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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Standard That’s Automatic

Working in Coffeehouses Dept.: There’s a monochromatic consistency to the interior of a Panera Bread outlet that’s quietly reassuring, a panoply of earth tones on floor and walls, a gas-fired fireplace for a sense of House Ideal, yellow pendant lights to distract from the overhead floods, and wall-portraits of bagels and people eating bagels to remind you why you’re really here.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Sometimes it’s the only choice. In Amsterdam, near where I live in upstate New York, the coffee shop I’d frequented in recent years went under, becoming more of a restaurant instead. A delightful Polish eatery where the coffee was good and the wi-fi free, run by an Olympic bobsledding champion, closed its doors a few years ago. There’s little call here for the kind of place I seek, I suppose, although we’ll never truly know until we give ourselves the chance.

Like all successful chains, Panera has styled itself with as little threat as possible to the nervous, which characterizes the majority of chain-restaurant customers. This nation of pioneers lost its nerve a few decades ago, and seeks comfort in bland standardization.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Making Tracks with Trackballs

On the Right Track Dept.: Do you know where you’re headed next year? Neither do I. So let’s wander back a couple of decades for another nostalgic look at the kind of computer gadgetry I wrote about. I found my original copy and compared it to the witless editing it received before seeing print and, so that you, too, may keep your holiday bubbly down, herewith provide the former.


THERE’S NO STANDARDIZATION among pointing devices, which is both a luxury and a headache. Plenty of gadgets compete for our attention, some of them admirably suited to particular applications. But when it comes to portable computing, the need for something small and lightweight and versatile is obsessive, and it has kept a lot of pointing device designers busy.

Trackballs are the most popular add-on pointing devices, giving the flexibility of a mouse in a stationary package. According to the ergonomics experts, it doesn’t hurt--literally--to move your hand around from time to time. So a trackball that gets you away from the keyboard, even briefly, is a good antidote to the aches of cramped typing.

The seven trackballs we tested are a testimony to imaginative design, all of them variations on the simple theme of an ensemble of ball and buttons. Each is designed for use with an IBM-compatible computer, and all of them could be used with a desktop as well as a portable machine. And they all recognize that we’re differently handed, usually offering extra buttons to anticipate where our fingers might land.

Friction is the key to trackball success. A tiny bit of resistance controls the ease with which you’re able to scoot your cursor across the screen. Unfortunately, friction also means that the ball is picking up grease from your palm and fingers (and even the cleanest hand has some measure of, sorry to say it, slime), so that an annoying coating eventually inhibits easy use. Therefore it’s important that the ball be accessible for regular cleaning.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Art of the Edible

Moving On Dept.: Five years ago, I wrote about a recently opened pastry shop on Albany’s Lark Street. I was amazed and impressed to find such a stellar quality of dessert items, and delighted to know that the attached café was available for espresso-fueled lingering between bites. The café is closing this week, but the bakery will continue and the operation is planned to expand. So here’s a wistful re-look at what I found back then.

CLAUDIA CRIŞAN HAS A MASTER’S in metalworking. Her husband, Ignatius Calabria, has a Master’s in music ed. Is there a rewarding career in which they can combine their specialties? Of course. Baking.

Claudia Crisan | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The Art of the EdibleIt’s not as improbable as it may sound. Claudia, a native of Romania, grew up in a family of bakers, and her parents still operate three retail stores in that country. “Mother was always a baker,” says Claudia. “She got good training in the early part of the Communist regime, but then Ceauşescu came into power and everything changed for the worse.”

Claudia learned traditional recipes from her mother, as well as “a style of working that you don’t find any more.”

“We met at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia,” says Ignatius. “We married, and Claudia emigrated here.” He reflects on that statement, then decides: “It sounds so unromantic.” His aunt and uncle in Woodstock were among those encouraging them open their own place, and discovered that this Albany property was available. Claudia and Ignatius bought it and went to work. “We pretty much gutted the place.” says Ignatius, “and every surface we removed revealed surprises. Surprises we had to fix.”

Friday, December 26, 2014

Freeze That Frame!

From the Tech Vault Dept.: It’s tough to remember the pre-digital image days of VHS tapes and the like, but 20 years ago it seemed state-of-the-art to try to edit your analogue-shot material. Here’s a how-to-piece I wrote for Computer Life magazine that ran in early 1996. Despite my proselytizing, the result was fantastically crappy. This is the copy I submitted; what ran was subjected to a then-new wave of editorial butchery that attempted to pander to the stupidest reader on the subscription list.


ONCE YOU GET USED TO taking digital pictures, you get really used to it. My digital cameras feature, elsewhere in this issue, left me with an electronic album of vacation pictures that I turned into an audience-numbing slideshow. And that got me thinking of vacations past, documented only on video (yeah, I’m the guy with his head glued to the eyepiece of a camcorder).

Camcorders and digital cameras are technological cousins, but camcorders have the luxury of a constant stream of videotape to save those images. Plug it into the right computer hardware, however, and you can grab stills off that tape – or save entire video sequences, complete with audio.

I had an ulterior motive for this project. Last summer I shot some nice video sequences at the beach, and I’ve been promising to forward some footage to the friends who rented the cabin with me. Sending some choice stills through e-mail would take them completely by surprise--and remind them of my formidable technical prowess.

What’s needed, then, is that camcorder, a computer with a good graphics environment (I’m using Windows 95), and a video capture card. I chose the versatile Video Blaster SE100, which not only lets me grab stills but also saves complete video sequences to the hard disk as AVI files. It can also superimpose video onto other applications, in case I want to accompany a presentation with a full-motion image and don’t mind connecting all of this hardware to do so.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Best of 1994

From the Year-End Vault Dept.: Let’s glide back 20 years for a wistful look at the Albany-area eateries that impressed me the most in 1994.


ALTHOUGH THERE WERE GOOD MEALS to be sampled locally during the past 12 months, some of the best eating was found farther away. Keeping in mind that a good diner meal can be the apex of culinary splendor in the right circumstances, it doesn't take away from the fact that a special anniversary dinner held last February at The Point in Saranac Lake was the finest meal I’ve encountered. Chef Bill McNamee, working with guest chefs David Lawson and Jean-Michel Lorain, put together a masterful menu that I’ll highlight: chilled terrine of Arcachon oysters, sea scallops finished in a cappuccino sauce, then a combination of Brussels sprouts and Beluga caviar before the venison entrée, dark-flavored and buttery.

Dining Room at The Point, Saranac Lake
Down the road at the newly-refurbished Lake Placid Lodge, we sampled more of McNamee’s cooking, which I’ve termed Adirondack gourmet. Game dominates the entrées – we tried a hearty portion of Muscovy duck, served on a bed of red cabbage and currants, braised to an appropriate sweetness – and even meatless eating can be rich as demonstrated by the Tagliatelles aux truffes noires, which is pasta made from white truffles, sauced with porcini mushrooms and black truffles.

One of the area’s best chefs took off to Woodstock some months back, and we finally got out to Ric Orlando’s New World Home Cooking Co. last summer. He’s still cooking the exuberant, salubrious stuff you may remember from Albany, but the Woodstock setting is much more encouraging (a sad commentary on the Capital Region).

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot like Christmas

CHRISTMAS IN MY HOUSE would seem fairly austere to you. We decorate for the holiday, but with what I consider admirable restraint. We do not allow the occasion to persuade us to watch badly animated nonsense on TV. My must-watch list includes only Alastair Sim as you-know-who and the cartoon version of “The Snowman,” because it’s brilliantly animated and only 27 minutes long, and I can plug my ears when the strident boy soprano belts forth.

Boston Camerata's Joel Frederiksen,
Dan Hershey, and John Taylor Ward.
Photo by Marc Schultz
It’s the holiday music that’s most likely to drive me crazy. No other occasion occasions so many horrible sounds, but by the time the day itself arrives, I have sated myself with what’s always my high point of the season: the annual Boston Camerata performance at Schenectady’s Union College. They’ve been bringing one of their several Christmas programs to the acoustically splendid Memorial Chapel for 25 years, and I have yet to weary of any of them.

Yesterday they concluded this year’s tour with “An American Christmas,” a program devised by group founder Joel Cohen 20 years ago, rooted in the 19th century, and yet more contemporary and holiday-appropriate than anything on the airwaves.

What keeps a performance like this fresh? It’s so well-routined that I’m sure the group could walk through it. There will be a brass call from the balcony; something will be sung early on as a processional along the aisle; the Biblical Christmas story will be recited (in one language or another) to link the tunes.

Yet the brass call – in this case, the melody of “Wayfaring Stranger” intoned by a vintage trombone – was calmly thrilling, if you can join me in imagining such a thing. The segue into the lean vocal line of  “Judicii signum,” from 10th-century Spain, was as charming as it was seemingly abrupt, but not so fast – there are melodic links, and they persisted into the 19th-century spiritual “Sinner Man.” And all this before we’d even caught sight of the performers!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Woman’s Place

Guest Blogger Dept.: So much that we take for granted was hard won only a short time ago. Ruth Hale campaigned fiercely for a woman’s right to retain her maiden name, winning a partial victory against the State Department in 1921 over the wording on her passport. She was a noted journalist who contributed the following piece to the 1922 anti-Volstead Act essay collection Nonsenseorship.


AT LAST THE WOMEN OF THIS COUNTRY are about to perform a great service – not one of those courtesy services about which so much is so volubly said and so little is done in repayment – but a good sturdy performance, that will probably bring these magnificent men folks right to their knees.

Ruth Hale as a XXth Century
woman guarding the Home Brew.
Drawing by Ralph Barton.
They are going to teach the unfortunates how to live under prohibitions and taboos. Of course there has never been any prodigality of freedom in this country – or any other – but what there was belonged to the men. The women had to take to the home and stay there. So the two sexes adjusted themselves to life with this difference, that the women had to do all the outwitting and circumventing, all the little smart twists and turns, all the cunning scheming by which people snatch off what they want without appearing to, whereas men got their much or little by prosily sticking their hands out for it.

This developed, naturally, not only somewhat diverse temperaments, hut also greatly diverse equipments. When men cannot get what they want now by either asking or paying for it, they have no more resources. Bless them, they must return into the home, where the secret has been perfected for centuries on centuries of how to hoard a private stock and how to find a bootlegger. Under the steadily growing nonsenseorship regime, they are obliged to come and take lessons from the lately despised group of creatures to whom nonsenseorship is a well-thumbed story. If the world outside the home is to become as circumscribed and paternalized as the world inside it, obviously all the advantage lies with those who have been living under nonsenseorship long enough to have learned to manage it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Seems to Me

From the Vault Dept.: More chaff from the back of a file-cabinet drawer. This piece has to date from early 1983, just before the marriage referenced within went pffft. At the time, I lived in Schenectady’s Stockade area, a historic district on the riverside site of the first Dutch settlement. A newsletter called The Stockade Spy was distributed to the neighborhood, and this was one of my contributions. I apologize for its nagging, holier-than-thou tone. And I do currently own a television set.


TWO YEARS AGO a person or persons unknown jimmied my front door and made off with a new color TV set. It was not a welcome loss. My wife and I were discovering the nice combination of cable service and crisp colors, as well as the fact that it was possible to be over ten years old and still fight over who’d watch what.

“We’ll get a new one,” I sighed, but that purchase kept getting postponed. We’re still without a TV and it now looks as if we might happily stay that way for a while.

Oh, I’m not going to go on about lousy programming, biased news geared for the short-on-smarts, that sort of thing. I don’t believe that I’ve “risen above” anything. Although it was interesting to hear the reactions our TV-less life first brought forth: “No TV, huh?” commented a friend. “Well, as for myself, I watch only the educational station and the news.”

As if it were necessary to apologize to us for even owning one of the things. “You don’t understand,” I hastened to point out. “Mine got swiped. I’d watch it if I had one.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Schlafly in Schenectady

From the Slush Pile Dept.: Here’s a piece that turned up as I searched for something else in a file cabinet recess. I’m guessing I wrote it in the mid-1980s, possibly in 1985, as it’s typewritten and I was switching over to a computer shortly thereafter. It was turned down by The Nation, with a note explaining that arch-conservative woman-hater Phyllis Schlafly was old news at that point. A group called “Ladies Against Women” demonstrated amusingly outside the event, mocking the Schlafly-ites by pretending to agree with them in a manner that lampoons their idiocy. Here’s my report.


ALL YOU NEED are a few NRA eagles hanging here and there to give crumbling downtown Schenectady the time-warp look of the early ‘30s. During vaudeville’s heyday, performers got a laugh at just the mention of the city’s name. They knew it as a tough city to please. It’s tough on business, tough on entertainers, tough on the workforce. General Electric looms beside the arterial, but even that institution has taken to closing down – and then knocking down – its unprofitable plants.

Phyllis Schlafly
A has-been city doesn’t bother to roll out the red carpet for a has-been entertainer, but some civic pride could be taken in the reception given to Phyllis Schlafly when she spoke at Union College in early March. A local chapter of the Berkeley-based “Ladies Against Women” turned out in full ‘fifties regalia to wave placards. “We’ll be there to protect Mrs. Schlafly from those radical, bra-burning women’s libbers,” one of the members declared in preparation, but there was no need for worry. The audience of about 300 comprised college students and the curious from the community. Some students heckled, loudly; there were some oldsters who applauded Schlafly, even louder. But nobody got too excited.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Twisted Christmas

Here's another opinion about tomorrow's Caffe Lena concert in which I'm performing. The opinion in question happens to be mine, but it's filtered through an excellent interview piece by Don Wilcock:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cooking the Books

Making a List, Checking It Twice Dept.: I prefer cookbooks that give me more than mere recipes, and the ones on this list are particularly noteworthy titles that were issued this year. And I’ll be recommending even more in the days to come.


OUR GOD, WHO ART IN THE LIVING ROOM, flat-screen be Thy name. We flock to wrest possession of them when the shopping fever hits, then structure our time and sensibility around What the TV Tells Us. Which is why the cookbook market has gone to shit, driven by televised nonsense that seeks to turn cooking into a major-league sport and has created a celebrity cult that has more to do with screen presence than talent.

I suppose my task here thus is made a little easier. Dismissing the celeb-engendered texts, there are fewer books to wade through, but the best of them remain impressive. Here are my suggestions.

What makes a meal special? You’re going to have to wade through a mind-numbingly academic tome to find out, but if you meet The Perfect Meal (Wiley Blackwell) halfway, many rewarding nuggets await. Did the fork lead to the overbite? Why are plates used to frame our food? What’s the role of sensory incongruity in a meal? Authors Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman seem to hAave ingested everything ever written about the experience of dining, and distilled it into one dense volume. It’s fascinating and rewarding—just take small bites and chew slowly.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Longest Holiday: Almost Here!

Keep on Plugging Dept.: My latest press release for Friday’s holiday show at Caffè Lena, and I’m leaving it in the third person although, when it comes to self-promotion, I’ll be the first person to tell you how good this show is going to be.


Musical theater veterans Byron Nilsson and Amy Prothro present a Scrooge-free holiday show of song and story – “for and against the holiday season,” as Byron puts it, at 8 PM Friday, Dec, 19 at the legendary Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs.

Byron recalls that he “grew up with this awful record by the Harry Simeone Chorale blasting in my ear each December, and when I got older, I worked in a restaurant where one of the writers of the horrid but ubiquitous song ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ played cocktail piano for tips in order to pay the bills. In other words, I’ve never had any illusions about the Christmas season.”

The program includes songs by Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, and Stephen Sondheim, with some anti-Christmas songs by Tom Lehrer, Loudon Wainwright, and Bob Gibson, among others. When Nilsson and Prothro bring their show to the Caffè’s small stage, it becomes the most intimate form of black-box theater, but with the spirit of American song behind it.

Making it all the more appropriate to salute some of the best songwriters of the American musical. Berlin is known for his holiday songs, and the inclusion of Sondheim recognizes the imminent opening of the film version of his “Into the Woods.”

“And where else,” says Amy, “do I get to be a prince?”

This special holiday edition of Songs to Amuse was directed by Byron and Amy, with musical direction by Malcolm Kogut, and has one performance only at 8 PM Friday, Jan. 19, at Caffè Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, NY. Tickets are $15 and are available at this website.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Classic Reviews

What’s in Store? Dept.: You’re trying to find a gift for a classical-music minded friend? Try some of my recommendations.


FOUR YEARS AGO, Sony Classical released all of Leonard Bernstein’s symphony recordings (with the New York Philharmonic) in one 60-CD box set that quickly sold out its initial pressing. Bernstein’s conducting is always reliable, often surprising, and if the symphonies set filled a gap in your collection, here’s the sequel: Leonard Bernstein Edition: Concertos & Orchestral Works (Sony Classical) puts into one 80-disc set all of the works he recorded that didn’t have the word “symphony” in the title, but excluding operas and other vocal works. Thus there are 28 CDs of concertos, with too much Isaac Stern for my taste–but there’s plenty with Francescatti to make up for it and such pianists as Rudolf Serkin, Glenn Gould (the notorious Brahms No. 1 is here) and Bernstein himself. Leaving 52 discs of basic-rep orchestral works, ranging from the ponderous profundity of Strauss (R.) and Wagner to the lighthearted capering of Strauss (J.) and Rossini. Some pieces you get more than once, some come with and without narration, but all of it is a bargain-priced bounty.

The late Claudio Abbado bounced from label to label during his long career, eventually more or less settling with DG, but Sony has issued a 39-CD set of his Complete RCA and Sony Recordings, most of which were made during eight of his years at the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, although he recorded CDs capturing the varied programming of his Prometheus- and Hölderlin-themed seasons there. There’s a nice chunk of Mozart, a Beethoven’s Ninth with Jane Eaglen and Bryn Terfel, Mussorgsky’s “Boris Goudonov,” and a bubbly New Year’s Eve all-Richard Strauss program. Abbado’s recordings of all six Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Chicago Symphony are here, Rossini and Verdi overtures with the London Symphony and, earliest of them all, a delightful set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos recorded with a handful of members of La Scala orchestra in 1976.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014


To reinforce yesterday's review of the forthcoming Anonymous 4 album "1865," here's a teaser from Harmonia Mundi:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Abide with Us

THE OPENING STRAINS of the opening song – “Weeping, Sad, and Lonely” – are so ethereal, so gorgeous, that when we reach the lyric –
Oft in dreams I see thee lying
On the battle plain,
Lonely, wounded, even dying,
Calling, but in vain.
– it comes as a start. Of course it’s a song about the horror of the ongoing war, but there are moments when the lovely intimacy of this performance suggests that it might merely be one couple sundered, not an entire country.

Anonymous 4 won a deservedly stellar reputation from their performances and recordings of medieval music, and achieved similar acclaim for their first two forays into American music: “American Angels” and “Gloryland.” The latest, “1865,” concentrates on a handful of the many songs associated with or inspired by the Civil War.

That war inspired enough music to shift our national musical identity away from the Irish melodies that dominated a few decades earlier. The rise of minstrelsy in the mid-19th century contributed an overlapping strand. Stephen Foster contributed to both, and his “Hard Times Come Again No More” gets a five-part setting that brings out the rich beauty of this seemingly simple tune.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Once Upon a Time

From the Back of the Fridge Dept.: Over a decade ago, and for a very brief time, there was an excellent diner not far from my house. What I wrote about below was the latest of several attempts to get something going in a too-large space, and this, too, died a few months after this piece appeared. The power of the press can’t fight the culinary apathy of this area.


FOLLOW THE MOHAWK RIVER west from Waterford and you encounter a string of dying cities, a tribute to the boom and bust wrought by the Erie Canal. Even after canal trade was superseded by over-the-road (and rail) shipping, cities like Schenectady, Amsterdam, Little Falls, Utica and Rome continued for several decades to thrive as business and manufacturing centers. Now they cling to whatever vestiges of economic opportunity they can summon. Amsterdam’s former rug factories are shells, and downtown Amsterdam’s most visible entity is a failed mall that confounds traffic.

Photo by Martin Benjamin
Take the Amsterdam exit of the NYS Thruway (it’s exit 27), turn left on Route 30 and make a quick left into the parking lot of Super 8 Motel and you’ll see the sprawling New Amsterdam Diner, reopened not quite three months ago after many years dark – and with a terrible reputation even before that.

Right now it’s one of those gems where the food is far better than the location and appearance would suggest.

“A friend showed me the place,” says chef John Papis. “I had restaurants in Manhattan and I wanted to get away from there. Too much excitement. Here you have fresh air, a beautiful view. . . . ”

Monday, December 08, 2014

In the Family

From the Vault Dept.: I should have posted this around Thanksgiving, but, as with all great artists, Arlo is timeless. Here’s my account of his family’s 2009 Albany performance.


ON THANKSGIVING WEEKEND IN 1965, Arlo Guthrie was convicted of creating a public nuisance. You probably know the story. It involved litter. The same weekend, Arlo could have watched the King Family on television and seen a horrific vision of white-bread musical hell. If he did, it may have planted a seed. But even if he didn’t, he has redefined the notion of what a musical family is all about. It’s highly doubtful, for example, that the King Family would celebrate an amorous mismatch with a song titled “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow.”

Arlo Guthrie | Photo by Brian Blauser
But this, the fourth number in a satisfyingly long and refreshing program, came to us from the pen of Arlo’s ukulele-wielding daughter Cathy, who performed it with siblings Abe (keyboards), Annie (autoharp) and Sarah Lee (guitar), along with Abe’s son Krishna on guitar and drummer Terry Hall.

The program started with the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, guitar wizard Johnny Irion, with their evocative “When the Lilacs Are in Bloom.” And then more of the family was added with each song, until Arlo emerged to sing his father’s “Gypsy Davy.”

Sunday, December 07, 2014

No High Volume

Guest Blogger Redux Dept.: A couple of days ago we stopped by James Thurber’s desk at the still-young New Yorker magazine, where he turned out unsigned “Talk of the Town” pieces. Identities are revealed in a more recently assembled index; thus it is that we can credit another such squib in the same issue, this one made notable by its implied characterization of Albany. True then; still true.


James Thurber
NOT LONG AGO a man of no little renown died, leaving a remarkable library. Many of his most desirable volumes were bequeathed to his wife; more, in fact, than she had room for in the modest home to which she removed. Accordingly, one of her first acts was to invite the brother of her late husband, who lives in Albany, to inspect the books and select whatever he wished for himself. He made an hour's investigation and finally approached his sister-in-law, bearing not a single treasure. When her raised eyebrows connoted surprise he explained. “I guess he didn’t have any books on home brew,” was the explanation. Then, thanking her just the same, he departed.

– James Thurber, The New Yorker,
24 December 1927

Friday, December 05, 2014

Trial of the “Night”

Guest Blogger Dept.: James Thurber weighed in on a subject that continues to inspire controversy, viz. the authorship of that most famous piece of Christmas doggerel, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The matter will be put to a jury trial in the poem’s hometown, Troy, NY, at 2 PM Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014, at the Rensselaer County Courthouse, when attorneys representing Henry Livingston and Clement Moore will square off in a re-match of last year’s inconclusively settled trial. I plan to be there in one form or another.


UNBEKNOWNST PERHAPS TO MOST PEOPLE, two families of this town have been arguing for years about whose great-grandfather wrote “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The fly-leaf of your copy will reveal the name of Dr. Clement Clarke Moore. At the turn of the eighteenth century he lived in a big house with many chimney places, near Chelsea Square. More than eighty when he died – during the Civil War – he was buried in the cemetery behind the Chapel of the Intercession on upper Broadway. This Christmas Eve children will gather about his tomb, carrying lighted candles and singing the verses of his poem. Meanwhile, in a home on West Seventy-first Street, the household of Dr. William S. Thomas will await the coming of St. Nicholas as one of their own family. It is their contention that Dr. Thomas’ great grandfather, Henry Livingston, Jr., wrote the poem in a big house near Poughkeepsie more than a hundred years ago and read it to the family one morning at breakfast.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Getting On, Getting Off

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Here’s another page from the depths of my files, a typescript that may or may not have seen publication. It’s not written in the style I used for Metroland or the Schenectady Gazette, my two major outlets at the time, yet it seems to have been submitted someplace and then returned. So I’m guessing that this is its first appearance, a museum piece about a museum piece – specifically, Anthony Newley’s 1986 tour in his show Stop the World ... I Want to Get Off! His co-star is now better known as Suzie Plakson, and has appeared on Star Trek, Mad about You, and Bones, among much else, and is also a writer and sculptor and more, as you’ll see at her website.


A QUARTER-CENTURY’S WORTH OF HINDSIGHT places Anthony Newley’s tribute to the English working class, the music-hall musical Stop the World ... I Want to Get Off!, smack in the Angry Young Men tradition. But there’s no post-Osborne bitterness here; Newley was really only a Rather Concerned Young Man when he wrote and first performed in the show.

He and the show are older now, but the high-spirited production that came to Proctor’s Theater last week had at its helm a star with sensational vigor and an unfailing sense of timing. And, of course, that voice, that oft-parodied but very affecting voice.

Every great clown finds a solid character in an Everyman, from belligerent Chaplin (whom Newley has portrayed) through more contemporary Britishers like Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness. And so with Newley, who gives us clown-faced Littlechap and an odyssey that crosses several continents and spans a lifetime without ever leaving a music hall stage.

Stop the World ... has the structure of a revue, its elements strung with music and characterization. The plot is flimsy, an excuse to offer sketches. It culminates with the Clown as Tragic Figure in the T.F.’s favorite device, that of self-sacrifice.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

A Vote Against Writers Who Write of Writers

From the Vault Dept.: I’ve been a crank for as long as I can remember, but it’s nice to have that perception reinforced with empirical evidence – in this case, my first and only appearance in the NY Times, instantly reduced in prestige by it having been in the letters column – in the “Connecticut” section, yet.


In the “Speaking Personally” column of April 23, which was given over to Jill Robinson’s arabesque on the Kathryn Kollar dance company of Westport – granted the writer’s opinion is supposed to be the focus of that column, but must it outshine and obliterate the subject to magnify Jill Robinson?

She is, she informs us in the opening clause of the first sentence, a writer. The tag at the end identifies her current book. The thrust of the article that follows is not so much the dance company – a group that seems, in the glimpses we get, quite interesting – but of Jill Robinson’s experience writing about the company. Most paragraphs feature a personal pronoun coupled with a patronizing thought (“Sometimes, I remembered, when I am writing I reach out my arms, cock my wrists, move my head this way or that to find, to stretch for a word that cannot quite do, catch it, that thing I am trying to say.”)

If Jill Robinson wants so badly to be a dancer, then why doesn’t she go ahead and dance? But if she wants to be a writer, I wish she would realize, as E.B. White once observed, that most of us really aren’t that interested in writers writing about writers. We would rather just read some calm, enjoyable writing.

– Byron A. Nilsson, Ridgefield, 7 May 1978

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Force of Nature

Recollections in Passing Dept.: Writing Sunday’s post, which was a tribute to my late friend Ron Nicoll, reminded me of a concert my wife and infant daughter attended at Tanglewood on Sunday, August 4, 1997. This was a regular summer pilgrimage for Ron and some friends, and it was always a pleasure to join them when possible. 

On this day, the skies opened during the opening work, Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” and most of the party got drenched in the rush to cover my six-month-old child, who sat happily in her stroller under their jackets and umbrellas. During the next piece, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the sun came out (appropriately, given the nature of the music) and I cradled Lily in my arms and walked to the shed, hoping to dry more quickly.

Rainy Tanglewood | Photo by Hilary Scott
I was not the type of parent to inflict its young upon others in inappropriate places. But Lily was quite peaceful and the strains of the just-beginning Adagietto seemed to further that peace. We stood behind the standees. All we could see of Ozawa was the shine of his white jacket. The music grew quieter and quieter.

And then some damn maiden-aunt busybody caught sight of my daughter and waved, making an “isn’t-she-cute!” face. Lily obligingly waved back. Which prompted some other crone to wave to my child. Who waved back again. At which point it seemed as if every lawn-dowager in the place had to add her own cutesy-assed wave, just as the movement reached its quietest moment.

Lily, delighted by all the attention, bellowed, “HI!!”

I’m sure even Ozawa heard it.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ron Nicoll: 1937-2014

A SNOWSTORM TURNED THE HIGHWAYS treacherous as I drove from Ridgefield, Conn., to Schenectady, NY, for a job interview in the middle of February, 1980. What should have been a three-hour trip took longer, so it was dark by the time I found my reclusive destination, a building that housed WMHT’s television and radio studios.

I was given a list of composer names to pronounce. I demonstrated my familiarity with a mixing board and microphone – I was expected to be my own engineer – and my ability to assemble an interesting variety of classical-music selections. I had chosen to write a cover letter in lieu of a resume to make it easier to fudge my lack of a college degree, which I did by stressing my experience working at a college radio station, implying that I’d also attended classes there.

Ron Nicoll at WMHT-FM, c. 1981
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
When I returned to begin the job, the station’s Acting Program Manager welcomed me with “Hello, dammit.” This would prove to be his standard greeting, resonating with his re-naming of the Schenectady suburb where we worked as “Rottergoddamn.”

Ron Nicoll died at the age of 77 last Sunday after a long illness and brief hospital stay. My wife and I visited him two days before. Despite his extreme physical debilitation, he retained the wit and acuity I knew very well. “We give you all our love,” Susan told him as we prepared to depart. “I thought I already had that!” he shot back.

He was pretty sure I had no college degree when he hired me. Although he rarely called attention to it, neither did he, but the autodidact is typically better-informed and better-spoken than those who rely for their smarts on academia. And there’s a high educational threshold required to appreciate classical music enough to work with it as a radio professional – or it was back then.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Christmas at Caffe Lena

Photo by Lily Whiteman

Celebrate the dismantling of Christmas as performed by Amy Prothro, Malcolm Kogut, and me at Saratoga's Caffe Lena at 8 PM Friday, December 19. More details to follow!

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Nurses at Ellis

You’re Getting Verse Dept.: My mother saved the letters I sent her, a packet that was returned to me after her death several years ago. I haven’t been courageous enough to go through them – I wrote them in my teens and 20s, when my prose was far more pretentious than it is now – but the following piece of doggerel came to hand when I was searching my files for something else. I wrote it while a patient at Schenectady’s Ellis Hospital in 1985, recovering from a dislocated hip (the other driver ran a stop sign). I was surrounded by motorcycle-accident victims, many of whom were impressively loud in their complaints. And I suffered a heroic case of constipation. I knew that my mom, who was an RN, would appreciate my views on the matter.


The nurses at Ellis can tell you that hell is
To find you’re assigned to D-3,
Where patients in traction demand interaction
From feeding to helping them pee.

Though splinted and plastered they 
    shout like a bastard
For linens and blankets and towels,
And, though they’ve progressed, you will find them obsessed
(Let’s try to be nice) with their bowels.

Oh, Milk of Magnesia will certainly please ya
When five days have passed without crapping;
Then, under your sheet, some poor nurse gets a treat:
Your package came while you were napping.

And so let us sing to the bedpan, that thing
That conveniently kisses your haunches,
And the nurse, with a smile, will comfort you while
You prepare for the next of your launches.

And so let us moan in a miserable tone
As our bodies proceed on the mend:
It’s the doctor alone who will deal with the bone;
It’s the nurse who must deal with the end!

– 9 May 1985

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Toddling Along

Guest Blogger Dept.: Although the practice of hanging dogs has become enough of a rarity, in my circles at least, that my party-overstaying no longer can be accurately measured along that scale, I find great comfort in Robert Benchley’s explanation as to why he had trouble quitting such gatherings in a timely way.


WHAT IS THE DISEASE which manifests itself in an inability to leave a party—any party at all—until it is all over and the lights are being put out? It must be some form of pernicious inertia.

Robert Benchley (with Joyce Compton)
No matter where I am, if there are more than four people assembled in party formation, I must always be the last to leave. I may not be having a very good time; in fact, I may wish that I had never come at all. But I can't seem to bring myself to say, “Well, I guess I’ll be toddling along.”

Other people are able to guess they’ll be toddling along. One by one, and two by two, and sometimes in great groups, I watch them toddle along, until I am left, with possibly just my host to keep me company. Sometimes even my host asks me if I mind if he toddles along to bed. When this happens, I am pretty quick to take the hint.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Myths of Thanksgiving

BACK IN THE UNENLIGHTENED ’60s, we elementary-school wretches celebrated the run-up to Thanksgiving by collecting dying leaves, cutting endless amounts of corn ears and turkey tails out of colorful cardboard, and most annoying of all, holding some manner of classroom pageant complete with hastily made approximations of the received image of Pilgrim haberdashery.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth"
Painting by Jennie Brownscombe, 1914
You would have thought, to see this spectacle, that the 17th-century Pilgrims threw an annual party to which they invited their Indian neighbors, reflecting the general goodwill that prevailed and endured among the races. At the expense of many a turkey.

Like leftover turnips, such misbegotten ideas accumulate until someone mercifully gets rid of them, so let’s clean up a few of them. I’m indebted, not surprisingly, to the Internet, where Plimoth Plantation ( and contributed info. Not to mention The Thanksgiving Book by Jerome Agel and Jason Shulman (Smithmark Publishers, 1987).

Thanksgiving originated neither with the Pilgrims nor in the New World. This kind of feast went on even earlier in England, and is traceable back in time to the Hebrew Feast of the Tabernacles as well as to Greek and Roman harvest festivals.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Much Obliged, Plum

What Was Literature? Dept.: Many a blog-post ago I noted that the photo I added for this piece (a piece that ran in the Albany Times Union) was taken for a different article. This is that article, which I wrote for Metroland Magazine at the outset of Overlook Press’s Wodehouse-reissue project – which is now up to 98 titles which, by my count, means they have four titles to go, two of which will be out next spring. [Update: they've worked in a few unexpected – to me – titles, so it may take a bit longer.]


HIS WORK WAS PROBABLY the most outdated of any 20th-century writer. Right off the bat, Pelham Grenville (but known to his friends as “Plum”) Wodehouse established a milieu of English country houses, doddering Earls and clever butlers – and some of the sappiest star-crossed lovers in literature. Others who mined this milieu – think Ben Travers, E.F. Benson – are deservedly obscure, but Wodehouse endures. In fact, thanks to the enthusiasts at Woodstock-based Overlook Press, his work triumphs, in a series of hardcover reissues that’s now 36 titles strong.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“We’re planning to reissue all of his titles,” says publisher Peter Mayer, even as he acknowledges the enormity of the task. There are close to a hundred volumes, turned out between 1902 and 1974 by a writer who lived to the age of 94.

To call each of the books a gem is to be only slightly overgenerous. It can be argued that he was treading water in the very last few books, and even some of the early titles – The Coming of Bill, for example – are kneecapped by leaden plots. Otherwise, his books remain the funniest writing of the past hundred years, the humor of which almost conceals the extraordinary craftsmanship.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mama's Boy

Mollie Minot, Byron Nilsson, and Amy Ferrara
Photo by John C. Moulds | 1975
John C. Moulds was working on a film project that needed a staged photo as part of its storytelling material. He borrowed Harry Minot's mom, Mollie, to give a disapproving glare at her back-from-the-Navy son (me) because he has pre-maritally knocked up his girlfriend (my not-pregnant but convincingly padded then-girlfriend, Amy).

Friday, November 21, 2014

Tea with the Missus and Me

Gadding About Dept.: Early in 1987, my wife and I learned about a wonderful travel opportunity: fly as a courier to London and you’ll pay only $100 for round-trip airfare. We were interviewed at the Queens-based headquarters of one such service and then booked to travel. We’d get a week in London, but, with only one such flight leaving daily, we had to fly on consecutive days. Which was fine with us. Here’s a piece of mine that came out of that trip.


THAT ELUSIVE FOURTH MEAL OF THE DAY, afternoon tea! What is its appeal, how should it be practiced? For an answer, my wife and I traveled to London with an expectation of traffic stopping and shops closing down at 4 to enable visitors and residents to indulge in this custom.

The Georgian Room at Harrod's
It turns out to be not that dramatic. In fact, we came upon our high tea quite by accident, while visiting the place that’s as much of a tourist attraction as it is a department store: Harrod’s, in the wealthy district of Knightsbridge.

A Rolls-Royce was parked outside. Behind it sat a Daimler-Benz. Several other no doubt pedigreed, hyphenated cars followed. The doorman sported more buttons than an elevator in a high-rise.

Inside was a mixture of British restraint and American let’s-sell-‘em fervor (the sale was to begin in a week: “There’s only one Harrod’s. There’s only one sale” is how ad copy reads).

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Innocent Abroad, Part Two

I WAS STILL, AT AGE 16, enough of an innocent to consider an all-night make-out session as an end in itself. That is, a languorous stretch of time sitting side by side, or in the embrace of one another, bringing our faces together from time to time, exploring each other’s dentistry – but leaving the rest of the body unmolested.

As I recall it, this particular night, Friday, February 16, 1973, I had invited my recently acquired girlfriend to watch a movie on television with me. The movie may have been “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a wonderful picture for a date.

A new job had moved my father and the rest of my family to the Chicago area not long before; I remained in Ridgefield, Conn., to finish my senior year. I was living at the home of my friend Harry Minot, himself a year-before graduate of that school, now working in radio. My girlfriend and I were in a second-floor room that boasted an ancient floor-standing console TV. As the movie came on, I had sense enough to favor this unprecedented oscular activity. As we moved through the single-digit hours, she grew tired enough to seek sleep, and did so in a spare ground-floor bedroom. I went to my third-floor room and finished packing. I was traveling again to London. I couldn’t sleep.

This romance would jutter to a stop in the coming couple of months, but for now I was able to enjoy a dewy-eyed breakfast with this wonderful girl before her angry father fetched her home.

The evening meal at the Minot house featured a marvelous array of creative souls, the number unpredictable, but each afternoon Harry’s young sister, Ione, tried to get a head count. She found me at the front door, about to trudge my bags to the just-arrived airport van.

“Where’re you going?” she asked. “London,” I told her. “Ah,” she said, unimpressed. “Then you won’t be here for dinner tonight.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Innocent Abroad, Part One

IN CELEBRATION OF my daughter’s first visit to England – she’s there as I write this, newly arrived, enjoying the fruit of an exchange between her school, Troy’s Emma Willard, and the Red Maids School in Bristol – I’ve got a couple of reminiscences on tap of my own high-school-aged travels.

I wrote about my brush with Alec Guinness in this post, one of the highlights of my first trip to London, which took place in February 1972, when I was 15. My high school offered a weeklong theater tour that would put us in West End seats, I talked my parents into paying for the trip (it cost about $300 all in all), and our group of students and chaperones caravanned from Ridgefield, Connecticut, down to JFK in time to wait six hours as our flight was again and again delayed.

No matter. It was my first trans-Atlantic trip, placing me in the city I’d most wanted to see. British film comedies and the BBC radio series “The Goon Show” infected me with Anglophilia: how exciting to be surrounded by people for whom the Mother Tongue truly was part of the family. I would find the precision of the prose of P.G. Wodehouse spoken in the mellifluous tones of Laurence Olivier.

We landed at Heathrow. I couldn’t understand a damn thing any of the natives was saying. There’s a close-to-London way of speaking that took me a day or so to get used to, and the more used to it I grew, the more self-conscious I felt about my own nasal drawl. (Back in the 1950s, the Goons – Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and Spike Milligan – dubbed Americans “Herns,” because the sound of American speech could be summed in that single syllable.)

The group was installed in a London hotel and the sightseeing began. Not surprisingly, there was a huge interest in shopping that I didn’t share, and being the knee-jerk contrarian I’m afraid I remain, I feigned no interest in taking in Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and other must-see sights.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mastering “Harold”

From the Theater Vault Dept.: Whatever voice I’ve developed as a critic was developed in full view of my readers. These pieces, from the infancy of that career, haven’t gotten much past the thumb-sucking stage. Nice to note that the cast of Capital Rep’s “Master Harold” has gone on t significant careers: Corey Parker has been seen in “Nashville” and “Will and Grace”; Basil A. Wallace has done “West Wing” and “CSI” among many other TV shows, while Lou Ferguson is known for his appearance in the movie “Maid in Manhattan as well as appearances on “Law & Order.”


IN ATHOL FUGARD’S “Master Harold” ... and the boys, young Hally observes that he “os-killates between hope and despair,” which is a good reflection of the playwright’s state of mind, speaking of the human condition in general and very specifically about South Africa’s policy of apartheid.

Corey Parker and Lou Ferguson
The very tone of the play similarly “os-killates,” beginning with a most casual and seemingly irrelevant exchange between two black South Africans, Sam and Willie, about an upcoming dance contest and continuing into an alternately funny and poignant series of confrontations with the “Master Harold” of the title.

Fugard wove a fabric that is worn successfully only by skilled actors, and Capital Repertory’s current production showcases the considerable skill of three.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Corrects Perverted Secretions

I don't know where this ad appeared, but we know the stuff must be good: it also has a full-page ad in the June 1895 "National Board of Health Magazine: A Review of Sanitary and Therapeutic Science" (Vol. IX No. 6). That one is an ad designed to resemble the neighboring editorial content (not that said content doesn't get similarly sensationalist). Here's the ad copy (and dig those diseases!):

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Goons? Go On!

One of my last radio appearances wasn't even on my usual side of the Atlantic -- but that's only because I was Yank Johnny-on-the-Spot. My wife and I traveled to Bournemouth near the end of October, 1995, to attend "A Weekend Called Fred," a convention of Goon Show aficionados from around the world who descended on this channel-side resort town to meet some heroes (Harry Secombe and Dennis Main Wilson were there), demonstrate their Goon-character voices, and, one morning on the beach, hurl batter pudding.

The BBC's Roy Bainton was there, and interviewed me one morning in our hotel's dining room. My brief but pretentious-sounding segment was part of an excellent overview of the event -- and the Goon Shows themselves -- that was broadcast on 25 October 1995:

Roy Bainton and Byron Nilsson | 22 October 1995

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sweeney (Todd) Agonistes

From the Vault Dept.: Although I thought John Doyle’s concept of “Company” was fairly successful, I’ve yet to be won over to the play-your-own-instruments approach to musicals that weren’t developed with that in mind. It was a particular problem with “Sweeney Todd,” which has a score that begs for as full an orchestra as can be had. Below is my report on a touring production that hit town a few years ago.


THE STORY OF SWEENEY TODD progressed, over the centuries, from urban legend to penny-dreadful to children’s bogeyman to Grand Guignol melodrama, until a backstory-rich stage version from 1973 inspired Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed, effective musical.

That version, too, has traveled a circuitous route since its 1979 Broadway debut, soon thereafter appearing at opera houses and community theater halls, in semi-staged productions with classical orchestras, as a Tim Burton film shorn of its ensemble numbers and, most imaginatively, in John Doyle’s 2004 staging (brought to Broadway a year later) in which ten actors play all of the characters and also provide the entirety of the musical accompaniment.

This is what played last weekend at Proctor’s Theater, as diverting a Good Friday entertainment as I’ve ever experienced. But it’s a production I admire more than I enjoy, and for a number of reasons.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Re-Making Monteverdi

RINALDO ALESSANDRINI HAS BEEN IMMERSED in the music of Monteverdi for over twenty years, both as a scholar, editing and assembling idiomatic performance editions of his work, and as founding director of Concerto Italiano, the early-music ensemble with which he has recorded much of Monteverdi’s work (in addition to much by Vivaldi, including the best of the umpteen million “Four Seasons” versions, and one of the better Bach Brandenburgs sets).

Their latest recording, of Monteverdi’s “Vespri Solenni per la Festa di San Marco,” gives us a work that doesn’t exist, recreating the soundscape of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice by using Mantua’s Church of Santa Barbara – ironically reversing Monteverdi’s own career path, which took him from Mantua to Venice, where he revitalized the music at St. Mark’s.

As Alessandrini convincingly argues, the acoustic of the hall in which Monteverdi’s works were performed was itself an instrument in the ensemble, able to “invest the music ... with that essential and indispensable timbral component which the analytical acoustics of our modern concert halls can never replace.” You’ll hear the two-second decay in the recording, but it’s a phenomenon that informs all of the many antiphonal moments. The textures of voice and instrument blend and build with an uncanny sense of emotion, heightening the drama that was one of Monteverdi’s innovations as he moved music into the Baroque era.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Schubert a Trois

Classical Stages Dept.: It’s always a treat when Wu Han and David Finckel are joined by Philip Setzer for a piano trio concert, but none was more gratifying than their 2009 visit to Schenectady’s Union College to perform the trios by Schubert, which they also recorded. Here’s my review.


BEETHOVEN CAST A DAUNTING SHADOW over Schubert’s life and work, so it’s all the more amazing to note the quality of the compositions the latter churned out. The two piano trios, written during what seem to be about the last six seconds of his life – Schubert snuffed it at 31, his last few years a frenzy of composing – are pinnacles of the repertory, their debt to Beethoven’s work eclipsed by their tunefulness and originality.

David Finckel, Wu Han, and Philip Setzer
Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel made the latest of many appearances at the Union College Concert Series last Sunday, this time with one of Finckel’s fellow Emerson Quartet members: violinist Philip Setzer. The ambitious program comprised the two Schubert trios, lately also recorded by this group.

These are works that have endured a wide range of praise and condemnation, the latter typical of the lunacy of classical music’s great blowhards. Schubert played fast and loose with such things as the oh-so-sacred sonata-allegro form that formed the structural basis of most opening movements written during the powdered-wig decades.

Monday, November 10, 2014

I've Got a Secret

NEARLY THIRTY YEARS AGO, I got involved with computers to an unhealthy degree, fueled by curiosity and the sizeable fees I soon was paid by computer magazines for coherent articles. I got my first machine – an IBM-style PC – in 1985, when the screens were a single color and a ten-megabyte hard drive was a costly luxury. And, in those pre-Windows days, the computer was mutely enigmatic. It greeted you, once it was activated, with an unhelpful prompt: A>

You were expected to type a command to tell it what to do. As a typewriter virtuoso, I was surprised by and angry at this demand. I needed to get some writing done. I’d been promised that this would show me an easier way. I was about to throw the damned thing out the window when my wife suggested I submit to some training.

I acquired a number of books, most of which assumed that I knew far too much of the subject I sought to learn. One that didn’t – one that taught me what needed to know, thus preserving my sanity, was The Secret Guide to Computers, self-published by a (then) Massachusetts-based eccentric named Russ Walter. Unlike most of the other computer-guide writers, Walter seemed to know what challenges you faced each step of the way and in a clear, non-patronizing tone, eased you through them. He also offered 24-hours-a-day phone support for the price of the call. He was known to don a wizard’s costume for speaking engagements and appearances at computer shows. And he updated the book regularly enough to accommodate the rapid technology changes that characterize the industry.

Sunday, November 09, 2014


From the Vault Dept.: My list of favorite operas is headed by Verdi’s “Falstaff.” My list of favorite performances includes Richard McKee’s turn as the lusty knight, performed with the Lake George Opera in 1990. Here’s my review.


Verdi’s “Falstaff” is a transitional work that masks its forward-thinking character with an incredibly bubbly humor. On the surface it looks like a bass-baritone’s tour de force. Dig a little deeper and you discover an ensemble piece to which everyone must give of their best_especially the conductor.

David Kellett, Richard McKee, and Gary Aldrich
Photo by Rusty Ridell

Revived by the Lake George Opera Festival Saturday night, it brought back Richard McKee, star of the 1976 production. This is a man who was born to sing Falstaff, and if, as I suspect, God has a taste for Italian opera, McKee’s tasks in Heaven will include frequent performances of this piece.

And because there are only two more performances – 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday – you really should ignore the rest of this review and just order yourself some tickets. This is the kind of performance that will delight all fans of good musical theater and could even make an opera-loving convert out of you.

One secret is to have a great Falstaff, of course, but there’s much more. What’s transitional about the piece is that it looked beyond the tradition (helped by Verdi) of opera as a bunch of big moments to a more dramatically-unified style. That Verdi should have chosen a comedy to accomplish this is an even greater testimony to his genius.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

One That Got Away

Per yesterday's post, not everybody I sought to interview accepted that request. But none turned me down as charmingly as Peter De Vries, whom I invited to be interviewed on radio back in the days when I did that.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Shearing Delight

From the Vault Dept.: There were several years during which I interviewed an impressive parade of talent in various worlds of music and theater, and most of those conversations were pleasant, if usually perfunctory, experiences. But I remember George Shearing as by far the kindest, most accessible interview subject of all. Wish I’d been given a longer word-count for the piece.


AT FIRST, IT SEEMS AS IF GEORGE SHEARING is going to be all business. But when you talk to the renowned jazz pianist for any length of time you hear his sly sense of humor sneak through. “The first thing you probably want to know is how a show like this gets put together,” he says. He’s speaking by telephone from Manhattan, anticipating tomorrow’s (Friday, April 12) Proctor’s Theatre concert titled “A Gathering of Friends.”

George Shearing | Photo by Andy Baker
“First Joe Pass comes out and does a half-hour of solo guitar. A half hour of solo guitar?” Shearing echoes his statement with mock astonishment. “Yes. We figure if it’s good enough for Segovia, it’s good enough for Joe. Then (bassist) Neil Swenson and I go out and do the remainder of the first half. We take an intermission and then Neil and Joe Williams’ drummer go out together and then Joe and I go out and do some numbers. Then I have the privilege of bringing Joe Pass out again for a big finale with all five of us working.”

The quintet has been touring this show for the past few months, just now making its way along the east coast. The program has become fairly well set along the way, “although we probably have a choice in each segment for one or two substitutions here or there. That’s at the discretion of the performers – one of the Joes or me.”

Thursday, November 06, 2014

It's a Battlefield

THEATER OFFERS AN IMMERSIVE POTENTIAL that even the most ambitious 3D IMAX presentation can’t touch, based on the presence of living actors in a real-time realization of the conflicts and joy that inform all lives.

Sipiwe Moyo and Tricia Alexandro
Photo by Enrico Spada
Director Kristen van Ginhoven’s realization of “In Darfur” placed the troubling play in the midst of an audience seated on barstools and lawn chairs of varying height, the construction-site set dressed with the flimsiest of props and flats and halogen lamps. We were encouraged to enter early to accustom ourselves to the environment; we would not be allowed in if late.

Amidst the nervous pre-show chatter, one couple set themselves up with charming equanimity in a front-row pair of low chairs, each with a Sunday NY Times section, looking for all the world as if they were on the nearby Tanglewood lawn. Unwittingly, they embodied the type for whom Times reporter Maryke (Tricia Alexandro) is struggling to get a story about the genocide she has witnessed in Darfur on the coveted front page.

Playwright Winter Miller was herself a Times reporter who accompanied Nicholas Kristof to that part of Africa in 2006. She shrewdly fashioned a work that exemplifies the horrors of the slaughter through its effects on a handful of people – chief among them Hawa (Sipiwe Moyo), a university-educated Darfur native who teaches English but is swept up in the atrocities committed by government-sponsored terrorists.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Making of a Red

Guest Blogger Dept.: Noting how vigorous a role unreasoning fear played in yesterday’s election results, I have invited Robert Benchley to address a threat that might even be worse than ebola.


Robert Benchley
YOU COULDN’T HAVE ASKED for anyone more regular than Peters. He was an eminently safe citizen. Although not rich himself, he never chafed under the realization that there were others who possessed great wealth. In fact, the thought gave him rather a comfortable feeling. Furthermore, he was one of charter members of the war. Long before President Wilson saw the light, Peters was advocating the abolition of German from the public-school curriculum. There was, therefore, absolutely nothing in his record which would in the slightest degree alter the true blue of a patriotic litmus. And he considered himself a liberal when he admitted that there might be something in this man Gompers, after all. That is how safe he was.

But one night he made a slip. It was ever tiny a slip, but in comparison with it De Maupassant’s famous piece of string was barren of consequences. Shortly before the United States entered the war, Peters made a speech at a meeting of the Civic League in his home town. His subject was “Interurban Highways: Their Development in the Past and Their Possibilities for the Future.” So far, 100 percent American. But, in the course of his talk, he happened to mention the fact that war, as an institution, has almost always had an injurious effect on public improvements of all kinds. In fact (and note this well – the government’s sleuth in the audience did) he said that, all other things being equal, if he were given his choice of war or peace in the abstract, he would choose peace as a condition under which to live. Then he went on to discuss the comparative values of macadam and wood blocks for paving.