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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.

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.