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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Yo-Ho-Help Yourself: Software Piracy

From the Tech Vault Dept.: In the antediluvian pre-internet days, files were swapped online through BBSes, Bulletin Board Systems, generally hosted by an enterprising gearhead who offered a forum for discussions and data. Which was alarming enough to the software industry that I was commissioned to write this piece for long-gone PC/Computing magazine. I amused myself with the pseudonyms I invented for the buccaneers I interviewed.


POPULAR BONDING RITUALS usually aren’t criminal. Admire a friend’s new car and you’re likely to swap a few stories and a can of STP. You may be invited to take the car for a spin. You can pass recipes back and forth or lend your copy of the latest best-seller to a fellow fan.

Sharing computer programs is another common practice among friends. It’s great to help someone who’s daunted by the challenge of learning to use a new machine, and sometimes that includes a gift of some of your favorite software.  “Here. Why don’t you get started with WordPerfect? “ And, later, inevitably,  “The Norton Utilities will get that file back for you.”

Copying a set of disks is so simple and such a private action that you’d hardly think it’s also illegal. The legality part is easy to overlook. The copyright notice is a complicated critter, often printed on the seal of the software package that is torn away as you dig for those floppy disks. You may not even be the one who ripped the original package open (in which case, you’re yet another who’s ripped the program off).

But whether or not you’re aware of it, unless you either broke the shrink-wrap or received the package with all disks, documentation, and licensing information intact, you’re breaking the law. The good news is that if you’re an individual with pirated software on your home computer, you probably won’t get caught. But if you’re a boss with an angry employee, the Software Publishers Association (SPA) may get tipped off. When the SPA comes to call on your business, it’s with U.S. marshals and lots of official paperwork. And the association has an annoyingly good history of winning its copyright-infringement cases.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Behind the Scene

Leif Zurmuhlen and Lily Whiteman
Sept. 23, 2012 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, September 28, 2012

Speaking of Santa Fe: The Spiritual Highway

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Another installment from my 1989 chronicle of cross-country travel. This was our longest stop during the month-long journey, and remains the city I’m most eager to revisit. As previously noted, I’d just read a collection of Ernie Pyle’s travel writings and sought to capture some of that spirit. Between 1935 and 1942, he and his wife drove endlessly around the country and he filed six columns per week about the stops they made. When they eventually bought a house, it was in Albuquerque. Which says something about the appeal of the desert (that house is now a library and museum). The piece below was written Sept. 22, 1989.


THE PALACE OF THE GOVERNORS has undergone structural alterations to suit each race that used it and each era of its use. But it’s still the oldest continually-used building in the United States.

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, NM
Such historical awareness is fairly recent, given the structure’s age: it’s been a museum for only 80 of its 400 years.

Its porch is lined with Native American vendors displaying jewelry and pottery with sleepy determination. And it looks onto the square, a plaza now used for lunching or sketching or simply relaxing, but where not many years ago the Mexican custom of the promenade was undoubtedly carried out.

The promenade was a twice-weekly custom during which the town girls would walk the square, two or three abreast, while the boys stood in a ring on the outside to get a look at them. If he saw a girl he liked, a boy would then walk beside her, in step—all properly chaperoned of course. Generally there was music involved. It’s not too different from what still goes on in junior high school gyms all across America several Saturdays a year.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe?

From the Vault Dept.: Although justly overshadowed by Fall Fashion model Lily Whiteman, today’s issue of Metroland contains my review of the Santa Fe Restaurant in Tivoli, NY, which I last wrote about 19 years ago. Here’s that earlier piece.


YOU HAVE TO go out of your way a little to find Tivoli. It’s in the Rhinebeck area, in case you need your bearings. Once you do, you won’t miss the Santa Fe. Ask any college kid you see on the street. They know. They’ll be hanging out by the front porch when you get there, waiting until some of the New York City crowd clears out so they can get those coveted by-the-window tables.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s an unlikely restaurant in an unlikely town, in an unlikely-looking brownstone. Even though it’s made its mark during the seven years it’s been open, it’s still pretty much the only game in town. Chef Tim Williams acknowledges that with a laugh, and he likes it. Formerly from the Cape Cod area, he’s been at the Santa Fe for a year and a half. He wasn’t anticipating this relocation when he first came to the area as a Culinary Institute student, but he started the job while finishing his studies and simply stayed on.

Owners David Weiss and Valerie Nehez liked southwestern cuisine and decided to spring on tiny Tivoli. This is none of your mock-Mexican faddish cooking; authentic touches abound. But it’s in a casual enough setting that you might not be inclined, at first, to take it seriously.

Don’t expect fancy service, for a start. Much of the floor staff seems to be drawn from the local student body, so if you get any personalized attention at all, it’ll probably be of the “Hey, howya doin’, guys,” mode. But it’s not a problem in this context. You’ll get what you need. And when the food arrives, you won’t need a whole lot more.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Five-Minute Scan Artist

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Twelve hundred bucks for a computer scanner? This dates from the pre-USB era, when a SCSI interface was needed for big-time data transfers between machines. And optical character recognition was in its semi-literate infancy. I now use a $40 scanner and its bundled software package to lift my old articles from the pages of yellowing magazines.


“IF IT’S OUT THERE, it’s in here,” a phone company ad campaign proclaims, never realizing that they also were describing my computer when it has a scanner attached. Which is to say that if there’s a useful image out there, I now can get it in here, in my computer, with very little fuss.

It wasn’t always this easy. I used to do it using a fax machine, and then only because I also have two phone lines and a fax/modem, allowing me to send images into my computer as lousy-looking fax files. And I’ve seen refrigerator art that looks better.

But that cheesy process describes what scanning is all about. You run the image through what’s essentially a color photocopy system, and the copy is translated into computer-readable language, telling it exactly how to color the pixels on the screen and what to send to a printer--especially a color printer.

With the availability of relatively inexpensive color flatbed scanners, however, nothing stands between you and good-looking computer-based images. Except for the installation procedure, and that couldn’t be more straightforward.

The Hewlett-Packard IIcx scanner is a full-color, single-pass scanner with 400 dots-per-inch resolution that’s bumped up to 1600 dpi with software enhancements. It plugs into your already-installed SCSI card, in which case you can use included software to find your card and confirm its compatibility. Otherwise, install HP’s own proprietary card. There’s nothing SCSI about the computer I plugged into, so I used the interface card that came with the machine.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Young Idea’s Shooting Gallery

Guest Blogger: Robert Benchley. As far as parenting goes, Benchley’s essay makes it clear that nothing has changed. The Life magazine in which this first appeared has nothing to do with the Henry Luce-devised photo journal that succeeded it and took its name.


SINCE WE WERE DETERMINED to have Junior educated according to modern methods of child training, a year and a half did not seem too early an age at which to begin. As Doris said: “There is no reason why a child of a year and a half shouldn’t have rudimentary cravings for self-expression.” And really, there isn’t any reason, when you come right down to it.

Mrs. Leeming didn't enter into
the spirit of the thing at all.
(Illustration by Gluyas Williams)
Doris had been reading books on the subject, and had been talking with Mrs. Deemster. Most of the trouble in our town can be traced back to someone’s having been talking with Mrs. Deemster. Mrs. Deemster brings an evangelical note into the simplest social conversations, so that by the time your wife is through the second piece of cinnamon toast she is convinced that all children should have their knee-pants removed before they are four, or that you should hire four servants a day on three-hour shifts, or that, as in the present case, no child should be sent to a regular school until he has determined for himself what his profession is going to be and then should be sent straight from the home to Johns Hopkins or the Sorbonne.

Junior was to be left entirely to himself, the theory being that he would find self-expression in some form or other, and that by watching him carefully it could be determined just what should be developed in him, or, rather, just what he should be allowed to develop in himself. He was not to be corrected in any way, or guided, and he was to call us “Doris” and “Monty” instead of “Mother” and “Father.” We were to be just pals, nothing more. Otherwise, his individuality would become submerged. I was, however, to be allowed to pay what few bills he might incur until he should find himself.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Faerie Isles

From the CD Player Dept.: One of the more fanciful sets of liner notes I turned out for Dorian Recordings, to go with a compilation disc titled “The Faerie Isles,” harp music performed by Carol Thompson, culled from her three previous Dorian CDs. It didn’t require a track-by-track narrative, so I explored a general musical history with far more descriptive color than usually finds its way into my work.


CELTIC MUSIC IS SOCIAL. But whether sung in celebration or lament, it’s also the art of the solo performer. Even though a half-century of ceilidh bands have planted the sound of a rollicking ensemble in our ears, nothing grabs the evening’s spotlight like a solo harp or pipe, or perhaps the two in duet, with a tune that’s both sad and exhilarating.

It comes from the rough-and-tumble relationship of people and land, from the misty depths of a history so fantastic you can’t help but know it’s true.

Think of the divine race of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, who came from the goddess Danu long before the Celts were here and ruled Ireland until driven by the Gaels, the Celtic ancestors, to an underground kingdom.

Those gods were competitive rascals, and each had a specialty with which to prove supernatural abilities. Music was important even back then, as we learn from a minstrel and warrior named Lugh. His particular prowess was a mastery of the three song styles: Geantrai, or joyful songs; Goltrai, or sad songs; and Suantrai, the lullabies. When he sang one, it changed you.

When you hear a pipe sound a mournful, unfamiliar tune in the night, you know it’s coming from one of the sīdhs, the fairy mounds of the Tuatha Dé gods. And in the tune, pure and sweet, is all of the wonder and heartbreak of the Irish.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Dialectic of Dining

From the Vault Dept.: This won’t help much if you’re hungry and heading north, because the restaurant is closed for the season. But it has persevered for over a dozen years now, serving a menu of unlikely fare (gourmet dining!) in an unlikely location (north country!). I reviewed it shortly after it opened, with my then three-year-old child in tow, after which we went camping ... but that’s another story.


Chef Richard Dwyer
A SUPERIOR DINING EXPERIENCE is threefold. The customer first attempts to achieve gustatory satisfaction through knowledge of food. Second is the attempt to prepare that food yourself. The final stage is when you gain knowledge of yourself through contact with excellent food preparation experienced in the outside world.

I couldn’t help but get Hegelian in contemplating the Owl at Twilight – the restaurant unbashfully borrows from the philosopher in one of the finest puns in foodservice. Worried about what happens when philosophy “paints gray on gray,” Hegel suggested that that’s when “the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.”

And here, in the Adirondack village of Olmstedville, which is in the town of Minerva, is a restaurant that’s anything but gray on gray. The house, unexpectedly tucked into the woods, is charming; the dining room has been refurbished to a state of quiet, colorful attractiveness and the food bursts with flavor.

Once a private residence, the building housed an infamous watering hole called The Pub and, as Betsy’s Steak Place, had more of a prole profile before Richard and Joanne Dwyer took it over and refurbished the place. “We practically gutted it,” says Richard. “We put in new floors, new furniture – about all that remains are the chairs, and we re-covered those.”

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mind Your Local Beeswax

From the Kitchen Dept.: Ripped from the pages of the current issue of Metroland, a piece that has all the more resonance in my house since my daughter gave up refined sugar and we’ve been sweetening our bakes and brews with this.


SUPERMARKET HONEY HAS A remarkable consistency of color. That’s because it’s been processed and blended to a fare-thee-well, drawn from sources that may originate outside of this country and thus have been subject to even less regulation than is imposed on the domestic industry.

Mark Rulison and honeycomb.
“As long as more than 50 percent of commercial honey comes from domestic sources, it can be labeled as being made in the U.S.A.,” says Mark Rulison. He’s the third generation of a family that has been beekeeping in nearby Amsterdam since 1893. “It’s cheaper, among other reasons, because overseas labor is cheaper. That’s what we’re up against.”

What defines honey is the pollen contained therein, and, according to a study conducted last year by Food Safety News (, at least 77 percent of the honey tested – honey obtained at supermarkets, pharmacies, and chain restaurants – lacked any trace of pollen.

This comes in addition to an earlier test that discovered high rates of antibiotics in the commercial honey, much of which originates in China and India.

Locally, pollen-rich honey is making its way from the farmer’s markets and co-ops to supermarket shelves. Some Hannaford stores are carrying product from Ole McDonald Honey Farm in Sharon Springs, and Niskayuna’s Shop-Rite has honey from Rhinebeck’s Russell Maple Farms.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Of Words and Letters

From the Bookshelf Dept.: In the mid-’70s, I adapted Thomas Berger’s novel Who Is Teddy Villanova? for radio, and it aired as a seven-part serial over WPKN-FM. This kicked off an correspondence with the writer, whom I count as a major influence on my own work. I was delighted when he agreed, back in 1991, to answer questions about Orrie’s Story, his latest novel, for a Metroland piece.


THOMAS BERGER HAS LONG shunned the spotlight often offered to writers, especially writers whose novels have been successfully plundered by Hollywood. Born and raised in Ohio, he has spent most of his later life in Hudson Valley towns. His third novel, Little Big Man, was written in the not-so-wide-open spaces near Nyack.

Thomas Berger
Berger's first two books introduced a character named Carlo Reinhart, who has since travelled through two more. Along with a new literary voice and a fresh look at the American experience, Berger's early works offered protagonists who typically were victims of oppressive circumstances and found whatever triumph they enjoyed by learning to reinterpret those circumstances.

Language itself becomes a vehicle of that interpretation, and all of Berger’s writing boasts a precision the author can turn comic or horrifying with deceptive ease. Many of his novels are characterized by an amusing wryness that reached a high point in The Feud, which narrowly lost a Pulitzer Prize bid to William Kennedy’s Ironweed.    

Orrie’s Story, Berger’s seventeenth novel, marks a change in this tradition, with storytelling itself a kind of central character. It plays another hand of a literary game the author has been dealing since Little Big Man presented its unpopular view (in a very popular book and movie) of frontier history as the reminiscence of an aged Indian-adopted scout. 1978’s Arthur Rex retold Malory’s classic in Shakespearean English fleshed out with Berger’s humorous sense of irony.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Star Grazing

From the Tech Vault Dept.: For many months in the mid-90s, I contributed pieces to Computer Life magazine, one of Ziff-Davis’s slick, hyped-to-the-max books. My specialty was the hands-on tech piece and, having uncovered a cache of old mags in the attic, I’ll reproduce them from time to tim. Here’s one of my favorites, showing how to use a computer to guide a fancy telescope. Photos are by Metroland colleague Martin Benjamin. As you can see from the cover image, the big news was the imminent arrival of Windows 95.


IF YOU LISTEN TO the songwriters, the stars are big and bright in Texas when they're not falling on Alabama, no doubt wrenched from Vermont where there's only moonlight reported. But if you stand outside on a clear night and look up, a sparkling canopy of mystery awaits your study. Thanks to the ancients who had no streetlights and lots of time on their hands, we have fancifully-imagined constellations to consider, not to mention solar system objects and the more recently-catalogued phenomena like star clusters and distant galaxies.

These days, each time bright Venus rises, the number of UFO reports generally goes up. No professional astronomer makes that mistake, and, thanks to a happy combination of telescope and computer, neither will you.

Many fine astronomy programs are now on the market, giving planetarium-like tours of the heavens. And there are computer-telescope combinations in addition to what I describe below. But where the others combinations merely help you to aim that telescope barrel, Software Bisque's TheSky actually feeds the Meade LX-200 telescope the information it needs to position itself, telling it to center its focus on the object of your choice.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Perils of Travelling by Car

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Dateline: Fairview, PA. This was the kickoff piece for my series of two dozen chronicling a cross-country trip my wife and I took in 1989. I wrote it on Sept. 3 and it appeared in the Schenectady Gazette a fortnight later. What’s not in the article is the first big argument Susan and I had, which had to do with the dead radio described below. Seeing that we were crammed for the next four weeks into a vehicle too small to accommodate proper sulking, we learned quickly to be very kind to one another.


IF YOU'RE THE SORT of person who begins a vacation by packing and getting out on time, I envy you. Vacation prep is an agony for me, and to pack for a long one is terrifying. Which is only to explain why my wife and I ended up on the New York Thruway, headed west, about six hours later than we'd planned. When we stopped at Niagara Falls it was dark and it was late and we were tired. This is when the awesome loneliness of travelling by car becomes apparent.

Daylight is deceptive, giving you a false sense of access to the sights that whisk by. The car itself is another cheat. You sit encased in a flimsy suit of tin moving much more quickly than is good for you all the while feeling a sense of imperviousness. At least I do. That's the reason automobile junkyards are fenced in, you know: so we don't get reminded of just how vulnerable we really are in those sedans.

Driving at night you're detached, studying only a hundred or so feet of pavement ahead, lulled into monotonous thought by the soft glow of dashboard lamps. If you've got a companion, so much the better, and my wife and I made noble promises about sharing the driving while keeping one another company. But our itinerary, covering about 25 states in 30 days, required a daunting amount of time at the wheel, and it's exhausting time.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Ian Whitcomb: A Portrait

From the Vault Dept.: For a wonderful few years as the millennium turned, Cool and Strange Music Magazine celebrated the oddball, the forgotten, the exotic, the hilarious – anyone who caught the fancy of founding editor Dana Countryman, who since has gone on to write a biography of electronic music wizard Jean-Jacques Perrey. My article about Ian Whitcomb was the second feature I wrote for the magazine; the first was about the phenomenon of song poems.


Ian Whitcomb
NOT FAR FROM THE Cal-Tech campus in San Marino, California, is the well-known Huntington Art Gallery, Library & Botanical Garden. Deep within the basement, past the lookalike stacks of reference volumes, a solitary figure hunches at a green metal desk, inscribing a sheet of foolscap with a throwaway pen. Here he is safe from the intrusions of cell phone and pager – safe from the technology of the computer age.

And, because he is musicologist/recording artist/Mae West producer/ukulele virtuoso Ian Whitcomb, he’s also safe from the ravages of contemporary music. Because, despite his Top Ten hit “You Turn Me On,” which charted in 1965, his heart is in the days of vaudeville and the black-and-white movie musical. He sings – and sings of – the classic songs that defined America’s native musical tradition, songs of Tin Pan Alley and the ragtime era.

Sure, there are academics who have charted this history, but Whitcomb adds a voice with music in it. He’s a performer who tasted stage success as an overweight eight-year-old persuaded onto the beachside stage at Felpham, a resort town on England’s south coast. He was only supposed to jump on an acrobat’s trampoline, but he threw in some just-learned jokes and finished with a favorite song, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts,” as the acrobat seethed with jealousy.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fire in the Face

Vintage Stuff Dept.: During a long-ago visit to Minneapolis, I was taken to the Sri Lanka Curry House, where I ate an entrée so spicy that the skin dripped from my face. I wrote the following piece for Chile Pepper magazine not long thereafter, and cannot recall if it actually ran. The restaurant closed a while ago, but Heather still offers classes and runs a catering business.


Heather Jansz
THE FIERIEST CUISINE OF ALL comes from Sri Lanka and the first – and possibly only – Sri Lankan restaurant in the United States is in Minneapolis. For thirteen years, Evan and Heather Balasuriya’s Sri Lanka Curry House has been offering fare that can be prepared with so much zing that the menu offers grades of heat for each of the spicy items. First-time visitors are strongly encouraged to work their way up to the zenith (“extra hot”) slowly, with repeated visits.

“We had a hot food eating contest three years ago,” says Evan. “We made the food twenty-five times hotter than usual because we were afraid we’d have too many winners otherwise. It was outrageously hot – we had to keep our faces away while we were cooking it.” Qualifying sessions were held throughout the year on Tuesdays; contestants were required to finish a portion in less than five minutes. Over a hundred people entered, and fifteen – all of them Americans – made it to the final heat. Evan comments, “I was amazed to see how much tolerance people have.”

Although the varied ethnic profile of Minneapolis now makes a Sri Lankan restaurant seem like a natural, it was one of the city’s most unusual eateries when it opened. “Back in 1973, when I got there,” says Evan, “Minneapolis really had nothing in the way of ethnic restaurants. If you wanted something exotic, you ate chow mein at a Chinese restaurant.” Now you’ll find just about everything imaginable in the area, which also boasts one of the country’s largest Vietnamese populations and a consequently high number of Vietnamese restaurants.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bob Rosen

Book House, Albany, NY | Sept. 14, 2012 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, September 14, 2012

Remembering Jascha Heifetz

Heifetz Week Dept.: He died on Dec. 10, 1987, after being hospitalized for a hip injury. He was 86 or 87, depending on the bio you consult. But even at the end he pursued his privacy, and registered at the hospital under the name Jim Hoyl, a moniker he used frequently, and which was attached to the middling hit song he wrote in the ’40s, “When You Make Love to Me, Don’t Make Believe.” If the piece below seems a bit on the fawning side, it’s not as bad as yesterday’s post. Besides, my musical hero now was gone for good.


Jascha Heifetz in 1980
AT THE END, Jascha Heifetz achieved what no other public figure in this over-communicative era can hope to obtain: a history so confusing and contradictory that the sum of his life will only be measurable by his music. That’s a tough stunt to pull off, and it must have pleased him greatly.

To piece together the many magazine articles written about him during his lifetime is to discover a patchwork of contradictory material and opinions. What does emerge, consistently, article after article, is a portrait of a man with unflagging dedication to his art, imbued with a self-discipline so strong that it hurts to contemplate it.

Preparing for a 1964 concert in California, he was discovered by an associate practicing the finale of the Beethoven Violin Concerto at a fraction of his usual tempo – and this after having played the work in public several hundred times. “Heifetz got the kind of training you just don’t get anymore,” said Erick Friedman, one of the violinist’s most distinguished students. “It was phenomenal.”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Divinely Inspired Marvel

Heifetz Week Dept., Guest Blogger Edition: He made his Carnegie Hall debut – a much-anticipated event – on Oct. 27, 1917. The musical press (back then there was a musical press) was there in force. In a characteristically muted fashion, the unsigned review in the New York Times noted that the young violinist “produces tone of remarkable beauty and purity, a tone of power, smoothness and roundness, of searching expressiveness, of subtle modulation in power and color. His bowing is of rare elasticity and vigor, excellent in many details, as is his left hand execution, which is accurate in all sorts of difficulties. In his technical equipment, Mr. Heifetz is unusual.” For all-round gushing, however, nothing beat Musical America’s take on the afternoon.


Jascha Heifetz in 1917
IT MAY NOT BE that the greatest violinists now browsing in these fertile pastures are quite serious in their rumored decision to shut up shop, burn their fiddles and withdraw to distant wastes or sombre forests to invite oblivion because Jascha Heifetz has come upon us. The power and the glory of the newcomer may not be as ruthlessly destructive as all that. Nevertheless, this Russian boy of seventeen summers is beyond all possibility of cavil a divinely inspired marvel, whom advance report has belied only by undervaluation, and the most breathtaking, the most crushing, the supremest genius of the violin that has confronted us in the past decade or perchance even more.

His American debut last Saturday afternoon was one of those extraordinary occasions that stifles skepticism at its source and that carries away upon a tidal wave of seething enthusiasm the common boundary marks of moderation. A few strokes of a flame-tipped bow over strings become vocal with a fabulous sweetness sufficed to tell the story of a triumph that will reverberate through the extent of the land these months to come. The force and fervency of the general delight, which grew as the afternoon advanced, were of the sort that make an event historic. There was a huge audience which included, it seemed, every violinist within a radius of two hundred miles. And their enthusiasm amidst the general delight was not the least. No one, for that matter, seemed more transported than Maud Powell, who stayed to applaud frantically till the very last encore.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Professor Heifetz

Heifetz Week Dept.: One of my few contributions to the short-lived, long-defunct “Classical” magazine, which went under before paying me for it. The videos in question are now available on a two-DVD set.


JASCHA HEIFETZ EMERGED from the amazingly fertile classes of Leopold Auer as the most outstanding of an extraordinarily talented group. It was only fitting that he should have devoted much of his own later life to teaching. Most of his classes were conducted through the University of Southern California, and producer Nathan Kroll was allowed to bring in his cameras in 1962.

A series of eight half-hour programs was released to educational television stations sometime later and the episodes appeared a few years ago in an expensive set of videotapes. Now they have been packaged in a more economical set of two VHS tapes, which are as entertaining as they are instructional.

Heifetz was not a man who dissembled, and this extended to the filmed portraits of his class. He enters, greets the half-dozen students with a cheery “good morning,” chooses a pupil and selects the piece to be played.

And listens, with that impassive face, while metronomically tapping a pencil. When he offers suggestions, both technical and interpretive, they're often couched in the dry wit he was known for. Occasionally he demonstrates a point on his own fiddle. But he doesn't hog the limelight, insisting that the student should be the center of interest.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Reissue Issues

Heifetz Week Dept.: Before BMG Classics (née RCA Red Seal, née Victor Red Seal, now Sony Classical) issued their complete Heifetz holdings in one compact disc set, the violinist’s recordings crept onto CD seemingly haphazardly, some issues by way of Japan. But there was a method to it. Heifetz’s longtime producer, Jack Pfeiffer, had that complete set in mind for a long time before it was issued, and programmed the individual issues in a way that he believed would make the most sense when all of them were collected – although the result was that one short work appeared on two different discs in the complete set. Here’s a review I wrote in 1998 about five of those individual issues.


VIOLINIST JASCHA HEIFETZ had a contract with RCA Victor for most of his career, and recorded hundreds of titles between 1917 and 1972. It's an impressive testimony to one of the century's greatest artists.

His repertory covered the warhorse concertos and major recital pieces, but he also championed the new and unfamiliar. The latest five-disc release (packaged and sold separately) from BMG Classics highlights a broad spectrum of those recordings and is particularly interesting on two counts: programming and sound quality.

The material was recorded between 1947 and 1968, straddling the transition from monaural to stereo, although there is no such indication on any of the discs. The mono material is gently goosed with electronically-induced separation for a rather pleasant fullness of sound.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Heifetz and the Low F

Heifetz Week Dept.: For no reason other than a wish to stay in sync with the arbitrary nature of the universe and a sudden desire to share some pieces about my favorite musician, it’s Heifetz week at this blog. We kick off with a fascinating piece of trivia.

Jascha Heifetz and Jack Pfeiffer
The late John F. Pfeiffer, who produced many of RCA Victor’s benchmark “Living Stereo” recordings in the late 1950s, was especially proud of being able to release onto compact disc the complete official output of two of his favorite artists: Arturo Toscanini and Jascha Heifetz. The meticulously documented, 65-disc Heifetz Collection won a Grammy for the care lavished on bringing these hundreds of hours of recordings back to life.

Both sets first appeared in lavish jewel-box compilations, now long out of print, but both more recently reappeared in cardboard packaging. The Heifetz set recreates the LP release of his output; the Toscanini set reproduces the 1992 CD extravaganza.

In a December1994 interview, just after that first release of the Heifetz Collection, Pfeiffer revealed a secret about one of the recordings, something that has gone practically unnoticed by critics and listeners.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Of the People, By the People

From the Vault Dept.: Three big folk (for want of a better term) music reissue projects appeared about fifteen years ago. Two of them – the “Anthology of American Folk Music” and “Songs for Political Action” – were self contained, insofar as each set was as complete as it was going to get. The Alan Lomax reissue series on Rounder Records started impressively, running to just shy of a hundred CDs before it petered out – although an eight-disc set of Lomax’s recordings of Jelly Roll Morton appeared in 2006 before the whole thing ended.


WE HAVE THE UNCOMFORTABLE feeling that a decades-long folk revival ended when Bob Dylan put on a tux to play at the White House recently, but when did it begin? Some argue that it was launched with a 1940 “Grapes of Wrath Evening” put together by Will Geer and featuring Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Bess and Alan Lomax, the Golden Gate Singers and a 20-year-old Pete Seeger, among many others. Others point to a 1955 Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall by the Weavers, rebounding from their McCarthy-era blacklisting–a concert that produced a Vanguard recording that has yet to go out of print.

The answer may lie in-between: in 1952, in fact, when Folkways released its “Anthology of American Folk Music.” Three two-LP sets presented an array of amazingly obscure material, enough so that producer Harry Smith didn’t worry much about securing re-release rights to the songs. There were two reasons why he swiped the 84 selections from commercial recordings: First, he believed that this gave the songs an approval that field recordings lacked–some A&R person already had vetted them. Second, he was an obsessive collector of 78s.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Smiling Walt

Reel Camp Dept.: In 1971, after TV-watching an hours-long Charlie Chaplin festival, I made a short, silent movie titled "Smiling Walt" that had something to do with bicycles, pies, and a comely damsel. Here are a few frames from a clip I found in oddly stashed in my file of negatives. I'm wearing the bow tie. I believe this scene was the lead-up to the pie fight.

Smiling Walt: L to R:
Suzanne Potter, Walter Hallenborg,
Byron Nilsson, Denis McKeon.
Cinematography: Steve Brooks

Friday, September 07, 2012

Up to Speed

From the Vault Dept.: Without the bridge of parsable chatter, silent movies work on the viewer in a more subtle, more emotionally enriching way. Often it seems as if there’s a direct, uncensored communication to the heart. But such movies traditionally are far from silent. From large orchestras to crappy pit pianos, there’s always been music. Here’s a review of one such event from a few years back, featuring a trio ensemble of percussionists and one of the silent era’s greatest comedians.


Harold Lloyd in Speedy
AS A CLEAR, BEAUTIFUL evening darkened into balmy night, the black-and-white face of Harold Lloyd filled the screen – and the three-man orchestra, arrayed below, kicked into musical madness. “Speedy,” released in 1928, was Lloyd’s final silent film (and he made very few talkies before retiring as very rich man), itself a tribute to times of old with a paper-thin plot centered around the last horse-drawn trolley in Manhattan.

Lloyd had a company of excellent gag writers who could make the comic most of any situation. He visited an amusement park in the 1920 short “Number, Please?” but expanded the idea into a hilarious Coney Island sequence for “Speedy,” no doubt the result of the extended New York stay he and his crew gave themselves. And it hardly matters that the sequence advances the plot not a bit – the gags are what matter and the gags are terrific.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Barber’s Knoxville

YESTERDAY IT BECAME that time of evening when people sit on their porches. But by the time I and my family realized this, it was dark and the mosquitos were practicing troop movements – and people were distracted, project-laden, not allowing themselves a chance to relax.

So I put on a recording of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” and hectored the others into spending sixteen minutes glorying in this magnificently evocative piece.

It's Still in Print!
It’s a setting of an excerpt from a prose piece by James Agee, who captured (with some very florid, free-flowing language) the mystery of being but six years old: “We are talking of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” Significantly for Agee, it was also the year before his father died in an auto accident.

The prose piece, “Knoxville,” was written in the mid-1930s. Agee gave fuller treatment to childhood events in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Death in the Family, published (and finished) posthumously in 1957. By this time, Barber’s 1947 work had achieved some success, and the prose piece was inserted into the novel as a prologue.

Barber was born the same year as Agee, and must have found resonance with the heartbreak of losing a father: as he began to set Agee’s words, Barber’s own father was ill and soon would die. But it was the power of the words themselves that inspired the composer to set them. As Barber noted, “The summer evening he describes ... reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home ... It expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.”

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Hearts of Fire

From the Vault Dept.: I don’t think there’s been a production more lavish than 1990's “Hearts of Fire” presented in the Capital Region. Written to commemorate Schenectady’s 300th anniversary, it brought together 60 area actors and a huge behind-the-scenes support staff, and after its initial success at Proctor’s Theatre, it was brought back a year later for another triumphant run. I was in the show that first year, playing the part of a French officer, and thus was in a good position to write the behind-the-scenes report below which ran in the Schenectady Gazette. (And I’m second from the left in the photo below.)


BEFORE THERE WAS G.E., before there was an American Revolution, an earnest group of Dutch settlers struggled to make a new life for themselves in a village on the banks of the Mohawk River. In 1690, the village was burned by French soldiers with the aid of rebel Indians. “Hearts of Fire” is an original musical that explores the passions and heartbreak of that time, a 300th anniversary celebration of Schenectady's heritage. It opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, at Proctor's Theatre for a six-day, eight-performance run.

Photo by Martin Benjamin
I was invited to play the part of one of the French officers who supervises the massacre. Because of the uniqueness of this event – the largest and most expensive original piece ever mounted in the city – I kept a diary during rehearsals. Here are some highlights:

JULY 29: There’s no talent more admirable than that of a singer who can sight-read a page and make it sound beautiful. I’m not one of those, and that’s why I’m standing like a schoolkid in Maria Bryce’s living room, trying my best to pick up the notes she’s patiently plunking for me on the piano.

“Hearts of Fire” will be her second Proctor’s premiere, following 1988's “Mother, I’m Here.” She wrote book, music and lyrics, and from what little I’ve heard I’m already impressed with the craftsmanship.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Ellington by the Numbers

From the Library Dept.: A few years ago, Metroland asked its writers to celebrate an oddball book that perseveres as a favorite. It was an easy enough choice for me to make, as I was then in the midst of making sense of the many Duke Ellington CDs I’ve accumulated, and I had this particular volume open on my desk. There has since been a fifth edition published, but the one I have – The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen, Fourth Edition, Compiled by W.E. Timner – continues to serve me well.


THE PAGES LOOK as if they were ripped from a dot-matrix printer, except that it’s high-quality printing. But there’s that unmistakable computer-database appearance of columns and rows.

Open at random: Pages 130-131. 20 Nov. 1952. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra are at Birdland in Manhattan. Decipher the initials at the top of the listing and you see that Clark Terry, Britt Woodman and Russell Procope are among the players. No Johnny Hodges, though: he’d taken off for a while. Betty Roche sang “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Two nights later, the band is there again, and four nights after that. Much of the gig was issued on the Jazz Unlimited label.

In December, Duke is at the Apollo, then takes off to Chicago for a recording session and a concert at someone’s home in Winnetka. New Year’s Day he’s at Chicago’s Blue Note; at the end of January, he’s back in New York.

So it is with this book: From Ellington’s first recordings in 1923 as part of Snowden’s Novelty Orchestra to his last putative recording (“tape is said to exist”) at Northern Illinois University in 1974, Timner’s volume lists every Ellington performance that may have been preserved.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Tower of Power

From the Classical Archives Dept.: Back in May we saw the return of composer Joan Tower, with Cho-Liang Lin performing Tower’s Violin Concerto with the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller. Tower, who may be the only contemporary composer celebrated in the comic strip “Peanuts,” has relationship with the ASO that goes much farther back, as this review of mine from 1984 attests. (The phrase “pursuit of venery,” by the way, is lifted from Thomas Berger's novel Who Is Teddy Villanova?)


IT’S EASY TO DEVELOP a granite block against contemporary classical music – even (or especially) with so dedicated a group as the Albany Symphony at hand, presenting something fairly new at every concert.

Joan Tower
Photo by Steve J. Sherman

You reassure yourself with the thought that Beethoven’s contemporaries had a hard time with his stuff, but still it’s hard to imagine that audiences 200 years from now will consider today’s chaos to be tame.

That’s why “Music for Cello and Orchestra” by contemporary composer Joan Tower was such a delight to listen to at the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s concert Saturday at the Palace Theater. It’s very modern – this weekend receiving its second and third performances – and it has a suitably modern-sounding voice. It’s a charming, cheerful piece, however, accessible to a first hearing and without the glittery garbage that might pall on a listener after repeated exposure.

“Ravel told me he couldn’t sit through another performance of ‘Bolero,’” Ms. Tower prefaced the performance of her piece by saying, “and Paine and Dvořák were ill. So I’m here. Which means that the players have to deal with me. But I think they’re used to dealing with composers who aren’t six feet under by now and it’s very exciting to me that we can work together.”

Saturday, September 01, 2012