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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Be Seeing You, or Where are the New Blog Posts?

“BUT YOU KNOW it’s going to end the same way again!” my father would complain. “His face comes at the screen and the bars close across it!”

I don’t think Patrick McGoohan’s TV series “The Prisoner,” which aired in the U.S. on CBS in 1968, effectively spoke to him. But I, a disaffected 12-year-old, found incredible resonance in each maddening, enigmatic episode. McGoohan’s Number Six fought the oppressive bureaucracy of The Village, a colorful seaside resort where you’d expect to find M. Hulot but instead were surrounded by a population in which you couldn’t tell the fellow-prisoners from the warders.

Sixteen of the series’s seventeen episodes aired that summer, omitting one with an American Western setting that the censors insisted cut too close to the political bone (this was, after all, still the era of J. Edgar Hoover).

But the series still included a fascinating attempt to uncover Number Six’s secret – why he resigned from what we assume was a secret service job – by manipulating his dreams (“A, B, and C”), a fantastically clever episode in which Number Six is led to believe he’s another agent brought to The Village to confound Number Six (“Schizoid Man”), a compelling use of Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne” Suite, among other tools, to drive the Village leader, Number Two, crazy (“Hammer into Anvil”), and a fairy-tale chase in which Number Six is led by a Mystery Woman into a booby-trapped nursery rhyme-themed village (“The Girl Who Was Death”).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Hit Those Streets at Halftime"

From the Vault Dept.: For many years, no Troy Music Hall concert could begin without Fire Marshall John Tilton’s no-smoking warning. “Fire exits are located on all sides of the building,” the speech began, if I’m remembering correctly, but it was delivered only after Tilton acknowledged the applause he invariably received. The hall got more serious or something and the speeches stopped. Tilton has long since retired and moved to Maine. Concerts there have never been the same.


HE’S APPEARED ONSTAGE at the Troy Music Hall more often than any other performer. Not to sing or play an instrument, but to deliver a deadly serious message: don't smoke in the hall.

John Tilton
Photo by Gigi Cohen
John Tilton is a professional firefighter. He's been on the force for 15 years. And for 15 years he has opened for each and every Troy Music Hall event. “I took it over from another fellow,” he says, “who got a little tired of it.”

Now Tilton feels he’s part of a family of audience and performers who return to the hall often. “You get to know people. You see people in the audience year after year. And the performers, they’re pretty good people too.”

The speech he delivers is always – or nearly always – the same. “If I try to change it, the people get mad.” And the crowd loves it. “Sometimes, if the show is bad, they’ll say, ‘I should’ve left after your speech.’”

With a mixture of hand gestures and perfectly placed inflection, Tilton gets the point across with a little humor. “And it’s a proven fact,” he says. “You don’t get any smoking around there. The people remember.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thy Neighbor’s Spittoon

From the Bookshelf Dept.: As a writer for Esquire and the NY Times, Gay Talese made his name with colorful, well-researched articles about all aspects of American life, particularly when resonant with his own Italian-American background – as his well-known pieces about Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio will attest. He spoke in Albany in 1987, reading an excerpt from Unto the Sons, which was published in 1992. Here’s my report, including the final two paragraphs lost upon publication to a Schenectady Gazette editor’s knife. (But I still made eight paragraphs.)


“A TURNING POINT in my career took place after a disaster in Albany,” says Gay Talese, author of the controversial examination of American morals, Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

Gay Talese.
Photo by Joyce Tenneson
He spoke last night at Albany State University under the auspices of the New York State Writers Institute, his first visit to the city since 1959. Back then he was sent from Manhattan to cover the state legislature for the New York Times.

“I was writing what we called `human interest’ stories,” he explained, “and I was doing it well enough that they decided to let me cover the senate and assembly. The feeling around the Times was that I was a good feature writer, but that I should be more serious.”

His awe at the august chambers found a focus in the many spittoons Talese discovered beneath the seats of the senate. “They were in 48 of the 56 places, these lively-looking but empty brass bright spittoons. I thought, `This is going to be exciting.’”

The disaster occurred when the editorial desk rewrote story after story, eliminating all nuance of character and description. To fight back, he wrote shorter and shorter pieces, eliminating his byline (given only to stories of at least eight paragraphs), until an angry editor summoned him back to the city and put him to work writing obituaries.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Night-Watch and the Would-Be Something Awful

Guest Blogger: George Ade. Keeping the English language safe and pure always has been a priority for bluenoses, who found their beezers suitably tweaked when Chicago newspaperman Ade (1866-1944) enjoyed great success with his Fables in Slang. The tale below was collected in Ade’s book People You Know in 1903, with illustrations by John T. McCutcheon.


ONCE THERE WAS A full-sized Girl named Florine whose Folks kept close Tab on her. Any night-blooming Harold who presumed to keep the Parlor open after Midnight heard low Voices in the Hallway and then a Rap on the Door. If Florine put on her Other Dress and went to a Hop then Mother would sit up and wait for her, and 1 o’clock was the Outside Limit. Consequently Florine would have to duck on the Festivities just when everything was getting Good. Furthermore she would have to warn Mr. Escort to behave himself when they drew near the House.

“Nothing doing at the Gate,” she would say, warningly. “It’s Dollars to Dumplings that the Girl Detective is peeking out to get a line on my Conduct. She has her Ear to the Ground about four-thirds of the Time and if any one makes a Move, then Mother is Next. If Father takes a Drink at the Club and then {38} starts Homeward on a fast Trolley, Mother knows all about it when he is still three Blocks from the House. What’s more, she is a knowing Bird and can’t be fooled by Cloves or these little Peppermint Choo-Choos. The only time when Mother kisses Father is when she wants to catch him with the Goods. Look Out! This is our Corner.”

As soon as they had landed at the Gate, little Florine would say in loud, clear Tones that would carry as far as the Sitting-Room Window, “Oh, Mr. Gilblitz, I have had a most charming Evening, and I wish to thank you most heartily.”

Whereupon the Escort, standing 8 Feet away, with his Concertina Hat in his Hand and the Face in the Moonlight beaming with child-like Innocence, would come back thusly: “It’s awfully good of you to say that. Good Night.”

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Million Dollar Trio

THE RECENT PROCTORS THEATRE visit of the hit show “Million Dollar Quartet” reminded me that the same sum had been bruited six years earlier in parallel context. The quartet comprised Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins in an unplanned meeting at the Sun Records studio in 1956. In 1950, Life Magazine gave the moniker “Million Dollar Trio” to pianist Arthur Rubinstein, violinist Jascha Heifetz, and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who got together for a series of concerts and recordings. It was a short-lived association. Heifetz and Rubinstein quarreled, it’s said, over billing, although a film made of the group contains a staged argument that suggests it may have been for publicity purposes. In any event, it got me to dreaming what the Broadway show about this ensemble might be like . . .


SCENE: RCA Studios, Hollywood, 1950. GREGOR PIATIGORSKY, a tall, handsome man, is warming up on the cello he dwarfs. Producer JACK PFEIFFER, newly hired and nervous, paces the floor.

PFEIFFER: If they show up too late to record, it’s my butt that’s on the line.
PIATIGORSKY: Calm down, my friend. They’ll be here. Let me remind you why we’re here. 
(PIATIGORSKY plays Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. As the final movement concludes, ARTHUR RUBINSTEIN enters, with young, lovely JOHANNA MARTZY on his arm.)
RUBINSTEIN (Applauding): Beautiful, beautiful, Grisha!
PIATIGORSKY (Stands and bows): But it is no match for the beauty of this delightful creature! Introduce us quickly, Arthur, and I will say nothing to your wife.
RUBINSTEIN (Sotto voce): It would have been better, my friend, had you said nothing about my wife. (Full voice:) This is Johanna. She is very exotic, from Transylvania, and her violin playing is angelic and sublime.
PFEIFFER: A violinist!
RUBINSTEIN: This business is fickle. You might need her talent today.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Good News!

Lily Whiteman Makes the Pageant Semi-Finals
Miss New York Teen | 20 January 2013 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, January 25, 2013

Well, Virginia, It’s Like This . . .

From the Vault Dept.: Asked to contribute to a group of pieces about falsehoods, I titled this “Fuck You, Virginia,” but Metroland’s headline creator changed it, probably wisely, to what’s heading this column. It originally appeared when my daughter was six. Today she turns sixteen and knows too well about adults and their lies.


I WANTED TO BELIEVE everything they said, because they were older kids and they were my friends.

My nine-year-old next-door neighbor, Kurt, was predisposed to avoid six-year-olds like me. But I was a big kid, articulate and clever, able to keep up appearances with an older crowd. When Kurt’s buddies collected, however, I felt the shakiness of my acceptance. I was the handy tease victim, the invariable monkey-in-the-middle.

None of that dimmed my craving for acceptance. The ribbing seemed an easy price to pay. We lived in northern New Jersey, in a small town long since given over to the close-together housing of Manhattan-bound commuters. But there were earlier-age remnants, like the freestanding garage set back from each house, a garage where the family’s horse once lived.

We sat inside Kurt’s garage one day in early December, puffy in winter jackets. The conversation turned to Christmas.

“I’m getting a race car,” said Kurt, and others chimed in with their anticipations. “Santa’s getting me a rocket launcher,” I said, and the others giggled and traded knowing looks.

“Santa Claus is your parents,” one of the boys said.

“He is not!” My defense probably made me red-faced. The laugher swelled.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Computers in the Wings

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Computers were becoming a bigger-than-ever deal on Broadway in the mid-90s, so, as a writer for the then-gargantuan Computer Shopper magazine, I pitched a piece about examining the technology. I figured it would get me into some shows for free. I hadn’t met the misanthropes at Broadway’s PR agency, Boneau/Bryan-Brown. In other words, I figured wrong. Enjoy this glimpse into technology as obsolete now as it was new back then.


COMPUTERS BRING DIFFERENT KINDS of pleasure to the different people involved with the Broadway stage. To the Disney designers who spent $11.9 million bringing “Beauty and the Beast” to life, the $5 million worth of computer equipment give a cinematic perfection – not to say wonder – to the many effects, helping justify a $65 ticket. Computers move 1,000 pieces of scenery; computers control the miking of 38 actors and 26 musicians. And when a computer doesn't work correctly and delays the show, those musicians may end up collecting overtime pay. Which makes the musicians very happy.

"Coffee Break," from the 1995
"How to Succeed" on Broadway
Malfunctions are comparatively rare, however, which is testimony to the design and operation skill behind technology that has transformed Broadway and is in the process of changing live theater all over the world.

Linda Batwin is a partner in the video design team of Batwin + Robin (working with Robin Silvestri), whose work in multimedia over the past 12 years has always included some amount of computerization. As the control hardware has grown smaller and faster, her work has moved from corporate communications to include the Broadway stage – most notably, the ground-breaking video backdrop to “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Don’t Be Cruel

A PRE-SHOW PROJECTION reminds us that in December 1956, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley joined Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis in the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis, where they jammed for a considerable while while a tape recorder ran. But only the most naive would believe that the show that follows bears much resemblance to what actually took place.

Million Dollar Quartet plus one
Million-Dollar Quartet” is the Hollywood version of the session, what MGM might have given us in its heyday. Turning what was a low-key jam session featuring Presley and Perkins and Lewis into a Grand Ole Opry-worthy concert in which Cash is also featured, along with Elvis’s fictitious girlfriend, a dancer-singer named Dyanne who purrs a sultry “Fever” in an arrangement that uncannily foreshadows Peggy Lee’s version by two years.

(A historical footnote is that, as this show was being developed, the publicity prompted Marilyn Evans to reveal herself as the woman whom Elvis took to the studio that day, and offer her own recollections of the event.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Squalor in Las Vegas

Across the USA Dept.: Another installment from the series I wrote describing a cross-country camper-bus trip my wife and I took in 1989. This was written on 18 September 1989. Since then, the Desert Inn and the Sands are no more, the Aladdin is now Planet Hollywood, and a whole new strip of even more mega mega-hotels has opened.


SOME THINGS ARE CLICHÉD only from a distance. Up close you find you're dealing with the real thing. At a visitor's center in Las Vegas, where we stopped to pick up some brochures, three people rushed to the counter. A middle-aged man accompanied a young couple. He spoke with an Hispanic accent. He addressed a bored-looking clerk.

Las Vegas, 1989
“Can you tell me where we can get a marriage, tonight?”

The clerk, a woman who’d heard it all before, named three locations.

“How much will it cost?”

“They pick you up in a limousine and take you to the chapel, and that’s 45 dollars. The license and everything is 27 dollars. That’s a total of 73.”

He accepted her freewheeling math with a nod of the head, arrested as she continued: “Then it’s customary to tip the minister and the driver.”

“Do we need to have the limo?”

“Oh, it’s included.”

He translated for the others, then asked, “How much do you tip? We don’t want to do anything that isn’t right.”

Monday, January 21, 2013

Mad about W.

From the Pages of History Dept.: Today’s Inauguration festivities remind me of a far less happy event, twelve years ago, which I chronicled in a Metroland cover story.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
VOTERS IN WOODVILLE, FLORIDA, were stopped by highway patrol troopers at an unauthorized checkpoint as they tried to get to the polls. In the Tampa area, voters were illegally turned away when they couldn’t produce photo IDs. As Florida’s Attorney General’s Office continues to investigate these and many other incidents, no credible explanations have been offered. In Washington, D.C., last Saturday, police threw up a roadblock to prevent protesters from finishing a march along 14th Street to a permit-sanctioned place in Freedom Plaza, along the Pennsylvania Avenue inaugural parade route. D.C. Police Lt. William Farr offered this explanation: “We had to filter out the bad guys from the good guys.” This despite the fact that a permit also had been secured by protest organizers for the parade.

Spurred by the voting irregularites in Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that handed the presidency to George W. Bush and pre-election issues such as campaign financing, abortion rights and the death penalty, protesters mobilized in impressive force to greet the Bush inaugural motorcade with howls of outrage – and to make their presence known throughout Washington, D.C., in a show of force that a CNN estimate put at far greater than the many thousands who clogged the streets in 1973 to protest Nixon’s inauguration and the Vietnam War.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What’s That You’re Eating?

From the Lab Dept.: Eight years ago, I looked at some cookbooks that celebrated scientific approaches to gastronomy. Since that time, Ferran Adrià’s el Bulli has closed and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Restaurant barely survived a novovirus outbreak. Molecular gastronomy has yet to penetrate New York’s Capital Region, and I’m having a burger for lunch.


REMEMBER THE SCENE in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” when astronauts Bowman and Poole had dinner on board their spaceship? They assembled the a meal from small trays yanked out of different compartments. The contents of each tray was nearly identical, except for color, and a stylized picture guide suggested the flavor that could be expected.

el Bulli photo by Francesc Guillamet
Like so much else in that film, this has come true: you’ll find it in the upper reaches of fine dining. But it’s not pasty simulacra that you’re served: it’s flavor essences, extracted and reimagined and reassembled in spectacular ways.

I’ve yet to find this in the Capital Region, but it’s emerging in the bigger, more adventurous cities. Forget tall food and no-carbs fads: we’re looking at foam and flavor gels as molecular gastronomy moves in. A quartet of new books offers insights into this surprising cuisine.

An impressive number of critics have named el Bulli, on the coast of Spain, as the world’s best, run by chef Ferran Adrià, who has won similar plaudits. But unless you have superb connections, a seat there is snagged only during a brief reservations-taking period in October, during which the restaurant receives hundreds of thousands more requests than it can accommodate.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cowboy Sweethearts

From the Vault Dept.: When, some sixteen years ago, my wife decided to acquire a horse and ride again regularly, it fell to me to groom the beast. So I expanded my vocal repertory to include songs appropriate to the process, and the CDs described below certainly helped. You can get “Cool Water” or “Whoopie-Ti-Yi-Yo” out of me with little prodding. 


WHAT DO YOU LEARN from four CDs of cowboy songs? That there was – and still is, to an extent – a distinct cowboy song genre as American as jazz. That an important aspect of the American identity was mythologized in these songs. And that the genre exploded into popularity so quickly that it was glamorized by Hollywood and easily turned self-referential, so that in 1975, Rex Allen, Jr., could pay tribute to his country-singer dad with “Can You Hear Those Pioneers?,” including backup vocals by two of the then-current Sons of the Pioneers.

No group exemplifies the beauty and power of the cowboy sound better than the Sons of the Pioneers, well represented across all four volumes (seven cuts, as well as solo outings by Roy Rogers and Bob Nolan). The crisp close harmony and unabashed sentiment inspired all who followed, and if you get hooked on that sound there’s a four-CD Bear Family set that gives you a well-curated dose of them. And who ever yodeled in chorus so well? “Way Out There,” Nolan’s famous train song, still exemplifies all by itself the sound – and mystique – of the west.

Yodeling is a big part of this collection, beginning with Jimmie Rodgers’ “When the Cactus Is in Bloom.” Tex Owens’ “Cattle Call” is presented in its original version and in the famous Eddy Arnold cover; Patsy Montana (whom you heard on the soundtrack of the movie “Lone Star”) warbles through “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” and Riders in the Sky tell us “That’s How the Yodel Was Born,” among many other examples.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fiddle Me This

MY FAMILY MOVED from New Jersey to Connecticut when I was seven, placing this scared second-grader in a big, unfamiliar school. Which decided to combat my classroom boredom, just as I was starting to make some friends, by skipping me into third grade. A feature of the new academic calendar was a twice-weekly trip to a windowless room where Edmond Finaldi taught music, possibly the most thankless of all academic challenges.

It was dull, complicated stuff, much at odds with the pop tunes in which I and my coevals were bathed, but Mr. Finaldi had a routine with which the other kids already were familiar: at the end of each class, he’d click open his violin case and play something. The favorite was Paul Nero’s novelty “The Hot Canary.”

I had no idea a musical instrument was capable of such thrilling sounds. My live-music experience before this consisted mainly of hearing my father play “Für Elise” and “Rondo alla Turca” on the piano. The violin sang far more thrillingly, especially when Mr. Finaldi swept a finger high up on the E string to sound the twittering harmonics of the canary’s voice. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t get enough of it.

The following school year, we were offered musical instrument training. I chose the violin. On the first day of lessons, I joined fifty other kids in the orchestra room where fifty rented violin cases waited. “Don’t open them,” said the harried young woman in charge of us, and fifty kids ignored her and flipped open a hundred latches and scraped fifty flabby bows over two hundred untuned strings. When she got us settled and tuned and scratching the A string, we realized that this thing was work. All traces of exoticism vanished.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Georgia on My Mind

From the Vault Dept.: The Ensemble Rustavi, which was founded in 1968 and is still going strong, paid its first visit to the U.S. in 1990, and a stop at Proctor’s in Schenectady was part of the tour. Here’s my report.


JUST IMAGINE: YOU’RE THE toast of the village, being courted by the area boys. They gather with you on the green, each one cock o’ the walk, and proceed to dance for your attention, punctuating the movement by flinging daggers into the ground.

Ensemble Rustavi
You’d be impressed, right?

I don’t know if this actually was a courtship ritual of Soviet Georgia, but a stylized dance with those ingredients was part of a wide-ranging ethnic showcase by the Rustavi Company, a group taking its first American tour, that drew a large crowd to Proctor’s Theatre Thursday night.

Despite the many political changes that have afflicted the country over several centuries, a strong, homogenous national character prevails. Traditional costumes may not be seen on the streets any more, but the Rustavi Company, based in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, preserves that traditional flavor in dance, music and song.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A She Hamlet

Guest Blogger: William Dean Howells. In his day (and for a long while thereafter), Howells was known as “The Dean of American Letters.” Best known for his novels The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes, he lived from 1837 to 1920, and began his literary career as an apprentice to his father, a printer. He read everything in his father’s library, teaching himself Spanish, German, French, and Italian along the way. He became editor of the (1871–81) of the Atlantic Monthly for a decade beginning in 1871, thereafter concentrating on his writing. We met Sarah Bernhardt last week in a Booth Tarkington short story inspired by her appearance in “L’Aiglon”; we’re going to meet her again, this time as Hamlet, in a Howells essay written with elegance but betraying terrible prejudices the admission of which had no consequence at the time.


THE OTHER NIGHT as I sat before the curtain of the Garden Theatre and waited for it to rise upon the Hamlet of Mme. Bernhardt, a thrill of the rich expectation which cannot fail to precede the rise of any curtain upon any Hamlet passed through my eager frame. There is, indeed, no scene of drama which is of a finer horror (eighteenth-century horror) than that which opens the great tragedy. The sentry pacing up and down upon the platform at Elsinore under the winter night; the greeting between him and the comrade arriving to relieve him, with its hints of the bitter cold; the entrance of Horatio and Marcellus to these before they can part; the mention of the ghost, and, while the soldiers are in the act of protesting it a veridical phantom, the apparition of the ghost, taking the word from their lips and hushing all into a pulseless awe: what could be more simply and sublimely real, more naturally supernatural? What promise of high mystical things to come there is in the mere syllabling of the noble verse, and how it enlarges us from ourselves, for that time at least, to a disembodied unity with the troubled soul whose martyry seems foreboded in the solemn accents! As the many Hamlets on which the curtain had risen in my time passed in long procession through my memory, I seemed to myself so much of their world, and so little of the world that arrogantly calls itself the actual one, that I should hardly have been surprised to find myself one of the less considered persons of the drama who were seen but not heard in its course.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Best of Broadside

From the Vault Dept.: On 12 May 2013, a scant few days after he turns 94, Pete Seeger will perform at Proctors in Schenectady with his half-sister Peggy, in what’s not only a rare joint appearance, but a rare appearance for Pete at all. It’s part of the venerable Eighth Step series, founded in 1967 and going strong in its sixth year at Proctors. Here’s a look at a CD set featuring Seeger and many other artists who stopped by the Eighth Step over the years.


FOLLOWING THEIR HUGELY SUCCESSFUL reissue of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Smithsonian’s archivists have come out with what is, in effect, a sequel: A five-CD set of songs (“Anthems of the American Underground,” as the set itself proclaims) drawn from (and recorded for) the magazine that sparked the great protest songs of the ’60s and kept the flame alive through the succeeding two decades.

It’s an amazing array of artists, many of them clearly influenced by the Smith collection. Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Janis Ian and Nina Simone are among the featured youngsters, with contributions from older hands like Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds. And the force behind it all was the little magazine founded by Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, themselves longtime activists, that debuted in 1962 with the purpose of getting “songs about our times” into as many hands as possible.

Recordings soon followed, issued through the Folkways label, some recorded in that label’s studio, others captured by a low-fi Revere recorder in the Broadside office – which was nothing more than the apartment of Cunningham and Friesen. The sound quality of the 89 selections in this set is therefore very inconsistent, but nothing is downright poor. Whatever the source, they all carry a poignant sense of immediacy in the performance and the lyrics.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Musical Money’s Worth

From the Vault Dept.: Last weekend, David Finckel and Wu Han returned to Union College’s Concert Series to play Brahms’s Cello Sonata in E Minor and, with Finckel’s former fellow Emersonian Philip Setzer, a pair of Dvořák piano trios. It was wonderful work. It was practically a full house. Yet there was a time when these artists were still making names for themselves, as this very old, very superficial, very brief review attests. (I’m guessing that I wrote something longer that was cut during layout, but, as it predates my computer ownership, the original was typewritten and driven into Albany.)


WITH THE “NAME” ARTISTS pricing themselves beyond the reach of budget-conscious halls and patrons, the Schenectady Museum-Union College concert series is a better investment than ever. It always finds very talented performers who aren’t so widely known.

David Finckel and Wu Han
In the case of last Saturday’s concert, you got more than your money’s worth: There was a pre-concert recital by pianist Wu Han playing music of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. During the concert proper, she was joined by cellist David Finckel (from the Emerson Quartet) for an exciting trip through the repertory for those instruments.

Finckel began his part of the evening with Bach’s Suite No. 2 for solo cello. A good performance of solo string music benefits greatly from the acoustics at Union’s Memorial Chapel: the notes linger long enough to fill out Bach’s abstract harmonic ideas. Finckel brought a warm romantic style to the music, without suffering the excesses of Casals, and it wasn’t merely a single-voiced warmth, for he gave special tone colors to the individual phrases of each of the movements.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Old Possum Strikes Back

From the Vault Dept.: The damn show never seemed to very far away, and after subjecting myself to it twice, I vowed never to see it again. I have stuck to that vow. Cats is a yawn-inducing mediocrity showcasing Andrew Lloyd Webber at his jukebox-tune-stealing worst. But I did agree, as it sailed into Proctor’s in Schenectady for its umpteenth visit in 1989, to write about it. While barely mentioning the music.


BEHIND THE ALLEYWAY, back of the garbage cans, there’s an essence to Cats, the musical, that was born in the 1930s. T. S. Eliot, the American-born poet, critic and playwright who repatriated to England, published a highly uncharacteristic volume of verse titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

T. S. Eliot
Old Possum was Eliot himself, a sobriquet thus acknowledged with uncommon alacrity. The practical cats, on the other hand, were revealed as a fanciful feline procession that astonished fans of The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Who would have thought this dour bard capable of such gossamer verse?

Cats returns to Proctor’s Theatre April 4-9, still going strong eight years after its opening. No small amount of credit is due to the original ailurophile responsible.

It’s not unusual that Eliot should have been a cat fancier: such seems to be a literary tradition, at least as recounted by a correspondent in Robertson Davies’ The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks. Diarist Marchbanks reports on the acquisition of a kitten, recalling that “Cardinal Richelieu gave his white cat seven names, after seven different Popes, but my motives might be misunderstood if I followed his example (not being a Cardinal).” He is informed by a friend that “every writer needs a cat ... The earliest cat known was Bouhaki, who belonged to King Hana of the eleventh Egyptian dynasty; and you must have heard of Mahomet’s cat Abuhareira. What about Mark Twain’s four cats, Apollinaris, Blatherskite, Sourmash and Zoroaster? What about Victor Hugo’s two – Chanoine and Mouche? What about Carlyle’s cat Columbine? What about Rosseti’s cat Zoe? What about Matthew Arnold’s cats Blacky and Atossa, and Horace Walpole’s two cats Fatima and Selima, and Theophile Gautier’s two, Seraphita and Zizi, and Swinburne’s Atossa, and Dickens’ cat Williamina (first called William by mistake) to name only a few?”

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Brain Food

From within the Fridge Dept.: A snapshot of the dining options at Troy’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as I encountered it about four and a half years ago. How nice it would be if other large universities could care a little more about the quality of the grub they provide!


WITH THE RECENT OPENING of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), the Troy campus has received well-deserved national attention. I recently toured the facility to sample a few of the ongoing artistic offerings, but as the day went on my thoughts turned to a more burning question: What’s for lunch?

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I discovered Thunder Mountain Curry at RPI’s MacNeil Room, in the Rensselaer Union at 15th Street and Sage Avenue, where Mike Gordon serves a changing menu of delicacies from India and beyond. He’s there during the weekdays for lunch and downstairs in the union’s Rathskeller at night. Gordon is known for his stand at the Troy Farmer’s Market on Saturdays; his RPI incursion began with a cart on the street, which led the school’s chef, Jackie Baldwin, to invite him inside.

The best dining bargain in the area is Thunder Mountain Curry’s $7 sampler plate. This allows you to taste Gordon’s signature curry of the day, rice (Basmati or sticky) and vegetables, topped with a generous handful of freshly-fried pakoras, condiments (chopped garlic and toasted shallots, for instance), sauces and a pickle.

“The students are in charge of making decisions [about food],” says Baldwin, “and they had a choice between Thunder Mountain Curry and a sushi vendor. Thunder Mountain won unanimously.”

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Reissue Corrections

From the CD Shelf Dept.: Here is a pair of brief reviews of historic-performance reissues that helped set the record straight, so to speak. The first, of Glenn Gould’s performance of Brahms’s Concerto No. 1 with Leonard Bernstein conducting, allowed us to hear a much-misinterpreted speech by the conductor; the second fixed a sound-quality issue described in the review.


ON APRIL 6, 1962, following the New York Philharmonic’s performance of a couple of Nielsen pieces, as pianist Glenn Gould waited to take his place on the stage of Carnegie Hall, conductor Leonard Bernstein addressed the audience – and the radio listeners. Legend had it that the short speech allowed Bernstein to dissociate himself from the performance, and that he and Gould became bitter enemies as a result.

This recording, which reproduces the speech, the concerto, and some comments by Gould recorded almost a year later, corrects those faulty notions. Bernstein’s so-called dissociation is simply his confession that “I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception.” And why is he conducting it? “Because I am fascinated – glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work. We can all learn something from this extraordinary artist.”

Still, the reviewers made it out to be a war. The NY Times’s senior critic, Harold C. Schonberg, wrote one of his most fatuous and self-serving reviews, parts of which are quoted in this CD’s program booklet.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Lights! Camera! Byron!

From the Wings Dept.: It’s back on Broadway, and audiences again are voting on which ending to give The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There’s also a walk-on opportunity, which, when the show arrived at Schenectady’s Proctor’s Theatre in 1988, were given to a TV personality, a radio personality, and me, representing the Gazette, for which I wrote the following.


THE SPOTLIGHTS SHINE into the wings with a painful glare. People are hot, people are hurrying. I'm standing by a fake door in a silly outfit clutching an oversized bell. In just a moment I'm supposed to walk onto the stage of Proctor's Theatre in front of 2,000 people to perform an all but impromptu scene . . .

Pam Mizell and costumed me.
Gazette photo by Ray Summers
Who cares if Lana Turner really was discovered in a Hollywood soda shops: the fact is that such discoveries occur and any scout worth his salt knows to keep his eyes peeled. So far, however, my phone has stayed silent, despite a cameo appearance in The Mystery of Edwin Drood last Saturday evening.

An hour before show time a stagehand runs an upright vacuum cleaner over the raked stage that dominates the touring set. Worklights emphasize the falseness of the stylized flats. Backstage a props table displays some of the items – plastic turkey, plate of real oyster shells and fake trimmings, decanter and glasses – that will look real as life in the play.

Company manager Megan Miller determines that I’m the supernumerary for the evening and welcomes me, for one performance at least, to the cast.

“This is something new we’re trying out in Schenectady,” she explains.  “We just started our tour with performances in Brooklyn and a stop in Virginia, but this is the first time we’ve used people from the community in ‘Edwin Drood.’”

Monday, January 07, 2013

Great Men’s Sons

Guest Blogger: Booth Tarkington. “Great Men’s Sons” is the title that was given to this story when it ran in a collection of six of Tarkington’s politically themed short stories titled In the Arena: Stories of Political Life (1905). Tarkington’s uncle, Newton Booth, was governor of California when the boy was born and so was named for the distinguished relative. And Tarkington himself served a term in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1902. “L’Aiglon” is six-act Rostand play about Napoleon’s son, whose nickname, the play’s title, is a term for a young eagle.


Bernhardt as "L'Aiglon"
Mme. Bernhardt and M. Coquelin were playing “L’Aiglon.” Toward the end of the second act people began to slide down in their seats, shift their elbows, or casually rub their eyes; by the close of the third, most of the taller gentlemen were sitting on the small of their backs with their knees as high as decorum permitted, and many were openly coughing; but when the fourth came to an end, active resistance ceased, hopelessness prevailed, the attitudes were those of the stricken field, and the over-crowded house was like a college chapel during an interminable compulsory lecture. Here and there—but most rarely—one saw an eager woman with bright eyes, head bent forward and body spellbound, still enchantedly following the course of the play. Between the acts the orchestra pattered ragtime and inanities from the new comic operas, while the audience in general took some heart. When the play was over, we were all enthusiastic; though our admiration, however vehement in the words employed to express it, was somewhat subdued as to the accompanying manner, which consisted, mainly, of sighs and resigned murmurs. In the lobby a thin old man with a grizzled chin-beard dropped his hand lightly on my shoulder, and greeted me in a tone of plaintive inquiry:

“Well, son?”

Turning, I recognized a patron of my early youth, in whose woodshed I had smoked my first cigar, an old friend whom I had not seen for years; and to find him there, with his long, dust-coloured coat, his black string tie and rusty hat brushed on every side by opera cloaks and feathers, was a rich surprise, warming the cockles of my heart. His name is Tom Martin; he lives in a small country town, where he commands the trade in Dry Goods and Men’s Clothing; his speech is pitched in a high key, is very slow, sometimes whines faintly; and he always calls me “Son.”

Sunday, January 06, 2013

A Frolic of His Own

From the Bookshelf Dept.: I spotted a clean copy of this novel at Saratoga’s Lyrical Ballad Bookstore not long ago, reminding me of the pleasure I had reading it – and reviewing it – in 1994. William Gaddis (1922-1998) wrote five novels, beginning with the difficult but rewarding The Recognitions. A Frolic of His Own, published in 1994, won him his second National Book Award (his first went to 1975's J.R.)


A Gaddis plot is never the straight narrative line of easygoing literature. His first novel, The Recognitions, published in 1955, took on the world of art while dovetailing the resultant ideas with something much more spiritual; J.R. (1975) was a rollicking look at high finance. The impressively unprolific Gaddis produced only one other novel, Carpenter’s Gothic before addressing our litigious society in A Frolic of His Own, which returns to the feel of The Recognitions in its rich, intricately-woven tapestry of obsessive characters each pursuing the legal righting of a particular wrong.

At the heart of it are the two lawsuits chased by Oscar Crease, a professor who once submitted a play about the Civil War to a television producer and is dismayed to discover that the same producer has gone on to make a full-length feature on the same topic. But Oscar is housebound as he pursues his suit, thanks to an accident in which he was hit by his own car, a Sosumi.

Meanwhile, Oscar’s father, 97-year-old judge Thomas, is writing controversial opinions on a case where a dog is trapped inside a piece of contemporary sculpture and has incited townspeople into warring factions.

Oscar’s sister, Christina, is married to an attorney with the firm Swyne & Dour; he’s after a partnership and is trying to smooth ruffled feathers when the abovementioned producer hires Swyne & Dour to defend his company.

Complicated as they are, these storylines are secondary to the narrative style, in which dialogue reveals both character and goings-on, and creates a sense of momentum you’ll be caught up in despite the apparent opaqueness of the style.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Friday, January 04, 2013

Wine Blessings at Vichon

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Yet another entry in the seemingly endless series of pieces I cranked out during a cross-country drive in 1989. To put Vichon Winery in perspective (and illustrate the changing fortunes within the business), it was begun in 1980 to offer lower-priced alternatives to ever-more-trendy California varieties. Robert Mondavi bought Vichon in 1985 where his son, Tim (a part-owner), took charge. They closed Vichon as a Napa Valley entity in 1996, moving all production to the Languedoc region of France. Two years later, Mondavi launched a line called La Famiglia, at the former Vichon estate, to make Italian varietals. In 2001, La Famiglia’s facility was closed, at the same time that what remained of Vichon in France was sold to one of its suppliers. Two years after that, the former Vichon property became a small winery again, called Diamond Oaks. In 2010, the property was purchased by Bill Harlan, who has his own winery next door. So my visit, on Sept. 13, is a word-picture of something now long, long gone.


“WE FEEL THIS MAY revolutionize the wine industry,” says Tim Mondavi, one of the owners of the Vichon winery in this little Napa Valley town. “I don’t want to talk too much about it because I get too excited.”

Tim Mondavi
Tim is a tall, thin man with a full red beard. His eyes gleam with a little too much passion as he speaks, which could be the effect of the wine that’s been flowing so freely during this day of celebration. As it turns out, we’re witnessing a display of his very wry sense of humor. He’s referring to a specially-constructed shoe, a thong, actually, with metal sports-type spikes dotting the sole. The purpose? Vichon is the only winery in California (Tim assures me) with a full-sized bocce court.

“Well, almost full-sized,” says winemaker and general manager Michael Weis. “It’s a couple of feet short.” The stretch of sand is set between the parking lot and hillside picnic area, and guests are invited to use it.

Nobody is doing so today. It’s the annual Blessing of the Grape. Vichon is celebrating its tenth anniversary, which, “in the scope of the Napa Valley,” says Weis, “is middle age. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery in 1966, it was the 26th in the area. Vichon, 14 years later, was in the low hundreds.”

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Take Care of the Sense ...

From the Vault Dept.: “But I know him,” I protested. “We work together!” We need this reviewed, I was told. If it’s lousy and you don’t want to mention him, fine. Thus it was I wrote about the 1988 premiere of Tom Savoy’s “Four Psalms” as performed by Schenectady’s Octavo Singers. I make sly reference to a picture that used to hang in Decca Records founder Jack Kapp’s office, featuring the statue of a soldier and a speech balloon reading “Where’s the melody?” (And here’s an example of Tom’s and my work together.)

CONTEMPORARY COMPOSERS HAVE WRESTLED with the problem of melody in a variety of cowardly ways. The trend of anarchic dissonance that has dug itself so deeply into the academic scene has been daunting enough to make “tuneful” a dirty word. The only recent relief has been the dreadful phenomenon of “minimalism,” a kind of prolonged musical act of self-abuse.

Thomas F. Savoy
Where’s the melody? In rock music, in movies, in folk songs, in jazz. On Broadway. Which is also where most of the audience has gone. So it’s a pleasure to discover an unabashed melodist in Thomas F. Savoy, whose “Four Psalms” were premiered by the Octavo Singers Saturday evening at their concert in Union College’s Memorial Chapel.

Savoy, a Schenectady resident, straddles the worlds of church, concert hall and musical stage, and I’ll confess at the outset that I’ve collaborated with him in works for the last-named. Hearing his work with a much more venerable lyricist confirms my high opinion of his talent.

Take the setting of “I Will Lift Up My Eyes,” which opened the concert. The text promises safety from a number of catastrophes, emphasizing the safety with a calming melody in an easy three.

It was sung by the Octavo Chamber Singers and Youth Chorus with organist Elinore Farnum accompanying. The Youth Chorus alone sung the setting of “Clap Your Hands” in unison, giving it the sound of a chant even as the complicated melody bespoke its newness. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

I Saw the Future (I Got Depressed)

From the Crystal Ball Dept.: Nothing dates faster (and becomes more risible in retrospect) than playing fortune-teller in print. Which is why this piece from 1987 now reads like your grandfather’s misanthropic mutterings.


QUICK, WHAT’S THE MOST significant event that took place in the last twenty years? What will the histories of a century hence point back to?

It used to be that travel held the world in thrall. Scanning the headlines of 1929, which I spent several hours doing last week, I saw story after story about the aviation pioneers, speeding through the skies by airplane and dirigible.

Forty years later men walked on the moon and the world seemed to get cynical about it. Perhaps it was a cynicism that comes from attaining a goal that for so long seemed unattainable. We did that. What’s next?

That wasn’t the spirit I felt strolling around the 1964 World’s Fair. I raced like a demon through the displays at Flushing Meadow, marvelling at stuff that just seemed too futuristic, too neat to ever wind up in your own house. And yet, except for the tardy picturephone, a lot of it has come to pass.

The future is all around us, and how jaded we’ve become. Look at how matter-of-factly we accept compact discs: this isn’t just a matter of slowing down records or goosing them into stereo – it’s a completely new, difficult-to-fathom technology at work, using a device, the laser, that at one time was the exclusive property of the sci-fi fantasist.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

I Am Hereby Resolved . . .

. . . TO MAKE NO PROMISES even in this, at best, semi-public place. I mean, why show the cards you're holding so early in the game?

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
My Ghosts of New Years Past are an odd assortment, ranging from a party to welcome the new decade of the 1970s (four high-school friends, an all-nighter, the very stupid idea of reheating pizza without removing it from the cardboard delivery box) to working a restaurant line (banging with serving spoons on the hanging pots at the stroke of midnight) to performing (and getting wondrously overpaid) at Albany's very first First Night, long since abandoned by that city -- to a night at home unsuccessfully trying to persuade my family to join me in listening to Berlioz's Requiem, a tradition once followed by Columbia University radio station WKCR.

My good friend and performing/writing partner Tom Savoy chose New Year's Eve for his nuptials, and one of my last public performances as a violinist took place as a member of the ceremony's orchestra, for which, I hope, he long since has forgiven me.

Manhattan's TV Channel 5 (WNEW) used to run Marx Brothers and/or Busby Berkeley movies on New Year's Eve, a fine precedent I've tried to observe when possible, presenting it as an alternative to the horrifically overhyped Times Square ball-drop ceremony, but it's tough to wean sentimentalists from tradition. For myself, I had long since resolved never to be part of that crowd.