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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What's in a Name?

From the Vault Dept.: Dipping back into the Metroland archives, I found another of the utility pieces I cranked out so steadily. This is from 1984. Amazing what they let me get away with.


THE NAME MUST HAVE SOMETHING to do with it. How many guys named Beethoven do you know? You associate it with music, that name, just as Shakespeare is the fellow who wrote those plays. (There was a Bill Shakespeare who played in the Ray Noble Orchestra during the ‘30s, but I’m convinced that he kept the name so he could have fun with phone operators and the like.)

Ruth Laredo
Photo by Christian Steiner
Beethoven’s achievements were so phenomenal that he has been given a godlike status in the classical music world, which in some ways is a shame. You lose sight of the Beethoven who hung around the streets of Vienna; the Beethoven who partied, who hustled concerts, who wrote mash notes to his attractive female students.

His music never will let you down – even his garbage is interesting – so it would be a shame to let snobby canonization of the man drive you away. Here, then, is all you need to know about him – at least to get you started.

He was born in Bonn in 1770. His dad was a musician at the court of a local prince, where young Ludwig got his first gigs as an organist. When he was 17, Beethoven played for Mozart, who was impressed: “Keep an eye on him,” the older composer told whomever it was who writes down such things. “He will make a noise some day.”

Monday, July 24, 2017

Notable Notation

From the Computer Vault Dept.: I learned music engraving in the pre-computer days when you needed compass and ruler and an excellent lettering hand. So I was happy to be invited to beta-test a computer-based engraving program, a massive, ambitious beast called Finale. I spent hours going through its tutorial and then throwing different challenges at the program, so I was well placed to write about the program after it was released in 1988. Below is my piece about Finale 1.1, which amusingly compares it to the long-defunct DTP program Ventura Publisher. My review of Finale 2.0 is here. The program has seen many an upgrade since, and there’s information about it here. And Coda Music is now MakeMusic, Inc., in Boulder, Colorado.


FINALE COULD BE TO MUSIC ENGRAVING what Ventura Publisher is to writing. It’s designed for a much more specialized audience, true, but music copyists have a more demanding task even than typesetters.

Screenshot from Version 2.0. It's the earliest
version I could find for a graphic.
And, while Ventura is the program of choice for many desktop publishers, it’s not the only worthy runner in the field. Finale is also one of many available programs, but it happens to pack enough power to satisfy – and delight – many users.

The job of putting notes on paper has rules that require a knowledge of rhythm and harmony along with the mechanics of page design. It’s so specialized and ultimately subjective that there’s an art to effective engraving.

Satisfying the mechanics is easy with Finale – once you’ve gotten the hang of a challenging program. Using its MIDI interface, you can go from keyboard to page pretty quickly and enjoy acceptable output.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cuban Treat

From the Pantry Dept.: Enjoy this recent piece about Carmen’s Café in Troy, NY – but, even better, enjoy a meal there soon. As an update to this piece, Carmen and Jim were just married.


WHEN CARMEN’S CAFÉ opened in 2005, it had a happy, haphazard look. A diner counter, a handful of tables, arresting artwork on the walls. The Cuban-inspired food was fairly simple, with a pork-and-pickles sandwich, the Cubano, a star of the lunches.

Carmen Gonzalez
Now that counter is made from carved slabs of ailanthus and there is flooring of birch and cherry and cedar, the handiwork of Jim Lewis of Springwood Studios. But only because he insisted.

The restaurant closed abruptly in 2009, after owner Carmen Gonzalez leased it to a chef who wasn’t able to keep up with the business and fled. “Jim and I were on a vacation,” says Carmen. “We came back and found the place closed. I said to Jim, ‘Let’s patch up the place and sell it,’ and he said, ‘No. We’re going to fix it up and make it an amazing place. It took six months to renovate, and we reopened in 2010.”

It looked charming in its original incarnation, “but now it’s really pretty. Jim did the renovations. It was a complete gut. We did the electrical, we did the plumbing – we did everything. We had a hard time getting people back, but we plugged away at it and we made it work.”

Friday, July 21, 2017

Rise Up Singing

WHEN MUSIC DIRECTOR John DeMain conducted “Porgy and Bess” for Houston Grand Opera in 1976, he presented it in a form as close to its operatic original as could be managed, and in doing so helped right a terrible injustice that had been done to the piece. It was the first major production in a quarter-century, and even before then, poor “Porgy” had been tampered with severely.

Justin Austin and Musa Ngqungwana
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Houston production reminded us that George Gershwin had produced a masterpiece, as deserving of a seat in opera’s pantheon as are his musicals entitled to their esteem in theatrical history. And, despite what Diane Paulus would have us believe with her recent Broadway production, the work is an opera, and was written on opera’s grand canvas with the emotional artillery of aria and recitative.

This is brilliantly proven by the Glimmerglass Festival production – the orchestra conducted, appropriately, masterfully, by DeMain – as a top-notch cast brings Catfish Row to life with a sense of honesty and urgency that reminds us of theater’s power to make the artificial seem all too real.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Gastronomic Guile of Simple Simon

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back Guy Wetmore Carryl, light versifier extraordinaire, with a selection from Mother Goose for Grown-Ups.

"Now Simon’s taste was most profuse"
Drawing by Peter Newell
Conveniently near to where
    Young Simple Simon dwelt
There was to be a county fair,
    And Simple Simon felt
That to the fair he ought to go
In all his Sunday clothes, and so,
Determined to behold the show,
    He put them on and went.
(One-half his clothes was borrowed and the other half was lent.)

He heard afar the cheerful sound
    Of horns that people blew,
Saw wooden horses swing around
    A circle, two and two,
Beheld balloons arise, and if
He scented with a gentle sniff
The smells of pies, what is the dif-
    Ference to me or you?
(You cannot say my verse is false, because I know it's true.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Raw Story

What a Carve-Up! Dept.: Here’s another restaurant review from my brief stint covering such places for The Alt.


THE TRUE DEATH OF CIVILIZATION began when food handlers in restaurants were forced to wear plastic gloves. There’s no question that the unclean walk among us and occasionally get their mitts on our grub, but this was yet another example of fear outstripping reason, with the consequence that a vital tactile component of professional cooking was proscribed. And it may be no more deeply realized than at the sushi-assembly level.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
A serving of nigiri-sushi is a well-chosen, carefully sized strip of seafood laid across a base of vinegar-piquant rice, and there’s a legend that the finest sushi chefs are able to form that rice so deftly that each and every grain is parallel to its neighbor. How can you do that with gloves on? And I won’t even go into our obsessive de-bacteria-izing of ourselves, except to note that it’s gone too far.

One of the beauties (and there are many) about Unagi Sushi, Troy’s four-month-old, much-needed eatery, is the pristine look of its fish, on display behind the counter at which you’re invited to sit. That right there wins my trust.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Hitting the High Notes

KINGSLEY AMIS’S 1976 NOVEL The Alteration imagined a world in which the Reformation never occurred, setting the stage for a boy’s struggle to remain intact as forces within the church seek to maintain his glorious soprano. It was such an obsession, this voice quality, that in the early 18th century there were thousands of boys being thus altered. And in the midst of it all, glorious operas were being written for the best of these singers.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The voice was needed once the Vatican forbid women from singing in church choirs, a ban that went into effect in the 16th century, and the voice was prized for a clarity of tone combined with the vocal strength such singers developed.

By the early 18th century, the London-based George Frederic Handel was at a peak of fame. His opera output was tremendous, with some 40 such pieces to his name. “Xerxes,” first performed in 1738, featured four high voices in its tale of misplaced love and mistaken identity, the title role intended for one of the soprano castrati the composer worked with.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Whose Land Is It, Anyway?

Woody’n You Dept.: Here’s a review of a recent performance by members of the Albany Symphony, performing a very welcome piece by their friend Michael Daugherty.


WE WERE TEASED with a snippet of Woody Guthrie singing his anthemic “This Land Is Your Land,” and the concert’s first half finished with composer Michael Daugherty’s instrumental meditation on the song, a tune that he noted had pre-Woody identities as the Baptist hymn “O My Loving Brother” and the Carter Family’s “When the World Is on Fire.” That’s how a folksong evolves, and Daugherty’s variations found a place for fiddle and washboard effects, for a three-quarter-time dance, even for a reprise of a melody from an earlier number.

Michael Daugherty
“This Land Sings” is Daugherty’s multi-movement meditation on Guthrie’s life and legacy, and it received its second-ever performance with members of the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller during last week’s American Music Festival. Although there were plenty of recognizeable elements, Daugherty’s own voice was woven throughout, a reminder that intelligently and skilfully synthesizing surrounding sounds into a more formal setting used to be the job of what’s (insufficiently) termed “classical” music.

In truth, there’s no label that easily fits Daugherty’s creation. He describes it as a radio show – he served as announcer – and that’s a good conceit for the work’s aural theatricality. Biographical snippets introduced each of the 16 selections, and  the opener set the tone for what was to come.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Blowing in the Wind

“WHY DON’T YOU WRITE a piece about all kinds of prostitution – the press, the church, the courts, the arts, the whole system?” This was Bertolt Brecht’s reaction when Marc Blitzstein played for him a song titled “Nickel under the Foot,” a streetwalker’s lament, that Blitzstein had written as part of an unproduced sketch. This was in1936, when the American labor scene was about to undergo its most visible transformation, and Blitzstein was at its artistic center, bringing an awareness of history, a social conscience, and an immense talent to bear upon his ill-fated musical “The Cradle Will Rock.”

John Tibbetts and Scott Purcell
Photo by Gary David Gold
Blitzstein did exactly as Brecht suggested, finishing the piece in five weeks. It was true to its time. It was prescient. At the very end of 1936, workers at the Fisher body plant in Flint, Michigan, staged a sit-down strike that would lead, six weeks later, to the affirmation of the United Auto Workers to bargain for the strikers. It made national headlines.

While occupying the factory, the workers put together their own band and sang songs old and new. One of the new ones, “Sit Down,” is quoted in “The Cradle Will Rock,” along with folksongs like “Go in and out the Window,” the Yale fight song, Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, and even a Bach chorale. Believing in the power of theater to influence middle-class thinking, Blitzstein fashioned a giddy polemic that tears into capitalist greed with a Depression-era perspective, but in a tuneful, witty way. So appropriate was it for its time that the Federal Works Progress Administration, spooked by right-wing threats, shut it down just before its opening night.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Cinematic Classics

From the Vault Dept.: Speaking of music and movies (as was the case yesterday), here’s a trip down the memory aisle, to one of my earliest pieces for Metroland Magazine.


IN A SHREWD PROGRAMMING MOVE, the new Crossgates Cinema 10 movie complex opened last weekend with three MGM chestnuts: “Gone With the Wind,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I saw 2001 a decade and a half ago, in its initial distribution, and was very frustrated by its ambiguities; since then, I’ve caught it a few more times, each time persuading me to enjoy it more. Last Sunday I went to see it with an eye (and an ear) toward discovering how director Stanley Kubrick’s inter-planetary vision has stood the test of what time has passed – and I came away most impressed with the endurance of the music he chose.

First of all, it was an ideal setting: “2001" in 70mm stereo is an audio-visual orgy, and Crossgates is equipped to project it as such. As you recall, the movie begins and ends with the first two minutes of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which inspired it to become the theme song for every half-assed automobile ad and basketball game during the ’70s. Still, it was an inspired choice.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Le Cinema

From the CD Vault Dept.: Here’s my review of a pleasant recording by Gidon Kremer that, as far as I can recall, never ran. So here’s some light of day for it.


COUNT ON VIOLINIST Gidon Kremer to find a unique theme for a recording. Sure, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg saluted the movie “Humoresque” on a recent CD, but Kremer manages to fit a virtuoso recital, great music and new works onto a disc that celebrates a fascinating range of movie-related material.

So the mushy, heartwarming “Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin for the film “Modern Times” jolts into Nino Rota’s more abrasive “Improvviso,” non-film music by Fellini’s favorite composer. Not surprisingly for a Kremer recording there are works by Piazzolla and Shostakovich, but you’ll also find an arrangement of music by Isaak Dunayevsky, the leading Russian film composer of the ‘30s, and Takemitsu’s “Nostalghia,” from the Tarkovsky film.

Giya Kancheli wrote “Ragtime” for a production of “Richard III,” but adapted it for the violinist and renamed it “Rag-GIDON-time,” a bouncy little gem. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Passing of the Orthodox Paradox

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back Robert Benchley, whose work as a drama critic in the early decades of the last century attuned his gentle eye to such phenomena as he recounts below.


WHATEVER IRREPARABLE HARM may have been done to Society by the recent epidemic of crook, sex and other dialect plays, one great alleviation has resulted. They have driven up-stage, for the time being, the characters who exist on tea and repartee in “The drawing-room of Sir Arthur Peaversham's town house, Grosvenor Square. Time: late Autumn.”

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
A person in a crook play may have talked underworld patois which no self-respecting criminal would have allowed himself to utter, but he did not sit on a divan and evolve abnormal bons mots with each and every breath. The misguided and misinformed daughter in the Self and Sex Play may have lisped words which only an interne should hear, but she did not offer a succession of brilliant but meaningless paradoxes as a substitute for real conversation.

Continuously snappy back-talk is now encountered chiefly in such acts as those of “Cooney & LeBlanc, the Eccentric Comedy Dancing Team.”

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Best-Known Farmer in New York

From the Vault Dept.: In 1987, a chunk of NYS Thruway dropped into the Schoharie Creek. In order to re-route traffic, the state seized land from farmer Walt Dufel. I interviewed Dufel two years later, and found a very unhappy man. Born in 1926, he was part of a long-settled Montgomery County family of farmers who got embroiled in a lawsuit that never resolved satisfactorily. Walt’s health started to go bad during the years-long process, and he died in 2000.


Photo by Martin Benjamin,
scanned from the magazine's pages.
WANT TO SEE WHAT WALT DUFEL IS ALL ABOUT? Poke around his Antique Barn for an afternoon. Give yourself plenty of time, too, because the place is piled high with stuff.

Wandering through it is good preparation for a conversation with Walt. He’s a collector: of junk and antiques, of homilies, facts and figures. The labyrinth of the barn, through which small aisles wend crazily, is a floor model of the intricate pathways of his mind.

Walt’s a farmer. You know him from his “Scho-Mo Farms” stand on Route 5, out past Amsterdam. But he’s also, lately, a fighter. You know him from his fight with the state that’s been going on since the Thruway Bridge collapsed over the Schoharie Creek in 1987. Or you know him from his fight alongside a Montgomery County group that protested the threat of a radioactive waste site in their midst.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Scene and Herd

IT’S A SCENE FROM THE TUSCAN COUNTRYSIDE. Dancing Ewe farm sprawls across a Washington County hillside, dotting it with sheep. The Somers family purchased it in 2000 and brought it back from years of neglect, inspiring son Jody to learn the Italian style of making sheep’s-milk cheese.

Luisa and Jody Somers
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
He’d already been training sheepdogs and was looking at a veterinary career when he moved to Italy instead. The result was a twofold bounty: he met and married Luisa Scivola and thereby expanded the scope of the operation.

The hours of herding and milking and processing started to pay off as they took their wares to a number of farmer’s markets, including local venues like Troy and Saratoga and the sprawling operation at Manhattan’s Union Square.

But they wanted it to be about more than just cheese, and four summers ago added dinners at the Granville farm. “The idea started,” says Luisa, “when customers asked what they should do with the ricotta we sold them. We wrote down recipes for them and put the recipes on our website, but we wanted to show them how versatile ricotta can be.”

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Oklahoma: Okay!

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S “OKLAHOMA!” typically is lauded as the first Broadway musical to integrate book and lyrics, its songs flowing seamlessly from dialogue setups. It’s an overstatement: this already had been happening often enough for a few prior generations to claim credit for such, including Hammerstein’s own work on the 1927 “Showboat.”

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
But what “Oklahoma!” most strikingly achieved, at least in hindsight, was a shift away from the casual sexism of pre-1943 musicals, eliminating the nudge-wink of the chorus line and giving an operatic lift to the emotions of attraction. The show ran for five years on Broadway, hit the movie screens a few years later, and has become a staple of school and community theater productions.

My scant exposure to the piece left me thinking it was a cloying mess of sentimental mush, best avoided, yet I couldn’t recall the last time I saw it as I sank into a seat at the Glimmerglass Festival’s Alice Busch Theater for this season’s musical-theater classic. Which is just as well, because this production wipes the others off the map. It’s a glorious, fully committed, high-kicking three hours of joy. With, yes, a lot of sentimental mush, but the score is wonderful, the cast is first-rate, you’ve got a full-sized orchestra in the pit, and none of it is amplified. You’ll never see a production this good on Broadway.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Chopin Fantasy

Following upon yesterday's review of When the World Stopped to Listen, Stuart Isacoff's study of Van Cliburn's triumph at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, here's a moment from a concert he gave in Russia in 1962:

Thursday, July 06, 2017

From Moscow, with Love

VAN CLIBURN ROCKETED TO FAME on the back of Sputnik, metaphorically, when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. Russia’s launch of the satellite the year before gave the Cold War a boost, adding a fresh layer of paranoia as the Communist orb orbited.

The Tchaikovsky Competition was intended to be a world-class event that would crown a Russian virtuoso and thus assert Soviet superiority in yet another realm. But the 23-year-old Cliburn, already making waves on the music scene, proved so irresistible a soloist that judges like Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, themselves renowned Russian virtuosi, insisted that the young Texan should take first place.

Not surprisingly, it caused an international sensation, putting Cliburn on the cover of Time and pitting classical music against political brinksmanship. This moment in history, which plausibly can be viewed as the first step towards the Soviet Union’s eventual dissolution, is examined in Stuart Isacoff’s new book When the World Stopped to Listen (Knopf, $27.95), which charts an intricate process in which the gifted pianist landed in the perfect place to put his talent to work for the good of mankind – even though the repercussions he suffered eventually cost him his career.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Road to Heaven

Here, for your Independence Day delectation, is a stirring anthem by Charles Ives, a setting of a poem by Vachel Lindsay.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Anything but Sandwiches

From the Food Vault Dept.: After a while, it became difficult to come up with fresh ideas for the annual Outdoor Dining article, but here’s one from eleven years ago that seemed to work and remains just as appropriate.


WE PACK THE CAR with folding canvas chairs, a cooler for drinks, a cooler for food, a portable grill – just in case – and the usual array of blankets and umbrellas and plastic plates and cutlery. And a wine opener. Never forget the wine opener.

Beirut Restaurant, Troy, NY
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But even before we rally the forces to head picnic-ward, the cry goes up: “A B S!” And that stands for Anything but Sandwiches.

Not that there’s anything horribly wrong the things. There’s no beating two slices of lightly toasted bread as a container for that toothsome mix of meat, veg and sauce, a container that travels easily to the mouth and waits until only until you bite down hard to spatter your shirt with sandwich guano.

We have been enchanted by the empanada, impressed with the Cornish pasty and, more recently, seduced by the wrap. But a sandwich of any kind never lets you forget that it’s food on the go. And what we want is food that helps us relax – food you’re better off consuming while sitting still.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Gaming the Jungle

From the Tech Vault Dept.: I tried to avoid computer games, figuring that my time was too ... but wait! Along came “Doom” and “Duke Nukem,” and I got hooked. For a while. Long enough to pen this review of yet another game, a piece that ran (minus my original lede, given here) in Computer Shopper magazine in early 1993.


COMPUTER WIZARDRY MEANS ADOLESCENT SUFFERING. But, as the movie “Revenge of the Nerds” suggested, that lanky Poindexter with the tape on his specs is nevertheless a randy guy who can think his way through problems that leave the hunky halfbacks scratching their heads.

Like it or not, the heritage of computer-adventure games sprang from the imaginations of those feverish boys who spent too much time alone in poorly-lighted rooms. We roamed through labyrinthine castles, crossed galaxies, and rescued a maiden or two, with crafty intelligence taking the place of the brute force of handsome movie heroes. Where else can the undersocialized go to vicariously triumph?

Access Software, known already for games with great graphics and interactive challenges, tops all previous efforts with “Amazon: Guardians of Eden.” The game has three out-of-the-box hooks: political correctness, as it reminds us that the Amazon forests need protection; an old-movie design, which turns us into characters from a 1957 cliff-hanger serial; and Super VGA support.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Soul of Schenectady

You Eat Where You Are Dept.: Here’s a review that ran recently in the pages of The Alt, but this is a pre-edited version.


MY WIFE PHONED to say she’d be late, adding, “I’m not really hungry. Don’t order for me.” We were about to put our college-age daughter, Lily, and Taylor, her friend, on a bus back to Manhattan, and decided that dinner out would be a nice celebration. By the time Susan reached our table, we had fried chicken and barbecued chicken and deep-fried pork chops and all manner of side-dishes piled high. Five minutes later, she, too, was attacking her own generously filled entrée plate.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Aunt Ronnie’s promises you won’t go away hungry. My wife’s experience proves that the whole concept of hunger is deceptive, especially when chicken dishes this delicious are involved.

It’s been open for a year and a half, in a Schenectady space known for many years as the Brandywine Diner. It’s easily accessed from I-890 (take Exit 6) and it’s the finest bargain in the area.

“This was my husband’s dream,” says Veronica (Ronnie) Clarke. “He wanted a restaurant. So I was behind him, because I can cook and everybody likes my cooking. I have a big family, and all of the functions usually happen at my house. And I do the majority of the cooking.”