Search This Blog

Friday, October 12, 2018

Tales from the Crypts

“THE LOVE OF ANOTHER will destroy the causes of my hatred!” The hulking figure is shadowed, his dark-rimmed eyes suggesting both ugliness and torment. He appeared suddenly, lit only by a flashlight, the beam of which turned on the audience to silhouette the keening monster. His voice wove pain and anger into a sound of heartbreaking beauty, as baritone Joshua Jeremiah gave life to the world premiere of composer Gregg Kallor’s “Sketches from Frankenstein” in the Catacombs at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

Joshua Jeremiah in "Sketches from Frankenstein"
Photo by Kevin Condon
Audacity informed everything about this performance, which took place on the chill evening of October 10. The cemetery itself sports a knoll that gives a panorama running from the Battery to Bayonne, and we began the journey there with a whiskey-tasting that continued in a nearby columbarium. Among the distillers: Pugilist Spirits, whose Prizefight Irish Whiskey is a transatlantic creation; Virgil Kaine, which shared a ginger-infused bourbon; and Brooklyn’s own Van Brunt Stillhouse. While such lubrication is always welcome, the dusk-spangled view was also an integral part of the experience. It made the trip into the Catacombs all the more oppressive.

Oh, it seems delightful at first. Here’s this 19th-century crypt hotel, tunneled into a hillside, intended to assuage those worried about being buried alive. Which seems an absurd worry – until you enter the world of Edgar Allan Poe. His “Tell-Tale Heart,” also set by Kallor, was another item on the musical program.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Culinary Junction

From the Food Vault Dept.: It was incredible enough to find fine dining in Canajoharie, a rural village where pizza would be the favored fare, and more incredible still that this restaurant pursued its ingredients from nearby purveyors. It was too good to last, and it didn’t. The space is now home to Gino’s, a pizza place.


SEPTEMBER SIGNIFIES HARVEST SEASON, which is the time to think again about the 100-Mile Diet Challenge. Eating locally is about fueling your body with the freshest possible ingredients, but it’s also much more: It’s a way of rebelling against the corporate control of farming; it conserves that temendous amount of energy wasted on food transportation, and it offers the probability that your food hasn’t been genetically debilitated.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
In his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben describes the challenge of eating locally throughout a Vermont year, and it can be done with some creative changes of menu – especially during the winter months. But McKibben’s Champlain Valley – like our Mohawk and Hudson Valleys – is an especially bounteous area, offering not only plenty of produce but also a wealth of small farms that specialize in conscientious meat production.

The menu at Church and Main makes a point of listing those purveyors. Free Bird Farm and Hand’s Honey are from the western Montgomery County neighborhood; somewhat farther afield are Highland Farms in Red Hook and Newport’s Sunset Hill Farm. Local co-ops also provide ingredients.

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Big Cheese

IT EMERGES FROM a milky, opaque bath the temperature of bodily fluids, and it’s a white rubbery mass that looks like a medical mistake. My next task is to drain the fluid away from it – saving the runoff, of course – and compact the stuff in a cylindrical mold. Upon which it will yield to a succession of ever-heavier weights, until it’s ready for storage. It’s going to be a wheel of pecorino, a sheep’s-milk cheese born in Italy (where sheep are pecora) and which has a fabulously complex flavor when it emerges from its five or six months of aging.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
When I learned that I could buy sheep’s milk from some Amish neighbors, I determined to make my own pecorino. I’m working on my fourth wheel of the stuff, and I can confidently state that I don’t know at all what I’m doing.

Beyond the milk itself, you need gear. And chemicals. And a recipe. And once you start reading about cheese, you realize that starting with pecorino is like picking up a violin and expecting to play the Beethoven concerto. You should practice your way towards with easier stuff.

Nevertheless, I want to have my own pecorino. Thus did I begin. I acquired the chemicals – a thermophilic starter culture, which inoculates the milk with necessary bacteria; lipase, an enzyme that acts as a flavoring agent; and rennet, an enzyme that starts the curd thickening. I should have built my own press, but I was impatient. I bought one that accommodates two- and five-pound molds, and which allows you to use the physics of its press lever to arrive at the correct weight: for example, when I hang a ten-pound bag of rice at a particular groove near the lever’s end, I’m applying forty pounds of weight to the cheese.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Time for Catastrophe

THE IDEA OF A CIRCUS invites grotesque imagery, as demonstrated, in movies, at least, by the likes of “La Strada,” “Saboteur,” and “Nightmare Alley.” As a context for the plays of Samuel Beckett, it underscores the vaudeville aspect that informs many of those plays as well as reinforcing the playwright’s unique use of language. Circus talk is perfunctory and hortatory. The Ringmaster (Ethan Botwick) who led the audience into Troy’s cavernous Gasholder Building wasted no words in directing the crowd to the attractions, including a half-dozen playing areas and a concession area offering popcorn, cotton candy, and appropriate libations.

John Romeo in "Krapp's Last Tape."
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This was actually a return to the circus for the historic structure, which spent 25 years as the winter home for the Oscar C. Buck sideshow companies that toured the country back in the day. But I’m sure that Buck could never have envisioned Beckett as the entertainment’s backbone.

The Gasholder was the setting for “Catastrophe Carnivale: An Evening of Beckett Shorts,” the opening show of the second season for Troy Foundry Theatre, a company that gypsies around the city to present its shows in unusual and appropriate venues.

It’s an approach that resonates with a question posed by the young Beckett: “Must we wring the neck of a certain system in order to stuff it into a contemporary pigeon-hole, or modify the dimensions of that pigeon-hole for the satisfaction of the analogymongers?”* The pigeon-holes  here answered to no one. Center stage, so to speak, was “Krapp’s Last Tape,” a monologue piece that pits an old man against a tape recording of his 30-years-younger self. It’s got the vaudeville flavor of Beckett’s more famous “Waiting for Godot” in that the process of self-examination is riddled with absurdity. Krapp has a banana; Krapp lovingly unrolls its skin; Krapp eats the banana, not so lovingly; Krapp slips on the banana peel.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bavarian Brass

From the Vault Dept.: The piece below ran in the Schenectady Gazette thirty years ago, and the group profiled is still active, with internet evidence of their travels very evident this time of year. Because it’s Oktoberfest time, of course, and you can’t enjoy German beer without German music.


LIKE SO MANY WORTHY CELEBRATION TRADITIONS, the Oktoberfest began as a wedding feast.  “The first one was back in, oh, 1810 or so,” says Harry R. Vincent, “when King Ludwig was marrying off one of his daughters. It was in a meadow in Munich, but as I understand it the event became more like a county fair.”

The Bavarian Barons - A more recent view
Vincent, founding director of the Bavarian Barons, presents the music of that era in a styling so authentic that his group recently received an award from the Federal Government of West Germany acknowledging the Barons as “America's Number One Bavarian Brass Band.” And the Barons will be an attraction at Schenectady's seventh annual Oktoberfest, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, at State and Jay Streets.

This preserves the German custom of hiring the local musicians for such a performance; as Vincent explains, “Every town in Germany has a band, or ‘kapelle,’ and that’s the group which plays for village functions. They’re very aware of what they have musically there, much the same as it used to be in this country back around the turn of the century.” Although the reputation of the Bavarian Barons is international, the group is based in nearby Nassau.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Delhi Meet

From the Food Vault Dept.: Albany’s restaurant scene has evolved slowly. Forty years ago, only a single Indian restaurant could be found; soon after, a number of its employees quit and opened another. Neither is still in business, but I couldn’t begin to count the number you’ll find in the Capital Region now. Unfortunately, the one reviewed below also has left us – a Greek restaurant and a Thai restaurant are among those that took its place in the now-shuttered building. This is not to be confused with the Taj Mahal in Schenectady or the Taj in Glenmont, both of which I’ve visited recently and very much enjoyed. And I can’t recall who my dining companion was during this excursion twenty years ago, but he obviously wished to remain anonymous, and that condition shall endure.


THE FLAVORS REVEAL THEMSELVES in a cascade of contrasts. First there’s just a general pungency, followed by a vinegary pucker. Then the salt hits, conditioned by bay leaf and other herbs. This is the essence of achari, a type of Indian dish that includes some manner of pickle.

And not the pickled cucumbers we associate with that term. Pickles and chutneys can include a wide range of components, typically invoking dramatic contrasts of sweet and/or salt and sour. Chutneys are cooked, pickles are marinated, typically, in sunlight.

Lamb achari, which I ordered, has flavors that are intense without being devastatingly pepper-hot. The salt of the pickle dominates, so be prepared to pucker. You need the rice pilaf, which accompanies the dish, and a hunk of nan, the flat tandoori bread, to make the dish complete.

At Taj Mahal, four achari selections are offered (chicken, lamb, shrimp, beef) on a menu that includes other diverse specialties you won’t find elsewhere in the area: karahi dishes, cooked quickly in a type of wok; patia, from the cuisine of the Parsis, a Persian tribe that resettled north of Bombay who developed their own sweet-and-sour style; the aromatic stews known as nehari dishes, and a few jaipuri preparations, celebrating the desert cusine of Rajasthan with another type of stew.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Steal the Words

Guest Blogger Dept.: Ellen Terry owned the stage, as far as Shakespeare was concerned, during the last two decades of the 19th Century; she was also accomplished in comedy and loved the work of Ibsen and Shaw. Her advice on acting -- found inscribed in her copy of "Romeo and Juliet" -- remains ever pertinent. 


Ellen Terry ("Choosing")
Painted by George Frederic Watts
GET THE WORDS into your remembrance first of all. Then, (as you have to convey the meaning of the words to some who have ears, but don’t hear, and eyes, but don’t see) put the words into the simplest vernacular. Then exercise your judgment about their sound.

So many different ways of speaking words! Beware of sound and fury signifying nothing. Voice unaccompanied by imagination, dreadful. Pomposity, rotundity.

Imagination and intelligence absolutely necessary to realize and portray high and low imaginings. Voice, yes, but not mere voice production. You must have a sensitive ear, and a sensitive judgment of the effect on your audience. But all the time you must be trying to please yourself.

Get yourself into tune. Then you can let fly your imagination, and the words will seem to be supplied by yourself. Shakespeare supplied by oneself! Oh!

Realism? Yes, if we mean by that real feeling, real sympathy. But people seem to mean by it only the realism of low-down things.

To act, you must make the thing written your own. You must steal the words, steal the thought, and convey the stolen treasure to others with great art.

-- Ellen Terry

Monday, September 17, 2018

What Makes a Legend

MARLENE DIETRICH BECAME A LEGEND long before she died (at 90, in 1992), a legend invented by director Josef von Sternberg, with whom she made seven notable films, and preserved by Dietrich herself during her long career before the public. There was a sure knowledge of craft behind the art: when she filmed “Stage Fright” with Alfred Hitchcock in 1950, he let her light and compose her scenes, which was quite a tribute from the micromanaging director.

Justyna Kostek as Marlene Dietrich
The legend of Dietrich refuses to die, and it is in a post-mortem state that we meet her in the person of Justyna Kostek, who carries us in a matter of minutes from a wheelchair to a lively rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” with the formidable Nevada Lozano at the keyboard.

Kostek wrote the show in collaboration with director Oliver Conant, highlighting Dietrich’s career with a succession of signature songs and just enough narrative to plausibly move us from one to the next. An extended sequence recreates her “screen test” for “The Blue Angel,” the Sternberg film that put her on the map. We have the young Dietrich, nicely impersonated, shrilling her way through “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” as her accompanist veers from what she expects – so she berates him and tries it again. You can find the recently found footage on YouTube, but this version is more fun by virtue of seeming less staged.

And that leads us into her signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” and the years with Sternberg that followed after they both moved to Hollywood. This was when Dietrich became Dietrich, encapsulated in a well-written movie-making sequence that races the actress from one side of the playing space to another, barking orders through a small megaphone. But, as we know, she learned a tremendous amount from the autocratic director.

Friday, September 14, 2018

More Than a Matter of Taste

YOU’D THINK IT HAS MUCH TO DO WITH FLAVOR, this diet of ours. It turns out we’re making choices based on an amazing range of factors, including the color and size of the plate on which our food is served and the volume and tempo of the music that might be coming at us.

Rachel Herz’s book Why You Eat What You Eat examines not only the actions and reactions that go on within us but also how we’re influenced by a huge variety of signals from around us. People will eat more Hershey’s Kisses – 46 percent more, in one study – when they’re presented in clear jars, as opposed to opaque containers. “The moral: put your candy in ceramic jars and wrap your sandwiches in aluminum foil,” she writes.

And the color preferences we associate with food extend to how the food is presented or plated, which “is due to the associations that we have learned between color and temperature. Red, yellow, and orange are ‘warm’ colors. Blue and white are ‘cold’ colors.” Red makes food taste sweeter, yet it’s also understood as a color of warning. In a fascinating study, people were seen to eat half as many pretzels served on a red plate as when they were served on blue or white. And even color distribution plays a part: we’ll scarf up fewer M&Ms when they’re presented in a color-segregated array. 

Size matters, too. We eat fewer hors d’oeuvres when they’re smaller, and we feel more satisfied finishing a portion presented on a small plate than when the same portion appears on one that’s larger.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Pursuit of Happiness

WILLIAM BLAKE PUBLISHED HIS “Songs of Innocence and of Experience,” a collection of metaphysical poems with mystical illustrations, at the end of the 18th century. It has baffled and inspired ever since, and some of its fans have been inspired enough to interpret the work in a variety of media. Thus we have settings of some or all of the poems by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Tangerine Dream, Greg Brown, William Bolcom, and Allen Ginsberg, while Joyce Cary’s fictional painter Gulley Jimson was inspired to paint his own versions in “The Horse’s Mouth” (and which were created by John Bratby for the film version).

Molly Parker Myers and Brian Petti
Photo by John Sowle
Playwright Mickle Maher has followed his own inspiration even further, turning Blake’s poetry into a ninety-minute exaltation of sensuality. “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,” in a superb production at Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre, celebrates the language and ideas of Blake, personifying three aspects of the poet’s worldview in the form of three compelling characters.

The premise is outrageous and simple. Bernard Barrow and Ellen Parker teach at a small liberal arts college in the northeast. Bernard is a Blake specialist; Ellen also teaches the work of the poet, and each focuses on a different part of the “Songs.” Bernard has the Innocence, Ellen the Experience. And Bernard, whom we hear from first, is aburst with joy, despite the fact that he and Ellen were so carried away during a joint lesson they offered outdoors the day before that they fell into each other’s embrace. And pursued it to a carnal-enough demonstration to bring the wrath of the college’s president upon their heads.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Bernstein Conducts Bernstein

From the Record Vault Dept.: As noted in the lede, there had been plenty of versions of this set in the past and the years since have seen many more. So, although this out-of-print set is fetching upwards of a hundred bucks today, there’s a more recent (but drab-looking) seven-disc version and a more-recent-still 25-disc version, and that’s not even mentioning the stuff he later recorded for Deutsche Grammophon.


RECENT HISTORY IS LITTERED with Bernstein Conducts Bernstein boxes and singles, but this new issue, a joint production of Carnegie Hall and Sony Classical, puts together all of the composer/conductor’s Columbia Records recordings, most of them with the New York Philharmonic.

Although it’s part of Sony’s Original Jacket Collection series, which packs the ten CDs in cardboard miniatures of LP albums, these discs have been filled out beyond LP length, so there’s some creative fiddling with that original artwork.

Speaking of fiddling: Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion after Plato’s “Symposium” has withstood its pretentious title and become a something of a repertory item, but here’s a chance to enjoy two Bernstein-helmed performances. First, and the first-ever recording, features Isaac Stern as soloist. He concert-premiered the piece in 1954; this mono recording was made two years later with the Symphony of the Air (the former NBC Symphony).

With the smash popularity of stereo a few years later, this work became one of many re-recorded in the new format. This time (1965), Zino Francescatti was soloist; along with the expanded aural spread and Columbia’s strange, thin audio quality during that era comes a more consistently focused violin performance.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

West Side Story Reimagined

LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S “WEST SIDE STORY” wasn’t by any means the first time Latin-influenced music came to Broadway. Irving Berlin’s “Watch Your Step” featured Vernon and Irene Castle dancing the scandalous tango; the “George White Scandals of 1922” included Gershwin’s “Argentina” (a bolero), and Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” was part of his 1935 “Jubilee.” But those – and many, many subsequent offerings – either had no Latin context or, as with Porter’s “The Gypsy in Me” and Harold Rome’s “Don José of Far Rockaway,” were what we’d now understand as condescending.

But “West Side Story” had the temerity to put full-fledged Latin characters in leading roles. Its portrait of race hatred remains as poignant (and true) now as it did in 1957, as the many productions staged this year, the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, have proven.

Two years after the show’s debut, André Previn’s trio put out a jazz recording, inspiring other jazz greats to tackle the score in the early 1960s, among them Cal Tjader, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, and Oscar Peterson. Songs and arrangements from the show have since been recorded by the likes of Earl Hines, Richie Cole, the Labeque sisters, and Joshua Bell; and there are the compilations, like “The Songs of West Side Story” (1996), which offered an array of terrific covers, including Aretha Franklin singing “Somewhere” and Little Richard’s “I Feel Pretty” (which will never be topped).

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Tom-Cat

Guest Blogger Dept.: Let’s welcome Don Marquis to these pages. Best known for the free-verse, lower-case writings of the reincarnated cockroach Archy and his alley-cat friend Mehitabel. Marquis was a newspaperman at heart, and worked for New York’s Evening Sun and Herald-Tribune during the ‘teens and ‘twenties of the last century. His writing also appeared in all of the popular magazines of the era, and were collected into many of the 35 books that bear his name. Here’s a sample of Marquis’s not-so-free verse.


Don Marquis
A Tom-cat comes to wail,
And he chants the hate of a million years
As he swings his snaky tail.

Malevolent, bony, brindled
Tiger and devil and bard,
His eyes are coals from the middle of Hell
And his heart is black and hard.

He twists and crouches and capers
And bares his curved sharp claws,
And he sings to the stars of the jungle nights
Ere cities were, or laws.

Beast from world primeval,
He and his leaping clan,
When the blotched red moon leers over the roofs,
Give voice to their scorn of man.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Lash Resort

From the Food Vault Dept.: Ten years ago, my wife and daughter and I treated ourselves to a post-Labor Day getaway to the mountains of Vermont. As was usual when we traveled back then, I turned one of our mealtime stops into a Metroland review. Menus and prices have changed, of course, so check out the restaurant’s web page before you visit.


DRIVE UP STOWE’S MOUNT MANSFIELD (or, if you have a constitution more rugged than mine, bicycle or walk) and, when you near the peak, clamber in and around the paths and boulders that constitute Smuggler’s Notch. Imagine forbidden cattle being herded over that mountaintop, cattle from Canada, forbidden because conflict with Canada-friendly Britain was a defining feature of early 19th-century politics.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
And agriculture was a defining Stowe industry, and politics be damned: cranky Vermonters needed their animal trade.

Mt. Mansfield continues to dominate the town: it’s the highest peak in the state, and has given rise to the tourism upon which the area now thrives. Hikers, campers and, especially, skiers show up when it’s warm or cold; foliage draws tourists in fall.

Lodges humble and swanky flank the road to the mountain, but in the center of the charming village of Stowe sits the Green Mountain Inn, one of the first structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with an 1833-vintage building at its heart. Other buildings have been added over the years, and the complex now offers tasteful accommodations ranging from a single queen bed to a two-bedroom, multi-story townhouse – over 100 rooms in all.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Rimsky-Korsakoff and His World

WHY DID MARFA SOBAKINA SICKEN AND DIE immediately after her wedding to Ivan the Terrible?  Scholars speculate that it was the result of a fertility potion gone awry, which sparked the 19th-century Russian dramatist Lev Mey to concoct a version where in a jealous rival substitutes poison for the love potion her beloved intends to slip the woman. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff had already set some of Mey’s other plays, so it was a natural progression to turn “The Tsar’s Bride” into an opera.

Andrey Valentiy, Efim Zavalny, Gerard Schneider,
and Lyubov Petrova. Photo courtesy Bard Summerscape
What was different was Rimsky-Korsakoff’s break from a style he and his fellow-composers had evolved that turned from the traditional compote of arias and ensembles into a more integrated presentation. With “The Tsar’s Bride,” the composer embraced everything he’d cast aside, probably because he was lovesick for the soprano who would sing the title role.

Soprano Lyubov Petrova sang the title role in the semi-staged production that climaxed the Bard Summerscape festival “Rimsky-Korsakoff and His World,” and I suspect that she, too, would have captivated the composer. Marfa is a character of exquisite goodness, two-dimensionally so, leaving it up to the singer to inform her with anything more interesting. This Petrova did with gusto, informing Marfa with appealing eagerness as she anticipates her marriage to Ivan Lykov (the excellent tenor Gerard Schneider) and texturing her descent into madness at the end with great vulnerability. And we got Petrova fresh from acclaimed appearances at the Met!

Friday, August 17, 2018

East Side Story

SASHA MARGOLIS IS A VERSATILE VIOLINIST, an accomplished actor, a witty novelist – but at heart he’s a tummler. He wants you to enjoy yourself, and he’s going to make you laugh along the way. His summer gig is playing violin in the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra. As he has done in previous summers, he gave the audience a single performance of a different kind of show. Margolis leads a klezmer band called Big Galute, a five-piece ensemble that spreads this unique style of music into the classical world and beyond.

Sasha Margolis, Mary Hangley,
Richard Sosinsky, and Robin Seletsky.
Photo by Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival
Their performance at the Glimmerglass Festival on Tuesday, August 14, followed a matinee of “West Side Story” and so, as is their tradition, they saluted the piece in their finale. But it wasn’t only Bernstein whose music was tweaked. Brahms entered the Gypsy realm with his set of Hungarian Dances, inspired, Margolis explained, by the composer’s evenings in a coffeehouse where such music was played – and at a time when the terms Hungarian and Gypsy were used interchangeably to describe music heavily influenced by Jewish tradition.

Thus we were treated to Brahms’s Dances Nos. 17, 11, and the superstar 5. It’s amazing how much a work’s character changes when you add an accordion oomph on the off-beats. With mandolin adding atmosphere to the slow intro, the piece soon took off with a clarinet lead and accompanying figures from the fiddle. The next dance had a theorbo in its rhythm section, the outsized instruments twangy sound giving a bluegrass feel. Brahms didn’t write clarinet glissando into the piece, but I’m sure he would have approved, especially when he had enough caffeine in his system. And 5 is 5, which means you have to equal or better every version of it that’s ever been featured in cartoon or commercial, and this they did.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Savory is Sweet

DUTCH SCHULTZ IS SUPPOSED TO HAVE buried his $5 million fortune in the Catskill woods; his delirious deathbed confession has sent countless treasure-hunters searching for the stuff and, as far as we know, to no avail. The rumor of a treasure-lode of historic jazz recordings was more credible: Bill Savory had played some of the many airchecks he accumulated to friends, and Benny Goodman even made a successful commercial release of some of the sessions in which he was featured. But Savory remained circumspect about the rest of the stuff. When he died, in 2004, the status – and extent – of his collection was unknown. Six years later, thanks to a campaign among jazz collectors, Savory’s son authorized the sale of the collection to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

The serpentine tale is recounted by several of its principals in the booklet accompanying the Mosaic Records release of The Savory Collection 1935-1940, but the recordings themselves tell an even more exciting story, The six-CD set begins with an astonishing Coleman Hawkins “Body and Soul” and finish with Lester Young, at his peak with Count Basie. In-between is a hodgepodge of treasures, recorded off-the-air by Savory at a time when you needed uncommon equipment – and very special know-how – to do so. Airchecks differ from studio recordings in significant ways. They’re one-time-only performances, not necessarily mistake-free. They’ve usually got an audience, which often adds a discernible level of excitement to the playing. Records were keepsakes; broadcasts let fans get familiar with their favorites.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Fable of How Uncle Brewster Was Too Shifty for the Tempter

Guest Blogger Dept.: George Ade was a best-selling author in his day, and his legacy persists among those who honor the encomia paid the Chicago-based writer by the likes of S.J. Perelman and Jean Shepherd – and Shepherd wrote a book about him! Any idea what a “Joe Miller” is? (It also shows up in a Cole Porter lyric, which inspired me to go to a damn library in those pre-internet days and look it up.)


WHEN UNCLE BREWSTER had put on his Annual Collar and combed his Beard and was about to start to the Depot, his Wife, Aunt Mehely, looked at him through her Specs and shook her Head doubtfully.

Drawing by Clyde J. Newman
Then she spoke as follows: “You go slow there in the City. You know your Failin’s. You’re just full of the Old Harry, and when you’re Het Up you’re just like as not to Raise Ned.”

“I guess I can take keer of myse’f about as well as the Next One,” retorted Uncle Brewster. “I’ve been to the Mill an’ got my Grist, if any one should ask. I ain’t no Greeny.”

With that he started for the Train, which was due in one Hour.

As he rode toward the Great City he smoked a Baby Mine Cigar, purchased of the Butcher, and told the Brakeman a few Joe Millers just to throw out the Impression that he was Fine and Fancy.

After he had Registered at the Hotel and Swelled Up properly when addressed as “Mister” by the Clerk, he wanted to know if there was a Lively Show in Town. The Clerk told him to follow the Street until he came to all the Electric Lights, and there he would find a Ballet. Uncle Brewster found the Place, and looked in through the Hole at an Assistant Treasurer, who was Pale and wore a Red Vest.

“I want a Chair near the Band,” said Uncle Brewster. “How much does one of ‘em Fetch?”

Monday, August 06, 2018

Pointing the Way

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Again, from the pile of magazines that recently turned up, a piece I wrote in 1994 about the variety of portable pointing devices then available. (I reviewed some of these devices in a similar piece that’s here.) Some of the info here actually isn’t outmoded, but it’s amusing to look that far back in time. I also found the unedited version of the piece, which tends to have cleverer wordplay than the magazine’s editors could tolerate. So that’s what’s below.


THE GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE was a relative latecomer to portable computers, but it’s here, it’s pretty, and it requires a pointing device. The portable alternatives to the desktop mouse are varied and creative, and sometimes even successful. But that depends upon how success is judged--there are plenty of competing criteria. As portables get smaller, real estate is more and more of a problem. And many hours of usability research have yet to come up with one perfect and perfectly comfortable solution.

With the exception of some truly oddball devices like the IsoPoint roller, which was the size of a chunk of soda straw positioned near the space bar, built-in pointing devices are either some form of trackball or an isometric device like IBM’s TrackPoint II and Zenith’s J-Mouse.

From the pea-sized model on Panasonic’s notebook series to the large, centered unit on the old Apple PowerBook, portable trackballs show the greatest variety in placement and design. Although pointing accuracy is enhanced by software interpretation of your physical manipulation, you still need something physical to manipulate. Which is why the size of the ball itself is so important. A rash of tiny trackballs infected a recent wave of notebook computers, causing a backlash of user complaints. Not only was the rolling surface too small, but it also picked up oil and grime from the fingers, attracting dust and clogging the internal mechanisms. All trackballs need regular cleaning, but these needed to be cleaned only after a couple of hours of comprehensive use.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Put Yourself Online

From the Computer Vault: Back before the Flood, computerists had to call one another to share files and such, and an enterprising techie with a good computer and plenty of disk space could run a what was called a bulletin board system (BBS). Some were free; some (especially the ones purveying porn) charged subscription fees. Needless to say, the World Wide Web wiped them all out, but not before I wrote this how-to piece for Computer Life magazine. Let’s go back to 1995.


MY PHONE BILLS were getting way too high. “What are these calls to Florida and Oregon and Virginia all about?” my wife would ask. Because there is no alternative, I’d tell her. “Why do you have to call these BBSes all over the country?” she asked, adding reasonably, “Why can’t they call you?”

Thanks to a recent upgrade ripple in the house, I had enough pieces left over to put together a 386-based PC clone. Once a screamer, with an 80MB hard drive and 4MB of memory, it is now the last and least of my machines.

Perfect for a dedicated bulletin board system.

In my case, it’s intended to provoke lively conversation, with an emphasis on the writer’s craft. I’ve hosted writers’ conferences on other systems; this would be a chance to bring it home. And to save on those long-distance expenses.

Your reasons for setting up a BBS can be as varied as they are creative. If you’ve sampled any of the many to be found in every city all across the country (throughout the world, in fact, if your phone bill knows no fear), you’ve seen hobbies and interests of all sorts represented. Computer-based companies offer software and utilities on their BBSes; other businesses are now joining in, offering troubleshooting tips, product ordering facilities, and even a way for employees to stay in touch with each other and the central office.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Born of Disappointment

From the Food Vault: The expected life of a restaurant is, sadly, brief. Unless it’s a chain with endless advertising money behind it, able to drum its culinary marching orders into the skulls of the frightened masses, a restaurant has to succeed on merits that too much of the dining public fails to appreciate. Thus it is that both of the places mentioned below – MOD Gourmet Café and Retriever Rasters – have departed from Catskill. As my review suggests, it wasn’t my fault.


WE PERFORM AN ACT OF GREAT TRUST when we order from an unfamiliar restaurant. Much anticipation may lie behind it: a long stretch on the highway, a diversion for the family, a gathering of colleagues. Our palates are whetted by remembrances of meals past, our hopes sharpened by the menu’s promises.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
And then we’re served the driest, most flavorless omelette imaginable.

“It’s fair to say that our restaurant was born out of disappointment,” says Mary DiStefano, co-owner of MOD Gourmet Café on Catskill’s Main Street. “So often you sit down for food that you hope will be good – and it never is.”

She and partner Dana Wegener worked in a number of restaurants before opening their own place nearly three years ago, and MOD Gourmet Café excellently satisfies any reasonable breakfast and lunch expectations.

We’re not talking about old-school diner fare, however. Three-egg omelettes ($7) are crafted around spinach, feta and sun-dried tomatoes, or home fries, cheddar and hot sauce, or home-grown herbs and goat cheese, among other cheese-rich combos.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Brooklyn Rides Again

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Eight years ago, the avant-garde quartet Brooklyn Rider snuck into Schenectady to inflict its adventurous programming upon the unsuspecting not-quite crowd (as happened when a sibling ensemble, The Knights, played in Troy in 2012). Here’s my Brooklyn Rider review.


FOUR STRING PLAYERS with impressively diverse performance credentials founded Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that brought a brilliant program to Union College’s Memorial Chapel last Sunday and justified the adventurous bill of fare with playing that was more than equal to the music’s demands.

Brooklyn Rider
There’s been a tendency in the classical music world to sacrifice integrity to the supposed audience appeal of brainless pop-music stylings. There’s also a way to do it that enhances of the worlds thus straddled, and that’s where Brooklyn Rider lives. They’re a traditional string quartet. That said, they’re exploring sounds of that combination that go well beyond the Haydn-to-Bartok tradition.

Sunday’s program was anchored in Debussy’s appealing string quartet, written in 1893 but eagerly breaking from the sounds of Brahms and his Debussy’s own compatriot, Cesar Franck. Although it’s in the traditional four movements, the piece favors melodic invention over development, and has Franck-ian cyclical tendencies. It offers enough unique rhythmic and melodic nuggets to inspire a slew of tributes; thus the opening work, Colin Jacobsen’s “Achille’s Heel.”

Monday, July 23, 2018

Careless Philosopher’s Soliloquy

Guest Blogger Dept.: There’s no question in my mind that Henry Livingston wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the poem we incorrectly title “The Night before Christmas” and incorrectly attribute to Clement Moore – and Moore, the old bastard, wasn’t averse to taking false credit for it. Here’s more verse by Livingston, a sonnet whose message never will stale.


Henry Livingston, Jr.
I rise when I please, when I please I lie down
Nor seek, what I care not a rush for, renown:
The rattle call’d wealth I have learnt to despise
Nor aim to be either important or wise.

Let women & children & children-like men
Pursue the false trollop the world has called fame.
Who just as enjoyed, is instantly flown
And leaves disappointment the hag in her room.

If the world is content not to stand in my way
The world may jog on both by night & by day
Unimpeded by me - not a straw will I put
Where a dear fellow-creature uplifteth its foot.

While my conscience upbraids not, I’ll rise and lye down
Nor envy a monarch his cares and his crown.

– Henry Livingston, Jr., 1787

Friday, July 20, 2018

Look at the Record

I FINALLY GOT AROUND to digitizing those remaining records that seemed worth having and which lacked affordable (or any) CD replacement. Not surprisingly, it was a painstaking process, often calling for cleaning, the static electricity from which then invites more crud and more cleaning. Then there was the jacket to contend with. I’m sentimental about those jackets: they provided my earliest music education, but they’re too large for a single pass through my scanner. Each face needed four, and subsequent stitching. The box sets with booklets were especially challenging, as I’m fussy enough to want a nice PDF file alongside the MP3s.

At its peak, my record collection topped out at about 1,000. I was quick to replace favorites as they appeared on CD, which often was a mistake – those early CDs didn’t always do justice to the recordings, and were re-mastered and issued again. Between that and a heartbreaking day during which I culled records I knew I’d never want to hear again, I whittled it down to about 600. Reissues grew cheaper and more expansive. CD box sets of the Heifetz, Toscanini, Munch, Horowitz, Reiner, Gould, and others made significant dents in my record holdings. I had to forego a complete Arthur Rubinstein when the set first appeared in all its costly glory, but it returned in a pared-down, cardboard-jacketed set that killed another two dozen records.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Manhattan Melodrama

“WEST SIDE STORY” SHOWS ITS AGE in many ways. Language that seemed hip 60 years ago has been replaced by terms even more evanescent. What seemed like credibly horrible behavior back then also has been eclipsed. And the music, steeped in jazz and Latin rhythms, is now as quaint as an old Paul Whiteman recording. Yet each of those elements endures – thrives, even – in the context of this show. It hit the boards in 1957, garnering excellent reviews, reviews that particularly praised Jerome Robbins’s direction and choreography.

Vanessa Becerra and Joseph Leppek
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
It’s difficult to think of the piece apart from his work, especially with the 1960 film version accessible. Julio Monge choreographed the current Glimmerglass Festival production, hewing as closely as possible to Robbins’s original movement, and doing so as one of the few authorized by the Robbins Rights Trust to do so.

Although the set (by Peter J. Davison, and more about it below) and the costumes (by Jessica Jahn) suggest a more recent time, you can’t pull the 1950s out of this show. It’s as specific to its time as a Gershwin show was to the ’30s, but “West Side Story”’s two Tonys and ten Oscars suggest how firmly it lodged in the public consciousness. Thus, while it ought to seem as antique as that Gershwin show, its central conflict has never been more up-to-date. Composer Leonard Bernstein was very vocal about his wish to effect change; perhaps it’s just as well that he’s not here to see how far we’ve backslid.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Missing Peace

AS THE POLITICAL FUTURE of the United States grows bleaker – with its corresponding drag on the future of everyone everywhere – it’s more important than ever to turn to the arts for inspiration and even, dare I suggest it, optimism. The Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Silent Night,” which details an exceptional incident that occurred on a World War One battlefield, packs a wallop.

Michael Miller, Michael Hewitt, and Jonathan Bryan
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Mark Campbell’s libretto is based on Christian Carion’s screenplay for his 2005 film “Joyeux Noël,” itself inspired by a spontaneous truce that broke out on a Belgian battlefield on Christmas Eve, 1914. German, French, and Scottish soldiers shared food and wine and stories as hostility fell away into friendship – but it was a temporary truce that led to recrimination from the higher-ups.

Thanks to the propaganda activities of the U.S. Office of War Information during World War Two, the depiction of combat and the American way of life was sugarcoated to a risible degree. Some of the conventions of those motion pictures  (that service platoons were racially mixed, for example) grew into accepted archetypes and infected our understanding of the look at war for decades to follow, despite the efforts of films like “Paths of Glory.”

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Getting Down with the Count

ROSSINI’S “THE BARBER OF SEVILLE” is so iconic that you can’t help but collect recordings of it, and I’m most interested in hearing how Figaro fares. Hermann Prey, Robert Merrill, and Sherrill Milnes rank among my favorites, and I’m adding Joshua Hopkins to the list in the hope that he’ll get around to recording it soon. He’s singing the role in the new Glimmerglass Festival production, and from the moment he launches into the famous “Largo al factotum,” we can easily believe that this charismatic fellow can control any situation he puts his hand in.

Joshua Hopkins and Rock Lasky
Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In this case, he’s asked by Count Almaviva (David Walton), his former employer, to help secure a meeting with the elusive Rosina (Emily D’Angelo), who is being kept a virtual prisoner as the ward of gruff old Dr. Bartolo (Dale Travis). Almaviva doesn’t want her to know his social position lest she should be too attracted by his wealth, so he’s styling himself as a penniless student. But she has a considerable dowry down the pike, which is why Bartolo wants to marry her, so why Almaviva should worry about . . . but there’s no point in letting plot get in the way. This piece is a romp for a sextet of versatile voices, the definition of comic opera at its best.

The opera opens with an overture that has become its own classic, and Festival music director Joseph Colaneri hits it with a Toscanini-like intensity, which is my definition of the best possible performance. There’s little time for breath when the orchestra kicks in, yet Colanari shapes the sound of this tight little group with impressive precision. And when the orchestra is pausing, Christopher Devlin is burning up the keyboard with smooth, witty continuo work.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Your Name Is a Number

OPERA SARATOGA ISN’T AFRAID of making statements. In 2015, Jeremy Howard Beck’s “The Long Walk” told the true story of Iraq veteran Brian Castner’s battle with PTSD; last season’s “The Cradle Will Rock” presented Marc Blitzstein’s socially conscious opera in its fully orchestrated glory, giving us a piece that the U.S. government shut down just before its 1937 premiere as a gesture of political censorship. (That production was recorded, and the CD set is now available.)

Jennifer Panara and Meghan Kasanders
Photo by Gary David Gold
This year’s message opera is bleaker still, and all the more glorious for it. Gian Carlo Menotti wrote music and libretto for “The Consul,” which premiered in 1950 and enjoyed a long run on Broadway – back in the day before jukebox musicals and tripe like “The Lion King” took over the street. Back in the day before the audience had been TV-conditioned to avoid entertainment that’s too emotionally challenging.

Menotti wrote the piece in response to the plight of a Polish woman who tried to emigrate to the U.S. and was so frustrated while detained at Ellis Island that she hanged herself. Not that there was any lack of other political indignities to inspire him: late-40s America was blacklisting artists with a glee unmatched until very recent times. What made the opera timely back then was its portrait of a bureaucracy indifferent to suffering. Even as that endures as apposite, what now makes the opera all too up-to-date is its treatment of immigration. If you don’t shiver with horror at the treatment endured by Magda Sorel and her fellow consulate victims, you’re probably qualified to work for the White House.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Little Foxes

ALTHOUGH RUDOLF TESNOHLÍDEK’S NOVEL about a resourceful, willful fox was presented as a comedy when serialized (with drawings) in 1920, composer Leoš Janáček decided to inform it with a more somber feeling when he turned it into the opera known in English as “The Cunning Little Vixen.” He also informed it with breathtaking glory, a sensual trip through his portrait of the natural world. Where humans dwell, however, is a realm of jealousy and unhappiness. The two worlds coexist very uncomfortably.

Joanna Latini and Zachary Owen
Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
At the start of the new Glimmerglass Festival production, the music shimmers as lights come up on an abstract glen in which native creatures rustle by. The music underpins the magic of the scene, and as dragonflies, cricket, and grasshopper gather, we’re swept into an anthropomorphic world that soon enough stops being singers in costume. Our belief in these apparitions turns them real, especially when the gun-wielding Forester enters and provides a too-human contrast.

Costume designer Erik Teague offers outrageous outfits for the animal world, but they stop well short of being too distracting. Likewise, Ryan McGettigan’s spare stage settings of forest, farm, and tavern provide enough to root us in a fantasyland, and set the two worlds apart with curves and curls in the natural expanse and, in the spaces where humans are found, an architecture of lines and angles.

Friday, July 06, 2018

The Damned Human Race

Guest Blogger Dept.: As the 20th century began, Mark Twain suffered the deaths of his daughter and his wife, and seemed to owe money to everybody. He penned a series of essays that reflect his darker side, essays eventually published posthumously. Here’s one of them.


I HAVE BEEN STUDYING the traits and dispositions of the lower animals (so-called), and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me. For it obliges me to renounce my allegiance to the Darwinian theory of the Ascent of Man from the Lower Animals; since it now seems plain to me that the theory ought to be vacated in favor of a new and truer one, this new and truer one to be named the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals.

In proceeding toward this unpleasant conclusion I have not guessed or speculated or conjectured, but have used what is commonly called the scientific method. That is to say, I have subjected every postulate that presented itself to the crucial test of actual experiment, and have adopted it or rejected it according to the result. Thus I verified and established each step of my course in its turn before advancing to the next. These experiments were made in the London Zoological Gardens, and covered  many months of painstaking and fatiguing work.

Before particularizing any of the experiments, I wish to state one or two things which seem to more properly belong in this place than further along. This, in the interest of clearness. The massed experiments established to my satisfaction certain generalizations, to wit:

1. That the human race is of one distinct species. It exhibits slight variations (in color, stature, mental caliber, and so on) due to climate, environment, and so forth; but it is a species by itself, and not to be confounded with any other.

Monday, July 02, 2018

A Personal Space Odyssey

BY THE TIME Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released, we were but one year shy of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. Even as Cold War logistics hurried NASA’s space program, with its seemingly unlimited funding, Kubrick’s dream of a “proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie” took shape first in offices (and an abandoned bra factory) in Manhattan and then at MGM’s British Studios in Borehamwood, a few miles north of London from 1964 to 1968, going wildly over budget in the process.

In the wake of the movie’s disastrous premiere, its success skyrocketed and its innovations were rightly hailed as groundbreaking – and it’s been the subject of a slew of books. But none has explored the movie’s genesis as thoroughly as Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey, which has mined what’s already been written and added much, much more.

Kubrick already had the acclaimed movies “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” and “Lolita” behind him, and “Dr. Strangelove,” his most recent, was a runaway success. So he was in a position to film whatever he wanted, and he wanted to tackle science fiction. He asked his friend Artie Shaw, who had by that time had abandoned music and was working in film distribution, to recommend a writer, and Shaw mentioned Arthur C. Clarke.

Introducing the Kubrick-Clarke working relationship, Benson sets up the scenes with the description and dialogue of a novel, which makes it the more compelling, and which is justified by his general research and interviews with Clarke himself. Other key moments in the saga get a similar treatment, but it’s largely a scholarly trip through the creation of the movie, written with gusto and always evoking a sense of excitement as the process builds and builds.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Fine Family Fortune

WHAT “THE MERRY WIDOW” DEMANDS, first and foremost, is a hushed, haunting “Vilia” at the top of Act Two, in which the titular widow evokes the spirit of a wood-nymph who enchants a hunter even as Franz Lehár’s gentle melody enchants the chorus, who join it at key moments, and the audience, who probably, with little encouragement, would sing along as well.

John Tibbetts, Quinn Bernegger,
and Cecilia Violetta López
Although probably not “as well” in the other sense of the phrase, because Opera Saratoga’s performers, chorus and principals alike, brought a stellar array of voices to bear upon this production, the company’s first for 30 years. Cecilia Violetta López easily met the challenge of portraying Hanna Glawari, Pontevedro’s wealthy widow, who charms all of the men in her wake with her beauty and, of course, a shot at her fortune.

We’re in Paris, where Baron Zeta, the cash-poor country’s ambassador, has been charged with making sure that she only marries a fellow Pontevedrian, and baritone Andy Papas runs wild with the role, indulging in a frenzy of eye-rolling and fits of exasperation worthy of ’30s actor Walter Connolly. His hope is to marry the widow to the rakish Count Danilo, but Danilo, when finally located at Maxim’s, evinces no interest. Alex Lawrence has a wonderful voice that he uses to thrilling effect. His characterization, however, is hampered by a common acting trap, in which the diffidence he’s supposed to play comes across as unpleasant petulance.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Gourmet’s Love Song

Guest Blogger Dept.: Another poem by Wodehouse, you cry? My pleasure. The English writer P.G. Wodehouse not only was a master of light verse – he also showed himself to be an acclaimed lyricist, working with Jerome Kern on the famouse Princess Theater shows of 1915-1917, and inspiring many a fledgling lyricist, like Ira Gershwin, Howard Dietz, and E.Y. Harburg, along the way.


Who Cupid’s power belittles,
For Cupid ‘tis who makes me shun
My customary victuals.

Oh, EFFIE, since that painful scene
That left me broken-hearted,
My appetite, erstwhile so keen,
Has utterly departed.

My form, my friends observe with pain,
Is growing daily thinner.
Love only occupies the brain
That once could think of dinner.

Around me myriad waiters flit,
With meat and drink to ply men;
Alone, disconsolate, I sit,
And feed on thoughts of Hymen.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Central Issue

From the Food Vault Dept.: How much do restaurant review matter? At one time, they were on the order of sacred pronouncements issuing from a privileged few; now, the voices that clog online review sites have created a cranky clamor that obscures the opinions of those actually qualified to make such judgments. But I found out where I stood back in 2011, when my review of the short-lived Central Steak ran in Metroland at the same time that Cheryl Clark’s review of the place ran in the Albany Times-Union. As it happened, we sat together at the restaurant, and below you’ll read why. As it also happened, there were considerable problems with the meal. Cheryl’s review was fair but unkind, and the White Management Group, which owned the restaurant, swooped down on the Times-Union and gave Cheryl’s bosses hell, which, naturally, redounded to the experienced, professional reporter who was doing her job and doing it well. Over at Metroland? We never heard a peep.


JOURNALISTS DISLIKE COINCIDENCES. They are the stuff of the fictionist, desperate to tie together divergent threads of plot. Yet they do occur, and they must be dealt with.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It is a coincidence that my review of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que ran the same week as Cheryl Clark’s piece in the Albany Times-Union. It is also a coincidence, and, given my travels last Saturday, a very unlikely one, that we should encounter Clark and her husband, Paul, at Central Steak.

My family and I were waiting to be seated. Saturday night can be a trying time for restaurants, but we hoped that Central Steak was designed to move food and customers along with some efficiency. As soon as you enter, you can the grill – a long, open line banging out entrées like something out of “Modern Times.”

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Revolution Underfoot

SPRING – PLANTING SEASON – isn’t a good time to read David R. Montgomery’s Growing a Revolution. Not when you live, as I do, in farming country. The plows are at work everywhere, from large green motorized behemoths to the horse-drawn antiques of the Amish. And, according to Montgomery, this is what not only has been destroying farmland around the world, it also probably was responsible for destroying past civilizations.

Montgomery sounded a death-knell over a decade ago in his book Dirt, which took a pessimistic trip through a history of soil erosion and nutrient eradication, the long-range after-effects of what we thought was progressive agriculture. It stands alongside Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature as a call for action falling largely on deaf ears, so Montgomery has revisited the topic in an encouraging, inspiring way. The needed changes can be made, he argues, and are being made – and in the unlikeliest places.

Growing a Revolution follows the author from country to country, climate to climate, to look at successful examples of no-till farming. As Montgomery is quick to observe, farmers generally aren’t given to change anything unless confronted with evidence of success, and that success needs to be seen in the harvests.

The key to Montgomery’s argument is conservation agriculture, the three components of which are “(1) minimum disturbance of the soil; (2) growing cover crops and retaining crop residue so that soil is always covered; and (3) use of diverse crop rotations. These principles can be applied anywhere, on organic or conventional farms, with or without genetically modified crops.”

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.