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Friday, December 25, 2015

Mediterranean Holiday

THE GUT-WRENCHING CRY of “Respondemos” – melismatic, nasal, featuring more flatted tones than any five Billie Holiday records – set a stark beginning against which Boston Camerata’s traditional entrance seemed all the more mysterious. Over a hurdy-gurdy drone, the voices behind us, which at another concert might have sounded the likes of “Watchman of Zion,” sang “Madre de Dios,” a Castillian carol from at least the 13th century.

Boston Camerata and Sharq Ensemble
This was the 26th Boston Camerata holiday appearance as part of the Union College concert series, and every year the ensemble is all the more desperately welcome. While it’s easy (and necessary) to note how awful is the season’s commercialism, there’s no more revolting aspect than bad holiday music, which thrives on the unfortunate fact that any song can be made memorable by relentlessly hammering it into your ears.

It’s doubtful that you’d encounter any part of any Boston Camerata Christmas program in the aural assault of the end of the year. It’s certain that no aspect of this year’s program, “A Mediterranean Christmas,” will be so sounded. Especially this year, when we’ve demonized so much of that region. “We need this program more than ever,” said artistic director Anne Azéma.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On a Ravioli Roll

CRUSHING YOUR CONCOCTION into pillows of pasta is the fun part, the payoff for the work you’ve been through to get there. For the many years that I’ve made ravioli by hand, I accepted that forming the pockets was tedious and the result – under my stewardship, at least – was irregular. But now that I’ve been introduced to the simplest of gadgets, one that checkerboards the pasta for you, I’m a total convert. Even better: It’s a handsome device that demands a place on an obvious shelf.

The Fonde Ravioli Rolling Pin from Repast Supply Co. is a 17-inch, all-hardwood marvel of simplicity that produces 2 1/4-inch pasta squares with enough of a border to prevent leaking. You can see product videos here, but let me assure you that you’re not going to achieve such perfection right out of the gate. Let me take you through my own ravioli-making process.

You need to nail the pasta recipe. I looked at a variety of them for the egg-based version, which only worked when I increased the amount of eggs in the mix. A contributor gives a ratio of 3 cups flour to 2 eggs, which ends up as a stiff lump. The classic Silver Spoon cookbook offers a more realistic 1 3/4 cups flour to 2 eggs, but that’s still too not pliable enough for our purpose.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Argerich File

MARTHA ARGERICH IS A PIANIST for whom no music seems too technically challenging, but one with strong repertory preferences. Like Horowitz, she has burrowed herself into a not-terribly-large group of pieces, and to which she brings a bravura interpretive style filled with risk-taking that results only in excitement.

Most of her official recordings have been for EMI or Deutsche Grammophon, and the latter, now under the aegis of Universal, which includes her recordings for Philips, have just been collected into a 48-CD box set as tempestuous and unpredictable as the pianist herself.

Her debut album was recorded in 1960 and comprised an impressive program of works by Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt, with Prokofiev’s “Toccata” as a harbinger of fiery works to come. You can feel the powers-that-be at work in choosing repertory here, and they’re probably behind the (nevertheless excellent) all-Chopin disc that followed seven years later.

But that same year also saw the release of a benchmark recording, on which she and a young Claudio Abbado collaborated, giving us Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 and Ravel’s Concerto in G. They are two works she would continue to champion but which sound as splendid here as they ever would.

Pianist and conductor seemed to incite one another. Abbado’s robust dynamics and keen orchestral textures are like a trampoline for the pianist, lofting her to magnificent moments. You expect this (or hope for it) in the Prokofiev; in the Ravel concerto it’s more of a surprise, but a welcome one.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

1986: Year of the Diva

From the Metroland Vault Dept.: We used to offer an end-of-year roundup of classical-music concerts, hoping that would seem important, and I tried to get to every damn one of them back then. Here’s my appraisal of the Albany area’s 1986.


IT WAS THE YEAR OF THE DIVA in area halls as the one area of classical music guaranteed to attracted the fewest and most fervent got a great celebration.

Aprile Millo
Newcomers and the established – it didn’t matter. The programs were traditional, the programs were varied. And the stars were all sopranos.

Oh, there was some swell fiddlin’ going on, and orchestras and chamber groups galore came through the area. And I’m usually very partial to a crackerjack instrumental concert, figuring a good reading of a Beethoven string quartet is worth a dozen song recitals.

Not this year. Starting back in February, when Marilyn Horne took the stage at Proctor’s with pianist Martin Katz. There is a soprano repertory that gets sung to death, but Horne presented a program that skirted the canon even as it made the most of her voice. We went through the usual Baroque-era openers of Vivaldi and Handel into a delightful, moody realm of German and Spanish songs; a tribute to Samuel Barber opened the second half with six songs that really deserve to be in the “greatest hits” repertory. Horne took the program to New York City and elsewhere, so she may be accomplishing that.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

By Strauss

Metroland in Memoriam Dept.: I’m raiding the more obscure corners of my contributions to the now-stilled Metroland Magazine, but it looks pretty much like what I’ve been posting here all along. Here’s some opera.


Soprano Brenda Harris
IT’S NOT FREQUENTLY laugh-out-loud funny, but that’s not Richard Strauss’s style. Still, it’s an extremely funny and moving work, performed with appropriate gusto as the opener of the Lake George Opera’s summer season at SPAC. “Ariadne auf Naxos” was intended as a half-hour divertissement to be performed within a production of Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme that had been translated by Strauss’s librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Then it grew, losing the play but gaining a prologue that sets up in a few strokes much of what the play intended: A nouveau-riche nobleman has planned an evening’s entertainment that will include an original opera, improvised commedia dell’arte sketches and fireworks. So that the fireworks may begin precisely at 9, the nobleman has decreed that the opera and the comedians should perform simultaneously.

This throws the assemblage into chaos: how dare one type of entertainment sully the other! The prologue gives us a young, idealistic composer (a pants role sung by mezzo Mary Ann McCormick) who agonizes over the cuts that are required – even while succumbing to the charm of comedienne Zerbinetta (soprano Robin Blitch Wiper), whose hedonistic way of life is drenched in sensuality. Amidst a flurry of hasty assignations deftly staged in the background, the Composer and Zerbinetta end up face-to-face on opposite sides of a ladder, a nice piece of business from stage director Marc Verzatt, who also took on the speaking role of the Major-Domo, which he performed with an Olivier-like flourish.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Travels with Sam

Metroland Retrospective Dept.: Where did I dine two decades ago? At Sam Zoleo’s newest restaurant. He ran Sam’s Place in Saratoga before opening 95 Ferry in Troy, but took that name with him when he returned to Saratoga. He would go back to Troy with a couple of different ventures before leaving the business, as far as I can tell, in 2008, although I see he recently has offered cooking classes at the Troy Arts Center.


SAM IS A PLEASANT MAN who gets very serious when the subject is food. “I use what’s fresh,” he says. “That’s why menu is written the way it is. There’s no swordfish on it, no tuna. How can you put things like that on a menu without having to bring them in frozen?”

Nothing to do with Sam's, but it's pretty
Fish, in fact, is a special obsession. Having worked for several years in New York’s Fulton Fish Market, Sam knows fish. “I get in a box of fish from someone I never bought fish from before, first thing I do is turn is upside-down. Open it from the bottom. Then I see what kind of fish they’re really putting in there.”

So the talapia I sampled the other night was fresh. In fact, I got the last order for the night. It’s a sturdy but slightly sweet salt-water fish, reminiscent of scrod. And everything assembled around it was fresh – the onions, the parsley, the basil. The black olives came out of a jar, but they need a little curing.

Sam used to run 95 Ferry Street in Troy, and Sam’s Diner on Route 9 just south of Saratoga before that. Now he’s back in Saratoga, but downtown, in a building that also houses a steakhouse and a sushi bar.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Taste of Immigration

Our twenty-fifth Thanksgiving dinner at Jollity Farm. While we can't help but salute the melting pot that is the greater culinary world each time we lift a skillet, we thought it fitting to pay extra attention to some of those making the news of late.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Sloth

A preview of my Jan. 24 show at Saratoga's Caffe Lena. Somehow it ties in with Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Smitten on the Keys

MASTERY OF PROKOFIEV’S PIANO MUSIC requires complete mastery of the piano: the composer wrote for (and possessed) a blistering, ambitious technique, and the required skill usually is demonstrated with later works such as the Sixth and Seventh Sonatas. But pianist Yefim Bronfman reminded us that the same challenges await among the lower numbers by performing Prokofiev’s first four sonatas at Union College in Schenectady last Wednesday. And, in a wonderful programming choice, he slipped a bit of Schumann in there as well.

Yefim Bronfman
This allowed us to hear Prokofiev’s progress. The journey from his first sonata, from 1909 when he was 18, to the second, published three years later, is a trip whereon he discovers the voice that remained recognizably his. And the Schumann pieces reinforced Prokofiev’s essentially romantic nature.

No nonsense when Bronfman begins! He strides to the piano, takes a cursory bow, and is playing the opening work almost before he’s seated, it seems. Prokofiev’s First Sonata is a one-movement work, cut down by the composer from its original three, written while he was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It immediately asserts the romantic sensibility that never would leave the composer’s voice, but it’s free of the crunch and angularity that very soon would appear. Still, I’m not sure I’d want to meet this piece in a dark alley without warning.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Towards a More Perfect Union

From the Metroland Vault Dept.: Meeting larger-than-life actor George DiCenzo in 1987 meant dining with him as well, and we ended up sharing a typically excellent meal at Schenectady’s Appian Way restaurant, livened by DiCenzo’s animated storytelling. He went on to appear in the films 18 Again!, Sing and The Exorcist III, as well as such TV shows as Murder, She Wrote, NYPD Blue, Equal Justice, and Joe's Life. He appeared on Broadway in a revival of On Borrowed Time, directed by his friend George C. Scott. DiCenzo died in 2010.


GEORGE DICENZO WOULD LIKE TO SEE A NEW THEATRE at Union College. But that’s not the reason he sepnt a week there shooting a promotional video for the college.

George DiCenzo in Dynasty.
“I love this place,” he says. “I’m just happy to do it.” DiCenzo graduated from Union in 1962 with the intent to practice law. But he had done enough acting with the college Mountebanks to suggest that he try that somewhat less reliable career – which he has pursued with enough success that he now can choose his own movie roles.

Recent appearances in Back to the Future and About Last Night have made him a recognizable fellow, so when Union alumni watch this new video, they’ll see his burly, bearded figure strolling the grounds of the campus, visiting classrooms, suggesting that the old alma mater is a desirable place to check in with now and then.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Greek to Me

From the Metroland Vault Dept.: Saluting my too-many years as Metroland’s restaurant reviewer, here’s another from the early days. In fact, it’s the last one I wrote before taking a hiatus for two years, returning in 1990 after a succession of other writers discovered that it wasn’t as simple a task as it seemed. The Chariot is long gone, its space currently occupied by an Indian eatery.


EVER HAVE ONE OF THOSE DAYS when you can't think of anything good to eat? When there's nothing in the house, you don't want to send out for another pizza, you've been to the local Chinese place a dozen times in the last month, you don't want to see another piece of steak and you know if you don't think of something soon you're going to end up in the frozen food aisle of Price Chopper choosing yet another crappy microwave pseudo-gourmet dinner?

The Chariot's building, as pictured during
one of its on-the-market moments.
Al “To Hell with Hallowe’en” Quaglieri and I were supposed to get together for dinner and couldn’t think of a damn thing we wanted to tuck into. Until someone suggested a Greek restaurant down in the west end of Guilderland. An idea so refreshing that we were joined by significant others in a meal that was as delightful as it was different.

The Chariot was erected in a time when dining rooms were big places, happy hotel-like spreads unrelieved by varying levels and dividers of plants. It’s attractive in that context, with a warm bar off to one side of the room and a small selection of salads promising that no guest will stay hungry for long.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Bucket Listing

Remembering Metroland Dept.: While I don’t think the body has stopped breathing, while Metroland remains in its coda, I’m exhuming some of my vintage pieces for the redoubtable alt-weekly. Here’s a preview-review combo from 1987, when I covered dance. Garth Fagan is still holding strong at 75, and his company will perform at Proctors in Schenectady on Jan. 29, 2016.


GARTH FAGAN HAD A STRAIGHTFORWARD AMBITION: Invent a new kind of dance. It meant ignoring the conservative critics; it meant developing a company free of the preconceptions of the worlds of modern and ballet. So he went to the bottom of the bucket, as he whimsically put it, created a company out of dancers her trained himself – and now, after almost 20 years at it, he’s seeing that goal get nearer.

Garth Fagan
As Anne Marie Welsh, writing in the San Diego Union after Fagan’s Bucket Dance Theater’s very recent appearance there, put it, “The genealogy of modern dance now includes Garth Fagan, the newest choreographer to add a new branch to the modern tree.”

“I like that,” says Fagan. His Jamaican heritage is very much in his voice, a voice that has the fat sound of a chalumeau clarinet. “The company is in such wonderful condition after five weeks in California that we’re ready to burn in Albany.”

They’ll be appearing at the Egg Sunday afternoon at 2 in a program that comprises “Prelude,” “Oatka Trail,” “Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional),” “Never Top 40 (Juke Box)” and “Mask Mix Masque.”

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Prokofiev, with a Fist

From the Vault Dept.: Pianist Yuja Wang has out a new album sporting Ravel’s two concertos and the Ballade by Fauré, and its cover photo inspired a snotty lede from David Hurwitz in his ClassicsToday review. To remorsefully self-aggrandize for a moment, one of my own earliest concert reviews included a similarly snotty crack about a performer’s outfit; my comment about his dressing up earned me a deserved dressing down, and I’ve since tried to focus on the performance itself, as in the review below.


DURING A FRENZIED MOMENT in the opening of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6, the manuscript is marked, over a dense chord, “col pugno.” When she reached it, pianist Yuja Wang curled her fingers into a fist and skillfully smacked the keys, the percussive surprise of the moment executed with an inspiring combination of precision and charm

Yuja Wang
We’re so accustomed to the proficiency level of the top-flight pianists who live in or pass through this area that when an exceptional talent like this one appears, it takes a moment to register that something even more extraordinary than usual is happening on stage.

Yuja Wang is a 24-year-old enjoying a phenomenal career, having already appeared with many major orchestras, in many cases as a last-minute replacement. She made a splash three years ago in concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Saturday’s solo recital at Albany’s Massry Center should only add to her legend.

The big piece was Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, a four-movement but nonstop work that opens with some ominous octaves that, in Wang’s hands, suggested the sweep with which Horowitz took on the piece. But what most energizes her approach is a control over the dynamics that shades the textures with a more colorful palette than I’m used to hearing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Travelin’ Man

FOUR IDENTICALLY DRESSED MEN, their drab suits and bowler hats suggesting the English civil service, line the stage. From them the presence of Henry Pulling emerges. He’s at the crematorium where his mother’s remains are about to be cooked. He is retired, but finds it “difficult to occupy my time. I had never married. I had always lived quietly and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I had no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited to be at my mother’s funeral.” He meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta, unseen by him for decades. She uses the occasion to inform Henry that her sister – his mother – wasn’t actually the woman who bore him. As we enter the topsy-turvy world of Graham Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt,” this will prove to be Henry’s re-birth as he is yanked out of his dull complacency to discover that there’s no life without passion – and nobody more passionate than his aunt.

Dan Jenkins, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Jay Russell
Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt” was published in 1969, a picaresque in an uncharacteristically light-hearted vein. The novelist described it as “the only book I have written for the fun of it. Although the subject is old age and death – a suitable subject to tackle at the age of sixty-five – and though an excellent Swedish critic described the novel justly as ‘laughter in the shadows of the gallows,’ I experienced more of the laughter and little of the shadow in writing it.” 

It was followed in 1972 by an unexpectedly bland film, a rare misfire for George Cukor, especially considering the cinematic qualities of the fast-moving, trans-continental tale. In adapting it for the stage, Giles Havergal opted to present its shifting landscape through mere suggestion, a springboard on which to let the characters of Henry and Augusta to grow.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mostly Martha

From the Back Pages Dept.: Martha Argerich’s recordings for DG and Philips have been released in a 48-CD box set, which I’ll be writing about shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a look back at my reviews of some of her live performances, back when the pianist was a regular visitor at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. These concerts took place in 2008.


YOU CAN EASILY FILL Saratoga’s Spa Little Theater with the area’s Martha Argerich cult followers, which happened last Monday. They cheered the performance of a less-than-minor Beethoven piece with the ardency of a stadium of Springsteen fans.

Martha Argerich
Put the same Argerich-ites in the SPAC amphitheater, and they barely make a dent. Which happened last Friday, when a less-than-half-filled hall cheered a major minor-Beethoven piece.

The program featured the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit, with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon joining frequent collaborator Argerich in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and first-chair violist Choon-Jin Chang as soloist in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy.” Had it been booked in Carnegie Hall, or any hall in a major international market, it would have been a sellout.

But the Capital Region remains culturally timid, hamstrung by a “that’s good enough for Albany” mentality that settles for the second-rate, the also-ran. Pursuing seats at a classical music concert might make you seem as if you’re putting on airs.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Alone Again, Gastronomically

“You can put me at the table in the corner in the back unless you’ve got one in the telephone booth;
I’m here and I’m alone again, it’s sad but it’s the truth.
No, I’m not expecting anyone, is that beyond belief?
Give me the menu, take away the candle, never mind the aperitif.”

– Loudon Wainwright III, “I Eat Out.”

IT CAN SEEM TO BE THE ODDEST PLACE to enter alone. And it’s not just any eatery. Nobody minds grabbing a solo seat at a diner or fast-food joint. But when there’s a hint of the upscale about the place, you must be a social misfit if there’s nobody with you. Even a relative or casual friend will do.

A hilariously moronic entry on the website WikiHow offers advice on “How to Eat Alone in a Restaurant,” broken down into nine easy-to-follow steps. "One: Choose a lively dining spot with food you like that has quick service." Yes, you must be a misfit, so make sure there’s noise to cover your lonely mastication, and make sure you’re out of there fast.

This topic has won some recent attention thanks to a study in the August Journal of Consumer Research by Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton, which asked people what they preferred to do in groups and what alone. The study “suggests that I,” (Jesse Singal, writing in New York magazine, “and all the other solo-outing-phobic folks out there, might be wrong. If we’d just actually fight through our fears and go to that movie or restaurant alone, we’d have a good time. We’re missing out on a potentially fun experience because of ill-grounded fears.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Pola Express

From the Vault Dept.: Although I haven’t seen her in concert recently, here’s another review (here’s the first) of pianist Pola Baytelman, who settled into Saratoga Springs a few years ago as a Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Skidmore College.


PIANIST POLA BAYTELMAN HAS THE KIND OF TALENT that stamps a personality upon any concert she plays. That's a special mark of accomplishment placing her in the front line of soloists.

Pola Baytelman
She set herself a program for a recital at the Siena College Chapel Monday evening that was a terrific blend of the familiar and momumental, the modern and nationalistic. And she looked hardly the worse for wear when it was finished.

Despite the rush to period instruments for performances of antique music, Baytelman remains in the ranks of those who play Bach on the piano. She gave herself the cruel challenge of his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor to open the program, beginning with a daunting sweep of killer runs that got the bugs out in a hurry.

Characteristic of her style, obviously inspired by the early-20th-century masters, is a commanding, Romantic approach to the music. So that Bach, whose music works well in an austere, rhythmically-acute setting, was given more lushness than the Pinnock-Bilson school suggests.

Which only works in the abovementioned context of an artist's personality. The Fantasy and Fugue then becomes a big, Cesar Franck-like work that succeeds nicely as a concert opener.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Murder, They Wrote

AS A DIZZYING SET OF INTRIGUES continues to build through act two, we’re taken to the apartment of Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), who’s been briskly murdering his way to a dukedom. He is amorously closeted with the beautiful, flighty Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) when he is unexpectedly visited by a more recent acquaintance, Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), who is there to say, “I’ve Decided to Marry You.”

To sing, that is, in what becomes a dazzling trip as Monty tries to keep Sibella hidden and ignorant of what’s happening, even as he assents to Phoebe’s decision. The staging literally revolves around a pair of doors with lightning-crisp choreography (thanks, Peggy Hickey!) and music that has charm and wit that’s been scarce on Broadway these days.

Kevin Massey and Mary VanArsdel
Gentleman's Guide
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder opened there in 2013, and its first national tour was just launched at Proctors with the necessary technical rehearsals and a week of performances.

The delightfully dark story began life as a 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by actor-writer Roy Horniman, and became the 1949 film classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. The novel’s half-Jewish protagonist was turned half-Italian for the movie, which was a shrewd choice: A brutal war was a recent memory, and the novel has mistakenly been charged with anti-Semitism over the decades.

Its message of discrimination is rooted in class distinction, which is why its Edwardian-era English setting is too apposite to change. The screenplay preserved other character elements and some choice funny lines, but otherwise turned it into an Oscar Wilde-like comedy of manners, lightening the murders with caricature and brilliantly casting a young Alec Guinness as all eight victims.

Gentleman’s Guide preserves this structure, allowing the versatile John Rapson not only to inhabit nine members of the D’Ysquith family but also to sing and dance while doing so. He makes each of his characters charming enough to enjoy during what we know will be a truncated meeting and obnoxious enough to help us enjoy that truncation.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Low and Slow

From the Dutch Oven Dept.: With the onslaught of colder weather, we should be preparing those slow-cooked meals of second cuts of meat, which warm the house (or at least the kitchen) en route to warming your viscera. Here’s a piece I wrote on that topic five years ago.


THROW A COUPLE OF STEAKS on the fire and you satisfy a primal gustatory urge. In the snobby suburbs where I grew up, those steaks was a sirloin or, better still, its augmented sibling, the porterhouse. And ordering filet mignon in a restaurant was the height of refinement.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
My parents had fled their working-class families, where costly steaks were a rarely tasted luxury. Conspicuous consumption is a mark of the middle-class arriviste, and there’s no better forum for showing off than the backyard grill. Which kept my childhood diet relatively pot roast-free.

But the brisket and flank and chuck are significantly less expensive than the shell and tenderloin cuts, and the longer cooking time and creative techniques required give those cuts more fascinating flavors. While saving money is one of the imperatives of the new economy, enjoying even tastier meals is the luxurious byproduct. And that’s where braising comes in.

It seems to have become one of the least-used cooking techniques. Its premise is simple:  cook a tough cut of meat with a small amount of aromatic liquid in a sealed container until the tough collagen gelatinizes, rendering the meat tender.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Surviving Twin

Sing It Loud Dept.: Loudon Wainwright III returns to the Egg in Albany tonight (Friday) with a program that explores his father's life and work and issues of family in general. He's been here before, and you can check out my reviews of his performances in 2007 and 2013. Below is a short piece I wrote in anticipation of tonight's show.


“THE STRANGEST STORY EVER TOLD/Was how I got to be this old.” That’s the opening couplet from the opening song on Loudon Wainwright III’s 2012 CD release Older Than My Old Man Now. The 69-year-old singer-songwriter-actor began his musical career at the beginning of the 1970s with a pair of acoustic albums on the Atlantic label, and turned up (with his guitar) on a few episodes of the TV series MASH.

Loudon Wainwright III
As his starkly confessional songs attest, he grew up in posh Westchester County, the son of the same-named Life magazine columnist. “I think it’s natural for people to escape or even surpass their parents,” Wainwright says, speaking by phone from his home in California. “It’s a normal stage of development.” But it was a struggle for him as each of his parents died.

His album History, from 1992, documented his own challenges as a dad, with songs like “Hitting You” and “A Father and a Son,” and, in “A Handful of Dust,” set lyrics by his own father. The song “Surviving Twin,” which first appeared on the 2001 album Last Man on Earth, is a kind of reconciliation with his dad.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Red Sauce at Night, Diner’s Delight

From the Cookbook Shelves Dept.: I made the lasagna recipe from the book Laurina’s Kitchen, and it’s amazing. Fluffy and flavorful, a perfect ratio of meat to cheese to pasta. Sorry, but there will be no leftovers by the time you get here. The book was launched three years ago, when I wrote the piece below.


IT WAS A SCENE YOU’D SEE near the end of an adventure epic, when the explorers finally break through to the treasure chamber and survey its long-neglected majesty. In this case, it was the kitchen of the former Ecobelli’s Tam O’Shanter Inn on Route 50 in Ballston Spa. The place has been closed for many years, but the kitchen remains intact, and as the party guests wandered in, they shared stories of the years they’d spent working here.

“I remember filling that sink with fish before I cleaned them.” “I remember when they put that stove in.” “You must have worked here after I left, but I remember your father.”

On Aug. 4, the building was opened to host a party for the launch of Laurina’s Kitchen, a cookbook put together by the sibling grandchildren of the restaurant’s indelible chef, and as Lora Lee and Tom Ecobelli busily signed copy after copy, they were deluged with fond reminiscences.

“We asked for people to send us stories as we were putting the book together,” says Tom, who is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles, “and discovering what the restaurant meant to people really blew us away.”

Lora Lee lives in Saugerties and also works as an actor and writer. “We’re still getting stories,” she says. “Someone called me just the other night and remembered that back in the ’60s, before the restaurant had anything like take-out containers, people would line up by the pizza ovens carrying their own pots. My grandmother would ask how many were in the family, and top off the pots accordingly.”

Friday, September 25, 2015

What’s the Buzz?

YOU’RE SURROUNDED BY BEES. They move with a purpose, settling on a hive’s landing board abulge with yellow pollen, or clustered on a hive frame to build hexagonal-celled honeycomb, or challenging your wish to be there by dive-bombing your face.

But this is the payoff moment. The time and money—and patience—you’ve invested in your apiary is about to yield honey. Fresh, raw honey that will reveal a familiar flavor on top of the sweetness: the flavor of your yard. Even if you don’t go munching on the wildflowers out there, you’ll recognize it.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
My bees have been raising brood and storing honey in large Langstroth hiveboxes, on top of the strongest of which I placed a shallower box, or supers. That’s where the excess honey is stored, an amount (it’s hoped) that exceeds what they’ll need for winter.

At this point, my kitchen serves as honey house. The process begins with schlepping the shallow super to the back door. I brush them free of bees, but a few of them hang on and travel with me. I dip a long knife in boiling water to heat it enough to slice through the waxen honeycomb and, as my wife holds a frame over a food-grade bucket, I cut the cappings and let the wax and some of the honey fall within.

Both sides uncapped, the frame goes into the basket of a hand-cranked centrifuge. It has room enough to whirl three frames, and a brief, energetic spin flings most of the golden liquid against the centrifuge’s stainless-steel walls. I flip the frames to empty the other sides, then return them to the super and work on the next three.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Gotta Dance!

Get Your Tickets Now Dept.: Interviewing Patricia Kelly was like talking to an old friend. It didn’t hurt that I discovered the magic of Gene Kelly’s movie while I still was in my teens, leading me to seek out even the more rarely screened ones like “The Pirate” and “Invitation to the Dance.” But I also share her appreciation of the art of the dance on film, as discussed below. We can only hope that it will return to the movies some day.


GENE KELLY WAS AS INNOVATIVE behind the scenes as he was in front of the camera, as his widow, Patricia, is quick to point out. “The biggest challenge in a musical is moving from a scene to a song,” she explains, “so Gene would work with the arrangers to create a way for the dance to pick up the story. There’s no opening vamp in the original music of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ so Roger Edens gave Gene the famous lead-in. It’s what takes him from kissing her to where he can begin to sing. Nobody questions that. If you’re in love and you’re full of joy, you dance and splash in puddles, but he gets into it over those opening bars that Roger gave him.”

Gene Kelly
 Patricia Kelly will share many more insights and tidbits – and film clips – when she presents “Gene Kelly: The Legacy” at 7:30 PM Saturday (Sept. 19) at The Egg in Albany. It’s a program she put together three years ago for an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tribute and has since been taking around the country, built from the stories he told her during the last years of his life.

“I just was with several of the dancers from the ABT last night,” she says, speaking from her home in California, “who were performing Jerome Robbins’s ‘Fancy Free’ at the Hollywood Bowl, and I asked them if they’d seen any Gene Kelly movies – and one after another they said yes. One woman said, ‘He’s the reason I’m a dancer,’ and the next man said, ‘He’s everything to us.’ And these are young people, the cream of the crop, and he’s still the go-to guy for them.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Not Just to Hear

From the Vault Dept.: Jin Kim took the baton of the Empire State Youth Orchestra in 2000, an ensemble I’d been trying to pay attention to for several years, especially as a string of notable music directors passed through. Kim was succeeded in 2002 by Helen Cha-Pyo, who continues to lead the orchestra, while he is now music director of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Hingham (Mass.) Symphony), with which he’s been associated for many years.


IT’S DIFFICULT FOR AN ORCHESTRA to maintain a standard of excellence. It’s more difficult still when a large number of players have to be replaced each year. But that’s standard for the Empire State Youth Orchestra, whose alumni have gone on to some prestigious gigs.

Jin Kim
That includes its conductors. Among recent baton wielders, Eiji Oue and Paavo Jarvi have earned international careers and reputations, so it makes sense to keep an eye on the current maestro.

Jin Kim makes his public debut as the ensemble’s new music director with a concert at 8 PM Saturday (Nov. 4) at the Troy Music Hall. Not one to start off cautiously, he has selected a challenging program that includes Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony and the Valses nobles et sentimentales by Ravel.

He’s obviously pleased to be here, and lavishes praise on the orchestra. “It’s energizing to work with so many talented musicians,” he says. “Multi-talented, in fact, because most of them are also involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities.”

Friday, September 11, 2015


Shepherd across the river,
You are not afraid;
Sing baïlèro lèrô
I am not afraid, and you, too, can sing Baïlèro lèrô.

Shepherd, the field is in flower,
Graze your flock on this side,
Sing baïlèro lèrô
The grass is finer in the field over here,
Baïlèro lèrô

Shepherd, the stream is between us,
And I can’t cross it,
Sing baïlèro lèrô
Then I’ll come downstream and find you,
Baïlèro lèrô

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Who Was Thomas Berger?

It’s been a year since novelist Thomas Berger died. His beautifully crafted novels were a tremendous influence on the development of my own literary voice, and, as described below, I met him once and maintained a correspondence with him for many years. I submitted the tribute piece below to a number of journals, with no takers, so it’s time to give you a look at it.


BECAUSE IT’S AN ADDICTIVE LITERARY GAME, I’ve combed the works of Thomas Berger, who died on July 13, 2014, at the age of 89, to find clues to the life of the reclusive novelist.

Thomas Berger
As a middle-aged suburban dweller in 1980, when his novel Neighbors was published, Berger inhabited at least the demographic of the novel’s protagonist, Earl Keese – and he may have shared Keese’s tendency toward “outlandish illusions,” such as “George Washington urinating against the wheel of a parked car (actually an old lady bent over a cane), a nun run amok in the middle of an intersection (policeman directing traffic), a rat of record proportions (an abandoned football), or a brazen pervert blowing him a kiss from the rear window of a bus (side of sleeping workingman’s face, propped on hand).”

At least in one obvious respect, he isn’t Robert Crews, the eponymous protagonist of his 1994 retelling of Robinson Crusoe: “Nope, I’ve never been in an airplane crash, the gods be praised,” Berger wrote in a letter to me shortly after that book’s publication, “nor have I for that matter eaten boiled minnows. As someone once said, you don’t have to visit the Sahara to know it’s sandy. As a veteran fictioneer, I’m supposed to be able to make the reader think I know what I’m talking about, when the fact is I’m usually cutting from the whole cloth. It wasn’t hard to know more about nature than Crews himself did, though.”

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Melting Pot

From the Vault Dept.: My first of three reviews of a now long-gone restaurant that thrived in a time before the Food Network destroyed any acceptance of this kind of quaintness, and fondue became another chain-restaurant gimmick.


LA FONDUE BACCHUS CHARLES ANDRÉ for two, $32,” the menu read, continuing, “Thinly-sliced filets of beef and veal simmered at your table in a wine, vegetable and herb broth. Swiss folklore insists that you forfeit either a kiss or a round of drinks if the meat falls from the fork back into the pot.”
“That sounds good!” my dinner partner exclaimed.

“It’s just a sentimental sales pitch,” I grumbled. “Besides, we should try different things, not an entrée for two.”

“Why do you always make the rules?” she insisted.

This was why my wife and I ordered the Fondue Bacchus one evening last week at Auberge Suisse, the year-old restaurant at the site of a 19th-century onetime convent out on route 85 in Slingerlands.

An autumn-anticipatory coolness was another incentive to call forth the fondue pot, although the feeling inside the restaurant was comfortably warm: both in atmosphere and friendliness.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Rhapsody under Water

From the Vault Dept.: As it happens, I’m married to a Whiteman from New York’s Columbia County who believes that the Colorado Whitemans – from which bandleader Paul emerged – are distantly related. So it’s always nice to see cousin Paul celebrated. But this event, which took place 28 years ago, may be the last time such a tribute has occurred in the area.


THE ORCHESTRA WAS ARRAYED on a raised concrete platform surrounded by square pools of water drizzling over into a larger pool below. As the sky darkened, the lights came up. This is how vintage Hollywood would have placed an orchestra – in fact, it was reminiscent of the placement of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in his 1930 feature “King of Jazz.”

Paul Whiteman and Maurice Ravel
But Hollywood can control rain. There was no such ability in Riverfront Park Monday evening as the Collar City Pops performed a brief tribute to “Pops” Whiteman, the Oliver Hardy-esque bandleader who “made a lady out of jazz” back when jazz was a terrible evil.

Whiteman will always be remembered as the man who commissioned and premiered Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and pianist Abba Bogin waited in the wings (or, in this case, on a bench) to perform that work for the never-to-be-realized finale of this concert.

Conductor Paul Elisha, who was associated with Whiteman in the 1950s, began a musical tour of a variety of antique stylings as clouds thickened over the Hudson.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was an appropriate kick-off: songwriter Irving Berlin, like Whiteman, was quick to spot what the public enjoyed. The Whiteman arrangement opened with strings and piano and added brass, bringing in a trumpet solo in the second chorus in the muted style made famous by Whiteman alumnus Henry Busse.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Goode for Beethoven

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s a look back to the opening concert of Union College’s 2007 season, when pianist Richard Goode burned up the Steinway.


RICHARD GOODE GAINED AS MUCH ACCLAIM AND ATTENTION as a classical-music artist is likely to get with his recordings of the complete piano sonatas by Beethoven, a formidable journey that he traversed with uncommon brio.

Richard Goode | Photo by Steve Riskind
We had a taste of that last week when he closed the first half of an impressive recital with Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, that warhorse of warhorses. Sighs of audience recognition punctuated the beginning of the piece, with its measured right-hand triplets and plaintive left-hand drone, a sense that probably turned to surprise (it did with me) as Goode established a brisk tempo and unusually relentless pulse.

Too fast? Not to my taste. There’s a “To be or not to be” quality to the opening of that sonata: It’s so famous that you’re tempted simply to get it over with. But I didn’t hear that in Goode’s approach, which pulsed with appropriate wistfulness, avoiding the too-easy route of shrouding the movement with melancholy.

This approach made more meaningful the little scherzo that follows, a lighthearted interlude that sets you up for a big, Beethoven surprise: the tumultuous finale, bursting forth with the fury of a tantrum and finishing so fortississimo that the Steinway’s strings seemed to be banging into one another.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Cato in Cooperstown

ET IN ARCADIA EGO” is inscribed on one of the trompe l’oeil stones forming the backdrop to Cato’s encampment in north Africa. “I am in Paradise,” the phrase suggests, and it’s an inscription often found on a tomb. Cato has fled after defeat in the battle of Pharsalus, and is pursued by his fellow-Roman and ambitious opponent Caesar.

Photo by Karli Cadel
At this point, these two have accumulated a lot of tumultuous history, so it’s not surprising that we seem to have arrived in medias res as the curtain rises on Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica. As it happens, there’s also an entire first act missing, so the Glimmerglass Festival’s production—the work’s American premiere—gives us a cinematic intro to the six characters and what they’re doing before launching the piece.

The info is projected onto a crimson scrim during the opening Sinfonia (itself taken from Vivaldi’s earlier opera L’Olimpiade) as the cast presents itself in silhouette, and the action takes place against a golden-red ruin behind which is desert and the setting sun, the sky an incongruously lovely Bouchard.

The bloody and the pastoral inform the text as well, as when Arbace, the Prince of Numidia (countertenor Eric Jurenas) advises Cato’s daughter, Marzia (soprano Megan Samarin) why she needs him as her husband: “If the lamb goes to pasture without the shepherd/One day she may go astray/And perhaps there will emerge/From its den or from the woods/Some savage beast/Who will devour her.”

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Best Beth’s

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: I made a brief return to the restaurant-review business this week so I could extol an out-of-the-way place called Elizabeth’s in Pittsfield, Mass.


SEEK THE SOUL OF AN ONION and you’re easily led astray. Its pungency is distracting and can drive you to tears. It tends to reveal its sweetness only under duress. Tom Ellis splits a Spanish onion and opens a world, softening its hemispheres with olive oil and honey before baking its sugars to the fore. It’s culinary homeopathy, resulting in an earth-brown confection, crisp at the edges, releasing flavors you never guessed were there before. As the menu insists: “Guys, a little wine, honest bread and ‘the onion’ and maybe, just maybe, she (or he) will be your baby tonite.” And $7 is a bargain price for a seduction tool.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Tom and Elizabeth Ellis have been helming Elizabeth’s, in Pittsfield, for nearly 30 years, an unexpected eatery on an unexpected street where a compact menu of Italian-inspired fare reflects Ellis’ honest, down-to-earth involvement with his ingredients.

Such as goes into the sausage he makes. “It starts with Berkshire pork, and I add herbes de Provence,” he says. “Personally, I like it spicy, but I tone it down for the customers. You can always add spice to the sauce. You had it with the polenta—”

This I did, a $24.50 dish that would have been overwhelmed by the perfect slice of polenta it sported were it not for the cataclysmic burst of flavor from every bite of the meatstuff.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

It’s Good, But . . .

COULD IT BE A MASTERPIECE? Is it possible that this thing, fashioned from whole cloth by one or more creative souls, has achieved a rare level of finished perfection?

It’s hard to tell. Most of the critics have been divergent in their opinions, each of them finding some manner of fault. The one who lauded it with unstinting praise seems – what? Uninformed, perhaps, lacking the critical apparatus to see through its surface sheen and into its faults.

This is the problem with our culture of dismissal. Intelligently appraising a work of art requires enough intelligence to understand the work in the context of time in which it was created and the context of similar pieces, and the experience of repeatedly encountering the work and its ilk.

How does a critic convey the extent of that intelligence and experience? It gets written into the review, where that context can be described and well-chosen comparisons can support any critical argument. It also helps if the review demonstrates a facility with writing, because that gives momentum to the review. Solecisms (and stupidity) get in the way.

But the culture of dismissal offers a facile shortcut. Decorate your appraisal with an adverse criticism and you’ve demonstrated penetrating insight. No contextualizing needed. In fact, specificity is the enemy of such dismissal. “She’s good, but isn’t she a little old for the part?” tells us nothing. Actually, it tells us plenty, but it’s telling us about the critic, who, by leaving the argument unsupported, is parroting the received attitude of a youth-obsessed, marketing-driven society. Something like “I would expect a character of that age to be more spontaneous in movement and less guarded in speech” redirects the criticism from ad hominem to advice that’s more legitimately couched in opinion.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cliburn Collected

From the Recorded Vault Dept.: Back in 1989, we still were looking for significant recordings from the LP era (and earlier) to make their way to compact disc. The Van Cliburn CDs described below have since been re-reissued, in better sound, and collected in multi-CD sets both cheap and costly, so you’ll have no trouble at all acquiring what’s mentioned.


A GREYING BUT STILL BOYISH-LOOKING VAN CLIBURN stares at us from the nearly-identical covers of these five recently re-released recordings; pictured elsewhere on the jackets are photos of the very boyish, almost spindly-looking kid who rode the crest of a Moscow competition to immense fame, then to a near-oblivion that he only recently is climbing out of.

These records are therefore testimony to what was and to what we may expect. The lineup of accompanying artists is a testimony to greatness of what can now bee seen as a bygone era: Eugene Ormandy conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra and Fritz Reiner leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for all of the concertos included in the set.

The five recordings – issued on compact disk and cassette – are sold separately but have been promoted as a set. They contain the following works:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Chávez y su Mundo

YOU CAN COUNT ON THE BARD MUSIC FESTIVAL for textural extremes. Last Saturday’s programs ran a gamut from a charming sonata for guitar and harpsichord by Manual Ponce to the outsized, relentless Piano Concerto by Carlos Chávez, the composer around whom this year’s program was built.

Carlos Chávez, drawn by
Miguel Covarrubias
Chávez was a terrific choice. Mexico’s best-known composer remains little-known north of the border, despite a strong presence on the North American concert scene a few decades ago, a presence at Tanglewood, and an enduring influence on Aaron Copland and others. If some of his work sounds Copland-esque, it turns out to be the other way around.

The first full day of the program began with a morning panel titled “Culture and National Identity: The Case of Mexico,” that began with a tour of the post-revolution muralists, Diego Rivera most notable among them. As Hunter College professor Lynda Klich explained, these artists were charged with creating a new identity for the country, one that integrated indigenous people into the social fabric. Thus was born the “revolutionary trinity” depicted in those murals: the peasant, worker, and soldier.

In the musical realm, works like Chávez’s Sinfonia india and (his student) José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango have become the sound of Mexico’s concert music—although Cornell’s Alejandro Madrid stressed that these too were written to order, encouraging the audience to buy into a manufactured national identity. But nationalism is always practiced from a distance, Columbia anthropology professor Claudio Lomnitz confirmed, and requires constant translation.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sam As It Was Before

From the Food Vault Dept.: Here’s my account of my first review of Sam’s in Albany, an institution well deserving of its solid reputation. The “Dorothy” referenced below actually was the midwife, Vicki, who caught Lily during the homebirth that we weren’t officially supposed to have had – thus the anonymity.


YOU NEVER WANT GOING OUT TO DINNER to be a chore, but I was feeling bogged down by a relentless schedule. “I need to eat,” said my friend Dorothy. “Bring the baby with you.” My wife was working late, and enviously approved the plan–which is why my infant daughter and I met Dorothy at Sam’s one evening shortly before the restaurant’s recent vacation.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This baby, who was born at the end of January, is still good for enough reasonably quiet behavior to allow for a meal, although I’m loath to take her into hardcore white-linen restaurants. Sam’s seemed a natural, because good Italian restaurants–the ones I term neighborhood joints, in the best possible sense–are family run and tend to celebrate the family. And this certainly was the case at Sam’s.

Salvatore “Sam” Rappoccio came to this country from Montemurro in 1956. He comes from a family of restaurateurs, with other establishments as close as Lenox and as far as Italy and Brazil. So it was natural that the grocery store he opened in 1965 should have evolved into a restaurant, which it did by way of a brief life as a pizzeria.

“Sam saw the supermarkets coming,” says his daughter, Carmella. “That’s one reason he changed his store into a restaurant, which he opened in 1971. It’s been remodeled three times since then. And I was literally born into this business.” She’s the one who greeted us on our way in, in fact, and checked to make sure our dinners were good. And praised my baby, which always wins points.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Light Years

NATURE IS SHAMELESS about offering its beauty, leaving it up to us to interpret the aesthetics. It’s easy to take it for granted—to stop looking and to see very little. Joe Schuyler never stopped looking, and Nature rewarded him with an abundance of beautiful raw material that he transformed, through lens and light and composition, into arresting stories wholly given over to natural elements. And he found a great place to do this.

Photo by Joseph Schuyler | from Truro Light
He photographed people and products, cityscapes and political rallies, and the best of them are dynamic and profound. But Nature inspired him to an even more profound level of accomplishment because the canvas is leaner. Free of faces and brick and steel, it rewards more richly the skilled use of light. And light is what Truro, Mass., has in complicated abundance.

The 116 portraits in Truro Light chart a journey across a strip of land that’s four miles wide at its widest, rising to curl around Cape Cod Bay until it gives way to Provincetown at Cape Cod’s tip. The quality of light reflected by ocean and bay inspired a unique painters’ colony to thrive in Provincetown, and the challenge of capturing that light is shared by lensmen such as Schuyler.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Monday, August 03, 2015

Unholy Mother

WHEN SAINT CATHERINE ADDRESSES the audience in Jane Anderson’s new play Mother of the Maid, it’s with the easy familiarity of someone versed in the current century’s attitudes. Then she introduces us to Joan of Arc, a 15th-century farm kid having saintly visions. It’s one of the delightfully anachronistic touches Anderson created for the piece because, as she explains, “I needed to shake it up to get it as far from Shaw as possible.”
Jane Anderson and Matthew Penn
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Mother of the Maid is having its world premiere at Shakespeare & Company, bringing Anderson back to the stage after significant work in television and film—including the teleplay for the mini-series Olive Kittredge, which just won the Emmy Award-winning writer another Emmy nomination.

But she’s delighted to return to this less-lucrative world. “I come from theater,” says Anderson. “It’s where my heart is. I’ve been lucky enough to write things for film and television that also come from my heart. As artists, I don’t think we should ever divide between them, because all of these mediums are strong and very, very exciting. Theater offers those beautiful, thrilling relationships that start in the rehearsal room and then continue with the audience.”

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

Hitting the Street

From the Musical Vault Dept.: I discovered the King’s Singers in 1982 and continue to admire not only their repertory of Renaissance material but also their many arrangements of material you wouldn’t think would work for six voices and the commissions they’ve made. Their occasional forays into schlock seem to be behind them, and I’m not including in that category such effective material as “Good Vibrations” and “Blackbird.” Here’s my review of a CD that also includes the equally admirable percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

AFTER TWENTY YEARS of strong, innovative music making, the six-man King;svocal group went through a protracted personnel upheaval and seemed to be repeating a tiresome novelty repertory to death. They switched record labels, settled on a roster of performers, and each successive release got better.

The latest, Street Songs, is what this group is all about, and it’s as good as anything they’ve ever done. This despite the fact that you see marketing written all over it. They’re paired with Evelyn Glennie, one of BMG Classics’ current money makers, and the CD’s title comes from a song cycle by Steve Martland, who has enjoyed a vogue as a writer of loud, accessible music.

But the high point of the disc is the group’s re-recording of “Lalela Zulu,” a suite of six songs written for the group over 20 years ago and first recorded as part of a monster tenth anniversary concert. Although the new version lacks the antic verve of a live recording, it hangs together better musically and is every bit as exciting–and the songs themselves, with music by Stanley Glasser and texts by South African writer Louis Nkosi, each song reflecting a different aspect of Zulu life in Johannesburg.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ciao Bound

From the Fridge Dept.: Fourteen years ago, we visited a Chatham restaurant called Ciao, as described in the review below. It doesn’t seem to have been in a favorable location. Among the restaurants that since have come and gone in that space are Chaseo’s, MJ’s Sports Bar and Grill, and the Clock Tower Grill (because you could see the town’s clock tower from there). But Susan, my wife, has an even longer history with it, as noted below.


MY WIFE IS A SPENCERTOWN NATIVE who has seen her little town and its surrounding area transmogrify into yet another outpost for Manhattan exurbanites. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Chatham restaurant we recently visited. Susan recalled a night, twenty-five years ago, when she met a cousin (with much more of an inclination to whoop it up than Susan ever sported) at a shabby saloon near Chatham’s downtown.

Downtown Chatham, with Clock Tower
“There was nothing pretty about the place,” she recalls. “It had absolutely no decor. So I walked in and ordered a whisky sour.” This threw the bartender into a panic. She saw the man surreptitiously consult an Old Mr. Boston’s guide, then try to follow its instructions to make this simplest of mixed drinks. “He’d probably never been asked for a whisky sour before. And I saw that, all down the bar, everyone was drinking beer.”

Refurbished a year ago by new chef-owner Salvatore Taccetta, it’s now called Ciao and it’s presenting a nice range of Italian cuisine. Taccetta moved from New York City, where he had a restaurant called Il Giardinetto.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Best of All Possible Worlds

THE GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL is presenting Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” as its musical-theater offering this season, and it’s an excellent choice both because Bernstein worked as well in that genre (which is to say, with genius) as he did in every other he took on, and because “Candide” itself has had such a topsy-turvy history that it benefits from any good production it can get.

David Garrison and Andrew Stenson in "Candide."
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Good production? This one should be required viewing for any fan of musical theater. It’s a lesson in how imaginative, dynamic staging gives life to every moment that helps build a momentum that heightens the excitement of the work.

Festival artistic director Francesca Zambello helmed this one, sculpting a satisfying, often surprising arc to each scene. A good example is the celebrated “Glitter and Be Gay,” sung with virtuosic ease and a deft sense of character by Kathryn Lewek. She revealed two sides in this staging: the aria was introspective and ranged emotionally from anger to remorse; her face and movement showed us the diffidently manipulative beauty caught in her own snare of deceit. By the end of it, as she scattered jewelry across the stage, the number had built to peak both musical and dramatic – and it’s tough for the drama to compete with that tune.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Air for the E String

A recent issue of  Metroland aggregated the thoughts of its various writers about those times when technology seems to have gone too far. I challenged myself to come up with something that didn’t involve a personal computer. (Yes, the Snark qualifies as a computer, but you know what I mean.)


ONE OF THE GLORIOUS MYSTERIES of music lies in the fact that each note contains the seeds of its own harmony. An overtone of a fifth lurks in that sound, more prominent than other overtones, reinforcing the structure of the diatonic scale, in which the progression from that fifth back to its root tone is the resolution that brings most pieces of music to a satisfying end. Yet if you tune a piano according to those overtones alone, two Cs played together at each end of the keyboard will clash. The tuning system that’s been used for several centuries is, in that sense, artificial.

My biggest achievement as a young violin student came not through superficialities like mastering left-hand pizzicato (which I haven’t) or a clean spiccato bow stroke (ditto), but in learning to tune the instrument by ear. The violin’s four strings have intervals of a fifth between them. (It’s the same with viola, cello, and bass.) Although my rental instrument came with a pitch pipe, my teacher, Mr. Finaldi, eschewed the thing, getting his A from the carefully tuned piano in his living room and tuning the other three strings merely by listening.

These days it’s rare to see any stringed instrument without a Snark perched on its neck. Play an open string and this little gadget listens to it and offers a pitch meter that indicates how far out of tune you are and which direction is needed to adjust it, and then it glows a cheerful color to tell you you’re home. It’s so handy that there are many knockoffs available, and the inevitable phone app has followed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Gunning for You

The Long Walk, Opera Saratoga

AS BRIAN CASTNER and three of his fellow Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists are driving back to base from yet another mission while deployed in Iraq, the tension of the moment is jolted by a pigeon. It lands on their Humvee. Over the orchestra’s rumbles and squeals, the quartet sings in beautiful close harmony about the nature of their relationship. This is, says one, the place where he belongs.

Daniel Belcher and
Heather Johnson
Back home in Buffalo, Castner still perceives danger, and the first act of The Long Walk ends with the image of him sitting at the top of the stairs of his house, cradling his AK-47, guarding his children from—what?

Adapted from a memoir by Castner, the opera—receiving its world premiere with these Opera Saratoga performances—is a shattering, very moving portrait of mental imbalance, right up there with Wozzeck in its use of music and lyrics and the tools of theater to explore the contrasting, contradictory facets of a war-damaged soldier.

Like Wozzeck, it’s episodic and makes intelligent use of musical form. But where you might expect again an atonal approach, The Long Walk is surprisingly lyrical, with solo moments suggestive of late Strauss.

Baritone Daniel Belcher, in the role of a lifetime, is Castner, a pleasant-looking average Joe who is running as we meet him, running, he explains, through the is to escape the was. Not that there’s any escape.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Al Together

From the Vault Dept.: Al Gallodoro was nearly 90 when I saw the concert reviewed below. His amazing career included stints in the orchestras of Paul Whiteman and Arturo Toscanini. He recorded with the Dutch ensemble The Beau Hunks. He appeared as a street performer in “The Godfather, Part II.” And at Caffè Lena, he still wielded his sax like the master he was.


YOU EXPECT, WHEN HEARING A JAZZ SAXOPHONIST TODAY, to hear some trace of the Big Influences. At the very least, there will be Coltrane and some Lester Young. There are exceptions: Scott Hamilton bypasses Trane in a sound that channels Ben Webster. And Al Gallodoro goes back even farther, with a sound that’s squarely in the Jimmy Dorsey-Frank Trumbauer camp.

Al Gallodoro
Like Trumbauer, Gallodoro fashions solos that extend the harmonic range of the tune in question without taking you far from its melodic center. Performing last Saturday at Caffè Lena, he and pianist JoAnn Chmielowski ran through a batch of standards and surprises that thoroughly delighted the far-from-capacity crowd. An added bonus was the two numbers in which they were joined by Addie Boyle, of Addie & Olin fame.

Gallodoro opened with a romping “All of Me” that set the pattern for many of the tunes to follow: a fairly straightforward but swinging statement on sax for 32 bars, then a hot chorus in which Gallodoro let loose a torrent of notes that played with the outer reaches of the harmony of the changes. Unlike many post-bop players, he’s not reharmonizing the tunes but rather finding the fun and tension in exploring 11ths and 13ths and such. Next a solo chorus by Chmielowski with a fluid, often single-line left hand and chord blocks in the right, followed by another piano solo in which she syncopated the left-hand rhythm into something approaching a habanera. And finally Gallodoro wrapped it up with another hot chorus that went stratospheric, typically and improbably ending on a high concert E-flat.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Woods So Wild

The Magic Flute, Glimmerglass Opera, July 10

The Magic Flute
is a mess of an opera that defies narrative convention, keeps you guessing at who’s the good guy, and lets the wrong person rescue the ingenue, among many other weirdnesses. None of which has curbed the insane popularity of the piece. It has great tunes, but you expect that from Mozart.

Sean Panikkar as Tamino
Photo by Karli Cadel
Re-setting its time and place is so irresistible to opera directors that it’s become a potentially embarrassing fetish, but the production that opened the Glimmerglass Festival’s current season takes us to a forest with Native American overtones, on a glorious set by Troy Hourie, whose impressive artwork also can be found on the Festival grounds.

Director Madeline Sayet didn’t stage the overture until its very end, for which I’m grateful, and even then it was a necessary device to show Tamino’s transition from the fury of the modern business world into the forest where the magic would occur. Sean Panikkar sang splendidly in that role, maintaining a wide-eyed innocence even as he takes on the challenge of rescuing a maiden whose portrait causes him instantly to fall in love.

He meets Papageno, originally a birdcatcher, now a hunter, incongruously costumed in camo and blaze orange. Ben Edquist, who was Jigger in last season’s Carousel, has a dynamic, acrobatic presence and a voice to match. This is the role that Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, wrote for himself, giving himself two great solos and an endearing duet, among other numbers. Edquist was more than up to the task – literally more, slipping into the tendency to telegraph the jokes in the texts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hamburger Heaven and Hell

From the Vault Dept.: An unpublished piece that was replaced, that particular issue of Metroland, by one of my restaurant reviews. Yet the need for burgers will never abate, the quest for good ones never end . . .


BIG MACS HIT IN 1968; within four years, my high school friends and I were so addicted that we’d risk detention by skipping an afternoon class, piling into somebody’s car and gorging on the tasty, greasy burgers. And it wasn’t even the meat itself that tasted good – the negligible portion of cheap chopped beef was tricked up with cheese and pickle slices, Russian dressing and a dab of pale mustard. Lots of bread, too, in that double-decker package, and the things were cheap. Cheap enough for a high school-kid budget.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
As teen-aged rebels, we were aligning ourselves with the Tartars of old, who wrenched their dinner meat from tough Asian cattle, shredded it and cooked it over their shields. By the 14th century, this practice had been introduced into Germany, where it was eaten raw or cooked by the poor folk. It picked up its moniker in Hamburg, but it was known, with a touch of irony, as a Hamburg steak.

From there it made 19th-century trips to England and America. In England it became the pet of wacky food doc J.H. Salisbury (yup, the Salisbury steak guy), who insisted that all food be shredded and who wanted you to eat beef three times a day. In America, it arrived with German immigrants, and its name shortened from Hamburger steak to hamburger. Its companion bread bun also appeared around this time, and the two were firmly connected by the time of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where the sandwich was called, simply, “hamburg.”