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Monday, January 28, 2019

Mark Twain and the Dead Canary

Mark Twain Dept.: Sam Clemens gave a talk in Fort Plain, NY, on December 19, 1868, part of what he termed his “American Vandals” tour, consisting largely of his reading of excerpts from his soon-to-be-published Innocents Abroad (which became a bestseller). There he met George W. Elliott, associate editor of the Fort Plain-based Mohawk Valley Register. Elliott was known for his turgid verse, such as “Bonnie Eloise,” which became a popular song, and “The Dead Canary,” the story of a bird named Lillie who succumbs to a melancholy death after her two eggs are crushed by “mysterious fate.” The poem ends:

Ye murderers, unawed by fear,
Who bend at Herod’s crimson shrine! –
Turn once a scaleless vision here,
And view this lifeless bird of mine:
Then in your hell-born purpose pause!
Forsake the path so reckless trod;
Lest, while ye scoff at Nature's laws,
Ye feel the withering curse of God!

Elliott began deluging Twain with verse and song, trying to get some manner of praise. As Twain detailed in letters to Olivia Langdon, his soon-to-be wife, this was not about to happen.


Mark Twain
To Olivia L. Langdon
21 August 1869

That thief that wrote about the dead canary & sends me so much execrable music has found me out & is publishing extravagant puffs of me & mailing the papers to me, duly marked, as usual. I shall offer a bounty for his scalp, yet. He is one of the most persistent & exasperating acquaintances I was ever afflicted with.


To Olivia L. Langdon

6 and 7 September 1869 • Buffalo, N.Y.
In Bed, Monday Night

Livy darling, I got your letter this evening, though I looked for it this morning – I had forgotten that you told me to expect the letters in the evening hereafter. Yes, dearie, I will leave this letter unsealed until I get a Salutatory to send to you in the morning.

Friday, January 25, 2019


From the Vault Dept.: It now seems remarkable that we had John Cage hanging out in the area for a while, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. New York’s rural reaches have attracted many well-known folk to visit, vacation, and even reside for a while. In this case, the ambitious composer-performer Carleton Clay made sure to lure notable American composers to his Catskill Conservatory concerts, which for several years were the best introduction to such music. I reviewed Cage’s best-known work in this piece; but the review below celebrates his 1985 visit to the area. 


JOHN CAGE is one of the wittiest composers since Beethoven, an opinion Cage might not enjoy only because he’s not too crazy about Beethoven’s reputation. But both of them share the dilemma of being unrecognized for their wit – that is, the wit that informs their music.

John Cage
Nobody laughs when Beethoven is performed, which is a pity. Thankfully, the audience at Saturday night’s Catskill Conservatory concert was loose enough to laugh at the music by Cage.

Finding the West Kortright Centre is challenge enough: you get off Interstate 88 near Oneonta and proceed through a number of little towns, taking some turns and ending up on an undeveloped stretch of road populated, it seems, only by farmers. In the midst of it pops up an old church, built in 1850, that has served the area for the past decade as a cultural center. It is in fact where the Catskill Conservatory began giving annual concerts that lately have spread as close as Rensselaerville and that always include the works and presence of a distinguished American composer.

This was Cage’s second appearance with the group. He’s very genial for an enfant terrible, and the man who has stressed the importance of silence when music is considered is a delightful (though rather soft-spoken) public speaker.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Send in the Crooners

From the Vault Dept.: I discovered Rosemary Clooney during her 1977 tour with Bing Crosby, when they performed at what was then the Uris Theatre in New York. Tony Bennett’s Greatest Hits was a fixture on my parents’ turntable, so at the age of six I could lip-sync to “Rags to Riches.” I saw each of them perform individually several times over the years, but here’s an account of a joint appearance at the now-demolished Coliseum in Latham, NY, in 1986.


IT WOULD BE HARD TO FIND a pop-singer pairing more felicitous than Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, who packed the Coliseum Theatre Tuesday night.

Bennett and Clooney in 1991
Both have justifiable claims on the elusive term “song stylist”; both have impeccable taste in songs. Both survived rocky trips through the past two decades and emerged with followings that includes many younger faces.

Clooney took the stage for the first half with “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” sung to the swinging drive of pianist John Oddo, who plays in Woody Herman’s band. Oddo wrote most of the arrangements for Clooney’s songs. A large, locally contracted orchestra played them with zest
and polish.

An Ira Gershwin set included “I Can’t Get Started” (music by Vernon Duke) and brother George’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Strike up the Band.” Cole Porter’s “Why Shouldn’t I?” had a tasteful Oddo solo for accompaniment and, with the orchestra, Clooney reprised one of her biggest hits with “Hey There.”

Friday, January 18, 2019

Berlioz: Poetic Journeys

YOU’D THINK THAT the sweeping orchestral complexity of Berlioz’s music would resist reduction, but his buddy Liszt turned the Symphonie Fantastique into a piano piece almost immediately. Liszt was well-motivated: it was easier for a soloist to spread the word (or, in this case, the music) than it was to hire an orchestra, and Berlioz gave his oddly mixed approval. Mixed insofar as he favored the effort, but never offered his opinion of its quality.

Jean-François Heisser has gone Liszt one better: he arranged the piece for two pianos. Heisser is a pianist and conductor who has led the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Chamber Orchestra for nearly two decades, and he’s artistic director of the Soirées Musicales d’Arles and president of the Maurice Ravel International Academy, among other notable accomplishments. And he’s one of the piano pair on a new recording of his arrangement, alongside Marie Josèphe Jude, with whom he has worked in that capacity since 1997.

Although “alongside” is the wrong term for this venture. They’re face to face at a Pleyel Double Piano, an instrument that contains two complete workings but takes up less space than a pair of instruments. It was created in 1897, and 74 of them were built during the next three decades. The one used for the recording is kept at the Paris Museum of Music, and it’s kept in perfect working order, as you’ll hear on this disc.

Monday, January 14, 2019

With Friends like These

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Thomas Berger’s penultimate novel, Best Friends, again visited the realm of domestic treachery previously limned in such titles as Sneaky People, Neighbors, Meeting Evil, and The Feud. You should have no trouble finding a copy – Berger’s books remain in print, as they should. Here’s my review.


ROY AND SAM ARE SUCH CLOSE FRIENDS that each has learned to live with the peccadillos of the other, although Roy is beginning to question his tolerance. With a bond that stretches back to childhood, the title characters of Best Friends exemplify the kind of pairing characteristic of Thomas Berger’s fiction – and deftly analyzed in a recent Voice Literary Supplement essay by Jonathan Lethem.

This duality was found in single characters like Little Big Man’s Jack Crabb, shuttling between his upbringings as a white man and as an Indian, and the psychotic Joe Detweiler in Killing Time; in the identity swap of Earl Keese with his new neighbors Harry and Ramona (Neighbors), and in the protagonist’s permutations in Being Invisible and Changing the Past, in which each re-imagining is sparked by a wish to change as much as a need to bridge that gap to an existing ideal.

Given Berger’s fiendish sense of humor – a quality that too often prompts the unwary reader to label him a comic author – it was inevitable that he should present the most awful aspects of a man’s other side as a murderous but charming fellow in the dark-as-night novel Meeting Evil. Best Friends is another meditation on that theme, but here it becomes a mystery story as Roy struggles to understand the nature of his friendship with Sam when the latter is suddenly hospitalized.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Haute Rustique

From the Food Vault Dept.: The Lake Placid Lodge I visited in 1996 is not the place you’ll visit now. The property has continued to develop and improve, but it remains one of the very finest destinations in the Adirondacks. Here’s a 32-year-old glimpse of the place.


STEVEN GILES IS YOUNG AND AMBITIOUS. The London-born chef looks like Charlie Sheen, although Giles probably considers that it’s he whom Sheen resembles. Which is exactly the right attitude to have when you’re professionally engaged in high-profile cookery.

Giles has been executive chef at the Lake Placid Lodge for four months, brought from the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara. As a Relais & Chateaux property, the Ranch adheres to extremely high standards; the Lake Placid Lodge takes its place among that rarefied company next year, and Giles’ work deserves all the recognition it can get as a vital component of the Lodge’s success.

My wife and I spent a couple of days there recently in order to meet the chef and sample his wares. Mild thunder and an attractive lightning show played over the mountains across the lake as we arrived, and we had an even better show of it during dinner on the open-air porch. It was an unexpectedly romantic accompaniment to our first night’s dinner--not to mention a farewell to the spring menu.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Sound of the Silenced

From the Vault Dept.: How loyal are you to your country? That was the nasty little question essentially asked of balladeer Richard Dyer-Bennet in 1953 when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had been named as a putative Communist by Burl Ives when Ives sang like a canary before HUAC, but Dyer-Bennet agreed to testify only if Telford Taylor, who was an attorney at the Nuremberg Trials (and a friend of Dyer-Bennet), could represent him. HUAC declined. Dyer-Bennet was blacklisted. He’d had a successful performing career up until then, and was able to continue at a very few sympathetic venues like the Village Vanguard. But he also took the opportunity to start his own record label, issuing discs he recorded in his own living room. They were meant to promote his concert appearances; they were haphazardly distributed; yet the initial volume sold like crazy. Twenty years ago, Smithsonian-Folkways issued that album on compact disc, and has since made all of the Dyer-Bennet recordings available. Here’s my long-ago take on the first volume.


RICHARD DYER-BENNET’S APPROACH TO FOLKSONGS is about as far as you can get from the cragginess of field recordings without sounding like a slumming opera star. He was a unique and very stylistic singer who stuck to his guns in the way he arranged and performed the songs he enjoyed, so it was only natural that he should found his own record label to preserve the integrity of his performances.

It was a timely move. Dyer-Bennet resisted the House Un-American Activities Committee’s attempt to railroad him into naming names, thus ending his access to most commercial outlets as the 1950s got underway..

The 15 recordings that appeared under his name were released by arrangement with Folkways beginning in 1955. They’re now available through Smithsonian Folkways, and the first volume absolutely vindicates Dyer-Bennet’s approach to traditional songs. Unique as he sounds, the songs are about the songs, not the voice, but only because the voice is so well used that it’s practically transparent.

Friday, January 04, 2019

The Root of the Meal

From the Food Vault Dept.: It’s the time of year to celebrate the tubers and such, so I dug up this piece I wrote nearly fifteen years ago for the long-gone Metroland magazine.


ALL THAT GLITTERS does not grow above ground. It’s funny, in a way, that they’re called root vegetables, because they form so much of the foundation of a holiday meal. In some cases, it’s the only time you see some manner of rutabaga and turnip and beet on the table—but don’t forget that onions and garlic, carrots and potatoes are part of this family as well.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
They’re the character actors of the dinner table. You may marvel at the flashy antics of the short-season stars, the lettuce and beans and even those first mustardy broccoli florets, but those wan, tough tubers are there for you meal after meal and never let you down.

This year’s Thanksgiving dinner at my house will feature a roasted beet salad with tarragon and chives, a tri-color casserole that alternates carrot and parsnip purées with a green column of peas for contrast, sweet potato pie and some manner of rutabaga because I feel obliged every year to figure out some way to make it toothsome.

Most of the veggies in question respond nicely to a preparation you already know well: boil chunks of them until tender, then mash them with butter, salt and pepper.