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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Working at Home, Part 1231

SUCH ARE THE EXIGENCIES of this last day of the year that I’m not performing tonight, my wife took the day off from work, and my daughter is on a school break. We are discovering that such close quarters can be endured only with a maximum of politeness, which I lack, and tolerance, which they have in annoying excess.

Hector Berlioz
I am cooking, of course. Some manner of cassoulet, although there’s no confit, and I suspect it will end up veering toward hoppin’ John (sans rice). But that’s left up to me.

What’s not left up to me is the choice of entertainment. Last year we improbably celebrated the turn of the year in Times Square (which I swore I’d never do, and thus cannot admit I enjoyed), subjected to the pop-culture strains of all that is loud and relentless. There’s no television available here at home (and I won’t steer any of the computers to that purpose), so the choice of music is important.

As we circle in upon the subject, I’m assured where we’re not heading this evening. I proposed that we follow the precedent of WKCR, the Columbia University radio station, which, many years ago, would mark this day by mourning the passing of the old year. They’d start the Berlioz Requiem during the 11 o’clock hour, and never note, during the 70-minute piece, when midnight came and went. I love that idea, but fear I’m stuck again with “Auld Lang Syne.”

Monday, December 30, 2013

Increasing the Bawd Rate

Back to the Nasty Bits Dept.: I take you back to early 1995, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy and CompuServe ruled the day. We were still on dial-up modems, but you didn’t have to dial far to find sex-related material. I wrote this piece for a Valentine’s Day issue of Metroland.


“I WANT YOU,” he says. “Will you be mine for tonight?”

“That’s not very romantic,” she chides him.

There is a pause. His words emerge slowly. “I’ve never met anyone like you before,” he says, more truthfully than he realizes. “Nobody has ever talked to me with such insight before, and you’ve really turned me on.”

“That’s better. I’m unbuttoning my blouse. Do you want to see my breasts?”

His first night at the pickup scene, and he’s struck pay dirt! “Yes!” he says. “I do!”

“First you have to tell me more about yourself. I want the good stuff. How big is it, really?”

His measure of himself is changing. He’d almost come to believe that he was geeky as unkind classmates had said. But this!

This was being conducted at the terminal of his personal computer, in a private “conversation room” with an online presence called 42EEBABE who had responded to his own nickname – MR12INCH – by inviting him to talk in private. In this sense, talking means typing back and forth to one another. What MR12INCH would never know is that 42EEBABE was another man, a man who excited himself by luring “newbies” – newcomers to the network – into intimate sessions of mutual gratification conducted from terminals that could be tens or hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Location, Location, Location!

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Here’s a look at the early consumer-use days of GPS, long before Garmin and the like got into the game. I can’t tell from the files I have exactly who I wrote this for or when, but I think it was for Mobile Office magazine, and it ran in the summer of 1996.


GREG RIKER GETS AROUND. And during the course of his travels, he knows precisely where he is, where he's been, and where he's headed at any given moment.

Riker, who develops and evangelizes innovative uses of technology for Microsoft Corp., constantly travels around the country, discussing how technology improves people's professional and personal lives. Last year he and his wife logged 30,000 miles in their Newell motor home.

Riker’s high-tech land yacht is equipped with several laptops, a Motorola Envoy, a SkyTel 2-Way pager, and two cellular phones. But his ability to pinpoint his exact location and destination is a function of the Trimble Mobile Global Positioning System (GPS) PC Card attached to his dashboard-mounted Toshiba T-2000 pen-based computer.

As Riker rolls down the road, an antenna on the roof of his motor home picks up satellite signals that are carried to a GPS receiver wired to the PC Card. The card converts the signals into data delineating the vehicle’s location, speed, and direction of travel. The card then feeds that information into Automap Pro, a digital mapping program from Microsoft. A map appears on the Toshiba’s display, and a representation of the motor home moves along that map.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Soul Proprietor

From the Vault Dept.: An Albany Times-Union article from 1996 suggested that a stretch of that city’s Central Avenue might see an economic revival thanks to the efflorescence of minority-owned businesses there. Two of them – a hair salon and a restaurant – were owned by Rev. Marjorie Sims and her husband, David. I reviewed the restaurant in 1997 and found it exceedingly congenial – with terrific chitlins – but it soon fell victim to the area’s changing fortunes.


YOUR SOUL IS UNDER CONSIDERATION HERE in a couple of ways. Food, sure. But the menu promises dinner and a prayer, and Reverend Sims, the chef, will happily help supply whatever aspect of your being needs nourishment.

When she’s off the premises, which isn’t terribly often, she’s preaching. That’s the calling  she followed in South Carolina, where she left behind her home and heart when she came north a year and a half ago to care for her ailing father.

A year ago, she and her husband, David, opened the restaurant on Central Ave., a little west of downtown. It was named Julia’s after her 85-year-old mother, now widowed and living in Troy. “We have to be here for her,” says Rev. Sims. “She doesn’t want to move south.”

So she divides her time among her mother, the various churches where she preaches and her restaurant, and you’ll find the restaurant about the friendliest place you’ve ever dined in. I stopped in late one recent afternoon for an early dinner, my loyal friend Dorothy in tow. And I started right out in putting her off guard by ordering chitterlings as an appetizer.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Trumpet Did Sound

From the Manger Dept.: Back in the heyday of my concert reviewing, the holiday season invariably dumped a “Messiah” or two in my lap. By 1990, when I wrote what’s offered below, it truly had to be impressive to garner as good a notice as I gave. The Capitol Hill Choral Society was founded in 1953 by Judson Rand, who conducted it until 1985, when Benjamin Van Wye took over and was able to get another couple of decades out of the community-based ensemble before it went the way of so many a classical-music making organization in these culture-straitened times.


SOPRANO CHRISTINE BRANDES has the kind of voice that would melt the heart of the most Scrooge-ish of holiday grumps. There's an artlessness about her singing that makes vibrato and other vocal effects seem like the most unnecessary of decorations.

Christine Brandes
With tones pure and sweet, she offered her four recitatives halfway through the first part of Handel’s “Messiah” with inspiring sincerity, bringing what already was a marvellous performance to an even greater height. With more of the same to follow.

Good, clean singing, a terrific orchestra and even some unexpected witnessing were part of the Capitol Hill Choral Society’s annual presentation of the oratorio Friday evening at the Troy Music Hall.

Conductor Benjamin Van Wye has been promoting a more intimate conception of the work than has been the tradition in this century; each year the focus becomes a little clearer and this year was his best yet as he drew an impressively Baroque sound from the orchestra and placed a wonderfully talented quartet of soloists in front of the chorus.

This year Van Wye also chose to conduct throughout and brought in skilled harpsichordist Robert Conant to play continuo. A dozen players from the St. Cecilia Chamber Orchestra comprised the orchestra, same size as last year, showing off concertmaster Robert Taylor’s tremendously effective solo voice.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Box of Candy and a Piece of Fruit

A powerfully evocative song for the holiday. 
Written and performed by Bob Gibson and Tom Paxton.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

'Twas the Night Before Dept.: Here's a reprise of last year's post on this day, to save you the trouble of thumbing back through so many pages . . . 


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.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Dressing the International Table

WE IN THE UNITED STATES may be among those who lay out the most excessive Christmas dinners. The British were recently cited as the worst in Europe by health app-maker Lifesum, because they typically consume a meal that is 30 percent sugar, with 69 grams of fat and 211 carb grams.

Putting that in menu terms, it’s some manner of roasted fowl with stuffing, roasted potatoes, mince pie, Christmas pudding and, even in the Cratchit household, more.

The healthiest? France. This despite the prominent role foie gras plays in the meal, which rarely includes processed food and comes in with 69 grams of fat and 211 grams of carbohydrates. In addition to goose liver, the French enjoy oysters, lobster, roasted fowl with chestnuts and stuffing, at least three types of cheese and a traditional holiday cake known as a bûche de Noël and shaped like a Yule log. And, of course, Champagne.

Lifesum is based in Sweden, which was 10th on the best-to-worst ranking of 19 European countries. That country’s typical Christmas Eve dinner is a buffet that includes meats and fish and a number of sweets, including risgryngrot, a rice pudding that contains a single almond to grant its discoverer a wish or a wedding.

Says Lifesum’s Lovisa Nilsson (no relation, as far as I know), “Christmas is a time for eating well and enjoying food, but clearly some European countries have, by accident of tradition, dishes that offer far less reason for diners to feel guilty,” which is a nice thought until that pudding is served.

The American holiday meal is descended from the British model, so we’re probably doing ourselves no favors. So if you want to do something different and aren’t ready to try the French model, the second-healthiest tradition is in the Czech Republic, where fish soup, cold potato salad and sour cabbage are the favorites.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas with the Camerata

Where Was I? Dept.: Almost exactly one year ago I was enjoying the same thing I plan to enjoy today: the annual Union College concert by the Boston Camerata. This year’s theme takes us to Renaissance France; here’s my account of last year’s Hispanic journey.


EVEN AS DIE-HARD A FAN such as I has to admit that there can be a certain sameness to a Boston Camerata Christmas program. But I counter the dreaded December assault of horrible holiday music with an annual visit to Union College’s Memorial Chapel to enjoy the early music ensemble’s trip back in time, and last Friday’s program was an outstanding example of how inspiring and peaceful such a concert can be.

Anne Azéma and Boston Camerata members.
And necessary. Coming as it did with the images of the Newtown school slaughter still distressingly fresh, music director Joel Cohen uncharacteristically made a brief statement to open the program, noting that “we don’t know why terrible things happen. We don’t know why wonderful things happen,” and dedicating the concert to the pursuit of peace.

And then tenor Daniel Hershey sang from the back of the house, an unaccompanied Sephardic song signaling the Day of Judgment, segueing into the drone of a hurdy-gurdy played by soprano Anne Azéma, who sang the 13th-century intercessionary “Madre de Deus,” punctuated by baroque trumpet (from the left balcony), played by Michael Collver. Followed by bass-baritone Don Wilkinson’s stately right-balcony “O oriens,” a solo-voice Gregorian chant.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ashkenazy and the Romeros

From the Vault Dept.: A double-feature look-back to 1985, when I was able to see (and write about) concerts by the Romeros, the guitar-playing quartet of father and sons, and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, back when Proctor’s in Schenectady made unremunerative attempts to program classical music. Here are my reviews.


A FORMER STUDENT of one of the Romeros once said “one of them is the finest guitarist in America. The question is, which one?”

Los Romeros, c. 1978
It’s a fitting statement, the truth of which was borne out at Sunday afternoon’s concert by the four Romeros – father and three sons – at the Egg. Four distinct personalities emerged, especially in the solos taken by each.

The concert began with a transcription of a Telemann concerto, followed by the last movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. The latter allowed the group to sparkle with dazzling runs and perfect coordination.

Angel, the youngest brother and in some ways the flashiest, played Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” a melancholy piece which seems, to some, to be the essence of Spanish guitar. Hollywood of the 40s would have loved this man playing this piece – he’s much more dreamy-eyed than, say, Iturbi.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Family Tradition

From the Vault Dept.: Today’s Metroland features a piece I wrote about Christmas dining traditions throughout the world. I grabbed a bit of the information from myself – from a piece I wrote 27 years ago, about dinner at the rectory of Schenectady’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, where my friend Tom Savoy was music director at the time, and where I thus was able to see the feast described below in preparation. Like much of what passed through the editing process at Capital Region magazine, my words were sent through a savage editorial mill, so parts of this leap out at me as not at all mine, particularly the dorky finish. The original is lost to bit-space.


Photo by Mark McCarty
TO MOST OF HIS PARISH he’s Father Joe, a chubby, cherubic pastor you expect to find in a suburb of Rome. But he’s here in the Bellevue neighborhood of Schenectady, just beginning his eighth year at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where he practices Christmas traditions that have been meaningful to him and his family for generations.

Father Joseph Cotugno was born and raised in the Italian section of Albany. And although his father was born on Front Street in Schenectady, the older Cotugno was taken back to Sicily as a boy, where he was raised. He passed away several years ago, but Father Joe’s mother, who is still alive, lives with her son.

“She’s technically and legally blind, but she can smell a dollar bill lying on the lawn,” chuckles Father Joe. “And she still does the cooking for our Christmas Eve dinner, one of our big traditions year after year.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Singular “Hamlet”

Guest Blogger Dept.: Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896), who wrote as Bill Nye, was a lawyer, postmaster, journalist, and lecturer in a career that took him across the United States and back – he was postmaster of Laramie City, Wyoming, before Wyoming was even a state – and during which he developed a comic voice with a uniquely American flavor. His account of James Owen O’Connor’s “Hamlet” comes from a collection of short pieces Nye put together at the end of his life.


Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye
THE CLOSING DEBUT of that great Shakespearian humorist and emotional ass, Mr. James Owen O’Connor, at the Star Theater, will never be forgotten. During his extraordinary histrionic career he gave his individual and amazing renditions of Hamlet, Phidias, Shylock, Othello, and Richelieu. I think I liked his Hamlet best, and yet it was a pleasure to see him in anything wherein he killed himself.

Encouraged by the success of beautiful but self-made actresses, and hoping to win a place for himself and his portrait in the great soap and cigarette galaxy, Mr. O’Connor placed himself in the hands of some misguided elocutionist, and then sought to educate the people of New York and elocute them out of their thralldom up into the glorious light of the O’Connor school of acting.

The first week he was in the hands of the critics, and they spoke quite serenely of his methods. Later, it was deemed best to place his merits in the hands of a man who would be on an equal footing with him. What O’Connor wanted was one of his peers, who would therefore judge him fairly. I was selected because I know nothing whatever about acting and would thus be on an equality with Mr. O’Connor.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Vintage Three Sisters

From the Vault Dept.: I missed Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “Three Sisters” in 2008, but I was there for the 1987 production – the last time Nikos Psacharopoulos directed Chekhov. But I wasn’t as pleased with it as I would have liked to be.


A LITTLE CORNER of the Russian imagination is created almost every summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with the production of a Chekhov play. This year it’s “The Three Sisters,” the brooding search for happiness that results in compromise, despair and, ultimately, a quiet affirmation of faith.

John Heard, Rob Lowe, Roberta Maxwell,
Kate Burton, Amy Irving, Stephen Collins,
and Christopher Walken at Williamstown, 1987
The production teeters on a fine fulcrum. Is it a well-realized presentation of the intricate drama starring some of the better-known actors of today, or is it a chance for some Hollywood folk to get back on the stage (and thus assuage a guilt as old as the movie industry that celluloid just ain’t legit)?

Each of the three sisters has a core of pragmatism fired by an intense capacity to dream. The youngest, Irina (Kate Burton), looks forward to a perfect love, preferably in distant Moscow. Masha (Amy Irving) is married to a bore, Kulygin (John Heard) and encourages the attention of Lt. Col. Vershinin (Christopher Walken). Olga, the oldest (Roberta Maxwell), already is settling into the single life her sisters envy and dread.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Making a Liszt

Holiday Buying Dept.: Clever title. But Liszt doesn’t appear on this list, except insofar as you’ll find some of his works on the Horowitz set. Here’s my year’s-end wrap-up of what you could be wrapping for very fine and cultured friends this Christmas.


DAVID ALAN MILLER and the Albany Symphony have been Grammy nominated for their recording of John Corigliano’s “Conjuror,” a percussion concerto written for Dame Evelyn Glennie, cast in six parts, showcasing three different percussion families solo and with orchestra in a 36-minute work with a satisfying cumulative effect. Miller also helms the Orquestra Gulbenkian in a recording of pieces by Portuguese-born Luís Tinoco, leading off with the percussion-heavy “Round Time.” Both CDs are excellent showcases of new music; both are on Naxos.

Also from Naxos are JoAnn Falletta conducting a 19-minute suite from Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige,” along with “The River” (an American Ballet Theater Commission), “Les Trois Rois Noirs” (unfinished at Duke’s death, completed by his son, Mercer) and other works in effective orchestral versions.

Controversial Turkish composer Fazil Say writes expansive, programmatic works. His Symphony No. 2 is titled “Mesopotamia” and its ten movements tell a complicated story about the titular region, the orchestra abetted by bass flute, bass recorder and theremin. “Universe” (his Symphony No. 3) turns its attention to the skies and very meaning of existence. Stirring, unashamed works excellently performed by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic (Naïve).

Every recording label has a back catalogue that’s aging even faster than what remains of the classical audience, and they’re the stuff of a parade of box sets.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole

. . . and Joan Fontaine didn't take the news of O'Toole's passing very well.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rising Interest

What’s In This Week’s Issue? Dept.: I’m the worst kind of evangelist in the piece below: One who has just discovered the wonderfulness of the subject and can’t shut up about it. Having at long last been persuaded to try using a breadmaker, I now can’t see living without one.


IT’S DIFFICULT TO FIND a true loaf of whole-wheat bread. Most of what passes for it uses some manner of refined flour, and refined sugar activates the yeast. My daughter wisely has chosen a diet that proscribes those ingredients, so after too many frustrating supermarket-aisle hours, I have discovered the breadmaking machine.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Last time I looked, these gadgets turned out oddly cylindrical loaves with large dents at one end. But that was long ago, and everything has changed. Except the dents.

Each of the three machines described below can turn out worthy bread; each is capable of much more. Most importantly: each of them produced a terrific, for-real whole-wheat loaf. The only drawback is that you have to slice them yourself. The differences among the machines mostly lie in feature details.

Like all the machines I looked at, the Cuisinart CBK-100 ($100) offsets its boxiness with stainless steel; unlike the others, it had convenient handles on its sides. It makes up to a two-pound loaf, which is going to be taller than your toaster can handle, yet is irresistible to watch rising above the sides of the baking pan. (All of the machines sport viewing windows.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Bit of Music

Resurrected Reviews Dept.: Here’s a piece I wrote a couple of years ago but which never saw publication. Now the CD is out of print and selling on Amazon at upwards of $80. The Cantaloupe website (access it through the work's website) promises that it will be back in print soon, at a more reasonable $30. It’s a delightful piece of art.


“1-BIT SYMPHONY” is a five-movement work whose first four movements run about 45 minutes, with the final movement clocking in at infinity, or until the battery runs out, which probably will occur first.

Composer Tristan Perich works in electronic music, with a special fondness for that which can be rendered using a single bit, the smallest building block of digital information. He is also a visual artist who celebrates the aesthetic of electronics – he has performed music produced by the judicious use of soldering irons – and the place of electronic music in our lives. Not surprisingly, he has worked with the innovative ensemble “Bang on a Can.”

But “1-Bit Symphony” is more of a chamber work, housed in a conventional CD jewel case. There’s no CD – just the aforementioned battery, an on-off switch, an earphone jack, a volume control wheel, a movement-skip button and an IC chip. You supply the earphones. An accompanying page gives the program code.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

John Haralson

Guest Blogger Dept.: We must credit a series of poets putative and anonymous. Here’s some doggerel that appeared during the Civil War and has been passed around and “improved” in the decades since. John Haralson’s name also is given as “Harrolson” and “Harrelson,” and the lines have been altered, but this version, which ran in Playboy’s “Ribald Classic” column in October, 1973, seems to be fairly definitive.


THERE CAME A TIME during the Civil
War when niter, necessary for the manufacture
of gunpowder, was in such short supply that
an agent of the Selma, Alabama, Niter and
Mining Bureau went public with an unusual
request, said to have appeared in the
Oct. 1, 1863 issue of the Selma Sentinel:

“The ladies of Selma are respectfully
requested to preserve all their chamber
lye collected about their premises
for the purpose of making niter.
Wagons with barrels will be sent around
for it by the subscriber.

– Jno Haralson, Agent, Niter and Mining Bureau.”

This prompted Thomas B. Wetmore, the provost marshall of Selma, to write:

Jno Haralson! Jno Haralson! You are a funny creature;
You’ve given to this cruel war a new and useful feature,
You’ve let us know, while every man is bound to be a fighter,
The ladies, bless them, can be put to making lots of nitre.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Web of Jazz

From the Vault Dept.: I had reviews in the first few issues of Internet Life magazine. As soon as I stopped contributing, the magazine developed a much sassier attitude. Which may be why there was room for me no longer – sassy I ain’t. Here’s a 1996 rundown on jazz-related sites, almost none of which has any relevance now.


DEFINITIONS OF JAZZ are hotly debated, and you can add your voice to the many debates raging on the appropriate Usenet forums. It’s generally recognized as one of the most indigenously American art forms, rooted in the blues that grew out of the Mississippi Delta. Jazz evolved wildly into many distinctive strains, reaching into every other music styling, and even within the realm the record stores label “jazz” it’s hard to pin down. Web sites, not surprisingly, run a similar gamut. Record companies use them to promote merchandise, and some of them do it very skilfully. But this is an area where the devoted fan can do even better, mixing music and images with biography and opinion.

The Best

Plan to spend an hour or more browsing Jazz Online. A hard-to-read home page opens into a virtual cornucopia of record industry-related information that isn’t devoted to one label in particular. Jazz here is celebrated as a living entity, with a special emphasis on young, contemporary performers. JazzTimes magazines keeps its online version here, and there’s a fantastic array of labels, including Verve Interactive, Blue Note, the JVC Music Jazz Cafe, ECM, and RCA. Each label displays info about an album or two, a cover shot, and, if you’re lucky, a sound file. Even a few video clips show up in the more adventurous pages. Warner Bros. Records has its JazzSpace at this site, which featured a live Internet broadcast by tenor saxman Joshua Redman back in October. Menu sequences are sometimes as difficult to follow as an Anthony Braxton tune, and the information needs to be updated much more regularly, but this is a very ambitious site doing an otherwise good job of living up to its promise. [UPDATE: The original site is gone, morphed into something unrelated. Here’s where you’ll find JazzTimes.]

Monday, December 09, 2013

Corkscrew Addicts Tour Hudson Valley

Getting Gouged Dept.: My singular contribution to Wine Spectator magazine was supposed to be a short piece about a consortium of corkscrew collectors with whom I traveled for a couple of days in 1991. The piece I submitted, which appears below, was rejected; what eventually ran was a glorified caption I wrote to go with a photo of Al Capone’s corkscrew. The reporter referenced in the final graf was, of course, me; I was given the corkscrew in question as a souvenir but have yet to gull anyone into performing with it as foolishly as I did.


THEY BRING A NEW TWIST to bottle opening, using some very old devices. The International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts held its annual get-together Sept. 27-Oct. 3 in the Hudson Valley, touring historic sites in Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties with vintage openers near at hand. Each day the members dined at different restaurants; each meal featured local wines that were opened with corkscrews usually far more costly than the wine.

Founded in 1974 by Dr. Bernard Watney, chief medical officer of London's Guinness Brewery, the 50-member organization convenes near the home of a different host each year. “It appealed to me to have an addiction for something innocuous like this,” said Watney. “In my business, I'm often dealing with a lot of alcoholics.”

Sixty members and their companions (or “go-withs,” as they've termed the friends and spouses, borrowing a bottle-maker's description of accessories) came from all over North America and Europe for this year's party, held near the Stamford, Connecticut, home of Don and Bonnie Bull.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Stories with Piano

Completing the Cabaret Dept.: Nearly two years ago, I shared an advance I wrote for Bebe Neuwirth’s cabaret-show appearance at Proctor’s in Schenectady. Let me finish the thought by sharing the review I wrote.


BEBE NEUWIRTH HAS A DISTINCTIVE singing voice, and that’s the first thing many critics mention when appraising her cabaret performances. It’s lauded as an asset or damned as a distraction, but all such observations miss the most important point: her voice actually is a manifestation of many voices, each of which reflects the character behind a particular song.

Scott Cady and Bebe Neuwirth
Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
“Stories with Piano,” is what she calls the show she brought to Proctors last weekend. As she explained, each of the numbers she chose tells some manner of tale, by or about the singer-character or ineffably woven into the fabric of the song itself. (My words, not hers. She’s far less pretentious.)

Because she’s a skilled and seasoned actor, she knows how to make a song into a three-minute musical, and how to embody the characters therein presented. Which is to say that she varies that distinctive voice. It’s always Bebe Neuwirth singing, just as it’s always Katharine Hepburn acting, but behind the distinctiveness of manner is a fully-realized character that the casual observer may mistake for the performer herself.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Sounds of Music

I missed the Carrie Underwood "Sound of Music" live telecast last night. Life's like that. Actually, except for a certain John Coltrane rendition, the whole score is to me as rats are to Winston Smith, so when you're ever searching for me the best place to start is anywhere other than a theater where any form of that show is playing. Although I do wish television might embolden itself to feature a musical of some substance performed this way ("To air / An unairable show / To cast / It with actors who know / The craft / Of a real-time performance ... ").

Anyway, there's no need for hours and hours of a wooden musical laced with Wal-Mart ads. Not when there's this:

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Songs of Gurre

From the Vault Dept.: Sometimes you have to sing a love song. Sometimes you want someone to sing it for you – Sinatra, perhaps, or Rosemary Clooney, or, if you dwell as I do in the more distant past, Bing. But sometimes you want soloists and chorus and orchestra and you really want to impress your inamorata. How about Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder? Here’s my review of a performance of this all-too-rarely-performend piece in 1999. It’s a slightly longer version than what appeared in print.


WHAT MAKES ARNOLD SCHOENBERG’S two-hour cantata Gurrelieder so fantastic and frustrating is the range of musical expression contained within the piece. The composer worked on it for over a decade, during the earliest years of this century, completing the work in 1901 but revising and orchestrating it up until its premiere in 1913.

At first he’s very influenced by Richard Strauss, and Strauss was impressed enough with Schoenberg’s first sketches to recommend the younger composer for a stipend.

As the piece grew, telling the story of the doomed love of King Waldemar for the death- and nature-obsessed Tove, Schoenberg fell more and more under Wagner’s spell. The piece begins with two soloists and orchestra; by the end of the work, more soloists, a narrator, and a full chorus are added. You can hear the influence of Schubert at the beginning; by the end, we’re wrapped in a Wagnerian voice through which Schoenberg’s later musical identity is splendidly apparent.

With its demand for a large orchestra, chorus and soloists, not to mention its considerable length, it’s not easy for an orchestra to program. Add to that the kiss-of-death-at-the-box-office nature of Schoenberg’s name and we’re lucky to have had this performance last weekend at Bard College, down the river at Annandale-on-Hudson. It was part of a festival titled “Schoenberg and His World” that runs through this weekend.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Secrets of the Night Sky

Heavenly Bodies Dept.: We stood in a bookstore parking lot the night after my interview with him appeared in print, where Bob Berman took his book-signing audience in order to share a spectroscopic look at some of the stars in view. He proved as fascinating a speaker as he is a writer, and you can discover what he’s currently up to at his website.


MANY OF THE SECRETS Bob Berman wants to share have been general knowledge for centuries. But his book Secrets of the Night Sky (William Morrow & Co.) is intended partly to undo the damage that’s been caused by our recent and profound inattention to what’s going on in the heavens, and partly to bring us up to date on the results of recent study.

Berman’s book stresses what’s observable with the naked eye, recommending only sporadically that binoculars might be helpful. But he keeps taps on the heavens at the Overlook Observatory in Woodstock, where “everything is motorized. I have a 12 ½-inch reflector telescope and an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain.” He is also director of the Cobb-Matheissen Observatory at Storm King Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson.

You may be familiar with Berman’s radio commentary, Skywindow, which airs over WAMC and its associated stations every Sunday at 1:35 PM. “It’s a little like Stardate,” he says, “but slanted to our own area, telling you what to look for in Albany and the Hudson Valley.”

His love of his work comes through both in the book’s lively stories and in his personal enthusiasm. “I’ve always loved astronomy – I think a fascination for it is built into all of us, because it’s part of our home and it’s natural to have an interest in your neighborhood. My earliest memory is looking at the night sky from my stroller, and I loved the look of the stars. As a kid I read every book I could find on astronomy. What’s amazing is that I was able to turn this into a vocation. Especially considering that I wasn’t great in math. But I had a talent in English class, which helps when I’m writing and speaking about the subject.”

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Bells Were Ringing

Yule Be Sorry Dept.: The Christmas music has started and already feels like it never will stop, always has been grinding in the background. Back in my more frequent reviewing years, I had my work cut out for me of a December, and this was one such annual event, from 1990.


NOBODY CAN BE FAULTED for jumping on the handbell bandwagon, least of all during the holiday season. The Hand-Bell Choir that made its debut last weekend with the Mohawk Valley Chorus was organized in September, and it's a good bet that the success of this association will lead to future performances together.

Following a tradition of bringing each concert to locations in three neighboring counties, the Chorus stopped at Union College’s Memorial Chapel Saturday evening with a program titled “It’s Christmas.”

Selections ran an impressive gamut from traditional to 20th Century, from the loud and stirring to quiet and unaccompanied. Former musical director Carl Steubing returned to lead the group, with longtime accompanist Suzanne Lake working at the piano or organ.

While some might worry about a shortage of traditional material, I was pleased by the mix of programming and the programming strategy: by the end of the concert, after everyone’s already been singing along silently, the audience is invited to join in a set of well-known stuff (“You probably won’t even need the lyric sheet,” Steubing observed.)

Monday, December 02, 2013

To Think of Tea!

Guest Blogger Dept.: Agnes Repplier was a renowned – and now unjustly neglected – essayist whose keen mind and colorful, precise prose style ensured a successful career. As a child, she quickly memorized and recited the poems her mother read to her, but resisted her mother’s efforts to teach her to read, which she did on her own at the age of ten. At 12 she was enrolled at  Eden Hall, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, just north of her native Philadelphia, but was asked not to return after two years. She was kicked out of Agnes Irwin’s West Penn Square Seminary for Young Ladies after three times because of her rebelliousness. By the time she was 20, her writing began bringing in enough money to help support her family. She died in 1950 at the age of 95. She was a lifelong smoker. The following excerpt is from her book To Think of Tea!, the finest volume ever written on the subject.


Agnes Repplier
IT IS THE MODERATE EXHILARATION induced by tea which makes it such a boon. We may, as Dr. Johnson asserts, be happy when we are drunk; but we are tolerably sure to be unhappy afterwards. The sense of contentment which follows the second cup of tea is not so irresponsible as to defy experience. It is a contentment compatible with ordinary circumstances. It does not lift us so high that the fall hurts, nor shelter us so securely that the return to noise and glare is shocking. For most of us life holds no good years, and few good days; but multitudinous good minutes if we recognize their presence. ‘Après tout c’est un monde passable.’

We cannot think that tea gives to Americans what it gives to the English. It is not our affinity any more than a cocktail is theirs. The American genius ran to mixed drinks, and achieved marvellous results. The rapture of Dickens over his first sherry cobbler blotted temporarily from his mind his distaste for all things else American. Today, England, France, Italy and Spain offer to tourists an assortment of mixed drinks, their names startlingly familiar, their qualities unrecognizable. But never since the Revolution have we returned heartily to tea. When proffered in the afternoon, it is nervously rejected as prejudicial to sleep, or drunk so weak as to be truly ‘slop-kettle.’

Sunday, December 01, 2013

A Byrd Told Me

Quick Takes Dept.: It was nice to be able to walk from my house to a terrific jazz club and see the likes of Charlie Byrd. I’ve long since moved, and the era of the Van Dyck as top-tier jazz club also ended years ago.


Charlie Byrd
YOU HAVE TO WONDER WHY SOME of these cats pay good money to sit in the Van Dyck’s piano room and then yack, oblivious to the music. It’s gotten better, though, since a card was placed at each table telling the people to shut up. Charlie Byrd was there last week doing things with amplified acoustic guitar that were spellbinding. Working with housemen Mike Flanagan on bass and drummer Ralph Purificato, he swung through tunes like “Jive at Five” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” paid tribute to Astaire with “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” and “Change Partners,” and did a long bossa set with a bunch of Jobim tunes.

During a solo set of state-related songs (e.g. “I’m Coming Virginia” and “Georgia on My Mind”) he put in “How About You?” for this state (“I like New York in June, how about you?”) because, as he told us, he hates “New York, New York.” He is a man of taste.

Charlie Byrd
The Van Dyck, Schenectady, NY, Nov. 14

Metroland Magazine, 20 November 1986

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Naiobi ...

. . . distracting me from work.

22 Nov. 2013 | Shameless photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Winning Battle

From the Vault Dept.: When Kathleen Battle sang a recital program in Troy, NY, in 1986, she was zooming to the top of the profession, performing in opera companies around the world, in televised productions and, soon enough, at the Met. Eight years later, she’d be swiftly fired from that company for what were termed “unprofessional actions.” She hasn’t been on an opera stage since, but has appeared in a variety of musical settings, both classical and popular. Here’s my report on what was a truly thrilling event.


THE WOMAN WHO SWEPT ONTO the stage of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall two Wednesdays ago wore a stunning red gown that few divas could wear so well, and moved with the self-possession of an opera star. Appropriately, she is an opera star.

Kathleen Battle
A capacity house sat as quietly as I’ve ever heard an audience sit in that reverberant hall and listened worshipfully as Battle took them through an unfamiliar, charming program of songs that sidestepped opera excerpts and instead set a sweetly moody tone.

Pianist Neal Goren shared the credit for a concert with polish and insight that would do credit to a pair of artists twice the age of these (comparative) youngsters.

You many have seen Battle as a sassy Susanna in the televised Marriage of Figaro last season. She is the complete actress as well as singer, and took the stage at Troy in the character of demure recitalist.

And she gave each song a character, achieving a subtle differentiation that isn’t often the stuff of the recital stage.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mains of the Day ...

. . . not to mention starters and sweets. Here's the Jollity Farm carte du jour; the menus for years past looked like these.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Community Property

Across the Boards Dept.: Wondering how I spent the Thanksgiving season in years past, I came across a bounty in 1986. Today you can visit a play I (more or less) enjoyed at Capital Rep: the review is followed by a preview piece I wrote the week before. Coming up: Kathleen Battle and Charlie Byrd.


GREASY, MUSTACHIOED PAUL HAS panned Jesse’s first novel, Spiked Heels. He writes for one of those literary magazines and has a following among the intelligentsia, whose numbers include Jesse until the review comes out. Now she’s at Paul’s parents’ home in Queens to confront the critic, but her plans get screwed up by his too-understanding folks, Rose and Danielo, who detect an attraction between the youngsters.

(l-r) Biancamano, Berger, Newhall, and Shepard.
That attraction fuels the four scenes of Dalene Young’s new play Community Property, receiving its world premiere in the second slot of the current Capital Repertory Co. season. It’s an attraction that seems based only upon sex and certainly runs counter to the intellectual preferences  of the two.

If you can get around the big improbability that lurks in he setup, be prepared to have a most enjoyable time at this show, a sentimental mixture of comedy and pathos that features some extremely accomplished performances.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Just Plain Folk

From the Vault Dept.: A great deal of conducting talent has passed through the Capital Region. Paavo Järvi, Eiji Oue, and Victoria Bond are among those who’ve spent some time here; Geoffrey Simon, who music-directed the Albany Symphony from 1987 to 1991, was born in Australia and now lives in London, where he freelances among that city’s renowned orchestras, and issues recordings on his own Cala label. I missed last Saturday's ASO concert, so here my review of one that Simon conducted in 1988.


MIXING FOLK IDIOMS into classical contexts is one of the ways in which contemporary American composers have attempted to assert a nationalistic identity. It’s  never been as effective here as in Europe, where the stylings have had centuries of cross-pollination.

Geoffrey Simon
The Albany Symphony Orchestra premiered William Mayer’s “Of Rivers and Trains” Friday night at the Troy Music Hall, a piece commissioned by the Albany Medical College as part of its 150th anniversary celebration. It incorporates the folk song “Erie Canal” for melodic relief from an otherwise relentless ostinato, demonstrating the best and worst of formalizing folk songs.

At the worst you end up with a self-consciously cute work like Roy Harris’s “Folk Song Symphony.” At best is Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” approach, in which the setting never overwhelms the simplicity of the original.

Mayer has written a gutsy orchestral score that requires a large percussion section to reproduce a sense of the tumult in transportation his suite celebrates. Out of an opening chaos rises the “Erie Canal” theme, quoted in fragments at first. It’s a nice choice of material in itself, but sticks out self-consciously in the context of the piece as a whole.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tale of the Dragon

From the Techno-Vault Dept.: Smartphones translate your words into text messages with alarming agility. It wasn’t always thus. Back when computer dictation programs were introduced, you had to train the software to recognize your voice, and even then there was no guarantee it would get a large percentage of your verbiage correct. So I was a little disingenuous with the “Hey, kids, look how neat!” piece I wrote in 1996. By no means was it produced through dictation – in fact, a couple of years later, I amused myself by formatting some of the program’s misunderstood meanderings into a poem. DragonDictate has improved considerably, needless to say, and is now owned by Nuance Software. By the time piece below went into print, it had been editorially agonized into something with simpler words and shorter sentences and more exclamation points. Here’s the original.


FOR YEARS, COMPUTERS HAVE BEEN talking to us. With DragonDictate, we can talk to our computers and watch the machines make sense of what we’re saying. Ever fret that the act of typing spoils your creative mood? Sit back, put your feet on the desk, and tell your computer what to write.

That’s what I did to write this column. “Bring up WordPad,” I told it. The appropriate screen blossomed on my monitor. “Begin Document,” I said. The cursor blinked at the top of the page. I spoke into the microphone  “For. Years. Comma. Computers. Have. Been.” At this point, the word “bin” appeared on the screen, but a small window popped up alongside with a list of alternate choices. “Been” was number two. “Choose two,” I said, and the word instantly changed into the proper homonym. “Talking. To. Us. Period,” I continued.

You have to separate the words for DragonDictate to make sense of them, but it’s still an exhilarating feeling to see those articulate grunts transformed into editable text. Whenever the program is confused, it shows you a window of ten choices. If the word you meant isn’t listed, begin typing it until it’s displayed, then say, “Choose (whatever number).” You’ll need to do this less and less as the program gets used to your voice.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What's Cooking?

Bird or Beast Dept.: Even as the T-day prep in my house begins to crank into what will become a frenzy by Wednesday, let's consider the alternatives.


WHILE IT’S TRUE THAT my family roasts a turkey on a day other than Thanksgiving, that’s only because we take advantage of holiday-season sales to scoop up a couple of frozen birds for our own freezer, and use it much later for a meal that we view as ironic, parodying the Norman Rockwell image of a turkey dinner by reproducing it perfectly. In July.

This isn’t the turkey we use at Thanksgiving. That one has to be a costly, hand-raised, antibiotic-free bird, served with a gravy of liberal hypocrisy. Our guests won’t accept a mere Butterball for the holiday (but nobody inquires in July). Frankly, it’s getting expensive.

And it’s intrinsically problematic. You can’t cook it to everyone’s satisfaction. Roasting it requires a fancy timing dance so that the dark meat cooks through without destroying the white meat. My wife’s family’s tradition was to blast the whole bird to a state so dry that it required an ice pick, not a knife. We’ve done the dance of cooking it to breast-meat doneness, then returning the legs only to the oven, but that’s too much work, especially on a day I also dedicate to drinking.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Dark Side’s Dark Side

THE WORLDS OF THOMAS PYNCHON bear very close resemblances to the worlds we know, although once you journey through a Pynchon timescape, you’ll question the authenticity of what’s around you – even if the journey winds through the more remote past of the 18th century of Mason & Dixon, Against the Day’s early 20th century, or Gravity’s Rainbow’s World War II setting.

Bleeding Edge is set in Manhattan in the months leading to September, 2001, where Upper West Side resident Maxine Tarnow is managing two schoolkids, an ex-husband, and a fraud investigation business that’s no longer licensed – making her services all the more attractive to those who operate in realms where licensing doesn’t matter.

Thus she is hired to take a look at a computer security outfit named, in the style of the time, hashlingrz, run by the villainous Gabriel Ice, who may be involved in global money transfers involving a system called hawala, which I incorrectly thought Pynchon might have invented. Meanwhile, Maxine has mom duties to pursue, including the getting her kids to and from the tony Otto Kugelblitz School, which “occupies three adjoining brownstones between Amsterdam and Columbus” and “is named for an early psychoanalyst who was expelled from Freud’s inner circle.” Which I incorrectly thought was for real.

In fact, one of the challenges of this and any Pynchon novel is to figure out which of its narrative ingredients are actual, although the world he invariably creates picks up enough of a momentum that you just want to hang on for the ride.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

All the World’s a Rage

WE KNOW THAT, following the phenomenal success of The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger didn’t want to be bothered and thus secluded himself in the woods of New Hampshire. Of course he wanted to be bothered, argue David Shields and Shane Salerno in Salinger, their fat, chatty biography. Why else would he have taken such pains to let the world know it wasn’t wanted?

The 700-page biography was released as a tie-in to the Salerno documentary of the same title, which opened to dismissive, even hostile reviews, and was re-cut last month to tone down its annoying music score and overuse of re-enactments.

But the book can and should be taken as a separate entity, replete with its own balance of flaws and fascinating information. It’s presented in a kind of documentary format, with cascading quotes in place of a movie’s talking heads, but it lends the book a disjointed, slapped-together feel. This also undermines the book’s credibility by giving equal weight to all comers, be they recognized scholars, friends of Salinger, or movie stars who must have stopped by to get quoted.

A reasonably good explanation for Salinger’s personal character and resultant prose is the harrowing wartime experiences the writer underwent, from D-Day through post-war Buchenwald, with Salinger ending up in the worst of the hot spots. If it was Shields’s and Salerno’s intention to bombard the reader in a manner suggesting those experiences, they did pretty well. More than enough information is given to convey the message, and the result threatens to trivialize the subject with its over-intensity.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

You Oughtn’t Go Home Again

HAD SERGEY PROKOFIEV been a nice man, I suspect his diaries wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining as they are. Prodigal Son, the third and final volume, covers the years 1924-1933. The first two similarly fat volumes brought us from the Prokofiev’s years as one of the youngest students at the St Petersburg Conservatory, vying for the attention of schoolmasters and girls, into the fairly quick success he enjoyed as a composer and a pianist, first in St. Petersburg, then in Europe, especially when Diaghilev commissioned the ballet Chout and his opera The Love for Three Oranges caught on (after a disastrous premiere in Chicago).

By 1924, the 33-year-old Prokofiev is newly married to an exotic-looking singer named Lina Codina and in the sixth year of a self-imposed exile from Russia. Having traveled and performed around the world, he settles in Paris in time to witness the explosion in creative matters that city inspired and hosted.

His path continually crosses that of Stravinsky, with whom the rivalry is friendly but wary, but not without its barbs. Both are vying for Paris’s attention with 1927 premieres – Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, Prokofiev’s The Steel Step – but Stravinsky’s work doesn’t grab the public:
        Dukelsky came to dine and asserted that Stravinsky is finished; all that remains is mass hypnosis . . . In the evening a great gathering at Prunières’: Ravel, Falla, Honegger, Koussevitzky, Rubinstein. Koussevitzky and Rubinstein, foaming at the mouth, tore into both Oedipe and Stravinsky’s conducting.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Not So Deep as a Welles

MY MOST ARDENT HOPE, as an Orson Welles fan who lived through the last couple of decades of his life, was that he hadn’t truly become the caricature that was about the only public image of him. For every ninety minutes he nabbed with the likes of Dick Cavett, who asked the right questions and was rewarded with entertaining and not-terribly-true anecdotes, there were hours of appearances as the butt of fat-guy gags with the likes of Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, and Frank Sinatra – not to mention the embarrassing hell of him hawking cheap wine and frozen peas.

It was all in service of his tireless efforts to raise money for the film projects he constantly pursued, we were told, with chief hagiographer Peter Bogdanovich leading the reassurance brigade. Even as mainstream Hollywood continued to shun one of its few acknowledged geniuses, he found friends in younger, outside-the-mainstream filmmakers like Henry Jaglom, whose uneven but worthy output includes some Welles appearances.

It turns out that Jaglom also was persuaded to help Welles construct an autobiography. Welles wanted his opinions and reminiscences to be recorded, but he didn’t want to be reminded that he was being recorded. So Jaglom was instructed to hide a tape machine near the table at Ma Maison, a restaurant in West Hollywood where the two lunched once or twice a week. The lunches had commenced in 1978, but the recordings were begun in 1983. Two years later, Welles died.

My Lunches with Orson, transcribed and edited by film historian (and superb writer) Peter Biskind, is the fruit of this melancholy endeavor. Welles indeed was playing the role of the fat, forgotten genius by this time, and had been playing it for years, but he was fighting the twin demons of despair and depression while managing to cling to some shards of the shattered dreams that had propelled him since the skyrocketing fame he enjoyed in his youth.

Monday, November 18, 2013

We Aren’t Normal

ABNORMAL OCCURRENCES is being billed as Thomas Berger’s first short-story collection in over thirty years, but that takes into account the small-press run of “Granted Wishes,” which presented three stories from a then-recent issue of Harper’s. All three are included in the new book, along with three new ones in the “Granted Wishes” series. “There are  still a few pieces of short fiction that have gone uncollected,” Berger notes, “but they didn't grab me when I reread them, and I decided to write the new stuff.”

What’s more significant is that this is Berger’s first publication since the 2004 novel Adventures of the Artificial Woman. What’s most significant is that it showcases Berger’s unique voice in a format he rarely practices.

He’s best known as a novelist, although that notoriety is the product of the popularity of the film version of his Little Big Man, the most successful of the quartet of movies his books have inspired. But the fans of his novels, judging by earlier reviews and online comments, are a dedicated bunch, with Jonathan Lethem among the more vocal of his supporters.

This is because the prose in his 23 novels displays a level of craftsmanship that is as masterful as it’s rare, celebrating the power of deft and unexpected combinations of words to tell multi-layered stories with compelling effect. What’s more impressive is that, recognizable as Berger’s style becomes, it’s unique from book to book, each of which is crafted with a particular voice. Thus the dark intricacies of Neighbors has a more contemporary sound than the antique midwest celebrated in Sneaky People; the dystopian future of Regiment of Women has a sense of temporal distance mirrored by the language Berger crafted for long-ago Britain in Arthur Rex.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Vermont Flavored

HOW DO YOU bring out the excitement that’s written into a piece of music without imposing artificial emotion? Musicians from Marlboro gave an exemplary lesson with their Nov. 15 concert at Union College. Each annual visit presents a different ensemble with a unique array of chamber works; this year the music of Thomas Adès nestled with works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Fauré.

So much study is given to a piece of music during the Marlboro summer sessions – which includes work with seasoned professionals – that the young musicians gain an intense familiarity with what they’re performing, not to mention an approach to understanding works they take on outside of the Marlboro world.

Thus it was that the Beethoven trio that opened the program – his lighthearted “Kakadu” Variations, Op. 121a – was performed with the sense of humor the work demands. It’s reckoned to be a synthesis of work from the composer’s early years that was revised late in his life for publication. It opens with a introduction of such heightened solemnity that the transition to the “Kakadu” theme – a popular song borrowed from a contemporaneous opera – is all the more hilarious. But it needs no added interpretive artifice, for the humor is built into the piece.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Expressly Espresso

Sharing the Urnings Dept.: Six years ago, fresh from a trip to Italy, I decided to get a handle on the art of espresso. Turned out the days of yanking that brew handle are over. The Saeco machine is still available, although it's been superseded; KitchenAid seems to have gotten out of the espresso machine business, but you can see a listing here.

SHE DIPPED HER FOREFINGER into the rich beige foam and, raising the finger as if to say “shush,” isolated a heavy droplet on the tip. We watched as the little bubble quickly dissipated and a dark brown rivulet ran down toward her palm. “That’s the crema,” she explained. “And it’s not very good.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Anita Johnson is a coffee fanatic, which is good: she works for Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee, whose gourmet product recently began entering the local market. But this was no run-of-the-mill venue whose espresso we were tasting. We sat in the dining room of a high-end restaurant outside Florence, Italy, so our expectations were similarly high. “They’re using an automatic machine,” said Anita, “so they don’t have a lot of control over the pull. But there are adjustments they can make to fix the problem.”

I don’t want to suggest that I drank bad espresso in Italy; Anita’s criticisms came from a rarefied palate, the gustatory equivalent of finding fault with a New York Philharmonic performance. In fact, nearly a decade ago the Italian government created a regulatory commission, the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, which certifies restaurants and coffee bars provided the establishments demonstrate the use of a certified coffee blend, certified brewing machine and grinder and licensed personnel. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Miss Utica

Ripped from the Pages Dept.: What’s my current restaurant review? Glad you asked!


THERE ARE THOSE who welcomed the rescue of the Miss Albany Diner. There are those who insist they’ll now never set foot in the place. It’s a classic conundrum for the sentimentalist. Would it help to know that, back in the heyday of the classic diner, there were at least 10 Miss Albanys throughout the city? And that the diner at this location wasn’t even one of them?

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But there’s a connection. Besides the obvious one, that is, which is that the place most recently named Miss Albany gained that moniker only when the film of Ironweed came to town in 1986. Talk to Deborah Cote, who may be making your pizza at Sciortino’s, and you’ll learn that her father, Harold, managed the Miss Albany No. 3 in the late 1950s, a (long-gone) silver diner at 48 Central Ave. So there’s still a living Miss Albany link.

Matt Baumgartner didn’t know this when he hired Cote last year to work in the latest of his string of eateries. He knew her from Jack’s Pizza, across from Albany’s arena, where she was turning out some of the best pies in town. Having explored southwestern and German fare with Bombers and Wolff’s Biergarten, Baumgartner turned to his maternal grandparents, for whom Sciortino’s is named, and from whom many of the recipes have descended. The restaurant also salutes Utica, where Baumgartner grew up, which is why you find three varieties of riggies on the menu.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Pražák at Union

From the Vault Dept.: What the hell was I thinking with this lede? Even in 1986, when I was relatively fresh to the world of cranking out reviews, I could convince myself that dwelling on the appearance of the performers made some kind of sense. And what characterized this quartet’s identity so profoundly? Clearly, I was too busy lauding their wardrobe to say.


CENTRAL CASTING SHOULD HAVE the Pražák String Quartet available for Hollywood. The four musicians are accomplished players, who blend marvelously and who look the part.

A concert at Union College’s Memorial Chapel Wednesday night proved that the group is good enough even to be a little eccentric, in the best sense of the word.

The quartet was founded in 1972 by students at the Prague Music Conservatory. The program – music of Mozart, Janáček, and Smetana – offered the ensemble the chance to present Czech pieces with a native accent. The interpretations took some unexpected turns but never without a felicitous result.

Should the identity of a piece of music compete with the identity of an artist? That question presupposes that a “pure” interpretation can exist, which is debatable. The Pražák Quartet has an identity as a performing group that informed everything they played and it worked. Like a fine singer, they have an identifiable voice.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Pessimist

Guest Blogger Dept.: More of the early verse of P. G. Wodehouse.


P. G. Wodehouse
THEY tell me that the weather’s fair,
The day serene and balmy;
No more for rain need I prepare –
No chilly blast shall harm me.
They prate of ‘warmth,’ of
    ‘gentle glows,’
They rave of how sublime it is;
I shake my head, as one who knows
Just what the British climate is.

They say the trees are
     growing green,
That flowers are in bloom,
That bees and butterflies are seen;
They bid me quit my room.
My hat and boots to me they bear.
They tell me what crime it is
To stay indoors; but I’m aware
Just what the British climate is.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Notable Gadgets Dept.: Here’s a horrifying reminder of where technology was taking us 17 years ago. PDAs (personal digital assistants) had a good run before the Smartphone era gobbled them up. I was a contributing editor to the long-defunct Computer Life magazine, and I see in my electronic remnants of this piece that I’d gotten a little too jokey for the editor’s taste. What ran in the November, 1996 issue was shorter than what follows, and had an idiotic lede imposed upon it. Here’s the original.


MY PAPER-BASED ORGANIZER measures 10.5" by 8" by 1.5" and weighs about two and half pounds. To note an entry I unzip its cover, flip to the correct page, find a pen, and write. Provided I’m not in a bouncy vehicle. The ten-ounce Psion 3a is 6.5" by 3.25" by .75" – measured in cubic inches, the Psion has one-eighth of the bulk of the organizer. To note an entry I flip it open, press a button to activate the computer, and type – bouncy vehicle notwithstanding.
Unlike the organizer, the Psion lets me search for previously-entered info without flipping pages. When I copy a new address and phone number into the organizer, I have to transcribe it by hand into the computer. The Psion lets me export that info. Those are very tiny keys, so it’s an extra effort for a fat-fingered typist like me to get the data in there – which makes it all the more satisfying that I don’t have to type it twice.
Those small keys aren’t as bad as they seem at first. You really do get used to them, and I’ve mastered thigh-top balancing of the Psion while doing my full-bore, four-fingered typing, as well as a technique in which I hold the unit in both hands and do data entry with, you guessed it, my thumbs.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Bottling a Dream

From the Canning Jars Dept.: As we finish up putting up that which we grew and recombobulated, how about that dream of bringing your product to market? Here’s my survey from a few years ago of some folks who did just that.


BRINGING A CULINARY CREATION to market is the dream of anyone who’s ever been praised for a particular preparation. But what motivates someone to take the risky and costly steps to bring such a product to market?

Tim Lane at the (now shuttered)
Glen Country Store.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“I have three children,” says Delmar resident Caroline Barrett. “After my youngest was born, I decided I wanted to be able to stay home and spend more time with them.” She left a career as a graphic designer to begin what started as a home-based business inspired by her love of food.

“I looked at what I like to make, and what makes people happy. My spicy maple almonds have always been popular with my friends, so I put some packages of them together and took them to the small farmers’ market that used to be at Indian Ladder Farms. They sold well, so next I went to Delmar Marketplace – I walked in there with my three kids and sold them my product.”

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Was it something I said that’s provoking this fuss?
That we have to discuss?

Can you simply remind yourself I’m an obnoxious old cuss?
Do we have to discuss?

Must we worry this subject as if it were spread
Like a ratty old blanket on young Rover’s head
To be tossed in the air as if we intended it thus –
Do we have to discuss?

Look, I’m all for discussing affairs of the day,
Which I do with such passion my
     hair has turned grey;
And I don’t mind discussing affairs of the heart,
For what starts out as madness matures into art.
You can ask me to talk about music or books,
Or secrets of cooking (if anyone cooks),
I love to talk dirty, I’ll try to talk clean,
Or at least find a balance that’s somewhere between.
But this current disaster I’m forced to bescorn
(There’s a teapot somewhere where this tempest was born);
It’s a kiss in the dark, a forgettable buss.
Do we have to discuss?

There are plenty of problems that fester and grow
When you leave them in darkness – that much I know.
But this one’s as lively as someone’s discarded old truss.
Do we have to discuss?

I suppose I could re-set my attitude, move it from “scorn” to “nonplus.”
Do we have to discuss?

Can it just be a problem that floats near to us?
Do we have to discuss?

– 18 February 2004