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Monday, May 28, 2018

The Worthiest War

Guest Blogger Dept.: Who better to celebrate Decoration Day with than Mark Twain? Here’s a selection from Albert Bigelow Paine’s massive four-volume biography of Twain, published in 1912, to be followed by The Boy's Life of Mark Twain (1916), Mark Twain's Letters, (two volumes, 1917), A Short Life of Mark Twain (1920), and Mark Twain's Speeches (1923). This excerpt finds Twain in Vienna in the winter of 1989.


CLEMENS AND HIS FAMILY, as Americans, did not always have a happy time of it. It was the eve of the Spanish-American War and most of continental Europe sided with Spain. Austria, in particular, was friendly to its related nation; and from every side the Clemenses heard how America was about to take a brutal and unfair advantage of a weaker nation for the sole purpose of annexing Cuba.

Charles Langdon and his son Jervis happened to arrive in Vienna about this time, bringing straight from America the comforting assurance that the war was not one of conquest or annexation, but a righteous defense of the weak. Mrs. Clemens gave a dinner for them, at which, besides some American students, were Mark Hambourg, Gabrilowitsch, and the great Leschetizky himself. Leschetizky, an impetuous and eloquent talker, took this occasion to inform the American visitors that their country was only shamming, that Cuba would soon be an American dependency. No one not born to the language could argue with Leschetizky. Clemens once wrote of him:

Friday, May 25, 2018

Weekend Update

BACK IN 1968, when I was a slip of a boy, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which affixed Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, removing the flotation quality it (and three other secular holidays – there’s a contradiction in terms!) had sported when it was affixed to the 30th of that month. The Veterans of Foreign Wars decried this over a decade ago, noting that the three-day weekend thus presented “has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

It was known as Decoration Day up until around World War II, when the current moniker was affixed. It draws on a long tradition of decorating gravesites once the weather has warmed, and became particularly meaningful after the horrors of the Civil War, which was when the late-May practice began to become ritualized enough to warrant an official observance. Naturally, there’s some jockeying among those towns claiming to have been first, with the Finger Lakes-region town of Waterloo, NY, claiming a precedent that was officially endorsed by President Johnson in 1966, which would have been the centenary of that first celebration except for a newspaper error that set that event two years earlier than it actually occurred.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Teddy Wilson Touch

WE’RE TALKING ABOUT the most poised, the most elegant of jazz pianists. It’s no surprise that Teddy Wilson trained in classical music at first – the mighty influence of Bach alone has been acknowledged by keyboard wizards ranging from Fats Waller to Keith Jarrett, with a significant stop at Bill Evans. The influence shows in Wilson’s technical facility, of course, but there also is evidence in his harmonic language and in the construction of his solos, which build with a rare combination of logic, inevitability, and surprise.

You know him as part of Benny Goodman’s breakout trio and quartet configurations in the 1930s, when jazz was given its most visible portrait of racial integration; you also know him as the leader of Billie Holiday’s favorite recording ensemble. The Wilson recordings you’re missing are massed in a lavish seven-CD box set from Mosaic Records (which makes the term “lavish” redundant) that collects his work from 1934 to 1942.

The 21-year-old Wilson hit the recording studio for the first time in October 1933 for a couple of sessions with Benny Carter; the following May he cut four sides with a Goodman ensemble, and a week later recorded his first solo sides, which is where the Mosaic collection begins. Although new to recordings, he’d been performing long enough to have the beginnings of a distinctive style in place.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Fable of the Brash Drummer and the Peach Who Learned That There Were Others

Guest Blogger Dept.: Oh, my stars and garters! We haven’t heard from George Ade in a while. S.J. Perelman regarded Ade as the greatest American humorist, and who am I to argue? Here’s one of Ade’s wonderful Fables in Slang.


Drawing by Clyde J. Newman
A WELL-FIXED MORTGAGE SHARK, residing at a Way Station, had a Daughter whose Experience was not as large as her prospective Bank Roll. She had all the component Parts of a Peach, but she didn't know how to make a Showing, and there was nobody in Town qualified to give her a quiet Hunch.

She got her Fashion Hints from a Trade Catalogue, and took her Tips on Etiquette and Behavior from the Questions and Answers Department of an Agricultural Monthly.

The Girl and her Father lived in a big White House, with Evergreen Trees and whitewashed Dornicks in front of it, and a Wind-Pump at the rear. Father was a good deal the same kind of a Man as David Harum, except that he didn't let go of any Christmas Presents, or work the Soft Pedal when he had a chance to apply a Crimp to some Widow who had seen Better Days. In fact, Daughter was the only one on Earth who could induce him to Loosen Up.

Now, it happened that there came to this Town every Thirty Days a brash Drummer, who represented a Tobacco House. He was a Gabby Young Man, and he could Articulate at all Times, whether he had anything to Say or not.

Friday, May 11, 2018

You’re the Pops

From the Vault Dept.: There was a time when major orchestras visited the Capital Region with alarming frequency. True, they didn’t draw much of an audience – this is a stubbornly middlebrow crowd – but some ensembles, like the Boston Pops, have enough of a non-threatening reputation to fill lots of seats. Here’s my report of their visit in 2000, followed by an interview with conductor Keith Lockhart (now in his 23rd year helming the group).


“DOESN’T THE GYM LOOK GREAT TONIGHT?” So exclaimed Dom DeLuise before he launched into a reading of Clement Moore’s Visit from St. Nicholas with the Boston Pops last week, and he certainly captured the essence of the ambiance.

Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops
Because the Boston Pops gave a sell-out performance at Proctor’s Theatre two years ago, this year’s appearance was booked into the much larger arena. The orchestra was placed on risers at one end of the rink, the bulk of the floor space given to tables at which the best-heeled guests were seated, sipping wine. The rest of us took to the plastic chairs in the risers.

Two very contrasting characteristics were at work during this concert. First, of course, is the excellent orchestra and its dynamic conductor, Keith Lockhart, whose energy is so infectious that he could conduct a road repair crew and make it sound exciting. The orchestra is famous for its sound, but that quality was lost thanks to the second characteristic: the hall.

Monday, May 07, 2018

When My Movie Snarls at Me

From the Projection Booth Dept.: The Bobs have officially disbanded – they stopped by Caffe Lena, a longtime local performance venue for them, to sing goodbye to area fans – but we can still enjoy this unique a cappella quartet through their many recordings and this delightful documentary, which I reviewed a decade ago.


OVERWHELMING MAINSTREAM SUCCESS is given to but a handful these days, and typically results more from marketing than talent. The Bobs, an a-cappella foursome, never have had a hit record, they have grown a maniacally loyal, Internet-connected fan base that buys the recordings and supports the group’s cross-country – and international – tours. Not bad for a foursome sans instruments.

Lacking the pulsing drumbeat of most pop music, close-harmony singing appeals through texture and innovation. So right away your fan base is going to be that much hipper. In “Sign My Snarling Movie,” a new documentary celebrating the Bobs’ quarter century, we see those fans exult over this group, and learn that they pursue the Bobs’ concert appearances as avidly as any Deadheads.

Most of the performance footage is drawn from recent anniversary get-togethers at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, bringing together seven of the eight past and present Bobs. Founding members Gunnar Madsen and Matthew Stull reminisce about their start as members of San Francisco’s Western Onion Singing Telegram Company, which inspired them to go out on their own – adding bass Richard Greene and soprano Janie Scott along the way.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Force of Your Nature

From the Theater Vault Dept.: This was a show I missed during its development and eventual success in NYC, so I was glad to see it when the tour hit Schenectady last year. Following my review is an interview I did with Euan Morton.


HANSEL SCHMIDT, growing up in a walled-off East Berlin, is a divided person seeking a unity only, it seems, to be found in myth – an Aristophanean myth of a third gender. We meet him after he has transitioned into Hedwig Robinson, a wanna-be glam-rock queen whose self-deprecating wit and compelling way with song and story propels a heart-rending and ultimately uplifting saga of a search to which we’re all subject.

Euan Morton as Hedwig | Photo by Joan Marcus
The clash between self-determination and forces of nature drives “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” through a story too improbably not to believe, and Euan Morton, as Hedwig, is his own force of nature, tearing up the stage in high-heeled boots as he delivers high-energy, hard-rocking numbers like “Angry Inch” (describing the botched sex-change operation that leaves her in an even more indeterminate state), and, eventually, ballads like “Hedwig’s Lament.”

The theme of dismemberment runs through many of the numbers, explored in physical and psychological ways. Hedwig is pursuing an ex-boyfriend, the far-more-successful rock star Tommy Gnosis, who is performing in a nearby arena.