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Monday, December 31, 2012


From Deep within the Icebox Dept.: It’s Best-of-the-Year time, and Thursday’s Metroland will sport its share of lists, including my favorite ten restaurants from the past twelvemonth. For a fascinating contrast, here’s what I wrote twenty years ago. Of the places mentioned below, the only ones still open and offering anything like the same fare are Café Capriccio, Lombardo’s, Lo Porto, the Desmond, and the Mirror Lake Inn.


MY FAVORITE RESTAURANT isn't your favorite. Which it shouldn’t be. Part of the magic of the restaurant business is its diversity, which makes it similar to music. As with music, the more you study and participate, the more diverse your tastes become.

Cafe Capriccio | Albany, NY
This end-of-the-year, burn the nostalgia down imperative appeals to columnists as a vehicle to show off their arcane knowledge. Bryan Miller in the New York Times just came up with an eye-damaging list that correlates foods with favorite places, an exhaustive (and exhausting) Best Of intended to throw us into awe at the redoubtable Mr. Miller’s travels and note-taking ability.

Entertainment Weekly
digested the year for us in top-ten structured paragraph bites, again to inspire awe at their columnists’ ability to regard their entertainment experiences in hierarchical terms.

Pleasant dining is not about such ranking. Even the detachment necessary to regard a restaurant as a review subject damages the dining experience. Dining occurs completely in the present, which is one of its less-regarded gratifications. It’s a social event fraught with ritual. It’s nourishing (or it’s supposed to be). It heightens an occasion: dine with someone you love and it’s a wonderland of bliss. Get stuck at a table with a loathsome individual and your food will taste vile.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Friday, December 28, 2012

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

IT'S THE NIGHT before Christmas, 1908. The man you've loved for so many years has come back to town, but you've been unable to discover if he returns your affection. Now, as twilight falls over the village, a group of carolers goes back, celebrating the holiday. You respond in a far different mood.

From Beasley's Christmas Party, with music by Tom Savoy and book and lyrics by Byron Nilsson, based on the novella by Booth Tarkington.

Music and lyrics copyright © 2007 by Byron Nilsson and Tom Savoy.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Saga

From the Vault Dept.: One more old mined-from-Metroland Christmas piece, another in what had been the continuing saga of Uncle Ned, this one from 1986.


A SPIRIT-OF-CHRISTMAS MORAL lies buried somewhere within this saga, but for the most part it’s an accurate reminiscence of the holiday antics of a couple of guys in the town where I grew up. What made the experience so poignant was that I was related to one of them.

The town itself is a New England charmer, one of those 18th-century riverside, light-industry towns that has since been taken over by commuters. New York City commuters, I should add, who move to the country and then try to make it look like the city they fled.

Twenty years ago we were getting just the edge of the wedge as this Manhattan attorney or that successful actor bought houses without much hullabaloo.

Then there was a man named Packer who gave up work in PR or advertising or some such occupation to buy a country store, a little Gristede’s a couple of blocks from my parents’ house. He believed that personalized service would offset the need to ask prices higher than posted at the A&P down the street.

The store opened one Christmas Day with a party and Packer’s pledge that this store was here to serve the people and hereafter would be open 365 days a year late into every night. With a special on fresh-killed turkeys for New Year’s. The mistake he made was in selling one of those birds to an uncle of mine.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Nights Errant

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Before (ostensibly) packing it in with his final collection of essays, Final Fridays, John Barth was our most accessible experimentalist, deconstructing the processes of storytelling using every device the world of literature has to offer, including the use of a Möbius strip to tell a never-ending tale. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor revisited one of his favorite storytellers, Scheherazade. Here’s my 1991 review.


IN JOHN BARTH’S LITERARY WORLD, the key to the story is the story. Techniques of storytelling become more than tools or devices, achieving characteristic momentum as funny or engrossing or suspenseful as any plot element.

For example. Barth’s tenth and latest novel, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, turns the Arabian Nights inside-out by giving us a framing-tale set in Sindbad’s court in which a time-transplanted sailor appropriately named Behler or Baylor tells tales of his life as a 20th-century American journalist and the events that led to the ill-fated voyage that transplanted him to ancient Baghdad.

This is a work that’s symphonic in form, the literary equivalent of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade with a little Pictures at an Exhibition thrown in.

Not many un-overused plots are said to remain, but if you think you’ve heard them all you’ll be pleased with the way this novel avoids dependence on any single strain of storyline. Behler, the storytelling narrator, believes he has a spiritual twin in Scheherazade. He has a literal twin in a sister who died at birth, whom he keeps alive in an imaginary companion he calls “Bijou.” Bijou and Scheherazade both are addressed in the story Behler tells, or imagines an aged Scheherazade might be telling a visitor who resembles Barth/Behler but who unmistakably is the “Destroyer of Delights and the Severer of Societies.”

Water is a great companion to voyaging; the seas we’re presented range from great expanses of ocean to the marshes of Maryland as well as moist tracts of love and misunderstanding. Behler is a terrific ladies’ man, whose romances begin with a rambunctious, well-drawn childhood sweetheart called Crazy Daisy Moore. She turns out to have an uncomfortable lot in common with Yasmin, daughter of Sindbad, whose erotic interludes with the narrator are skillfully written – Barth’s (and Behler’s) best.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cabaret is a Life, Part Two

From the Vault Dept.: She made her stage debut at 15 in a Nazi interment camp, in “As You Like It,” and went on to learn folk songs – including traditional Yiddish tunes – while living in London after World War II. Martha Schlamme was born in Vienna, fled to France, further fled to England, and ended up in the U.S., where she gained increasing success as a Broadway and cabaret performer. She also specialized in the songs of Kurt Weill, several of which she presented at a 1985 performance at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, for which the theater stage was transformed into a nightclub. This proved to be her final tour; six months later she suffered a stroke while onstage, and died two months after that. Here’s a piece I wrote in advance of her Proctor’s appearance, followed by my review of the show.


SHE’S CURRENTLY ON a New York City stage with her “Kurt Weill Cabaret,” but it will be closed for the night while Martha Schlamme comes to Proctor’s Theater for one performance at 8 p.m. Saturday.

“I will do the show on Friday, then drive up with my manager the next day. Unfortunately, I can’t stay long – I have to be back in New York for a Sunday matinee,” she said in a phone  conversation.

Since her arrival in the United States in 1950 – following a perilous childhood traveling throughout war-torn Europe – Ms. Schlamme has worked as a singer and an actress and, more recently, as a teacher. But it is in her cabaret-concert that she offers her most personal view of life.

“I have divided the concert into two halves. The first one has songs which deal with the possibility and impossibility of relationships between men and women. It’s personal, without it being about me. The emotions come from personal experience, but the songs were written by other people. I use poetry and song to string the thoughts together. I sing one of Stephen Sondheim’s songs, and a song by Richard Maltby and David Shire and a quite a bit of Jacques Brel. The poetry is by Judith Viorst, Edna St Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker. It’s a fun program, but it has depth, too, coming as it does from real human experience.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ham on Windows

From the Tech Vault Dept.: The first sentence of the piece below shows how dated it is, as long-distance calling has never been cheaper. The second sentence was written before the advent of wireless networking. Hey, it’s 1995! Which means you should enjoy this as a curiosity. All of the products have since been superseded. And this version of the article contains dialgue that was cut for the published version.


REACHING OUT TO TOUCH SOMEONE over land lines is fine if you’ve got deep pockets, but the only guarantee about keeping in touch by phone is that it’s never going to get cheaper. Wireless transmissions, on the other hand, are free.

As a user of online services and BBS networks, you’ve already seen how easy it is to be part of an electronic network of friends who may never meet face-to-face. Long before the first BBS fired up, however, an electronic network of amateur radio operators circled the globe. They keep in touch by voice and by Morse code; they chat with old friends on home frequencies and search for new ham operators all around the dial, exchanging postcards (QSL cards) to recognize those contacts. They make the news whenever a disaster strikes, when ham radio may be the only way to get information in and out of a crisis scene.

Like computerists, they work from systems that are a combination of store-bought and home-brewed, and so easing into the world of personal computers has been a natural for hams. Not surprisingly, the two worlds come together with the newer breed of ham radios, equipped with interfaces that allow you to run a rig from a computer keyboard.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Whistling a Merry Tune?

From the Radio Archives Dept.: I’ve been fascinated with Muzak ever since writing a college-era paper on the company, a research job that included a visit to its headquarters in 1974. I made no appointment beforehand, and arrived at lunchtime, when most of the offices were empty. But I found a very pleasant custodian who showed me around the facility and gave me some pamphlets about the company. “The have orchestras come in and record the music here,” he told me. “Sometimes I get surprised when I hear a new song done the old-fashioned way they like. I don’t think they’ll ever do any of those really new music styles.” “Like Reggae?” I suggested. “No,” he said. “Like – what do they call it? Rock and Roll.”


CHRISTMAS ARRIVED EVEN BEFORE Thanksgiving this year, and you know it’s on its way because it’s announced by the Muzak first. There you are in the supermarket trying to decide between a frozen pumpkin pie or a can of filling and another crack at preparing that crust when the tinny strains of “Deck the Halls” tickle your subconscious.

You look up in surprise. Christmas? Where’d that come from? Then you realize the tune is coming over the store’s speakers. Sure, they follow it with a quick “Gentle on My Mind” or something, but the stage is set. And you know that, once the Thanksgiving plates have been cleared and you’ve taken that deep I’m-going-to-get-the-shopping-done-early-this-time-for-real breath, you are going to be bombarded with that crap for the next five weeks.

Christmas Muzak is more insidious than you may think. Let’s first take a look at Muzak itself. It began in the early part of this century when someone had the notion of combining two new technologies: the phonograph and the automobile. He drove around broadcasting popular songs. An attempt to make any kind of industry out of it didn’t go anywhere until World War II, when it was discovered that the right songs, broadcast into the factories, increased worker productivity.

Muzak was, from the start, meant as a manipulative device, and today it’s a business that relies on a panel of psychologists who coordinate the song choices, the instrumentation, the tempos and so on, all specially designed to help sell products or keep the workers alert.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Santa for Sale

From the Chimneyside Dept.: Despite repeated encouragement from sadistic friends, I have never been tempted to play Santa. The Santas hired by Macy’s for December purportedly take home about 30 grand for the month, but I find this not at all tempting. The brutal parade of children conducted to the tune of so-called holiday classics would undo me within a day. Besides, my own beard looks wimpy next to a luxuriant set of yak whiskers. I don’t see a yak-hair beard set listed on the Costumer’s website, but a search elsewhere puts it at $400 to $600 today. So adjust the other prices noted below accordingly.


“THE OLD, TRADITIONAL SANTAS always wear a beard and wig of yak hair,” says Anne Bauer. “We don’t get many requests for it now, but there are always one or two a year.” Bauer is a consultant at The Costumer in Schenectady, where Santas have been obtaining their garb for nearly 70 years. And that beard-and-wig set is listed at the top of the Costumer’s catalogue for a few bucks shy of $200.

It’s a dedicated Santa who would drop so many bucks for a just-right beard; add to that the best of the Santa suits, deluxe Santa eyebrows and a pair of real leather boot tops and you’ve topped $1,000.

What do you get for that kind of money?

For a little under $40 you can get the same outfit at the same place. Bauer explained the differences:

“First of all, our best Santa suit is the best there is. It’s a wool suit with a high-quality satin lining. The $640 model is trimmed with real rabbit fur; you can get it trimmed with imitation rabbit for $180 less. This is the Cadillac of Santa outfits.”

It certainly offers a luxury ride. The fur trim surrounds the coat and provides a plush shawl collar, and a 6-inch band of fur complements the tasseled cap.

The color is a deep, handsome crimson. Color is a vital characteristic of a Santa suit; the better the red, the more you pay.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Designer Ear-Hangers

From the Vault Dept.: Why, I hear you never cry, don't I draw cartoons for a living? This is the reason. Inspired by a Soho gallery show of lobe enhancers, I sketched this proposal for more useful appointments. Back in Metroland's free-wheeling, pre-alternative weekly days, they would run such things. This is one of my very few drawings that has appeared in print.

Mid 1980s | Drawing by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Long Winter’s Nap

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty-five years ago, I was able to sneak a short story into Metroland from time to time, typically as holiday filler. Here’s one such item.


I’M NO SCROOGE. You'll never hear a “humbug” cross my lips as the old year wallows its way through the holidays. But the year I celebrated Christmas two days in a row robbed the occasion of much of its sentimental pleasure.

Illustration by Brian Pearce
It started when Uncle Ned drank too much during Thanksgiving dinner and entertained my brother and me with a litany of flatulence impressions: that is, he portrayed town notables with his notion of how each discharges pent-up wind. The sheriff gave a shoe-quivering blast; bank president Neff erupted with high-potency soundlessness. Our parents interceded by banishing Ned from the house. I slipped him a pumpkin pie in conciliation.

The big news after the meal, besides the missing pie, was word of the return of my oldest brother from overseas. Gary was in the army and had gotten that rarest of treats, a Christmas furlough.

My father, not the world’s greatest cook, planned a holiday extravaganza centered around a baked ham. My mother went on more of a shopping frenzy than usual, buying clothes for Gary despite my little brother Tim’s observation that the military currently was satisfying his sartorial needs.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Gallic Christmas

From the Vault Dept.: The Boston Camerata makes its 23rd appearance at Union College’s Memorial Chapel at 8 PM tomorrow (Friday, Dec. 14) with a program titled “The Brotherhood of the Stars: Medieval Music from the Old and New Worlds.” Here’s my review of their 1988 appearance.


A SLAVISH BOW TO TRADITION would have required the Boston Camerata to enter with a donkey for the anonymous “Orientis Partibus” that brought the ensemble down the aisle of the Union College Memorial Chapel Sunday afternoon. The 13th-century French song describes the movement of an ass and, as Camerata director Joel Cohen explained, such a beast was used when this was performed “during that strange week between Christmas and New Year's when everything goes topsy turvy.”

Boston Camerata
But the group's French Christmas program had charm enough without it. A large audience braved the yucky driving conditions to fill the chapel for what has to be the highlight of anybody's Christmas: a program of authentically-played ancient songs with none of the hype or drear of the usual stuff.

The performers are all expert at what they do, and Cohen ties the whole thing together with a brilliant sense of programming and pacing. From the opening set of three a cappella songs describing “Midnight in Bethlehem” through a second-half “Renaissance bouquet of carols and dances,” a magical mood was struck and maintained.

Lutenist Cohen leads a flock of singers and instrumentalists who often are found in one another's territory: tenor John Fleagle is likely to pick up a hurdy-gurdy; counter-tenor Michael Collver plays drum and pipe. And Cohen will like as not sing and play percussion when he's not coaxing gorgeous music from his lute. (He took only one lute solo: Adrien le Roy's “Bransle de Bourgogne,” but it was masterful.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Tortures of Week-end Visiting

Guest Blogger: Robert Benchley.


THE PRESENT LABOR SITUATION shows to what a pretty pass things may come because of a lack of understanding between the parties involved. I bring in the present labor situation just to give a touch of timeliness to this thing. Had I been writing for the Christmas number, I should have begun as follows: “The indiscriminate giving of Christmas presents shows to what a pretty pass things may come because of a lack of understanding between the parties involved.”

Illustration by Gluyas Williams
The idea to be driven home is that things may come to a pretty pass by the parties involved in an affair of any kind if they do not come to an understanding before commencing operations.

I hope I have made my point clear. Especially is this true, (watch out carefully now, as the whole nub of the article will be coming along in just a minute), especially is this true in the relations between host and guest on week-end visits. (There, you have it! In fact, the title to this whole thing might very well be, “The Need for a Clearer Definition of Relations between Host and Guest on Week-end Visits,” and not be at all overstating it, at that.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Joy of Blog

I'M A SUPERB WRITER. Or so I’m now told every day. Although I’ve had reassuring encomia trickle in over the years, nothing can match the compliments winging my way via this weblog.
“I couldn't resist commenting,” begins a recent comment, going on to say, “Well written! my site . . . ” and then there’s a URL that I elected not to follow. It’s signed, as are all of them, Anonymous, the default if you choose not to register when you’re throwing comments around.

In response to a theater review I reprinted came, “Very good article. I'm facing many of these issues as well. Here is my blog . . .  ” and then there’s a URL that I elected not to follow. I had t get on the comment that read, “Simply wish to say your article is as astounding. The clearness in your post is just spectacular and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Fine with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the rewarding work. Also visit my web site . . . ”

How does an anonymous commentator stand out from the pack? Try this: “Whoah this blog is excellent i really like reading your articles. Keep up the good work! You understand, a lot of persons are hunting around for this information, you can help them greatly. Also see my web page . . . ”

Monday, December 10, 2012

Blue Collar, and Little Else

From the Vault Dept.: Although the musical version of The Full Monty was set in Buffalo, it easily could have worked in Schenectady – especially in 2003, when the touring company landed at Proctors Theatre for a few days. The city was busy trying to shut down strip clubs at the time (the city was doing little else), and, as the companion piece to the review below points out, the musical violated city ordinances. Also at issue, and ongoing, is the matter of scab tours. Actors Equity, a union to which I belong, protects the salaries and working conditions of actors in professionally produced shows, but some tour producers avoid signing to an Equity contract and save themselves money at the expense of presenting a truly excellent show. You’ll pay the same at the box office, however, so it behooves you check the staus of a touring show – which you can do here.


TERRENCE MCNALLY HAD a big country’s worth of cities to choose from when he transplanted the action of The Full Monty from Sheffield, England, to the United States. But he set the unemployed steelworkers in Buffalo, a depressingly credible choice. When a character mentions that his brother moved to Albany to work in a mall, it gets a laugh of startled recognition. Schenectady, which started its theatrical identity as the butt of many a vaudeville joke, isn’t mentioned, but given the absurd limitation the city imposed (see Half Cocked, below), McNally might be tempted to add something.

Getting back to Buffalo, it’s an excellent choice. The job market is as bad there as anywhere, and that probably inspired a sense of fellow feeling wherever the show played during the lengthy tour that just ended. Based on a 1997 British hit movie, the show captures the same sense of camaraderie we felt for those Sheffield steelworkers, so desperate both for money and a sense of self-esteem that they decide to stage a striptease show.

The musical Full Monty opened on Broadway three years ago to the same critical compromise the movie enjoyed: too lightweight to be taken seriously, but too much fun to be ignored. And audiences for both have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. (The title, by the way, is a fairly recent British slang term equivalent to “the whole shebang,” possibly originating as a salute to suits obtained from British tailor Montague Burton.)

Among McNally’s credits are the plays Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Master Class; his previous musical books include Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He brings to Monty a fleet and funny style as well as the ability to write characters with compassion, informing them with compelling qualities.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Off the Air

From the Vault Dept.: I suspect it now qualifies as a collector's item, this lavishly produced CD set issued fifteen years ago by the New York Philharmonic. Originally it was available only through the orchestra’s marketing division – but like all such things, it eventually ended up on, where you have the option of buying it ... from the NY Philharmonic (among other sellers). As of this writing, it has received only one review, a hilariously inept screed by a self-described “former music critic” who clearly has so much of a bone to pick with the personality of the orchestra that many of the performances therefore are damned. I can’t say I’ve ever had a run-in with the group, which may explain why my review spends more time on the music.


THIS 10-CD SET is a testimony to the art of conducting, with worthy insights about programming thrown in. I’d hate to have been the ones who winnowed through many thousands of hours of broadcasts to come up with the selections, but I’m grateful to those who did.

Although the 1923-24 recordings that begin the set weren’t broadcasts, they’re still impressively historic: Bell Labs waxed some sides with the orchestra to experiment with microphones, two years before the industry switched from acoustic to electric recording techniques.

Thus it is that we get a remarkably good-sounding 12 minutes’ worth of Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration conducted by Willem Mengelberg. Compare it to any contemporaneous recording and you’ll appreciate the difference. Then listen to Mengelberg’s interpretive style, honed under Strauss’s eye (the conductor was dedicatee of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben). With broader strokes than you expect from an orchestra today, Mengelberg casts the music in an entirely different but still credible light.

Friday, December 07, 2012


MESSING WITH SOMEONE ELSE’S MUSIC is a time-honored tradition going back many centuries and giving us many a masterpiece, typically in the form of a set of variations. The French Renaissance toe-tapper “L’homme armé” was pounced upon by composers of religious works, who would be paid back by such 20th-century philanderings as when Joe Hill re-lyricked the hymn “Sweet Bye-and-Bye” as the pro-union song “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Work and pray/Live on hay/You will eat/In the sweet bye-and-bye.”)

The haunting chord progression of the dance tune called “Folia” inspired hundreds of works, particularly from Baroque-era composers. Corelli based the last of his Op. 5 violin sonatas on it, a piece that in turn was rendered for orchestra by Geminiani and variated for piano by Rachmaninoff. (Check out this list of other such works.)

But variations have more to do with chord changes and rhythmic ideas, as Bach proved with his Goldbergs. What about extensively rewriting a work?

That’s more of a 20th-century-and-beyond conceit. Rachmaninoff couldn’t seem to help himself; when he transcribed the Preludio from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, he re-cast it in a wonderfully re-harmonized setting with filigree that would have made Art Tatum proud.

Although it seems to be one of the few works into which he didn’t slip the “Dies Irae,” violinist Eugene Ysaÿe took care of that with his own Violin Sonata No. 2, the first movement of which, marked “Obsession; Prelude,” fragments elements of the Bach piece before delivering them into the judgmental lament. Luciano Berio and Paul Hindemith shared strong-enough Bach worship to borrow his forms, but the resultant works are very much their own.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Share the Musical Love

SHOW YOUR FRIENDS how much you love them by giving them relief from Christmas music. Start with Jeanne D’Arc: Batailles & Prisons (Alia Vox), a recently released two-disc set assembled by Jordi Savall and his various musical forces. It portrays the short life of Joan of Arc with well-spoken narrative woven among music of her time, some actual, some created by Savall.

It’s presented in a small-book format, with scholarly text in several languages, lavishly illustrated. Along the same lines, in a similar format, is Savall’s Mare Nostrum (Alia Vox), a celebration of music from Mediterranean countries, exploring differences and, especially, similarities while traveling through Morocco, Spain, Lebanon and other neighbors.

Martha Argerich’s annual festival in Lugano, Switzerland yielded its usual three-CD set. Live from Lugano 2011 (EMI) features, as usual, the strings-playing Capuçon brothers (violinist Renaud plays Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, cellist Gautier plays Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73), and there are chamber works by Mozart, Haydn, Rachmaninoff and Zarębski. Not to mention yet another Ravel Concerto in G for her catalogue.

That festival also gives us a four-CD set of Lugano Concertos (DG), with first-ever recordings by Argerich and friends of works by Schubert (Divertissement a l’hongroise), Brahms (Liebeslieder Waltzes) and Milhaud (Scaramouche), along with concertos by Poulenc, Bartók, Schumann, Prokofiev (1 and 3), Liszt and Beethoven (1 and 2).

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Time Away

From the Crypt Dept.: Dave Brubeck died yesterday. In his honor (or is it in mine? Is the ego ever convincingly subdued?), here’s a piece I wrote after interviewing him in 1989.


BRUBECK ON CAMPUS is the title of one of Dave Brubeck’s popular jazz recordings from his years with Columbia records, signifying the renown in which student populations held his playing. It’s not quite the same today, and Brubeck, who will perform tomorrow (Friday) at 8 PM at the Troy Music Hall, worries about the musical vocabulary of younger audiences.

Illustration by Boris Artzybasheff
He’s fond of quoting tunes within tunes, and on his most recent recording, Moscow Night, he interpolates a quote from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony into Take Five. Which pleased both his musicians and his audience. But, as he explained in a recent phone interview from his Connecticut home, “The trouble I have now is that I’ll play a quote that is so obvious to me, but only the band will get it because the audience doesn’t have that vocabulary. Just like I don’t have a rock vocabulary.

“But I’m doing it all the time and it becomes an inside joke rather than an outside – to the  audience – joke.”

Brubeck recently underwent heart bypass surgery, but that only postponed his Troy appearance. He’s back on the road with a full schedule of touring ahead.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The World Does Move

Guest Blogger: Booth Tarkington. We’ve invited Mr. Tarkington, the renowned Hoosier novelist and playwright, to contribute again. This is taken from his 1928 memoir The World Does Move, and paints a scene of the Indiana countryside in the very early 1900s – a scene he’d already woven into his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Magnificent Ambersons.


. . . . BEAUTY WAS THERE, outdoors, and in the tranquil, friendly life of the people. By June, if you ascended to the top of the monument and looked forth from that high vantage in the air, you seemed to be upon a tower rising from an island of stone surrounded not by water but by verdure. There were just glimpses of roofs and windows among green leaves, for the shade trees marched down the streets all the way to the State House, the Courthouse, and the Circle, where stood the monument. Beyond the town, a lazy silken creek wandered among great sycamores; and there were other waters – a crystal river below high bluffs and a canal that was like a long straight strip of green looking-glass. And all the air was pure; only the clean white dust of the country roads blew a little in the sunshine, and the sky over the town was unflawed blue in winter and in summer.

Booth Tarkington and the "Zan Tee,"
Kennebunkport, Maine
Upon a summer evening, if you walked abroad, there was the multitudinous rustle of leaves as if you walked in a woodland – as indeed you did; there was the quiet murmur of voices from the verandas, or from where the people sat out upon the lawns; there was the plod-plod of horses passing with surreys for the evening family drive; there was the tinkling of the little bicycle bells and the gliding passage of the wheelmen’s lamps, whiter small lights than the gold pencillings of the fireflies among the shrubberies on the lawns. Sometimes the surrey drivers would draw rein and pause, and the foot passengers upon the sidewalk would stop; a quiet audience thus would gather outside an open window where a girl with a lovely voice sang to her piano. It is true that the song was likely to be sentimental, even sentimentally pathetic, and the theme was nearly always a variation upon the topic of constancy.
Oh, love for a year, a week, a day!
But alas for the love that loves alway!

Monday, December 03, 2012

Harrison on Hand

From the Vault Dept.: This is one of my earliest concert reviews, and it shows. It reads more like a social column, with very little attention given to what made the music and the performance effective. But it’s a snapshot of a time when Lou Harrison (1917-2003) could be on hand to talk about his works. Following the review is the advance I pumped out a few days earlier.


WITH SUCH DISTINGUISHED AUDITORS as Isaac Asimov, Peter Schickele and Lou Harrison present, the chamber music concert presented by the Catskill Conservatory at the Rensselaerville Institute proved its appeal. Harrison was on hand as guest composer, with two works on the program: a 1978 Set for String Quartet and a Suite for Cello and Harp written in the 1940s.

Lou Harrison
Harrison introduced his pieces, calling attention to the simplicity of design and his emphasis on melody and rhythm. The string quartet was written in the style of medieval music, imitating such things as harpsichord ornamentation and a Turkish drumming technique (performed by the cellist).

The players – violinists Janet Brady and Jennifer Reuning, violist George Myers and cellist Stephen Stalker – gave a fluid and sensitive reading which was warmly applauded by the composer as well as the audience.

Stalker was joined by harpist Elizabeth Huntley for the suite, which comprised selections of unused film music; a short, challenging Interlude; and an aria from Harrison's Symphony in G. The combination of instruments was lovely and the music had a beautiful lyricism.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Comfort Food

Potions and Philters Dept.: As prescription meds skyrocket in price, let’s go back to the materials from which said meds originally were derived. And why our forbears could claim never to have been ill a day in their lives: They couldn’t bear the thought of having to consume some of this stuff.


MY APPETITE IS USUALLY the last thing to go under illness or stress, but I got hit with a cold-or-flu that felled me and kept me in bed, hungry, and turned my mood ugly. And in no mood to take a chance on a restaurant. I needed convalescence food. Beginning with a few sips of icy ginger ale to cool and unclog my parched throat.

But why ginger ale? Why did every other beverage seem repellent? Before long, I’d move into the hot-tea-with-honey-and-lemon stage, but not for this immediate slaking.

At the turn of the last century, ginger ale had been this country’s favorite soda for 40 years, with another 30 to go before you-know-what toppled it. Its origins are murky, but it seems to have originated in Belfast in the 1840s. “Early ginger ales would not be recognizable to modern palates,” writes Kenneth Previtali in a 1991 “Beverage World” magazine. “The most common sin was the overuse of capsicum (hot red pepper) to achieve the ‘bite’ that the right amount of genuine ginger provided.” Thanks to its sulfur content, ginger itself has a long history as a curative – it was the antidote of choice during the plague years, and still is administered for coughs and colds.

So there was some scientific basis for my mother’s insistence on having a bottle of the stuff handy when I or my siblings took ill. Thanks to the emergence of small-company gourmet blends, we can once again sample what true ginger ale is all about, but I had to content myself with a bottle of Stewart’s blander version.

Friday, November 30, 2012


From the Root Cellar Dept.: It’s the time of year to be dining on squash. Meet some unusual varieties, and the preparation ideas that they can inspire.


“I’M HAVING A SQUASH TASTING,” my neighbor said. “Come on over and try some varieties you’ve never tasted before.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Six varieties were in the offing and she was right: I knew only the beige Waltham Butternut. Its preparation, like that of the others, was simple: oven-roasted, lightly salt-and-peppered.

Ah, the associations one bite of the butternut inspires! Decades of holiday meal memories live in that first bite, in its earthy sweetness and flaky texture, crying out for the reassurance of a pat of melting butter. This kind of squash is so season-specific that its positively Proustian.

Thick skin and a plump size classify it as a winter squash, as opposed to those thin-skinned summer varieties like zucchini. The genus of all squash is Cucurbita; the large winter squash generally fall into the species Cucurbita maxima, while smaller types such as butternut are C. pepo.

Just as it’s a rambunctious garden guest, squash has an all-over-the-place history. The word itself comes from the Narragansett “askutasquash,” which means that it’s green and can be eaten raw, suggesting that even Native Americans had too many zucchini on their hands.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Diner’s Mailbag

From the Mailbag Dept.: During my ongoing run as restaurant writer-abouter for Albany’s Metroland Magazine, there have been occasions when the confluence of over-scheduling and under-funding obviated any chance of getting to an eatery in time to write the week’s review. For the past few years we’ve made food-related essays a part of the lineup; twenty-one years ago, it was a rarity and led to the format you see below.


You’re always complaining about service, like there’s something wrong with an efficient waitress. Are you one of those snobs who thinks only men can do it right?
– F. Nightingale, Niskayuna.

No, Flo, it’s just not so. I was trained as a waiter in the kind of place that tried hard not to hire women on the floor, but even those joints are dinosauring out of existence. What I’m complaining about is a close cousin to that attitude. A long-standing prejudice in the business suggests that men should be hired for more formal dining rooms, while a bevy of gals is all you need to take care of orders in a diner.

Wages are better in formal joints, so your career waiter naturally gravitates to such a place if there’s a family to support. But the same now is true of the career waitress, and more and more of those places are casting that prejudice aside.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Longing for the Short of It

From the Vault Dept.: He described himself as a “saloon singer,” but Bobby Short was the classiest exponent of the cabaret world for much of the 20th century, settling into Manhattan’s Café Carlyle for a decades-long run, playing and singing the best of the standards and beyond. Here’s my account of his 1987 appearance at Albany’s ovoid performing arts center, followed by the set list I compiled.


BY THE FINISH of his afternoon concert at the Egg, Bobby Short had transformed the sterile environment into the sort of club in which he’s more typically found. And he did so even without any liquor service.

Bobby Short
A combination of charm, showmanship and skillful programming was responsible. Oh, it looks so casual when the natty pianist-singer does his thing, yet Short is hard at work sculpting the result. With the absolute cream of the literate songs now so difficult to discover at his disposal.

The composers? Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen. Lyricists? Again, Porter, and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer.

Something about these craftsmen makes contemporary listeners nervous. Is it the deftness of the rhymes? The secure, considered way in which music and lyrics support one another? Whatever, it’s easy to dismiss Bobby Short as performer to the glitz set, a notion supported by a cameo in a Woody Allen film.

Because Short makes it look too easy. He began the first set with a mixture that included Weill, Ellington, and Rodgers and Hart.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

They Say It's Your Birthday . . .

. . . because the inaugural entry on this blog was posted a year ago today. I'd have baked cakes for us, but decided instead to celebrate with pies. Some 3,000 of them, which you'll see flying in the last minutes of this 1927 Laurel and Hardy film titled "The Battle of the Century." Once thought lost, it's been surrendering bits and pieces enough to give us the complete first reel (look for Lou Costello among the crowd) and enough of the second to make some sense of the proceedings. It's a silent movie, but you don't expect much talking from a one-year-old.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Winter, Old Man

I JUST SPENT a pleasant but chilly afternoon activating all of my gasoline-powered lawn-care equipment to run their fuel tanks empty, raising an unholy ruckus in the neighborhood. It’s my payback for suffering, every warm Saturday, to the sound of the muffler-free mowers scalping the grounds of each nearby house – but I’m blinding myself to the probability that those steering such clamorous machines hardly could care. At the end of the task list is its most depressing component: firing up the snowblower and positioning it to eat the driveway’s first accumulation. Some people insist that washing the car makes it rain. Moving my snowblower exacts a parallel meteorological payment.

It officially happens when I flip the office-wall calendar page to December and realize that the year is pretty much shot. Have I accomplished what January suggested would be so easy, so well within reach? Hardly. And as the daylight hours shorten and the air screams with chill, there’s clearly no chance of getting anything done before we’re warbling “Auld Lang Syne.”

Which means it’s time to mock my indolence by buying not only a new wall calendar but also a costly day-planner refill. Out come the November diary pages, almost as clean as they day they were printed, to join the similarly pristine rest of the year. What were November’s triumphs? A scrawl on 11/19 reads “10:30 am. Dr. appt. Bring [illegible].” A little farther down the page: “4:45 pm. Pick up L.” Short for “hang around the Albany area for most of the day so you can fetch your daughter from school.”

Thankfully, there’s coffeehouse time available on a day like that (and a day like this, similarly scheduled). The tumult of the surrounding chatter becomes white noise, unpleasantly punctured only when some witless dunderhead hauls out a cell phone and hollers into it his side of the conversation.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Perfection in Utah

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Written September 11, 1989, this was the seventh installment of my series of articles produced during a cross-country car trip and published in the Schenectady Gazette. I was in the thick of writing about computers at the time, and a big fan of the program WordPerfect (which I still use, although more as an anti-Word). So it made sense to make a stop at what was then the sprawling headquarters of the software maker, then at the height of its popularity with version 5.0 of the DOS-based word-processing program.


THERE’S AN UNUSUALLY SECLUDED feel about the Salt Lake City area. Interstate 15 is a huge highway, rivalling the approaches to New York in congestion and complexity, but this desert-white metropolis sits with seeming quiet beside the highway in the flat well of a bowl bordered by mountains.

WordPerfect 5.0
This was the area chosen by Brigham Young to celebrate the particular perfection of his Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and the area remains a testimony to his planning. No disrespect is meant in my suggestion that the avatars of this century include technology, and no technology has threatened to become its own religion more than the computer biz.

It’s also good for the local economy. Ski Utah! is exclaimed on all the new state license plates, and the tourists who pour into Provo each winter carry the appropriate bundles of equipment. But snow is now getting competition from sand and rust. Sand is the basis of computer chips; rust coats the data diskettes.

That stretch of northern California dubbed “Silicon Valley” is a densely-packed home base for many of the young, burgeoning computer companies, but WordPerfect Corporation stubbornly keeps its base in Orem, a town near Provo and Brigham Young University.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Friday, November 23, 2012

Of Restaurants and Restaurateurs

From the Bookshelf Dept.: I combat holiday cooking demands by inflicting unfamiliar (to me) recipes on those foolish enough to dine at my house, and thus welcome the new cookbooks that appear towards the end of the year. Here’s a look at three such volumes.


THE SOUND AND FURY of the Food Network can’t guarantee a good cookbook. What appeals to the goggle-eyed masses is spectacle; what works between the pages, for me at least, is something intelligently considered and skillfully written. Which is why I’m always keen to see what Phaidon Press offers in the food realm.

Three recent books uphold the publisher’s good taste. Fäviken, by Magnus Nilsson (no relation) surveys the cooking and philosophy behind the world’s most remote eatery. Salma Hague’s The Lebanese Kitchen is a brilliant survey of one of my favorite cuisines. And The Art of the Restaurateur, written by Nicholas Lander, gives mini-biographies of and valuable lessons learned by 20 of the world’s top restaurateurs.

Lander writes about restaurants for the London Financial Times and is himself a former restaurateur, having helmed Soho’s L’Escargot to success in the 1980s. “While chefs may use plates for their art,” he writes, “restaurateurs’ imaginations work on much bigger canvases.”

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Bon Appétit!

Gustatory Excess Dept.: The year my wife and I moved into our rural farmhouse was also the first year of a tradition of stay-at-home Thanksgivings, for which we created and prepared a new menu each year, often highlighting a style or ethnicity of cooking that struck our fancy. I'm still working on this year's menu, which doesn't get finalized until the guests are upon us. But here's a review of menus past, beginning with a nod to tradition in 1990 and then careering every which way after the jump. Happy Thanksgiving!
UPDATE: Today's menu appears below.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is Your House Radioactive?

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Remember when radon was all the rage, seeping out of our cellars and wreaking radioactive havoc upon us all? I tried to do something about it. This is from a 1995 issue of Computer Life magazine.


HER SMILE RADIATED HAPPINESS. The radiator hissed warmly. Funny how a few decades can transform comforting images into distressing ones: Radiation poisoning. Radioactive half-life. But times have a way of changing, and the safety films of the atomic '50s—the ones that told us we’d be fine if we looked away when the Bomb went off—taught us an even larger lesson later on: Don’t believe the so-called experts.

Now we worry about radiation from our computer monitors, radon in the basement, even radioactive lantern mantles . . . lantern mantles? You didn’t know they were radioactive? Prepare for some surprises.

We’re going to turn a computer into a Geiger counter. All it takes is a gadget not much larger than a cassette tape box. The RM-60 Radiation Monitor from Aware Electronics plugs into your computer’s serial port and comes with software that can continuously display radiation levels or, when loaded as a terminate-and-stay-resident program, can capture information to be displayed later. The RM-60 will automatically sound an alarm when it detects levels that are too high, which can be useful if you live close to a nuclear reactor and don’t trust the emissions reports.

Teachers and hobbyists can set up experiments for observing radiation levels in rocks and gases and even (with added equipment) the sky at night. But the home user gets the best deal of all: peace of mind—like the comfort you get from a smoke or carbon monoxide detector.

Like a Geiger counter, the RM-60 detects ionizing radiation. That’s the stuff you find beyond the visible light spectrum, beyond even ultraviolet light, in the realm of alpha and beta particles and in gamma and X rays.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Editor’s Song (From a Forthcoming Opera)

Guest Blogger: P. G. Wodehouse. In the first decade of the 20th century, P. G. Wodehouse churned out dozens of light-verse pieces for magazines like Punch and the UK edition of Vanity Fair. Soon he turned his versification to musical theater, taking him from the West End to Broadway, where he famously teamed with Jerome Kern. Here's one of his early pieces.


P. G. Wodehouse
When my correspondent told me
    that the war was at an end,
(One morning in the middle of November)
Though bald as any billiard ball,
    my hair I strove to rend
(A very painful process I remember).

The editorial steak and beer untouched
    I left to lie,
In vain they brought my tea and
    muffins to me,
The office boys all whispered, “He must
    weep or he will die.”
The printers and compositors
    looked gloomy.

But now once more the night has fled.
    The morn of hope has blushed,
Through sorrow’s fog the sun of joy
    shines clearly,
My correspondent wires again, “I said the Boers were crushed
But (my mistake) I should have added, ‘Nearly.’”

Monday, November 19, 2012


From the Bookshelf Dept.: Like so many disenfranchised writers-to-be, I stared at the opening page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (“A screaming comes across the sky . . . ”) and realized (A) this would be the biggest reading challenge I’d yet encountered and (B) it wasn’t as if I had anything else to do, except scrape up rent money and work on my novel. I’ve been hooked on Pynchon’s work ever since. I’ve already posted my review of his Mason & Dixon, which was the “massive saga ” rumored below.


BEHIND THE DAZZLING WORDPLAY and labyrinthine plotting of Vineland, Thomas Pynchon's first novel in 17 years, there’s a compelling goofiness that lets you know you’re back in a world unique to this obsessive and all-knowing storyteller.

Although set in 1984 in a small county in Northern California, the book time- and place-shifts through a dazzling kaleidoscope of narratives. Prairie Wheeler hears the surprising story of a mother she barely knew, even as the woman – named Frenesi because of her parents’ fondness for big band tunes – is pursued by manic federal prosecutor Brock Vond.

Vond is bringing a drug-fighting strike force to town to conquer one of California’s most inaccessible pot farms, but DL Chastain, former sidekick of Frenesi, is out to head him off. Darryl Louise has been trained to the highest degree of Ninja combat:
“She learned how to give people heart attacks without even touching them, how to get them to fall from high places, how through the Clouds of Guilt technique to make them commit ‘seppuku’ and think it was their idea – plus a grab bag of strategies ... such as the Enraged Sparrow, the Hidden Foot, the Nosepicking of Death, and the truly unspeakable ‘Gojira no Chimpira.’”
And it’s DL who is telling Prairie the story of the turbulent ‘60s, when much of the flashbacks are set, as they hole up at the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, described as “a sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers” with DL’s partner, Takeshi Fumimota, who got involved through a bizarre mistaken-identity conflict.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Paper Chase

From the Vault Dept.: Once upon a time, there was the brown paper bag. It held groceries, it sucked the fat out of cooling bacon, it served as schoolbook cover and wrapping paper. I’m guessing the piece below, written at a time when baggers were asking your paper-or-plastic preference, was part of a Schenectady Gazette special section, for which I was always able to crank out filler.


WHEN WAS THE last time your cat burrowed into a plastic bag? They don’t. It has no appeal.

My fussy old calico even abandoned her ritual of leg rubs the first time I came back from the store with my groceries packed in plastic. Those leg-rubs, as you know, are feline for, “How about popping open a tin of Nine Lives right now and putting the rest of the stuff away later?” But a few disdainful sniffs of the plastic were enough to send her stalking out of the room, tail a supercilious exclamation point.

Is the brown bag on its way out? I hope not. Plastic will never achieve the same status. Brown bag" describes both a package and a style of packaging. Nobody “plastic bags” a lunch.

And speaking of packaging: There was a time when placing groceries into a bag was a craft practiced by virtuosos. They wore spanking clean aprons and stood proudly at the foot of the checkout conveyor, where they cast an expert eye over your produce.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Working in Coffeehouses, Part Five

ONE OF THE FUNNIEST set pieces in Jacques Tati’s brilliant movie Mon Oncle takes place on the approach to a county village, where a group of boys is gathered on a rise overlooking a street and sidewalk. On the sidewalk is an inconveniently placed lamppost, the treachery of which the kids have learned to encourage. When a likely pedestrian approaches the pillar, one of the boys whistles at just the right moment to cause the victim to glance aside and collide with the impediment.

We’re easily distracted. We take for granted a threshold of safety. I watched an amusing example of this is in a coffeehouse in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village late one chilly night, an example unprovoked by hobbledehoy machinations. A heavy door with a big glass pane led into the shop. It opened inward, and engraved brass signs near the handle indicated the direction in which to move the thing in order to get in or out of the place.

Yet most of the customers got it wrong. They pulled when a push was required. They vice-versa’d. And they did so with enough follow-through energy to provoke an abrupt, stumbling stop. “Do people regularly have that problem?” I asked a server. “All night,” she said. “All day.”

If I tend to be fanatical about paying attention to such instructions as “push” and “pull,” it’s only because my mile-high selfconsciousness holds me in terror of committing such gaffes in public. To become even slightly a figure of ridicule is one of my most mortifying ordeals.

I can’t take it, but I’m quick to deal it out, teasing my family without mercy, playing pranks on long-suffering friends. The most memorable such prank had a mean-spirited core to it. This was in the mid 1970s, during my brief flirtation with college. I never got a degree, but I acquired, at long last, a girlfriend, and she had a high-strung roommate in whose name the shared telephone was registered.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Plan That Holiday Meal!

From the Holiday Vault Dept.: I’ve been paying tribute to Thanksgiving for many years with Metroland articles; today’s issue features a piece I wrote about choosing wine, drawing on advice from folks more knowledgeable than I. Although it seems as if I’ve been turning in these pieces forever, the practice dates back merely to 1995, when the following was published.


ANY MINUTE NOW, a horde of hungry people is about to descend on your house. They’ll start banging forks and knives against the table in anticipation of Thanksgiving turkey, and the feeding frenzy will persist through Christmas and New Year’s.

Ritualized dining, if you exclude what goes on in sports bars, is what sets us apart from other animals, and food-enriched holiday celebrations are the glue that hold the rest of the ritual fabric together. Which means that they’re vital elements of a civilized society.

Thanksgiving has roots in the Greek harvest festival, the Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles, and a Roman celebration called Cerealia, honoring the goddess of Wheaties. Ironically, our American Thanksgiving remembers a feast held in the autumn of 1621, when surviving English settlers in Plymouth, Mass., honored the Indians who helped them get through a harsh winter without calling attention to the stupidity of arriving on a new continent too late to harvest anything, never mind plant it, with no viable crops in hand and a characteristic hostility toward unfamiliar cuisine. 

That hostility persists, although in a revised form, as I learned the year I decided to forego the traditional turkey dinner in favor of a vegetarian Chinese menu. We’re bringing the turkey back this year, but please don’t expect the rest of the menu to be any too conventional.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Last Ditch

Short Story Dept.: A piece inspired, when I wrote it twelve years ago, by a decade of rural residency.


IN A MORE THAN usually misanthropic move, Virgil Handy put a bucket on the front of his old 8N and dug a four-foot ditch between the highway and his front yard one morning in early September. To ensure proper drainage he severed his driveway, briefly creating a short, dry moat. He dropped a length of corrugated pipe in the pit, restored the driveway above it, and flanked the narrow entrance with tall concrete pillars studded with the shiny chrome and plastic remnants of past auto accidents that had invaded his yard over the years. Henceforth, those late-night visits would be eliminated. That the vehicles might be damaged by his handiwork was an inevitable side-effect, but he took no pleasure in such anticipation. He sought protection, not revenge. Drivers – and their cars – had no right to leave the highway.

Not surprisingly, many in the town of Millcross took offence at Virgil’s work, and, too fearful of the man to confront him directly, showed up at the next town meeting to complain.

“I know, I know,” said George Wattler, the town supervisor. Wattler, a happy dumpling of a man in a too-small suit, had held this position for over 20 years, running unopposed in most elections. “I talked to Virge. He says as how it’s his property to do with what he wants and all.”

“That’s a state road!” Claude von Scholly thundered. As head of the highway department, he maintained a small fleet that plowed and oiled the non-state-owned streets in town. He begrudged the state its newer equipment and always could find fault with its work, but was quick to defend all highways against hotheads like Virgil. “There’s a right-of-way, you know!”