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Friday, November 30, 2018

Russian Carnival

From the Vault Dept.: One of a series of liner notes I wrote for the sadly defunct Dorian Recordings label, although I swear my involvement with the concern had nothing to do with their downfall. This was for a CD of works by Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, and Anthony DiLorenzo, lovingly described below – and with notes on the DiLorenzo piece by Tony himself..


BACK IN THE LATE ’60s, after conducting a rip-snorting performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” conductor Leopold Stokowski turned to the applauding Carnegie Hall audience and shouted, “Wonderful Russian music!” At which the audience stood and cheered.

In the late ’70s, while airing a recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a radio announcer in Connecticut got a phone call from an angry listener who berated him for playing commie music – the same piece that has reduced an audience to tears with its trenchantly mournful slow movement.

Russian music has excited similar passions for centuries, politics aside. With a thousand-year-old history behind it that includes an Orthodox singing traditon, strong Byzantine and (in the 18th century) Italian influences, not to mention a varied and rhythmic folksong heritage. It’s well known that Stravinsky’s sensual “Rite of Spring” inspired rioting at its 1913 Paris premiere, but even the relatively staid Tchaikovsky inspired howls of nervous derision at what was then judged to be the barbaric nature of his music.

This recording collects music by some of the best-known Russian composers of the 19th and 20th centuries – and adds a new work by an American composer strongly influenced by the Russians.

Monday, November 26, 2018

When Genius Remained Your Humble Servant

Guest Blogger Dept.: Here’s Robert Benchley, back to set us straight about the travails of correspondence, which clearly was in a parlous state even in those dark old pre-e-mail days.


OF COURSE, I REALLY KNOW NOTHING ABOUT IT, but I would be willing to wager that the last words of Penelope, as Odysseus bounced down the front steps, bag in hand, were: “Now, don't forget to write, Odie. You'll find some papyrus rolled up in your clean peplum, and just drop me a line on it whenever you get a chance.”

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
And ever since that time people have been promising to write, and then explaining why they haven’t written. Most personal correspondence of to-day consists of letters the first half of which are given over to an indexed statement of reasons why the writer hasn’t written before, followed by one paragraph of small talk, with the remainder devoted to reasons why it is imperative that the letter be brought to a close. So many people begin their letters by saying that they have been rushed to death during the last month, and therefore haven’t found time to write, that one wonders where all the grown persons come from who attend movies at eleven in the morning. There has been a misunderstanding of the word “busy” somewhere.

So explanatory has the method of letter writing become that it is probable that if Odysseus were a modern traveler his letters home to Penelope would average something like this:

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thai to Remember

OUR THAI CUSINE-INSPIRED Thanksgiving dinner had a preparation of khao soi, a wonderful coconut milk-based soup, as its centerpiece. Turkey appeared in the curry; an a-la-minute pad Thai satisfied the need for rice-stick noodles. The menu is below. Here's what we did in 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 1990 to 2012.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Carnival of Animals

HOW SENTIENT ARE OUR DOMESTICATED BEASTS? How about beasts in general? We’d like to think that those creatures we take into our houses and hearts, at least, have a capacity to reckon – but for many years we’ve been accused of anthropomorphizing the animals: informing them with human characteristics they can’t possibly have.

Isabella Rossellini and Pan
Isabella Rossellini knows otherwise, and science has been catching up with her. Her show “Link Link Circus,” which played at Bard College’s Fisher Center last Saturday (following acclaimed runs in Manhattan and throughout Europe), presents a cheerful array of lectures, sketches, films, animations, and circus tricks all in the service of animals.

One of which, a dog named Peter Pan, considerably ups the “awww” factor. Like Liberace, the dog goes by its surname; unlike the pianist, Pan doesn’t rely on costumes for effect. But that didn’t stop him from appearing in a dazzling array. Pan is a rescue dog, and we learned that Rossellini is deeply involved with animal rescue and training. In addition to dogs, her Long Island farm accommodates populations of chickens and bees.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Art of Irony

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III AND DAVID BROMBERG are guitar-playing singer-songwriters who gained fame in the 1970s, but who, beyond that, would seem to have little in common. One was termed a “new Bob Dylan”; the other recorded with him. Both record and perform with varying configurations of ensemble; both are keen students of American songwriting traditions. Wainwright performed solo during their Nov. 10 appearance at the Troy Music Hall; Bromberg was surrounded by ten other instrumentalists and singers. And the still-hale baby-boomer audience proudly shook its whitened manes as the house commenced to rock.

Mike Davis, Birch Johnason, Suavek Zaniesienko, and
David Bromberg | Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Wainwright opened, going back to his 1973 album “Attempted Mustache” (superb title and cover art) for “Come a Long Way,” setting the stage for a thirteen-song set that would comment on family, relationships amorous and otherwise, holidays, and, briefly and memorably, politics. Bromberg’s opener, his own “Sloppy Drunk,” set us up for a different kind of set, in which lyrics of defiance and pain would be set off by blistering solos.

It’s well understood that Wainwright (by and large) is singing his own songs; Bromberg never calls attention to the songs her performs that are his own compositions, which means that they nestle amidst classics by others with similar craftsmanship and timelessness. What links the two most thoroughly is irony. Classic blues songs have that built in, and the best work of both performers tell stories of love pushed awry.

Take Wainwright’s “Donations.” It presents an “in case of accident” scenario: “I’'m an unmarried orphan whose children have scattered, / Estranged from my siblings, / close friends just a few. / And of those few friends I consider you closest. / They must contact someone. / Could they contact you?” Delivered, characteristically, with smirking awareness of the question’s craziness. The classic blues plaint casts the singer as the not-too-innocent victim, and Bromberg deftly mines that genre with lyrics like, “The first time the girl quit me – this month / She wouldn’t even tell me why. / I couldn’t eat, sleep, drink, or work; / It was all I could do to just lie across the bed and cry.”

Monday, November 12, 2018

Keep Your Temper

A RECENT ISSUE of a classical-music magazine sports a letter from a reader who is aggrieved by the practice of singers to perform Baroque and earlier works with well-tempered interval values. Dramatic impact would be heightened, she argues, if those leading tones led a little more acutely, as Nature and the composer intended. Until the composer was Bach, who created the most famous exercise in well-tempered tuning.

Mahan Esfahani
Tune a keyboard from one note to the next and you’ll end up with extremes wildly out of tune with each other. This is a simplified explanation of a natural phenomenon that didn’t bother musicians much until more sophisticated instruments allowed the ability to play in a range of key signatures. The twelve-note scale to which western listeners are accustomed produces 24 major and minor keys, so Bach celebrated this by writing a set of preludes and fugues in each of those keys. Twice.

It’s a pedagogical exercise, sure, but it’s also music by Bach, which means that it offers transcendent rewards. His preludes offer moods; his fugues fuse emotion with time. A fugue opens with a sequence of notes that’s not quite a theme because it exists in order to reflect upon itself as successive iterations of the sequence occur. Thus, there’s always a characteristic striking enough to allow even the unaccustomed ear to pick out the not-quite theme as it appears and appears again in different registers while surrounded by accompanying musings.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Woods So Wild

JAMES LAPINE’S BOOK for the musical “Into the Woods” drew on the work of Bruno Bettelheim and Joseph Campbell to fashion a narrative that captured a number of seemingly disparate stories and intertwined them. Seemingly, because these stories all address a handful of fundamental fears, and, like all timeless storytelling, seek to offer some manner of comfort.

Gabriella Garcia and Celena Vera Morgan
Photo by Jazelle Photography
“The woods” offers the perfect hostile environment. It’s a place beyond cultivation; its native inhabitants are untamed. It’s a place of massive growth and what seems to be tangled confusion. In short, it’s an extension of our own fevered imaginations. But where, really, are the terrors today? I’d hazard the living room as potentially nasty place, being home to domestic conflict and that greatest of fearmongers, the TV set. Certainly it was terrifying to me to grow up with parents sparring nightly in knock-down-drag-outs, and I’ve had my own share of direct participation in squabbles since.

A pleasant living room (or gallery room, or performance space – call it as you will) provided the space for nine actors and a small audience group to engage in an up-close spectacle of a journey that (somewhat didactically) reminds us that storytelling is everything. That we must guide the children we bring into this world. And that witches aren’t necessarily all that bad.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Strike Force

PICKET LINES DON’T VARY MUCH. Marchers carry signs and chant slogans, and there’s usually some speechifying and music. When the strike looks to be long-term, a lot of planning and financial backing is needed. And participants need to withstand the nastiness both of the bosses and of the ignorant who have soaked up and spout the anti-union rhetoric made more and more popular since onetime Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan wandered into the White House.  

Patrick Meyer energizing the picket line.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
An enthusiastic supporter of the Hollywood Blacklist, Reagan remained a tool of Hollywood forces who sought to do away with hard-won union jobs. But the cause of anti-unionism has its most ardent champion in the current White House occupant, who has redistributed Labor Department forces to exponentially increase the resources available to dismantle organized labor.

The Screen Actors Guild picket line that formed outside the Tribeca headquarters of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty numbered about 400, most of them actors, but with support from several other unions. The Guild’s recent consolidation with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists six years ago created the more powerful bargaining unit SAG-AFTRA, which has seen much success in negotiating its way around the dizzying changes in entertainment technology, but will forever face the greedy forces of bosses crying poor-mouth.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Alls Wells in Williston

“LET ME SHOW YOU HOW COUNTRY FEELS,” sings Randy Houser before the lights dim for the start of “Williston,” a new play by Adam Seidel. And then we’re in that kind of country, in a mobile home, a one-room misery in an oil town in the northwest corner of North Dakota. A real town that suddenly turned expensive thanks to its oil resources.

Robert LuPone, Drew Ledbetter, and Kate Grimes
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
It’s the headquarters for three representatives of Smith Oil, a small, family-run business that stands a chance of leasing the last remaining chunk of oil-rich land in the area. Enough of a deal is at stake to give Larry, the oldest of the group, visions of a magnificent commission – and he’s enough of an old hand at this process that success is all but certain. If “Indian Jim” is as ready to sign as he seems.

The only hitch, as Larry sees it, is the possibility that the new guy, Tom, might screw things up. Tom has never been on this kind of mission before and, at 34, he still seems (to Larry, at least) green around the edges. Which puts Barb, their third, uncomfortably between them. It’s not a position Barb enjoys – she was barely civil to Tom at their first meeting – but her crankiness is nothing compared to Larry’s foul-mouthed, know-it-all, high-energy rancor.