I Love the Sound of a Symphony in the Morning

I have once again had the opportunity to attend a New York City Ballet orchestra rehearsal of for both Stravinky’s Firebird and Tschaikovsky’s Allegro Brillante starting tonight. It started at 10 am with a volunteer’s explanation of the background of Stravinsky’s composition of the music for Firebird, after which the group of attendees (perhaps 25 in number) was ushered into the seating area as the rehearsal began. The seating area is near the front of the orchestra, the best seats I’m likely to ever have. And the price ($0) was right.

Even more right was the music itself. While we were told that the rehearsal was not a performance but only a practice that would likely be interrupted by the conductor, the reality was that they orchestra initially played the entire music through from beginning to end before the conductor took them through the changes. Our membership thus earned an opportunity to hear what amounted to a full concert. The music, even without the dancers, is simply stunning. Conductor Andrew Litton clearly knows the score in great depth. After running through the entire piece, Litton worked through many sections he wanted to be done differently, covering all of the iconic sections as well as less well-known parts that tie everything together.

One of the most amazing aspects of a professional orchestra is that the conductor can call on it to start anywhere in the lengthy score and they can immediately pick up the music at that place at the proper pace and volume. Their knowledge of the music is total.

After a short break, the orchestra moved into Allegro Brillante, again playing, I believe, the entire piece before going back to clean up a few details that only the conductor heard.

As I sat there, I thought “how lucky I am that on this frigid January morning, I am able to sit in this beautiful classically-styled concert hall and listen to some of the most extraordinary music ever composed being performed by a world-class orchestra.” Every time this happens, I believe I am permanently changed into a slightly better person. It’s analogous, I suppose, to being sick and receiving a super medicine that makes you well again immediately. It may not work forever but while it’s magic is happening, it is sublime.

Fotografiska New York

Yesterday we visited Fotografiska New York, a Swedish transplant museum dedicated to photography. The museum is housed in the old Church Missions House that resembles an old-Europe church from the outside, situated at Park Avenue South and 22nd Street. The building dates to 1894, squarely within the Gilded Age. Inside, it’s all modern, with a coffee shop in the lobby and five upper floors, four of which contain the exhibits. If not disposed to climb a lot of stairs, you can take the very modest (maybe six passengers) elevator to Floor Six and then walk down.

On Sunday there were two particularly compelling exhibits. A one-woman show by Ellen von Unwerth entitled “Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women” contained some extraordinary photographs. Be advised, however, that some of these photos are very explicit and not for most young children’s eyes. We were also impressed especially by Tawny Chatmon’s “Inheritance” show, consisting of stunning shots of Black women and children enhanced with elaborate ornamentation added by hand to the photographs. The result are powerful portrayals of people not normally found in museums that tend to feature extensive historical portraits of white people in room after room.

Helene Schmitz’s “Thinking like a Mountain” is a series of large frame shots of natural formations that dramatically illustrate the impact of man’s rapacious reshaping of the natural landscape of even the most resistant zones of pure rock.

Fotografiska is not a large museum – you can see everything in less than an hour. And it’s open early (9 am daily) and stays late, really late, as in 11 pm except for Thursday through Sunday when it’s midnight.

Finally, my one serious beef with the place and this is not unique to Fotografiska. The labels explaining the titles of photographs and some, usually limited, information in small type-face were typically placed at the lower corner so that a person of six-foot height would have to bend way down to read them, often in limited light. This was not only uncomfortable but in many cases I simply could not make out what the labels said. I can’t understand what the thinking was behind the decision to place the labels so low and in dim light or full shadow, particularly in a museum clearly focused on an adult audience. If the positioning is intended to assist visitors in wheelchairs, wonderful, but then why not (1) put some light on the labels and (2) have a second label at roughly eye-level for average walking visitors so that everyone can read them.

That gripe notwithstanding,, Fotografiska New York is well worth a visit.

 

Bronx Zoo Lights

Since we are catching up on holiday photos, I am going to share a large “sample” of shots taken during our visit to the Bronx Zoo for its Zoo Lights exhibit before Christmas past. It was really cold and there were relatively few people there, a fact I would normally celebrate, but during the holidays, making for a somewhat strange experience. That said, we persevered and discovered the mother lode of displays in the back half of the imposingly large zoo.  Here is much of what we saw.

Holiday Lights

Better late than never, I suppose,  the following sample of photos was taken while we were showing a good friend around the city on a cold and not-quite-wet night before Christmas.. The first ten shots are from the holiday fair at Bryant Park and the lion statue at the New York Public Library. The rest are mainly from stores along 5th Avenue, plus, of course, Rockefeller Center where the large tree attracts huge numbers of viewers every night. The sequence of castle-like light displays is from the facade of Saks Fifth Avenue, a spectacular show that also attracts huge crowds.Happy Belated Holidays!

Dinner at DeGrezia

We discovered this marvel of a restaurant in the below-street level at East 50th Street about 15 years ago. We reserve it for very special occasions, most recently for our 13th anniversary last night. It never disappoints.

As the photos below show, DeGrezia is a “traditional” Italian establishment, tastefully decorated with soft music as background so you can have quiet conversation – no need to shout over the music. A lot of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Brightman and Billie Holiday, among others. This creates an atmosphere in which everyone’s conversation is muted. The wait staff wears tuxedos and are attentive without being overbearing. The overall atmosphere is one of muted sophistication, a really nice way to enjoy a special occasion meal. The scale of the main dining area is such that even at full capacity the typical din of a New York restaurant is usually avoided.

Then, there is the food. We started by sharing a “giant shrimp” dish with white beans in a delicious red sauce. Since there were two giant (really) shrimp, it was easy to share and there was no pushback from the waiter. It was so big and tasty that I failed to take a photo.

The main courses were even better. A cream sauce covered my lobster ravioli special with very small shrimp generously added. Even the tiny shrimp had great flavor. My wife ordered gnocchi with Bolognese sauce and had to get a doggy bag (pictured below) to take some home. We completed the meal by sharing a flourless chocolate cake and a surprisingly robust decaf coffee.

With two glasses of wine and a club soda with lime, the total bill for this feast was only $120, an amazingly reasonable price, especially for a fine restaurant in New York City. DeGrezia is a gem that will satisfy anyone looking for fine food in a pleasant atmosphere.

 

Supernatural Happenings at NYCB

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to watch New York City Ballet perform a “working dress rehearsal” of two upcoming ballets. The first was Summerspace choreographed by Merce Cunningham in 1958, followed by a performance to Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

I knew nothing of Cunningham or Summerspace, but one of the Lincoln Center docents provided an explanation in the lobby before the rehearsal began. [These lectures are also provided before and during intermissions at actual performances, a wonderful opportunity to learn about the history and concepts of the performances] Cunningham was romantically connected to John Cage, described in Wikipedia as a “pioneer of indeterminacy in music” and “one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.” Cage’s studies of Far East philosophies led to the idea of “chance-controlled music.

Thus, the docent explained, Cummingham believed, like Cage, that meaning and art should be separated. The musical score for Summerspace, actually composed by one Morton Feldman, indicated which instruments would play a specified number of notes at which moments in the performance but the notes were to be chosen by the musician on the spot. The orchestra leader’s job was simply to metronomically keep the time of the beats. The choreography was completed in the absence of music which was then “added” to the performance. As described in Wikipedia:

The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text decision-making tool, which uses chance operations to suggest answers to questions one may pose, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage]

If you can accept the idea that art has no meaning, that music should not follow any thematic or melodic structure and that music can be a sequence of random sounds, you might be able to appreciate Summerspace. I am not one of those people, so I was thoroughly put off by seeing the rehearsal involving 4 ballerinas and 2 male dancers accompanied by a grating sequence of beeps and squeaks provided by flutes and a few other instruments. The dancing was more “modern dance” than ballet and involved a lot of running around (and on and off) the stage with random leaping and interactions of sorts among the dancers.  For me, at least, a major part of the magic of ballet arises from the correspondence of the dancers’ feet and the music. I am hardly an “expert” but I know what works for me.

Summerspace was, in any case, a minor distraction. The Piano Concerto rehearsal was next. This stunning piece was performed by a large corps de ballet of 22 dancers and a seven-dancer lead group at the head of which was Sara Mearns who gave the term prima ballerina its full and true meaning. I was transfixed trying to imagine what this ballet would look like when the dancers were in costume. When the rehearsal wound down, I raced home determined to buy tickets if we could get decent seats at an affordable price. We could and I did.

By the time Saturday night arrived, I was afraid I had over-hyped the coming spectacle to my wife but in the event there was no reason for concern.

The first performance was to Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, choreography by George Balanchine. Even without any dancing, this would be a great experience because of the glorious music, but with the ballet, it was sublime, a taste of things to come. Then came Summerspace, pretty much as rehearsed.

And then … Sara Mearns and company, again to music by Tschaikovsky, based on a very difficult score but, unlike the rehearsal, with the full orchestra involved and the dancers in beautiful costumes with tiaras both adorned with Swarovski crystals. Watching Mearns was both exhilarating and exhausting. Her gifts seem truly supernatural – she must have been on the stage at full tilt for 90 percent of the entire performance, rarely at rest. Mearns and Russell Janzen were in perfect synchrony throughout and despite the physical demands of their roles, no loss of grace, style or command could be seen.

I remarked at the end that Mearns must need a 24-hour sleep to recover but the truth is likely otherwise. In a 2017 interview, she answered the question: What is a typical day in the life of Sara Mearns?

 A typical day during performance weeks start off with me trying to get up to my alarm around 9:00AM. My nights at the theater can end as late as 11:00PM, which makes it hard to get moving in the morning. I take a really hot shower to get my muscles warmed up before I roll out and stretch for about 45 minutes at home. I get to the theater around 10:30AM and then start rehearsals between 11:30AM and noon. We rehearse between 5-6 hours a day depending on our repertory schedule and each ballet can range from 15-20 minutes a session. We have a 2 hour break between rehearsal and the show, which offers an opportunity to eat something, receive hair and makeup, and then it’s showtime. I eat dinner around 11:00PM and don’t usually fall asleep until 1:00AM. It takes a while for the body to wind down and relax after such a grueling day. [https://www.sakara.com/blogs/mag/sara-mearns-prima-ballerina-nyc-ballet]

That article describes Mearns’ early dance history, starting, unhappily (the ironies), at age 3. Fortunately for those privileged to see her dance as a mature woman in full command of her mind and body, her early unhappiness with dance didn’t last long.

The only other astonishing aspect of this event was that many of the seats in the upper (4th) ring of the theater remained unsold. I had never seen anything like this since our first ballet and it was disconcerting that so many people missed this opportunity. The lesson is to never assume that even the greatest performances will be sold out. We had a perfectly fine view of the entire stage and from the heights could see the action in the back and front equally well. It’s a shame that when there is this disconnect between supply and demand, the seats cannot be made available to schools (for example). I understand there are issues of impact on demand for the “better” higher priced seats. and I don’t know how that can be solved. It just seems tragically wasteful that so much talent and beauty is not witnessed and enjoyed by the maximum number of people, many of whom would be converted, as I was, to fans for life.

 

 

 

Brooklyn Botanical Garden

As the signs of fall weather inexorably creep in, we decided to visit the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. At 52 acres, it’s a good deal smaller than the Bronx Botanical Garden (250 acres!) but very much worth the trip. The website, https://www.bbg.org/, says it takes a full day to see the entire garden and interior exhibits. If everything were in bloom, that might be right, although we covered most of it in a few hours, including photographs (about which more shortly). If we had any beef with the place, it was that following the map was confusing. More signs would be helpful. But that’s a quibble and who wants to be a quibbler on a beautiful fall day in New York?

Back to the photographs. They speak for themselves and words will only detract, so I’m just going to lay them out and be done with it.