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Friday, October 30, 2020

Listen Here

From the Vault Dept.: This was one of the most compelling talks I’ve ever attended, and I’m grateful to have my review of it linger as a souvenir. Libby Larsen had a distinguished reputation when I saw her in 1985; she has gone on since then to write a multimedia work based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and won a Grammy as producer of a recording featuring her setting of Sonnets from the Portuguese. She also continues to speak about music, and, in 2010, won a George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America.


ARE YOU LISTENING? According to composer Libby Larsen, we may not be as good at listening to music as we could be. She described her own experience observing an audience listening to a work of hers – she is composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra – or not listening, as seemed more evident. “It made me frustrated and angry,” she said, “so I put together this program on creative listening.

Libby Larsen | Photo: Ann Marsden
The program is a one-hour presentation that she gave at the Desmond Americana Friday morning under the auspices of the Albany Symphony Vanguard. And it was a program that every auditor of this or any other symphony orchestra should experience, because Larsen suggests many useful ways to cut through the fear and prejudice that inform so many of us who get hit over the head with the modern stuff without sufficient warning.

The talk dealt mainly with the symphonic form, although the techniques described are certainly adaptable to other musical stylings – and to sound in general. Asked to define music, Larsen, who qualifies herself also as a former physics professor, called it “any arrangement of sound over a space of time.”

“You don’t need to know much about music to listen to it,” she began. “You just need to know how to listen.” And, pointing to the ubiquity of background music, she said, “We spend most of our lives tuning it out instead of tuning it in.”

Monday, October 26, 2020

Season with Cole

From the Theater Vault Dept.: I would have loved to have seen the revue “Cole” in its original Mermaid Theatre run; I saw “Cowardy Custard” there and was bowled over. But I’ve seen “Cole” at other venues over the years, and the 1985 production I wrote of below remains one of the best. And I’m reprinting the entirety of that column, so you can see what was happening in Albany-area theater back then.


WITH JUST THE FIRST TWO SHOWS of this season, Heritage Artists at the Cohoes Music Hall already has seen attendance surpass that of all of last season. It’s an auspicious start, and there’s the promise of even more recognition if the rest of this season is as terrific as the current, just-opened offering: a musical revue entitled “Cole,” giving us a tour of the songs of Cole Porter.

Originally devised for London’s Mermaid Theatre as a follow-up to its similar tribute to Noël Coward, it’s designed for an intimate setting, which the Cohoes Music Hall provides. In fact, that hall really is the local equivalent of the Mermaid.

The talented cast of eight – four men and four women – takes us through what’s almost a nonstop songfest. A biographical sketch of Porter links the segments, but it’s minimal, which is fortunate: it’s floridly overwritten. Another wise touch was to resist presenting the songs in chronological order; the best-known ones are scattered throughout, some the centerpieces of well-staged ensemble or dance numbers.

The 48 songs are divided among eight sections, roughly corresponding to periods in Porter’s life. The highlight is the breathtaking sequence that begins the second act. Taking its title from the song “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” it is a continuous row of love songs helped tremendously by the deft characterizations the actors assume. Speaking of “Begin the Beguine” (at 108 measures, the longest POP song ever written), Alec Wilder writes in The American Popular Song: “Along about the 60th measure I find myself muttering... ‘End the Beguine.’”

Friday, October 23, 2020

Will Rogers Was No Damned Good

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back the late H. Allen Smith, whose wonderful books, beginning with the best-selling Low Man on a Totem Pole, carried on the tradition of Mark Twain and remain essential reading. He had a very salty sense of humor which, toward the end of his life, finally began to creep more obviously into his writing. Here’s one of his last pieces.

AT THE RISK OF BEING SUSPENDED BY THE NECK from a cottonwood tree, I have in recent years been taking dead aim on the late Will Rogers and calling him somewhat of a fake and a fraud.

H. Allen Smith
This is a hazardous undertaking because Will Rogers ranks as one of the few American saints – a religion unto himself – like Abraham Lincoln and, dropping down the scale a few notches, the Reverend Billy Graham. In the last few years there has been a sharp recrudescence of interest in the Rogers mystique, owing in large part to the barnstorming tours of actor James Whitmore, who impersonates the cow-pasture chawbacon who himself was engaged in impersonating a cracker-barrel Virgil. The public has been flocking steadily to the Whitmore one-man shows, but then, as we know, the public is capable of impersonating a ass, a idiot.

My aim in this feuilleton is to tell a single anecdote that I think is amusing, with a kicker at the end, but it is needful that I first set down a few facts and a few personal opinions about the so-called Sage of Oolagah.

Was Rogers the “profound philosopher” some people called him? Horse withers! He had a much better education than I got. The great bulk of his writing and rambling stage talk was vapid and dull and had no art in it. He came up with a slight handful of gems, out of a vast output of spoken and written prose; those renowned six chimpanzees, put to work at typewriters, could have done better, given the time.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Neopolitan Niceties

From the Food Vault Dept.: I started reviewing restaurants early in 1986, successfully pitching to Metroland Magazine the notion that we could accommodate their budget-free approach to things by approaching selected restaurants and inviting them to let me dine for free and assess them at their best. We did this for a few months until a welcome self-consciousness set in and a budget was established. But this is one of those early pieces, introducing me to what would become my favorite restaurant – Albany, NY’s, still-thriving Café Capriccio – and the chef who would become one of my finest friends, Jim Rua.


“I’M NOT GOING TO DO ANYTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY TONIGHT,” said Jim Rua, chef-owner-manager of the Café Capriccio. “What I'm going to do is choose some items off of tonight’s menu that I think are really representative of the place. Okay?" He’s got the kind of beard that, when he grins, looks like a forest in motion.

Jim Rua | Photo by Joe Schuyler
Café Capriccio is inauspiciously located on Grand Street in downtown Albany. There is a long bar in one room and a small collection of tables in another. The walls are paneled with pine; the music, Jim’s choice, features Italian opera.

Like much of the opera, the recipes Jim uses come from Northern Italy. The menu changes from night to night, but there are favorites that reappear regularly. Our first course, Antipasto Capriccio, was one of these, a feast of salami, provolone, marinated cauliflower, apple slices, red pepper strips, small slivers of quiche, fried eggplant, melon, strawberries, mushroom caps, mussels, artichoke hearts, red cabbage, olives, tuna, anchovies and romaine, with a light oil-and-vinegar dressing and lots of herbs. And I may have missed an item or two, but you stop writing and start eating when confronted with such a concoction.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Reach Out and See Someone

From the Computer Vault Dept.: We’re clearing boxes of books and magazines from a room being renovated and I discovered a bunch of old computer magazines. So I’m going to share some more vintage articles of mine, this one an amusing foretaste of what we now take for granted with Skype and Zoom and many other at-our-fingertips video-chat utilities. We’re heading back, back, back ... to 1995.


TWO OF THE GREATEST DISAPPOINTMENTS of New York’s 1964 World’s Fair were the disappearance of Picture Phones and the persistence of that wretched song “It’s a Small World.” Only in the last few years have picture phones gained even a little market presence, but they’re hampered by poor picture quality and a too–high price. It’s tough packing all the required information into the cramped space afforded by a dial-up phone line, so ASL offers a compromise. How about a digital image of the person you’re talking to? Better still, how about the ability to transmit pictures and drawings?

Now that desktop videoconferencing is here, we can forget the picture phone. With my PC and the MegaConference kit from Alpha Systems Labs, I’m able to smile and wave to a similarly equipped person on the other end. Using a camcorder or VCR, I can even play a tape of my latest vacation through the system.

All you have to do is avoid creating an image that changes too quickly. The MegaConference system uses a video-compression technique to reduce the amount of information going over the wire, and it counts on a fairly static scene to work efficiently.

The compression is essentially a lazy technique; it first sends a complete picture and then repaints only the parts of each successive screen that change. You can do anything you want in front of the camera, but the more information the system has to send, the longer it takes to update the picture. Your inspired break dance comes out as a sluggish slide show on the other end.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Slow the Food, Feed the World

THE CURRENT PANDEMIC has kept us away from restaurants but it hasn’t slaked our taste for food. It may not seem appropriate to ascribe any advantages to living in a comparatively isolated fashion during the past few months, but it at least may have forced a reassessment of our relationship to what we eat. Seeds and gardening material were hot sellers this year; growing your own food is both nutritious and therapeutic. But where are we headed?

Terra Madre – Mother Earth – is a Turin-based but world-wide festival that seeks to “unite our food, our planet and our future,” and which will present a mix of physical and digital events running from Oct. 8, 2020 through April 2021. It’s the thirteenth such festival, and in many the most important, bringing together, as it promises, food producers, consumers, thinkers, and writers from around the globe.

The conference defines the four pillars of food security as availability, access, utilization, and stability, and notes that the pandemic is as much of a food crisis as it is a health crisis. “Covid-19 represents an opportunity for us to find solutions to all the other emergencies we face: the climate and environmental crisis; the economic crisis generated by an unsustainable development model based on the impossible dream of infinite growth, a model which foments social injustice and distributes our collective wealth ever more unequally; the social exclusion of large sections of the population and denial of fundamental rights; the drama of mass migration.”

Terra Madre’s summary response is biodiversity, asking, “What can we do to reverse a development model that creates social and environmental disasters, eroding our natural capital?” Slow Food is the answer, promoting all forms of biodiversity.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Masur’s Farewell

From the Vault Dept.: The late conductor Kurt Masur was an unashamed champion of the music of his native Germany, and chose to finish his career as the NY Philharmonic’s music director with a heartfelt celebration in 2002 of three of the biggies: Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. Here’s my review of the events.


KURT MASUR BID THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC FAREWELL with a pair of concerts at Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony) in Massachusetts. Weather couldn’t have been nicer, the large auditorium was nearly full, and the manicured lawn had a capacity crowd.

Kurt Masur
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The programming couldn’t have been more basic: Beethoven. Mahler. Brahms. Unlike the televised pops concert with which Masur wrapped it up in Manhattan, these were programs of length and breadth. And the music obviously was close to the Maestro’s heart: he danced his way through the works with ease and panache, crafting each with a finely-honed sense of dramatic and emotional structure.

Brahms intended his Concerto for Violin and Cello as a rift-healing gesture for his old friend Joseph Joachim, a violinist into whose failing marriage Brahms had tactlessly intruded. Joachim gave the premiere along with the cellist from Joachim’s quartet.

It’s not hard to hear the dialogue between the solo instruments as conversations between two old friends. To put a more fanciful face on it, it’s a passionate exchange in a tavern, a fiery reunion that softens into wistful melancholy before finishing in a burst of exhilaration.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Susannah v the Elders

From the Opera Vault Dept.: One of the most powerful American opera’s is Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” which resonates all the more deeply in this current era of pseudo-religious fervor exciting the armed and unloved. Here’s a look back at a 2003 production by Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga).


IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EASY, when I lived in an urban area, to dismiss Carlisle Floyd’s premise for his opera Susannah as being trite and out of date – but over a decade of rural living has proven to me that the judgments, the Manichean dance of good versus evil, the church-based politicking are very much a part of the fabric of American farm life.

Sheryl Woods
Photo by Frank Giraldi

My wife and I painted both of our surnames on our mailbox when we moved here, but not until I thoughtfully posted a photocopy of our marriage license on the bulletin board of the local church did the sour tongues stop wagging.

Susannah, written in 1955, takes the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders as its inspiration, but it’s re-set in rural Tennessee and has a distinct flavor of the McCarthy-era witch hunts woven in.

It starts innocently enough, at a dance introduced by a melodic figure that begins like the Preludio from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 and ends with a square dance lick. But a dark note is sounded with the arrival of itinerant preacher Olin Blitch, who discovers that the attractive Susannah is viewed with suspicion and scorn by some of the village women.

While searching for a baptismal creek, a group of village Elders sees the young woman bathing, naked, and decide to shun her until she’s “saved.” A simple, musically powerful scene gives us her discovery of this attitude at a church picnic, and that’s the kind of scene that makes this opera such a good one and made this production so successful.

Friday, October 02, 2020

The Telltale Tintype

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back George Ade, who has been busy grinding out more of his insanely popular “Fables in Slang.” Here’s his latest.


ONCE THERE WAS A WORRIED PARENT whose only Son could not quite make up his Mind whether to join a High School Frat or go on the Stage.

He was at the long-legged Age and walked Loose and stepped on his own Feet, and whenever he walked briskly across the Floor to ask some Tessie to dance with him, every one crowded back against the Wall to avoid getting one on the Shin.

He combed his Hair straight back, like a Sea Lion, and in Zero Weather wore a peculiar type of Low Shoe with a Hard-Boiled Egg in the Toe.

His overcoat was of Horse Blanket material with a Surcingle, and the Hat needed a Hair Cut and a Shave. When he topped off his Mardi Gras Combination with a pair of Yellow Gloves that sounded like a Cry for Help and went teetering down the Street, his Father would vent Delight
over the Fact that the Legislature had passed Game Laws.

One day at Luncheon Father got so Steamy that he had to blow off. So he opened up on Son and practically wiped him off the Map. He sure burned him Alive.