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Bernadette Peters with Seattle Symphony

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment
Bernadette as Sally Durant Plummer in Follies on Broadway.

Bernadette as Sally Durant Plummer in Follies on Broadway.

[Photographed by Joan Marcus]

I’ve written about Stephen Sondheim many times (maybe most recently here). Invariably, when I think of Sondheim, I think of Sunday in the Park with George. “Our musical.” We don’t have a movie. Or a song. But we do have a musical. And invariably, when I think of Sunday in the Park, I think of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, that musical’s great stars.

Not that we saw them in it. We were too late for that when we finally did make it to the original Broadway production during our honeymoon, in the summer of 1985. But we’ve listened to them on the cast recording so often that their voices are embedded in our minds. So when we learned that Bernadette Peters would be appearing in concert with the Seattle Symphony this fall, we prepared to buy tickets the moment they went on sale. Which we did. Two nights ago she came.

The program consisted of the orchestra playing alone for a very short first-half program, then Peters after the intermission. That first-half program consisted of three great overtures, popular pieces for an evening of popular music: Mozart/The Marriage of Figaro, Mendelssohn/A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Strauss/Die Fledermaus. Our seats were dead center in row P, which I would imagine is close to ideal acoustic location. Maybe so, maybe not. All I know is that the strings sounded a bit muted, not as vibrant as I would have expected. But the music is great. What’s not to like?

During intermission, the stage was rearranged to accommodate what was in effect Peters’ personal band. The symphony’s associate conductor, Stilian Kirov, had led the first half. The second half would be conducted by Marvin Laird, Peters’ long-time collaborator as conductor, piano accompanist, and music director. As explained here,

Behind every great diva there’s a hard-working, often brilliant musical director.

For Bernadette Peters, that man is Marvin Laird. The two first worked together in 1961. He was the assistant conductor and she was a Hollywood Blonde in a national touring production of Gypsy.

“Bernadette was clearly the one on stage with talent,” Laird says on the phone from his home in rural Connecticut. “I didn’t stay with the whole tour, but I knew our paths would cross again. You know when you meet certain people. We worked together again in New York when Bernadette auditioned to replace Kay Cole in Best Foot Forward. Then she got Dames at Sea, which necessitated a lot of TV stuff for her, so we started seeing each other a lot.”

Long story short: Laird, who moved from Broadway into the endlessly fascinating world of 1970s variety television, helped Peters craft a nightclub act, and they’ve been an inseparable duo ever since.

Also joining Peters on stage was Cubby O’Brien on drums and Kevin Axt on bass. O’Brien is famous in his own right, an original Mouseketeer, drummer for The Carpenters on tour (when Karen would sing rather than drum), and drummer to many other stars as well.

As the symphony players filed back in near the end of intermission, we had the happy surprise of seeing prominent local harpist John Carrington take the stage. A childhood family friend of Gail’s, he’s not the symphony’s regular harpist, but does appear from time to time. And today he posted a photo on Facebook of himself backstage with Peters.

The lights dimmed, Laird walked on in flowing white hair and tails, we applauded, and the music started up. It was in effect another overture. After about three minutes, the house announcer said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bernadette Peters,” she strode in from the right, and the crowd went wild. I never saw anything like this at the symphony. For that matter, I couldn’t remember seeing anything quite like it anywhere.

I had the feeling that this is what it must be like in Las Vegas. I haven’t been there since I was 14—more than a few years ago—and never went to a show. I can only guess what it’s like seeing the Liza Minellis of the world. But now, when I guess, I’ll recall Peters. Her magnetism. Her control of herself and the audience. Her relaxed comfort with stardom and the knowledge that we would follow where she led.

She made the obligatory opening remarks about how much she loved Seattle. I don’t know why we need to be patronized like this, but people seem to enjoy it. And then the music. Lots of Sondheim. A little Rodgers and Hammerstein. Maybe 60%/20%. And a few other songs. Some with full orchestral backing. Some with the band alone, or (in one case) with Laird and the principal cellist. Loud. Soft. Full sound. Intimate sound. Ballads. Anthems. A little of everything.

From South Pacific, the song There is Nothing Like a Dame–usually sung by a men’s chorus but in her hands a vehicle to emphasize her own dameness. From Follies, whose revival at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway she starred in two years ago, In Buddy’s Eyes and Losing My Mind. (I own have been listening frequently to the cast recording of this revival, with Peters singing these two songs.) From Carousel, an unlikely choice perhaps, but one that offered a change of pace, When I Marry Mister Snow. From Into the Woods, a song I associate with her, though she pointed out (and I knew) that she didn’t actually sing it in the original production on Broadway, No One is Alone.

Here, watch her perform it below, from a concert in London a few years ago. You’ll see that this is the song arranged with just piano and cello. Marvin Laird stands and bows in the closing seconds.

Maybe there’s not much point listing all these songs. I’ll just mention three more Sondheim standards that were highlights: Being Alive from Company, Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music, and Ladies Who Lunch, again from Company.

Peters was on for about an hour and a quarter. She went off to thunderous applause, returning to do a single encore, her own composition, Kramer’s Song. I don’t know what to make of the phenomenon of stars writing children’s books. (Do they really write them? And would these books ever get published if written by anyone else?) But whether or not I approve, she writes them, and she wrote this song for one of them.

Gail and I were convinced that she was saving up any of several possible Sunday in the Park songs for the end or the encores. She wasn’t. Just the lullaby. And then she was off, as Laird led the orchestra and band in a postlude that left us all hungry for more. I didn’t see anyone leaving until the music stopped and the lights came up.

Which reminds me, in contrast to any other orchestral concert I’ve been to, in this one lighting was a feature. A fitting feature, as one would expect in a Broadway show, but another reason I felt more in Las Vegas than in Benaroya Hall.

So that’s that. I don’t know when we’ll see her again. She gives the impression that she’s not slowing down, though maybe her voice is. I know many of these songs well enough to recognize when a high note is coming, and I could see her pause as she prepared for each one. She would get close, not always hit them, then drop down a bit once she got there in a way that sounded perfectly musical, even if not accurate. It worked. And anyway, she is so expressive that none of this matters. We couldn’t have been happier.

Well, except maybe if she had sung We Do Not Belong Together.

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Categories: Music

Szmania’s

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment

szmanias

This post is two weeks overdue. I’ll be brief, the details having faded, but I did want to mention our dinner two weeks ago at Szmania’s.

Szmania’s has been a fixture in the Seattle neighborhood of Magnolia for over two decades and is one of the best German restaurants in the city. (There aren’t many.) Magnolia is sufficiently far away that we don’t tend to drive there just to eat. And when we do find ourselves there, we head to El Ranchon, the Mexican restaurant where Gail dined on a weekly basis when she worked in Magnolia years ago. We drive down the main street, park, I stare longingly at Szmania’s, and off we go to El Ranchon.

That changed three Thanksgiving weekends ago, though not by choice. It was Thanksgiving Friday, we weren’t far, so Gail suggested we swing by El Ranchon, which we did. Only thing is, they were closed for the weekend for a kitchen renovation. We had no choice but to go elsewhere. Szmania’s at last. Joel was with us and we had an excellent meal. Almost three years later—two weeks ago—we ate at Szmania’s again, this time with Tricia, Dwight, and their daughters plus Laura and Bill to celebrate the life of Tricia’s late mother.

Before leaving my office that afternoon to get Gail at home and drive over, I learned from Rose that Szmania’s was no longer a German restaurant. It had become a steakhouse. That was disappointing. And also, as it turns out, not quite true, at least not during October. All month long, they have a special Oktoberfest menu. From the website:

OKTOBERFEST SZMANIA-STYLE 2013

Celebration of all things Germany!

It’s Chef Ludger’s favorite time of year to prepare all his favorite dishes from his homeland– Sauerbraten, Schnitzel, Schweinshaxe, Sauerkraut, Suppe, Salat and Wursts galore. Two liter bottles of Altenmünster Festbier are available–perfect to split with Ludger’s Haus Platte dinners. Half liters of Radeburger on tap along with many Bavarian beers are in stock to raise the German spirit!

BIERFEST DINNERS
Friday, Oct. 11th & 25th
Two special three-course Bierfest Dinners are scheduled with traditional Bavarian delights including Dortmunder Beet Salat, Münchener Gulash, Wiener Schnitzel, Rinderrouladen, and Black Forest Cake—optional wine or beer pairings.
Make your reservations early!
Fun guaranteed… lederhosen welcome.

Embrace your inner German.

And we were there on the 11th, so we had not just the full Oktoberfest menu from which to choose but also the three-course dinner with beer pairing. I should have ordered it. I was scared off by the appetizer choice, two soups that I didn’t think I would want, even though I did want the offered Wiener Schnitzel and Black Forest Cake. Big mistake on my part, especially as I got to watch Laura—sitting immediately to my left—enjoying her Bierfest dinner.

But before we got to that, the table shared two appetizers: the Westfalischer Schinken (westphalian prosciutto, soft pretzel, gruyère fondue, house–pickled vegetables) and the Reibekuchen mit frischem Apfelmus (traditional potato pancakes, fresh apple sauce). Boy were they good. That’s as fine a soft pretzel as I ever ate. As for the potato pancakes, well, I’ll never eat any that compare to those my father used to make, but for restaurant pancakes, these were among the best.

When I decided not to go with the three-course dinner, I was choosing the Autumn Field Greens (roasted pear, caramelized walnuts, goat cheese and merlot vinaigrette) over the sauerkraut soup, in the belief that I’m not a sauerkraut fan. Maybe not, but Laura’s soup looked far more interesting than my salad. Then came the Wiener Schnitzel (pasture–raised veal cutlet with fresh lemon and capers, sautéed potatoes and fall vegetables), which was everything I hoped for.

Dessert was another mistake. I had assumed that the black forest cake on the Bierfest menu was also on the regular menu. It isn’t. Instead, there’s Black Forest Trifle (Chocolate Mousse with Kirsch-macerated Cherries, Chocolate Cake & Chantilly Cream). Pretty darn good, maybe even better than the black forest cake, but I really wanted the cake.

What did Gail have? Let’s see. She had a salad too. It must have been the Ruby Beet Salad (marinated with sweet onions, served on field greens with feta cheese), though I don’t remember any feta. And then the Schweinshaxe (braised pork shank in red wine, roasted root vegetables and fingerling potatoes). She was happy.

All in all, a fine meal, with great company. I hope we don’t have to wait years to go again.

Oh, I forgot one thing. The spätzle. No way I’m going to a German restaurant and not eating spätzle. My dish came with potatoes. Superb potatoes as it turned out. But not spätzle. I ordered a side dish for us to share. It seems I did most of the sharing.

Categories: Restaurants

Bill Mazer

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment

billmazer

[From the Daily News]

Bill Mazer died on Wednesday. When I saw the obituary online in the NYT, I was transported back to my days as a passionate fan of New York sporting teams, and to one of the great sports conversationalists. I’m not a listener of talk radio, but I suddenly remembered that I was once, thanks to Bill, a pioneer who deserved a wider platform for his intelligence.

From the NYT:

Bill Mazer, who was a voice and face of sports coverage in New York for decades, pioneering sports-talk radio and becoming a television fixture while earning the nickname the Amazin’ for his encyclopedic recall of sports facts and figures, died on Wednesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 92. …

When Mr. Mazer retired in 2009, he had spent more than 60 years in broadcasting — 20 of them as a nightly sports anchor and the host of the weekend roundup “Sports Extra” on WNEW-TV, Channel 5. Before then he had been a host of sports-talk radio when the very idea of the format was new.

He ranged beyond sports occasionally in radio interview programs with figures from all walks of life, but sports was his passion and had been since he was growing up in Brooklyn.

For a time, though, while attending a yeshiva, he envisioned becoming a rabbi.

But he also played punchball and made Ebbets Field his second home. Sports won out. As he put it long afterward, unearthing the memory of a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher of the 1930s with a terrific fastball and a musical name: “I was paying more attention to Van Lingle Mungo than I was to Moses.”

Mr. Mazer had been covering sports at radio and TV stations in Buffalo for 16 years when he was hired by WNBC-AM in March 1964. It was unveiling an innovative talk format.

“Here, Go Nag WNBC!” the station said in a March 1964 advertisement. “Listen to the Newest Sound in New York — your own voice and your neighbor’s — on WNBC Radio, 660 on the dial.”

The station invited listeners to pick up their phones and “talk sports with Bill Mazer from 4:30-6 p.m.”

Mr. Mazer held down the sports call-in spot while others, including Brad Crandall, Long John Nebel and Big Wilson, fielded calls on just about anything else.

[snip]

He was born Morris Mazer on Nov. 2, 1920, in what is now Izyaslav, Ukraine, and moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was an infant. His father worked in a kosher poultry market. His mother took the boy and his friends to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers and occasionally to the Polo Grounds to see the Giants. But his father, like many new immigrants, regarded sports as a time-wasting frivolity.

As Mr. Mazer related it in “Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book” (1990), written with Stan and Shirley Fischler, “When I brought my baseball talk back home, my father invariably reacted as if I were discussing the manufacture of plutonium.”

And from Neil Best in Newsday:

Bill Mazer often lamented that he did not make it bigger, never quite breaking through as a nationally known figure rather than primarily as a New York-area sports broadcaster.

But he missed the point. Amazin’, who died Wednesday two weeks shy of turning 93, was the right guy at the right time in the right place, becoming in his own very New York way an important figure in sports media history.

Mazer was born in Ukraine but grew up in Depression-era New York, rooting for the Dodgers — especially pitcher Van Lingle Mungo — before settling after World War II in Buffalo, a job he landed through a guy he met in the South Pacific named Marty Glickman.

Sixteen years later, he was back where he belonged, on WNBC, where in 1964 he began a talk show — perhaps not the very first to host a sports call-in program but the first to use his kibitzing skills to popularize and perfect the art.

Naturally, Mazer claimed to be the very first, as would any self-respecting New York character with a healthy self-promotional streak,

[snip]

Mazer’s legacy lacks the historical weight of his contemporary Glickman, a world-class athlete turned influential announcer who mentored a long list of broadcasting stars and who, by the way, preceded Mazer in talking sports on the radio.

But no matter. Mazer helped make and keep sports fun and connected in particular with a generation of teenage boys now turned men in their 60s with fond memories of calling WNBC on late afternoons and having their opinions taken seriously.

I never called in, but I was part of that generation.

Categories: Obituary, Sports