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Friday, March 30, 2018

Background to Ambler

HIS LITERARY CAREER began with a parody and soon reinvented the genre he’d mocked. But Eric Ambler first wanted to be a playwright, and had a few brushes with moderate success in 1930s London. He paid his bills writing advertising copy, and surprised himself – and his bosses – by writing copy persuasive enough inspire a run on an outmoded car headlamp that had been all but abandoned by its manufacturer. Could he turn the power of the written word into an espionage thriller?

Eric Ambler
It was a genre that included significant work by John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps) and W. Somerset Maugham (Ashenden) – both later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock – but it also was clogged by routine works of reliable cliché. “It was the villains who bothered me most,” wrote Ambler in his autobiography, Here Lies. “Power-crazed or coldly sane, I no longer believed a word of them.” As for the story’s hero, “all he really needed to function ... was abysmal stupidity combined with superhuman resourcefulness and unbreakable knuckle bones.”

The parody aspect of The Dark Frontier, with which Ambler entered the genre in 1936, has itself grown as creaky as that which it lampoons; fortunately, that aspect fades as the narrative gathers speed. What remains significant about the novel is its prediction of an atomic bomb as weapon, and a mise en scène that incorporates plausible (if not downright factual) aspects of European political history. This sense of history would characterize Ambler’s next few novels, beginning with Background to Danger (Uncommon Danger in the UK), published the following year.

Monday, March 26, 2018

From Stuttgart with Mozart

From the Classical Vault: It turns out that the my review below celebrated the first American visit from the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra with conductor Patrick Strub, part of a sixteen-city tour, which was followed by another such tour the following year. Strub is longtime artistic director of the Christophorus-Symphony-Orchestra Stuttgart, comprising students en route to professional careers, and he’s the founder and music director of Arcata Stuttgart, a chamber orchestra.


TROY – The toughest slot to fill when programming a concert is that first piece. It's the one that sets the standard for the rest of the show.

Patrick Strub
Classical groups have got this convenient store of goodies that are used repeatedly, almost all of it by Haydn or Mozart. Which should be an honor to those composers, but it often seems as if that opener is a throwaway piece the group warms up on.

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra performed at the Troy Music Hall Tuesday evening; sure enough, there was a Mozart Divertimento to kick things off.

Conductor Patrick Strub makes his American debut with the orchestra on this tour. He is a young man (40 is young in the classical world) who entered confidently and, with a little flourish, gave the downbeat to the 17-member ensemble of strings.

And they played that little Mozart piece with more joy and affection than I've ever heard in concert. It was perfect Mozart. Every phrase was a song without words.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Eternal War

From the Stage Vault Dept.: How best to put an epic like The Iliad on the stage? Why, with a solo actor and the assistance of a cellist, as Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation showed us a year ago at Albany’s Capital Rep.


A LENGTHY RECITATION of the world’s major wars would seem more numbing than dramatic, but as spoken by David Barlow in “An Iliad,” it becomes a frozen moment of pain as the fantastic events of ancient Greece are dropped onto the map of places like Syria and Iraq.

David Barlow in An Iliad
“An Iliad” retells Homer’s epic as you might hear it in a tavern – “Or ‘bar,’ as you call it,” says the Poet, as Barlow’s character is called, as he orients himself to his current locale. He’s a drifter with a suitcase and a bottle of gin who greets us in Greek, then switches to English to begin the tale that will grip us for the next ninety minutes, but warning us, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”

O, but he’s more than mere poet. It’s one thing to sing of these mighty events, and quite another to fully inhabit, as he does, the characters thus presented. The angry hauteur of Barlow’s Agamemnon contrasts convincingly with the stubbornness of Achilles and with Hector’s boyish energy. Even the minor characters, like flighty Paris and good-ole-boy Patroclus, are limned with deft detail.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Selling the Schelling

From the Musical Vault: The Albany Symphony has a new recording out of music by Michael Daugherty, with whom the ensemble has long been associated (here’s a review of a performance of one of his more unusual works), and, while preparing a review of the new CD, I ran across this review of a 1998 concert featuring an obscure work by a (now) obscure composer: Ernest Schelling. Few recordings of his works are out there; most significant is the disc mentioned below.


BOTH ERNEST SCHELLING AND GUSTAV MAHLER were composer-conductors, but the New Jersey-born Schelling, 16 years Mahler’s junior, made his name initially as a piano virtuoso. Despite many concert appearances, two years as conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, fifteen years of teaching and a number of published compositions, Schelling is as unknown as Mahler is revered.

Ernest Schelling
Pianist Mary Louise Boehm is on an Albany Records CD with an hour’s worth of his solo works, so it appropriately was she who appeared with the Albany Symphony last Friday as part of Schelling’s bombastic, episodic and sometimes downright goofy 1915-vintage “Impressions from an Artist’s Life,” subtitled (for all such works must be subtitled) “Symphonic Variations for Orchestra with Obbligato Piano.”

We’re not talking one of your flashy show-off works. This isn’t Rachmaninoff, although there’s a feel of that composer’s style in the introduction, which showcases the soloist. I suspect Schelling wrote it this way to satisfy those expecting to see his virtuoso side. Intro out of the way, the work settles into a pleasing theme and 18 variations, each section paying tribute to a friend or concept. So we veer from a lighthearted nod to Fritz Kreisler, as piano and violas play a variation reminiscent of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1, to a huge warlike segment with tattoos of trumpets and drums (this was the time of the Great War) that slams into the Dies irae, the familiar “day of wrath” melody from the Roman Missal.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Portion out of Control

From the Food Vault: Ten years ago, I wrote about this strip-mall restaurant, which endured for several years before giving way to the Mexican eatery that now occupies its space.


AS THE NAME SUGGESTS, it began as a takeout business. This was five years ago, when chef-owner Gerry Cunsolo decided to offer customers the opportunity to enjoy at their own homes the cooking he grew up with at his home. But people do like to dine out, so about a year ago he took advantage of a newly-empty next-door space to expand and offer table service.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The result is a comfortable hybrid, with anything from pizzas to full dinners crossing the take-out counter, which is what you’ll see upon entering, to a more relaxed dining room where you’ll enjoy the same meals but with a styrofoam delay.

And that’s because the portions are so gravity-defying large that you’ll still leave laden with take-out containers.

Carmen Plaza sits on a stretch of Route 146 between Guilderland and Schenectady, home to the usual strip-mall array, and it’s obviously a work in progress, with several vacant spots awaiting tenantry. The huddle of cars in front of Chef’s Take Out when we visited made it easy enough to find, although the huge signs promising pasta and pizza also helped.

We were put through an interesting phenomenon I’m sure you’ve noticed often. Despite the several empty tables in the dining room’s center, any one of which comfortably would have seated our threesome, we had to wait until a booth was cleaned and re-set. Booths run along two of the room’s walls, and that’s where most of the diners were seated (the exception was a six-top at the back of the room).

Monday, March 12, 2018

Élégance baroque

OUR EARS HAVE GROWN ACCUSTOMED TO a range of rhythm and harmony that probably would baffle or even antagonize someone living a couple of centuries ago. By the same token, the music that pleased that long-ago listener isn’t going to grab us with the intensity it had at its birth. Not only are we pummeled with plangent sounds but we’ve also been background-musicked to a point where it’s easy for most tunes to seem to disappear.

Can you send yourself, as a listener, back to an earlier time? This could mean, if your destination is the 18th century, eliminating things like automobiles and the landscape that goes with them. Which also means that the notion of time itself is different. Travel takes days, not hours. Communication is conducted in person or by slow correspondence. Life is hometown-centered.  Life is slower. Listening is different.

With a casual auditing, the music of Antoine and Jean-Baptiste Forqueray can slip into the background. There’s a sameness to the pieces, especially when taken over the course of a new four-CD set of their complete works. Listening with 18th-century ears, however, reveals the richness of the pieces, which turn out to be complex and varied. And, according to the composers’ contemporaries, difficult to play.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Fantastic Voyage

DESPITE THE BEST EFFORTS of my elementary-school science teachers, the world of biology only really opened up for me as I thrilled to the exploits of Arthur Kennedy, Raquel Welch, and Donald Pleasance as they were shrunk to microbe size and sent into the bloodstream of a wounded scientist to effect a cure. Nothing brought home the battles fought by our bodies’ antibodies as did the skirmishes in the movie “Fantastic Voyage” – nothing, that is, until the book The Hidden Half of Nature put it into a compelling story that moves between the biosphere without and the microbiota within.

Authors David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé have written a book that also sends you on a thrilling trip through the bloodstream – alongside voyages through the digestive tract (where the colon is the underslung hero), and the soil, and the earthworm .. and through a succession of laboratories as researchers through the centuries uncover the intricacies of growth and disease. In their way, these travels are even more fantastic than anything that movie could imagine – and they’re a tough reminder that, as a culture, we’re ignoring the lessons they teach at our peril.

Although we begin by looking at the garden that Biklé cultivates at their new Seattle home, we’re soon drawn into an examination of the exhausted soil below, soil that came to life as the couple began feeding it organic matter: wood chips, coffee grounds, a substance called “zoo doo” made available by the city’s Woodland Park Zoo. It’s all in service of the microbes.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Beauties of the German Language

Guest Blogger Dept.: Mark Twain’s diaries finally have been published in their entirety, and they’re a joy. (At least until you get halfway through the third and final volume, where you’ll bog down in an appendix in which Twain details the perfidy of a pair of employees.) Here’s a delightfully politically incorrect excerpt. The story has been told by many, but rarely so well.


Mark Twain
February 3, Vienna. (1898) Lectured for the benefit of a charity last night, in the Bösendorfersaal. Just as I was going on the platform a messenger delivered to me an envelope with my name on it, and this written under it: “Please read one of these tonight.” Enclosed were a couple of newspaper clippings—two versions of an anecdote, one German, the other English. I was minded to try the German one on those people, just to see what would happen, but my courage weakened when I noticed the formidable look of the closing word, and I gave it up. A pity, too, for it ought to read well on the platform, and get an encore. That or a brickbat, there is never any telling what a new audience will do; their tastes are capricious. The point of this anecdote is a justifiable gibe at the German long word, and is not as much of an exaggeration as one might think. The German long word is not a legitimate construction, but an ignoble artificiality, a sham. It has no recognition by the dictionary, and is not found there. It is made by jumbling a lot of words into one, in a quite unnecessary way, it is a lazy device of the vulgar and a crime against the language. Nothing can be gained, no valuable amount of space saved, by jumbling the following words together on a visiting card: “Mrs. Smith, widow of the late Commander-in-Chief of the Police Department,” yet a German widow can persuade herself to do it, without much trouble:

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Online Forms Here

WELCOME TO INTERNET ACCESS SECURITY CLEARANCE (IASC). In accordance with the Federal Anti-Terrorism Online Resources and Protection Act of 2011 (U.S.C. Title 50, Chapter 44), we are required by law to collect certain information from citizens who would seek to use the internet. Your participation in this survey is entirely voluntary. Failure to provide reasonable answers will result in a denial of internet access.

1. Will your proposed session
     be for personal or business use?

A. Personal
B. Business           


Thank you.

2.  Have you ever been convicted of a
     felony offense?

A. Yes
B. No