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Friday, January 30, 2015

Albany in Mind

From the Back Pages Dept.: Novelist William Kennedy’s work also has been seen on stage and screen, one of the more recent such an adaptation of his novel Roscoe into an opera by Albany-based composer Evan Mack and librettist Joshua McGuire, recently given a workshop presentation at Saratoga’s Skidmore College. I spent a delightful afternoon with Kennedy towards the end of 2011, when his novel Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes was published, and the story below was the result.


“EVERYBODY WENT TO ALBANY for one reason or another. They went to Keeler’s, they were here for the track. It had nightlife. Bright lights, roulette wheels, hot-mattress hotels.” William Kennedy is explaining the appeal of the city that gives a unique texture to his nine novels. It’s the city in which he was born and schooled and spent much of his literary apprenticeship.

William Kennedy
photo by Leif Zurmuhlen
And it makes a sly appearance in the first pages of his new novel, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, when singing star Bing Crosby joins local jazz pianist Cody Mason in an impromptu recital witnessed by 8-year-old Daniel Quinn.

Bing launches into “Shine,” a hit song for him in a lively recording with the Mills Brothers. The racist overtones of the song’s lyrics have troubled many commentators, despite champions like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and this controversy gives the novel its philosophical backbone as social tensions spark violent revolutions in two different cities.

“As I was finishing Roscoe, I had this, my next novel, in sight. There were two elements that inspired it. First was the civil-rights movement, which I wrote about in Albany. And then there was a jazz pianist named Jody Bolden, who played in Albany during the ’50s and ’60s. The song brought those elements together.”

Thursday, January 29, 2015

More Than Movie Music

WE HEAR THE PEDAL C from the organ, a note echoed by contrabass and contrabassoon, and then the trumpets ascend with the I-V-I of the triad, immediately slapped down with a one-two punch from the full orchestra that lands us unexpectedly on a C-minor chord. The insistent tympani invite it again – this time, the trumpets-to-orchestra sequence gives us C major. Once more, more triumphantly still, and F chord takes us to the stratosphere, like a firework rocket grabbing the sky and exploding into a shower of descending C major arpeggios. Or, to put it in more recognizable terms, it’s the opening music to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Richard Strauss wrote “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in 1896, inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel proposing an eternal recurrence of things even as man progresses to a state of oneness with the earth. And it’s filled with a glory of orchestral sound well beyond the “Sunrise” opening, a beautiful example of Strauss’s ability to tell a highly programmatic story in a language that needs no story for its effect.

Andris Nelsons is the fast-rising conductor in the midst of his first season as the Boston Symphony’s music director. A Strauss devotee, he confidently has conducted that composer’s music with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, an ensemble Strauss himself has led – and three of those pieces are on a new DVD that shows us both what a dynamic conductor we’re dealing with and how it is Strauss achieves the unique voice that makes his work so easy to identify.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Haunting Guitar

From the Vault’s Vault Dept.: He was a cranky fellow, so it’s no surprise this collection had to be issued posthumously. But the beginnings of what we think of as the voice of John Fahey are heard to emerge in the CD set described below, which came out in 2012 and which I reviewed for Metroland. (And here’s a much earlier piece about an evening I spent with the guitarist and his friend Paul Geremia.)


BEGINNING IN 1958, and for seven years, guitarist John Fahey recorded for the quirky Fonotone label, which issued hand-cut records on demand. At first he recorded in Joe Bussard’s Fonotone studio; at a later point he sent Bussard tapes to issue.

And, being John Fahey, he subsequently disowned all that material. True, he went through phases where he disowned pretty much anything he’d recorded; late in life, he even tried to drastically reinvent his sound.

If anything of his warranted getting tossed, however, it was this early stuff. Except. And this is the pause that refreshes our need for this material: Fahey did things to American music that exploded it and changed it. Like fellow collector Harry Smith, he explored old recordings at a time when listeners and record-company suits had no idea that a treasure trove awaited.

Fahey went door-to-door begging records, and learned the sounds of the forgotten greats. He was a one-man Charley Patton cheering throng. He absorbed the sounds of Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Snowblower Brigade

Encore from the Vault Dept.: In celebration of the coming meteorological armageddon, here's an encore posting of a piece I ran on this blog in 2011. Buddy Ottaviano spent over 40 years at the Schenectady Daily Gazette, 25 of them as city editor, his last five as managing editor. Back then the paper was legendarily grey, but it rewarded a close reading. Like Ottaviano, there was color hidden within. I freelanced for the paper for a few years in the late 1980s, and Buddy was generous not only in giving me assignments but also bumping up the miserable fee I received. I lived in Schenectady back then, and could walk to Gazette's State Street offices. One day in 1989, as the weather turned chilly, I stopped into his office and he asked, "When you think of winter, what comes to mind?" "That's easy," I said. "All the damn snowblowers starting up at the crack of dawn on my street." "Great," he said. "Give me 700 words on that."


ONLY AFTER I SPENT a winter with black and blue ankles did I understand why the world's largest snowblowers live on my street.

At first I thought it was funny, seeing those behemoths. I suppose that's not quite true: at first I thought it was annoying. Snowfall is a comfort at night, blanketing the noisy world, but the first glimmerings of dawn brought out my neighbors and their fleet of bright orange and red machines.

The first time it happened, not long after I moved onto the street, I was in bed. In a sleep that can resist the telephone and garbage man and probably a small dynamite blast next door. There was this roar like a thousand angry chainsaws, muffled at first, annoying me out of my sleep with its insistent crescendo of buzzing.

And it was a sound I didn't recognize.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Taking Leave

From the Slush Pile Dept.: Here’s a book review I wrote for Metroland, but it seems never to have run. So here’s its debut. The book was turned into a not-well-received movie and, indeed, it seems that Jonathan Tropper has abandoned the novelist’s life for Hollywood. He created and produces the Cinemax series “Banshee,” and he’s developing someone else’s book for Steve Carell. But this book and Tropper’s five other novels are well worth pursuing.


JONATHAN TROPPER’S NOVELS are often compared to those of Nick Hornby, which has its merit: Tropper’s protagonists, invariably male, typically suffer a hilarious series of emotional and physical torments en route to a resolution in which sheer peace is a desirable component.

But this only goes to show the lack of contemporary comic-novel referents. Hornsby’s work tends to be arch and, in the case of characterizations, overly facile; Tropper’s tropes are drawn from the unique social phenomenon known as the suburbs, in particular those north of Manhattan.

Which places Tropper’s five [now six] hilarious novels more in alignment with that of Peter De Vries, whose novels from the 1960s and 70s chronicled the ironies and discomforts of the Fairfield County set. And, like De Vries, Tropper revels in the well-crafted phrase. His latest novel, This Is Where I Leave You, succeeds in an unlikely blend of the fantastic and mundane, always in the service of humor.

Tropper’s novels are always funny, but he’s lately developed a more easygoing lilt to his dialogue and descriptions, as in the following portion of the six pages of interior monologue that Judd Foxman sounds when beholding his wife, Jen, in bed with his boss:

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Uninhibited Flapper

Guest Blogger Dept.: Kentucky-born Helen Bullitt Lowry was a member of the D.A.R., a contributor to such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, and a NY Times reporter who covered topics as various as the Wobblies, Hollywood (and its connection with Wall Street), and, especially, those uninhibited 1920s women, the Flappers. Here’s how her essay is introduced in the collection Nonsenseorship: “And then Helen Bullitt Lowry, the exponent of the cocktailored young lady of today, averring that to the pocket-flask, that milepost between the time that was and the time that is, we owe the single standard of drinking. She maintains that the debutantalizing flapper, now driven right out in the open by the reformers, is the real salvation of our mid-Victrolian society.”


TWO GENERATIONS AGO the girl was “damned.” One generation ago she was “ruined.” Now, according to the best authorities and her own valuation, she has just played out of luck.

Helen Bullitt Lowry watching
Puritanism set the Flapper free.
Drawing by Ralph Barton.
So that for the reformers and prohibitionists, the censors and the woman’s club resolutionists! Their bi-product is Miss Twentieth Century Unlimited, the one uninhibited creature in a Volsteaded civilisation. Controls—of liquor and of birth—have given us The Flapper. The official reformers, reinforcing the sagging inhibitions and corsets of the nineteenth century, were just the final impetus needed to drive her out into the open.

The flapper is released from the strangle hold that is throttling the rest of us. If somebody makes a law for her, she promptly and blithely breaks it, the pocket flask for the moment being the outward and visible sign of the spirit—and spirits—of her wide-flung rebellion. It is the milepost between the time that was and the time that is, that flask, and to it we owe the single standard of drinking.

A half generation ago the sub-debs did not indulge in anything more relaxing than coca cola. And even first and second year debbies did their drinking from glasses issued by the hostess, not in triplicate. If a young man of the period imported a flask from the outside, that young man was promptly dropped from polite society, no matter how stringent was the shortage of dancing beaux. They called a flask a “bottle of whiskey” in those days.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Beantown Strings

From the Vault Dept.: Let’s go back a few years to when a significant string ensemble came to town to give us a mix of classics and new works.


WITHOUT SOME OF THE SPECIFIC HISTORY attached to the concert, it still would have been a very pleasant program of music for strings, but much attention – in pre-show talk and program notes – was given to Pavel Haas’s Study for String Chamber Orchestra, a work written in 1943 while the composer was imprisoned at a German concentration camp. He was killed a month after the work’s premiere.

Boston Symphony Strings
Photo by Michael Lutch
Reconstructed for its second performance in 1991, the single-movement, episodic piece show the influence of Janačék, Haas’s teacher, while structurally reaching further into the 20th century.

Although characterized by abrupt changes of tempo, the piece has a thematic unity enhanced by deft contrapuntal writing. And it’s a very pleasant and dramatically effective piece. Without its history, it’s an accessible piece that captures the attention with its inventiveness. Knowing the circumstances under which it was written, the joy that is radiates is all the more poignant.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Re: Tea

Staying Loose Dept.: Yesterday’s post reminded me of a piece I wrote three and a half years ago, profiling Linda Smith and her company Divinitea. As you’ll note at the article’s end, you can sample the tea tonight at a favorite coffee shop – Professor Java’s in Colonie, NY.


TEA SERVICE REMAINS the biggest let-down in the fine-dining arena. Too often it amounts to a cup of hot (and rapidly cooling) water with a tea bag beside it. Yet the glories of the beverage only are truly revealed when water of the correct temperature is allowed to circulate among large, well-chosen and -blended leaves for a specific amount of time. It’s no more fussy a requirement than good coffee demands, yet we’ve long since graduated from instant coffee but have yet to leave tea bags behind.

Linda Smith of Divinitea
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Which is why Linda Smith, founder of Schenectady-based Divinitea, tirelessly offers hands-on tastings with both the public and, especially, restaurateurs, demonstrating the benefits of brewing it loose.

This harkens back to her own experience working in restaurant kitchens, typically white-linen establishments. One such place sported silver tea service, “but they’d give you a Lipton tea bag. So one day I cut one of them open in front of the chef and asked, ‘Why are you serving dirt?’ It was very hard to convince people.”

Tea bags became popular in the early 1900s, offering an obvious convenience factor; a half-century later, Thomas Lipton patented the flo-thru bag, offering more room for water circulation in the brew. But all of this was (and continues to be) hampered by the need for smaller tea leaves to make the bag-brew work.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Justify Tea in a Just World

Comforting Cozy Dept.: This week’s Metroland is the annual Mind, Body, and Health issue. I wrote about my cure-all: tea.


MARGUERITE GAUTIER SPORTED A WHITE CAMELLIA when she was available to lease her love and a red one when she wasn’t. The heroine of Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias put these lovely blooms to use even as she wasted away from tuberculosis. I’m not saying that the more typical use of the camellia cousin would have revived her, but at least it could have perked up some of those lonely, red-bloom afternoons.

The non-ornamental species Camellia sinensis gives us the six classes of traditional tea: white, green, yellow, black, oolong and dark. These plants aren’t allowed to bloom in order to strengthen the leaves, and the best of them are grown in China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka and Taiwan.

According to the Tea Association of the USA, tea “is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, and can be found in almost 80 percent of all U.S. households. ... On any given day, over 158 million Americans are drinking tea.” Ninety percent of it is brewed from bags, reconstituted from iced tea mixes or swigged from bottles; the Tea Association goes on to lump loose tea and instant tea into the remaining ten percent, which are about as opposite as can be but probably give an illusion of more popularity to the loose stuff.

“I have very little patience with tea bags and highly recommend that anyone who enjoys good tea learns how to steep it from loose leaves,” writes Tomislav Podreka in serendipitea, a small, sweet volume of musings and history. “The handy little sacks usually hold inferior tea, either tea leaf dust or fannings, which result in weak, rather bland-tasting tea.”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Academy Is

From the Vault Dept.: Writing about music for so many years put me in contact with some of my heroes, but it took a while for any interviewing skills to develop. Here’s a review of a 1984 performance by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in which Iona Brown did a dazzling job with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” It’s followed by the advance I wrote a few days earlier, a piece that included quotes from Brown, but what a pathetic interview it must have been if that was the best I could draw from her!


LISTENING TO THE ACADEMY OF ST. MARTIN-IN-THE-FIELDS on records gives the impression that some engineer must have figured out a way to get just about the most gorgeous string sound available: more than 400 records attest to this.

Antonio Vivaldi
Listening to the musicians in person proves it was no engineer at all: They simply sound magnificent, and they’re so good they can make the music do whatever they want it to do. That they have splendid taste means the music will do what it ought to do.

All of this was borne out by the academy’s concert Tuesday evening at Proctor’s Theater. Led by violinist Iona Brown, this 16-piece ensemble showed more understanding and nuance with three works than most groups come up with in two or three seasons.

Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K. 136, which opened the program, began with a quick, incisive allegro that captured all of Mozart’s humor and energy, and set the standard for the music to come. The ensemble’s intonation is superb; the musicians play with such precision they are able to effect subtle dynamic changes with marvelous results.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Photographing a Catastrophe

Guest Blogger Dept.: The original edition of this book came out in 1896 and was popular enough to be revised and reissued at least until 1922. Photographic Amusements, Including a Description of a Number of Novel Effects Obtainable with the Camera was compiled and edited by Walter E. Woodbury – Formerly Editor of “The Photographic Times,” Author of “The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Photography,” “Aristotypes and How to Make Them,” Etc., Etc. Along with learning how to create double- and triple-exposure shots, shoot at night, capture lightning and many other tips and techniques, here’s “How to Photograph a Catastrophe.”


ON THIS PAGE we reproduce a curious photograph by M. Bracq, which appeared some time ago in the Photo Gazette.

By M. Bracq. From Photo Gazette.

Despite all the terrible catastrophe which it represents, carrying pictures along with him in his fall, the subject has not experienced39 the least uneasiness, not even so much as will certainly be felt by our readers at the sight of the tumble represented.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Friday, January 09, 2015

Give Him a Hand!

The Real You Dept.: My ongoing file cabinet cleaning yielded another surprise today: the results of a handwriting analysis my wife ordered years ago for the pair of us. This was in response to an ad that ran in a 1986 issue of Parade magazine, that Sunday-newspaper staple (it’s in more than 700 of them) that keeps us in touch with the pop-culture issues that the AARP magazine won’t touch. Eager to discover what’s become of graphologist Carlos Pedregal, I did an internet search that yielded ... nothing! I found the ad in newspaper archives ranging from 1983 to a decade later, in such papers as the Rome (Georgia) News-Tribune and the Salina (Kansas) Journal, with the sole 1993 entry an ad in the Stony Brook, NY, Statesman, a college newspaper. And I noted that our expert went from being Dr. Pedregal to Mr. Pedregal over time. In any event, here’s the result for my scrawl (I’m too discreet to post Susan’s), and the only change I made was to convert it from all-caps and correct a couple of typos. What do you think? Did he nail me?


HERE IS THE RESULT of your analysis, which is confidential, of course. The following paragraphs describe the dominant characteristics of your personality as reflected by your handwriting.

Wish to surpass

Your handwriting clearly indicates that you are a person who has something to say, a person who needs to make a mark on life. This anxiety, this need to manifest your ideas, feelings and personal philosophy, will certainly not help you to be peacefully happy, but it will at least give you the inner satisfaction of being true to yourself.

More important than overcoming difficulties is the struggle and the need to surpass oneself, never giving up when one defends an idea or a firm belief.


Your handwriting shows that you are very impressionable. Your sensitivity leads you to attach greater importance to certain situations than they actually deserve.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Welcome to Glen

From the Back of the File Cabinet Dept.: This popped out at me yesterday, stuck in a folder that otherwise had things like newsletters from the Fire Department and an old questionnaire about the agricultural use of my land. Susan and I closed on our house in Glen at the beginning of March, 1990. I wrote this not long afterward, and published it nowhere.


I MET HAROLD BRIGGS yesterday. It was unusual because I’ve lived in this town for four weeks already and met most of the other near neighbors, not that there are that many. Also, Harold had become something of a presence because of the stories other people tell.

Self-portrait by B. A. Nilsson, c. 1990
His devotion to his animals, for instance. They say he teaches his ducks how to quack, and now they all speak with Harold’s accent. He operates a small farm three houses away from me, and he’s the person who leaves cartons of eggs on his stoop every day. You take a dozen and put seventy-five cents in the dish. He trusts you.

Harold is the one who told his next-door neighbor Sherrie about putting an egg in with her goat’s milk. That is, with the milk for her goat. She adopted a kid a couple of weeks ago, a foundling (if that’s the right work) that needs bottle feeding for its first few weeks.

She named it Fahrvegnuegen, after the Volkswagen ads she hears on WGY. It was a pretty shrewd idea, because she’s doing that old trick of putting radio down in the barn where she had the goat pen built, and the radio plays WGY all day and night. So the animal is likely to hear its name spoken every so often, and I expect that’ll be something of a comfort to it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Restless Journey

AS THE RONDO of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 percolated along, delivering one surprise after another, it seemed as if David Finckel, the cellist, and pianist Wu Han were discovering the quirks anew. Certainly Finckel – who played this recital of all five Beethoven sonatas from memory and thus had no sheet music obscuring his face – was a study in merry aspect, and Han took many an opportunity to cast an amused glance over her shoulder.

David Finckel and Wu Han
So why aren’t the earlier-written violin sonatas this much fun? Beethoven’s first three violin-and-piano works were written in 1798 and follow Mozart’s model (Haydn almost ignored the pairing) with flashes of Beethovenian wit. But the first two cello sonatas, which date from 1796, are almost without precedent.

The cello was one of several low-voiced instruments thrown into the role continuo-sustainer, especially needed when the plucky harpsichord was articulating the chords. Although earlier violin sonatas tended to throw the fiddle into accompanist mode, the cello was a slave to that identity. Until Beethoven. 

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Dapper Pete and the Sucker Play

Guest Blogger Dept.: Another selection from Chicago reporter-turned-playwright (and “Gone with the Wind” screenwriter, among many others) Ben Hecht, as collected in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago.


DAPPER PETE HANDLEY, THE VETERAN CON MAN, shook hands all around with his old friends in the detective bureau and followed his captors into the basement. Another pinch for Dapper Pete; another jam to pry out of. The cell door closed and Pete composed his lean, gambler's face, eyed his manicured nails and with a sigh sat down on the wooden cell bench to wait for his lawyer.

Ben Hecht
“Whether I’m guilty of this or not,” said Dapper Pete, “it goes to show what a sucker a guy is—even a smart guy. This ain’t no sermon against a life of crime I’m pulling, mind you. I’m too old to do that and my sense of humor is workin’ too good. I’m only sayin’ what a sucker a guy is—sometimes. Take me.”

Dapper Pete registered mock woe.

“Not that I’m guilty, mind you, or anything like that. But on general principles I usually keep out of the way of the coppers. Especially when there’s been a misunderstanding concerning some deal or other. Well, how I happen to be here just goes to show what a sucker a guy is—even me.”

Pressed for the key to his self-accusation, Dapper Pete continued:

“I come straight here from Grand Island, Neb. I had a deal on in Grand Island and worked it for a couple of months. And after I finished there was trouble and I left. I knew there would be warrants and commotion, the deal having flopped and a lot of prominent citizens feeling as if they had been bilked. You know how them get-rich-quick investors are. If they don’t make 3,000 per cent profit over night they raise a squawk right away. And wanna arrest you.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Merrie Olde Cameras

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Here’s my most glorious editorial disaster, when a cover-story assignment reviewing a new crop of digital cameras turned into a total cock-up. At first I wrote it as a straightforward comparison piece, but that wasn’t good enough. It needed a snazzier tone. But I was headed for a vacation in England . . . so I schlepped a bunch of cameras with me and wrote about the process of photographing my travels. The piece came back to me completely rewritten as if I’d been in San Francisco (near Computer Life’s home city) instead. And that’s what ran. Here’s the original, minus the photographs. As with so many of my earliest digital photos, they never got stored in such a way that I could find them again. But the piece does give you a look at what was top-of-the-line in the digital camera world twenty years ago!


THEY ALL SEEMED TO KNOW I was a tourist. Was it my American accent? My goofy vacation wardrobe? Or was it the six cameras slung around my neck? Digital cameras, in fact, touring England with me for two weeks last fall.

My face; not my caption.
My mission: to discover just how well this new generation of under-$1,000 cameras performs. To see if direct-to-computer vacation pictures can adequately take the place of the traditional photo album or slide show.

A couple of years ago you couldn't get much more than a muddy black-and-white image for that price; now we're talking about full color, full-screen pictures. I don’t go nuts for every new technology that comes along, and I refused for years even to buy a Polaroid camera.

Then I broke down and got one and went crazy accumulating the one-of-a-kind prints it produced. The photos don’t have the color quality and detail of a shot from a good 35-millimeter camera, but that’s like comparing lemons and limes. Despite the similarities, each has a different purpose. Instant pictures can be informal, abstract – even artistic. They’ve made their way into art galleries.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

A Year of Dining

Jeet Jet? Dept.: My annual list of the most appealing places of the many I wrote about during the previous twelvemonth revealed a commonly suspected truth: there’s great dining to be found in pubs and low-cost ethnic eateries. Here’s the round-up.


IT’S NOT JUST COMMUNITY SUPPORT that necessitates the pursuit of locally grown and raised food. It’s the health of it. Try to get a medium-rare burger in any of the chain eateries. Food-service people know this. It’s one of the reasons that the better eateries are being more careful about their food sources. So I lead this year’s review of my favorite restaurants with The Table at Fort Plain (70 Canal Street, Fort Plain), a place that’s also helping give life to a town hit by economic downturn and floods. Chef-owner Aaron Katovitch ran a fine-dining restaurant on Cape Cod, among other successful ventures, but he wanted to return to his hometown, where he offers a changing menu of farm-sourced items in a friendly, informal setting.

The Table at Fort Plain | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Three top-notch fine-dining venues we visited this year happen to feature Italian fare, a much more desirable alternative to the fussy sprigs and spheres creeping onto our plates. Mio Posto (68 Putnam St., Saratoga Springs) is in a legendarily tiny space with only eight tables, but Danny Petrosino proved that you can make everything that lands on each table special. He did so well that he’s now helming the kitchen at nearby Maestro’s, but his friend and assistant Danny Urschel has taken over and we’re promised the same excellent quality and welcoming atmosphere. And the Bolognese sauce will always be available.

Mio Vino Wine Bar & Bistro (186 Main St., Altamont) has many more tables, but you may have a bit more of a drive to get there. No matter: It’s worth it. Michael and Emilia Giorgio partnered with the dynamic Tim Turano, which means that the service is as superb as the food, a rare combo in our area. The menu features small plates of items like eggplant with mozzarella and roasted red peppers or pulled osso buco; sandwiches and pizzas are offered, and entrées like pan-seared scallops, prosciutto chicken and Angus ribeye.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Sonatas in Series

Duo Diadem Dept.: Two days from now – 3 PM Sunday, January 4, to be exact – cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han return to Union College’s Memorial Chapel to perform a program comprising all five of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas.

It’s a bruiser of a program in some ways. Length, for starters – expect over two hours of music, along with two breaks. We may need to brush up our attention spans a bit, because these days even my nearly doddering generation has succumbed to the lure of the brief and immediate and grows restive far more quickly than ever before. Then there’s the challenge of so much Beethoven which, no matter how much you think you enjoy his music, offers a lot of richness to consume and, if you’re paying attention, can bring on the musical equivalent of diabetic shock.

But I believe that marathon listening like this, in an acoustically wonderful  hall with top-flight performers and a sympathetic audience, invites closer communion with the works in question than you can achieve by listening to recordings.

What’s unique about these works is that you get a tour, in a comparatively brief time, of Beethoven’s three major compositional styles as represented by a particular combination of instruments. You’d have to sit through sixteen string quartets or 32 piano sonatas for a similar marathon, and the ten violin sonatas are grouped largely in the composer’s early period.

Thursday, January 01, 2015