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Monday, December 31, 2018

How to Sell Goods

Guest Blogger Dept.: I was delighted to spend time recently with Nat Benchley, grandson of the humorist whose work I revere, and to discover that (among his many varied talents and interests) Nat strives to keep his grandfather’s legacy alive, and abetted that cause by issuing two CDs that collect nearly two dozen stories in Nat’s very effective readings. So as not to compete, the story below is not among them.


THE RETAIL MERCHANTS’ ASSOCIATION ought to buy up all the copies of “Elements of Retail Salesmanship,” by Paul Westley Ivey (Macmillan), and not let a single one get into the hands of a customer, for once the buying public reads what is written there the game is up. It tells all about how to sell goods to people, how to appeal to their weaknesses, how to exert subtle influences which will win them over in spite of themselves. Houdini might as well issue a pamphlet giving in detail his methods of escape as for the merchants of this country to let this book remain in circulation.

"They intimate that I had better take my
few pennies and run 'round the corner
to some little haberdashery."
Drawing by Gluyas Williams
The art of salesmanship is founded, according to Mr. Ivey, on, first, a thorough knowledge of the goods which are to be sold, and second, a knowledge of the customer. By knowing the customer you know what line of argument will most appeal to him. There are several lines in popular use. First is the appeal to the instinct of self-preservation—i.e., social self-preservation. The customer is made to feel that in order to preserve her social standing she must buy the article in question. “She must be made to feel what a disparaged social self would mean to her mental comfort.”

It is reassuring to know that it is a recognized ruse on the part of the salesman to intimate that unless you buy a particular article you will have to totter through life branded as the arch-piker. I have always taken this attitude of the clerks perfectly seriously. In fact, I have worried quite a bit about it.

In the store where I am allowed to buy my clothes it is quite the thing among the salesmen to see which one of them can degrade me most. They intimate that, while they have no legal means of refusing to sell their goods to me, it really would be much more in keeping with things if I were to take the few pennies that I have at my disposal and run around the corner to some little haberdashery for my shirts and ties. Every time I come out from that store I feel like Ethel Barrymore in “Déclassée.” Much worse, in fact, for I haven’t any good looks to fall back upon.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Diva Farewell

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Eleven years ago, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa bid farewell to the performing stage with a tour that stopped in Schenectady, and which I was pleased to report on in the piece below.


FIRST SHE COMPLETELY DISARMED US. Regally striding onto the stage, looking gorgeous in a full-length black sequined dress, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa spoke to the Proctor’s audience before her first number. In a friendly, intimate voice that nevertheless filled the hall, she spoke briefly about this stop on her farewell tour—“My first and last visit to Schenectady”—and her desire to make this concert the best of them all.

Kiri Te Kanawa
And then, just as serenely, she blew us away with a recital of well-chosen songs, a repertory of lesser-heard numbers that suited her voice magnificently.

A curiosity by Mozart opened the program. One of his final works, it’s a brief cantata written for the Masons, which he had recently joined. And it was a pleasant enough trifle, an ecumenical celebration of life, giving the singer and pianist Warren Jones plenty to do in seven or so minutes.

But it really served as a gateway to the masterworks that followed: five songs by Richard Strauss, showing a more introspective side of the composer best known for his orchestral bombast. From the first one, “Ständchen,” which gave the vocal line pleasant melodic leaps over a rippling piano arpeggio, Te Kanawa showed her intense dynamic control, which was even more effective in the next song, “Nacht,” a lullaby-like number.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve

An appropriate-for-the-day song I co-wrote with Tom Savoy for our musical adaptation of Booth Tarkington's "Beasley's Christmas Party."

Friday, December 21, 2018

Makings of the Middle East

CHEF ANA SORTUN graduated from La Varenne in Paris, but her interest in Middle Eastern food has taken her beyond that classical French foundation. She opened her first restaurant, Oleana, in Cambridge, Mass., in 2001; she now also owns Sarma, a Turkish-style tavern, and Sofra Bakery & Café, all in the same general area. And it doesn’t hurt that her husband, Chris Kurth, owns and operates nearby Siena Farms.

She won the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: Northeast” designation in 2005, even as she was working on her first cookbook, Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. Her latest book is Soframiz: Vibrant Middle Eastern Recipes from Sofra Bakery & Café, co-written with Maura Kilpatrick, a longtime cooking partner who specializes in pastry.

We learn from the start that “sofra encompasses everything you prepare for the table: food, place settings, glassware, décor, linens.” (The literal translation from Turkish is “table,” allying it with an old-fashioned English sense of the term.) “Soframiz” means “our sofra,” which is as welcoming a title as you could wish.

It’s a handsome book with a hundred recipes, but be warned that these recipes aren’t always easy. Nor should they be. We confuse cooking with convenience, and we lack the tradition of handing down recipes and techniques across generations. Which means that scratch cooking usually means learning it from scratch. Fortunately, the procedures herein are laid out in careful detail, with photographs to illustrate the more complicated steps.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The New Fable of the Private Agitator and What He Cooked Up

Guest Blogger Dept.: We return, as we often should, to the fables of George Ade, this one a lengthier opus limning the hazards of succumbing to Ambition’s call.


AMBITION CAME, with Sterling Silver Breast-Plate and Flaming Sword, and sat beside a Tad aged 5. The wee Hopeful lived in a Frame House with Box Pillars in front and Hollyhocks leading down toward the Pike.

“Whither shall I guide you?” asked Ambition. “Are you far enough from the Shell to have any definite Hankering?”

"You are entitled to One Hundred Thousand
Dollars," murmurs the stealthy Promoter."
Drawing by John T. McCutcheon
“I have spent many Hours brooding over the possibilities of the Future,” replied the Larva. “I want to grow up to be a Joey in a Circus. I fairly ache to sit in a Red Wagon just behind the Band and drive a Trick Mule with little pieces of Looking Glass in the Harness. I want to pull Mugs at all the scared Country Girls peeking out of the Wagon Beds. The Town Boys will leave the Elephant and trail behind my comical Chariot. In my Hour of Triumph the Air will be impregnated with Calliope Music and the Smell of Pop-Corn, modified by Wild Animals.”

Ambition went out to make the proper Bookings with Destiny. When he came back the Boy was ten years old.

“We started wrong,” whispered Ambition, curling up in the cool grass near the Day-Dreamer. “The Trick Mule and the Red Cart are all very well for little Fraidy-Cats and Softies, but a brave Youth of High Spirit should tread the Deck of his own Ship with a Cutlass under his Red Sash. Aye, that is Blood gauming up the Scuppers, but is the Captain chicken-hearted? Up with the Black Flag! Let it be give and take, with Pieces of Eight for the Victor!”

So it was settled that the Lad was to hurry through the Graded Schools and then get at his Buccaneering.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Brass Facts

From the Holiday Vault Dept.: Christmastime is here, by golly; disapproval would be folly ... so here’s a review I wrote of a brass quintet’s holiday concert in Schenectady, from the time when a city daily newspaper actually would commission a review about such an event.


“WE HAVE OUR LITTLE BLUE BRASS BOOKS,” said Carleton Clay, one of the Catskill Brass’s two trumpets, “which every brass ensemble has to have at Christmas. So we’ll see if we can take your requests.”

Carleton Clay (a more recent view)
This brass quintet managed to work a holiday sing-along into a program of seasonal music that otherwise ran a gamut from Michael Praetorius to Leroy Anderson, performed Sunday night at the First United Methodist Church.

It provided a spectacular setting for the ensemble, enhancing the noble sound of instruments. Along with the music was some insight into the nature of those instruments, as genial Clay pointed out the differences hidden among a similar-seeming family.

Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” was a stirring beginning, in an arrangement by a member of the Canadian Brass. In response, the Catskill’s own Ben Aldridge transcribed another number from the oratorio, “And the Glory of the Lord,” a fitting companion piece.

Aldridge and Clay went from trumpets to the mellow conical-bore cornet and fluegelhorn for two settings of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” which also took Donald Robertson from trombone to euphonium. And the difference in sound was remarkable, a darker color very appropriate to the Brahms choral prelude that constituted one of those settings.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Barricades of Mystery

PIANIST SIMONE DINNERSTEIN set the stage well before she entered. Her piano sat on a darkened stage at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, with candles flickering on the soundboard and floor. The program notes – and you really have to read such things at an event like this – promised an intermission-free concert the components of which were organized into two sets, with applause requested only after each set.

 Simone Dinnerstein | photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
And then there were the sets. It was one of the most creative and satisfying arrays of pieces I’ve ever enjoyed in concert, each juxtaposition as powerful as the pieces themselves. The house was almost full on this cold, cold night. Dinnerstein swept in, acknowledged her greeting, and set to work, opening with one of the more overplayed and under-understood works in the repertory: François Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mystérieuses.” Written for harpsichord, it has traveled to many other instruments and feels very at home on the piano.

It’s a haunting, recursive work. As Tom Service wrote a few years ago in The Guardian, “The four parts create an ever-changing tapestry of melody and harmony, interacting and overlapping with different rhythmic schemes and melodies. The effect is shimmering, kaleidoscopic and seductive ... ” The lavish romanticism Dinnerstein imbued may send Baroque specialists screaming back to their cells, but it made great sense in the context of what followed: Schumann’s Arabesque, Op. 18, another work that conveys a sense of yearning. Its left-hand figurations seemed to pick up where Couperin’s left off, but in a voice that had harmonically advanced by a century. Like the Couperin piece, it’s in the form of a rondo, but its other-than-A sections are more obviously emotionally ravaged. Which is not surprising, coming from Schumann, who wore his heart on his keyboard.

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Art of the Cello

THERE’S A SCENE in the 1947 movie “Carnegie Hall” in which cellist Gregor Piatigorsky performs Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” while surrounded by a half-dozen lady harpists plucking the accompaniment. He was a star cellist at a time when the instrument was still struggling to assert star status. And, as with all great soloists, he made it look easy. He was tall – tall enough to pose for a gag photo with the cellist hoisted under his chin like a fiddle. He had a chiseled face that seemed austere in repose, but lit up with his native merriment when he was at his ease.

You’ll get an excellent idea of the look of the man by browsing the photos at the Piatigorsky Archives at the Colburn School. Although the cellist died over 40 years ago, his widow lived to be 100 – and it was only after her death in 2012 that his collection of photos and letters; transcriptions, original compositions, and scores; books, concert programs, and audio – and more – went to the school thanks to the Piatigorsky Foundation, an organization founded by the cellist’s cellist grandson (and which also performs the admirable mission of offering live performances to underserved areas).

With some 19,000 items to deal with, the Colburn School put to work “a team of experts consisting of two archivists, two musicologists, a Russian translator, and a French translator” who collected their results in a 200-page inventory. Some 3,000 of those items were digitized, and the website gives an excellent taste of the breadth of those holdings.

Monday, December 03, 2018

A Precautionary Tale

PREACHING PRECAUTION isn’t often the same as practicing it. The “ounce of prevention” principle, seemingly instilled in us at birth, has long gone out the window where pesticide use is concerned. Touted as the farmer’s salvation before their risks were revealed, pesticides spawned a massive industry that flourishes, like any drug dealer, by keeping its users hooked.

As a political device, the Precautionary Principle – so named in the late 1980s – found a more secure footing in the European Union than it has in the United States. “In Europe the precautionary principle serves as a fundamental basis for generating sound public policy; public health and safety generally trumps potential threats to it. In the United States, however, dangers have to be established through what is generally termed risk analysis, meaning that ‘acceptable levels of risk’ are established. ... Precaution tends to be more of an afterthought than a guiding principle in the United States, and more of a guiding light in Europe.”

The quote comes from Philip Ackerman-Leist’s A Precautionary Tale, which tells the story of the small European village that took on and bested a corporate assault that would have spelled doom for small subsistence farmers – which was pretty much everybody not growing pesticide-anointed apples.