Search This Blog

Monday, December 30, 2019

Christmas Afternoon

Guest Blogger Dept.: What better way to finish the year than with some holiday reflections by Robert Benchley? He describes the following piece as “Done in the Manner, if Not the Spirit, of Dickens,” and I think we can take him at his word.

                                                                          

WHAT AN AFTERNOON! Mr. Gummidge said that, in his estimation, there never had been such an afternoon since the world began, a sentiment which was heartily endorsed by Mrs. Gummidge and all the little Gummidges, not to mention the relatives who had come over from Jersey for the day.

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
In the first place, there was the ennui. And such ennui as it was! A heavy, overpowering ennui, such as results from a participation in eight courses of steaming, gravied food, topping off with salted nuts which the little old spinster Gummidge from Oak Hill said she never knew when to stop eating – and true enough she didn’t – a dragging, devitalizing ennui, which left its victims strewn about the living-room in various attitudes of prostration suggestive of those of the petrified occupants in a newly unearthed Pompeiian dwelling; an ennui which carried with it a retinue of yawns, snarls and thinly veiled insults, and which ended in ruptures in the clan spirit serious enough to last throughout the glad new year.

Then there were the toys! Three and a quarter dozen toys to be divided among seven children. Surely enough, you or I might say, to satisfy the little tots. But that would be because we didn’t know the tots. In came Baby Lester Gummidge, Lillian’s boy, dragging an electric grain-elevator which happened to be the only toy in the entire collection which appealed to little Norman, five-year-old son of Luther, who lived in Rahway. In came curly-headed Effie in frantic and throaty disputation with Arthur, Jr., over the possession of an articulated zebra.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Where There’s Smoke

From the Food Vault Dept.: Last New Year’s Eve, I sought a restaurant to which to retreat after a performance I give in Albany. The place has to stay open late and offer no price-jacked holiday specials. The only place I’ve been able to find is Smokey Bones, which has done a good job of satisfying those needs, although the service, unlike what’s reported below, can be glacial. I'm sure I'll be visiting again late Tuesday night. Here’s a review I wrote of the place when it opened in Albany in 2000, before Metroland established a policy of avoiding chain restaurants. Don’t expect the menu and pricing to be like this should you visit.

                                                                                              

THIS IS A KILLER IDEA: chain-restaurant barbecue. The fact that it originates with the same company that gave us the Olive Garden gave me pause – after all, that emporium of pre-fab Italianesque food rises to the barely mediocre at best. And the fact that it’s combined with a sports bar theme made me even more nervous: there’s no greater torture for an uncoordinated endomorph like myself than to be remind of the humiliation of high school gym class.

Courtesy Smokey Bones
Yes, it turns out that you’re surrounded by TV sets, but at least you don’t hear them unless you specifically tune your table speaker to one of the channels. And it amused me, earlier this week, to see the Bush-Gore Supreme Court fight broadcast side-by-side with wrestling and ball games.

This place has two killer characteristics going for it: service is first-rate and the ribs aren’t far behind.

I visited twice to make sure this was true. The first time, a couple of weeks ago, my family and I showed up on a Saturday evening not long after the grand opening and joined a throng that had dug in for a 30- to 45-minute wait. I’m not a patient fellow, but my wife persuaded me to cool my heels, which wasn’t so bad when I found a space on the couch. We were assigned a large paging device that flashed in red when we were summoned, and that summons arrived within 20 minutes.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Rondo de Larrocha

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Pianist Alicia de Larrocha switched record labels in the late 1980s, and embarked on a project with her new label, RCA, to record all of Mozart’s sonatas and concertos. The review below looks at (or listens to) the debut recording in that series. She did, in fact, cover all of those sonatas, which are available now in a plain five-CD set on the Sony label; she also recorded the piano concertos 9 and 19-27 with Colin Davis and the English Chamber Orchestra, which are a little more difficult to find right now.

                                                                             
      

ALTHOUGH SHE RECENTLY PASSED the traditional retirement age, pianist Alicia de Larrocha obviously has no plans to retire. She has just begun a recording project that will see her through all of the 17 sonatas and 25 concertos by Mozart.

Last week the first instalment was issued, a collection of four sonatas that demonstrates the pianist’s masterful affinity for Mozart.

Although de Larrocha is quickly identified with Spanish composers – Granados, Albeniz and de Falla figure prominently in her repertory, and a new recording of Granados’ “Goyescas,” a sort of Spanish “Pictures at an Exhibition,” is due in September – it’s a mistake to pigeonhole her work.

Recording a piano can make as much of a statement as the work of the artist herself. It’s a difficult instrument to capture well, but RCA’s engineers have done a nice job conveying not only the color and range of the piano but also the spaciousness of the hall (in this case, an RCA studio) as well.

Which is kinder to the piano than the more brittle sound of de Larrocha’s earlier London recordings of Mozart.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Hineni

Follow-Up Visit Dept.: As part of my research while writing a review of Gary Kleppel's book The Emergent Agriculture, I visited his farm. This turned into a companion piece for the review on the inspiring website knowwhereyourfoodcomesfrom.com.

                                                                                  
  

GARY KLEPPEL HAS PUT HIMSELF in an excellent position to practice what he preaches. He and his wife, Pam, own and operate the 16-acre Longfield Farm in Knox (Albany County), NY, where they raise sheep and chickens – and produce amazingly wonderful loaves of sourdough bread.

Gary Kleppel | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
How did he get interested in sustainable farming? “I didn’t know the real answer when I was writing The Emergent Agriculture,” he says. We’re sitting in the living room of his pleasant farmhouse, a building dating from the mid-19th century, which seems appropriate to the subject at hand. “I remember seeing a Leonard Cohen documentary, he adds, in which there was a song of his called ‘You Want It Darker.’ In it, he uses the Hebrew word hineni, which means, ‘here I am.’ It means, ‘I’m ready.’ And the song made me cry. Even now I’m choking up. So I asked the question, ‘What am I doing here?’”

He’s continuing to explore the topic in a new work, a book-in-progress titled Eden 2.0: How Farming with Nature Can Save the Food System (and Maybe the Planet). But the first inklings of agricultural aspiration came when he was a college kid. “I was driving to Cortland, to go to college, and we were going past these beautiful hills and pastures with cows – which I know now is all wrong – and all of a sudden the landscape turned to dairyland, and I was moved by that. I was in no way interested in farming – I was a pre-med student who didn’t want to be a pre-med student – and every time I would drive back and forth between Rockland County and Cortland, I would feel my shoulders relax, and I would feel my head clear.”

Monday, December 16, 2019

Fields of Dreams

WHAT’S MOST IRONIC about Gary Kleppel’s plea for sustainable agriculture is that he’s merely asking us to do what was done for thousands of years in the years before chemicals and industrialization dominated the fields: keep it natural, diverse, and local.

Kleppel sees his essay collection The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy as a conversation with the reader, a conversation developed over the course of his thirty years as a university professor. But it’s an academic text only insofar as his arguments are well-reasoned and backed with proof; otherwise, it’s a pleasant and inspiring manifesto.

His suggestions seem radical, but so do the threats of disease from unsafe farming and the loss of farming itself due to climate change. “If you attended an agricultural college in the past 60 years, this is how you were taught to farm,” he explains, describing the industrial model he’d like us to get away from, and he also castigates “privatizing elements of the food system (such as plant genomes) that have always been in the public domain and belong there.” So it’s not a book to make Big Agriculture very happy – but Big Ag doesn’t seem to care.

The iconic image of the American farm is very much at odds with its reality, where pollution and unsafe practices result in huge swaths of unusable farmland and ever-growing instances of food recalls. But the agri-business model persists, on the one hand strangling farmers with the costs of seed and equipment, on the other bottlenecking the farmers’ sales channels by owning the distribution system.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Turn of the Century

Guest Blogger Dept. It hardly seems like twenty years since we witnessed a turn of the century, making the turn of a century before that seem even more remote still. But Booth Tarkington witnessed it, and captured some of its spirit in his novels like the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Magnificent Ambersons. Here’s an excerpt (Chapter Three) from an autobiographical work from 1929 titled The World Does Move.

                                                                                         

Booth Tarkington
ONE EVENING we had our own gaslight accident on the top floor. An Irish housemaid used a spiral paper taper to light the gas in the hall bedroom; then she dropped it to the floor and put her foot over it to extinguish it. But there was still a flame from the taper, and the girl’s skirt and petticoats, which of course were so long that they touched the floor, caught fire, and instantly she blazed from foot to head. The medical student and I heard her making strange moans of protest; but she was already in flight, a wild torch with her long thick hair aflame high over her head. We chased her down two flights of stairs before we caught her, and the medical student wrapped her tightly in a heavy curtain he had torn from a doorway as we ran.

She recovered, after a painful siege in the hospital; but the kind of accident she suffered was not infrequent and sometimes was fatal. Nowadays she would not use a taper to light the gas; she would not light the gas. She would not light the gas and drop the taper on the floor; but, if she did, her skirt would not catch fire. And, if her skirt did catch fire, her petticoats wouldn’t, because she wouldn’t have any; but if she did wear them, and if her skirt and petticoats did catch fire, her hair wouldn’t. No matter how they may look, girls are at least safer from fire to-day than they were then.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Berkshire Abduction

From the Vault Dept.: Berkshire Opera was founded by Rex Hearn in 1985; with a few changes of venue, the company lasted until 2008. It was re-started in 2016 under completely different artistic management. Here’s a trip some thirty years back in time to re-visit a production of a Mozart opera.

                                                                                

BERKSHIRE OPERA GENERAL DIRECTOR Rex Hearn finished his welcoming words to last night’s performance of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and dashed up the aisle of the Cranwell Opera House, stirring a fresh breeze in the still air.

Cranwell Resort, Lenox Mass.
It’s a metaphor for what he’s brought opera in the Berkshires these last few summers: a fresh breeze to enliven the classics of the repertory. This production only confirms what’s already been established.

The piece is skillfully placed in the odd little theater (it’s a former chapel), set by designer Kennon Rothchild in a whimsically-drawn Turkey draped in silks and pastel. The orchestra, led by Amy Kaiser, has never sounded better, and the cast is nicely chosen for this particular work.

Some fussy characteristics of the story make it a challenge to pull off. What promises to be a fast-paced tale of abduction and intrigue turns instead to the overrated question of virtue, leaving us wondering only who’s doing the chasing and who’s being chaste.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Mangia e Corri

From the Food Vault Dept.: And where did I dine back I went to that Penn & Teller show I wrote about earlier? The same issue of Metroland that ran my advance had this overview of an Albany-based pizza and casual dining restaurant called Mangia, which had three units in the area at its height. The place closed in 2008 and was demolished to make way for a more upscale place called Créo, which suffered a series of management vicissitudes that brought down the place after seven years. It’s now home to Jacob & Anthony’s, a casual-Italian restaurant with a sibling in Saratoga Springs.

                                                                             


MY FIRST RESTAURANT-BUSINESS FRIEND was a chef named Angelo who proudly ran his own eponymous place near the town’s post office and Grand Union. As a teen, I’d stop in for a lunchtime bowl of soup on the many days I skipped school, and Angelo would sit with me in the nearly-empty place and shake his head and complain, “People don’t want to go out to eat in a shopping plaza.”

Sound wisdom, I’m sure, but the Capital District’s exurbia is a far cry from small-town New England and a shopping-plaza restaurant has a better chance in an easily-accessed place like Stuyvesant Plaza. Besides, Angelo was offering fine dining. Mangia, the latest occupant of the plaza’s southeast corner, is a much more casual place.

What killed the Howard Johnson’s that was there I don’t know – people seemed to have grown used to the mediocre food. The sports bar that followed was phenomenally silly, so Mangia is a relief. The food is good, on the order of the nearby Coco’s, and the place has a gimmick: wood-fired pizza.

Monday, December 02, 2019

The Curse of Cassandra

From the Vault Dept.: In my ongoing effort to clear out desk and filing-cabinet drawers, I’ve been turning old paperwork into PDFs and old audio tapes into MP3s. Even though it’s unlikely that any of this material will be seen or heard again, it remins “there,” and it takes up far less space. I ran across (and digitized) my 1992 interviews with Penn and Teller, conducted in order to write an advance about their upcoming Schenectady debut; that piece is followed by my review of the show.

                                                                                            

ONLY VERY RECENTLY has Penn Jillette referred to himself and his partner, Teller, as magicians. “When we first started we were very hesitant to let anyone anywhere call us magicians, because when people said ‘magic’ they pictured – and still do – a greasy guy in a tux with a lot of birds playing bad white-boy Motown music and pushing women around. And that’s not what we do.”

Penn & Teller, back in the day.
What they do do they’ll be doing at 8 PM Saturday at Proctor’s Theatre as they make their Schenectady debut. You’ll see needles swallowed, a straightjacket escape, an almost never-before-seen finale and the possibility that Teller won’t make it through the show.

Is it magic? “If you look the real definition of magic,” says Penn, “if you think past the image of Copperfield or Siegfried and Roy – all it really means is doing special effects that the audience can’t figure out. When something looks one way and is done another, that’s your definition of irony, which is a backbone of the theater. So magic is actually a very intellectual and adult form. It’s just that over the past fifty years, it’s been moved to the barrooms and it hasn’t really developed like the other art forms. I mean, Houdini was not a big star for magic. He was a superstar of his day. He was Bruce Springsteen. That’s what people forget. They start thinking, well, Copperfield is good for a magician – that’s like a Special Olympics type thing.”

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Island Paradise

This year's Thanksgiving menu returns us to the realm of Caribbean cuisine, with some fanciful additions and alterations. The menu is below; a retrospective of menus past is here.


Monday, November 25, 2019

Underneath the Mistletoe

I’VE JUST HEARD an incredibly wonderful, enjoyable Christmas album, and if you’re as weary as I am of the shopping-mall treacle that annually assaults our ears, you’ll want to hear it, too. Be warned: it’s built around a dynamic big band playing new arrangements that hearken back to the classic decades of such bands. It’s the brainchild of guitarist Glenn Crytzer, a young virtuoso steeped in those traditions, and he ices the already lavish cake with original holiday numbers that are better than anything else that has tried to muscle into the repertory lately.

“Underneath the Mistletoe” is a 20-track collection placing those eleven originals alongside some unusual but brilliant choices of companion, all arranged by Crytzer for his 24-piece band. We get a good taste of what’s to come as a lively version of “Over the River and through the Wood” kicks off the disc, showcasing a tight five-man sax section, but it’s the second cut, Crytzer’s title song, that welcomes the eight-piece string section and gives the truest feel of the unique, swinging feel of the disc.

To say that it seems as if Gordon Jenkins just walked into the room is to pay Crytzer a high compliment. He really shows off his arranging skills here, with a deft integration of those strings (great pizzicato moment!) amidst the brass and reeds – and Hannah Gill puts over the witty lyrics with a sly smile and warmth in her voice.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Soul on Display

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Here’s one of the couple of dozen pieces I wrote for the the short-lived The Alt, a mis-managed magazine that struggled to become an alt-weekly, filling the void left by Metroland’s collapse. And it’s nice to re-visit the terrific theatrical experience that gave rise to this review.

                                                                                 

“THIS IS A TRIUMPH of post-modern meta-theater,” declares the character Kieron Barry, not to be confused with the playwright Kieron Barry although it’s understandable if you do. To which Danielle, his director (within the play, that is; not the director of the play), replies, “Are you sure it’s not just a fuck-and-tell?”

Jason Guy and Bonita Jackson
Under discussion are, or is, “The Official Adventures of Kieron and Jade,” the world premiere of which took place at Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre, and which brings back to the area the work of a playwright previously acclaimed for “Tomorrow in the Battle.”

Love relationships were scrutinized in that dark, dramatic piece; here a dark, dramatic break-up becomes the stuff of comedy as Kieron Barry (the character) seeks meaning in the abrupt departure of Jade, his girlfriend of three years, a fate similarly suffered by the playwright.

It sounds confusing. It is. It has to be. There’s no keener crisis of rejection in one’s life, and I mean knife-edge keen. And there’s usually deception involved, as when Kieron self-destructively draws a blade across his forearm, producing stripes of blood – only to be admonished by Danielle that stage blood will emerge more easily if he moves the knife this way.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Master of Your Domain

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Here’s another outdated tech piece from my distant past, written for Metroland in 2000, and only fleetingly applicable to today’s internet requirements. Metroland’s website has since gone away, and it looks as if all those “cc” domains have also perished. But I still get a kick out of the time-travel aspect of this piece.

                                                                                          

A SERIES OF LOCAL ADS exhorts us to grab these new domain names so that we can enjoy the same kind of resale profit garnered by the folks who sold “business.com” for $7.5 million. “Dot-CC,” it is argued, will have the same impact as “dot-com,” now that there aren’t any appealing dot-com names left.

I haven’t rushed out to register anything; I’m afraid I missed the boat once and for all a few years ago, when in the course of writing an article about domain names I passed up lots of available goodies and merely got hold of banilsson.com. And nobody’s been beating a path to my door to buy it from me.

As opposed to Jimmy Guterman, who runs a Massachusetts-based consultancy called the Vineyard Group. He registered the name vineyard.com five years ago, “on a lark,” as he recently wrote in the Internet newsletter The Standard, “much as someone orders a vanity license plate.” A few is-it-for-sale queries straggled in during the ensuing years, but he noted that in 1999 the queries started pouring in weekly. He writes, “I know to ignore the ones with text in all upper case, as well as the ones that misspell ‘vineyard’ or, in some cases, ‘com.’”

Friday, November 15, 2019

Rage On

THERE’S A PLAINTIVE QUALITY to the Florence Reece song “Which Side Are You On?” that’s also touched with purpose – which isn’t surprising, considering the song’s very clear origin. Reece wrote the lyrics in 1931 after a night in which a group of gun thugs terrorized her and her children as they searched (unsuccessfully) for her union-organizer husband. She drew the melody from her memory of a song that probably was an old “Cruel War”-type ballad titled ”Jack Munro,” which used, for its refrain, the melody of a song titled “Lay the Lily Low,” which may be a Baptist hymn.

All of which is to say that by the time Frederic Rzewski got hold of the tune, it already had been through many changes. It has endured these many decades because the lyric poses a direct and meaningful question, while the stepwise nature of its accompanying refrain has an engagingly hypnotic effect. Rzewski created a set of variations for solo piano as part of his four-song “North American Ballads” collection, and this is the kick-off to composer-pianist Conrad Tao’s new album “American Rage.”

The audacious title of Tao’s recital is well chosen. The U.S.A. is a country founded on dissatisfaction, and, for each successive generation, the vaunted pursuit of happiness has called forth conflict. But, as Paul Robeson observed, “The artist must take sides,” and our history of musical polemics has landed some of those artists in tetchy situations.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Upright Ape

THERE’S A FEELING OF LUSH LAWNS and expensive orthodonture. Inside the house hang abstract art, a motif that carries onto the floor. Books abound, piled on and around the sparse furnishings. Money and culture are reflected in the appearance of the two couples inhabiting the space; as we quickly learn, they are there to discuss the injury inflicted by the young son of one couple upon the young son of the other.

Sky Seals, Jennifer Cody, Josie DiVincenzo
Photo by Genevieve Fridley
Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage” opened on Broadway in 2009, three years after its premiere in Switzerland and a year after the Christopher Hampton translation was first performed in London. It has gone on to become a regional theater favorite, something I found puzzling because of what struck me as the lackluster quality of the Broadway production I saw. Perhaps I was inured: I grew up with the kind of middle-class combat that energizes this script, and, at least in the few productions I’ve seen, I thought the actors’ hearts weren’t in it.

But I’ve been holding out hope, and that hope now has been more than satisfied. The production at Redhouse Arts Center in Syracuse is a fully committed, take-no-prisoners exploration of the tension imposed by middle-class expectations, and the horrible release that may await only a couple of rum-shots away.

Friday, November 08, 2019

The Telling Takes Us Home

From the Vault Dept.: Lena Spencer died October 23, 1989, nearly thirty years after founding Saratoga’s Caffè Lena, and Utah Phillips (whom I also wrote about here) was among the many performers who’d been nurtured there who made a special tribute trip to perform in her honor. Here’s my Schenectady Gazette review of the event.

                                                                                           

UTAH PHILLIPS MADE A SPECIAL TRIP to town to play a pair of concerts at Caffè Lena last weekend. Friday night he told the first of his sold-out houses a thing or two about the late Lena Spencer and her long-running coffeehouse, paying the sort of level-headed tribute that needs paying when people are soggy with grief.

Utah Phillips at Caffè Lena in an earlier day
“I have no patience with death,” he said. “Death pisses me off.”

Then he launched into his familiar opening song, “Railroading on the Great Divide,” between stanzas of which he recalled the first time, 20 years ago, that he walked up the stairs to the second-floor hall, back when he was first putting together a career on the folksong circuit.

Phillips is unique among such performers in that he harkens to traditions of two or three generations ago but keeps them very much alive in his songs and stories. He has a thousand stories about travelling the rods – hitching rides on freights – and the company of hoboes and tramps. He’s a card-carrying member of the International Workers of the World who can sing you the songs of that movement (“The Wobblies liked to use the old hymn tunes ‘cause they were pretty and wrote new words for them so they made more sense.”)

Monday, November 04, 2019

All Fired Up

Guest Blogger Dept.: Mark Twain’s keen sense of mankind accommodated a semblance of good behavior, but a flurry of books offering detailed rules of etiquette proved to be too much for him, and he undertook to write a parody of them. He never finished the project, but here’s a significant excerpt.

                                                                                     

At a Fire

Form of Tender of Rescue from Strange Young Gentleman to Strange Young Lady at a Fire.

Although through the fiat of a cruel fate, I have been debarred the gracious privilege of your acquaintance, permit me, Miss [here insert name if known], the inestimable honor of offering you the aid of a true and loyal arm against the fiery doom which now o’ershadows you with its crimson wing [this form to be memorized, and practiced in private].

Should she accept, the young gentleman would offer his arm – bowing, and observing “Permit me” – and so escort her to the fire escape and deposit her in it (being careful, if she have no clothes but her night dress, not to seem to notice the irregularity). No form of leave-taking is permissible, further than a formal bow, accompanied by a barely perceptible smile of deferential gratitude for the favor which the young lady has accorded – this smile to be completed at the moment the fire escape starts to slide down, then the features to be recomposed instantly.

A compulsory introduction at a fire is not binding upon the young lady. The young gentleman cannot require recognition at her hands when he next meets her, but must leave her unembarrassed to decide for herself whether she will continue the acquaintanceship or ignore it.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Sowing the Show of Shows

From the Video Vault Dept.: It’s been gratifying to see that the birth of the DVD inspired many an actual treasure to be released on that format right off the bat – including classic vintage television programs. I’d discovered Sid Caesar’s classic TV sketches thanks to occasional re-runs long before I first saw him perform in person, in Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” during the early 1970s at Danbury, Connecticut’s Candlewood Theater. He performed at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady in 1988, and my review of that show is here – but here’s a brief piece I wrote welcoming a best-of collection of his 1950s TV sketches.

                                                                          
   

OLD, OLD TELEVISION would seem to be a poor source for a new DVD, but the technology results both in a clearer picture than a VHS release and the ability to subject the source to computer-based editing, which has been skillfully used throughout this release.

It’s a three-disc set of material from various Sid Caesar television ventures in the 1950s, including “Your Show of Shows,” enhanced with recently-filmed interviews that collect comments from Caesar and his illustrious stable of writers and actors – including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart.

The core of each disc, of course, is a set of sketches. These were brilliant when they aired a half-century ago; compared to what passes for comedy today, they’re transcendent. As a solo performer, Caesar was unmatched, and the 1949 “Five Dollar Date” ranks as one of the most breathtaking acting jobs you’ll ever see. Working with his ensemble, he had impeccable timing and a good sense of what would be not just funny but also surprising. Teamed with Nanette Fabray in “The Fur Coat,” his role as aggrieved husband laid the foundation for Jackie Gleason and all subsequent sitcom spouses.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Hungarian Soul

From the Classical Vault Dept.: The Tokyo String Quartet was founded in 1969 by students who had been schooled in Tokyo before continuing their studies at the Juilliard School. They disbanded in 2012, but made several stops in New York’s Capital Region along the way. Here’s my review of one such event in 2009.

                                                                           
      

IF THERE WAS A MELANCHOLY EDGE to the happy return of the Tokyo String Quartet, it was only in the programming. Three works tinged (or shot through) with melancholy comprised the program, performed by an internationally renowned ensemble making its fourth appearance for the Friends of Chamber Music – and its first in 28 years.

At the heart of the program was Bartók’s sixth (and last) quartet, a trenchant piece whose misery is explained by the composer’s despair over the fascist incursions into his native Hungary and the death of his mother. Each of the work’s four movements is introduced by a theme marked “mesto,” meaning “sad.” It’s introduced quietly, poignantly, by siolo viola, and each time that theme reappears, another instrument is added. Each of the first three movements takes a vigorous side-trip, but the finale is given over to the “mesto” experience, finishing the piece with as unhappy a mood as music can muster, a soft plucked chirp from the cello the only hint of optimism. There must be something unwaveringly sad in the Hungarian soul, because the world’s most depressing pop song, “Gloomy Sunday,” is also a product of that country.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Downtown Gustatory Pursuit

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: Monday’s post, revisiting my 2008 DiCarlo’s review, mentioned McGeary’s Irish Pub, my 2010 review of which, I realized, isn’t on this blog. It is now. Things have changed, of course, but not really by much.

                                                                                          

“WE DON’T TAKE ADVANTAGE of McGeary’s enough,” I said. We were headed to see a show at Capital Rep and because I’ve become completely neurotic about parking, I was hoping to dump the car early for dinner and not have to move it.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Pearl Street’s dining demographic doesn’t really include me, so far as I can figure. While I’m often able to inure myself to a bank of TV screens, should there be a phalanx of sports fans glued to a significant event, their cheers and moans typically prove too startling – not to mention that it zooms me back to my fat-kid-tormented-in-gym-class days.

But my tormentors hang out in Jillian’s, leaving McGeary’s free for more gustatory pursuits. Not that you can’t drink there – the bank of beer taps at the long, wide bar promise all manner of suds. And the TVs are quiet.

“Actually, our food business is booming,” says Tess Collins. “Within a week and a half after reopening here, food has jumped up to 50 percent the business.” She’s the new manager,, although factotum may be the better term. As anyone who knows her from her years at Justin’s and the Lark Tavern can attest, once she’s put in charge, things happen. Good things.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Revealing Cuisine

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: When I reviewed the Albany strip club DiCarlo’s back in 2008, it was still under the management of founder Sal DiCarlo. After he died in 2012, the club was purchased by Tess Collins, an excellent restaurateur who has operated the wonderful McGeary’s in Albany’s downtown for many years. She cut back the hours and changed the menu, so don’t expect the fare described below. But the show goes on.

                                                                             

A SMALL STAGE IS FLANKED by cylindrical columns of bubble-filled water, the color of which changes throughout the show. Color-changing lights flash rhythmically on the stage and a disco ball sends its fragmented sparkle around the room. A reverberant voice announces the next dancer, and a woman strides into view, her costume something she might wear to bed when in a frivolous mood. Men at the bar and the ringside tables are watching, most feigning I’ve-seen-it-all-before disinterest, all of them happily in touch with that persistent adolescent hope of hopes and wish of wishes: I’m about to see a woman’s breasts.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s Hooters without the hypocrisy. (Of course, the ontology of ecdysiastics is riddled with its own many-layered hypocrisy, but that’s for a different essay.) And it’s worth noting that Hooters is long gone from Albany while DiCarlo’s soldiers on, one of the longest-lived “gentlemen’s clubs” in the area.

I’m not a frequent enough patron to analyze the reason, although I suspect that the club’s professionalism and cleanliness have a lot to do with it. What I want to tell you about, however, is the culinary discovery I made. If you’re looking for an economical lunch of pub fare, and don’t mind the rather loud, distracting entertainment going on around you, you’ll find some very good eats here.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Old Memories

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Here’s a pair of pieces I wrote for the online computer magazine c|net some twenty years ago. I don’t know the exact date these ran, or in what context, or with what artwork, and there’s no way to find screen shots these days. Then again, all the promises made below are so out-of-date that I might as well be talking about daguerreotypes.

                                                                               

THE PRICE OF COMPUTING is memory usage. Every program chews up RAM, but quit the program and you don’t necessarily get the RAM back. That’s where WinRAM Booster Pro comes in handy. Like many similar utilities, it delivers extra memory space by defragmenting what’s in use, closing the gaps and returning impressive amounts of RAM.

An easy-to-follow main screen introduces the components, chief of which is RAM optimization. This can be run on an as-needed basis, but it’s more useful when set to auto-optimize at regular intervals (ten minutes works out as a good amount). Better still, you can enhance application shortcuts by adding an optimization command before the application is invoked.

As Windows runs out of RAM, it uses hard drive space for memory caching. That’s your Windows swap file. WinRAM Booster includes a cache optimization utility that lets you select the minimum and maximum settings, the chunk size (the size of data units swapped to and from the cache), and file cache settings. Six pre-sets simplify your choices, including settings optimized for CD burning, multimedia, and games.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Ramblin’ Boy

From the Literary Vault Dept.: Ernie Pyle turned out the best-written, most-insightful profiles of all manner of Americana as he traveled from state to state in the 1930s. The collection I reviewed below came out thirty years ago, but the excellence of what Pyle wrote has yet to dim.

                                                                                                 

THE WARTIME DISPATCHES Ernie Pyle sent from the front during the early 1940s did a lot to connect a confused nation with its far-flung heroes. When the writer stopped a sniper’s bullet near Okinawa, he became a civilian martyr.

For several years before the war he was a different kind of correspondent. He travelled throughout the 48 states in the late 1930s and wrote, six times a week, about people and places poignant and sentimental. And funny, but with a gentle, midwestern sense of fun. He never laughed at his subjects.

There have been travel writers before and since, but Pyle set a tone that’s hard to match and has never been bettered. He covered vast distances by car, “the speedometer needle never passing 60,” and saw an easygoing nation determinedly pulling itself out of the ravages of the Depression. It was a way of living that’s long behind us, told in a folksy style that never lapses into the self-consciousness of, say, a Garrison Keillor.

“Ernie’s America” collects what editor David Nichols considers the best of Pyle’s American writings. Six times a week for several years is a lot to choose from, but I’m inclined to trust Nichols’ judgment. For one thing, he’s a Hoosier, just like Pyle was. (Although Indiana seems to recognize its writers only with eponymous rest stops on Interstate 80. And you’ll find, at the Pyle Rest Area, that Ernie’s commemorative plaque is obscured by a video game.)

Friday, October 11, 2019

Words, Words

From the Vault Dept.: What a delight it was, 30 years ago, to see a George Carlin performance. He gave us a sense of hope that the lunacy of politics wouldn’t kill us, a hope I no longer enjoy. Here’s my Schenectady Gazette review of that long-ago show.

                                                                                            

GEORGE CARLIN IS FASCINATED BY WORDS. We know that from his notorious “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine, the commercial recording of which has gotten several radio stations in FCC trouble.

George Carlin
Carlin gave us an update Saturday night at Proctor’s Theatre, regaling a full house with his observations on language and people – but mostly language.

“Americans deal with reality by inventing a soft language to describe it,” he said, and traced the evolution of what was known during World War I as “shell shock” through increasingly detached terms like “battle fatigue,” “operational exhaustion” and, most recently, “post-traumatic stress disorder,” with eight syllables “and a hyphen!”

Although the tradition of shock as comedy has been with us for hundreds of years, Carlin’s barbs are as current as ever. It’s not the shock, sex-oriented comedy of Eddie Murphy; it’s more in line with the Lenny Bruce tradition.

And it’s thanks to Bruce and Carlin that this kind of comedy is seen in clubs and on stage – and on cable television specials, such as the HBO program Carlin told us he’s preparing to tape.

Hence the current tour. Carlin paced the stage, microphone in hand, follow spot leaping to follow, a thin, scraggly guy in a T-shirt with “Da Bronx” printed on it.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Well May the World Go

SEVEN YEARS AGO, Pete Seeger ventured the hope that “the human race has a 50/50 chance to be here a century from now.” He had, at that point, seen almost a century of life himself, and spent the bulk of those years seeking and sharing musical answers to society’s difficult questions.

Seeger’s recorded legacy reflects this long, expansive life, capturing him in a variety of venues and, when he wasn’t solo, working with the most influential performers of the folk-music scene – not to mention jazz and blues and country, because it all melded, under Seeger’s guidance, into a sound that defied classification.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings celebrated the Seeger centenary with a six-CD set that draws from his hundreds of recordings for Moses Asch’s Folkways label (and a number of ancillary labels) made from 1941 to 1998. It’s as thorough a collection as you’re likely to find, and it sounds terrific – which is a good think, because some of those originals were dashed off onto unstable acetate discs that didn’t sound great when they were first released. Seeger was wont to appear at Asch’s office and record a song or three, which eventually would be compiled into an album, well over a hundred of which emerged over the decades.

Friday, October 04, 2019

General American Fare

From the Food Vault Dept.: Here’s an excellent example of an eatery that thrived for over half a century, then closed (in 2013) while it was still popular. Lake George, too, had thrived, enouigh so that Montcalm owner Den Beckos was able to get a good price for the place from a development company. The site is now a strip mall. Here’s my review (from 2002), a longer version than that which ran in Metroland.

                                                                                  

HERE’S AN EXCELLENT EXAMPLE of a restaurant that promises a specific kind of dining experience and then delivers just what you expect. Delivers it efficiently, with a friendly flair, so that you hardly notice that you’re in the midst of a large, busy room. Lobster and steak (prime rib a specialty) are the dominant menu items in an old-fashioned type of find-dining setting. “We have a commercial kind of menu,” says Dean Beckos, “because we know our clientele and know that this is what they enjoy.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Located on Route 9 south of Lake George village, Montcalm is a year-round, seven-days-a-week operation. Summer business can be tourist crazy, of course, but this place knows how to handle the crowds. We stopped in last week, post-summer season, pre-foliage, and the place still was hopping.

First a little history. The restaurant’s name is taken from the 18th-century French general who besieged Fort William Henry in Lake George, ultimately routing the English and destroying the fort. The original restaurant building, opened in 1956 by Gus and Jo Beckos, was not far from the fort’s site in downtown Lake George. In 1971, the Beckos family expanded the business by putting up a new building just north of Queensbury, in an area now dominated by shopping plazas. This now is the only Montcalm – the old building gave way to Water Slide World – and their son, Dean, is now very much involved in the business.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Wore Sheepskin, Dress to Elude Capture

Guest Blogger Dept.: Les Hendrix wrote for Schenectady’s Daily Gazette for 22 years, retiring in 1997 – not long after filing the doozy of a story below. He went on to work for the NYS Ethics Commission, and died in 2013 at the age of 71. The story below was headlined “Man Caught in Creek Admits Guilt,” and I borrowed its sub-head for this post title. I’m familiar with the Schoharie-Central Bridge area, and, wondering what might of become of this story’s protagonist, offer some more recent follow-ups.

                                                                                       

A CENTRAL BRIDGE MAN who jumped into a creek where police were looking for him pleaded guilty to two felonies Wednesday.

Jameson L. Perrotti, 23, pleaded guilty to four charges in Schoharie County Court and faces a sentence of up to six years in prison. Sentencing was set for April 9.

Assistant District Attorney J. Russell Langwig said Perrotti was apparently in a cocaine-induced state of paranoia on the night of Aug. 28, when he saw a police car pass and thought it was chasing him. Langwig gave this account of what then occurred:

Perrotti started evading the police car that was not chasing him and eventually abandoned his car in the Gallupville area. He stripped off his clothes and fled into the woods.

Then Perrotti broke into a trailer and stole a sheepskin to wear. At another residence, he stole a Ford Escort. Eventually, he ended up asleep in the sheepskin parked in the Escort at the Schoharie park-and-ride lot off I-88, Langwig said.

Friday, September 27, 2019

From Anthony Hope to “Always”

From the Music Vault Dept.: By the time I saw “Sweeney Todd” in its original Broadway run, Cris Groenendaal had taken over the part of Anthony Hope. A dozen years later I shared a stage with him in the Syracuse Opera’s production of “The Merry Widow,” and was delighted to learn from him, a few years after that, that he’d released his first solo album, in collaboration with his wife and frequent performing partner, Sue Anderson. Here’s a review/interview piece I wrote about it.

                                                                                   

CRIS GROENENDAAL'S WICKED SENSE OF HUMOR is in evidence three numbers into his new recording, “Always.” He sings the old chestnut “You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want to Do It)” with an edge of gritty determination, sounding as if he were dragged kicking and screaming into the amorous state. It's a contrast to the sappiness of other vocalists who have recorded the song, and it's very effective.

The album is subtitled “Music for Our Children,” which has a twofold meaning for the singer. “It's made up of music I was singing to my own children, but it also describes songs we're passing along to a new generation.” He's quick to point out that it's not a children's album. “It's not Barney meets Raffi. It's an adult collection of songs, including one by the Beatles, one by Bob Dylan, and showtunes and standards. The concept was that I was either singing them to our son, who was one year old at the time, or singing about children. Some of it has a kind of lullaby feel to it, but it's eclectic in terms of its sense of humor.”

Groenendaal made his Broadway debut in “Sweeney Todd,” and salutes that show with “Not While I'm Around.” He went on to the Broadway casts of two more Sondheim shows, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Passion,” and was therefore able to observe that he picks his Broadway appearances well: “I only appear in shows that win the Tony or the Pulitzer.”

Monday, September 23, 2019

Water Retention

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Unless a play establishes a rollicking Broadway success, even the finest scripts are inclined to slip from mainstream view even as they journey to theaters around the country. “The Memory of Water” dates from 1996, won an Olivier Award four years later, and became the movie “Before You Go” in 2002. Not a bad pedigree!

                                                                                    

TAKE REASONABLY GOOD CARE OF YOURSELF and avoid safes falling from the sky and you’ll win the consolation prize of becoming an orphan. It’s too late to settle your parental issues, but the ghost of your dead mother might at least offer clue to some sources of your unhappiness.

Corinna May and Elizabeth Aspenlieder
Photo by Kevin Sprague
Thus does Mary regard her elegantly dressed mom, Vi, as “The Memory of Water” gently, quietly begins. Mary is a successful doctor dealing with the amnesia of a current patient, but it’s her own memory that reveals itself to be unreliable as she tangles with her two sisters, Teresa and Catherine, through the course of playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s amusing slice-of-life drama.

Shakespeare & Co.’s rollicking production puts it on the small stage of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater, giving us a slightly claustrophobic sense of inhabiting Patrick Brennan’s simple country-house bedroom in which the action takes place. The sea is close and coming closer, insists the emerald-lit figure of Vi (Annette Miller, nicely edging her I’m-in-charge spirit with denial). Soon it will consume the house.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Geremia’s Railroad

From the Vault Dept.: I wish I’d bothered to note just who it was I shared a table with at Caffe Lena seven years ago, on the night when I attended a performance by guitar wizard Paul Geremia. Seeing him perform that night was a long-awaited follow-up to an after-hours encounter with him that I wrote about here, and well worth the wait.

                                                                            
               

IF I WERE INCLINED to doubt the veracity of Paul Geremia’s tale of a private lesson from Howlin’ Wolf – a lesson that took place in Geremia’s condemned Brookline flat, in which the only furniture was a bed, on which he learned a Charley Patton song from Wolf, who’d learned it from Patton himself, the legend-upon-legend stuff piling up – as I say, were I inclined to doubt this, any skepticism was blown away by the discovery that I was sharing at table with a man who’d been babysat by Billie Holiday. The world works this way.

Blues singer-guitarist Geremia made his annual Lena stop last week with six-string, 12-string and harp rack, fighting a nasty head cold but nevertheless so at home on the tiny stage that the occasional head-clearing pause seemed perfectly apposite.

He’s one of a handful of acoustic performers linked by personal contact with the blues and folk traditions of this country’s past, and he’s as likely to be talking about Eddie Lang as about Blind Blake.

And talk he does, giving marvelously informal sketches of the provenance of particular pieces. As when he eased into Skip James’s “Special Rider Blues” (not, he explained, to be confused with Little Brother Montgomery’s “No Special Rider”), describing the southern turpentine camps that were part of a musician’s circuit. Then a lengthy intro on the 12-string, the tune touched with a pentatonic feel and always returning, as the vocal began, to a throbbing minor third.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Culinary Country-Hopping

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: Cookbooks are their own kind of ephemera, easing in and out of print as culinary fads come and go. Here’s a roundup of a few favorites that were current nearly five years ago, and which promised some cook-it-yourself delights that remain delightful.

                                                                                     

A CULINARY VACATION is cheap and satisfying, a participatory event you can do alone or with friends, an excursion that immediately pays off with a tasty meal. Cookbooks are my way into such a journey, and I thank goodness my kitchen has metal cabinets, because they end up covered with magnet-affixed recipe photocopies.

Could there be a more timely book than The Cuban Table (St. Martin’s Press). Ana Sofía Peláez and Ellen Silverman have packed 320 pages with prose and photographs celebrating the island’s culinary history, giving you a sense of being right there on a Havana street ordering croquetas de jamón, which turn out to be not too tough to make. Black-eyed pea fritters (bollitos de carita) is another simple finger-food recipe that makes so much sense, while arroz con pollo a la chorrera (a masterful chicken and rice) uses beer and a bunch of savory accompaniments in a dish that will take a little while to whip up. The narrative alone is superb, then suddenly there’s a toothsome photo of oxtail in caper sauce (rabo alcaparrado), so how could you not dive in? Fifty pages of desserts include inventive fruit preparations, and there’s plenty of info about the basics of technique and ingredients to master this country’s cuisine.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Actors Should Animate

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: O, witless youth! Here’s the young (or at least substantially younger) me carping about populist entertainment. My stage bias never sounded more keen, yet I'm having trouble making sense of the thing. It’s one of my early pieces for Metroland, from January 1985, when I was signing myself as George Gordon so as not to offend the pernickety editor who ran pieces of mine in the soon-to-fold Albany Knickerbocker News.

                                                                               
           

HIGH-TECH ESPIONAGE DRAMAS ARE fond of employing as a deus ex machina such unpredictable elements as the villain’s daughter’s amorous interest in the rugged hero. Unpredictable, that is, to the villain who, with his brilliant logic, has covered all the other angles only to stymied at the end by the “human element.”

This is a somewhat flabby metaphor for what goes on onstage in the most common kind of dull production: the sets can be lavish or imaginative but nevertheless well done; the blocking superb, all sightlines accounted for; costumes and makeup first-rate – but where’s the human element? In this case, some terrific acting?

An actor’s job never has been easy.

He’s always been a “man apart” in the sense that he makes public the agonies of self-discovery through his facility for adopting other people’s personalities. A good stage performance calls for something more, however: the ability to devise a personality that will cooperate with the invented personalities of the rest of the cast.

Monday, September 09, 2019

What to Do While the Family Is Away

Guest Blogger Dept.: Robert Benchley weighs in with sound advice for the temporary summer bachelor. The Detroit Athletic Club, founded in 1887 and still going strong, moved to a clubhouse in 1915 and simultaneously began publishing a monthly magazine, also still going strong. Benchley had an essay in almost every issue of it between 1920 and 1932.

                                                                                         

SOMEWHERE OR OTHER the legend has sprung up that, as soon as the family goes away for the summer, Daddy brushes the hair over his bald spot, ties up his shoes, and goes out on a whirlwind trip through the hellish districts of town. The funny papers are responsible for this, just as they are responsible for the idea that all millionaires are fat and that Negroes are inordinately fond of watermelons.

Robert Benchley by Gluyas Williams
I will not deny that for just about four minutes after the train has left, bearing Mother, Sister, Junior, Ingabog and the mechanical walrus on their way to Anybunkport, Daddy is suffused with a certain queer feeling of being eleven years old and down-town alone for the first time with fifteen cents to spend on anything he wants. The city seems to spread itself out before him just ablaze with lights and his feet rise lightly from the ground as if attached to toy balloons. I do not deny that his first move is to straighten his tie.

But five minutes would be a generous allowance for the duration of this foot-loose elation. As he leaves the station he suddenly becomes aware of the fact that no one else has heard about his being fancy-free. Everyone seems to be going somewhere in a very important manner. A great many people, oddly enough seem to be going home. Ordinarily he would be going home, too. But there would not be much sense in going home now, without—. But come, come, this is no way to feel! Buck up, man! How about a wild oat or two?

Friday, September 06, 2019

Artist of the Portrait

From the Vault Dept.: T.E. Breitenbach’s painting “Proverbidioms” took on a life of its own as it was discovered and studied by countless curious people. The poster was published in 1980; a decade later, I journeyed to Breitenbach’s castle to write the profile below. He has gone on to create more posters, more rooms in his castle, and even a couple of delightful stage musicals, one of which was filmed for PBS.

                                                                        
    

THERE’S THIS OLD SANTA CLAUS-LIKE GUY named Grumparar who first tipped off artist T. E. Breitenbach to the verifiable existence of the Nu Creatures. Like all of us, Breitenbach knew about them – they’re those fleeting images you see moving on the periphery of your filed of vision, images that vanish when directly confronted.

Photo for Metroland by Michael Ackerman
“I’ve spent the past five years cataloging them,” says Breitenbach, and his studio is filled with their likenesses, collected in groups that each reflect a particular range of emotion. Soon you’ll be able to find the information in a book that describes the creatures, Grumparar and, no doubt, a little bit of Breitenbach. In the meantime, take comfort in knowing that you’re not crazy to spot these things.

“If I have a fight with my wife,” he says, “then one sort of creature appears, the one who represents jealousy or stubbornness or whatever started the argument. When we kiss and make up, this little one who looks like a Latin lover appears instead.”

Monday, September 02, 2019

Sit Down

Celebrating Labor Day as it was meant to be celebrated.


The Manhattan Chorus sings Maurice Sugar's "Sit Down." Recorded in April, 1937, shortly after the successful sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, that helped the United Auto Workers union organize General Motors.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Hilarious

From the Vault Dept.: Speaking of comedy, and going back a mere decade this time, we find Louis C.K. peaking in his ascent to the top tier of American comedians. His terrific cable series “Louie” lay ahead – but so did his undoing. Industry power and sexual pecadillos are bad bedmates. Here’s a piece I wrote in advance of a performance of his in Albany, NY. Now the article seems more of a museum piece than ever.

                                                                                    

LOUIS C.K. TAKES TO THE STAGE as a modern-day everyman who identifies those ingredients that make the seemingly commonplace hilarious. Such as the experience of trying to suppress an intense bathroom need as you hurry home. “And then I see my house,” he says, “and my eyes tell the rest of me, fuck it, man, let go, we’re here.” He widens his eyes, gives a little we’re-in-this-together grin, and adds, “Because my eyes are fuckin’ retarded and they don’t know the difference between the outside and the inside of my house.”

Louis C.K.
The pacing, the build-up, the payoff are all so well done that you forget he’s performing and feel as if you have a personal spokesman articulating your own folly.

“I work on a show during the summer,” he says. “I write on stage, in front of an audience. Here in New York City, there are clubs where I can do ten or fifteen minutes, and the show grows until by August or September I have something.” He’s a keen observer of the minutiae of everyday experiences – does he jot such thoughts in a notebook? “I lose notebooks. And if I write things down like that, my brain says, ‘Oh, it’s in a notebook’ and I forget it. But I record all my shows, so if I spend, say, five days alone with my kids, my brain gets wiped clean and I can go back to those recordings for the material.”

Monday, August 26, 2019

Comedy Gets Serious

From the Vault Dept.: New York’s Capital Region endured a comedy threat 33 years ago – at least, that’s when I wrote this piece about it. Otherwise, the story speaks for itself. But I should note that Janette Barber has gone on to win six Emmy Awards, including those for her work with Rosie O’Donnell; Vinny Montello became known for “Between Brothers,” “Pranks,” and “Loonatics Unleashed.” The clubs mentioned below have long since shuttered.

                                                                             
      

“COMICS AND ROCK STARS are the only people today who are talking about anything important,” says comic Janette Barber. “I mean, this country is making such an incredible swing to the right that somebody’s got to say something!”

Original Metroland art by Brian Pearce
She has just finished a high-energy set at Bicycle Annie’s in Colonie and is talking quite seriously about what drives her up on stage looking for laughs. She was all orange and white onstage – white outfit with big padded shoulders, a curly orange mane, bright cheeks. She flashed a big smile as she delivered another killer thrust: “How old are you, honey?” she asked a man in the front row. “Twenty-eight? I’m 33. I always tell my age. They say a man reaches his sexual peak at 18.” This was exhaled in a sweet Katharine Hepburn voice. “Now, a woman doesn’t reach her peak until her mid-30s. Sorry, dear.”

Stand-up comedy has been an entertainment staple for as long as people have failed to laugh for themselves. The concerns that repress laughter – careers, families, ethics – are the comic’s best targets.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Clannish Behavior

From the Vault Dept.: It was a delight to review all manner of entertainment event, and the opportunity to see Margaret MacLeod was not to be missed. Here’s my review of a 1988 edition of “The Gathering of the Clans.”

                                                                                     

BLACKNESS. The eerie drone of bagpipes, then the plangent melody of the chanters. When the lights came up, it wasn't Brigadoon we saw but a row of four pipers in traditional Scottish garb sounding a noble tune.

"The Gathering of the Clans"
“The Gathering of the Clans” took place at Proctor’s Theatre on Friday night, but it was much more than traditional plaid and pipes. A scrim behind the players lifted to reveal an up-to-date rhythm section that gave an extra kick to the polkas and reels that followed.

There were kilts and decorative sporrans, but there were long pants as well. It was a show that moved most professionally but had the relaxed air of a good folk-club act. And it brought together some superb performers who would do well in any song-and-dance setting.

Margaret MacLeod, a versatile and moving singer (who organized the show) welcomed the audience in Gaelic and then in English, and treated us to a wedding song (“Come Along”) that was as good an excuse as any to present an ensemble of fine dancers, six women and two men who stayed aloft by almost invisible bounces on their permanently-pointed toes.

Monday, August 19, 2019

You Are a Dodge

From the Music Vault Dept.: The Schenectady-based Empire State Youth Orchestra is an incubator of amazing talent, and has seen some amazing conductors come through. One of the best was Eiji Oue, who went on to become music director of the Erie Philharmonic, associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic, music director of the prestigious Minnesota Orchestra, and principal conductor of the Osaka Philharmonic. Here’s an interview piece I wrote at the start of his brief Capital Region tenure.

                                                                             
                 

THE LAST MOVEMENT of Beethoven’s Fifth is like the last inning of a good ball game: Tense, exciting. The Empire State Youth Orchestra is rehearsing this movement on a Tuesday in late October in preparation for a concert this Saturday at the Troy Music Hall. It is the first time they have looked at the music. On the podium is their new music director, Eiji Oue.

Eiji Oue
“This is how it should be bowed,” he tells the strings. “Down, down, up. Down, down, up.”
A few players try it. It takes some getting used to.

“Listen,” Oue exclaims. “That’s a really professional bowing, the one that the Boston Symphony uses. And we’re doing it because you can do it. And this is the hardest part of the symphony!”

This heightens the enthusiasm of the young musicians. It is nearing 10 PM, the end of rehearsal, and there are many tired faces in the room. They begin again from the start of the finale. And it sounds especially good. “Elegant, elegant!” the conductor calls out. The kids listen and respond. They obviously want to please their leader.

Where the ending had been ragged before are now some very clean touches. “I just played this piece with a major orchestra in the midwest,” Oue tells the group. “It took them 10 minutes to learn this movement. And you guys have done it in five.”

Friday, August 16, 2019

Tales from the Vienna Would-Bes

DURING THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, Viennese operetta was always an escape. Spending a recent day with some of its highlights proved to be even more of a trip to a never-never land. Even as the genre struggled to hang on to its identity, musical fashions changed drastically, to a point that prompted the more contentious tastemakers to hoot it out of the halls. This year, the Bard Music Festival devoted itself to the life and work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, offering a transatlantic survey of works that slyly, and in spite of critical resistence, changed the nature of American music.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
The initial festival weekend (of two) opened with a survey of the kind of music that would have influenced the young Korngold, including some of the precocious composer’s very early works. He tasted fame early on, on the brink of his teens, and he was likened to Mozart because of the charm and speed of his output. And it didn’t hurt that his father was a noted, if not feared, music critic in early-1900s Vienna. Thus, after an opening-concert overview of the wide range of Korngold’s music throughout his career, the first Saturday program offered chamber and orchestral works from the composer’s early years alongside music by his teachers and friends.

One of the most valuable aspects of this festival is that contextualization, which is enhanced here by the talks given by the many scholars who collaborate on designing the summer’s programming.

The program for Sunday, Aug. 11, comprised three events that were bookended by programs of vocal works: a morning concert titled “Popular Music from Korngold’s Vienna” and the evening’s “Operetta’s America.” Between the two we were treated to “Before the Reich: Korngold and Fellow Conservatives,” and it’s worth noting that the featured composers seemed conservative only insofar as they were being reckoned against the atonality of the Second Viennese School.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Kovacs Land

LISTENING TO ERNIE KOVACS is a reminder that he was a storyteller above all, more grounded, perhaps, than Brother Theodore, but with a more subversive edge than Jean Shepherd. Which made Kovacs ideal for the dying medium of radio, the place where he began. The fact that he discovered television meant that he was able to apply his restless imagination to the black-and-white screen, and therefore transform the industry.

Kovacs fans know all about this, and this year, the centenary of his birth, we’re (as always) delighted to show the less-enlightened where just about everything we prize about all TV comedy originated: the mind of Ernie Kovacs.

We have some more help now in the form of the voice (or, more accurately, the sound) of Ernie Kovacs. It graced an LP issued in 1976, and has been expanded into a CD reissue with a half-dozen bonus tracks.

You get a taste of his lunacy right from the start, as “Tom Swift” puts the adverb-rich boy inventor into perilous captivity – in the tuna-salad slot of an abandoned automat, to be precise. Other sketches lance his favorite target, TV conventions, making fun of commercials, interview shows (“Welcome Transients” features a guest with a compelling story to tell who is unable to remember its key points), sentimental stories, newscasts, and, of course, a generous helping of the poetry of Percy Dovetonsils (“Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat” and “Happy Birthday to a Bookworm,” among others) recited over a shrill wordless background chorus.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Cats as Cats Can

From the Vault Dept.: Sometimes a book showed up on an editor’s desk that was unusual enough (the book, that is, not the desk) to merit outsourcing to a reviewer unfazed by such things. In fact, what they didn’t know was that I was, am, and shall remain a devoted cat person. Sorry, pooches. Myrna Milani continues to write and has added blogging and podcasting to her activities; her website is here.

                                                                              
     

DR. MYRNA MILANI, veterinarian and author of “The Body Language and Emotion of Cats,” has added a new element to a busy schedule: endorsement of cat food.

The brand name is Sheba, sold by the Kai Kan company, developed in Europe where the perception of cats is different enough to encourage the necessary research. “The European attitude accepts cats as hunters. An American looks at a cat and sees this gorgeous, graceful creature, ignoring the fact that the animal is by nature a hunter. When we see it stalking a toy, preparing to pounce, we think that's cute.

“So we don’t always understand the elements that contribute to the perception of the cat as a fussy eater. They’re susceptible to several items: sound. motion, odor, texture, and, finally, taste. What do we feed them? Something that doesn’t make noise, is still, has no odor, but has flavor and texture based entirely on what’s economical to produce.”

Not that Dr. Milani recommends an unswerving diet of anything, unless it’s rodent. “Nutritionally, the ideal food for a cat is a mouse. The two have co-evolved with this symbiosis. But nobody has really been able to pinpoint what it is about the mouse that’s so good for the cat. And keep in mind that the mouse in Los Angeles is probably eating different things than the cat in New York, causing subtle fluctuations in the co-evolutionary balance but not changing that essential relationship.”

Monday, August 05, 2019

Someone Is Interviewing the Great Chefs of Albany

From the Food Vault Dept.: Here’s a piece from 1989 that ran in the short-lived Capital Region magazine, a glossy book that died, as did so much else, in the early 1990s. The idea was to create a five-course meal woven through interviews with five superior area chefs. As was usually the case with that magazine’s nutcase editor, what ran wasn’t what I’d written, and it was changed against my wishes. So here’s the draft I prefer. As to the chefs and eateries named below, Jean Morel ran L’Hostellerie Bressane in Hillsdale, NY, from 1971 to 1996; he died in 2004. Susan Lenane died in 2016, and her husband, Bill Bensen, closed the Palmer House a year later. Selma Nemer ran Eartha’s Kitchen for five years, until 1990; she now owns and runs One Roof Holistic Center in Saratoga Springs, as well as being a noted painter. Yono’s has moved a couple of times since it was at Robinson Square, and now occupies a handsome space at Albany’s downtown Hampton Inn, alongside a casual-dining space called dp: an American Brasserie (named for his son, Dominick, who works alongside him). Dale Miller went from The Stone Ends to the Inn at Erlowest to an eponymous place in Albany to Saratoga’s Sperry’s – and now works as a consultant.

                                                                                            

A MAGNIFICENT MEAL puts life’s lesser imperatives in their places. You quiescently float halfway home from the restaurant before you find yourself wondering how the chef accomplished those marvels. It wasn’t just a veal pistache you polished off: it was a Platonic ideal of veal. And chocolate, that child’s delight, became instead an exotic showcase of richness so compelling that in finishing your torte you surely committed a mortal sin.

A great chef owes as much to Robert-Houdin as to Auguste Escoffier because cookery is a form of magic in which a flamboyant (often flaming) result conceals a journeyman’s care and preparation. CAPITAL Region chose the five best chefs in this area and asked them their secrets. They demurred. We persisted; “Surely,” we said, “you can crack open the kitchen door for us?” We invoked a New Year’s spirit; we pleaded. We begged.

Being the best, they acceded. And in doing so provided a dream menu, a five-course meal of a sumptuousness that a person could be tempted to die for. Lucky for us we need only diet.