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Friday, February 28, 2020

1999: The Year Ahead

Crystal Ball Dept.: O, those prognotications of the year ahead! They fade so easily that by the time summer arrives we’ve usually forgotten whatever it was we expected. Unless you commit those predictions to print, as I did at the end of 1998. Of course, this was also a convenient way to weasel out of having to trek through snow to review a restaurant.


THE BUSINESS OF REVIEWING RESTAURANTS got its own book-length treatment in Dining Out, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, in which leading critics, chefs, and other restaurant people held forth. How many visits are appropriate? How much does the food figure into the final assessment? And what the hell is with those stars?

Look for this book – it came out last year from publisher John Wiley – for a thought-provoking examination of a subject that’s obviously dear to my heart. But don’t look for my comments within. We review drudges in the not-so-major markets didn’t make the cut.

After all, I’m like many others who file a review each week in that I get reimbursed for one visit only. Would it be fairer to the restaurant to show up three or more times? Probably. If things go really wrong during my visit, I have to figure out what caused the problems and guess whether it’s unique or ongoing. And if my experience is transcendent, I might raise your expectations to an unrealistic height.

Last week we looked at 1998's best. Let’s start the year with a glance ahead, along with some explanation of what goes into a Metroland restaurant review.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Ragging Annie

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: I reproduced in these e-pages an opinion piece I wrote in 1984 after the premiere of a Raggedy-Ann musical inspired an Albany-area mom to get her panties in a bunch, as she complained that “there were portrayals of gruesome characters, a mother deserting her child, death and even suicide.” In popular entertainment? Can you imagine? Although I wasn’t won over by the musical itself, I saw nothing in it to warrant this woman’s whining. You can read my editorial here; below is my review; below that, a preview piece that ran the week before.


DERIVING A FULLY-STAGED musical fairy tale out of the classic stories of “Raggedy Ann” seemed like such a good idea that the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts has done it twice, the most recent attempt a revamping of last year’s unsuccessful staging.

With a new book by a different playwright – in this case, the renowned William Gibson – and a revised score and lyrics by Joe Raposo, a wholly new show has emerged, with a completely different thrust: Gibson has wisely put the idea of making this a no-holds-barred fairy tale to the forefront, and the result is a vivid dream-cum-nightmare in which dolls come to life, a bed floats and flies and a young girl undergoes a series of confrontations with problems that are literally killing her during her waking hours.

As a starting point, Gibson borrowed the real-life fact that Raggedy Ann’s creator, Johnny Gruelle, invented the stories for his sickly daughter, Marcella. It is Marcella who becomes the focus of the show; a trio of doctors cannot diagnose her malaise, and her dipsomaniacal father tries to soothe her with a rag doll, to which he affixes a heart.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Powerless Cooking

From the Food Vault Dept.: We’re still in early March, so don’t be fooled by the melting snow. It’s only clearing a space for what’s bound to surprise us before the month is out. Here’s a piece I wrote during the waning months of Metroland to discuss the business of stocking up for a snowstorm – or even, if you want to fresh reason to panic – a pandemic.


I HIT THE SUPERMARKET ON MONDAY. I wasn’t sure that I needed anything more to get me through the predicted apocalypse, but I felt reluctant to miss a chance to surge through the crowded aisles among my panicky neighbors.

Grim were their miens as they whipped their heads from side to side, studying the cheerful abundance as if they’d never seen such foodstocks before. And then a tremble, and then a pounce! – and a canister of raisins gets snagged as surely as a cat grabs hold of a vole.

Soon enough I took my place at the end of a long, winding line to the checkout register, my view so obscured by these towers of comestibles before me that I was unable to mark my progress. No sense of we’re-in-this-together lifted our spirits, and, as we now know, no actual disaster arrived to maroon us.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Émigré Debut

From the Concert Vault Dept.: My stint as a classical-music reviewer began after I submitted samples to all the area newspapers, correctly conjecturing that there was little competition in this field – and it was back in a time when the periodicals thought it part of their missions to cover the classical-concert scene. Here’s the second piece I wrote for the Schenectady Gazette. I’m delighted to report that Victoria Mullova is still going strong, and still championing the music of Prokofiev.


VICTORIA MULLOVA ATTRACTED MUCH PUBLICITY last summer when she left her luggage and Soviet-owned violin in her hotel room and defected from Finland to the American Embassy in Sweden.
Victoria Mullova, shortly after
her arrival in the U.S.

Upon her arrival in the U.S., she announced her affection for this country and its attractions, particularly baseball.

Any suspicion that the young violinist’s art may have suffered from so many distractions was swept aside last night, as Mullova made a triumphant East Coast debut in Troy Music Hall.

Later in the evening, following a standing ovation, Mullova was presented with a violin from the collection of Troy resident Henry Ainsworth (he is making a gift of two instruments, one of which was given to her during the concert). Assemblyman Neil Kelleher made the presentation with a speech worthy of an Academy Awards ceremony.

The program was well-chosen not only to demonstrate her considerable talent but also to attract and please an audience. Opening with Bach’s Partita No. 1 for violin solo (one of the least-played of his six unaccompanied sonatas), she displayed a rich, warm tone and fine sensibility to baroque interpretation.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Back with Bacchus

From the Food Vault Dept.: What, I occasionally ask myself, did I have for dinner thirty years ago? In many cases, it’s on record, and in this case, it was a lavish meal at the (then) Albany Desmond Americana’s (now-defunct) annual wine festival, as described below. I also wrote a piece for the occasion profiling Joshua Wesson for the Schenectady Gazette; that you can read here.


THE ALBANY AREA is the second-largest market for wine in the state, having edged out Buffalo and Rochester to stand just behind New York. Attendance at the Desmond Americana’s annual Albany American Wine Festival also grows, with this year (the fourth) bringing close to 2,000 people through the hotel for the weekend’s events. Which include an auction, many seminars, lavish buffets for Friday dinner and Sunday Brunch, lots and lots of wine waiting to be tasted – and a special dinner Saturday night.

This year’s dinner improved on the previous three by adding a special twist to the theme of wine and food matching. Joshua Wesson, co-author of the book Red Wine with Fish and co-publisher of the magazine Wine and Food Companion coordinated the matches with menu selections from his book.

Craig Goldwyn, publisher of the International Wine Review, selected the wines from among those awarded top scores by his magazine. Then he and Wesson filled in the foods.

Yes, of course there was red wine with fish. There had to be. But such a meal begins with a sparkling wine, and hors d’oeuvres were passed to the pouring of champagnes from Domaine Chandon, Chateau St. Jean and Iron Horse. Anyone arriving with a notion of American champagne-producing inferiority got that attitude washed away.

About 350 people were seated in the hotel’s grand ballroom for the dinner itself, and they were fairly comfortably accommodated. It was for sheer number alone that I shaved half a point from the ambience: my preferred head count is two.

Monday, February 10, 2020

España in Brass

From the Vault Dept.: I wrote a series of liner notes for the mch-lamented Dorian Recordings label back when they were headquartered in Troy, NY, producing superb-sounding CDs at the nearby Troy Music Hall. This is from one of the label’s final releases. Burning River Brass endures, however, and the group’s website is here.


SPANISH MUSIC IS INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE because of its unique rhythmic and textural characteristics, so much so that we even credit forays by the obviously non-Hispanic (Bernstein, Gershwin) as deserving of the appellation. Purists may object and hold the works included here by Georges Bizet and Tony DiLorenzo as that of outsiders looking in, but then you might as well say that Django Reinhardt didn’t play jazz. As soon as it leaves its native land, a musical style is owned by the world.

In the case of Spain, by the time of the Renaissance it was the source of many of the musical instruments popular throughout Europe, and many were dancing and singing to such Spanish musical forms as the chacona, zarabanda, españoleta, and canarios.

One form that resisted export was the zarzuela, a larger-scale entertainment that was  was created – or evolved into a recognizable form – in the mid-17th century, as a play with songs and dance, usually telling amusing stories of lower-class life. By the end of that century, Italian opera had infiltrated the form, increasing the amount of sung material. Combined with the ascension to the throne of Philip V, which started the era of Bourbon rule, Italian culture dominated Spain – to the point of favoring Italian over Spanish as the spoken language of the gentry.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Tradition on Tap

From the Vault Dept.: Early in 1984, B. A. Nilsson vanished from the pages of Albany’s Metroland Magazine, and a similarly erudite scribbler called George Gordon took his place. Thus was I hidden from the greedy Knickerbocker News, a paper that wanted my exclusive services but would pay nothing approaching a living wage. And what kind of threat was my Metroland counterpart offering? A piece of here’s-what’s-coming puffery was the first.


WHETHER YOU’RE LOOKING FOR a wind quintet or a string quartet, a chamber choir or an evening of dance or an excursion into the world of new music, this weekend should offer you something to suit your fancy.

Arthur Hall's Dance Ensemble
There will be a free concert on Thursday by Qwlndtessense, a group made up of five area wind players: flutist Mark Russo, oboist Gene Marie Green, clarinetist Paul Aldi, bassoonist June Partch and french horn player Ronald Patrick. The performance will take place at the Schenectady Library branch at Liberty and Clinton Streets.

Another chamber concert takes place in Troy on Friday night: The Friends of Chamber Music presents the Mendelssohn Quartet in concert in the Kiggins Auditorium at the Emma Willard School. The Quartet was founded five years ago; in 1981 it won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and has gone on to tour the country to great acclaim. On Friday’s program will be quartets by Beethoven, Dvořák, and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Clouds in the Hall, Clouds in the Sky

From the Vault Dept.: I mentioned in last Friday’s post the situation that emerged as I took on the post of classical-music reviewer for Albany’s Knickerbocker News. I was already writing for Metroland, the area’s alternative newsweekly (or soon-to-be; it was on the verge of changing its stripes, so to speak), but the Knick News wanted exclusivity. So I spent several months publishing in Metroland under the pseudonym George Gordon (there’s an abstruse connection) until a goofy press person phoned the Knick News “looking for George, or Byron, or whatever he’s calling himself now.” The Knick News editor clutched his pearls and indignantly fired me. This for twenty dollars an article. The paper went under soon under, but I take no credit for its demise. Here’s the first piece of mine that ran in that periodical.


SEVERAL MEMBERS of the Houston Symphony Orchestra were delighted to see the 18 inches of newly fallen snow at the Albany County Airport. They rarely have snow in their home city. Although the weather made local traveling difficult, it did not stop a small but enthusiastic  audience from enjoying the orchestra’s concert Wednesday at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady.

Sergiu Comissiona
Andre-Michel Schub, soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, was the star of the concert. Beethoven wrote the concerto to show off his prowess as a pianist, and with Schub at the keyboard, the work was in good hands.

Schub has a startling dynamic control of the keyboard, which he used effectively to bring out the contrasts in the work without giving way to too much storminess. The concerto abounds with humor, which was tastefully handled: The soloist doesn’t always enter when, according to the tradition established by Mozart, he would be expected to; what is set up as a cadenza in the  second movement is interrupted by the orchestra; and the rondo begins with a theme which must rank as one of the silliest Beethoven ever used, sounding like a childish taunt that heralds a brisk workout for soloist and orchestra.

Under the direction of Sergiu Comissiona. the Houston provided superb backing for Schub, with well-matched tempos and dynamics.