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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.