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Monday, August 30, 2021

Beethoven’s Five

From the Classical Vault Dept.: I remember this concert well. The aged audience at Memorial Chapel was usually given to odd coughs and eructations, but at some point during the first sonata, the geezer two rows back sneezed with enough velocity that I felt it on the back of my neck. Followed by more sneezes. Too self-conscious to change seats mid-piece, I waited it out but – too late! – came down with the flu a few days later. Is it any wonder I trust no-one in the age of Covid?


AS PIANIST WU HAN pointed out during last Sunday’s Union College concert, we’re fortunate to have a wide chronological spread of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas. The first two, written when the composer was 25, show the first stirrings of rebellion in the context of fairly well-behaved classical pieces.

David Finckel and Wu Han
The third, which is the most famous of the three, dates from the time of the fifth symphony, fourth piano concerto and the “Ghost” Trio. The last two are the work of a 45-year-old who had lost his hearing and was about to begin work on his ninth symphony.

Which meant that we were able to enjoy a program that was at once a panorama of Beethoven’s styles and an intimate exploration of the sound of cello and piano, in the able hands of David Finckel and Wu Han, whose many visits to the Union College Concert Series have made them audience favorites.

They have long ago demonstrated the degree of technical mastery that makes all effort transparent. Add to this that Finckel played the cello parts from memory, and you can understand that the music itself would not be an issue. What we were there to witness was their unique interpretive stamp.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Boot Camp Blues

From the Theater Vault Dept.: Here’s a memory-lane piece that reminds me of folks in the area theater community who became friends, and one – the immensely talented Doug de Lisle – who died far too young. As productions reawaken, here’s a reminder of who was doing what 34 years ago.


COMMUNITY THEATER is often more of a collaboration between audience and actors than professional productions: you find yourself rooting for your neighbors to pull off the difficult masquerade onstage without too many flubs or departures from character. In Doug de Lisle's production of “Biloxi Blues,” which opened Friday evening at the Albany Civic Theatre, there are uncommonly long stretches where no such silent cheering is needed: the worthy cast acts with bravura assurance, and the only intrusions upon your suspended disbelief come from the author.

Doug de Lisle   
Neil Simon wrote the play as the middle of an autobiographical trilogy; following its successful Broadway run it has burst upon the local scene. ACT’s is but one of many that have played or play in the area; if you plan to see just one, see this one.

We have a collection of characters in boot camp, including our simple Simon hero, Eugene Jerome, played by Robert Weidert with a very authentic Brighton Beach dialect and just the right kind of Harold Lloyd-ish innocence.

The cheerful problems of Sergeant Bilko’s day, when TV-writer Simon trained for this kind of sit-com, have been replaced with the more explicit stuff we now expect from the barracks. And it’s funnier.

Gregory Bradley, as the pushups-happy drill sergeant, is rather more youthful than we’d expect this career man to be, but he otherwise gives a splendid performance as he goes up against the half-dozen recruits bunking with Eugene.

Monday, August 23, 2021

By Any Other Name

From the Food Vault Dept.: I’m delighted to see that the Rose and Kettle is still holding strong, having weathered the pandemic (so far) in its off-the-beaten path location. Ownership has long since changed since I wrote the below review: it’s now under the aegis of chef-owner Matt Begley, who has cooked there since 2010 and bought the place two years later. Dana Spiotta and Clement Coleman now inhabit the Syracuse, NY, area; Spiotta’s novel Wayward was just published to the usual great acclaim, and Coleman, when he isn’t working as chef at that city’s Otro Cinco, creates thoughtful, original music.


EVEN THE TOWN’S NAME strains credulity. Cherry Valley sounds absurdly nice or ironically Bates Motel-ish – but it’s a charming village with a Revolutionary War-era history that has welcomed the likes of Willa Cather and Allen Ginsburg. “The rumor is that there’s lithium in the water,” says Dana Spiotta, so maybe the name is appropriate.

Photo by B.A. Nilsson
Spiotta and her husband, Clement Coleman, own and operate The Rose & Kettle, maintaining a moniker used by a former owner but adding a fine-dining philosophy that centers around fresh, locally obtained ingredients.

Which is a recurring theme in these reviews of late. As it should be. As the mighty maw of Monsanto threatens to envelop all mega-farm fields, replacing heritage produce with frankenfood (even as it populated groups like the FDA with its own former employees), we have to depend on small-farm foodstuffs for purity.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Boulanger at Bard

 YOU CAN ARGUE that Stravinsky or Schoenberg was the most influential classical-music figure of the 20th century, but they vie for the limelight only because they’re men. It was a woman who cast the longest shadow, and the Bard Summerscape celebration of Nadia Boulanger paid a long-overdue tribute even as it only scratched the surface of her profound effect on the music world.

Nadia and her sister, Lili, were musical prodigies, born to a composer who won the Prix de Rome in 1836 and fathered the girls when he was in his seventies. Feeling a burden of family responsibility, Nadia entered the Paris Conservatoire when she was ten and won many prizes there by the time she was 17 – although the Prix de Rome eluded her. She soon decided to forego composition and devote herself to performing and teaching.

The younger Lili went on to win that prize at the age of 19 – the first female to do so – but intestinal tuberculosis would end her life when she was 24. Nadia then became the caretaker of her sister’s legacy even as she became the incredibly important musical pedagogue that we remember today.

The Bard Music Festival planned a Boulanger celebration for 2020, but it suffered the fate of all such events that year. The 2021 version recaptured the glory of the past such festivals, but with a slightly muted feel as we remained masked and, when possible, distanced, vaccination certificates in hand. But, as director Leon Botstein would note in a passionate speech he made towards the end of the Festival, gathering in person to share the experience of live music is a vital act of community, bridging those gaps imposed by politics and media.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Sign Language

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Not only was the piece below written 26 years ago, I also have practically no memory of writing it, so assembly-line was my process of cranking out technology pieces back then. The technology herein described is laughably ancient, but I still have the “Hands Off” coffee mug described – and its label remains firmly intact.


THE PROBLEM: You run a small retail business, you want to post the store hours on the door, and you don’t want to hang some cheesy paper sign that will get yellow and dog-eared in a week. What do other retailers do? They hire a sign painter. Or post a supplier-sponsored sign with a garish ad. Or, worst of all, put up one of those boards whose letters are all but guaranteed to fall out over time.

You and I know better. We harness the computer, which already has better typesetting ability than any sign painter. And when you use Roland Digital Group’s Stika—a compact hybrid plotter and stencil cutter—and SignMate, the included software, those signs are made from sturdy, colorful vinyl.

The uses go way beyond “Open Daily” signs. If you already have a printing or sign-making business, this technology puts words and pictures in unusual places. Think of any situation where you can’t easily print directly onto a surface: a car door, a filing cabinet, your computer case.

Paper labels aren’t visible enough or won’t withstand the weather. Vinyl is colorful. And this gadget cuts letters up to 2 inches high.

The stuff adheres tightly. I made up some lettering for a coffee mug, and it’s been through the dishwasher a couple of times already with my “Hands Off” label intact. SignMate lets you reverse the image for use inside a window, and by using a special transfer tape, you can iron a label onto a T-shirt.

Friday, August 13, 2021

With a Songbird in My Heart

OFFENBACH’S “LA PÉRICHOLE” offers a terrific mezzo-soprano role, if you don’t mind appearing drunk and morally dubious, and Isabel Leonard shines as the title character in the pared-down version presented as part of the Glimmerglass Festival’s on-the-lawn season this summer.

William Burden and Isabel Leonard
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Reworked here into a much shorter piece, it’s moved from Peru to an equally exotic setting: New Orleans. But this is operetta, and this is from the composer who practically created the genre that starred Gilbert & Sullivan and birthed an American musical comedy cousin. So what’s most important is to have fun, and take nothing too seriously.

There’s trouble from the start (there has to be), with a penniless performing couple realizing that they’re probably not going to earn enough to eat on this particular day – even though their opening duet is marvelous. But who ever recognizes such talent in a seedy bar, even one with the improbable moniker “The Muses.”

Monday, August 09, 2021

Vest-Pocket Verdi

THE GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL continues its pandemic-wary season with another 90-minute version of a popular opera, in this case Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” It usually has a running time of about two and a half hours, if you don’t count intermission, so this means lopping about an hour off the piece.

Michael Mayes, Kameron Lopreore,
Gregory Kunde, Ron Dukes, & Latonia Moore
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
And it’s also a kind of hybrid performance, with the orchestra playing in the theater and the performance itself on an outdoor stage. So there’s no conductor’s entrance and no chance for an opening round of applause. And, in this opera, there’s not even an overture, so we’re launched right into the opening number, which in this case is the top of Act Two, the mighty “Anvil Chorus,” rendered without apparent onstage metalworking.

But you can’t get too fancy what with the lean casting. We have only a handful of Romani in the encampment, and those singers do double- and triple-duty as soldiers and nuns. This production focuses more on the principals than the ensemble numbers, so, staying in the second act, we start right off with Azucena’s story.

Friday, August 06, 2021

Listen to the Women

From the Classical Vault Dept.: There’s been a struggle for recognition that women in the arts have been waging for far longer than current events might suggest, and the Albany-area chamber ensemble L’Ensemble was fighting the good fight at least 35 years ago, when my review that follows was written. (And here’s another Beach-centric review.)


IS IT STILL NECESSARY to highlight the work of female composers with all-women’s-work concert programming? L’Ensemble artistic director Ida Faiella still finds it difficult to secure the sheet music of some of the stuff she likes to sing and play - so, yes it is.

Amy Beach
Enlightenment usually requires something of a revolution, but the exploration of music by women requires that no shots be fired - this one can be fought with bows.

“Women’s Work” was the title of a program that opened L’Ensemble’s eighth summer season at a converted barn in Washington County. The concert yesterday afternoon had fine weather (a novelty worth reporting this week) as the artists presented the music of four significant composers.

Amy Beach, condescendingly known for years as Mrs. H. H. A., already has a reputation among the cognoscenti, and a recent recording of her Violin Sonata in A Minor has brought some deserved attention to that piece. There is no reason why this sonata should not appear on any recital as a substitute for the overplayed ones of Brahms and Franck: it is easily the match of the better-known works.

The performers, violinist Barry Finclair and pianist Sean Gallagher, achieved the partnership this piece requires. Not only is the music skillfully crafted, it also boasts a keen sense of the sound of the individual instruments.

Monday, August 02, 2021

Brunch with Bubbly

From the Food Vault Dept: Here’s one of my earliest restaurant reviews, from the days when Metroland had no budget for meals, so we asked for a freebie in exchange for the article I’d write. Fortunately, we got away from this fairly quickly. My companion on these excursions was photographer Drew Kinum, whose work unfortunately survives in my archives only as crappy photocopies of newsprint.


MY HEART GOES OUT to all who work a Sunday-brunch shift. In my salad days as a waiter, I suffered through the Saturday night to Sunday morning turnaround, when it seems there’s barely enough time to brush your teeth before you have to go on the floor again.

Photo by Drew Kinum
And, oh, how I coveted the eye-openers the patrons downed by the bucket – libations I needed much more than the wide-awake customers.

Not that, as a customer myself, I fail to seize the hair of the dog that’s traditionally offered with
brunches: When a chilly bottle of Cordorniu was brought to our table at the Parc V Café last Sunday, I was first in line for the bubbly.

Lensman Drew (“The Ballad of Lensman Drew” – sounds like a Robert W. Service poem) is very familiar with the place, having done some previous photo work for the Parc V, and had already been through much of the menu on previous visits. I haven’t seen the place since the remodeling two years ago.