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Monday, July 19, 2021

Opera on the Grass, At Last

WHILE SOME MUSIC VENUES are opening to audiences, opera – especially as presented by an institution like The Glimmerglass Festival – needs to plan ahead. Way ahead. They lost a year, of course, as did we all, but they spent it planning a careful return to live programming that could take advantage of the Festival’s beautiful grounds.

Eric Owens and Lisa Marie Rogali
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

And as music by Mozart filled the air, as a dignified and friendly Sarastro settled into a fancy chair, we were ushered into a new Glimmerglass era. “Glimmerglass on the Grass,” in fact, featuring a season presented on a specially built outdoor stage, with socially distanced seating on the facing lawn.

An ever-changing forecast was borne out by the mix of sun and clouds that greeted the 11 AM “Magic Flute” performance last Saturday, but it was a good backdrop for a fast-moving production that came with its own plentiful thunder. Glimmerglass resident artist Eric Owens – who has been a great success in productions from several previous seasons here – sang and spoke the role of Sarastro, also offering narration that helped trim the piece down to the 90-minute, intermission-free length that characterizes all of this summer’s productions.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Blow, Ye Winds

I HOPE THAT COMPOSER JOSEPH FENNIMORE has still more recordings that have been made of his works over the years. Every so often, but not often enough, a CD is released that offers another handful of those gems. The latest, “Blow,” is a collection of works for winds and piano. As Fennimore writes in the accompanying notes, “Winds marry better with piano than strings ... Strings have their undeniable place in the instrumental Pantheon given the repertory they command but it takes at least three of them in unison to mitigate one player’s monotonous vibrato.” Take umbrage as you will, cat-gut scrapers, but Fennimore’s music makes convincing arguments in favor of reeds, horn, and flute.

His Clarinet Sonata dates from 1968 and was recorded eight years later. It’s a twelve-minute piece that kicks off with Poulenc-like merriment; the movement that follows, marked Moderate, is a captivating byplay between clarinet and piano as they trade wistful phrases, seeming to dance away from the resolution that, of course, overtakes their tired selves at the end. They recover for a fast finish – it is, in fact, marked Fast – characterized by the deliberate uncertainty of trills and truncated phrases. But it is, again, a dance that gives way to a dreamlike middle before whirling us to a delightfully syncopated finish with a wistful tag. Clarinetist David Niethamer and pianist Charles Schneider were the worthy interpreters here.

Given the grab-bag nature of this collection, it’s no surprise to find a variety of performers represented. What’s surprising, however, is the protean nature of Fennimore’s voice. The Sextet for Woodwind Quintet and Piano premiered at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1985, the year it was written; what’s on this disc was recorded two years later at Loudonville’s Siena College. Fennimore’s voice changed during the 17 years that separate this from the Clarinet Sonata – or he at least consulted a contrasting muse.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Benny Rides Again

From the Music Vault Dept.: We just enjoyed a performance in my town by Dan Levinson and His Palomar Trio with superb vocalist Molly Ryan – their first live gig since the start of the pandemic shut-down. Which got me nostalgic for a big-band appearance Dan and Molly – and fellow Palomarians Mark Shane (piano) and Kevin Dorn (drums) – made in the area in 2009.

                                                                              
      

DOESN’T IT SEEM LIKE ONLY YESTERDAY when Benny Goodman and his band scored such a success at the Palomar Ballroom that the Swing Era officially started? All right, then. Maybe I live in a different era. But whatever your perspective, music of the late 1930s was characterized by the punchy, brassy arrangements of the likes of Fletcher Henderson, himself a bandleader, and Jimmy Mundy, and played by the bands of Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and many, many others.

Dan Levinson
Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Performing the tunes called for tremendous virtuosity, and gave us a generation of players still revered for their skill. It’s something of a shock to realize that there’s a current generation of musicians able and eager to play in that style, and can bring to life music heretofore trapped on decades-old recordings.

Clarinetist Dan Levinson is a musical chameleon whose specialty is channeling styles as far back as the ’teens. His heart seems to be in the ’30s, though, and he plays music of that era both with a small group (his Swing Wing) and large ensembles like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks.

For this event, he fronted James Langton’s New York City All-Stars, a fifteen-piece band sporting the caliber of player Goodman would have been delighted to hire. The program opened as Goodman would have opened it, with a short, rousing “Let’s Dance” that he took almost immediately into “Bugle Call Rag,” a Mundy arrangement that quickly showcased many of the individual players.

Friday, July 09, 2021

The Spirit of Philidor

HERE’S ANOTHER of my video collaborations with Musicians of Ma’alwyck, in which we imagine a visit by composer-chessmaster François-André Philidor to Albany’s Schuyler Mansion to meet General Lafayette – where he meets a more portentous personage instead. With Ethan Botwick as Philidor and Steven Patterson as du Mortier.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Back to Tanglewood

From the Classical Vault Dept.: More summer venues have announced their 2021 seasons, and Tanglewood will be back with the kind of programming you expect – the kind of programming that drew me there 35 years ago to write the review that follows.

                                                                                

The lush lawn at Tanglewood just got its summer crewcut as the Boston Symphony Orchestra season got under way with two concerts by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. Saturday’s was a slam-bang beginning.

Charles Dutoit

The 200th birthday of composer Carol Maria von Weber was saluted with the overture from his opera Der Freischuetz and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat. The overture is a staple of the orchestral repertory and offers the better groups a display of dynamics and color. Dutoit, best known as music director of the Montreal Symphony, has a terrific hand for bringing out just those characteristics.

The drama of the overture was brought out nicely by Dutoit’s treatment of the piece as a voiceless aria; like Mozart, Weber informed his melodies with a singing quality. A thickly textured sequence for horn quartet is a mean thing to hand the horn-players so early in the concert but these players were superb.

Malcolm Frager was the concerto soloist. A Tanglewood favorite for more than 20 years, he brings a zest to his playing that is the true essence of virtuosity. The Weber concerto provides plenty of opportunity to strut the technical stuff and Frager pulled it off pretty much without a hitch –  the bobbled couple of notes in the faster passages are worth mentioning only to illustrate the risks he takes to achieve his effects, something many other artists should try.

Friday, July 02, 2021

What They Had Laid Out for Their Vacation

Guest Blogger Dept.: George Ade’s famous Fables tended to get longer as their popularity grew and his column spread through newspaper syndication. But here’s an unusually shorter one that seems appropriate to the season ahead.

                                                                               

A MAN WHO HAD THREE WEEKS of Vacation coming to him began to get busy with an Atlas about April 1st. He and his Wife figured that by keeping on the Jump they could do Niagara, Thousand Islands, Atlantic City, The Mammoth Cave and cover the Great Lakes.

Getting Busy with an Atlas
Drawing by Harry Smith

On April 10th they decided to charter a House-Boat and float down the Mississippi.

On April 20th he heard of a Cheap Excursion to California with a stop-over Privilege at every Station and they began to read up on Salt Lake and Yellowstone.

On May 1st she flashed a Prospectus of a Northern Lake Resort where Boats and Minnows were free and Nature was ever smiling.

By May 10th he had drawn a Blue Pencil all over a Folder of the Adirondack Region, and all the Hotel Rates were set down in his Pocket Memorandum Book.

Ten days later she vetoed the Mountain Trip because she had got next to a Nantucket Establishment where Family Board was $6 a Week, with the use of a Horse.

Monday, June 28, 2021

No Child Left Behind

From the Vault Dept.: The Glimmerglass Festival is on the brink of opening again, after the inevitable Covid-inspired summer off. Plenty of info to be gained at their website, and keep in mind that the reduced season has its own seating challenges as well. But they tend to do such things well, as was the case a decade again ago when I penned the below.

                                                                                     

MURDERING YOUR CHILDREN always grabs headlines, and Greek mythological Medea long ago grabbed the title of most famous filicide. Her story varies from source to source, but by the time Luigi Cherubini got hold of it, she was a sorceress who’d already murdered her own brother in aid of her beloved Jason, of fleece-hunting Argonauts fame. Cherubini was a Beethoven contemporary whose music was lauded by that composer, and his work on this opera, which premiered in 1797, shows unexpectedly forward-thinking musical techniques.

Alexandra Deshorties
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
The opera has been tinkered with over the years, acquiring an Italian text (it was written in French) and musical recitatives set by Franz Lachner. As the Glimmerglass Opera production proved, the piece packs a wallop, especially when in the hands of a talent as strong as Alexandra Deshorties.

The title role gives her a grand entrance and an even bigger exit, but the heart of the piece is her struggle to justify the horrible, revenge-driven act she’s contemplating. Deshorties skillfully mined the edge of madness written into the part, reinforcing subtle messages in the music without ever going over the top.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Brick-Oven Harvest

From the Food Vault Dept.: It’s been a decade since the review below ran in Metroland, and I’m pleased to note that the restaurant is still going strong.

                                                                          

THE OVEN IS AN ARRESTING SIGHT. It’s Le Panyol Model 120, if you want to get technical about it, from a French company that dates back to the 1840s and specializes in refractory earthenware products fashioned with a special white clay called terre blanche that’s quarried on the edge of Provence.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“I did a lot of research to find it,” says Harvest & Hearth chef-owner Peter Michelin. “And I spent a couple of days in Maine learning how to cook in an over like this, at a cooking school called Stone Turtle run by Michael Jubinsky.” Jubinsky is a legend in hearth-cooking circles, and his classes sell out months in advance.

Harvest & Hearth’s most recent incarnation was as Chameleon on the Lake, but it’s undergone a remarkable change inside and out. Some of it is subtle – I didn’t realize that a drop ceiling was gone until Michelin pointed it out – some dramatic, like the glistening wood floors. But nothing tops the sight of that oven, poised like a large stone Dalek at one end of the dining room, its mouth a rictus of dancing flame. Pizzas go in and mere moments later emerge, transformed into crisp, bubbling pies.

Monday, June 21, 2021

When You’re Smiling

WITHOUT MUCH FANFARE (that came across my desk, at least), Sony Classics released a lavish 120-CD box set of conductor Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra recordings. Ah, but it’s more and less than that. Less insofar as it includes not a single one of the maestro’s many stereo essays with that orchestra; more because it gives us his mono-era legacy, a cornucopia of recordings many of which have long been unavailable.

The question often posed by others has been: Was it worth it? This is where the rickety Ormandy legacy comes into play. He led the Philadelphians for 44 years, taking the reins from the flamboyant Stokowski. He maintained the lush sound for which the orchestra already had become famous, with an always-distinguished array of first-chair players to tackle any tricky solos.

Ormandy’s musicianship is rarely impugned, but his work has often been damned with faint praise, with suggestions that there’s a mediocrity about his interpretations. Even the opening paragraphs of Wolfgang Stähr’s booklet essay in the set make needless apologies for Ormandy’s conducting.

In none of the reviews of this set that I’ve encountered is there unalloyed praise. On a classical-music Usenet discussion group, comments have been snotty, if not downright brutal – but such groups are best avoided if you’re looking for considered discussion. So what on earth is wrong with this set?

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Kenmore Audition

ANOTHER ONE OF my collaborations with Musicians of Ma'alwyck, here envisioning an audition that could have taken place at Albany's fabled (and, lately, reopened) Kenmore Hotel, now a banquet house with living spaces.

Monday, June 14, 2021

This Little Piggie

NOTHING YOU READ HERE will prepare you for the experience of watching “Gunda,” the new film from Russian director Victor Kossakovsky. It’s about animals, in particular a pig whose name gives the movie its title. But she, and her litter, and the chickens and cows we will also see, aren’t presented in verdant colors with heart-tugging music and a dulcet, reassuring narrator. The animals are not anthropomorphized into our comfort sphere; in fact, it is the viewer who’s presented with animal characteristics. And if you don’t recognize the plot of the story right away, that’s only because you’ve been fed so many movies with an identical sequence of tension-to-resolution gimmicks that you’re inclined to regard the day-to-day life of an animal as boring. “Gunda” proves it’s anything but.

The long, long opening sequence gives us an image of a barn wall with a smaller entryway, in which lies the unmoving head of that pig. Eventually, her silhouette is eclipsed by the succession of busy piglets. She’s giving birth. As this becomes apparent, we move inside.

Because the film is black-and-white, it never becomes a paean to Nature’s Beauty. “We started in color,” says Kossakovsky, “but there was too much to see, and it looked like postcards. When we took the color out, you could see the personalities.” Thus we concentrate instead on the animals we’re shown, usually in close-up and at the level on which the animals live.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Cards

Guest Blogger Dept.: We had the opening chapter of Barry Pain’s masterful Eliza a few weeks ago; let’s see how she and her fussy husband are faring in the second chapter. (Drawing below by Wallace Goldsmith.)

                                                                        

ABOUT A YEAR AGO Eliza and myself had a little difference of opinion. I mentioned to her that we had no visiting-cards.

“Of course not,” she said. “The idea of such a thing!” She spoke rather hastily.

“Why do you say 'of course not'?” I replied, quietly. “Visiting-cards are, I believe, in common use among ladies and gentlemen.”

"He seemed to think
it was not essential.
"

She said she did not see what that had to do with it.

“It has just this much to do with it,” I answered: “that I do not intend to go without visiting-cards another day!”

“What's the use?” she asked. “We never call on anybody, and nobody ever calls on us.”

“Is Miss Sakers nobody?”

“Well, she's never left a card here, and she really is a lady by birth, and can prove it. She just asks the girl to say she's been, and it's nothing of importance, when she doesn't find me in. If she can do without cards, we can. You'd much better go by her.”

“Thank you, I have my own ideas of propriety, and I do not take them from Miss Sakers. I shall order fifty of each sort from Amrod's this morning.”

“Then that makes a hundred cards wasted.”

Monday, June 07, 2021

The Louis Armstrong Legacy

MOSAIC RECORDS, that scrappy little jazz-reissue house that specializes in offering handsome, thorough, excellently remastered sets, has been very attentive to the Louis Armstrong legacy. First there were six CDs covering the Decca recordings of the All-Stars from 1950-58, then all of the (pre-All-Stars) Decca studio recordings from 1935-46 (six CDs). Most recently we switched labels (as Armstrong did) to get the All-Stars recorded live between 1947 and 1958 for Columbia and RCA (a whopping nine discs) ... which set the stage for what happened next.

The latest Mosaic Armstrong release stays with those two labels (now both owned by Sony, which makes such reissues easier) but goes back to studio recordings – specifically, seven discs’ worth that cover the last of his big (and I do mean big) band recordings for RCA, and three concept albums he cut for Columbia. All material that’s been reissued before on the original labels, but not in audio quality like this, not with fantastic liner notes like this – and not with so many compelling extras.

The RCA years begin with a session put together to feature Esquire magazine’s 1946 jazz-poll winners, a list heavily influenced by the magazine’s columnist, Leonard Feather, who also helmed the recording session. And I’d like to salute Ricky Riccardi, who wrote the excellent booklet text (about whom more later) for his clear-eyed appraisal of Feather’s tiresome, meddlesome nature. There was a man who set himself up as a jazz savant in order to impose his own limited-interest opinions – and some mediocre songs – on a public looking for guidance.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Ballet Gets Modern

 From the Terpsichorean Vault Dept.: No ballet at the Saratoga Performance Arts Center this summer, and I fear we’re getting accustomed to that, as dance in general recedes from public view. Here (as you suspected would be the case) is a look back, to what was going on there in 1988.

                                                                                    

WHAT HAS 40 YEARS brought to us in the world of American Music?

If Tuesday night’s offerings of the New York City Ballet’s American Music Festival are any indication, new works benefit from a considered look over the shoulder. The program at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center included a new piece that harkened back to an old one, an old one that still sounds new, and a new one that tried self-consciously hard to sound newer than new.

Helene Alexopoulos
Leslie Stuck’s “Behind the China Dogs,” which had its Saratoga premiere, is a modernist work that never lets you forget how modern it is. It’s also pretty funny.

Choreographed by William Forsythe, artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet and frequent collaborator with Stuck, it takes a fill-in-the-blank approach to what’s avant-garde. “Behind the China Dogs” could as easily be titled “Under the Tattersall Sofa,” except that it would deprive us of the accessory of several sculpted dachshunds stoically guarding the upstage area.

The costuming is the tip-off. With a corps of men dressed in black shorts, checkered vests and grey socks, how solemn an enterprise can this be? The women similarly lampoon formality with an illusion of evening gown suggested by leotard and body stocking.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Impassioned Threesome

From the Classical Vault Dept.: It was a rare treat to see and hear the Golub-Kaplan-Carr trio perform in 1984. They were a top-notch group essaying the heart of the piano trip repertory, but pianist David Golub died of lung cancer in 2000 at the age of 50. Violinist Mark Kaplan teaches at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and performs as a soloist and inchamber ensembles; cellist Colin Carr is professor of cello at the Royal Academy of Music and continues pursuing a solo career. Here’s the brief, interview-free advance I wrote, followed by the review itself.

                                                                                 

THREE YOUNG INSTRUMENTALISTS decided not long ago to interrupt their solo activities for a few weeks each year to combine their talents as the Golub-Kaplan-Carr Trio, presenting the best of the repertory for the ensemble piano, violin and cello.

This trio will appear at Union College’s Memorial at 8 tonight in a program of trios by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Pianist David Golub has performed with the orchestras of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and others here and abroad; he also has spent summers at Aspen, Marlboro and Ravinia. Violinist Isaac Stern called him one of the most gifted musicians I have met in many years of music making.”

Violinist Mark Kaplan’s list of appearances is similar to Golub’s. He also has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and others.

English cellist Cohn Carr came to the music scene in this country as a winner of the Young Concert Artists’ International Auditions. He was a first-prize winner of the Naumberg Cello Competition in 1981 and of the 1982 Piatigorsky Memorial Award. He is on the faculty of the New England Conservatory.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Dinosaur Dubbing

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Here’s another tech oldie, my how-to about compiling a videotape from your existing footage by using a 1994 software program to supervise the jockeying through individual segments that are then transferred ... it’s exhausting even to write this. And I can assure you that the result was just as primitive-looking as the process suggests.

                                                                                       

REMEMBER THE TORMENT of sitting through yet another slide show as Dad brutalized captive guests with scenes from last summer's beach trip? Every single shot he took was jammed into that projector, no matter how poorly cropped or focused it was. With one of those awful I'm-getting-too-old epiphanies, I realized that I've been inflicting the exact same pain on my guests, but the means of torture has changed. Today, they're forced to suffer through my videotapes.

And every scrap of footage is intact. Every time I accidentally pushed the start button and filmed two minutes of floor tile. Every shaky sequence of passing scenery. Had I not been asked to write about VideoDirector, all my long-suffering friends would have had to buy it for me. I can't live without it now.

VideoDirector is an elegant product because it gives you the means to edit tapes with your computer without consuming your hard drive in the process. Since you aren't actually capturing video, the computer simply functions as a control center to aid in the editing process, miraculously compiling choice material from those teeming tapes into well-paced episodes.

I had already tried video editing with my camcorder and VCR; a good VCR can pause and resume quickly, but controlling the camcorder is much more difficult, especially when you're trying to tweeze a two-or three-second scene out of a sequence. Fortunately, some camcorders have a special jack built in that allows them to be controlled by another machine—which can be a computer.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Nominalization of Barbecue

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: Twenty years ago I was well into a barbecue craze that had me buying a succession of smokers and perfecting my dry rubs and sauces. Ironically, it also steered me away from barbecue restaurants, as I tended to enjoy my own fabrications more – but I remember Jr.’s BBQ in Burnt Hills as a particularly fine eatery. It’s long gone, replaced at that site by place selling sheds.

                                                                                     

BARBECUE INSPIRES SUCH PASSION in its fans that what once was adjective or verb is a richly portentous noun to those in the know. The only adjective regularly allowed beside it is “good,” and “good” means nothing less than excellent.

Generic Pulled Pork Photo
More elusive than good barbecue, it seems, are good barbecue restaurants. So it was a shock to discover that Jr.’s (that’s “Junior’s”) has been in operation for nine months, in a venerable Burnt Hills location that started life as a speakeasy, became one of the first establishments to sport a liquor license post-Volstead Act, then went on to become various restaurants, most notably Silvestri’s and Felicia’s.

Now it’s owned by Tom and Kristle DiPietro and it’s a seven-day-a-week barbecue joint that also serves sandwiches, wings, great desserts and a full spectrum of slow-roasted meats.

Because that’s the whole point of barbecue. You want to turn a tough cut of meat tender with a lengthy cooking process, and you want to impart flavors of smoke and a tangy marinade. Thus there are methods of grilling and smoking and roasting to use separately or in combination, the key ingredient being time.

Tom DiPietro has put a lot of that into the restaurant business, in which he’s been employed in one capacity or another for 33 of his 46 years. And he displayed his adeptness the evening I visited with family and a friend because mid-week business was slow enough for him to work it nearly alone.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Sweet Soldierly Stuff

From the Operetta Vault Dept.: Looks like the Bard Summerscape Festival will be back on its feet this summer (2021), and I look forward to learning more about the life and work of sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger. Meanwhile, here’s a look back at a production there of the rarely seen “Chocolate Soldier” in 2010.

                                                                            
      

IN THE BUILDING’S LARGER THEATER, the final acclaimed performance of Franz Schreker’s 1910 opera “Der ferne Klang” sent singers scurrying past, their faces grotesquely painted. But with an August too clogged to allow me to see both of this season’s operas, I succumbed to the part of me that likes froth and happy endings and sentimental tunes.

I hitherto only knew “The Chocolate Soldier” as a punchline, a payoff for a gag involving forgotten musicals if “The Red Mill” or “Naughty Marietta” won’t due. And I swear to you, during the drive home I was listening to a 1966 Jean Shepherd radio show in which he described dining at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, in a room that “featured four very proper musicians ... playing things like selections from ‘The Chocolate Soldier.’”

Bard’s Summerscape mission is to bring you the little-seen and rarely heard, and director-choreographer Will Pomerantz did another commendable job in putting this on the stage. As was the case with his production two summers ago of the Gershwin musical “Of Thee I Sing,” he was working with a property that no doubt clogged the stage with chorus and dancers; this trimmed-down version made intensive use of the hard-working chorus: it’s impressive how adaptable women can be with the mere addition of a mustache or two.

The operetta is based on Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” although Shaw completely dissociated from the piece and insisted on no royalty payments, a decision he must have later regretted.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Are You Going to Finish That?

FIRST THERE’S A SMALL SENSE OF BETRAYAL. Mark Bittman’s cookbooks are reliable foundational items for any culinary collection, offering satisfying recipes described in a reassuring voice. His latest book, however, is almost an anti-cookbook insofar as it’s more or less an anti-food book. Animal, Vegetable, Junk looks at what have become the unhealthy dietary norms for most Americans, how they got that way, and what we can do to change it.

“Food drives history,” states Bittman, “and soil drives food.” His book-opening look at the history of agriculture is a fascinating journey through the millennia of evolutionary steps humans took to learn to localize their food production. And it sets the stage for the introduction of factory farming, which, among other nasty consequences, ruins the land beneath it.

In the mid-19th century, John Deere revolutionized plowing with a new design, better material, and a shift to retail sales, helping farmers with resistant soil break up their ground for planting. But this also was the beginning of an assembly-line attitude towards labor and production that served to increase yields (in good years, at least) even as the farmers who worked the land became less familiar with that land, thus less responsive to its needs.

“Before long, it took more land, more equipment, more chemicals, and more financing to become a successful farmer in the most prolific crops, like corn, soybeans, and wheat,” writes Bittman. “And as it developed, buying mechanized farm equipment did not guarantee prosperity, but rather debt ... ”

Friday, May 14, 2021

Slava’s Cello Show

From the Classical Vault Dept.: While poring through old pieces to post here, I play a game with myself: What did I venture out to review 20 (or 25 or 30) years ago? In this case, it’s 35 years, and it was a recital by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. I’d seen him about a decade before then, a recital at the University of Connecticut where he played the Prokofiev Cello Sonata, among other works, and it was just a dazzling as the concert I describe below.

                                                                                     

THERE IS A QUALITY characterizing a virtuoso performer that goes beyond elements of tone and technique. It’s been likened to a kind of sorcery; it certainly inspires awe. This is the quality cellist Mstislav Rostropovich brought to Proctor’s Theatre in his Monday evening recital.

Pianist Lambert Orkis was an equal participant in the success, a partner where too often you only find an accompanist. And the program was dominated, until the very end, by the musical personality of Brahms.

Mstislav Rostropovich and Lambert Orkis
Opening with an arrangement of the adagio from an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, Rostropovich came right out of the gate with a tone control that proved his arms and fingers were conduits of a remarkable singing voice.

The piece did not call for much piano assistance but Orkis came into his own with the three pieces in folk-style by Robert Schumann. Forming a mini-sonata of contrasting mood, the first was jaunty and whimsical, the second more lyrical, the third a grandiose conclusion.

They set the stage quite romantically for Brahms’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, which concluded the first half. This is a piece that demands the attention of only the most thoughtful players and players whose personalities won’t get lost in the sweep of the work.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Scarlatti Odyssey

MY SCARLATTI ODYSSEY began with LPs of Ralph Kirkpatrick’s recordings – on the Odyssey label, in fact – after which I was lured to the piano performances by Horowitz. But I reached nirvana with the Scott Ross complete set of those solo sonatas, so varied and so fascinating that listening through all 555 of them was a delightful voyage, not a chore.

There have been many, many recordings to discover and enjoy since that time, recordings that ask me to wrench my allegiance from harpsichord to piano and back again. So it was a welcome side-trip to discover that English composer Charles Avison, who lived from 1709 to 1770, turned a number of Scarlatti’s sonatas into concerti grossi that were published in 1744, while Scarlatti was still alive.

At that point, only 30 of Scarlatti’s sonatas had been published, but they still offered a rich source of material. And Avison didn’t let himself feel constrained by the pieces he chose to include. In modern parlance, we would say he “reimagined” them, re-harmonizing and expanding them where it seemed to make sense, even adding movements (typically slower ones) to round out the form of the concerti.

There’s a new recording that showcases four of the twelve of Avison’s “Concertos in Seven Parts done from the Lessons of Domenico Scarlatti,” featuring the Spanish ensemble Tiento Nuovo, founded in 2016 by harpsichordist Ignacio Prego. The ensemble, which varies in size according to each particular project, is made up of a traditional concerto grosso ensemble, with a string quartet as concertino and a ripieno of two violins, viola, and continuo – itself made up of cello, violone (a precursor of the string bass) and organ or harpsichord.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Born to Boogie

From the Theater Vault Dept.: Given my reaction to some of the recent musicals that I’ve been sent to review – recent to me meaning post-1940s – I was surprised to warm to “Billy Elliot” as much as I did when it hit the area during its 2013 tour. Elton John’s jukebox-ish score notwithstanding.

                                                                                

IT’S OFTEN SURPRISING how easily sentiment can go to work on you. While I’m fairly immune to dead-mom sentiment and dad-realizes-what-a-shit-he’s been sentiment, “Billy Elliot: The Musical” got me with its coal-miners’ strike. It took place in England in 1984, giving the odious Margaret Thatcher the opportunity to begin dismantling workers’ hard-won rights throughout the nation. Most of the West Virginia side of my family are miners; I’ve been down the pit and I’ve learned firsthand about the struggles they continue to wage in order to pursue a dangerous job.

Drew Minard as "Billy Elliot"
My mother escaped via the Navy. Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot is offered a way out of a future in the mines through dance, with all of the attendant preconceptions that will color the attitudes of his father, brother and friends.

It’s a good premise for a musical, with such a firestorm of energy during the first act that you easily can tolerate Elton John’s sound-alike score – after all, his music was part of the soundtrack of the Thatcher era. But once the plot threads are tied up at the top of Act Two, that energy flags and the score’s repetitiousness is cruelly overshadowed when an excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” underscores Billy’s dream dance.

Choreographer Peter Darling and director Stephen Daldry created a breathtaking ensemble number early in the show to the song “Solidarity,” in which the striking miners, the opposing police and a classroom of ballet students interact in an otherworldly manner, using the potential of costume pieces and chairs to the fullest (chairs feature almost as individual characters throughout the show).

Monday, May 03, 2021

The Fable of Why Essie's Tall Friend Got the Fresh Air

Guest Blogger Dept.: Indiana-born George Ade sprang to fame with the publication of Fables in Slang, which first appeared serially in the Chicago Record in 1897. Soon he was publishing other books as well as writing plays and, as the movies came to life, screenplays. His style of gentle satire was enhanced by his ear for the vernacular – but don’t let me blather on. Listen to him.

                                                                                  

THE OWNER OF A FURNISHING STORE gave employment to a Boy with Dreamy Eyes, who took good care of his Nails and used Scented Soap and carried a Pocket Looking-Glass. It was his Delight to stand in the Doorway and watch the Girls all Color Up when they caught Sight of him. He was said to be a Divine Waltzer at these Balls that cost the Gents 50 cents each and the Ladies get in free.

There was a Girl named Essie who was Hanging Around the Front of the Store about half of the Time, waiting to get a Chance to Speak to Bert. She Chewed Gum and kept her Sailor Hat pulled down to her Eyebrows and had her Name worked out in Wire and used it as a Breastpin. After she had waited an Hour or so, and he had Broken Away long enough to take her aside, she would want to know what it was that Net had said about her, or else she would ask why he had not Answered her Note. It was always just about as Momentous as that.

If Essie did not come, she sent some one with a Message, and sometimes other Floor Managers with Red Neckties and Forelocks would come in to see about the Arrangements for the next Grand Hop by the Eucalyptus Pleasure Club.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Special Here-Comes-Summer Drive-In Double Feature!

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: We’ve been very loyal to Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In, the one-of-a-kind burger joint in Scotia, NY, which is open only in the summer. I wrote about the place for Metroland Magazine four times, with my first review running in 1987, my second in 1990. To bring you up to date, here are the third and fourth, starting with the latter, from 2012.

                                                                                              

AMONG THE HORRIFYING IMAGES of Hurricane Irene’s devastation last summer was the sight of Jumpin’ Jack’s under water, many of its picnic tables rafting down the Mohawk, its ice cream building flooded so high that coolers floated up and cracked the ceiling.

Owner Mark Lansing was quick even then to put things in perspective, redirecting many of the offers of help to the hard-hit areas of Schoharie County and elsewhere. With the help of flood insurance, a loyal crew of workers and a mild winter, he worked doggedly to get the place ready for its traditional spring opening this year.

It took place the last Thursday in March, with an appropriate amount of media hoopla. Although we tend to give a place three months to get itself up and running before visiting to review, we figure that the nature of Jumpin’ Jack’s would allow a week to suffice. Besides, we were hungry.

It’s not great food. Never has been. And that has never been the issue. I have other stops for gourmet burgers, smoked burgers, fast-food burgers, whatever manifestation of beef between buns proves desirable, if you know what I mean.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Dogging the Scales

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Contemporary classical music has had a strong area champion in the Dogs of Desire, an Albany Symphony-based ensemble that concentrates on small, current, often commissioned works. Here’s a review I found nestling near the “Les Mis” piece I posted yesterday.  

                                                                                  
    

THE NAME OF THIS ENSEMBLE, drawn from the very fine ranks of the Albany Symphony, was chosen by music director David Alan Miller when it proved, of the many choices he compiled, most distasteful to his mom.

The Dogs of Desire is a large chamber group charged with playing new works, most of them commissioned by or on behalf of the ensemble. At this point in its nearly 20-year history, it has a long list of such works to draw from, but continues to seek out more.

Thus it was that we were treated to three world premieres, two of them written in collaboration with video artists. Putting music and moving image together creates an entirely different sensory experience that is provoked by music alone. Our eyes are sensory bullies, demanding the lion’s share of attention. Yet the addition of music, as film buffs know, deepens the emotional experience even when we’re not fully aware of it.

Amanda Harding’s “Venus Unhinged” also added the dimension of words, setting three poems by Eliza Griswold and one by Margaret Atwood, all of it exploring, as Harding explained, “the dark side of love.”

Friday, April 23, 2021

Mis-ing the Point

From the Theater Vault Dept.: This review speaks for itself, exposing me as the stick-in-the-mud that I am, a man whose early diet of Gershwin and Porter and Berlin scores inspired an oozing intolerance for more recent musicals. But I did my best to appreciate this experience eight years ago.

                                                                                        

I AM THE ONLY MUSICAL THEATER FAN IN THE WORLD who has not been exposed to any form of the phenomenon that is Les Mis. The sprawling English-language musical version of the even-more-sprawling Victor Hugo novel opened in London in 1985, hit Broadway two years later and probably has offered actors more production contracts than any other recent show.

It’s a three-hour distillation of the Hugo’s tale of sin and redemption, politics and faith, and it plays every note of sentimentality and offers every trope of melodrama that can be crammed into its nonstop score.

It’s impossible not to enjoy the experience. But it’s impossible to enjoy the show without surrendering your critical faculties to the well-crafted emotional manipulation employed by its story and song.

You know the story. Noble criminal, bastion of moral and physical strength. Dogged pursuer, obsessed with duty. Orphaned waif. Bellicose students. Sewers. You probably know the score. “I Dreamed a Dream.” “On My Own.” “Bring Him Home.” A musical progression that never strays far from resolution, a festival of V7 to I, with plenty of plagal cadences for that spiritual-experience feel.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Pleasures for the Few

From the Classical Vault Dept.: It’s no secret that the classical-music audience in New York’s Albany area is laughably small. There used to be classical-music programming at many of the area’s halls, but these days you’ll find nothing at Proctors while the Union College series soldiers own, its audience greying into obsolescence. Here’s a look at a pair of concerts I reviewed in 1986.

                                                                                    

THEY KEPT THE HOUSE LIGHTS ON at Proctor’s Theatre during the concert by L’Orchestre National de Lyon, probably so we all could see that there were some people in the house. Or maybe it was just to read the program notes. Whatever, the little club that gathered—there were, oh, maybe three times as many in the house as on the stage—rallied forth to do the clapping work of many.

Henri Dutilleux
Not that I think they should clap—this is a guilt thing that classical music concertgoers in the area seem to fall for. We’d better clap hard and make the orchestra feel good, make them think this isn’t a completely deadbeat town. But look at it this way—the fewer there are in the house, the fewer distractions you have to put up with. Let the unwashed stay home and yell at their TV sets.

It’s not as if the orchestra tried any less hard. If anything, there was a nice feeling of casualness, of spontaneity about the concert. We probably all could have taken off our ties and been that much happier.

Let’s face it—the crowd isn’t going to come out to hear stuff written by composers whose names they can’t pronounce. “So what’d you hear last night?” they ask at work the next morning. “Oh, the first symphony by Aw-Ree Duh ... Doo ... Duh-Tee-Yo!” Nope.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Dredging Up the ‘70s

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Wasn’t I the bitchy little critic here! Not that I’ve changed; I’m simply more inclined to avoid the shows that I know will anoy me. But here’s a glimpse of what was going around 35 years ago.

                                                                                   

HAVING A COLLEGE ROOMMATE who was a slob was easy compared to having one who was a poet. I’m talking about the kind of person who would utter bathos and call it profound, who bled for correct causes, whose own shallow depths were seen as somehow mystical.

Ben Vereen
“Pippin” is that kind of show. A product of Broadway’s confused 1970s, it has dated more rapidly than the fast-talkin’ stuff of the ‘30s (I’m thinking specifically of such shows as “On Your Toes,” seen recently in a successful revival.) At least chestnuts made no bones about being fluffy.

But “Pippin” attempts to celebrate basic values of self-confidence and conjugal love by lampooning the very vehicle that propels it: musical-comedy tradition. In doing so, it smirks at itself many, many times too often.

The production that played at Proctor’s last week was directed by and starred Ben Vereen, who made a deserved name for himself in the Broadway original. Too bad he doesn’t have better material to work with. He is presented as the Leading Player of a smart-mouthed troupe that tells the story of Pippin, son of Roman Emperor Charlemagne, a young man who (and isn’t this a metaphor for the ‘70s!) seeks to find some kind of personal fulfillment.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Identity Capers

From the Classical Vault Dept.: What was the classical-music world like in the Albany, NY, area before Covid? Let’s go back 34 years to find out. Although the pandemic nipped most live performances in the bud, it’s always been a rough slog for American composers, living and dead. But the Albany Symphony has made impressive attempts, over the decades, to rectify that. Here’s what was going on in April 1987.

                                                                               
     

THE IDENTITY CRISIS that continues to worry American composers has at its root mixed feelings towards the music that truly can be defined as American.

Amy Beach
We heard two different reactions to that problem at Friday night’s Troy Music Hall concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, as Julius Hegyi conducted works by a pair of Americans.

Amy Beach's “Le Bal Masque” demonstrated an old style. Written in 1894 as a piano solo, orchestrated at the turn of the century, it is a pleasant, three-quarter-time work, American only insofar as it has none of the ethnic eccentricities that might identify it with a particular other country. It sounds nonspecific. European.

This impression could be partly the fault of the conducting, for Hegyi brought to it his characteristically inscrutable baton, resulting in wildly incompatible changes of tempo throughout the brief piece.

Ellen Zwilich wrote her Concerto for Piano and Orchestra for a premiere just a year ago. Like any contemporary American composer, she has the varied legacy of this century to reckon with: like many, she has “gone European” in the sense that her work has more in common with the tunelessness of the Virgil Thomson school than with our very melodic domestic heritage.

Friday, April 09, 2021

How to Live to be 200

Guest Blogger Dept.: Hey, here’s Stephen Leacock again, this time with an essay about health, a topic very much on our minds in these waning pandemic days. As always, let’s forgo our Zoom-errific day for a moment and take in the advice of the Canadian humorist.

                                                                                             

TWENTY YEARS AGO I knew a man called Jiggins, who had the Health Habit.

He used to take a cold plunge every morning. He said it opened his pores. After it he took a hot sponge. He said it closed the pores. He got so that he could open and shut his pores at will.

Jiggins used to stand and breathe at an open window for half an hour before dressing. He said it expanded his lungs. He might, of course, have had it done in a shoe-store with a boot stretcher, but after all it cost him nothing this way, and what is half an hour?

After he had got his undershirt on, Jiggins used to hitch himself up like a dog in harness and do Sandow exercises. He did them forwards, backwards, and hind-side up.

He could have got a job as a dog anywhere. He spent all his time at this kind of thing. In his spare time at the office, he used to lie on his stomach on the floor and see if he could lift himself up with his knuckles. If he could, then he tried some other way until he found one that he couldn’t do. Then he would spend the rest of his lunch hour on his stomach, perfectly happy.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Remembering Ashley's

 From the Food Vault Dept.: In 1986, after I’d been writing for Albany’s Metroland Magazine for a couple of years, I proposed that we start a restaurant review column, with me at its helm. There being no budget for meals, I further proposed that we cadge a meal off the restaurant under examination, and promise them a good review. And make no bones about it in the column. This we did for 22 weeks, at which time a budget was created and the reviews became unannounced. But here’s my fourth-ever restaurant piece, written in 1986 following a meal with my wife, Susan, and good-natured photographer Drew Kinum. I wish I had a better record of his photos than the lousy photocopy reproduced here. Ashley’s is long gone, by the way, replaced by a succession of ever-less-impressive eateries in that hotel.

                                                                                            

ASHLEY’S, THE RESTAURANT at the new Albany Marriott on Wolf Road, has class. That’s more than good looks and tasty food: its a style that reflects a happy confluence of personalities on both sides of the kitchen door.

Like a good play, it’s a collaboration of dedicated people who aren’t constrained by close-minded management. The decor is classy, which means it’s not too rambunctious: multiple levels to give illusions of seclusion. with a pleasant deep violet color on the walls. There is sound thinking behind this: it buoys the traveler and neighbor alike.

One of my most-treasured dinner memories came from a visit to a five-star place downstate in which the entree was a disappointment. In spite of this, the ambiance and good fellowship prevailed. Ashley’s provided all that as well as terrific entrees, but lets start at the beginning and go through this meal.

My chief gastronomic assistant, Susan, was along to give the place what-for. She and photographer Drew sat opposite me at a long table on one of the upper levels and we unfolded the large, colorful menus to make the tough choices.

Friday, April 02, 2021

WWMHD?

WHAT WOULD MOZART HAVE DONE? We have so much evidence of what he did do that it’s almost unnecessary to ask, but there is a handful of fascinating fragments of works he wrote for violin and piano – piano and violin, if you use the ordering he gave to the pieces – that warrant some extra attention, according to Timothy Jones.

Jones is a Mozart scholar who has spent enough years immersed in the composer’s works that he can combine a sense of what should be with an adventurous exploration of what could be. Four of those fragments are featured on a new recording by violinist Rachel Podger and fortepianist Christopher Glynn, with three of those fragments presented in two different completions apiece – a total of seven pieces, then, averaging about eight minutes apiece.

Podger recorded Mozart’s completed violin sonatas a few years ago, with Gary Cooper at the keyboard, so this could be seen as volume nine of that series – but it’s taking us into such different ground that it demands to be considered apart from the rest.

In creating these completions, Jones declared his ambition as being “to recognise the ‘openness’ of the fragments, test contrasting hypotheses about the material and then seeing where different assumptions might take the music over the course of the entire movement.”

Monday, March 29, 2021

Flight of the Concord

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Here’s a piece I wrote about a youthful vocal ensemble that made its debut recording for the Dorian label in 1999. This wasn’t written as liner notes, and I can’t recall where it was intended to land, if indeed it was used anywhere. So I share it with you, along with a recommendation that you seek out and listen to this recording.

                                                                                         

BEAUTIFUL VOICES SOUND GOOD ALMOST ANYWHERE, but place them in one of the world’s finest concert halls and the effect can transcend all expectations. As the Concord Ensemble stands in a semi-circle on the stage of the Troy Music Hall, in a once-prosperous manufacturing city near new York’s Hudson River, they sing to an auditorium of empty seats, facing a pair of microphones.

Over the course of the past few hours, the microphones had been aimed and re-aimed countless times. Now they stand near a tall stepladder a few feet from the Music Hall’s high stage. Dozens of yards of black fabric muffled the balcony and orchestra seats when the ensemble arrived to begin the recording tests; now it’s gone, removed to give a brighter sound to the ensemble.

“It’s just you and the room and my mics,” says Craig Dory, co-founder of Dorian Recordings and designer of the microphones. “But it’s still going to take us a while to decide the best setup.” He paces the stage. “Please sing out as we’re doing this – don’t mark. And don’t worry about the noises you might hear. If the hall creaks or a truck goes by, we may be able to remove that. All you have to do is sing.” He pauses and grins. “This is going to be very intensive. You will want to hate me. You will discover that I’m a big, lovable teddy bear.”

Friday, March 26, 2021

Kiss the Ground

WE’RE FEELING THE HORRIBLE EFFECTS of a global climate crisis. We’re wracked with guilt over the lousy food we consume – or we should be. There are solutions, but how do you persuade the public to change its ways?

Get celebrities to give those answers. Or so believe filmmakers Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell. Their engaging documentary “Kiss the Ground” boasts a host of celebrity actors and musicians, beginning with narrator Woody Harrelson, who also has a small but significant on-screen presence. Does Patricia Arquette’s enthusiastic encomium for composting toilets prove persuasive? Does a song by Jason Mraz help make up your mind? Is a word from recent Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady enough?

If it works, great. But the true celebrities here are those who are out in the fields, farming and teaching other farmers. The message of “Kiss the Ground” is simple: We’re destroying our land with industrial farming methods, and when you destroy soil, you create an inhospitable climate.

Ray Archuleta is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist with the Soil Science Society of America. He spent over thirty years with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and then founded Understanding Ag, LLC, [https://understandingag.com] to teach strategies for soil improvement on a national scale. He also founded Soil Health Academy [https://soilhealthacademy.org] to share regenerative agriculture principles.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Mr. President: Be Seated!

IN HONOR OF PRESIDENTS DAY, surely one of the most misused moments of patriotic prejudice, here's a short film I made with Musicians of Ma'alwyck.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Gershwin à la France

From the Classical Vault Dept.: ... and what about summer concerts? Are they coming back this year? Will they be as fun-filled as the all-Gershwin program I reviewed over a decade ago at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center?

                                                                              
              

EVEN AT THIS (RELATIVELY) LATE DATE, Gershwin’s music tends to keep concert company with so-called pops stuff, itself typically lightweight American fare. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but Gershwin’s struggle to get admitted into the Classical Academy is rooted in some canards deftly disproved by last week’s all-Gershwin program at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet

He’s termed a tunesmith who, when confronted with opportunities for thematic development, just throws something new at us. But the same has been said of Schubert and Dvořák, and, anyway it’s just not true, as his “Concerto in F” nicely demonstrated..

With Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the 88s, the technical requirements of the piece were brilliantly accounted for. The three-movement work, commissioned by the 1925 version of the NY Philharmonic immediately after the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue,” is in classical form, with the seeds of most of its melodic ideas planted at the top of the first movement and, of course, a consistent harmonic language throughout.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Noises Off Greece

From the Literary Vault Dept.: Sometimes you want to indulge yourself with a no-holds-barred farce, and the prolific Michael Frayn has been happy to oblige, in plays, screenplays, and novels, like the one reviewed below.

                                                                                                

MICHAEL FRAYN KNOWS THE ELEMENTS of a mistaken-identity farce. He summoned one of the most rip-roaring festivals of confusion to the stage in his play “Noises Off;” his novel Headlong wove a farce around the discovery of a long-lost Brueghel painting. Frayn’s intellectual prowess was brought to the stage in “Copenhagen,” a compelling drama about the scientific pursuits of Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr.

Skios, Frayn’s latest novel, has its heart the keynote address acclaimed scientist Dr. Norman Wilfred is due to deliver at an influential research center on the fictional Greek island of Skios. But a series of missteps sparked by longing and the island’s terrible taxicab system cause someone else – a ne’er-do-well opportunist pursuing one relationship while fleeing another – to almost inadvertently assume Dr. Wilfred’s guise, thus finding himself the cynosure of the research center’s posh, pretentious attendees.

It’s unimaginable, of course, that our plugged-in era could allow smartphone-clutching travelers even a moment of such disorientation, but Frayn works the mechanics of the story like a master puppeteer. His island isn’t friendly to cell phones, and even less friendly to the wrong kind of charging adapter. A language barrier persists, giving us the term phoksoliva en route, and there’s the reliable human trait of seeing in someone only what you ardently wish to see. And, in a straight steal from the movie “What’s Up, Doc?” and who knows how many earlier door-slammers, there’s the matter of supposedly unique suitcases that look too much alike.

Friday, March 12, 2021

See How You Like It

From the Theater Vault Dept.: Summer theater is being threatened all over the country now, and our local festivals are gearing up with outdoor performances and innovative repertory. To celebrate, here’s a look back at Shakespeare & Co., production from a decade ago.

                                                                                 
       

A SMALL BANJOLELE emerges from the upstage curtain of the thrust stage, and the player gives the opening chords to “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” The curtain parts and the ensemble strides onto the stage, some with other instruments in hand. They’re garbed in ’20s gear, nicely put together by costume designer Arthur Oliver, and as a crooner takes to the microphone to warble the chorus, the cast breaks into the Charleston.

Kelley Curran, Jonathan Epstein, and Merritt Janson

Does it matter that the song is actually over a decade younger than the era portrayed? It does not. The success of this production – and it’s very successful – lies in a clearness of purpose, faithfulness to the clues of the text and beautifully paced energy. Director Tony Simotes leads a versatile cast through the play’s manic vicissitudes with few of the would-be improvements that can mar high-concept realizations.

There’s a joke at the heart of the play’s setting, which can be taken to be either the Ardennes region in France (where the playwright’s source material was set) or the Stratford-area Arden. Set designer Sandra Goldmark puts us in Paris at the top of the show, with miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Panthéon among the functional set pieces on an otherwise bare (but blue) stage. The forest, such as it is, is an upstage jumble of pipes and trees with a second level that will inspire impressive acrobatics from Orlando (Tony Roach) and Rosalind (Merritt Janson).

Monday, March 08, 2021

A Piece of Roast Beef

Guest Blogger Dept.: It’s Robert Benchley time again, and the estimable essayist today grants us a look at one of the dietary staples of my youth, even as I try to get my youth to eat something else every once in a while.

                                                                                     

PERSONALLY, I CLASS ROAST BEEF with watercress and vanilla cornstarch pudding as tasty articles of diet. It undoubtedly has more than the required number of calories; it leans over backward in its eagerness to stand high among our best proteins, and, according to a vivid chart in the back of the cookbook, it is equal in food value to three dried raisins piled one on the other plus peanut-butter the size of an egg.

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
But for all that I can’t seem to feel that I am having a good time while I am eating it. It stimulates the same nerve centers in me that a lantern-slide lecture on “Palestine – the Old and the New,” does.

However, I have noticed that there are people who are not bored by it; in fact, I have seen them deliberately order it in a restaurant when they had the choice of something else; so I thought that the only fair thing I could do would be to look into the matter and see if, in this great city, there weren’t some different ways of serving roast beef to vary its monotony.

Roast beef is not the same price in all eating-places. What makes the difference? What does a diner at the Ritz get in his “roast prime ribs of beef au jus” that makes it distinctive from the “Special to-day – roast beef and mashed potatoes” of the Bowery restaurant?

Friday, March 05, 2021

Keeping It Edible

WE THINK OF FARMS as massive multi-acre enterprises, such is the pervasive image that corporate farming gives us. Ben Stein and Alicia Brown are entering their third season of providing fresh produce to a growing customer base, and their business has been growing unexpectedly well. And they’re doing it on one acre of land.

Photo by Alicia Brown
Edible Uprising Farm was born in 2019 as a passionate partnership between Ben Stein and Alicia Brown. Both of them have long pursued sustainable attitudes and practices where food and agriculture are concerned and wanted to turn that into a project that could income-sustain them as well. Although they envisioned a rural environment for their farming, they took an offer of an acre of land in the more urban Troy, NY.

“It has worked out very well here,” says Stein. “We were unsure about it – I’m from rural Vermont and always farmed in places where there’s not a big population around. We didn’t know if it would work on the edge of a large urban center. But it has been amazing. And we’ve been able to give people access to food they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get.”

Monday, March 01, 2021

Cyberotica Antiqua

From the Locked Vault Dept.: We haven’t visited my onetime alter-ego, Dr. Barry Tetons, since I offered this column from an unsavory magazine for which I used to write. Here’s a piece from the January 1996 issue, so astonishingly far from us now in terms of technology that the piece below seems laughably quaint.

                                                                                          

BASED ON A RECENT Time magazine cover story and the rantings of certain people in congress, you’d think that the Internet was a teeming electronic maelstrom of smut. Fortunately for us, it is. But the good stuff isn’t as easy to find as Time and the others would have you think.

A few columns back we looked at the specifics of getting to certain smut-rich areas. But the Internet is changing quickly, growing at an astonishing rate. It’s not for nothing that computers run on silicon chips.

Let’s tour the Internet and find out where things tend to be placed. It’s a huge club, in a way – once you find your way into one room, you’ll learn where else to go. Web sites give you addresses of more web sites; discussion groups point the way to everything. If all else fails, get over to a chat area for real-time advice.

So let’s start with the chat channels. IRC – Internet Relay Chat – originated in Finland as a way of bringing groups of like-minded people together in real-time discussion. Now it draws folks from all over the world. To keep it somewhat orderly, it's divided into channels, each of which has a name that reflects (or tries to reflect) something about its special interest. Each name is preceded by the number sign (#), so that #Big_Bitches_with_Big_Tits is one of the more alluring channel names I've seen recently.

Friday, February 26, 2021

A Beethoven Serenade

Let's take a look at a short film I made with Musicians of Ma'alwyck
to honor the big Beethoven birthday just passed.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Three to Get Ready

NOVELIST WILLIAM BOYD has long been fascinated by the movies. His 1987 novel The New Confessions combined a nod to Rousseau with an effective evocation of filmmaking in the 1920s; he has also adapted two of his novels for film and two for television. As if that weren’t enough, he wrote and directed the British war drama “The Trench” in 1999.

His is a protean talent: he has also written spy thrillers, one of which was an estate-sanctioned James Bond novel; his fiction has covered topics ranging from art to travel, war to international politics. And he does with a sense of humor in the Evelyn Waugh manner (whose work Boyd has adapted for television).

Boyd’s latest novel, Trio, takes us to world of motion pictures again, where he settles in very comfortably to give us a portrait of three movie-world participants and the variety of characters they have to deal with along the way. We’re in Brighton in 1968, where a company is filming “Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon,” which seems very typical for a time that brought us such fare as “Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?,” “The Magic Christian,” and “The Bed Sitting Room.”

Threeness abounds in this book. We follow the protagonists through three different book-sections: “Duplicity,” “Surrender,” and “Escape.” Each has some manner of significant other, but another other soon comes on the scene. And the action cuts from one story to another with the deft rhythms of a good suspense saga.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours

From the Food Vault Dept.: Schenectady’s restaurant profile has never matched its demographics, but every now and then a dining establishment pops up that strays from the white-bread norm. How nice to see a New Orleans-inspired eatery appear a decade ago on a stretch of Union Street that was threatening to become a vital restaurant row; how tragic to see the place shuttered a few years later because of unpaid taxes. At the space now is a restaurant called Malcolm’s, diligently struggling through the pandemic.

                                                                                    

RECOGNIZED – AT LAST! I maintain an impressive anonymity at this job, despite frequent in-print descriptions of my size and usual dining companions, not to mention a scattering of likenesses in the webosphere. But, compared to many other markets, Capital Region restaurateurs don’t worry as much about reviews. They don’t post photos in kitchens; they require no need for pseudononymous credit cards.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
So it was with a mixture of pleasure and regret that I saw many eyes turn towards me at Café NOLA a few nights ago, sudden surprise in their eyes followed by a sense of wonder. And even as I began to allow myself to bask, I realized that their focus was on a spot somewhat above and to the side of my left shoulder. I turned to look.

Perched, or I should say newly landed on the service counter, across which all of the restaurant’s finished dishes are passed, was a strange amalgam of flying saucer and hero sandwich. It was large – about 12 inches in diameter, and half of that high if you measure to the top of the toothpick securing each of the sandwich’s quarters.

This is the muffuletta, a sandwich that may exemplify New Orleans better than any other single item. It’s a true melting-pot item, for starters, one that literally came together at the French Quarter’s Central Grocery early in the 1900s, named for the style of Sicilian loaf used for the sandwich or for one of its original customers.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Vienna Then, Brooklyn Now

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Capitol Chamber Artists presented 50 seasons of intimate works throughout the Albany, NY, area. Not surprisingly, their activities were put on pandemic hold. Here’s a look back at one of their charmingly themed events, this one from 1985.

                                                                                       

Capitol Chamber Artists continues to prove that you don’t need to import a glamour group from Europe for a fine chamber-music performance. In fact, the community-based ensemble provides a sense of neighborly informality that contributes a lot to the fun to the group’s concerts.

Aaron Copland
The ensemble amended its Sunday afternoon program at the Albany Institute of History and Art from “Vienna Then, New York Now” to “ ... Brooklyn Now,” because the two New York-based composers represented both hail from that borough.

Introduced by violinist Mary Lou Saetta and flutist Irvin Gilman, the opening work was Louis Haber’s “Six Miniatures for Flute and Violin.” Haber, himself a practicing violinist, wrote the piece while working on the Broadway show “Subways Are for Sleeping,” Gilman explained.
The six movements, which range from a march to a pastorale to a delightful South American dance, combine the instruments quite skilfully, and offer each a chance to display its voice. The performance, all the way through the fast perpetuum-mobile finale, was first-rate.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Valentine for Handel

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Another sweep of the classical-music offerings in the Albany, NY, area in early 1985. And you can see my review of the Munich Chamber Orchestra concert here.

                                                                                   

WE’RE BEING GIVEN a valentine all this year thanks to a year that was “portentious to the annals of music,” as an old source book (from which I once copied a school-assigned report) began. In 1685. Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti were born, and this year the classical-music boys are going berserk with celebrations.

George Frideric Handel
There seems to be more of a hangup about anniversaries with classical music than with any other creative field I’ve noticed – these 40th-anniversary-of-the-end of-World War II type of things seem more journalist-on-deadline-inspired than anything else – and make me wonder if there’s some problem in offering the music solely on its own artistic merit. You don’t need an excuse to listen to Bach (unless it somehow embarrasses you for social or political reasons, but this is the sort of pontifical twaddle that informs too much classical music writing).

There’s a Handel Spectacular slated for this weekend, a tribute to the big German-English composer by the Capitol Chamber Artists. (They say that Handel was in a restaurant in England once where he ordered a huge meal, then waited and waited for it to be served. He asked the waiter about the delay. “I thought I should wait for the rest of the company,” the waiter explained. “De gompany!” Handel bellowed. “I am de gompany!” (This story comes from the same source book from which I stole that phrase in the opening sentence.)