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Monday, February 25, 2019

A Box of Berlioz

ONE OF THE MOST SURPRISING DISCOVERIES lurking in a trip through the complete works of Hector Berlioz is the sense of intimacy that peeks through. Here’s a composer who demanded extra-large orchestral forces, and whose music surges with the grandest of gestures, yet in and among those roarings are moments of incredible delicacy, rendered all the more delicate by the context in which we find them.

Thus, as the “Sanctus” in Berlioz’s Requiem comes to us an hour into the piece (after the tumult of a terrifying “Rex tremendae” and a big-boned “Hostias”), a solo tenor soars above quiet strings – here it’s the welcome voice of Robert Tear – in a passage that seems worlds apart from what came before, but it’s precisely because of the moods and momentum that brought us here that we’re so moved by the moment (in this respect, it’s not unlike the “Sanctus” in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis).

We celebrate Berlioz in 2019 – March 8 being the 150th anniversary of his death – and Warner Classics has produced a 27-CD of the composer’s complete works to honor the occasion. The aforementioned Requiem is the formerly out-of-print version recorded in 1975 by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Louis Fremaux, a stirring performance that holds its own against the legendary alternatives helmed by Colin Davis and Charles Munch.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Edsel Show

SPEAKING OF BING (a new biography of whom I reviewed a few days ago), here's an example of his work in the 1950s. He'd just finished making the movie "High Society" with Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, and he'd long championed the work of Rosemary Clooney. Here they are together in the 1957 live broadcast of "The Edsel Show," a variety program also featuring the vanished-from-history dance team of Mr. Conn and Mr. Mann. What you'll see is the videotape prepared for the west coast's airing of the program, a superior alternative to the kinescopes then in constant use. But the trouble with videotape was that it could be erased a re-used, which doomed many a so-recorded show. This one escaped, and you can find fascinating info about it from Emmy-nominated film editor Kris Trexler at this web page. The video linked below also gives a good background and format comparison before the show itself draws you into entertainment of a sadly bygone era.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Bing Crosby: Soldiering On

SIX YEARS AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH, Gary Crosby put out a book that luridly described incidents of disciplinary abuse, catapulting the unsuccessful actor-singer alongside Christina Crawford as mistreated celebrity-child of the century. And it toppled Bing Crosby from a very high pedestal indeed, because the legendary crooner had been acclaimed for decades as the ultimate father and family man.

That rosy picture was due in part to the Hollywood publicity machine: once Crosby began topping the ranks of popular screen actors, accounts of his family life were splashed across the newspapers and magazines, helped in no small part by the upstanding characters he typically portrayed. But there’s something in the American psyche that enjoys seeing its heroes dethroned. When I’ve mentioned to friends that I’m reading Gary Giddins’s new volume of Bing biography, the too-frequent response has been, “That Crosby was a terrible person.”

This is the second of what’s projected to be a three-volume set, covering the busy years 1940-46. Like the first volume, it wasn’t authorized by the singer’s estate, but it received a huge boost of info after Crosby’s widow read volume one and was impressed enough to share papers and other memorabilia.

Although the book is thus informed with great detail, the narrative is never swamped by it. Giddins is a scholar who avoids growing didactic; he’s a storyteller who (like his subject) knows how to make a punchline land. He provides a comforting amount of historical and cultural context for the Crosby story to make sense, yet he assumes that the reader possesses a mature knowledge of entertainment history (you should know, for example, who Larry Adler was).

Friday, February 15, 2019

Blowing through the Winds

From the Vault Dept.: Australia’s tercentenary was celebrated thirty years ago with a worldwide variety of antipodean-related events. In Albany, NY, the local symphony presented a series of concerts that featured works by Australian composers. Here’s my review of one of those.


TO SAY THAT OBOIST CYNTHIA WATSON was the star of last Friday’s concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra takes too much credit away from the other soloists who also shone, but when Watson took her solo bow at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony it was after an evening of superlative work.

Richard Mills (in a more recent view)
Guest conductor Richard Mills continued the season-long tribute to Australia’s tercentenary with works by two of that country’s composers – one of them being Mills himself.

His “Fantastic Pantomimes,” written and first performed two years ago during a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra tour of Japan, is a suite for five soloists and orchestra inspired by traditions of Japanese theater. It’s a piece of gesture and feel, relying on dramatic effects of rhythm and punctuation over the traditions (especially in a concerto-like setting) of melodic progression.

The soloists, stationed star-like at points on the stage within the ensemble, were Watson, flutist Floyd Hebert, clarinetist Susan Martula, trumpeter James Morris and David Saunders, French horn.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Old-Fashioned Love

LEGENDARY MEZZO-SOPRANO CATHY BERBERIAN developed a program in the early 1970s that presented a song recital as it might have been performed in 1909. She dressed accordingly and sang numbers ranging from “The Song of the Flea” to “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” It was recorded at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, so you can hear (if you can find the LP) the twinkle in her voice as she sails from one song to the next. It’s a wonderful conceit, but, without being too sardonically self-conscious, it’s as rooted in the 70s as it is in the aughts.

There are delightful chestnuts from the early 20th century, but they typically display an intensity of sentiment that we’ve long been too hip to indulge. Thus, when you do find performances of “On the Road to Mandalay” or “Trees,” the singer finds a way to telegraph this emotional detachment – usually through some manner of camp or other exaggeration.

This was not the case when John Charles Thomas sang these songs, or John McCormack, or Leonard Warren. And it was Warren’s work that inspired baritone Brian Mulligan not only to develop his own splendid operatic voice, but also to record a collection of 21 songs written between 1877 and 1939 – and to record them with nothing but the total conviction the material deserves.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Moscow on the Mohawk

From the Food Vault Dept.: I’ve been researching Russian cuisine for an upcoming dinner, which reminded me of a review visit I made in 1996 to an ambitious Russian entity. That it ceased to exist not long thereafter should come as no surprise. The mayor referenced below was trying to close down the city’s several strip joints at the time, a task that took much longer to accomplish, and even then I think the places simply died of boredom.


LATER, TRYING TO RECONSTRUCT THE EVENING, my wife and I had trouble ascertaining just what it was that pushed us into the realm of no-holds barred absurdity. The big birthday party, to be sure, and the Russian disco band. The mini-skirted, satin-bloused waitresses added an entertaining touch (and the worry that Schenectady’s fleshaphobic mayor might try to close down this place). Then there was the formidable menu, sporting such unusual items as “schti,” which our waitress wouldn’t describe because the kitchen was out of it, so why bother?

This photo has nothing to do with the article alongside.
Troika – the name refers to the team of three horses that pull a traditional Russian carriage – occupies a building that went through a few incarnations as an Indian restaurant, interrupted by a few years serving Korean food. To put a Russian restaurant there is a delightful idea. The location does seem to be a kiss of death, though.

So my first question would have been about that location. Unfortunately, my follow-up phone calls to manager Ella were unsuccessful – she was too busy with customers to talk one day, which is a good sign; but she couldn’t honor our phone appointment the next day, however, because “she’s having some trouble with the boss,” the phone-answerer whispered, explaining, “I’m just a friend who stopped by to visit today.”

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Torch Song

AS THE YOUNG WOMAN OBSERVES, it was Cousin Need, who “read all that Truman Capote all the time,” who told her about Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They are identified with spinning, measuring, and cutting, an activity we witness in the form of fuse-making. The fuses are awaiting future torchings by a professional arsonist, an unnamed but memorable character in the latest offering by New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre, proving once again that a small cast, a poetic script, and excellent acting can pack a thought-provoking plenty into a short stretch of time.

Sean Cullen and Jenny Jarnagin
Photo by Bryan Godwin
Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “The Arsonists” is getting its regional premiere here, directed by Denizen co-artistic director Ben Williamson. The experience begins as you move from the lobby into the black-box space along an overgrown, verdant pathway. And then we’re in the Florida swamp, where M, who otherwise is referred to as “Littles,” cowers in a cabin, her latest job an out-of-control failure that cost the life of her father, who taught her the business.

Triumphing in this difficult role is Jenny Jarnagin, who brings to it a sense of sorrow that’s imbued with determination to continue to struggle against everything that weighs her down – and, in this case, it’s just about everything: father, mother, identity, future. Jarnagin is a member of Manhattan’s Flea Theater, but she’s also a very committed activist who is creating theater to effect social change.

While there are no such axes to grind in “The Arsonists” (despite M’s facility with a hatchet), I would argue that any desire for social change begins within, and this show demands that you reassess yourself. If it’s going back to the Greeks to find thematic resonance, that’s only because these issues have a profoundly long-ranging provenance, and we can’t move forward without knowing our cultural past.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Bliss on a Bun

FIRST, A CONFESSION: I have only ordered burgers at this place. Yes, I need to try different things, and I've tasted some of the alternate offerings ordered by friends, but the pursuit of superior hamburgers is a calling, a mission, and I have been so called. What you’re getting at Dave’s Gourmet Burgers and More is both a gustatory and architectural marvel, a jumbo-sized creation tamed by a knife through its heart.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This incarnation of Dave Khan’s burger-joint concept has been operating in Schenectady for two years; his previous locations include a stint on Albany’s Fuller road. What he’s doing, and doing well, is offering an alternative to the more upscale burger chains. If you’re dining at McDonald’s, forget it: you’re not interested in flavor. But next time you’re thinking about Smashburger or Red Robin or Sonic or the like, try this place instead.

You won’t find fancy pre-fab decor – far from it. It has a couple of picnic tables in the center of the room, more tables against a wall; a reach-in cooler with drinks, a TV spitting out cable news, and walls covered with homilies, wise saws, and other such sayings. The restaurant is located in Rotterdam, on lower Broadway, with on-street parking and a few parking spaces in the rear.

If you’re not immediately welcomed by Dave, it’s because he has something on the stove. He’s the do-it-all factotum of the place, and the first thing he’s going to do is get an order of black fries cooking for you. Black fries? you wonder, and your gaze lights on a menu or wall notice informing you that unlimited black fries are part of your meal.