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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


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.”