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Monday, September 28, 2020

An Anti-Trusting Nature

AS YOU MAKE YOUR WAY through this well-reasoned, well-researched, densely written book, you may hear the sound of a scream, a crescendo of pain that builds from introduction to index. In my case, it turned out to be coming from the inside of my own head. We know, or have intuited, some of the issues and conclusions Teachout proposes. But we probably aren’t taking in the entirety of what’s wrong and what’s at stake. It’s massive, and our future and our children’s future demands that we do something.

You know Zephyr Teachout from her noble but unsuccessful runs for political office in New York over the past few years. She’s an attorney who is also Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University, and the author of several books and scholarly articles. Clearly, she has sought societal change through legislation, whether writing it or enacting it. But her new book, Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money, empowers all of us to be part of that change. What’s depressing is the overwhelming amount of it that she deems necessary. And she’s correct.

As she writes in the book’s introduction, we have “passively accepted corporate consolidation as a fact of life” and shown no resistence. “Although there are tens of thousands of community activist organizations dedicated to campaign finance, climate change, and gender equality, I know of no local antitrust leagues – unlike 120 years ago, when there were thousands.”

The various monopolies she goes on to describe are strikingly varied but operate in similar ways. One monopoly-controlled commodity is chicken.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Clarion Call

From the Classical Vault Dept.: When I visited Newell Jenkins at his Columbia County home in 1985 to learn about his upcoming concert series, I had no idea just how important and well-regarded he was as a musicologist and conductor. If I had, I would have made more of an effort to see the concerts he led over the next few years. But here’s an idea of what kind of music-making he was bringing to life back then.


FOR MANY YEARS, Columbia County has offered a retreat for New York City-based artists to quietly live among farms and fields; inevitably, the area has taken on a cultural identity of its own, with a very supportive concert audience being the result.

Two of the area’s favorite activities are combined in the “Leaf Peeper” concert series, which begins Saturday at the Catamount Ski Area in HilLsdale. The series was developed and is directed by musicologist Newell Jenkins, who makes his home in this little town.

The house, a contemporary design the color of which complements the fall foliage, sits atop a hill with a breathtaking view. Jenkins, whose sturdy stature and white mane suggest the classic picture of a musicologist, was anything but stuffy as he sat by his pool and described the coming four concerts.

“The first one, like most of them – like most of the concerts this year, it seems – celebrates the birthday composers. Members of the Clarion Chamber Ensemble will play music by Bach and Handel, the big piece being Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. This will be performed at the Ski Area, which may seem an unlikely place for a concert, but acoustically it’s not bad at all. And it has ample space for an audience – it will hold up to 500.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Tavern in the Valley

From the Food Vault Dept.: The Tory Tavern, alas, is no more – Ralph and Irmgard Buess retired in 2013 and put the building up for sale. As I noted in the piece below, I saw the place in 1984 when he was restoring it because he and I worked together in the kitchen of Schenectady’s (also defunct) Mohawk Club, and he would dash home between lunch and dinner shifts to work on the place.


RALPH BUESS WASN’T CRAZY ABOUT the idea of this write-up. “I like things the way they are,” he told me. “Quiet. Peaceful.” He’s a modest person who gets a little embarrassed by the acclaim, but I believe he’s sincere in his wish to keep the business on its even keel.

To say he’s a hands-on chef-owner is to put it mildly. Twenty years ago I visited the 18th-century building he was restoring and witnessed Buess at work on the building’s restoration, finishing room after room with a level of craftsmanship you’d be hard pressed to find in new construction. With walls and woodwork, furnishings and fixtures all hand-crafted, it’s no surprise to find food that gets similar attention.

George Mann lived there in the late 18th century, at a time when the Mohawk Valley became an important factor in the Revolutionary War. Initially sympathetic with the war, Mann switched sides and paid for his Tory sympathies with a jail term in Albany. Thus the restaurant’s name.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Bees in Your Backyard

THIS IS A PIVOTAL TIME OF YEAR for beekeepers large and small. As the weather starts to turn colder and less predictable, bees begin preparing for winter, but recent years have brought a succession of man-made problems that the bees can’t easily overcome. Fortunately, we’re able to help them.

Photo by B.A. Nilsson
“Fall is a tricky time, because you alternate temperatures during the day and from day to day,” Bruce Kearns explained. He’s the master beekeeper who oversees the hives at the George Landis Arboretum in the Schoharie Valley town of Esperance, NY. While the Arboretum is known for its gardens and nature trails, it also offers educational programs – and Kearns’s class offered a chance to explore specific apiary-related questions.

“Bees work to keep themselves at a constant temperature in the hive,” he explained, “and they can generate a lot of heat.” As outside temperatures drop, the bees form a cluster inside the hive, a ball of bees surrounding the queen to keep her – and the surrounding bees – at optimal temperature, which is 95 degrees Fahrenheit – although they’re lucky to get it up to 85 degrees during the coldest periods.

Bees on the inside of the cluster create heat with their wings; bees on the outside remain still (and colder), serving as an insulating layer. The cluster is in a constant rotation, so that the chillier outside bees (it can be below 50 degrees out there) move to the inside with the no doubt wing-tired inside bees taking their place.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Mumford’s the Word

From the Classical Vault Dept.: It’s always a pleasure to revisit a Musicians from Marlboro review, because it brings back so much of the whole wonderful performance. Experience, I should say, because it’s an all-encompassing sensory delight. But don’t let me try to convince you: let the twelve-years-younger me make that pitch.


ALTHOUGH INDIVIDUAL NAME RECOGNITION has long been a key force in driving classical music sales, Musicians from Marlboro is a rare example of successful branding. For over half a century, Vermont’s Marlboro College has offered a summer music training program, initially run by founders Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch, now under the aegis of Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida. And anyone who goes out on a Marlboro tour, although not individually known, is guaranteed to be a superb player. Individual name recognition usually follows.

Tamara Mumford
Photo by Fay Fox

More importantly, these players work together as superior ensembles of a variety of configurations. The string players of a piano trio joined two others to become a string quartet, then a quintet, each time delivering a polished performance.

The career of mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford has taken off since she made her Metropolitan Opera debut two years ago. She sang of four of Beethoven’s hundred-plus settings of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish folksongs, a series commissioned by Scottish publisher George Thomson that are among the most delightfully frothy of the great composer’s works.

What’s special about Mumford’s voice shone through “The Lovely Lass of Inverness,” a setting of a Robert Burns lament (itself inspired by a much older text) that throbbed with sweet melancholy. It sounded as effortless as it did affecting, and Mumford enjoyed a transparent rapport with pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, violinist Lily Francis and cellist Marcy Rosen.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Eliot’s Elegance

From the Classical Vault Dept.: George Walker, who died in 2018 at the age of 96, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer – the first Black composer to have nabbed that prize – and pianist, who was also the first Black soloist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Curtis Institute’s first Black graduate. And his Pulitzer-winning piece, “Lilacs,” setting a Lincoln eulogy by Walt Whitman, should be a mandated substitute for Aaron Copland’s odiously puerile “Lincoln Portrait.” Below, we travel back to 1987 and my review of a performance by Albany’s Capitol Chamber Artists, who championed Walker’s work.


THERE SHOULD BE A LAW banning frivolous settings of T. S. Eliot’s poems. And there should be a national celebration when a thoughtful setting comes along that does justice to Eliot’s work.

George Walker
Photo by Frank Schramm

In which case composer George Walker would be hoisted upon shoulders for his brand-new setting of "The Hollow Men."

Capitol Chamber Artists premiered the work this weekend, locally at Page Hall in Albany last night. Walker’s “Poem for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra” is more than just a chamber piece, however. With its surprising theatrical touches and disquieting voice, it is a completely appropriate and thought-provoking interpretation of the text.

Scoring is for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, harpsichord and percussion battery; in addition to the soprano two speakers (human, not electronic) are required.

Soprano Mary Anne Ross entered in whiteface, an old felt hat on her head, a blanket grasped round her waist. She carried a plastic bag bulging with street-life stuff.

Michael Murphy, one of the speakers, was ragged and unshaven and wore a woolen watch cap. He uttered the poem’s epigraph (from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) as the music began.

Monday, September 07, 2020

This Brand Is Your Brand

From the Vault Dept.: When Oscar Brand died in 2016, at the age of 96, he had achieved the distinction of being the single (and singular) host of the longest-running radio program: “Folksong Festival,” which aired on WNYC for over 70 years and gave early exposure to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and many others. Brand was a protean singer-songwriter, and the fact that he recorded an impressive number of wonderfully rude songs more than makes up his authorship of the lyrics to Doris Day’s hit “A Guy Is a Guy,” one of the most loathsome songs of the 1950s, which is saying something. Brand made several Caffe Lena appearances; here’s my review of one from 1987.


OSCAR BRAND IS NOT a larger-than-life performer.

Oscar Brand
This would be the case whether the songwriter-singer is backed by a large ensemble, as sometimes happens, or, as was true at Caffe Lena Saturday night, he performs with one other guitarist.

The reason: he’s exactly the same size as life. He accommodates it, slipping through its ironies with his own playful grin, singing of its melancholy, saluting its splendor.

He’s been doing it for more than a few years now, in the company of notables like Ledbelly and Woody Guthrie, and he’s got a repertory of songs and stories to prove it.

Brand’s two long sets at Lena’s started out to give us “an outline of the music of America,” as he announced, veering off that track a few times as particular fancies struck him.

“The version you first learn of a song is the one you like the best,” he announced, introducing a ribald saga titled “No Hips at All.” But Brand makes a specialty of presenting several versions, all shapes and sizes, of songs we think we know well. If he (and the audience) didn’t have so much fun doing so, you’d almost think you were getting an education.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Chemistry Lesson

From the Classical Vault Dept.: I tend to shy away from offering my less-than-enthusiastic reviews to the blog readers who stumble across this site. But this is what was published at the time, and it accurately reflects my impressions. Also, I’m in a cuss-ed mood right now, and it helps me to remember that things other than current events have driven me to my grumpy place.


FOUR MOZART STRING QUARTETS, performed by a foursome of excellent musicians with roots in the Marlboro festival: it’s a recipe for a sure-fire concert and an impressive season opener. It has the promise of a savory soufflé, airy and delicious. In this case, the confection fell a little flat.

The 40th season of Union College chamber music concerts began last Thursday with a performance by Sophie Shao and Friends, those friends being violinists Lily Francis and Arnaud Sussmann and violist Paul Neubauer. Cellist Shao has shepherded other such ensembles to the Memorial Chapel stage in previous seasons, always to terrific acclaim, so this should have been no different.

Like the drummer in a rock band, the cellist in a string quartet is a vital unit of propulsion – especially when the quartets being played date from Mozart’s time, when the form was busily cutting loose from its forbears of keyboard-heavy continuo. The program opened with a jaunty, youthful work, the Quartet No. 7, K. 160, written in 1772 (the composer was 16), and, while the first violin gets most of the tunes, that being the style of the time, Shao worked the bass line with terrific verve.

Sussmann played first fiddle in this one, but the second movement’s sinuous melody often paired him with Francis in two-voiced song. The final movement’s martial character brought the piece to a quick, pleasing close.