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Monday, April 27, 2020

Transfigured Concert

Remember Live Music? Dept.: I’ve long been in love with Pamela Frank, both as a violinist (she, not I) and on a fundamentally carnal level. But the two intertwine, in my fevered sensibility, so thoroughly that I have muted this passion for many years. I’m telling you about it now because we’re all too sequestered for it to make a damn bit of difference. Here’s my account of a memorable performance from many seasons ago.


Pamela Frank
THE OPENING EVENT of the Union College Concert Series is always a rewarding experience, and those who remained to enjoy Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” were treated to a spectacular performance by a string sextet clearly enjoying one another’s musical company.

Those who bolted at intermission missed the concert’s highlight. They also showed an unfortunate ignorance of where the piece falls in Schoenberg’s creative life. They’re tempting the gods to consign them to an afterlife of Richard Clayderman music.

The friends violinist Pamela Frank assembled are top-flight players who, as far as I can tell, don’t perform together regularly, although a light web search yields any number of connections among them (not least the connubial connection of Frank and violinist Alexander Simionescu). But the concert proved that a like-minded ensemble of risk-takers can generate plenty of performance excitement.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Uptown, Downtown Gets Down

Remember Live Performance? Dept.: One of the most compelling shows presented at Albany’s Capital Rep nearly a decade ago was Leslie Uggams’s two-week appearance in her solo show “Uptown, Downtown.” I had the chance to meet her after the performance I saw, and she was just as lively and fascinating – and downright nice – as she seemed to be on stage. Here’s what I wrote.


WHEN ALL EIGHT PIECES OF THE BAND are wailing as Leslie Uggams gives a powerhouse treatment to “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” you can’t help but be impressed by all that energy. It’s a great sound, reminding us of the majesty of jazz-inflected music and song.

Amy Sussman/Invision/AP
But Uggams’s own instrument is mutli-hued, and there’s just as much energy in the delicacy of the Goffin-King anthem “Up on the Roof” – but this one is delivered as a wistful ballad with only the affecting guitar work of Steve Bargonetti behind it, and it’s one of the show’s most magical moments.

“Uptown, Downtown” came to Capital Rep for a two-week stay, and I wouldn’t let this one get past you. A remarkable singer-actress pays tribute to her long career (she started performing while still in single digits), framed by the contrast between her uptown (Washington Heights) childhood and her eventual (downtown) Broadway career.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Burger Master

From the Food Vault Dept.: Look, I’m as socially responsible as the next fellow. Trouble is, the next fellow isn’t typically very socially responsible. So while I’m spending a lot more time at home, eating, I like to think, in a socially responsible manner, there come errands. Yesterday, my daughter and I went shopping – or, rather, she went shopping as I waited in the car, the better to limit my risk of contracting infection to passage from a loved one. Near the supermarket is a Five Guys outlet. I installed the phone app and placed an order to us. We enjoyed a guilty pleasure, and I was reminded of a visit that I documented a decade ago.


A WIDELY HELD BELIEF maintains that confessing your sins is the first step on the road to forgiveness. I’m not sure that it even counts as a venial offense, but here goes: I enjoy dining at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Here’s something even more surprising: so does my wife, Susan. She professes to despise all things fast-food related, and claims she’d rather starve than ingest fodder from McDonald’s, but she’s astonishingly eager to lap up a Five Guys meal.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I’m also violating a self-imposed interdiction against writing about chain restaurants, but justify it by suggesting that there are things to be learned from such places, a topic I’ll return to. This is also inspired by the fact that Five Guys topped the recent Readers’ Picks poll, thankfully nosing out the overhyped, overpriced Red Robin. So I’m guessing you’d like a closer look at this place.

Once you start confessing things, subsequent revelations come more easily. Here’s my next one: I don’t think the Five Guys burgers are all they’re cracked up to be, and for one reason only: they insist on cooking the things to well-doneness. I know the argument, and I can’t fault them for it. Thanks to an insufficiently regulated meatpacking industry, ground beef may contain pathogens that lurk in the rare parts, so this cook-the-red-away policy has become ever more common in the chain-restaurant world.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Small Footprints, Great Success

KEEP IN MIND THAT BAYER AG (best-known as the aspirin company) remains in a legal hot-seat over its weed-killer Roundup, a product it inherited when it bought Monsanto. Although Bayer agreed to pay almost $40 million over allegations that it ran misleading ads about the product, it’s still got about 13,000 lawsuits – and nearly 43,000 plaintiffs – seeking damages over the link between glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, and a form of cancer known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Bayer, of course, insists there’s no link.

Dr. Zac Bush
Dr. Zach Bush disagrees. He’s a cancer researcher who tracked what he termed the explosive rise of cancer cases between 1996 and 2007, and discovered that the concentration of such cases was greatest not only where midwestern farmers were using heavy amounts of Roundup on their crops, but also in areas served by Mississippi River drainage tributaries. A map of the river and its drainage areas is a grim duplication of the cancer-cases map.

But this is only one of the several sobering issues presented in the 20-minute documentary “Farmer’s Footprint” (directed by Nicol Ragland) which was produced by Bush and can be freely viewed online. It takes a broad view of the consequences of corporate-style farming and the need for regenerative practices. As a companion piece, “Unbroken Ground,” a 25-minute documentary by Chris Malloy, looks at themes of regeneration in several fascinating contexts. Produced by Patagonia Provisions it can be viewed for free on the company’s website. We took a look at both.

Besides being a film, Farmer’s Footprint is also a coalition of doctors, farmers, and others seeking to reveal the terrible consequences of chemical farming and encourage regenerative agricultural practices. They offer consulting and other educational resources, but they’re also spreading the word with the first of what they plan to be a series of short films.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Go and Look

From the Cinema Vault Dept.: This way-too-brief review hardly suited its subject, a two-and-a-half-hour masterpiece of disturbing storytelling that mixes war story with grim fable. I attended an afternoon preview of the film and emerged as shattered as I’ve ever felt by an artistic experience. I’ve since watched the movie – available on DVD – a couple of times more, but have yet to persuade my wife to watch it with me.


THE TITLE IS A TAUNT, not an invitation. Released in 1985, this two-and-half hour film was a nine-year project that follows a young man's grim struggle to survive in Nazi-occupied Byelorussia, a Soviet province that borders Poland.

Florya (Alexei Kravchenko) is an adolescent who eagerly leaves his family to join the partisans protecting themselves from the retreating German army, revealed to us at first only as an almost-silent presence overhead in omnipresent Blohmen-Voss aircraft.

The quiet drone of those planes joins the incredibly complex soundtrack of this epic drama of the senses, as we combine with Florya in seeing and hearing the tragedy of the destruction around him.

Director Klimov, president of the Soviet Filmmakers Union, uses tight closeups and an active Steadi-Cam to lock us into the youth's point of view. There is a documentary feel to the film even as it explores the rich scope of the boy's emotions.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Delight Fantastic

From the Vault Dept.: Bob Bowyer found the humor in ballet and offered magnificently endearing shows with his troupe, American Ballet Comedie, during the 1980s. In 1992, he died (at the age of 45) of an AIDS-related illness. Here’s a wistful look back at his 1985 visit to Schenectady.


ANY CULTURAL PHENOMENON can take itself too seriously and ballet is no exception. Its hallowed traditions invite respect, true, but they also invite someone like Bob Bowyer to take a few potshots. That he does so with a highly skilled ballet company makes a performance by American Ballet Comedie even more enjoyable.

Marianne Claire, Bob Bowyer, and JoAnn Bruggeman
The company paid a return visit to Proctor’s Theatre Friday night, with the pokerfaced Bowyer again demonstrating that ballet can be used to tell hilarious and compelling stories when it isn’t being lampooned.

The group started right out with a big opening titled, and why not, “The Big Opening.” To the strains of “That’s Entertainment,” eight dancers clad in glittering tails performed stunts with hats and canes that made it seem as if there were eight Donald O’Connors onstage.

Great comedians need to master all theatrical basics; great comic dancers must be similarly outstanding. “The Big Opening” works because of right-on-the-button timing and energy that throws a smile to the back of the house.

Monday, April 06, 2020

All You Can Handel

From the Vault Dept.: Capitol Chamber Artists has been presenting music in the Albany, NY, area for over a half-century. They have been responsible for fresh versions of old favorites as well as new and unusual works. Here’s my review and, non-chronologically, my advance on a concert celebrating 1985's Handel tricentennial. These were also among my final pieces for the Albany Knickerbocker News, which paid shit money but took exception to my writing for another area publication.


CAPITOL CHAMBER ARTISTS, a small group which has doggedly managed to present several seasons of chamber music to this area, is finally attracting the size of audience it deserves, judging from the turnout at a concert in celebration of the birthday of Handel.

George Frideric Handel
The auditorium at the Albany Institute of History and Art on Sunday boasted a larger crowd than has attended many of the group’s previous concerts, and the audience was treated to a very energetic performance of some of Handel’s best-loved music, the high point of which was soprano Mary Anne Ross’s presentation of selections from “Messiah.”

The program opened with the “Largo” from the opera “Xerxes,” originally an aria and now a mainstay of young violinists and wedding processionals. Performed by an ensemble of strings, flute, bassoon and harpsichord, it was given the stateliness it deserves, and was an effective prelude to the music which followed.

The orchestra was augmented for the “Messiah” selections with the addition of oboe, although the recitative sections were sung to continuo. Ms. Ross had the unique distinction of being absolutely intelligible all the time, without resorting to the florid overpronunciation which dogs many a singer.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Downtown Place to Be

From the Food Vault Dept.: Remember restaurants? How odd it would have been for me were I still actively reviewing them! Here’s a throwback – quite far back, to 1996 – look at a downtown Saratoga Springs institution that we watched decline thereafter, until it received a $28 million renovation four years ago. I haven’t been there since it re-opened.


MY EXPECTATION OF VICTORIAN-AGE ANYTHING includes ornate architecture, potted palms, and, however improbably, Rudy Vallee crooning by the bandstand. A weird mix of styles, but it can work--as demonstrated by Saratoga’s Adelphi Hotel.

The old Adelphi in a postcard view.
It’s almost the last of the grand old places, and it maintains an elegant air of the bygone days, from the plush parlor you see upon entering to the old-style desk where reception awaits. During the warm weather, it’s my favorite place to go for a tasty fruit daiquiri, enjoyed in the garden that’s reached a couple of rooms beyond the entrance.

Last week, my wife and I visited for dinner, something we haven’t done at the Adelphi before. I’m glad we discovered it. I’m only sorry we’ll have to share it with August’s crowd.

You have a choice of dining venue. The bar has several tables; beyond that is a smaller room. A larger room follows, and then there’s the garden. We made it to the almost-outside room, hedging against a cool breeze that was blowing in.