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Monday, October 29, 2018

Working in Coffeehouses, Part 119

IT IS EASILY ARGUED THAT, more than ambiance, a coffeehouse needs wifi and enough room on the table for your computer, coffee, and cellphone. Of course, we’re far from the days of Addison and Steele, when a single, notable newspaper might be produced: now the coffees have designs etched in foam and the writing contributes to the solipsistic howls of a million little blogs.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But that doesn’t make it any less fun to work in the right place. I don’t require much. It’s nice to be considered a regular, at least when it gets you a free beverage now and then, but it’s nicer to find an electrical outlet yawning near your seat. As one for whom caffeine is forbidden, I have no patience with the snob joints that eschew decaf roasts. What may seem trendily arrogant from your Brooklyn-aping perch is a serious health issue for me. And I think your tattooed forearm looks silly.

I’d like the background music kept interesting and quiet. It doesn’t have to be classical – I subject myself to a sufficiency at home – but good taste in jazz counts for a lot, so how about a Bill Evans track or two? And please don’t try to imitate Starbucks. That pretentious, labor-hostile chain is annoying enough on its own. Be different. Call it a “large.”

Nothing furthers the cause of atmosphere more effectively that age, and there’s a spot in Manhattan’s West Village that is the hands-down champ of coffeehouse ambiance: Caffè Reggio at 119 MacDougal Street. I’ve written about the place before, but it’s worth revisiting, which I had the chance to do this evening.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Occupation: Conductor

AT THE CENTER OF THE DISCOGRAPHY of conductor Charles Munch are his many recordings with the Boston Symphony, which he music-directed from 1949 to 1962. A new 13-disc Warner Classics set bookends that era. While it far from completes Munch’s extensive discography (he recorded for many labels not included here), it does give us his first and final recordings and presents a fascinating look at his wide-ranging programming style.

Munch was unique. A renowned violinist who began his professional career as concertmaster of several significant European orchestras, he came to conducting with no specific schooling other than what he gleaned from playing under the baton of others. Never one to over-rehearse a piece, he was beloved by musicians who played for him because of his comparatively relaxed attitude and the passion he’d summon in concert, where the unpredictable result were typically triumphant.

He was born in 1891 in Strasbourg, in an Alsatian region that was variously claimed by Germany and France. Both languages were spoken in his house. During World War I he was conscripted into the German army; when Nazi Germany occupied Paris, he was conductor of two top orchestras in that city and contributed greatly to the French resistance, both financially and in the programming he selected.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Cal in Camo

THE BRAND-NEW DENIZEN THEATRE kicks off its first season with a new play in New Paltz, and it’s as well-produced and compelling a drama as you’re going to see in a good long time. “Cal in Camo” is a four-hander by William Francis Hoffman, receiving here its regional premiere, and it’s an excellent fit for the small house – a piece of theatrical chamber music, in essence, that explores some of the intricacies of family relationships.

John Hartzell and Valerie Lynn Brett
Which is, of course, fodder for so many plays – but the focus here is kept sharp, sentimentality is at a minimum (you’ll still shed tears), and, perhaps most importantly, the script never stoops to the superficiality of TV fare (an infection that has turned into theatrical MRSA).

It plays out on a spare, effective set (designed by Sean Breault) that gives us the kitchen of a small suburban house and its immediate outdoors. Here we meet Cal, a mother attempting to pump milk for her newborn. It’s not working. The scene shifts to a bar (our only venture away from the house), where Tim, Cal’s husband, is trying to sell the specialty beer whose distributor he represents. It’s not working, despite his winning ways. “It’s magic, this beer,” he explains, touting the flavorings that he guarantees will make it attractive to women. “And girls hate beer,” he insists. “It smells like their dad.” The bar owner, played in a low-key cameo by Craig Patrick Browne, has only this to offer: “It tastes like beer.”

Friday, October 19, 2018

Which Way the Wind Blows

THERE’S A CHAOS OF NOISE AND ACTIVITY as a group of movie people – directors, actors, hangers-on – wraps up a day on the set and prepares to travel to the desert home of actress Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer), to celebrate the 70th birthday of maverick director Jake Hannaford (John Huston). The procession is overrun with media people wielding cameras, recorders, notebooks, hurling questions at Hannaford and getting little in reply. Meanwhile, Hannaford’s  producer, Billy Boyle (Norman Foster), is in a screening room with Robert Evans-ish studio executive Max David (Geoffrey Land), previewing footage from Hannaford’s unfinished art film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” The footage is a beautiful and serene as the rest of this movie is not, as if to remind us that however topsy-turvy things may seem, it’s been done this way on purpose.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
This is the world of “The Other Side of the Wind,” a just-released movie from the 1970s that takes its title from the film within the film, and which emerged from a lengthy legal limbo to become the final motion picture written and directed by Orson Welles. There are other unfinished projects out there, but this is the last one he helmed and the one about which he was the most determined to finish.

Reviews have bookended it with “Citizen Kane,” Welles’s startling debut film. Both films are fictionalized biographies of famous men with actual antecedents, and both surpassed contemporaneous film techniques with innovative approaches to photography and editing, not to mention the art of storytelling itself. And it’s tempting to compare them, as if there’s any way to conclusively rate these movies. “Kane” is a much-studied classic enshrined in any worthy best-of list; “Wind” isn’t even in general release yet, and, like “Kane,” like any movie worthy of the art form, it needs to be experienced more than once before credible judgment can be passed.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Wine as Food

From the Wine Cellar Dept.: Twenty-eight years ago, there was a fun, informative, and generally delicious event held at Albany’s Desmond Hotel devoted to wine and food, a long weekend of seminars and tastings and top-of-the-line meals. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Schenectady Gazette profiling a tasting with winemaker Jim Fetzer. The family sold their namesake winery quite a few years ago, and Jim went on to found the Ceago Winery, from which he recently retired.


JIM FETZER WANTS TO TAKE the intimidation out of wine buying. “The general consumer is afraid of it and shouldn’t be,” he says, suggesting that the two biggest questions have to do with price and pairing.

Jim Fetzer
“When my father founded the winery, he saw a need to produce wines people could afford to drink every day.” Jim, the winery’s current president, is one of eleven siblings, ten of whom are actively involved in a business that employs about 350.

He was in the area recently to conduct a seminar on wine and food matching at the Desmond Americana, bringing with him a supply of the Fetzer product along with winemaker Dennis Martin. It was a seminar with a difference, however, because it is designed to teach the teachers – the hotel’s food and beverage staff.

A slide presentation describing the Fetzer operation began the session, offering an armchair tour of the pleasant-looking Mendocino County facility. “We farm about 1400 acres of grapes,” Fetzer explained, “450 of them organically, the largest such area in the world.”

Friday, October 12, 2018

Tales from the Crypts

“THE LOVE OF ANOTHER will destroy the causes of my hatred!” The hulking figure is shadowed, his dark-rimmed eyes suggesting both ugliness and torment. He appeared suddenly, lit only by a flashlight, the beam of which turned on the audience to silhouette the keening monster. His voice wove pain and anger into a sound of heartbreaking beauty, as baritone Joshua Jeremiah gave life to the world premiere of composer Gregg Kallor’s “Sketches from Frankenstein” in the Catacombs at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

Joshua Jeremiah in "Sketches from Frankenstein"
Photo by Kevin Condon
Audacity informed everything about this performance, which took place on the chill evening of October 10. The cemetery itself sports a knoll that gives a panorama running from the Battery to Bayonne, and we began the journey there with a whiskey-tasting that continued in a nearby columbarium. Among the distillers: Pugilist Spirits, whose Prizefight Irish Whiskey is a transatlantic creation; Virgil Kaine, which shared a ginger-infused bourbon; and Brooklyn’s own Van Brunt Stillhouse. While such lubrication is always welcome, the dusk-spangled view was also an integral part of the experience. It made the trip into the Catacombs all the more oppressive.

Oh, it seems delightful at first. Here’s this 19th-century crypt hotel, tunneled into a hillside, intended to assuage those worried about being buried alive. Which seems an absurd worry – until you enter the world of Edgar Allan Poe. His “Tell-Tale Heart,” also set by Kallor, was another item on the musical program.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Culinary Junction

From the Food Vault Dept.: It was incredible enough to find fine dining in Canajoharie, a rural village where pizza would be the favored fare, and more incredible still that this restaurant pursued its ingredients from nearby purveyors. It was too good to last, and it didn’t. The space is now home to Gino’s, a pizza place.


SEPTEMBER SIGNIFIES HARVEST SEASON, which is the time to think again about the 100-Mile Diet Challenge. Eating locally is about fueling your body with the freshest possible ingredients, but it’s also much more: It’s a way of rebelling against the corporate control of farming; it conserves that temendous amount of energy wasted on food transportation, and it offers the probability that your food hasn’t been genetically debilitated.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
In his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben describes the challenge of eating locally throughout a Vermont year, and it can be done with some creative changes of menu – especially during the winter months. But McKibben’s Champlain Valley – like our Mohawk and Hudson Valleys – is an especially bounteous area, offering not only plenty of produce but also a wealth of small farms that specialize in conscientious meat production.

The menu at Church and Main makes a point of listing those purveyors. Free Bird Farm and Hand’s Honey are from the western Montgomery County neighborhood; somewhat farther afield are Highland Farms in Red Hook and Newport’s Sunset Hill Farm. Local co-ops also provide ingredients.

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Big Cheese

IT EMERGES FROM a milky, opaque bath the temperature of bodily fluids, and it’s a white rubbery mass that looks like a medical mistake. My next task is to drain the fluid away from it – saving the runoff, of course – and compact the stuff in a cylindrical mold. Upon which it will yield to a succession of ever-heavier weights, until it’s ready for storage. It’s going to be a wheel of pecorino, a sheep’s-milk cheese born in Italy (where sheep are pecora) and which has a fabulously complex flavor when it emerges from its five or six months of aging.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
When I learned that I could buy sheep’s milk from some Amish neighbors, I determined to make my own pecorino. I’m working on my fourth wheel of the stuff, and I can confidently state that I don’t know at all what I’m doing.

Beyond the milk itself, you need gear. And chemicals. And a recipe. And once you start reading about cheese, you realize that starting with pecorino is like picking up a violin and expecting to play the Beethoven concerto. You should practice your way towards with easier stuff.

Nevertheless, I want to have my own pecorino. Thus did I begin. I acquired the chemicals – a thermophilic starter culture, which inoculates the milk with necessary bacteria; lipase, an enzyme that acts as a flavoring agent; and rennet, an enzyme that starts the curd thickening. I should have built my own press, but I was impatient. I bought one that accommodates two- and five-pound molds, and which allows you to use the physics of its press lever to arrive at the correct weight: for example, when I hang a ten-pound bag of rice at a particular groove near the lever’s end, I’m applying forty pounds of weight to the cheese.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Time for Catastrophe

THE IDEA OF A CIRCUS invites grotesque imagery, as demonstrated, in movies, at least, by the likes of “La Strada,” “Saboteur,” and “Nightmare Alley.” As a context for the plays of Samuel Beckett, it underscores the vaudeville aspect that informs many of those plays as well as reinforcing the playwright’s unique use of language. Circus talk is perfunctory and hortatory. The Ringmaster (Ethan Botwick) who led the audience into Troy’s cavernous Gasholder Building wasted no words in directing the crowd to the attractions, including a half-dozen playing areas and a concession area offering popcorn, cotton candy, and appropriate libations.

John Romeo in "Krapp's Last Tape."
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This was actually a return to the circus for the historic structure, which spent 25 years as the winter home for the Oscar C. Buck sideshow companies that toured the country back in the day. But I’m sure that Buck could never have envisioned Beckett as the entertainment’s backbone.

The Gasholder was the setting for “Catastrophe Carnivale: An Evening of Beckett Shorts,” the opening show of the second season for Troy Foundry Theatre, a company that gypsies around the city to present its shows in unusual and appropriate venues.

It’s an approach that resonates with a question posed by the young Beckett: “Must we wring the neck of a certain system in order to stuff it into a contemporary pigeon-hole, or modify the dimensions of that pigeon-hole for the satisfaction of the analogymongers?”* The pigeon-holes  here answered to no one. Center stage, so to speak, was “Krapp’s Last Tape,” a monologue piece that pits an old man against a tape recording of his 30-years-younger self. It’s got the vaudeville flavor of Beckett’s more famous “Waiting for Godot” in that the process of self-examination is riddled with absurdity. Krapp has a banana; Krapp lovingly unrolls its skin; Krapp eats the banana, not so lovingly; Krapp slips on the banana peel.