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Monday, May 06, 2019

Drive-Worthy Vehicles

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Once upon a time, the saving grace of laptop computers (in the days when laptop computers required somewhat more than a lap’s-worth of real estate, until they were supplanted by a form factor termed “notebook,” which now has pretty much taken over the laptop arena, with strong insurgency from the netbooks) was going to be the PC Card, or PCMCIA card, which fit into a standardized slot but allowed you to add a modem, network connection, GPS device, and even an extra hard drive. But components got smaller and USB came along. The PC Card now is a thing of memory – and a subject of my quarter-century-old piece below, written for Mobile Office magazine.

                                                                                           

IN A RARE EXAMPLE of technology moving in complementary directions, the price of hard disks is dropping almost as quickly as the size of programs is swelling. The result: adequate disk space need not be a problem.

Unless you’re carrying a portable computer. A 200 megabyte hard disk seemed more than generous as newer, sleeker, faster machines emerged. Now, even with disk compression, those drives fill up far too quickly. Replacing the hard disk in a notebook computer is costly and wasteful – you’re left with an orphaned drive. Fortunately, another technology is also hurrying to keep up with the situation. The PC Card market is finally settling into something reliable and, better still, predictable. We’ve seen an efflorescence of modems and network devices in the PC Card form factor; now hard disks are joining the class.

The Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) is the standard-setting consortium that established parameters of size and compatibility; their efforts are finally giving us cards that are truly interchangeable. Hard drives follow the Type III form factor of 10.5mm in height, allowing the manufacturers to fashion a complete but incredibly miniaturized unit complete with the rugged packaging needed for something that’s frequently handled.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Stranded on a Davenport

Guest Blogger Dept.: We deserve a visit from H. Allen Smith. He was a newspaperman in the 1920s, a Mark Twain devotee who won his own fame as a humorist in the 1940s thanks to his best-selling memoir Low Man on a Totem Pole and the many wonderful books that followed. I wrote about him here, when I went searching for his Alpine, Texas home. Here’s one of his Low Man stories.

                                                                              
      

NEWSPAPER SHOPS, LARGE AND SMALL, accumulate fantastic personalities and weird behavior patterns. I once knew a Washington newspaperman who suffered from the delusion that Herbert Hoover had bladders on his feet. The first time I met him we were fellow passengers aboard the ill-starred Morro Castle in its maiden run from Newport News to New York. He kept calling me aside, telling me he had an important piece of inside information to give me if I’d promise not to print it. Then he would reconsider and decide to nurse his great secret for a while longer.

At last he came to my stateroom and after looking up and down the corridor to see that he had not been followed he stepped quickly inside, closed and locked the door and announced that he was ready to spill it.

“Herbert Hoover has bladders on his feet,” he said, spacing the words out for emphasis.

“No!” I exclaimed.

“It’s the God’s truth,” he said.

“How do you know he has bladders on his feet?” I demanded, pretending to be skeptical in the face of such a staggering statement.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Seriously Fortunate: The Armadillo

From the Food Vault Dept.: I tried to combine my longer trips with restaurant reviews back in the days when I took long trips and wrote restaurant reviews, and here’s an example of such: a nifty Mexican restaurant in Kingston, NY, that’s still very much in business.

                                                                              

SHE’D ALREADY BOUGHT AN UPSTATE HOUSE, upstate in this case being Kingston, as defined relative to Manhattan. “I’m a child of the first Woodstock generation,” says Merle Borenstein, “and I love the area. So I bought this place, but I’m still working in the city.” Working in the restaurant business, as it happens, managing a prestigious operation. “I’m vacation in my upstate home, thinking I’d like to run a restaurant in the area. But I didn’t tell anyone.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“So this customer comes in one day, a regular customer at the Manhattan restaurant, and he says to me, ‘I have a space I’d like to rent to someone who’ll know how to use it.’ And wouldn’t you know, it’s in Kingston!”

Borenstein looked at it. “It had nothing! No kitchen! It was a bar in the 1890s, I was told, but at this point the neighborhood was run down and brutal. A tough neighborhood, they told me! I looked at it and said, ‘I’m from Brooklyn. It looks fabulous.’”

Thus the Armadillo Bar and Grill opened in May, 1987. “You know how you’re supposed to have six months of salary and other expenses in the bank? We had nothing. We opened with a fundraising event, for Hospice, and it did very well. And we’ve been going ever since. We’re very seriously fortunate. And we’ve stayed small.”

Friday, April 26, 2019

Regaining Your Roots

FOR BROTHERS DAVID AND DAN PODOLL, one of the solutions to the economic stresses of operating their North Dakota farm turned out to be heirloom seeds. The brothers’ farm has been in their family since 1953, with wheat and turkeys providing their main revenue stream. But their ability to continue farming in southeastern North Dakota had been hit by shifts in both economics and weather, and conventional approaches were no longer succeeding, at least on the small scale the Podolls practice.

They’re one of three farm families located in three different parts of the United States, profiled by Lisa M. Hamilton in her engaging book Deeply Rooted, Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA, 2009). The common threads are devotion to the land and innovative approaches to maintaining it, usually in the face of resistance from those too steeped in what passes for tradition to see how tradition is failing.

“Revenue from three acres of seeds roughly equals that from the farm’s three hundred acres in grains,” Hamilton notes, and the heirloom seeds that the Podolls are producing are cultivated to flourish in less-than-ideal conditions. They include a medium-sized watermelon they named “Dakota Rose,” alongside Dakota Tears onions, Dakota Black popcorn, and Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert squash.

But the enemy of the heirloom seed and the Podolls’ approach to farming is the incredibly profitable world of corporate science. Monsanto (now a division of German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG), a leading developer of GMO technology, sells patented single-use seeds, the purchase and use of which obligates the farmer to a draconian set of rules and restrictions.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Digital Decision

From the Tech Vault Dept.: There’s a rain barrel outside my house that has spawned a large sunfish, swimming within. I was going to blast it with my .22, but decided it would be easier to regurgitate the column below. I believe that everything referenced in it is completely obsolete. Even me – I certainly no longer resemble that photo!

                                                                              
              

ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, I tested a then-representative pile of digital cameras for Computer Life magazine, concluding that they all were pretty good in delivering images of mediocre resolution – good enough for Web pages, say, but not what you’d use to archive vacation memories.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
A few hundred dollars would buy you an entry-level camera; for professional applications, such as magazine photography, you’d have to spend well up in the thousands.

As is inevitable, the technology has improved – and it’s improved pretty amazingly. I looked at a few current models that are priced in the hundreds and found cameras that are easier to use, more versatile and capable of producing very high-resolution output. Let’s look at the best of those, as well as what you can do with those photos you take.

Olympus, well known for its traditional cameras, got into the digital biz early and evolved a series of cameras that have been in the forefront where features, price and ease of use are concerned (but keep in mind that pricing in this realm is well above that of the film-camera cousins).

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Grand Mississippi Babes Mill

From the Record Shelf Dept.: All right, CD shelf, but even what sounds more up-to-date is charmingly antiquated. At any rate, here’s a look back some thirty years at a pair of significant releases of music by now-forgotten American composers.

                                                                                    

FERDE GROFÉ WROTE MUSIC in a self-consciously “American” vein, trying to achieve the same formal identity European composers were perceived as having. Victor Herbert was one of those European composers (born in Ireland, trained in Germany), but ended up in America, promoting American composers even as he continued to write his successful operettas.

“Babes in Toyland” (1903) and “The Red Mill” (1906) are about as American as you’d find on the musical stage at that time, which is to say that they’re very German even as they ape the then-popular French operettas that were so successful in England. The nicely recorded Naxos CD offers two suites, proving how thoroughly Herbert’s catchy tunes insinuated themselves into the musical language. We know them as folk tunes, and when “March of the Toys” wraps up the “Toyland” suite, we’re comfortably back in a childhood state of mind.

Monday, April 15, 2019

War and Pieces

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Pianist Gary Graffman, who turned 90 last October, is still active as a teacher and performer (and numbers Lang Lang andYuja Wang among his distinguished students. Here’s a look at a visit he paid to New York’s Capital Region nearly fifteen years ago.

                                                                             
   

BIRTH, DEATH, THE THREAT OF WAR, the aftermath of war – the programmatic or circumstantial elements of the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s triumphant performance at the Troy Music Hall last week touched on topics never more relevant than today, painting them through the emotional abstraction of music. Which may be the most compelling emotional manipulator of all.

Gary Graffman | Photo by Charles Grove
By the time Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” kicked into gear, with piano and orchestra merrily jazzing along, the effect was very uplifting. An excellent melding of soloist and orchestra gave the work both excitement and transparency.

By way of background, pianist Paul Wittgenstein (philosopher Ludwig’s brother) had his right arm shot away during World War I, and thereafter built up a commissioned repertory of left-hand-only piano works that included concertos by Prokofiev, Britten and, of course, Ravel, who wrote his contribution alongside his other (two-handed) piano concerto.

Wittgenstein also paved the way for soloists like Gary Graffman and Leon Fleischer, both of whom became right-hand-disabled at their career peaks. Graffman (who has himself commissioned works from Ned Rorem and William Bolcom), now president of the renowned Curtis Institute, has lost none of his performance fire, and, unless you could see the keyboard as he played, you’d easily forget the work’s dexterous restriction.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Troy’s Tasty Italia

From the Food Vault Dept.: I began my restaurant-reviewing career, such as it was, in 1986 with a column titled “Byron’s Blue Plate Special” in Albany’s Metroland magazine, which had yet to become an alt-weekly. Because we had no budget for meals, I suggested we ask restaurants to comp us, and write about what it is they do well. That format lasted nine months, after which a budget was found. And I promise you that I eventually turned in more interesting pieces. This piece also dates from a time when Troy, NY, was on the brink of becoming an exceptional  culinary center – but, like so much in the Capital Region, that went away.

                                                                           
              

HOW DO YOU GO FROM running an art gallery to running a restaurant? If you follow Anthony and Joseph Busone’s example, you just add the restaurant. Actually, they had a gallery a few doors down from their current location at The Italia, but now feature showings of area artists that hang in the dining room for eight weeks at a time.

The author (L) with Anthony and Joseph Busone
Photo by Drew Kinum
“Something for the eyes, something for the ears – and something for the palate,” is how Joseph described the experience of dining at his restaurant, because the brothers’ interest in music also plays a part. When there isn’t live jazz, as happens Friday and Saturday nights, there is recorded music, hailing from the golden age of jazz and swing.

But our tough mission was to sample the food. We picked a quiet time for the visit: a late weekday afternoon. We were joined by Drew’s brother, an Italian-food specialist.

Although the menu is divided into categories of pasta, seafood, chicken, veal, and so on, the top-of-the-page specialty was good enough for me as an entrée. For an appetizer, I chose from a hand-printed list of daily specials: Carciofi Ripieri features that edible cousin of the thistle, the artichoke. In this recipe it is stuffed with a mixture of bread crumbs, seasoning, and artichoke hearts.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Whatever Works

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Listen, my children, and you shall hear of an era with DOS to fear. That’s right: once upon a time we had no graphical interfaces on our computers (and cell phones were bulky monsters that lived in our cars). We toiled in the character-based interface of a thing called DOS, for “Disc Operating System,” which was what brought those early computers to life. (It’s still there, but well-concealed. Run “cmd” in Windows and you’ll see its enigmatic face.) WordPerfect was an early favorite for DOS-based word processing; in 1992, the company spun out a suite of companion programs, which I reviewed for the long-defunct PC/Computing magazine.

                                                                                      

WORDPERFECT WORKS is an all-in-one package that makes a lot of sense for anyone who’s already part of the WordPerfect family. And, with such a low list price, it’s an excellent introduction if you’re thinking of joining.

Clustered within this integrated system are modules for word processing, spreadsheet and database work, graphics editing and communications, tied together by the Shell program familiar to users of WordPerfect Office. It’s a terrific laptop bundle – it takes up 5 Mb of disk space – and may even be all you need on a desktop.

The outside world may be a little baffled by a group of applications that uses function keys so differently from everyone else: F7 (not Esc) is the exit, F3 (not F1) asks for help. But Works now even sidesteps those conventions by offering stronger-than-ever mouse support and menus.

If you know the WordPerfect line, the only unfamiliar module is Communications, and even then it’s reminiscent of MTEZ, a program bundled with many modems (both were written by MagicSoft).

Friday, April 05, 2019

Portrait of the Artist

From the Darkroom Dept.: As I mentioned a few days ago, I found some interview and promo pieces I wrote for Capital Repertory Company’s 2013 season brochure. This one is dear to my heart, because photographer Joe Schuyler was a very good friend and an endless inspiration. I’m delighted to read this again.

                                                                                          

Joe Schuyler
“I TEND TO LIKE PLAYS that are a little off-kilter and visually interesting,” says Joe Schuyler, which, if you know his work, is no surprise. And you do know his work. It hangs in the lobby of Capital Rep’s theatre and greets you on the company’s web page. He’s the company’s resident photographer, and has been capturing its signature moments since 1988, seven years its founding. Which gives him a longer association with the theater now than anyone else working there.

“The first play I did was ‘Saint Florence,’ by Elizabeth Diggs,” he says. “I’d already been photographing shows for ESIPA in the ’70s, and Soho Rep and the Lake George Opera. I even did a season at Williamstown, which didn’t pay very well. Of course, unless you’re doing Broadway and Off-Broadway, it’s not a lucrative gig. You have to have some reason other than a monetary one to do it.”

In his case, he confesses, he loves the world of theater because he married an actress. “I started photographing plays in Boston, then New York, now here.” Eileen Schuyler is known to the area audience for her work with a number of companies, including Capital Rep’s recent “33 Variations.” She spent many years working the Empire State Institute for the Performings Arts and its successor, the NY State Theatre Institute. Most recently, she played the title role in “The Old Mezzo” at Pittsfield’s WAM Theatre.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Meat: The Parents

From the Cinema Vault Dept.: I’ve written very few fim reviews over the years, which is surprising given my intense love of the cinema, and unsurprising given the crap I’d be asked to write about. But I’ve been able to cherrypick a few choice assignments over the years, and this was one of them (albeit an uncharacteristically brief example).

                                                                         
          

MANY YEARS AGO I attended a lecture describing an island culture that resolved its aggressions through “dream therapy,” the conscious manipulation of the unconscious state that allowed the dreamer to conquer an oppressor by imagining and then eating the person’s image.

Randy Quaid, Bryan Madorsky, and Mary Beth Hurt
Writer Christopher Hawthorne and director Bob Balaban may not have had this in mind when they embarked on the film Parents, but it certainly examines one nightmare case of parental oppression in terms both ghoulish and frighteningly familiar.

The familiar ones are the scariest, a tribute not only to the abovementioned and an exceptional cast but also to design consultant Yolanda Cuomo, who reproduced the look of 1958 Indiana in all its Eisenhower-loving glory.

Nick and Lily Laemle (Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt) have just moved into a spanking clean town with their 10-year-old son, Michael (an astonishing debut performance by non-actor Bryan Madorsky). They drive the right car and wear correct clothing. Dad works a nine-to-five job (he’s a defoliant expert for Toxico) and Mom keeps house.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Fable of a Statesman Who Couldn't Make Good

George Ade Dept.: We invite the distinguished newspaperman and fables-writer to spin another yarn of How Things Were and How They Ought to Should Be, vintage 1899. Amazing how contemporary it remains.
                                                                                  
Drawing by Clyde J. Newman

ONCE THERE WAS A BLUFF whose Long Suit was Glittering Generalities.

He hated to Work and it hurt his Eyes to read Law, but on a Clear Day he could be heard a Mile, so he became a Statesman.

Whenever the Foresters had a Picnic they invited him to make the Principal Address, because he was the only Orator who could beat out the Merry-Go-Round.

The Habit of Dignity enveloped him.

Upon his Brow Deliberation sat. He wore a Fireman's moustache and a White Lawn Tie, and he loved to Talk about the Flag.

At a Clam-Bake in 1884 he hurled Defiance at all the Princes and Potentates of Europe, and the Sovereign Voters, caught up by his Matchless Eloquence and Unswerving Courage, elected him to the Legislature.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Fur Horizon

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: A few years ago, I was hired to write promotional copy for Albany’s Capital Repertory Company (known now in our buzzword-intensive era as TheREP). Most of the pieces were specific to shows that mightn’t mean much to you, but I’m hoping you’ll enjoy the interview I did with David Ives.

                                                                                   

IT’S A CASTING DIRECTOR’S NIGHTMARE. You’re closing up shop after an exhausting day of auditioning actors, good and bad, and you’d just as soon not hear another word of the play – at least for the rest of the night. In David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” it’s a playwright named Thomas who’s just about to wrap up an audition day when an oddly-garbed actress barges in, wet from the rain.

David Ives | Photo by Jennifer S. Altman
The setup seems a million miles from the short novel that inspired the play, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. “It’s a serious novel. It’s a central text of world literature,” says Thomas, to which the actress Vanda replies, “Oh, I thought from the play it had to be porn. Anyway, you don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theater.”

“The book is dull,” says David Ives. “Very dull. But famous.” It is, in fact, the book that bestowed its author’s name upon the willful pursuit of pain: masochism. It tells a story-within-a-story as its unnamed narrator reads the confessions of a friend who describes a volatile, provocative romance.

But that’s not where Ives got started with the project. “I had this terrible idea,” he says, “which was to turn The Story of O into a play. It’s a really terrible idea because it could never possibly work in any way.” Another classic of pain-and-subjugation literature, The Story of O was published pseudononymously in 1954 and garnered both literary awards and obscenity charges.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Good Reception

From the Vault Dept.: During the course of my thirty-year Metroland career, I wrote a massively wide variety of reviews, advances, calendar listings, puff pieces, political pieces, and the kind of utilitarian stuff that reassured advertisers that this alternative newsweekly wasn’t too damn communist to help hawk their wares. Thus it was that I was asked to cook up the piece below, offering tips on your wedding reception dinner.

                                                                                                   

I ALWAYS END UP at the back of the prime rib line. After eyeballing the pasta station and deciding that the line pace there is glacial, I ease over to the carving station just as Table Eight is called and suddenly twelve enormous people have clustered in front of me, plates in hand, each drenching an outsized chop in all available sauces.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The wedding dinner is probably the most variable element of that special day, and it defines the look of the occasion. A feast for 400 in a capacious catering hall is very different from dinner for 40 in a restaurant – or catered at home.

The key to success is your involvement. Your leadership, in fact, because the more you entrust to others, the more it will look like every other cut-and-paste affair.

This is not to disparage the work of the planner or caterer or other wedding professional, who should ensure that the event runs smoothly, but it’s up to you to add the individual touches that make this your wedding and nobody else’s.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Babes in Goyland

From the Theater Vault Dept.: Here’s a charming little musical that had its world premiere in Cohoes, NY, in 1989; it had runs in Chicago and Manhattan in the years that followed. I’m going to give you my review first, followed by an interview piece that ran a week earlier.

                                                                                         

“IT'S LIKE A MOVIE,” sings Rachel, a screen-struck character in Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi. And she's absolutely right. This musical, receiving its world premiere at the Cohoes Music Hall, boasts an improbable plot, unbelievable sets, wildly uncharacteristic songs and a gratuitous helping of beautiful women offering generous views of their bosoms.

I'm going to see it again as soon as I can.

The creators, composer Bob Johnston and writer Jeff Hochhauser, call their show a “shameless musical,” and shameless it is in exploiting every entertainment style that's ever been overmagnified on the silver screen.

Set in 1917 at the height of Theda Bara's stardom, it opens with the glamorous vamp at her most austere and inaccessible, just as publicist Selwyn Farp (Raymond Wood) designed her. The gorgeous Theda, played in varying states of dress by pretty Liz Larsen, is regarded as such an evil influence that no self-respecting person would be caught watching her films.

That's the problem a young rabbi goes up against when a member of his temple catches him at the movies. Isaac Birnbaum is so flustered that he explains his purpose as information-gathering: he's going to deliver a sermon against the vile woman.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Youth’s Magic Horn

From the Vault Dept.: Thirty years ago, the Albany (NY) Symphony offered a splendid performance of Mahler’s Fourth, one of the more accessible of that composer’s mighty works. These were the glory days of Geoffrey Simon’s association with the orchestra; the Australian-born conductor was the ASO’s music director for four years. He helped lead a festival of Australian music, of which component concerts are reviewed here and here.

                                                                         
                  

MAHLER’S SYMPHONY NO. 4 is a conductor’s paradise. It’s the musical equivalent of painting a fine and detailed figure study, the combinations of instruments providing an exotic palette of colors.

Albany Symphony Orchestra music director Geoffrey Simon gave the orchestra one of its best showings yet Friday night at the Troy Music Hall when he led them through this work. It was a thinking man’s Mahler, extruding passion from a considered plan. Mahler was a symphonic dramatist: his works have plots, characters, confrontations. Simon understands this construction and is as much director as conductor.

And, of course, there was the setting of settings in the Troy Music Hall, an edifice dating from the age of symphonic excess that Mahler brought to a zenith. The walls filled the soft sighs of the slow third movement with warmth; likewise, the terrible outbursts were given that extra flare of life.

We’ve been witnessing the steady growth of the ASO’s violins into a sections with cohesive, characteristic sounds; this symphony gave the cellos and basses a chance to show their stuff and it further confirmed the artistic development of the orchestra.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Seoul Food

AS A CHILD, Jinah Kim’s favorite dish was pan-fried yellow croaker. When her mother would prepare it for the family, it reaffirmed their Korean roots. The family had moved from Inchon, South Korea, to Framingham, Massachusetts, when Jinah was three. Other family members had a jewelry store there, which probably kindled Jinah’s entrepreneurial spirit. But there were more moves to come: to Chicago in 1998, where her father could work as a pastor, and then to Troy, NY, in 2001, where he founded a church and also started a jewelry shop nearby.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“I was 12,” Jinah explained, “so I was very sensitive to – everything.” She was speaking at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, on February 21, at a talk titled A Place at the Table. It was part of the college’s Voices lecture series, which seeks to stimulate community awareness and discussion, a mission Kim fulfills with passionate dedication.

“I wanted to bring some school friends home, she continued, and I was so excited when my friends and I got off the bus in front of my house.” She was hoping the visit would help her achieve the assimilation she sought; instead, she was mortified to discover her mother cooking yellow croaker. “The smell of that fish – it’s hard to describe. The stink is unbelievable. It smells like the ocean, and that smell sticks to your clothes. I was so upset, I ended up scolding my mom. It was terrible.”

Friday, March 08, 2019

The Scientific Scenario

Guest Blogger Dept.: Do movies pander to the masses? Nearly a century ago, Robert Benchley argued the point in this 1920 Vanity Fair piece.

                                                                                        

The Scientific Scenario: A Film Version of The Education of Henry Adams for Culture’s Sake.

SOONER OR LATER some one is going to come out and say that the movies are too low-brow. I can just see it coming. Maybe some one has said it already, without its having been brought to my attention, as I have been very busy for the past two weeks on my yearly accounts (my accounts for the year 1920, I mean. What with one thing and another, I am a bit behind in my budget system).

And whenever this denouncement of the movies takes place, the first thing that is going to be specifically criticized is the type of story which is now utilized for scenarios. How can a nation hope to inject any culture in the minds of its people if it feeds them with moving-picture stories dealing with elemental emotions like love, hate, and a passion for evening-dress? Scenarios to-day have no cultural background. That's the trouble with them. They have no cultural background.

Now, if we are to make the movies count for anything in the mental development of our people, we must build them of sterner stuff. We must make them from stories and books which are of the mind rather than of the body. The action should be cerebral, rather than physical, and instead of thrilling at the sight of two horsemen galloping along a cliff, we should be given the opportunity of seeing two opposing minds doing a rough-and-tumble on the edge of a nice problem in Dialectics or Metaphysics.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Getting Your Bach Back

SOMETIMES YOU NEED NO WORDS to make a convincing argument. Listen to violinist Isabelle Faust dance through the difficult bariolage passages in Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, and you will be convinced, as I am, that this piece originally was written for the fiddle, and not for a keyboard. It’s known today as a keyboard concerto because the only authentic manuscript comes from a collection the composer made of seven keyboard concertos, all of them thought to be recycling material from earlier works.

There remain doubts, because Bach scholars are aggressively opinionated, but not only do I say that Faust’s interpretation of this work is authentication enough – I’m also prepared to give the keyboard crowd permanent ownership of the concerto in F Major, BWV 1057, which is better known as the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, in which guise it’s a violin assuming the keyboard’s role. But I find the keyboard to be more idiomatic.

Which shouldn’t be surprising. Bach knew his way around the keyboard, be it harpsichord or organ, and could write as idiomatically for those instruments as he could for the violin, as a player of which he also excelled. But it’s not just the keyboard repertory that Faust is plundering in this new two-CD collection: she also takes aim at the flute, seizing as she does the Orchestral Suite No. 2, BWV 1067. The flute-solo version is in B Minor, but Bach authority Joshua Rifkin maintains that an earlier version in A Minor featured the violin, and Faust’s performance does nothing but support that notion with an engaging, danceable approach that meshes perfectly with the original-instruments approach of her accompanying ensemble, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, conducted by concertmaster Bernhard Forck.

Friday, March 01, 2019

New Day Coming

FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY, when the First of March also fell on a Friday, seven aides and advisors to Richard Nixon were indicted by Judge John Sirica for their roles in the Watergate imbroglio -- and Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator. Let's celebrate.


Monday, February 25, 2019

A Box of Berlioz

ONE OF THE MOST SURPRISING DISCOVERIES lurking in a trip through the complete works of Hector Berlioz is the sense of intimacy that peeks through. Here’s a composer who demanded extra-large orchestral forces, and whose music surges with the grandest of gestures, yet in and among those roarings are moments of incredible delicacy, rendered all the more delicate by the context in which we find them.

Thus, as the “Sanctus” in Berlioz’s Requiem comes to us an hour into the piece (after the tumult of a terrifying “Rex tremendae” and a big-boned “Hostias”), a solo tenor soars above quiet strings – here it’s the welcome voice of Robert Tear – in a passage that seems worlds apart from what came before, but it’s precisely because of the moods and momentum that brought us here that we’re so moved by the moment (in this respect, it’s not unlike the “Sanctus” in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis).

We celebrate Berlioz in 2019 – March 8 being the 150th anniversary of his death – and Warner Classics has produced a 27-CD of the composer’s complete works to honor the occasion. The aforementioned Requiem is the formerly out-of-print version recorded in 1975 by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Louis Fremaux, a stirring performance that holds its own against the legendary alternatives helmed by Colin Davis and Charles Munch.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Edsel Show

SPEAKING OF BING (a new biography of whom I reviewed a few days ago), here's an example of his work in the 1950s. He'd just finished making the movie "High Society" with Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, and he'd long championed the work of Rosemary Clooney. Here they are together in the 1957 live broadcast of "The Edsel Show," a variety program also featuring the vanished-from-history dance team of Mr. Conn and Mr. Mann. What you'll see is the videotape prepared for the west coast's airing of the program, a superior alternative to the kinescopes then in constant use. But the trouble with videotape was that it could be erased a re-used, which doomed many a so-recorded show. This one escaped, and you can find fascinating info about it from Emmy-nominated film editor Kris Trexler at this web page. The video linked below also gives a good background and format comparison before the show itself draws you into entertainment of a sadly bygone era.


Monday, February 18, 2019

Bing Crosby: Soldiering On

SIX YEARS AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH, Gary Crosby put out a book that luridly described incidents of disciplinary abuse, catapulting the unsuccessful actor-singer alongside Christina Crawford as mistreated celebrity-child of the century. And it toppled Bing Crosby from a very high pedestal indeed, because the legendary crooner had been acclaimed for decades as the ultimate father and family man.

That rosy picture was due in part to the Hollywood publicity machine: once Crosby began topping the ranks of popular screen actors, accounts of his family life were splashed across the newspapers and magazines, helped in no small part by the upstanding characters he typically portrayed. But there’s something in the American psyche that enjoys seeing its heroes dethroned. When I’ve mentioned to friends that I’m reading Gary Giddins’s new volume of Bing biography, the too-frequent response has been, “That Crosby was a terrible person.”

This is the second of what’s projected to be a three-volume set, covering the busy years 1940-46. Like the first volume, it wasn’t authorized by the singer’s estate, but it received a huge boost of info after Crosby’s widow read volume one and was impressed enough to share papers and other memorabilia.

Although the book is thus informed with great detail, the narrative is never swamped by it. Giddins is a scholar who avoids growing didactic; he’s a storyteller who (like his subject) knows how to make a punchline land. He provides a comforting amount of historical and cultural context for the Crosby story to make sense, yet he assumes that the reader possesses a mature knowledge of entertainment history (you should know, for example, who Larry Adler was).

Friday, February 15, 2019

Blowing through the Winds

From the Vault Dept.: Australia’s tercentenary was celebrated thirty years ago with a worldwide variety of antipodean-related events. In Albany, NY, the local symphony presented a series of concerts that featured works by Australian composers. Here’s my review of one of those.

                                                                                               

TO SAY THAT OBOIST CYNTHIA WATSON was the star of last Friday’s concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra takes too much credit away from the other soloists who also shone, but when Watson took her solo bow at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony it was after an evening of superlative work.

Richard Mills (in a more recent view)
Guest conductor Richard Mills continued the season-long tribute to Australia’s tercentenary with works by two of that country’s composers – one of them being Mills himself.

His “Fantastic Pantomimes,” written and first performed two years ago during a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra tour of Japan, is a suite for five soloists and orchestra inspired by traditions of Japanese theater. It’s a piece of gesture and feel, relying on dramatic effects of rhythm and punctuation over the traditions (especially in a concerto-like setting) of melodic progression.

The soloists, stationed star-like at points on the stage within the ensemble, were Watson, flutist Floyd Hebert, clarinetist Susan Martula, trumpeter James Morris and David Saunders, French horn.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Old-Fashioned Love

LEGENDARY MEZZO-SOPRANO CATHY BERBERIAN developed a program in the early 1970s that presented a song recital as it might have been performed in 1909. She dressed accordingly and sang numbers ranging from “The Song of the Flea” to “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” It was recorded at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, so you can hear (if you can find the LP) the twinkle in her voice as she sails from one song to the next. It’s a wonderful conceit, but, without being too sardonically self-conscious, it’s as rooted in the 70s as it is in the aughts.

There are delightful chestnuts from the early 20th century, but they typically display an intensity of sentiment that we’ve long been too hip to indulge. Thus, when you do find performances of “On the Road to Mandalay” or “Trees,” the singer finds a way to telegraph this emotional detachment – usually through some manner of camp or other exaggeration.

This was not the case when John Charles Thomas sang these songs, or John McCormack, or Leonard Warren. And it was Warren’s work that inspired baritone Brian Mulligan not only to develop his own splendid operatic voice, but also to record a collection of 21 songs written between 1877 and 1939 – and to record them with nothing but the total conviction the material deserves.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Moscow on the Mohawk

From the Food Vault Dept.: I’ve been researching Russian cuisine for an upcoming dinner, which reminded me of a review visit I made in 1996 to an ambitious Russian entity. That it ceased to exist not long thereafter should come as no surprise. The mayor referenced below was trying to close down the city’s several strip joints at the time, a task that took much longer to accomplish, and even then I think the places simply died of boredom.

                                                                                           

LATER, TRYING TO RECONSTRUCT THE EVENING, my wife and I had trouble ascertaining just what it was that pushed us into the realm of no-holds barred absurdity. The big birthday party, to be sure, and the Russian disco band. The mini-skirted, satin-bloused waitresses added an entertaining touch (and the worry that Schenectady’s fleshaphobic mayor might try to close down this place). Then there was the formidable menu, sporting such unusual items as “schti,” which our waitress wouldn’t describe because the kitchen was out of it, so why bother?

This photo has nothing to do with the article alongside.
Troika – the name refers to the team of three horses that pull a traditional Russian carriage – occupies a building that went through a few incarnations as an Indian restaurant, interrupted by a few years serving Korean food. To put a Russian restaurant there is a delightful idea. The location does seem to be a kiss of death, though.

So my first question would have been about that location. Unfortunately, my follow-up phone calls to manager Ella were unsuccessful – she was too busy with customers to talk one day, which is a good sign; but she couldn’t honor our phone appointment the next day, however, because “she’s having some trouble with the boss,” the phone-answerer whispered, explaining, “I’m just a friend who stopped by to visit today.”

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Torch Song

AS THE YOUNG WOMAN OBSERVES, it was Cousin Need, who “read all that Truman Capote all the time,” who told her about Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They are identified with spinning, measuring, and cutting, an activity we witness in the form of fuse-making. The fuses are awaiting future torchings by a professional arsonist, an unnamed but memorable character in the latest offering by New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre, proving once again that a small cast, a poetic script, and excellent acting can pack a thought-provoking plenty into a short stretch of time.

Sean Cullen and Jenny Jarnagin
Photo by Bryan Godwin
Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “The Arsonists” is getting its regional premiere here, directed by Denizen co-artistic director Ben Williamson. The experience begins as you move from the lobby into the black-box space along an overgrown, verdant pathway. And then we’re in the Florida swamp, where M, who otherwise is referred to as “Littles,” cowers in a cabin, her latest job an out-of-control failure that cost the life of her father, who taught her the business.

Triumphing in this difficult role is Jenny Jarnagin, who brings to it a sense of sorrow that’s imbued with determination to continue to struggle against everything that weighs her down – and, in this case, it’s just about everything: father, mother, identity, future. Jarnagin is a member of Manhattan’s Flea Theater, but she’s also a very committed activist who is creating theater to effect social change.

While there are no such axes to grind in “The Arsonists” (despite M’s facility with a hatchet), I would argue that any desire for social change begins within, and this show demands that you reassess yourself. If it’s going back to the Greeks to find thematic resonance, that’s only because these issues have a profoundly long-ranging provenance, and we can’t move forward without knowing our cultural past.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Bliss on a Bun

FIRST, A CONFESSION: I have only ordered burgers at this place. Yes, I need to try different things, and I've tasted some of the alternate offerings ordered by friends, but the pursuit of superior hamburgers is a calling, a mission, and I have been so called. What you’re getting at Dave’s Gourmet Burgers and More is both a gustatory and architectural marvel, a jumbo-sized creation tamed by a knife through its heart.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This incarnation of Dave Khan’s burger-joint concept has been operating in Schenectady for two years; his previous locations include a stint on Albany’s Fuller road. What he’s doing, and doing well, is offering an alternative to the more upscale burger chains. If you’re dining at McDonald’s, forget it: you’re not interested in flavor. But next time you’re thinking about Smashburger or Red Robin or Sonic or the like, try this place instead.

You won’t find fancy pre-fab decor – far from it. It has a couple of picnic tables in the center of the room, more tables against a wall; a reach-in cooler with drinks, a TV spitting out cable news, and walls covered with homilies, wise saws, and other such sayings. The restaurant is located in Rotterdam, on lower Broadway, with on-street parking and a few parking spaces in the rear.

If you’re not immediately welcomed by Dave, it’s because he has something on the stove. He’s the do-it-all factotum of the place, and the first thing he’s going to do is get an order of black fries cooking for you. Black fries? you wonder, and your gaze lights on a menu or wall notice informing you that unlimited black fries are part of your meal.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Mark Twain and the Dead Canary

Mark Twain Dept.: Sam Clemens gave a talk in Fort Plain, NY, on December 19, 1868, part of what he termed his “American Vandals” tour, consisting largely of his reading of excerpts from his soon-to-be-published Innocents Abroad (which became a bestseller). There he met George W. Elliott, associate editor of the Fort Plain-based Mohawk Valley Register. Elliott was known for his turgid verse, such as “Bonnie Eloise,” which became a popular song, and “The Dead Canary,” the story of a bird named Lillie who succumbs to a melancholy death after her two eggs are crushed by “mysterious fate.” The poem ends:

Ye murderers, unawed by fear,
Who bend at Herod’s crimson shrine! –
Turn once a scaleless vision here,
And view this lifeless bird of mine:
Then in your hell-born purpose pause!
Forsake the path so reckless trod;
Lest, while ye scoff at Nature's laws,
Ye feel the withering curse of God!

Elliott began deluging Twain with verse and song, trying to get some manner of praise. As Twain detailed in letters to Olivia Langdon, his soon-to-be wife, this was not about to happen.


                                                                               
         

Mark Twain
To Olivia L. Langdon
21 August 1869

That thief that wrote about the dead canary & sends me so much execrable music has found me out & is publishing extravagant puffs of me & mailing the papers to me, duly marked, as usual. I shall offer a bounty for his scalp, yet. He is one of the most persistent & exasperating acquaintances I was ever afflicted with.

                                  

To Olivia L. Langdon

6 and 7 September 1869 • Buffalo, N.Y.
In Bed, Monday Night

Livy darling, I got your letter this evening, though I looked for it this morning – I had forgotten that you told me to expect the letters in the evening hereafter. Yes, dearie, I will leave this letter unsealed until I get a Salutatory to send to you in the morning.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Uncaged

From the Vault Dept.: It now seems remarkable that we had John Cage hanging out in the area for a while, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. New York’s rural reaches have attracted many well-known folk to visit, vacation, and even reside for a while. In this case, the ambitious composer-performer Carleton Clay made sure to lure notable American composers to his Catskill Conservatory concerts, which for several years were the best introduction to such music. I reviewed Cage’s best-known work in this piece; but the review below celebrates his 1985 visit to the area. 

                                                                                                    

JOHN CAGE is one of the wittiest composers since Beethoven, an opinion Cage might not enjoy only because he’s not too crazy about Beethoven’s reputation. But both of them share the dilemma of being unrecognized for their wit – that is, the wit that informs their music.

John Cage
Nobody laughs when Beethoven is performed, which is a pity. Thankfully, the audience at Saturday night’s Catskill Conservatory concert was loose enough to laugh at the music by Cage.

Finding the West Kortright Centre is challenge enough: you get off Interstate 88 near Oneonta and proceed through a number of little towns, taking some turns and ending up on an undeveloped stretch of road populated, it seems, only by farmers. In the midst of it pops up an old church, built in 1850, that has served the area for the past decade as a cultural center. It is in fact where the Catskill Conservatory began giving annual concerts that lately have spread as close as Rensselaerville and that always include the works and presence of a distinguished American composer.

This was Cage’s second appearance with the group. He’s very genial for an enfant terrible, and the man who has stressed the importance of silence when music is considered is a delightful (though rather soft-spoken) public speaker.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Send in the Crooners

From the Vault Dept.: I discovered Rosemary Clooney during her 1977 tour with Bing Crosby, when they performed at what was then the Uris Theatre in New York. Tony Bennett’s Greatest Hits was a fixture on my parents’ turntable, so at the age of six I could lip-sync to “Rags to Riches.” I saw each of them perform individually several times over the years, but here’s an account of a joint appearance at the now-demolished Coliseum in Latham, NY, in 1986.

                                                                                         

IT WOULD BE HARD TO FIND a pop-singer pairing more felicitous than Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, who packed the Coliseum Theatre Tuesday night.

Bennett and Clooney in 1991
Both have justifiable claims on the elusive term “song stylist”; both have impeccable taste in songs. Both survived rocky trips through the past two decades and emerged with followings that includes many younger faces.

Clooney took the stage for the first half with “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” sung to the swinging drive of pianist John Oddo, who plays in Woody Herman’s band. Oddo wrote most of the arrangements for Clooney’s songs. A large, locally contracted orchestra played them with zest
and polish.

An Ira Gershwin set included “I Can’t Get Started” (music by Vernon Duke) and brother George’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Strike up the Band.” Cole Porter’s “Why Shouldn’t I?” had a tasteful Oddo solo for accompaniment and, with the orchestra, Clooney reprised one of her biggest hits with “Hey There.”

Friday, January 18, 2019

Berlioz: Poetic Journeys

YOU’D THINK THAT the sweeping orchestral complexity of Berlioz’s music would resist reduction, but his buddy Liszt turned the Symphonie Fantastique into a piano piece almost immediately. Liszt was well-motivated: it was easier for a soloist to spread the word (or, in this case, the music) than it was to hire an orchestra, and Berlioz gave his oddly mixed approval. Mixed insofar as he favored the effort, but never offered his opinion of its quality.

Jean-François Heisser has gone Liszt one better: he arranged the piece for two pianos. Heisser is a pianist and conductor who has led the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Chamber Orchestra for nearly two decades, and he’s artistic director of the Soirées Musicales d’Arles and president of the Maurice Ravel International Academy, among other notable accomplishments. And he’s one of the piano pair on a new recording of his arrangement, alongside Marie Josèphe Jude, with whom he has worked in that capacity since 1997.

Although “alongside” is the wrong term for this venture. They’re face to face at a Pleyel Double Piano, an instrument that contains two complete workings but takes up less space than a pair of instruments. It was created in 1897, and 74 of them were built during the next three decades. The one used for the recording is kept at the Paris Museum of Music, and it’s kept in perfect working order, as you’ll hear on this disc.

Monday, January 14, 2019

With Friends like These

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Thomas Berger’s penultimate novel, Best Friends, again visited the realm of domestic treachery previously limned in such titles as Sneaky People, Neighbors, Meeting Evil, and The Feud. You should have no trouble finding a copy – Berger’s books remain in print, as they should. Here’s my review.

                                                                                         

ROY AND SAM ARE SUCH CLOSE FRIENDS that each has learned to live with the peccadillos of the other, although Roy is beginning to question his tolerance. With a bond that stretches back to childhood, the title characters of Best Friends exemplify the kind of pairing characteristic of Thomas Berger’s fiction – and deftly analyzed in a recent Voice Literary Supplement essay by Jonathan Lethem.

This duality was found in single characters like Little Big Man’s Jack Crabb, shuttling between his upbringings as a white man and as an Indian, and the psychotic Joe Detweiler in Killing Time; in the identity swap of Earl Keese with his new neighbors Harry and Ramona (Neighbors), and in the protagonist’s permutations in Being Invisible and Changing the Past, in which each re-imagining is sparked by a wish to change as much as a need to bridge that gap to an existing ideal.

Given Berger’s fiendish sense of humor – a quality that too often prompts the unwary reader to label him a comic author – it was inevitable that he should present the most awful aspects of a man’s other side as a murderous but charming fellow in the dark-as-night novel Meeting Evil. Best Friends is another meditation on that theme, but here it becomes a mystery story as Roy struggles to understand the nature of his friendship with Sam when the latter is suddenly hospitalized.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Haute Rustique

From the Food Vault Dept.: The Lake Placid Lodge I visited in 1996 is not the place you’ll visit now. The property has continued to develop and improve, but it remains one of the very finest destinations in the Adirondacks. Here’s a 32-year-old glimpse of the place.

                                                                           
           

STEVEN GILES IS YOUNG AND AMBITIOUS. The London-born chef looks like Charlie Sheen, although Giles probably considers that it’s he whom Sheen resembles. Which is exactly the right attitude to have when you’re professionally engaged in high-profile cookery.

Giles has been executive chef at the Lake Placid Lodge for four months, brought from the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara. As a Relais & Chateaux property, the Ranch adheres to extremely high standards; the Lake Placid Lodge takes its place among that rarefied company next year, and Giles’ work deserves all the recognition it can get as a vital component of the Lodge’s success.

My wife and I spent a couple of days there recently in order to meet the chef and sample his wares. Mild thunder and an attractive lightning show played over the mountains across the lake as we arrived, and we had an even better show of it during dinner on the open-air porch. It was an unexpectedly romantic accompaniment to our first night’s dinner--not to mention a farewell to the spring menu.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Sound of the Silenced

From the Vault Dept.: How loyal are you to your country? That was the nasty little question essentially asked of balladeer Richard Dyer-Bennet in 1953 when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had been named as a putative Communist by Burl Ives when Ives sang like a canary before HUAC, but Dyer-Bennet agreed to testify only if Telford Taylor, who was an attorney at the Nuremberg Trials (and a friend of Dyer-Bennet), could represent him. HUAC declined. Dyer-Bennet was blacklisted. He’d had a successful performing career up until then, and was able to continue at a very few sympathetic venues like the Village Vanguard. But he also took the opportunity to start his own record label, issuing discs he recorded in his own living room. They were meant to promote his concert appearances; they were haphazardly distributed; yet the initial volume sold like crazy. Twenty years ago, Smithsonian-Folkways issued that album on compact disc, and has since made all of the Dyer-Bennet recordings available. Here’s my long-ago take on the first volume.

                                                                                         

RICHARD DYER-BENNET’S APPROACH TO FOLKSONGS is about as far as you can get from the cragginess of field recordings without sounding like a slumming opera star. He was a unique and very stylistic singer who stuck to his guns in the way he arranged and performed the songs he enjoyed, so it was only natural that he should found his own record label to preserve the integrity of his performances.

It was a timely move. Dyer-Bennet resisted the House Un-American Activities Committee’s attempt to railroad him into naming names, thus ending his access to most commercial outlets as the 1950s got underway..

The 15 recordings that appeared under his name were released by arrangement with Folkways beginning in 1955. They’re now available through Smithsonian Folkways, and the first volume absolutely vindicates Dyer-Bennet’s approach to traditional songs. Unique as he sounds, the songs are about the songs, not the voice, but only because the voice is so well used that it’s practically transparent.

Friday, January 04, 2019

The Root of the Meal

From the Food Vault Dept.: It’s the time of year to celebrate the tubers and such, so I dug up this piece I wrote nearly fifteen years ago for the long-gone Metroland magazine.

                                                                             
             

ALL THAT GLITTERS does not grow above ground. It’s funny, in a way, that they’re called root vegetables, because they form so much of the foundation of a holiday meal. In some cases, it’s the only time you see some manner of rutabaga and turnip and beet on the table—but don’t forget that onions and garlic, carrots and potatoes are part of this family as well.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
They’re the character actors of the dinner table. You may marvel at the flashy antics of the short-season stars, the lettuce and beans and even those first mustardy broccoli florets, but those wan, tough tubers are there for you meal after meal and never let you down.

This year’s Thanksgiving dinner at my house will feature a roasted beet salad with tarragon and chives, a tri-color casserole that alternates carrot and parsnip purées with a green column of peas for contrast, sweet potato pie and some manner of rutabaga because I feel obliged every year to figure out some way to make it toothsome.

Most of the veggies in question respond nicely to a preparation you already know well: boil chunks of them until tender, then mash them with butter, salt and pepper.