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Monday, November 30, 2020

The Heart of the Matter

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Thanks to a recently acquired scanner that whisks piles of papers into PDFs – and its accompanying OCR program – I’m able to digitally store what used to take up too much file-cabinet space. And share unearthed clippings like the one below. This was a 1985 interview with Eleanor Koblenz, who was an Albany (NY)-area theater powerhouse. She reviewed shows for any number of papers, local and national, and also did marvelous work as a director. I’m distressed to see that the internet can find no photo of her; what you see below is from a photocopy of the clipping.


HUMOR IS A SENSE that seems to be uniquely human. In its more sophisticated forms it becomes the unexpected underbelly of tragedy. It’s also one of the dramatist’s most powerful weapons: get an audience laughing and you’ve got an audience that trusts you. Emotions become more accessible. This is the secret of such masterworks as Chaplin’s “City Lights,” the pathetic ending of which carries all the more punch because of the humor that has come before.

Eleanor Koblenz
In “Crimes of the Heart,” Beth Henley examines the life of a family in Mississippi (her native state) – in particular, three sisters whose lives have become complicated by a succession of tragedies. Tragedies that are given a wickedly humorous twist in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

“When I first saw it, I thought it was a strange play,” said director Eleanor Koblenz. “It juxtaposes very serious material with a – what should I say? A quirky comic outlook.” The production, by Albany Civic Theater, opened last night (Wednesday) at that company’s playhouse. It marks Koblenz’s 10th directorial effort for ACT.

“It’s different from the kind of play I’ve been directing the past few years. and that’s what attracted me to it,” Koblenz said. “So much of the time I’m involved with plays with a strong dramatic content, or historical plays. So I saw this as being a real challenge.”

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Culinary Pearls

IT'S THE THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the lavish Thanksgiving dinners we've served here at Jollity Farm, so we weren't about to let a little thing like a devastating pandemic arrest our planned celebration. We decided to salute our first such dinner here by re-creating its menu, more or less. And I learned something valuable: Even when I'm cooking for a very intimate gathering, I still prepare too much food. The menu is below, and a retrospective look at all the menus is here.

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Purple Dress

Guest Blogger Dept.: This Thanksgiving slice-o-life comes from O. Henry, who spent the dawn of thge 20th century relentlessly chronicling the swirling life of that romantic place of fiction known as New York City.


WE ARE TO CONSIDER the shade known as purple. It is a color justly in repute among the sons and daughters of man. Emperors claim it for their especial dye. Good fellows everywhere seek to bring their noses to the genial hue that follows the commingling of the red and blue. We say of princes that they are born to the purple; and no doubt they are, for the colic tinges their faces with the royal tint equally with the snub-nosed countenance of a woodchopper’s brat. All women love it – when it is the fashion.

And now purple is being worn. You notice it on the streets. Of course other colors are quite stylish as well – in fact, I saw a lovely thing the other day in olive green albatross, with a triple-lapped flounce skirt trimmed with insert squares of silk, and a draped fichu of lace opening over a shirred vest and double puff sleeves with a lace band holding two gathered frills – but you see lots of purple too. Oh, yes, you do; just take a walk down Twenty-Third Street any afternoon.

Therefore Maida – the girl with the big brown eyes and cinnamon-colored hair in the Bee-Hive Store – said to Grace – the girl with the rhinestone brooch and peppermint-pepsin flavor to her speech – “I’m going to have a purple dress – a tailor-made purple dress – for Thanksgiving.”

“Oh, are you,” said Grace, putting away some 7½ gloves into the 6¾ box. “Well, it’s me for red. You see more red on Fifth Avenue. And the men all seem to like it.”

Friday, November 20, 2020

Breezy Baroque

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Here’s another look back at where I was planting my critical butt thirty-five years ago. Performances by Capitol Chamber Artists were always welcome events, and I’m glad to be reminded of their dedication to works both old and (then) new.


BAROQUE CHAMBER MUSIC can be austere or friendly. It requires a decision from the performers to bring out the fun or to play it like pedants.

Johann Joachim Quantz
What makes a concert by Capitol Chamber Artists so enjoyable is that they’re obviously having fun and they share it. A concert yesterday at Page Hall in Albany offered music from the 18th and 20th centuries.

Genial flutist Irvin Gilman introduced a trio sonata by Johann Joachim Quantz, to whom we’re indebted for a lot of the late-Baroque flute repertory. It’s nice to have these living program notes: Who started this image of classical musicians as tight-lipped snobs anyway? At least this group is working to undo that.

A good collaboration between Gilman and violinist Mary Lou Saetta was complemented by splendid continuo work by harpsichordist Gordon Hibberd and cellist Ted Hoyle. Gilman is fond of likening this to jazz, and there certainly was more the feel of a hip combo than a Baroque quartet.

A flute concerto by Haydn closed the first half, giving us an even better look at Gilman’s skill. Here a small orchestra comprised violinist Janet Rowe, violist Angelo Frascarelli, and cellist Bettina Roulier in addition to the above-mentioned trio. Paring down the accompanying ensemble to so few makes much more of a demand upon the players, and here something was lacking. They played too much like a sextet with flute rather than a small orchestra: more dynamic drama might have helped, especially in the middle movement, an Adagio.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Eras of Eros

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty years ago, I had the pleasant job of writing liner notes for Dorian Recordings, a small company producing fantastic-sounding CDs, usually using the acoustically spectacular Troy Music Hall as the recording venue. Here are my notes to an unusual disc (for that label): A collection of French songs of the sort you’d associate with Piaf – who wrote the lyrics to one of the numbers contained therein, putting her alongside such scribes as Victor Hugo, Boris Vian, and Charles Baudelaire. I will also note that it was I who came up with the album’s subtitle, which I used as the headline.


WHEN CLAIRE GIGNAC began to put together the program of love songs that make up this recording, she wanted to encompass the many centuries during which we’ve been writing such songs. She immediately ran into a problem: “There are millions of them,” she says. “I did a lot of research and a lot of listening, trying to find the right songs and poems. I didn’t want to sing all happy love songs or all sad ones, and I wanted to find songs that give different perspectives of love.” Even with the wealth of material available, “it’s more difficult to find happy love songs. Longing is there, of course, but I found songs that are also very serene, like the beautiful poem by Victor Hugo.”

Gignac is a husky-voiced contralto and multi-instrumentalist who has worked in many areas of musical theater, most notably as a performer, stage director, and composer. Throughout the 1980s, she was with Ensemble Anonymous; since 1991 she has fronted La Nef, which also records for Dorian. She has composed and arranged songs for albums by Belgian singer Julos Beaucarne, and she co-devised and performed in “Zulu Time” with Ex Machina. “Les Chants d'Eros” grew out of her work with La Nef, when Dorian producer Brian Levine grew intrigued by Gignac’s voice and versatility. “I wanted to hear her in a setting reminiscent of the old-style cabaret singers, with a jazz feeling,” he says. “From there, a program of French love songs was a natural idea.”

Equally important was the instrumentation. “When I was musical director for Beaucarne, I hired Marc Vallée as guitarist, and we stayed close friends,” says Gignac. “When Brian suggested this album, I decided to avoid using the piano and called Marc instead.” Violinist Stéphane Allard also plays psaltery, recorder, and mandolin on this recording; bassist Norman Lachapelle (who’s also a multi-instrumentalist, arranger, and composer) rounds out the trio.

Friday, November 13, 2020

A Musicall Banquet

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Who celebrates a nineteenth anniversary? That’s a date calling for a gift of bronze, which hardly applies to the occasion I’m saluting below. It’s a review of one of the first concerts I attended after the tragedy of the preceding month, and, as such, was all the more comforting. And it has another melancholy edge, as lutenist Karl-Ernst Schroeder died two years after this performance at the age of 45. The review was written for – and appeared on – the now-defunct


TWO DAYS BEFORE HIS DEBUT at Weill Recital Hall in New York, countertenor Andreas Scholl presented the same program at Union College’s acoustically superb Memorial Chapel. That’s a nice characteristic of the long-running concert series at this hall: it attracts artists who want to trial-run what they’ll do in Manhattan. Scholl’s poised, polished Schenectady performance promised a wonderful time for his downstate fans.

Andreas Scholl and Karl-Ernst Schroeder
The pairing of Scholl’s voice, justly praised for its purity of tone, with the sound of a lute gave an added intimacy to this program of 17th-century lute songs. Holborne’s “My heavy sprite” set an easy tempo that characterized most of the selections, all of which explored love as realized through heartbreak or lust. Campion’s “My Sweetest Lesbia” showed Scholl’s skill at rendering a strophic song, with each of the three stanzas given a slightly different – and appropriate – interpretive twist.

Similarly, he knows how to effectively touch a lyric sequence with portamento to underscore its sadness, or with a gentle edge of syncopation when the intent is more brazen. He even took a broadly comic approach in Campion’s “I care not for these Ladies,” juicing the recurring phrase “forsooth, let go!” with exaggerated emotion, still nicely effective.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Into the Light

THERE COMES A MOMENT in each person’s life when dance-band recordings from the 1920s are discovered. It’s hard to be unmoved by them, and, while I fear that many dismiss these discs as mere platters of quaintness, those of us who get hooked on them stay hooked – and begin a lifelong quest for more. You can chase down an amazing amount of this material these days, but you’re still listening, as it were, through a sonic haze: even the best-sounding, most carefully reproduced 78s are hampered by noise and a diminished frequency range.

Accordion and saxophone wizard Matt Tolentino not only sought recordings and performances by contemporary groups of such vintage stuff – he also added his own voice to the proceedings. More specifically, the stunning voice of an 18-member band called The Singapore Slingers that he put together in 2008 specifically to play these ear-catching charts.

Their third CD is out, and it gives us 21 songs chosen and presented in a deft variety, but all beautifully capturing the unmistakable quality of such material. Material, by the way, that was fairly workmanlike for its day – a plenitude of stock arrangements in every dance band’s book to satisfy the relentless demands of dance emporiums. But it was an era of great innovation and social change for a populace that had no idea their music would get the one-two punch of the Great Depression and the Swing Era.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Eating Ethnically

From the Food Vault Dept.: Early in my restaurant-reviewing years I spent an afternoon at the Schenectady Museum’s Festival of Nations, a food-centric collection of comestibles organized by country of origin. Started in 1975, this festival ran until I don’t know when; its history is obscured by a parallel Festival of Nations that has run annually in Albany since 1972. Its 2020 edition was held, just a few days ago, in a virtual manner that couldn’t have been as delicious as what I attended in 1986 and describe below. The people referenced therein include Drew Kinum, the photographer who captured my first few months of reviews, and Paul Grossman, who was the editor of Metroland at the time.

“YOU AND YOUR ETHNIC FOOD,” Drew grumbled as I described the proposed outing.
“Don't forget - it includes ethnic beer!”

Kielbasa and Kapusta
He brightened immediately.

You won’t be able to make a reservation for this meal – you’ll have to wait a year before it takes place again. But Schenectady’s annual Festival of Nations took place last Saturday on the grounds of the Schenectady Museum and boasted 19 booths of foods from all over the world.

The Two Guys lot was packed with cars; the throng milling the grounds of the Festival was so varied that there were conversations from as many nations as there were recipes.

Our first stop at the first booth, Scotland, got things off to a great start. My wife and I split a sausage roll (she had this idea about pacing ourselves, flying in the face of what I knew was my duty) and Drew bought a meat-filled Scotch Pie. We augmented the order with cool bottles of MacAndrew’s Scotch Ale, a dark, sweet, nutty brew that complemented the strong flavors of the meats nicely. The incredibly flaky crust of the sausage roll, it turned out, came from a distributor in New Jersey.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Put Yourself Online

From the Computer Vault Dept.: I heard you clamoring for another one of my vintage computer-magazine pieces describing an era the technology of which has been so superseded as to now seem hilarious. And here it is. In the pre-internet days, we communicated online (and found porn) using bulletin-board systems, or BBSes, typically run on a dedicated computer into which you dialed – but it’s explained below. As a footnote: the BBS I set up for this piece endured for several months, but few phoned in and I shut it down even before the internet came along to render it laughably obsolete.


MY PHONE BILLS were getting way too high. “What are these calls to Florida and Oregon and Virginia all about?” my wife would ask. Because there is no alternative, I’d tell her. “Why do you have to call these BBSes all over the country?” she asked, adding reasonably, “Why can’t they call you?”

Thanks to a recent upgrade ripple in the house, I had enough pieces left over to put together a 386-based PC clone. Once a screamer, with an 80MB hard drive and 4MB of memory, it is now the last and least of my machines.

Perfect for a dedicated bulletin board system.

In my case, it’s intended to provoke lively conversation, with an emphasis on the writer’s craft. I’ve hosted writers’ conferences on other systems; this would be a chance to bring it home. And to save on those long-distance expenses.

Your reasons for setting up a BBS can be as varied as they are creative. If you’ve sampled any of the many to be found in every city all across the country (throughout the world, in fact, if your phone bill knows no fear), you’ve seen hobbies and interests of all sorts represented. Computer-based companies offer software and utilities on their BBSes; other businesses are now joining in, offering troubleshooting tips, product ordering facilities, and even a way for employees to stay in touch with each other and the central office.