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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


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.”