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Friday, October 23, 2020

Will Rogers Was No Damned Good

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back the late H. Allen Smith, whose wonderful books, beginning with the best-selling Low Man on a Totem Pole, carried on the tradition of Mark Twain and remain essential reading. He had a very salty sense of humor which, toward the end of his life, finally began to creep more obviously into his writing. Here’s one of his last pieces.

                                                                                                                                                             
AT THE RISK OF BEING SUSPENDED BY THE NECK from a cottonwood tree, I have in recent years been taking dead aim on the late Will Rogers and calling him somewhat of a fake and a fraud.

H. Allen Smith
This is a hazardous undertaking because Will Rogers ranks as one of the few American saints – a religion unto himself – like Abraham Lincoln and, dropping down the scale a few notches, the Reverend Billy Graham. In the last few years there has been a sharp recrudescence of interest in the Rogers mystique, owing in large part to the barnstorming tours of actor James Whitmore, who impersonates the cow-pasture chawbacon who himself was engaged in impersonating a cracker-barrel Virgil. The public has been flocking steadily to the Whitmore one-man shows, but then, as we know, the public is capable of impersonating a ass, a idiot.

My aim in this feuilleton is to tell a single anecdote that I think is amusing, with a kicker at the end, but it is needful that I first set down a few facts and a few personal opinions about the so-called Sage of Oolagah.

Was Rogers the “profound philosopher” some people called him? Horse withers! He had a much better education than I got. The great bulk of his writing and rambling stage talk was vapid and dull and had no art in it. He came up with a slight handful of gems, out of a vast output of spoken and written prose; those renowned six chimpanzees, put to work at typewriters, could have done better, given the time.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Neopolitan Niceties

From the Food Vault Dept.: I started reviewing restaurants early in 1986, successfully pitching to Metroland Magazine the notion that we could accommodate their budget-free approach to things by approaching selected restaurants and inviting them to let me dine for free and assess them at their best. We did this for a few months until a welcome self-consciousness set in and a budget was established. But this is one of those early pieces, introducing me to what would become my favorite restaurant – Albany, NY’s, still-thriving Café Capriccio – and the chef who would become one of my finest friends, Jim Rua.

                                                                             
                   

“I’M NOT GOING TO DO ANYTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY TONIGHT,” said Jim Rua, chef-owner-manager of the Café Capriccio. “What I'm going to do is choose some items off of tonight’s menu that I think are really representative of the place. Okay?" He’s got the kind of beard that, when he grins, looks like a forest in motion.

Jim Rua | Photo by Joe Schuyler
Café Capriccio is inauspiciously located on Grand Street in downtown Albany. There is a long bar in one room and a small collection of tables in another. The walls are paneled with pine; the music, Jim’s choice, features Italian opera.

Like much of the opera, the recipes Jim uses come from Northern Italy. The menu changes from night to night, but there are favorites that reappear regularly. Our first course, Antipasto Capriccio, was one of these, a feast of salami, provolone, marinated cauliflower, apple slices, red pepper strips, small slivers of quiche, fried eggplant, melon, strawberries, mushroom caps, mussels, artichoke hearts, red cabbage, olives, tuna, anchovies and romaine, with a light oil-and-vinegar dressing and lots of herbs. And I may have missed an item or two, but you stop writing and start eating when confronted with such a concoction.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Reach Out and See Someone

From the Computer Vault Dept.: We’re clearing boxes of books and magazines from a room being renovated and I discovered a bunch of old computer magazines. So I’m going to share some more vintage articles of mine, this one an amusing foretaste of what we now take for granted with Skype and Zoom and many other at-our-fingertips video-chat utilities. We’re heading back, back, back ... to 1995.

                                                                           
                  

TWO OF THE GREATEST DISAPPOINTMENTS of New York’s 1964 World’s Fair were the disappearance of Picture Phones and the persistence of that wretched song “It’s a Small World.” Only in the last few years have picture phones gained even a little market presence, but they’re hampered by poor picture quality and a too–high price. It’s tough packing all the required information into the cramped space afforded by a dial-up phone line, so ASL offers a compromise. How about a digital image of the person you’re talking to? Better still, how about the ability to transmit pictures and drawings?

Now that desktop videoconferencing is here, we can forget the picture phone. With my PC and the MegaConference kit from Alpha Systems Labs, I’m able to smile and wave to a similarly equipped person on the other end. Using a camcorder or VCR, I can even play a tape of my latest vacation through the system.

All you have to do is avoid creating an image that changes too quickly. The MegaConference system uses a video-compression technique to reduce the amount of information going over the wire, and it counts on a fairly static scene to work efficiently.

The compression is essentially a lazy technique; it first sends a complete picture and then repaints only the parts of each successive screen that change. You can do anything you want in front of the camera, but the more information the system has to send, the longer it takes to update the picture. Your inspired break dance comes out as a sluggish slide show on the other end.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Slow the Food, Feed the World

THE CURRENT PANDEMIC has kept us away from restaurants but it hasn’t slaked our taste for food. It may not seem appropriate to ascribe any advantages to living in a comparatively isolated fashion during the past few months, but it at least may have forced a reassessment of our relationship to what we eat. Seeds and gardening material were hot sellers this year; growing your own food is both nutritious and therapeutic. But where are we headed?

Terra Madre – Mother Earth – is a Turin-based but world-wide festival that seeks to “unite our food, our planet and our future,” and which will present a mix of physical and digital events running from Oct. 8, 2020 through April 2021. It’s the thirteenth such festival, and in many the most important, bringing together, as it promises, food producers, consumers, thinkers, and writers from around the globe.

The conference defines the four pillars of food security as availability, access, utilization, and stability, and notes that the pandemic is as much of a food crisis as it is a health crisis. “Covid-19 represents an opportunity for us to find solutions to all the other emergencies we face: the climate and environmental crisis; the economic crisis generated by an unsustainable development model based on the impossible dream of infinite growth, a model which foments social injustice and distributes our collective wealth ever more unequally; the social exclusion of large sections of the population and denial of fundamental rights; the drama of mass migration.”

Terra Madre’s summary response is biodiversity, asking, “What can we do to reverse a development model that creates social and environmental disasters, eroding our natural capital?” Slow Food is the answer, promoting all forms of biodiversity.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Masur’s Farewell

From the Vault Dept.: The late conductor Kurt Masur was an unashamed champion of the music of his native Germany, and chose to finish his career as the NY Philharmonic’s music director with a heartfelt celebration in 2002 of three of the biggies: Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. Here’s my review of the events.

                                                                             
         

KURT MASUR BID THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC FAREWELL with a pair of concerts at Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony) in Massachusetts. Weather couldn’t have been nicer, the large auditorium was nearly full, and the manicured lawn had a capacity crowd.

Kurt Masur
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The programming couldn’t have been more basic: Beethoven. Mahler. Brahms. Unlike the televised pops concert with which Masur wrapped it up in Manhattan, these were programs of length and breadth. And the music obviously was close to the Maestro’s heart: he danced his way through the works with ease and panache, crafting each with a finely-honed sense of dramatic and emotional structure.

Brahms intended his Concerto for Violin and Cello as a rift-healing gesture for his old friend Joseph Joachim, a violinist into whose failing marriage Brahms had tactlessly intruded. Joachim gave the premiere along with the cellist from Joachim’s quartet.

It’s not hard to hear the dialogue between the solo instruments as conversations between two old friends. To put a more fanciful face on it, it’s a passionate exchange in a tavern, a fiery reunion that softens into wistful melancholy before finishing in a burst of exhilaration.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Susannah v the Elders

From the Opera Vault Dept.: One of the most powerful American opera’s is Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” which resonates all the more deeply in this current era of pseudo-religious fervor exciting the armed and unloved. Here’s a look back at a 2003 production by Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga).

                                                                                          

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EASY, when I lived in an urban area, to dismiss Carlisle Floyd’s premise for his opera Susannah as being trite and out of date – but over a decade of rural living has proven to me that the judgments, the Manichean dance of good versus evil, the church-based politicking are very much a part of the fabric of American farm life.

Sheryl Woods
Photo by Frank Giraldi

My wife and I painted both of our surnames on our mailbox when we moved here, but not until I thoughtfully posted a photocopy of our marriage license on the bulletin board of the local church did the sour tongues stop wagging.

Susannah, written in 1955, takes the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders as its inspiration, but it’s re-set in rural Tennessee and has a distinct flavor of the McCarthy-era witch hunts woven in.

It starts innocently enough, at a dance introduced by a melodic figure that begins like the Preludio from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 and ends with a square dance lick. But a dark note is sounded with the arrival of itinerant preacher Olin Blitch, who discovers that the attractive Susannah is viewed with suspicion and scorn by some of the village women.

While searching for a baptismal creek, a group of village Elders sees the young woman bathing, naked, and decide to shun her until she’s “saved.” A simple, musically powerful scene gives us her discovery of this attitude at a church picnic, and that’s the kind of scene that makes this opera such a good one and made this production so successful.

Friday, October 02, 2020

The Telltale Tintype

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back George Ade, who has been busy grinding out more of his insanely popular “Fables in Slang.” Here’s his latest.

                                                                              
          

ONCE THERE WAS A WORRIED PARENT whose only Son could not quite make up his Mind whether to join a High School Frat or go on the Stage.

He was at the long-legged Age and walked Loose and stepped on his own Feet, and whenever he walked briskly across the Floor to ask some Tessie to dance with him, every one crowded back against the Wall to avoid getting one on the Shin.

He combed his Hair straight back, like a Sea Lion, and in Zero Weather wore a peculiar type of Low Shoe with a Hard-Boiled Egg in the Toe.

His overcoat was of Horse Blanket material with a Surcingle, and the Hat needed a Hair Cut and a Shave. When he topped off his Mardi Gras Combination with a pair of Yellow Gloves that sounded like a Cry for Help and went teetering down the Street, his Father would vent Delight
over the Fact that the Legislature had passed Game Laws.

One day at Luncheon Father got so Steamy that he had to blow off. So he opened up on Son and practically wiped him off the Map. He sure burned him Alive.

Monday, September 28, 2020

An Anti-Trusting Nature

AS YOU MAKE YOUR WAY through this well-reasoned, well-researched, densely written book, you may hear the sound of a scream, a crescendo of pain that builds from introduction to index. In my case, it turned out to be coming from the inside of my own head. We know, or have intuited, some of the issues and conclusions Teachout proposes. But we probably aren’t taking in the entirety of what’s wrong and what’s at stake. It’s massive, and our future and our children’s future demands that we do something.

You know Zephyr Teachout from her noble but unsuccessful runs for political office in New York over the past few years. She’s an attorney who is also Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University, and the author of several books and scholarly articles. Clearly, she has sought societal change through legislation, whether writing it or enacting it. But her new book, Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money, empowers all of us to be part of that change. What’s depressing is the overwhelming amount of it that she deems necessary. And she’s correct.

As she writes in the book’s introduction, we have “passively accepted corporate consolidation as a fact of life” and shown no resistence. “Although there are tens of thousands of community activist organizations dedicated to campaign finance, climate change, and gender equality, I know of no local antitrust leagues – unlike 120 years ago, when there were thousands.”

The various monopolies she goes on to describe are strikingly varied but operate in similar ways. One monopoly-controlled commodity is chicken.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Clarion Call

From the Classical Vault Dept.: When I visited Newell Jenkins at his Columbia County home in 1985 to learn about his upcoming concert series, I had no idea just how important and well-regarded he was as a musicologist and conductor. If I had, I would have made more of an effort to see the concerts he led over the next few years. But here’s an idea of what kind of music-making he was bringing to life back then.

                                                                                       

FOR MANY YEARS, Columbia County has offered a retreat for New York City-based artists to quietly live among farms and fields; inevitably, the area has taken on a cultural identity of its own, with a very supportive concert audience being the result.

Two of the area’s favorite activities are combined in the “Leaf Peeper” concert series, which begins Saturday at the Catamount Ski Area in HilLsdale. The series was developed and is directed by musicologist Newell Jenkins, who makes his home in this little town.

The house, a contemporary design the color of which complements the fall foliage, sits atop a hill with a breathtaking view. Jenkins, whose sturdy stature and white mane suggest the classic picture of a musicologist, was anything but stuffy as he sat by his pool and described the coming four concerts.

“The first one, like most of them – like most of the concerts this year, it seems – celebrates the birthday composers. Members of the Clarion Chamber Ensemble will play music by Bach and Handel, the big piece being Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. This will be performed at the Ski Area, which may seem an unlikely place for a concert, but acoustically it’s not bad at all. And it has ample space for an audience – it will hold up to 500.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Tavern in the Valley

From the Food Vault Dept.: The Tory Tavern, alas, is no more – Ralph and Irmgard Buess retired in 2013 and put the building up for sale. As I noted in the piece below, I saw the place in 1984 when he was restoring it because he and I worked together in the kitchen of Schenectady’s (also defunct) Mohawk Club, and he would dash home between lunch and dinner shifts to work on the place.

                                                                                  
           

RALPH BUESS WASN’T CRAZY ABOUT the idea of this write-up. “I like things the way they are,” he told me. “Quiet. Peaceful.” He’s a modest person who gets a little embarrassed by the acclaim, but I believe he’s sincere in his wish to keep the business on its even keel.

To say he’s a hands-on chef-owner is to put it mildly. Twenty years ago I visited the 18th-century building he was restoring and witnessed Buess at work on the building’s restoration, finishing room after room with a level of craftsmanship you’d be hard pressed to find in new construction. With walls and woodwork, furnishings and fixtures all hand-crafted, it’s no surprise to find food that gets similar attention.

George Mann lived there in the late 18th century, at a time when the Mohawk Valley became an important factor in the Revolutionary War. Initially sympathetic with the war, Mann switched sides and paid for his Tory sympathies with a jail term in Albany. Thus the restaurant’s name.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Bees in Your Backyard

THIS IS A PIVOTAL TIME OF YEAR for beekeepers large and small. As the weather starts to turn colder and less predictable, bees begin preparing for winter, but recent years have brought a succession of man-made problems that the bees can’t easily overcome. Fortunately, we’re able to help them.

Photo by B.A. Nilsson
“Fall is a tricky time, because you alternate temperatures during the day and from day to day,” Bruce Kearns explained. He’s the master beekeeper who oversees the hives at the George Landis Arboretum in the Schoharie Valley town of Esperance, NY. While the Arboretum is known for its gardens and nature trails, it also offers educational programs – and Kearns’s class offered a chance to explore specific apiary-related questions.

“Bees work to keep themselves at a constant temperature in the hive,” he explained, “and they can generate a lot of heat.” As outside temperatures drop, the bees form a cluster inside the hive, a ball of bees surrounding the queen to keep her – and the surrounding bees – at optimal temperature, which is 95 degrees Fahrenheit – although they’re lucky to get it up to 85 degrees during the coldest periods.

Bees on the inside of the cluster create heat with their wings; bees on the outside remain still (and colder), serving as an insulating layer. The cluster is in a constant rotation, so that the chillier outside bees (it can be below 50 degrees out there) move to the inside with the no doubt wing-tired inside bees taking their place.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Mumford’s the Word

From the Classical Vault Dept.: It’s always a pleasure to revisit a Musicians from Marlboro review, because it brings back so much of the whole wonderful performance. Experience, I should say, because it’s an all-encompassing sensory delight. But don’t let me try to convince you: let the twelve-years-younger me make that pitch.

                                                                                  

ALTHOUGH INDIVIDUAL NAME RECOGNITION has long been a key force in driving classical music sales, Musicians from Marlboro is a rare example of successful branding. For over half a century, Vermont’s Marlboro College has offered a summer music training program, initially run by founders Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch, now under the aegis of Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida. And anyone who goes out on a Marlboro tour, although not individually known, is guaranteed to be a superb player. Individual name recognition usually follows.

Tamara Mumford
Photo by Fay Fox

More importantly, these players work together as superior ensembles of a variety of configurations. The string players of a piano trio joined two others to become a string quartet, then a quintet, each time delivering a polished performance.

The career of mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford has taken off since she made her Metropolitan Opera debut two years ago. She sang of four of Beethoven’s hundred-plus settings of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish folksongs, a series commissioned by Scottish publisher George Thomson that are among the most delightfully frothy of the great composer’s works.

What’s special about Mumford’s voice shone through “The Lovely Lass of Inverness,” a setting of a Robert Burns lament (itself inspired by a much older text) that throbbed with sweet melancholy. It sounded as effortless as it did affecting, and Mumford enjoyed a transparent rapport with pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, violinist Lily Francis and cellist Marcy Rosen.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Eliot’s Elegance

From the Classical Vault Dept.: George Walker, who died in 2018 at the age of 96, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer – the first Black composer to have nabbed that prize – and pianist, who was also the first Black soloist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Curtis Institute’s first Black graduate. And his Pulitzer-winning piece, “Lilacs,” setting a Lincoln eulogy by Walt Whitman, should be a mandated substitute for Aaron Copland’s odiously puerile “Lincoln Portrait.” Below, we travel back to 1987 and my review of a performance by Albany’s Capitol Chamber Artists, who championed Walker’s work.

                                                                                              

THERE SHOULD BE A LAW banning frivolous settings of T. S. Eliot’s poems. And there should be a national celebration when a thoughtful setting comes along that does justice to Eliot’s work.

George Walker
Photo by Frank Schramm

In which case composer George Walker would be hoisted upon shoulders for his brand-new setting of "The Hollow Men."

Capitol Chamber Artists premiered the work this weekend, locally at Page Hall in Albany last night. Walker’s “Poem for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra” is more than just a chamber piece, however. With its surprising theatrical touches and disquieting voice, it is a completely appropriate and thought-provoking interpretation of the text.

Scoring is for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, harpsichord and percussion battery; in addition to the soprano two speakers (human, not electronic) are required.

Soprano Mary Anne Ross entered in whiteface, an old felt hat on her head, a blanket grasped round her waist. She carried a plastic bag bulging with street-life stuff.

Michael Murphy, one of the speakers, was ragged and unshaven and wore a woolen watch cap. He uttered the poem’s epigraph (from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) as the music began.

Monday, September 07, 2020

This Brand Is Your Brand

From the Vault Dept.: When Oscar Brand died in 2016, at the age of 96, he had achieved the distinction of being the single (and singular) host of the longest-running radio program: “Folksong Festival,” which aired on WNYC for over 70 years and gave early exposure to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and many others. Brand was a protean singer-songwriter, and the fact that he recorded an impressive number of wonderfully rude songs more than makes up his authorship of the lyrics to Doris Day’s hit “A Guy Is a Guy,” one of the most loathsome songs of the 1950s, which is saying something. Brand made several Caffe Lena appearances; here’s my review of one from 1987.

                                                                                   

OSCAR BRAND IS NOT a larger-than-life performer.

Oscar Brand
This would be the case whether the songwriter-singer is backed by a large ensemble, as sometimes happens, or, as was true at Caffe Lena Saturday night, he performs with one other guitarist.

The reason: he’s exactly the same size as life. He accommodates it, slipping through its ironies with his own playful grin, singing of its melancholy, saluting its splendor.

He’s been doing it for more than a few years now, in the company of notables like Ledbelly and Woody Guthrie, and he’s got a repertory of songs and stories to prove it.

Brand’s two long sets at Lena’s started out to give us “an outline of the music of America,” as he announced, veering off that track a few times as particular fancies struck him.

“The version you first learn of a song is the one you like the best,” he announced, introducing a ribald saga titled “No Hips at All.” But Brand makes a specialty of presenting several versions, all shapes and sizes, of songs we think we know well. If he (and the audience) didn’t have so much fun doing so, you’d almost think you were getting an education.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Chemistry Lesson

From the Classical Vault Dept.: I tend to shy away from offering my less-than-enthusiastic reviews to the blog readers who stumble across this site. But this is what was published at the time, and it accurately reflects my impressions. Also, I’m in a cuss-ed mood right now, and it helps me to remember that things other than current events have driven me to my grumpy place.

                                                                               
              

FOUR MOZART STRING QUARTETS, performed by a foursome of excellent musicians with roots in the Marlboro festival: it’s a recipe for a sure-fire concert and an impressive season opener. It has the promise of a savory soufflé, airy and delicious. In this case, the confection fell a little flat.

The 40th season of Union College chamber music concerts began last Thursday with a performance by Sophie Shao and Friends, those friends being violinists Lily Francis and Arnaud Sussmann and violist Paul Neubauer. Cellist Shao has shepherded other such ensembles to the Memorial Chapel stage in previous seasons, always to terrific acclaim, so this should have been no different.

Like the drummer in a rock band, the cellist in a string quartet is a vital unit of propulsion – especially when the quartets being played date from Mozart’s time, when the form was busily cutting loose from its forbears of keyboard-heavy continuo. The program opened with a jaunty, youthful work, the Quartet No. 7, K. 160, written in 1772 (the composer was 16), and, while the first violin gets most of the tunes, that being the style of the time, Shao worked the bass line with terrific verve.

Sussmann played first fiddle in this one, but the second movement’s sinuous melody often paired him with Francis in two-voiced song. The final movement’s martial character brought the piece to a quick, pleasing close.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Vegging Out

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s a cookbook roundup I wrote for Albany’s Metroland Magazine seven years ago. I’m still consulting some of these book as I try to broaden my kitchen repertory.

                                                                                    
     

YOU’LL EASILY FIND COOKBOOKS among this year’s crop that are exclusively vegetarian, but I’ve discovered some that have such good meatless offerings among the varied recipes that they’re worth considering for more than just recipes. They offer compelling insights into the whole world of the vegetarian meals you make.

The garden gets more important every year. The biggest luxury of just-picked fruits and vegetables is a quality of flavor that typically doesn’t survive the trip to the supermarket, but there’s a comforting presence about backyard comestibles. This attitude has resonance in whatever the farm-to-table movement might be, but it has roots in an approach to food sparked in the 1970s by two pioneering cookbook-writing restaurateurs: Mollie Katzen and Alice Waters.

Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, published in 1977 and a steady seller since, showed us that vegetarian cooking could be tasty and rewarding, particularly if you added a lot of fat-rich extras.

Waters didn’t get around to writing a cookbook until 1984 (Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza, Calzone), but her restaurant proved hugely influential. Any chef you’ve ever heard of who emphasizes fresh ingredients these days acknowledges one or both of them. And both have new books out this year, both offering a healthy, practical approach to working with what the garden offers.

Friday, August 28, 2020

A Lickpenny Lover

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome the debut on this blog of O. Henry, pen name of the dipsomaniacal jailbird William Sydney Porter, whose stories celebrated the bustle and irony to be found in life at the dawn of the 20th century. “Lickpenny” was a term for anyone or thing that blew through a lot of money; as for the ending, if you’re not familiar with the vacation spot in question, I refer you to Harold Lloyd’s movie “Speedy.”

                                                                                                  

THERE WERE 3,000 GIRLS IN THE BIGGEST STORE. Masie was one of them. She was eighteen and a saleslady in the gents’ gloves. Here she became versed in two varieties of human beings—the kind of gents who buy their gloves in department stores and the kind of women who buy gloves for unfortunate gents. Besides this wide knowledge of the human species, Masie had acquired other information. She had listened to the promulgated wisdom of the 2,999 other girls and had stored it in a brain that was as secretive and wary as that of a Maltese cat. Perhaps nature, foreseeing that she would lack wise counsellors, had mingled the saving ingredient of shrewdness along with her beauty, as she has endowed the silver fox of the priceless fur above the other animals with cunning.

O. Henry
For Masie was beautiful. She was a deep-tinted blonde, with the calm poise of a lady who cooks butter cakes in a window. She stood behind her counter in the Biggest Store; and as you closed your hand over the tape-line for your glove measure you thought of Hebe; and as you looked again you wondered how she had come by Minerva’s eyes.

When the floorwalker was not looking Masie chewed tutti-frutti; when he was looking she gazed up as if at the clouds and smiled wistfully.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Get Your Goat!

A CHEF WHO WAS TEACHING ME to make bread regarded my kneading practice with dismay. I was using the opportunity to inflict imaginary violent revenge on my enemies, accompanying my pulls and punches with angry mutterings. “Never put hate into your food,” the chef advised. “If you want to get love out of it, you have to put love into it.”

Photo by B.A. Nilsson
I’ve never seen this better exemplified than at Nettle Meadow Sanctuary Farm and Cheese Company, a peaceful rural complex just outside Johnsburg, NY, in the southeastern Adirondacks. A variety of buildings inhabit its 50 acres, with a variety of animals to go with them. You may come for the cheese – it’s sold in a small retail space on the property, which you’ll visit while masked and practicing proper distancing – but you’ll be tempted to stay for the animals. Because most of the non-human population comprises animals being tended because of injury or age.

This wasn’t the mission when Lorraine Lambiase and Sheila Flanagan bought the place in 2005. At that time, they were making goat’s-milk cheese in California, and both were full-time lawyers. “We were living in Oakland,” says Lambiase, “where we had a third of an acre – which out there is huge – and we bought four Nigerian Dwarf goats. One of them was milking, and we were able to make tiny batches of cheese.”

Friday, August 21, 2020

Airlines Travel

FRENCH COMPOSERS HAVE CELEBRATED the flute more vividly than any others. Berlioz was a flutist himself, and never spared the instrument in his monumental works; Debussy sounded a quiet clarion for 20th-century music with his “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”

Alexander Desplat is a flutist-composer whose music is more often heard in the movie theater than the concert hall. He won Academy Awards for his scores for “The Shape of Water” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and has racked up numerous other awards for his numerous other scores.

“Airlines” is an album of Desplat’s music for both genres, all with the flute (and flutist Emmanuel Pahud) front and center. The title track, written for flute alone, is a technical exploration of the instrument disguised as a pleasant rumination that Pahud performs with nonchalant ease.

The rest of the recording adds an orchestra to the mix – the Orchestre National de France, with the composer conducting – to present music from five of his motion-picture and a concert piece. “The Shape of Water” is the kick-off piece, a three-movement suite fashioned from Desplat’s score for Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film. Nothing suggests undulation more persuasively than the time signature 6/8, and that’s the count for the haunting opening, with the combination of flute and accordion giving it an insistent yet friendly timbre. And the flute becomes the undulator itself in the second movement, “Watching Ruth.”

Monday, August 17, 2020

What Was Brewing on the Web

From the Computer Vault Dept.: I just found another piece I wrote for the magazine Yahoo! Internet Life (they lurk in old hard drives), probably in late 1997. As with other contemporaneous website roundups, most of the recommended sites are gone. I offer this for its nostalgic value, and its slight thirst-inducing quality.

                                                                                            

SOMETHING’S BREWING ON THE WEB. Amidst the clamor of many beer-related sites, ranging from commercial giants to elite microbreweries, the homebrew movement is developing a Web presence to gather and distribute recipes, labels, and lots of other information. Beer bubbles in the homes of over a million and a half ambitious souls who find a special pleasure in creating this important foodstuff. The experienced brewmaster will find a good range of support info; if you’re just getting started, check out these sites for the equipment and the right ale recipe for that first batch. Salud!

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breWorld Home Page
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The opening page boasts that you’ll find “everything related to the world of beer and brewing,” and as near as I can figure, they’re not kidding. It’s a brewer intensive site with well-designed pages, including a helpful tour that introduces all of its facets -- “suitable for off-line viewing.” A general index of info can be full-text searched, and we’re talking about a fantastic amount of data stored at the site. The “Can You Help” page puts brewers in touch with one another, and you’ll even find a page of job listings. BreWorld will even help you establish your own Web presence. Whatever your brewing experience, you’ll find this a fascinating site.

Friday, August 14, 2020

In Memoriam: Julian Bream

MY TWO MOST MEMORABLE concert-going experiences both were recitals by guitarist/lutenist Julian Bream. It’s difficult to describe what made them so special. The music, of course – he had impeccable taste in programming – but there also seemed to be a spell that fell over the audience as he held us in thrall to his elegant way with the pieces he chose. Bream died today at the age of 87 at his home in England. He had been retired since 2002 – he once said that he gave up performing when faced with the prospect of lugging along merchandise to sell – but performed privately until 2011. His influence on the guitar and lute, in terms both of appreciation and repertory, is inestimable, and there’s plenty of info on the internet to pursue. I’m paying tribute to his memory today by offering my review of the performance I saw at the Troy Music Hall in 1992.

                                                                                   
             

TROY CHROMATICS DID IT AGAIN: they scooped the rest of the area’s presenters to give us one of the most gifted and sublime artists on the concert scene. Julian Bream hasn’t performed in the Capital District in a decade, and his return was every bit as sparkling as that earlier gig.

Julian Bream
One of the distinctions Bream brings to his concerts is a deeply-felt and (dare I say it) intellectual approach to programming. He has commissioned a number of major works for his instrument. He presents off-beat, underheard pieces. In doing so, he has enlarged the guitar’s repertory and continued the work Segovia started in ensuring its place as a vital part of the classical music world.

All of which was exemplified by last week’s concert.

A fairly chronological pair of sets spanned some four hundred years, beginning with 17th-century pieces by Frescobaldi and de Visée. Although the program booklet provided good notes on the piece, Bream broke the silly tradition of performer mumness and commented, work by work, on most of his program. It’s a nice practice when a performer can pull it off, and sure helps diminish classical music’s high snob quotient.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Making Up for a Lost SPAC Summer

From the Musical Vault Dept.: One of the most engaging artists to have emerged from the long-running Martha Argerich-hosted summer fesitvals is Gabriela Montero. She made her Saratoga Performing Arts Center debut in 2011 with a pair of concerts that – well, you can read my contemporaneous thoughts below, following an interview piece that sought to sell the events to what remains, in New York’s Capital Region, at least, a largely impassive audience.

                                                                            
        

IMPROVISATION IS A BACKBONE OF THE ARTS. Making it up as you go along is a stalwart of theater and jazz, and it had a huge place in classical music a couple of hundred years ago, when improvising performers worked their magic in well-known forms, Beethoven and Mozart among them.

Gabriela Montero
Although there are contemporary artists who have brought back the technique of making up cadenzas (pianist Robert Levin chief among them), Gabriela Montero has made improvisation an essential part of her concert appearances.

The Venezuela-born pianist will make two appearances at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center during the coming week. First is a recital (8 PM Tues., Aug 9) as part of the Chamber Music Festival, then she returns two nights later to play Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero.

Speaking from her home near Boston, the pianist explained that her Tuesday appearance, like her other recitals, will be in two parts. “The first half tends to be traditional repertory, while the second half is completely improvised.” And, as with theatrical improv, her creations are truly spontaneous. “I ask a member of the audience to sing theme I can use, which they then can follow in the improvisation. It’s a wonderful way to create a sense of access. Usually, I’m transforming themes that are well-loved, so it becomes very interactive and unpredictable. And very collaborative.”

Friday, August 07, 2020

Devilish Reaping

From the Vault Dept.: Advances aren’t nearly as interesting as reviews, but this piece looks at a theater piece with dance that presented a fascinating meditation on the Shaker heritage, which is part of the Albany area’s history. I saw the performance that the piece below tried to persuade you to attend, and I recall a small house with an embarrassingly inattentive audience – but there’s no review in my files. We shall content ourselves with this.

                                                                             

SHAKER LEADER ANN LEE, who emigrated from England in 1774 with eight followers, was known to her flock as “Mother Ann,” an ironic designation when you consider that she never cared for sexual activity and had children only as the result of a forced marriage – four stillbirths and four kids who lived to be no older than six.

Production photo by Rob Strong
Her community, based in New England and, locally, not far from Albany, took its name from the vigorous shaking that members performed in the throes of spiritual ecstasy, which was as close as they (officially, at least) came to getting laid. This tension between carnal asceticism and the sexual imperative is at the heart of “Angel Reapers,” a theater piece with dance written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and renowned choreographer (and Piloblus founder and MacArthur Foundation award-winner) Martha Clarke. It plays a single performance at Proctors Theatre at 8 PM tomorrow (Friday).

“Alfred approached me about the project in 2005,” says Clarke, speaking by telephone from her home in Connecticut. “He said he’d become obsessed by the Shakers. I looked at him as if he were somewhat cracked. But I have so much admiration for his work that I agreed to do it.” The piece had its first workshop at Lincoln Center not long afterward, “but it was in a very different form, more of a traditional play then. Now there’s much more dance, and I think of it as a tone poem on the Shakers.”

Monday, August 03, 2020

Olde Bryan’s Bill of Fare

From the Food Vault Dept.: The Olde Bryan Inn in Saratoga Springs has a venerable history, which includes two review visits that I paid during the course of my Metroland tenure. Here they are, beginning with my first visit, early on in my restaurant-reviewing career, in 1986, and a follow-up eight years later.

                                                                                       

LEGEND HAS IT THAT AMERICAN INDIANS, several centuries ago, discovered the healing properties of the strong waters at High Rock Spring, now the site of Saratoga’s Olde Bryan Inn. It was here that Sir William Johnson was carried in 1771 after being stricken, and his remarkable recovery brought notoriety to the place.

The strong waters are of a different variety today as the Olde Bryan continues to flourish as a tavern in a building more than 200 years old. You may, in fact, sample the strong waters inside or out: summertime finds a small outdoor bar area in full swing.

And the restaurant features a menu that should satisfy the gustatory needs of any situation, before or after concert or track.

Our party congregated at an outdoor table while waiting for a table within. The restaurant takes no reservations, so there may be a wait when it’s busy. But it is a large-capacity house, laid out and lighted for an atmosphere of intimacy.

The main dining room’s pre-revolutionary look is accented by stone walls, rough-hewn beams, and a shallow fireplace at one end. On the walls hang antique cookingware along with period paintings; red-globed fixtures shroud the lights.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Fontaine Fables Foibles

From the Musical Vault Dept.: Monday’s post recalled a warm Saturday night when I enjoyed a program at Robert Conant’s Greenfield Center (NY) studio of music for lute and theorbo. I was back the following day to review another concert there: this one.

                                                                                       

REMEMBER THAT SCENE in the movie “The Third Man” when Joseph Cotten is watching a play in Vienna, in German, unable to understand a word and looking surprised when the rest of the audience laughs?

Jean de la Fontaine
It could have been like that at the Festival of Baroque Music concert in Greenfield Center Sunday afternoon, when the French Art Theatre presented selections from the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, performed in costume and in French, a language fairly mysterious to me. But it wasn’t.

These three actors were terrific and, with a little help from English-language synopses provided in the program, the meanings were nicely transparent.

It’s an unusual kind of presentation to find on a program of Baroque music but this eclecticism characterizes the work of Robert Conant’s enduring festival.

James Lewis has a dignified but expressive James Mason kind of face that looked just right beneath his long, curly wig. As he began the tale of “The Wolf and the Lamb,” Ellen de la Torre seated herself by an imaginary stream and became, with wide eyes and a moue, the woolly animal, while dark-bearded Julio de la Torre assumed the guise of the predator, in a delightful fable that illustrates that might does, in fact, make right. A chomp on the neck proved it for us.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Baking before the Baroque

From the Music Vault Dept.: It was good and hot at the end of July 1986, and the temperature in a small studio out in the woods on a hot day can seem oppressive. But good music-making took the edge off, as recalled in my review of a long-ago event.

                                                                                         

HOT, HUMID FRIDAY NIGHT wasn’t a good evening for lutes and theorbos (a lute is a gourd-shaped guitar, used through the baroque era. A theorbo is a long lute with many extra strings – sort of a cross between 12-string guitar and electric bass).

"The Attributes of Music" by Anne Vallayer-Coster

At Robert Conant’s Festival of Baroque Music concert at his studio in Greenfield Center, it seemed as if there was as much tuning as there was playing and singing. There wasn’t, of course, and to sit through the tuning was a small price to pay for the splendid music making.

You’re smack In the middle of the woods out there, off Wilton Road, in a specially designed studio that seats no more than a hundred. So there is intimacy and a close association with Nature, two important characteristics of the music of three centuries ago. With the bonus of no royalty hanging around (early-music composers found their best support in the palaces) to steal all the attention.

The Ensemble Chanterelle made its fourth appearance with the festival in a program of songs and instrumental music from 17th-century Italy, France. and England. The trio comprises soprano Sally Sanford, Catherine Liddell on theorbo, and Kevin Mason alternating on theorbo and lute.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Twelve

Guest Blogger Dept.: One of the best-selling novels a century was Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, a collection of stories in the popular genre of Peck’s Bad Boy that was partly inspired by the behavior of his own nephews – and which inspired two sequel books (and one orphaned short story). Here’s a chapter celebrating a boy’s twelfth birthday, very much of its time and yet timeless in many ways.

                                                                                      

THIS BUSY GLOBE which spawns us is as incapable of flattery and as intent upon its own affair, whatever that is, as a gyroscope; it keeps steadily whirling along its lawful track, and, thus far seeming to hold a right of way, spins doggedly on, with no perceptible diminution of speed to mark the most gigantic human events—it did not pause to pant and recuperate even when what seemed to Penrod its principal purpose was accomplished, and an enormous shadow, vanishing westward over its surface, marked the dawn of his twelfth birthday.

To be twelve is an attainment worth the struggle. A boy, just twelve, is like a Frenchman just elected to the Academy.

Distinction and honour wait upon him. Younger boys show deference to a person of twelve: his experience is guaranteed, his judgment, therefore, mellow; consequently, his influence is profound. Eleven is not quite satisfactory: it is only an approach. Eleven has the disadvantage of six, of nineteen, of forty-four, and of sixty-nine. But, like twelve, seven is an honourable age, and the ambition to attain it is laudable. People look forward to being seven. Similarly, twenty is worthy, and so, arbitrarily, is twenty-one; forty-five has great solidity; seventy is most commendable and each year thereafter an increasing honour. Thirteen is embarrassed by the beginnings of a new colthood; the child becomes a youth. But twelve is the very top of boyhood.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Winter Jazz Journey

THERE’S A SCHUBERT SONG known as Ständchen (D. 957 No. 4) that Liszt transcribed for solo piano; a simpler transcription became a very popular parlor-piano piece back when the music-category lines were far more blurred. So it’s no surprise that it was also picked up by pop-music groups: It became “Shivaree” in a 1920 recording by the Six Brown Brothers, a saxophone sextet, and (as “Serenade”) in 1939 by the John Kirby Sextet. Which is only to note that Schubert is among the many classical composers whose music has made its way into jazz.

Madre Vaca’s “Winterreise” may be the most audacious such journey yet. This Florida-based jazz ensemble has recorded ten of Schubert’s 24 heartbreaking songs in arrangements by drummer Benjamin Shorstein that prove that, with a little bold inventiveness, these songs can flourish in any setting. And the selections certainly hit the melodic and mournful highlights of the cycle.

Here’s the lineup, recorded at the end of May 2019 at Shorstein’s Jacksonville home: Juan Rollan, saxophone; Steve Strawley, trumpet; Lance Reed, trombone; Jonah Pierre, piano; Jarrett Carter, guitar; Mike Perez, bass; Milan Algood, percussion; and Shorstein on drums.

The cycle here begins and ends as Schubert’s does, so we start off with “Good Night,” depicting a lonely man’s weary trek through the snow as he abandons a vigil of his beloved’s house. Pianist Pierre takes the first solo, establishing that this is jazzland, not Vienna. Trumpeter Strawley then gives a little bit of New Orleans before saxist Rollan smooths things a little. Behind them, Carter adds the vintage sound of banjo strumming. It’s a collective sound created specifically for this song, which is also the opening one of the Schubert cycle.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Badge of Honor

RON CHERNOW'S MIGHTY BIOGRAPHY of Alexander Hamilton stares at me, unread, from a nearby bookshelf. I’m also unfamiliar with the massively popular Broadway musical. What I know of our colonial statesman was gleaned in history classes, and suggested that Aaron Burr was a far more interesting character.

Two things are quickly apparent about Jack Casey’s new novel Hamilton’s Choice: It’s challenging to draw a compelling portrait of a textbook hero when that hero is up against so fascinatingly dissolute a character as Burr – and Burr comes off sounding an awful lot like Donald Trump.

I don’t know how long Jack Casey spent working on this book, and I’m suspecting that the Burr-Trump connection wasn’t deliberately intended. We’re simply dealing with two narcissistic sociopaths. As to the first point, Casey succeeds admirably in giving us a flesh-and-blood Hamilton by using the tools available to the novelist. It’s very evident that the book was scrupulously researched; in addition, we’re given scenes and dialogue invented around those kernels of history.

That’s what brings the novel to life. We’re inside the heads of these dynamic characters. Burr, of course, is shooting sparks all the time as we follow his inner rage into the tragic climax of the story. Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth (née Schuyler), comes to life through the dialogue and inner monologues. And it’s especially helpful for Hamilton himself, who can come off as too much of a goody-good without the credible speculation of his thoughts and ambitions.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Working from Home

MY HOUSE, which was roomy as can be back in February, has dwindled to something the size of a city apartment. It’s an old farmhouse with four bedrooms upstairs, a couple of large rooms downstairs that function as living room or dining room depending on the time of year and where we place the tables, a decent-sized kitchen, an office, a storage room, and a bathroom and a half. There’s an attic that accommodates storage of tax papers, trunks, outgrown toys, and those suits I swear I’ll fit into again. And a basement where the washer and dryer share space with a workbench and tools, furnace and water heater, and root cellar space.

My days here have been spent largely alone. I work in the office, and my daily commute consists of trips to and from the kitchen to relieve the tedium of pretending to work. This is a schedule where getting the mail becomes a high point of the day.

Since early March, however, my wife has been working from home, a process that the nature of her work easily accommodates. Since mid-March, my adult daughter has been here, too. She fled Manhattan, wisely reasoning that she was safer in our rural upstate village than on the Upper West Side. So we’re all here, all day, every day, trying to develop routines in which we won’t get in each other’s way and won’t get on each other’s nerves. The latter is the more difficult.

Friday, July 10, 2020

On the Road Again

THE HEART AND SOUL of David Bromberg’s latest recorded offering, “Big Road,” is an eleven-minute version of “Diamond Lil.” The song, a Bromberg original, first appeared on his second album, “Demon in Disguise,” in 1972. It’s a mainstay of his live performances. But the version that appears here is slower, more deliberate. The refrain, a chant of “A man should never gamble / More than he can stand to lose” carries an unusually high degree of poignancy as the bandmembers join Bromberg in harmony. And then they stretch out into solos that aren’t all that solo, with pairings and back-and-forths deepening the song’s melancholy nature.

Watch the YouTube video – which is also on the DVD that’s part of the retail package. Watch the interactions among the six players during the give-and-take that characterizes this number. Pianist Dan Walker takes the first solo, a spare, wistful survey of the mood that Bromberg’s first vocal chorus set. His second chorus has deft intrusions of Mark Cosgrove’s guitar, and Walker switches to organ as Cosgrove and Bromberg trade guitar licks, embarking on a conversation that builds in quiet intensity, and it’s Walker who underscores the third verse. But violinist Nate Grower is getting antsy, and there’s a surprising pairing of him with electric bassist Suavek Zaniesienko that manages to be wistful even as it builds on what came before. Behind it all, driving it all, is drummer Josh Kanusky, who keeps things languorous even while pursuing the bluesy drive of the song. And then we’re near the end. A final verse and chorus, and the song slips away.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Nothing Is Something

“I ACTUALLY READ WOODY ALLEN’S MEMOIR” is the headline for Caitlin Flanagan’s review of Woody Allen’s new memoir in “The Atlantic.” She bravely attempts an objective look at the book, but she has a Point of View, and eventually crumples beneath it. Her article has worthier substance than many of the other reviews of the book I’ve read, but she remains in thrall to the #metoo-inspired disgust with the venerable writer and filmmaker.

Apropos of Nothing, as you know, had a rocky start. Its original publisher, Hachette, bowed to pressure from Ronan Farrow to drop the book, and ultimately dropped a print run into the shredder. Arcade picked up the title. Despite the many indignant, pearl-clutching reviews in major publications, it turns out to be a delightful memoir, in the main. The trouble is that there’s a large detour as Allen recounts the circumstances that have led him to suffer a baseless accusation and the ensuing unwarranted condemnation.

Many critics accuse the book of being tone-deaf, if not completely out of step with the present, which leaves me wondering what they expected. If you’ve read any of Allen’s excellent short pieces that used to pepper The New Yorker and other worthy publications – and have been collected into book form – you have a sense of his tone of voice and his sense of humor. He’s what I suppose should be termed an old-school comedian, meaning that he was influenced by the likes of S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, and Robert Benchley, who were the best of the early-20th century school of humorists.

There’s no contemporary equivalent. What passes for humor these days is a comedy of cruelty, because the writers have only television as a reference, and television writing, once we left behind the days of Sid Caesar, deteriorated into too-familiar sitcom tropes, churned out, factory-style, to satisfy the relentless demands of advertiser-driven scheduling. There are significant exceptions, of course, but in the main we find predictable meanness.

Friday, July 03, 2020

The Community Masque as a Substitute for War

Guest Blogger Dept.: And who better than Robert Benchley to help us through this traumatic summer? Drawings by Gluyas Williams.

                                                                                     
         

WITH WAR AND LICKER REMOVED from the list of “What's Going on This Week,” how will mankind spend the long summer evenings? Some advocate another war. Others recommend a piece of yeast in a glass of grape-juice. The effect is said to be equally devastating.

Robert Benchley
But there is a new school, led by Percy Mackaye, which brings forward a scheme for occupying the spare time of the world which has, at least, the savor of novelty. It presents the community masque as a substitute for war. Whenever a neighborhood, or county, feels the old craving for blood-letting and gas-bombing coming on, a town meeting is to be called and plans drawn up for the presentation of a masque entitled “Democracy” or “From Chrysalis to Butterfly.” In this simple way, one and all will be kept out in the open air and will get to know each other better, thus relieving their bellicose cravings right there on the village green among themselves, without dragging a foreign nation into the mess at all. The slogan is “Fight Your Neighbors First. Why Go Abroad for War?”

The community masque idea is all right in itself. There certainly can be no harm in dressing up to represent the Three Platoon System, or the Spirit of Machinery, and reciting free verse to the effect that:
“I am the Three Platoon System. Firemen I represent,
And the clash and clang of the Hook and Ladder Company.”

Monday, June 29, 2020

Sax in the City

WHEN DAVE BRUBECK disbanded his very successful quartet in 1967, saxophone star Paul Desmond had spent sixteen years with the ensemble, achieving million-seller status with the album that featured his composition “Take Five” and acquiring a reputation as a witty, thoughtful player who seemed to know every song and solo ever recorded.

Brubeck was heading in a different direction; Desmond decided to take it easy for a while. “Desmond vacationed briefly in the Caribbean,” writes Doug Ramsey. “Back in New York, he took retirement with reasonable seriousness. Eventually, though, he succumbed to the blandishments of the Cantarino family, whose celebrated Half Note club had recently moved ... to 54th Street in New York’s midtown.” Part of the lure was the fact that Desmond lived a block away. This gig also featured guitarist Jim Hall, an old friend, with whom Desmond made a series of celebrated recordings in the early 1960s for RCA.

They were issued by Mosaic Records in 1987, in long since sold-out LP and CD sets, and have seen light of day on other labels since. They’re worth having both for the music itself, putting together a pair of cool players who interact like twins, and as a baseline from which to appreciate Mosaic’s latest contribution to the Desmond canon: The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Summer Serenade

From the Musical Vault Dept.: During the peak of my concert-review years, I enjoyed many visits to the various spaces in habited by L’Ensemble, a group run by soprano Ida Faiella and vioinist Barry Finclair, with a fairly regular group of other instrumentalists rounding out each program. The one reviewed below also feaured double-bassist Jon Deak, whose B.B. Wolf was issued on a recording (“Symphonic Tales”) last year on the Naxos label.

                                                                              
         

AMONG THE BEAUTIFUL HILLS OF CAMBRIDGE, in the midst of farm country, an old red barn is the summer home of L'Ensemble, a group that divides its time between here and Manhattan.

Jon Deak
It’s like a Peter DeVries set-up: You could imagine the locals, chores done, deciding to go on over to the barn ‘n hear some Shostakovich. But DeVries would be startled: this group has avid local support, and draws an audience from the Capital District as well as wetsern Massachusetts and Vermont. From the inventiveness of a program played last weekend – and the skill with which it was played – this support is well justified.

The centerpiece was a newly-written work by Jon Deak, principal double bass with the New York Philharmonic, titled ‘”Owl in Love’” and based on a Haitian children’s tale. As the composer himself explained, the story is a cross between “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Ugly Duckling;” the owl of the title falls in love with a girl named Rose Marie (Haitians, like the inhabitants of Bloom County, have no trouble mixing humans and beasts in their stories), but the owl must first come to terms with his perceived ugliness.

The piece is scored for soprano, double bass, flute, and string quartet, but the instrumentalists are called upon for much more than merely playing. Not only must the instruments imitate the animal world -- the players must do so, too. The soprano, while giving the narration in English, uses a variety of languages all invented by Deak to represent the principal characters. It sounds much more complicated than it looks and sounds, and this was the result both of the talent of the performers and the wit of the piece.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Berlioz Discovered

I CAME LATE to the Berlioz controversy by coming early to his music. Specifically, to his “Symphonie fantastique,” introduced in a high-school music class but giving off more sparks and surprises than classroom study could cover. How could this wild-eyed tribute to unrequited, blighted love not appeal to a love-starved teen? “Harold in Italy” followed – a found LP of Primrose and Koussevitzky, with side-two fillers of magical moments from “The Damnation of Faust.” So by the time I learned that Berlioz was often derided and his music critically abjured, I could only conclude that these effete music critics were out of their minds.

David Cairns is nicer about those people. He doesn’t tire of reminding us of those wrong-headed views, but he and we are in the pleasant position of seeing the fatuity of such pronouncements. He offers no scorn. In his new essay collection Discovering Berlioz, Cairns quotes a 1949 music-history book: “Musicians suffer ... from the slapdash nature of [Berlioz’s] writing, the clumsiness of his style and his incoherent and chaotic methods of composition.” As Cairns puts it, “The old received idea of Berlioz as subverter of artistic law and order continues to arouse feelings of insecurity.” It’s not Berlioz’s fault; nor should it be. There’s a stuffy parlor in the Academy, the denizens of which panic at the approach of revolutionary ideas.

Cairns has championed the Berlioz revolution through a definitive edition (in Cairns’s translation) of the composer’s Memoirs, and a definitive two-volume biography that manages to be both academically thorough and a compelling, can’t-put-it-down account of Berlioz’s tumultuous life. (Berlioz was not allowed to marry his fiancée until he’d won the Prix de Rome, a prize that forced him to spend three years in Italy, during which time she threw him over. (The sequence in which Berlioz, in drag, sneaks out of that country in order to shoot the woman, her mother, and himself is full of hilarious mishap and could have played on the stage of the Opéra-Comique.)

Friday, June 19, 2020

Indian Summer

From the Food Vault Dept.: When I moved to Schenectady in 1980, a restaurant near Mohawk Mall (now Mohawk Commons) was the only Indian eatery in the area. But the Maharajah had a staff schism, and, in 1982, a group of them opened the Sitar, a couple of miles east on Central Avenue. That restaurant was very successful for a long, long time, but finally packed it in during the summer of 2016. Here’s my 30-year-old review of the place, followed by my account of a 1986 visit.

                                                                                   

ALTHOUGH WE LAST CHECKED IN WITH SITAR in print four years ago, Susan and I usually get out to this Indian restaurant a couple of times a year. But it still had been a while. There's a new addition in back, an airy, glass-topped room that gave us all of last Saturday's daylight and none of the rain that spattered intermittently.

But the menu hasn’t changed. It doesn’t vary much, which is part of the restaurant’s success. Thanks to the careful guidance of owner Adi Irani, a delicious and accessible selection of items remains the mainstay. Nothing is too spicy, but it all reflects the very different seasoning style of the various types of Indian cookery.

And the star of the show still is the large Tandoori oven, a clay oven in a room fronted with a picture window for patron display. There a specially-trained chef wields breads and skewers of meat for the high-heat cooking that renders an item especially juicy.

With such high expectations, then, you can understand if we’re especially critical. We didn’t come away from the dinner disappointed: just concerned.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Clarion Call

YOUR VIEW OF THE EARTH may be immediately subverted by this book: most of it takes place in Australia, where the seasons are inverted and the land is often desert. But this turns out to be an excellent location from which to contemplate the renewal of the land.

Charles Massy went from being what’s considered a “traditional” farmer – applying chemicals while chasing after scarce water – to one who looked to the land itself for clues about its restoration. In his long, detailed, excellently written book, Massy takes us through various processes of regeneration. He lays the groundwork at the book’s beginning: “When a healthy agriculture puts more long-lasting carbon into the soil while minimising the loss of such carbon, this in turn has a major impact on the water cycle and its crucial role in thermoregulation (i.e., climate control) of our planet.”

And it’s not just the condition of the land that he considers. It’s also human health, which is being sapped, he explains, by four factors: the fat-rich modern diet, its nutritional scarcity, its cancerous assimilation of glyphosate, and the cumulative effect upon genetics. “What makes this quartet of factors so deadly is that we are genetically hard-wired to live off our natural environment ... while we can’t change this genetic wiring, we can change our landscapes, and thus the food and water that they supply.”

Australia’s landscape has been evolving for nearly four billion years, the last forty million (or so) of which was as an independent continent-country, and became home to its own unique biodiversity. All of which changed after 1788, when Britons arrived with their own brand of domesticated agriculture, completely unsuited to the antipodean landscape. “It was a clash between a modernising, dominating Mechanical mind and an adaptive, ancient Organic mind.” Destruction of the land and its native inhabitants went hand in hand.

Friday, June 12, 2020

What’s New Is Old Again

From the Musical Vault Dept.: While combing the files for Monday’s post, I came across this review, written a couple of weeks later. I have no surviving appointment books from 1985, so my autobiography will have to be assembled from reviews like these. At least you know where I was and what I heard!

                                                                                 
             

ASTON MAGNA, A MUSICAL GROUP that takes its name from the estate in Great Barrington, Mass. in which its first performances took place, makes a specialty of recreating the circumstances under which the composer might have heard his music.

Aston Magna, Great Barrington, Mass.
This involves the use of historical or historically-styled instruments and a keen study of ancient performance practices, and can be particularly appropriate to a composer like J.S. Bach, whose music has gone through two and a half centuries of various stylings. Sunday afternoon, the audience at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass., was treated to a varied and innovative all-Bach program which demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of such historically-minded playing.

The five works on the program offered a commendable contrast. The opening piece, a concerto for oboe d’amore and strings, was reconstructed from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A, BWV 1055. That’s a practice Bach himself was fond of: transcribing his works, especially concertos, for different solo instruments; the oboe d’amore set the historical mood. Soloist Stephen Hammer made the difficult part sound easy, and was backed by an ensemble of four string players and harpsichord.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Sweet Spring is Our Time

From the Musical Vault Dept.: Can it really be that the most compelling view of musical performances now is in the rear-view mirror? I’m feeling more poignantly charged than ever as I sift through my youthful opinions – not that that makes said juvenalia the more worthwhile. Let’s go back some 35 years . . .

                                                                        
        

WHILE MUCH OF THE AREA is just beginning the cultural summer shift, in Columbia County the Spencertown Academy Society already is well into a summer season which, like their seasons past, offers superior chamber music performances by superior artists, many of whom live in or around that beautiful area.

David Deveau
Saturday evening’s recital by pianist David Deveau certainly maintained those high standards. He chose a program which began with a sonata by Haydn (in F Major, H. XVI:23) which dutifully served its purpose: Deveau’s technique was demonstrated with an accessible piece of music.

The two most striking characteristics of his playing also came through in this sonata, those being a masterful ability to bring forth varying moods and shifts of color from the keyboard and, on the minus side, a tendency to rush the fast passages at the expense of a savory articulation of the notes. The second movement of the Haydn sonata was particularly notable in its very baroque, Bach-like flavor, and Deveau gave a lovely baroque voice to it.

In striking contrast to the Haydn were the Debussy selections that followed, three “Estampes,” two of which were written to ape foreign musical stylings. “Pagodes” is a Debussy tour of an Oriental scene, with an unmistakeable French flavor to the Eastern sonorities; “Soiree dans Grenade” sounded very Albeniz-like.

Friday, June 05, 2020

The Stuff of Sondheim

From the Theater Vault Dept.: We’re going back 35 years here, re-visiting my piece about the Sondheim Melody Dilemma. With no Sondheim show on a nearby stage at that moment, I seized upon the cable-access showing of “A Little Night Music” to inspire this rant.

                                                                          

There’s not a tune you can hum.
There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.
You need a tune you can bum-bum-bum-di-dum –
Give me a melody!

Why can’t you throw ‘em a crumb?
What’s wrong with letting ‘em tap their toes a bit?
I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit –
Give me a melody!


– Stephen Sondheim, “Merrily We Roll Along”

Elizabeth Taylor in "A Little Night Music"
STEPHEN SONDHEIM IS FOND OF decrying his naïvete as a fledgling lyricist working on his first Broadway show, which happened to be “West Side Story.” In the song “I Feel Pretty,” Maria sings the line, “It’s alarming how charming I feel.” “Right there,” says Sondheim, “you get the feeling that Noël Coward just walked into the room, where there’s supposed to be a Puerto Rican immigrant.”

With his most recent show, “Sunday in the Park with George,” taking the Pulitzer Prize (rarely does a musical achieve that honor), it’s interesting to note how far Sondheim has come since 1957 – and how he’s now perceived by theatergoers.