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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.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Re-Thinking the Kitchen

“FOR US IT'S BEEN about asking ourselves, how can we still show hospitality at such a weird time and place in our industry, when our traditional means of showing care and attention have been taken away from us?” So muses Jinah Kim, the owner of and unstoppable force behind Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, the Troy-based Korean restaurant that we profiled here.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Like every other New York restaurant, we’re restricted to takeout and delivery right now,” she says. “For our business it hasn’t been that bad. You hear about fine-dining restaurants that are being hit from 50 to 75 percent; for us, it’s closer to 30 to 50 percent. So it was easy to transition into that kind of a quick-service model.”

Kim opened Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen on May 15, 2016, fulfilling a long-held dream – although it wasn’t, at first, of a restaurant: “I was thinking along the lines of a café or a farm, which then turned into the idea of a gathering place that would start out as a restaurant and evolve into a space where people would feel comfortable, and a place that could be a learning environment.”

To that end, she has been offering classes for immigrants, teaching English and computer skills among other subjects – but everything changed in March. “I think back to that initial week when the NBA suspended its season and things were getting really serious – and we were waiting in anticipation of what was going to happen next.” She describes a sense of vacillation between keeping the business open to continue an income stream, “but also to be able to take care of our staff and think of the well-being of our community.”