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Friday, May 29, 2020

"A" is for Excellence

VIOLINIST LARA ST. JOHN’S RECORDINGS include works by John Corigliano and Matthew Hindson, a collection of folk tunes and improvisations from eastern Europe, and a pair of improbable yet uplifting CDs as part of Polkastra, an ensemble that merrily re-channels a variety of songs, classical included, into two-four time.

Her newest recording, “Key of A,” pairs sonatas by Beethoven and Franck, which would seem to be much too staid for her – until you reach track two, the second movement of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a theme and variations, each section marked with a repeat. But those repeats don’t go as marked: the second iterations feature variations on the variations, usually with trickier technical challenges for both violin and piano.

“That’s basically how it would have been done in Beethoven’s time,” St. John says with a laugh. “He wrote this for himself and for Bridgetower, who by all accounts was totally insane – so they would never have done a variation exactly the same way twice.”

History notes that George Bridgetower – a Polish-born, Afro-European violinist – was indeed an impulsive fellow. Forced to read from the sonata’s manuscript over Beethoven’s shoulder during its 1803 premiere, Bridgetower made some improvised alterations that delighted the composer. That they later had a falling-out had more to do with a woman than with music, and that’s why the composer changed the work’s dedicatee to the stuffy Archduke Rudolphe Kreutzer, who dismissed the sonata as too difficult and never played it.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Whose Garden Was This?

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Back in the heady days of late-’90s tech growth, I wrote for a number of computer magazines, among them the nascent Yahoo! Internet Life, which was intended to serve as a guide to the nascent World Wide Web. Here’s one of my pieces, written early in the magazine’s life. (Here’s its cousin.) It seems appropriate, with garden-planting season at hand – but let’s see how many of the sites recommended below still exist!


A POT OF DIRT, a little sunlight, a regular sprinkling of water – you’ve got yourself a garden. Whether you’re doing it for food or simply to admire, a garden puts you in touch with an inspiring cycle of growth and regeneration. Voltaire and Joni Mitchell both emphasized the need to enjoy quality gardening time, which at the very least is a nice diversion from the workaday world. Thanks to the many Internet gardening sites, you can at the very least wander through a virtual Eden, but the photos and how-to pieces should inspire even the most reclusive apartment-dweller to hang another houseplant in the window. The best sites combine good inline images and helpful information, and there’s a growing network of suppliers and fellow gardeners waiting to guide you--or at least sell you some seedlings and gardening gear.

The Best

The New York Botanical Garden (still here). [* * * ½] is about as close as you can get to nature without actually stepping outdoors. The handsome site promotes a garden complex located in a New York City borough, and therefore exhorts you to become a member and participate in Botanical Garden events. But those are only introductory stops on a lengthy ramble that takes you through such famous floriculture sites as the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, where you’ll be reminded of the old history of rose-giving (“a full-blown rose placed over two rose buds meant ‘we must be secret’”). Take a look at Daffodil Hill for some awesome photos and helpful cultivation tips, then continue the tour through collections of daylilies, herbs, and even an arborvitae maze for kids. Most of the pages are illustrated with beautiful photos that look even better in their accompanying larger versions.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Double-Barreled Drama

From the Theatrical Vault Dept., or, Look Who We Had in Town! Sometimes there are legitimately surprising surprises to be found in my dusty archives. Take this advance I wrote in 1984 for a visit by the British American Drama Academy with a pair of plays in repertory. “Game of Thrones” star David Rintoul headlined the cast – and I regret that I wasn’t able to see the shows in question. I regret, too, that I had no interview to go on, so I did an admirable, show-offish job of treading water.


“I PRAY YOU ALL, tell me what they deserve that do conspire my death with devilish plots of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d upon my body with their hellish charms! Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Men should be what they seem. Macbeth shall sleep no more! I have lived long enough!”

David Rintoul, pre-GOT
So declares “Sir,” the aged actor in Ronald Harwood’s play “The Dresser.” This upsets his dresser, Norman, who remonstrates him: “Now look what you’ve gone and done ... go out, go out, you’ve quoted the Scots tragedy.”

“Did l? Macb –  ? Oh, Christ!”

Whereupon Sir is forced to leave the dressing room, turn around three times, knock before re-entering and swear. (“Pisspots.”)

When Peter O’Toole mounted a version of the Scots tragedy at the Old Vic a few years back, it was beset with mishap and fared poorly. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the shortest of that author’s dramas, is said to carry a curse as well as the usual share of difficulties inherent in any Shakespeare play; perhaps that’s part of its appeal.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Sequestration Two-Step

I rise at nine, or maybe ten –
There’s nothing really pressing;
I spend an hour deciding when
It’s worth the trouble dressing.

I set the coffee up last night,
And eggs and toast await;
But all that shit is down a flight:
I’ll be a little late.

The outfit I took off last night
I’ll wear again today,
And expedite the odor fight
With shots of Febreze spray.

I’m at my desk to meet my doom
(It happens every day)
As fifteen other folk on Zoom
Find nothing new to say.

Those noontime beers are so sublime,
By one, the pain’s diminished.
By three it’s dry-martini time;
By five, the bottle’s finished.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Terpsichorean Duo

From the Dance Vault Dept.: It’s easy to see what I was doing one weekend in April 1986: attending dance concerts. I reviewed two of them in the same issue of the Schenectady Gazette, I retain pleasant memories of the experiences, and I offer them below.


PETER MAXWELL’S “BALLROOM DANCE THEATRE” is a show in the form of a series of dances for partners, the sort of thing linked to the name of Arthur Murray.

Peter Maxwell and partner
The performance yesterday afternoon in the Egg at the Empire State Plaza, Albany, was one of the first few this new company has given. It’s an original concept for a full-length show, it has moments of sheer wonder, and it ought to get better and better as the concept evolves.

At its best, it shows a company of four couples smoothly displaying the different aspects of a particular dance.

The tango sequence in the third act was the high point of the piece, bringing together excellent dance, attractive costumes, good music, and just enough characterization to carry through the six tango numbers.

Maxwell choreographed the bulk of the dances, with assistance both inside and out of the company. The individual couples boast long experience as partners and it shows in the dance; the challenge, then, must be to work out the method in which the dancers perform outside of their usual units.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Motion Sickness

From the Food Vault Dept.: Harkening back to the days of luxury travel . . . well, this isn’t quite it. It’s what passed for dining on Amtrak’s Montrealer in 1986, although it’s still a damn sight better than what’s offered now. Or will be, when it makes sense once again to travel by train.


“OVERNIGHT TRIPS ARE WHAT train travel is all about,” I assured my wife as we planned our vacation. “You get your bedroom – for a price – and best of all, you get to eat in the dining car.”

Amtrak's "Le Pub," c. 1973
My pleasant memories came from a series of trips I took between New York and Chicago many years ago. I waxed reminiscent. “The tables have thick white cloths on them. Fresh flowers in a heavy metal vase. All of the dinner service has a great sturdiness to resist the motion of the train.

“There’s a kitchen at one end of the car, and the meal is cooked fresh, served by waiters who have been in the business for years. The closest thing to that is the feel of Hattie’s Chicken Shack in Saratoga.

“And you order on a little slip that’s placed on the table with your menu. No verbal orders. Oh, I know the choices have dwindled down to three or four and I’m sure that microwave ovens have crept into those kitchens, but still, there’s nothing like dining on sautéed filet of sole as the plains of Ohio sweep by.”

Friday, May 08, 2020

Rainy Days and Mondays

I JUST WATCHED the most forbidden movie in America. Or so it seems. Dropped by Amazon Studios and picked up by no other U.S.-serving distributor, it opened in Poland and has since garnered a respectable box-office return throughout the rest of the world. “A Rainy Day in New York” is a light comedy, skillfully executed, starring big-name stars. But it was written and directed by Woody Allen, whose name has become anathema in certain circles.

Selena Gomez and Timothée Chalamet
Unfortunately, this essay has to be as much about the Allen controversy as about the movie itself. Well; it doesn’t have to, but enough (more than enough!) ignorant bile has been spewed on the topic that I’m compelled to offer a voice of reason in rebuttal.

Let’s start with the movie. It’s the story of a romantic weekend in Manhattan beset by mishap and misadventure, chief among the former the steady titular rain. Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning) is a student at Yardley College, a Vassar-like liberal-arts institution. She has just secured an interview with elusive film director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), which means a trip to Manhattan. This is great news to her boyfriend, Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet), who grew up in that city and is eager to give Ashleigh a personal tour. All he has to do is avoid his parents, because he begged out of the lavish annual party his well-heeled mother gives.

Monday, May 04, 2020

The Opportune Overthrow of Humpty Dumpty

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome the return of virtuoso versifier Guy Wetmore Carryl, and another of his lively creations from Mother Goose for Grown-Ups. Remind you of anyone?


Drawing by Peter Newell
Bombastically sat
A boastful boy, and he was quite
Unreasonably fat:
And what aroused a most intense
Disgust in passers-by
Was his abnormal impudence
In hailing them with “Hi!”
While by his kicks he loosened bricks
The girls to terrify.

When thus for half an hour or more
He’d played his idle tricks,
And wounded something like a score
Of people with the bricks,
A man who kept a fuel shop
Across from where he sat
Remarked: “Well, this has 
   got to stop.”
Then, snatching up his hat,
And sallying out, began to shout:
“Look here! Come down from that!”

Friday, May 01, 2020

The Devil You Say

From the Vault Dept.: O, how I took for granted the tours that came through the nearby towns! Even before the performing arts ground to a halt, the greater Albany, NY, area stopped welcoming tours of anything but pop-culture highlights, with a few chamber-music and jazz concerts tucked into cultural hidey-holes. Perhaps I should have been less grumpy about this “Faust,” but I’m going to say that the Devil made me do it.


THERE’S ALWAYS A TANG OF DEVILISHNESS about self-indulgent pleasure, and no legend better serves that sense than that of Faust and his bargain with Mephistopheles.

Charles Gounod
The New York City Opera National Company appeared at Proctor’s Saturday night with a production of Charles Gounod’s opera of the legend according to Goethe in an exciting performance that just fell short of the kind of excellence we’ve grown to expect from this group.

That’s the problem with setting standards so high – anything less than perfect becomes a disappointment. But there certainly was no lack of talent or innovation. The sets, by Peter Dean Beck, suggested Gounod’s obsession with Catholicism by using a vast, vaulted corridor to serve with various backdrops as tavern, garden, and prison.

The cast was headed by Keith Olsen as Faust and Randi Marrazzo as Marguerite, the woman he loves and spurns. They have the youthful good looks that you miss in some of the more seasoned stars, but neither had the riveting presence that leads to stardom. Craig Heath Nirn, as  Mephistopheles, has a wonderfully evil presence and rich, deep voice, but he didn’t seem always to be in control of his singing.