.


Mark Twain
February 3, Vienna. (1898) Lectured for the benefit of a charity last night, in the Bösendorfersaal. Just as I was going on the platform a messenger delivered to me an envelope with my name on it, and this written under it: “Please read one of these tonight.” Enclosed were a couple of newspaper clippings—two versions of an anecdote, one German, the other English. I was minded to try the German one on those people, just to see what would happen, but my courage weakened when I noticed the formidable look of the closing word, and I gave it up. A pity, too, for it ought to read well on the platform, and get an encore. That or a brickbat, there is never any telling what a new audience will do; their tastes are capricious. The point of this anecdote is a justifiable gibe at the German long word, and is not as much of an exaggeration as one might think. The German long word is not a legitimate construction, but an ignoble artificiality, a sham. It has no recognition by the dictionary, and is not found there. It is made by jumbling a lot of words into one, in a quite unnecessary way, it is a lazy device of the vulgar and a crime against the language. Nothing can be gained, no valuable amount of space saved, by jumbling the following words together on a visiting card: “Mrs. Smith, widow of the late Commander-in-Chief of the Police Department,” yet a German widow can persuade herself to do it, without much trouble:

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Online Forms Here

WELCOME TO INTERNET ACCESS SECURITY CLEARANCE (IASC). In accordance with the Federal Anti-Terrorism Online Resources and Protection Act of 2011 (U.S.C. Title 50, Chapter 44), we are required by law to collect certain information from citizens who would seek to use the internet. Your participation in this survey is entirely voluntary. Failure to provide reasonable answers will result in a denial of internet access.

1. Will your proposed session
     be for personal or business use?

A. Personal
B. Business           


Thank you.

2.  Have you ever been convicted of a
     felony offense?

A. Yes
B. No

Monday, February 26, 2018

Toast of Troy

From the Food Vault Dept.: A piece I wrote just last summer, celebrating a trendy place in trendy Troy, NY, yet it’s a place with none of the haughtiness you might expect. Especially if you’ve spent time in Brooklyn.


DON’T LET THE NAME OF THE PLACE FOOL YOU: it’s a Troy homage. “Most people don’t know that the name comes from the longest-running business in this building,” says Felicity Jones. “Superior Merchandise was a novelty toy shop in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.”

Felicity Jones, Mike Romig, and
Matthew Loiacono.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s a storefront at 147 4th Street in Troy, and Jones co-owns building and business with Mike Romig. “We found an ad for the old Superior Merchandise in a Troy Record,” he adds. “The place was selling mood rings and mood earrings and mood necklaces.”

“And they had things like whoopee cushions,” Jones throws in. She was a freelance graphic designer before tackling this retail project four years ago, and brings her design sense to the clean, colorful look of the place, where handsome, hand-picked items await your scrutiny.

Jones describes them as “everyday objects that are useful, beautiful, and super-well designed. To make your everyday experiences more special. We have scissors, toothbrushes, pens – simple objects you use all the time, but you won’t find in the regular stores. Ninety percent of the things are from individual artists and makers that I personally want to support.”

Friday, February 23, 2018

Crossing that Bridge

I WON’T BE WATCHING THE OSCARS, but I usually don’t. A long-ago trauma put me off the show, which is really a case of blaming a blameless entity for my own shortcomings. That the incident took place in 1975 only proves how pathetically long I hang onto such things. I was in my first (and final) year of college, an arts school near White Plains, and had been persuaded by a new-found friend named Rick to join him in Manhattan for an Oscars-viewing party during which I'd also be able to show off my bridge-playing prowess, he said.

Ely Culbertson
My parents played bridge. It was a ritual I witnessed from earliest childhood, when they’d click down the legs of the table thus intended and sit with another couple – the cast changed over time – to commence the bidding and playing and smoking and drinking. It seemed to be a very dull game, the most attractive feature of which was the fan of cards each player held, arranged by suit and rank (the cards, not the players, although now that I think of it I can’t be sure).

Although my mother tried to teach me the game, it wasn’t until late in high school that a few of us discovered the shift from poker to bridge, bringing a lot more skill into play. Now it became something filled with high emotion and attendant swearing, which made it much more appealing. And so I sought to pursue this interest in college, and ended up meeting those players in Manhattan.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Jumps in the Mouth

From the Food Vault Dept.: There’s a small eatery on Schenectady’s Erie Boulevard that for many years – at least through much of the 1980s – was an Irish pub called, amusingly, the Electric Grinch, thus saluting the mammoth edifice of General Electric that hovered a couple of blocks away. Then it went into a series of changes through a series of owners, who fought a series of indignities like tax problems. My first visit to the place as a restaurant reviewer was in 1990, as I made my return to that chair after a year-long hiatus. I was quite the enthusiast, wasn’t I?


SOME LOCATIONS SEEM MADE TO ORDER for a good restaurant business, and Schenectady’s Erie Boulevard, guarded by GE at each end, is a natural. But such businesses have come and gone over the years, struggling to survive when they should be in the punk.

Somebody else's saltimbocca
Saluti has been there for the better part of two years now, offering a menu of Italian specialties that nicely complements the many other Italian restaurants in this city. I haven’t toured the others in a while, but the food at Saluti’s may come dangerously close to being the best of them all.

It’s a place with a split personality, which probably helps it endure. On the one hand, it’s very much a bar, with a large, loud TV dominating the bar area. On the other hand, it’s a restaurant with an elegant menu. Bar and dining room are separated by sweeping brick archways. The room has fewer than a dozen tables. If you’re more comfortable at the bar, you can have your dinner served there.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Tech It and Like It

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s one of the most unusual (for me) pieces I’ve cranked out over the years. Many years ago, a friend had taken a job editing a magazine specific to the pharmacy industry, and asked if I’d write about the pharmacy technicians. This I did, and at a decent rate of pay. There remains debate about this profession, so don’t take this as an endorsement. It’s more of a study in how much detail I can absorb, write about, and then forget.

WE TAKE THOSE DIPLOMAS on the wall for granted, but for many years there has been no diploma for the person who works alongside a licensed pharmacist. The personnel cutbacks that some forms of managed care have led to, especially in chain drug stores, is prompting increased use of that unlicensed pill counter, the pharmacy technician. Giving new life to an old fear that techs could cost credentialed – and therefore costlier – pharmacists their jobs. Even worse is the fear that techs, let loose upon hospital corridors, could dispense the wrong medication altogether. Stories of just that kind of incident persist, although in each case responsibility ultimately falls to a pharmacist. Still, it's easy to point an accusatory finger at a technician.

"You’re always going to hear those anecdotal things," says Patricia Harris, executive director of the California State Board of Pharmacy, "and pharmacists are always going to lose jobs if they’re not capable, and then they’ll blame anyone and anything." Harris oversees a system that includes statewide registration of technicians, "but it’s not competency-based. We’re having an informational hearing at an upcoming board meeting on the issue of certification, to try to figure out where we stand on that process."

Monday, February 12, 2018

Into the ’Wood

From the Food Vault Dept.: I lunched at the Redwood Diner not long ago and am happy to report that it just as accommodating as it was when I wrote this piece seven years ago.


IT WAS MY FIRST-EVER VISIT to this longstanding restaurant, and I felt as if I’d walked into somebody else’s house. Somebody very gracious, someone who’d been expecting me – but someone with a large, extended family who were enjoying the already-in-progress party.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
"We’ve been here 33 years," says Gloria Adrikopoulos, who owns the Redwood Diner with her husband, Peter. "We have a lot of friends in the neighborhood."

I’m shocked to realize that I’ve been in this area for most of those years, yet never stopped in before. Now, as a result of that visit, I will be stopping in again. I’ve been adopted. Along with my family.

This friendliness is a little surprising. Or, to put it a more honest way, I’m instantly suspicious of such quick friendliness from anyone. I fear that the person is about to pitch Herbalife, or is simply insane.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Do You See What I See?

WENDELL BERRY HAS BEEN THE CONSCIENCE of rural America for several decades, presenting a cohesive, considered response to the over-industrialization of our lives. He has done so through his essays, novels, and poetry, while living a life as a Kentucky farmer with a deep connection to the land that allows him to put his beliefs into practice.

In the fall of 2016, Wendell Berry and his colleague Wes Jackson delivered the annual E.F. Schumacher lecture at the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington, the cultural heart of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Their analysis of our perilous state was provocative.”What screwed us up,” Berry said, “was oceanic navigation, because it taught us to think that if we didn’t have it here we could get it somewhere else.”  Commitment to a community and a place is necessary in Jackson’s words “for affection to grow and intelligent action to take place to address what is needed in a community.”

This 2016 appearance in the Berkshires raised expectations for a long-awaited documentary devoted to Wendell Berry: “Look & See, A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” from executive producers Robert Redford and Terrence Malick. Retitled from “The Seer” because Berry expressed misgivings about being identified in the office of prophet, it was anticipated that the film would provide a means for introducing Berry to a much wider audience than his many admirers.

Monday, February 05, 2018

A Marvelous Party

From the CD Shelf Dept.: The admirable show- and movie-centric label DRG reissued a pair of Noël Coward albums back in 2003 – albums originally recorded in the 1950s and released on Columbia, but, as I wrote below, there was more to be heard, and it finally was here.


COVER ART ALONE attests to the journey these recordings have taken. Originally issued in the mid 1950s as two LPs, the first cover featured a suave, teacup-wielding Noël Coward on the Las Vegas desert; the second, created in the wake of the other’s success, relocates that image to Manhattan. Columbia later LP-issued the two as a gatefold set, with an older Coward pictured at “Firefly,” his Jamaica home; the first CD issue improbably pictured the 30s-era Coward.

The already truncated program was further shortened for a single CD. DRG now has issued the program on two CDs, both brief, with the original covers, and for the first time we’re able to hear the Las Vegas program as it was originally performed. Turns out the intro was faked and some of the songs were cut. DRG sent its engineers to the original tapes, and they’ve included all available material. Also, you’re finally hearing the whole thing in as decent sound as was possible to achieve.

As a studio recording, the NewYork set was as good as you’d get in the mid-50s, although it’s characteristically Columbia high-end harsh. The muddier Vegas recording requires a few moments of ear adjustment.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Happy Heifetz's Birthday

This blog would like to take a moment to salute the 117th or 118th (there is a small, flickering dispute out there) birthday of Jascha Heifetz. YouTube has become crowded with opportunities to see and hear him play, but how about some Paganini?

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Tangled Web

From the Smut Vault Dept.: Back in the glory days of the internet’s infancy, I wrote a computer-information column for a magazine called D-Cup, the thrust of which needs no explanation. Under the moniker “Dr. Barry Tetons,” I guided the lusty wayfarer to where the red lights shone on the information highway. This was my debut piece, from late 1995. Unlike my readers, it couldn’t be more dated. (Here's another such piece, and another.)


YOU’VE HEARD ABOUT THE INTERNET. You may even know that its most passionate users are also passionate about a free exchange of ideas. What you may not know is that large-breasted, beautiful women are among those ideas, and just in case you don’t get the idea, you can get the picture – a full color, let’s-leave-nothing-to-the-imagination picture, that is.

Let me be your guide. I’ve been working with computers for a decade, and if there’s smut to be seen on the screen, I’ve seen it. I’ve taught computer beginners in classrooms but that’s far too polite and forces me to leave out the good parts. The good parts I’m going to help you find every month as we explore together.

All you need is a good computer, the right software, and a little know-how. Let’s talk first about your hardware. I’ll show you mine: it’s an IBM clone, based on a 486 processing chip. It’s got 8 megabytes of memory, and a good color monitor. That’s the basic stuff to run Microsoft Windows, and the easiest way for us peeping Toms to find our thrills is to look through Windows. You can find a system like this for well under a thousand bucks.

Friday, January 26, 2018

What You Pay For

From the Back of the Fridge Dept.: Back when I was reviewing restaurants for Albany’s Metroland magazine, we enacted a policy whereby we didn’t bother with the chain eateries. My long-ago visit to a brand-new Olive Garden, reviewed below, was one of the reasons. (But they showed up in a more recent piece about food-delivery innovations.)


We showed up on a Saturday afternoon at quarter to five. The parking lot was packed; people waited on benches, at the bar and in a straggly line that stretched to the door. We had an event to get to and couldn’t wait. We returned at 10:30, a half hour before dinner service stops. The place was still pretty full but – except for us – it was by now exhaling customers.

The Olive Garden, which arrived in late November, is clearly a hit. And why shouldn’t it be? Under the guise of offering Italian fare, it serves the same kind of bland but over-salted cuisine that too much of America microwaves at home in the pursuit of dinner.

In other words, don’t look for fine dining here. Don’t even look for the kind of cooking that makes your neighborhood Italian eatery special. It’s assembly-line stuff. Some of it is amusingly non-Italian, like the “Italian Scallion,” a mass of fried onion pieces. Then there are items with Italian roots given an Olive Garden conversion into bar food, like the fried ravioli and mozzarella wedges that join stuffed mushrooms and fried zucchini in the Italian Sampler.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Great Vibes

From the Vault Dept.: I treasured the six-record set of Lionel Hampton’s small-group recordings that was issued in the waning days of the LP era, so it was a thrill to see these sides (and more) get the Mosaic Records treatment in the deluxe five-CD set that I reviewed below. But Mosaic licenses limited-issue releases of these sets, and the 5,000 copies of the Hampton set have long since sold out.


VIBRAPHONIST LIONEL HAMPTON became a sudden star in 1936 when Benny Goodman featured him in a quartet. Soon after that, Victor Records invited Hampton to record a small-group session under his own name, so Hampton brought a bunch of Goodman bandmembers into the studio and laid down four memorable tracks. A phenomenon was born.

It was hot, joyous and relatively short-lived. Twenty-three sessions over the next four years yielded about four tunes apiece. In terms of jazz interest, some are more successful than others, but even the most negligible of them are still entertaining. And the peaks are impressive indeed.

Much of the material was collected late in the LP days, but only sporadic CD issues have seen light of day. Mosaic Records’s new five-CD set collects the totality of those Hampton session, and with that company’s trademark thoroughness presents superior transfers of the original material along with all known alternate takes.

Personnel also were drawn from the bands of Duke Ellington, Stuff Smith, Count Basie and others, which benefitted from having players already accustomed to working together. Sessions in April 1937, for example, featured Ellington sideman Johnny Hodges, whose “On the Sunny Side of the Street” became a hit and has endured as a classic.

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Paradise of Borodin

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Speaking of Borodin, I found an eleven-year-old review I wrote of the Albany Symphony in which that composer’s “Polovetsian Dances” were featured – and I resisted pointing out that said dances supplied the tune for the song “Stranger in Paradise.” Despite weakening in this wise, I shall continue to resist where it matters.


“A NIGHT IN OLD RUSSIA” almost certainly means a night with dsypeptic old Tchaikovsky – which can be a tuneful but melancholy visit. In his Symphony No. 4 and “1812 Overture,” however, the composer leaned, if not toward happiness, at least to states of exuberant excess.

Alexander Borodin
As performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra last Saturday at Albany’s Palace Theatre, these warhorses sounded dynamic and fresh, and had the added bonus of a chorus in the “1812,” showcasing the distinguished sound of Albany Pro Musica.

It’s an excellent idea, combining the city’s premiere orchestra and chorus, and this time the result gave us the distinctive sound of Russian song, a flavor that pervades instrumental music of the period, but flowers to life when the human voice is included.

The first half gave us orchestra alone, beginning with the Tchaikovsky symphony. Completed in 1878, it’s a big, brassy, sometimes capricious work that nevertheless inspired the NY Post reviewer, at its 1890 U.S. premiere, to term it “one of the most ... semi-barbaric compositions ever heard in this city.”

Today it’s a work in danger of being overplayed, but ASO music director David Alan Miller made the most of its “barbarism” even as he satisfied the work’s more tender aspects. Like any good symphonic work, the piece is a journey, heralded by what the composer termed the call of Fate, realized in the brass section’s dotted-note anthem.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Amateur Photograph

Guest Blogger Dept.: Let's revisit the poetry of P.G. Wodehouse, with an piece from 1901 that reminds us how little has changed.


P.G. Wodehouse
The eye is the eye of a forger,
The brow is the brow of a thief,
        The mouth and the nose
        Alike disclose
A wickedness past belief.

‘Tis a visage that proves its owner
A man of the basest stamp,
        I haven't a doubt
        That he rides about
At nights without a lamp,

Or travels without a ticket,
Or visits music halls;
        His expression shows
        That he often goes
To Covent Garden balls.

And – but what is that you are saying?
Ah, horror! Can it be
        That this shocking disgrace,
        With its Hooligan face,
Is an excellent likeness of me!

-- P.G. Wodehouse, Fun Magazine, 2 March 1901

Friday, January 12, 2018

Russian to the Finish

From the Vault Dept.: Having seen this ensemble perform in Troy, NY – and, as you’ll read below, having been very impressed – I was pleased to be asked a few months later to write liner notes for their Dorian recording of Borodin string quartets, which you can read here.


THE TONE OF A STRING QUARTET CONCERT is set by the opening notes. Whatever the mood or dynamics of the first piece, you’ll get a sense of the ensemble’s surety. The beginning of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 4 has a passage in which the first and second violins are in unison, an octave apart; shortly after that, there’s a sequence of call and response. Those were enough to tell us that this group had matters like intonation and vibrato and dynamics nailed. There would be no technical problems. This was a group in complete control.

Recording the St. Petersburg Quartet in Troy, NY
6 June 2001 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Beethoven’s Quartet No. 4 is in C minor, the key of the fifth symphony and the Pathétique sonata, and it shares a sense of defiance well articulated by the musicians. It’s also got early examples of Beethovenian quirkiness, as in the second movement, a scherzo that takes the place of something slow. It’s witty and gentle, and packs a nice joke toward the movement’s end when the cello fails to enter when you’d expect it. The third movement minuet moves us into an insistent, gypsy-like finale with lots of bounce, all of it giving the group plenty of easily bested challenges.

Their interpretation packed a lot more variety than I’m used to hearing from, say, the Guarneri or Alban Berg Quartets; some of the phrases were crafted with a little hesitation here and there, which actually proved refreshing to my ears.

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Q is Capital

From the Smoker Dept.: The reason I no longer get out to barbecue joints these days is because I’ve got my own smoker going in the backyard often enough to keep me contented. But I’m delighted to see that Capital Q, reviewed below a decade ago, is still going strong. All that seems to have changed is the pricing.


THE BARBECUE REVOLUTION CONTINUES. We of the innocent northeast grew up believing that barbecue was a verb, an activity that took place over a grill fired by fluid-impregnated charcoal briquets (developed by Henry Ford as a byproduct of Model T production). Alongside the endless parade of burgers and wieners appeared chicken parts, slathered in sweet sauces, and ribs of pork or beef. With the proper know-how, you can grill chicken and ribs into excellent meatstuffs. But it’s not, applying the word as a noun now, barbecue.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Sample the pulled pork at Capital Q Smokehouse for a taste of the real thing. This is meat as tender as it can get, yanked off the pork shoulder (in butcher’s parlance, the butt), served with or without some manner of sauce. Its tenderness comes from many lingering hours over not-too-hot woodsmoke, enough time to require day-in-advance preparation. When your local barbecue joint confesses that it’s out of this or that meat, it’s another sign that they’re making the real thing.

Such was not a problem the day we visited Capital Q Smokehouse, the little eatery in the Ontario St. space once occupied by Emil Meister’s Market. There were ribs, there was brisket, there was pulled pork. And there was a parade of tasty side dishes to round out the meal, all of it fulfilling a dream of chef-owner Sean Custer.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Sparkling Solutions

From the Wine Cellar Dept.: I attended and wrote about the Albany American Wine Festival for several years – here’s one such account – and for its 1998 edition (one of the last), I interviewed Joy Sterling, part of the family that owns and operates Iron Horse, a winery in California’s Sonoma Valley. (Here’s a piece about a visit to the winery in 1989.)


THERE ARE MANY GOOD REASONS for sampling wine at an event like the Desmond’s Twelfth Annual Albany American Wine Festival, which takes place in two weeks. We’ve recently learned that wine is good for the heart and good for the eyes. We’ve long known that it’s good for the sense of well-being. Nothing sets off good food better than good wine. In short, it adds sparkle to life.

Joy Sterling
But add a little sparkle to the wine and you’ve got the makings of a celebration. Champagne is the beverage of the best parties, whether you’re celebrating a wedding with many, an anniversary with another, or the turn of the year with half the world. With the turn of the millennium approaching, champagne consumption is expected to soar. But, in the opinion of Iron Horse Winery’s Joy Sterling, “There won’t be enough.”

She’s talking about the good stuff, vintage wine made from a single year’s harvest and fermented the old-fashioned way, as opposed to cheap plonk that’s more or less carbonated. “Anybody who’s buying non-vintage French champagne is making a mistake,” she says, “when you can buy vintage California sparkling wine for the same price. Being a particular vintage makes a difference – it affects how long the wine is aged on the yeast, and results in a richer, creamier, smoother finish.”