Preparation is Nine-Tenths ….

As previously mentioned, one of the great aspects of living in New York City is easy access to both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. NYCB was co-founded by George Balanchine, and Misty Copeland is the first African American female Principal Dancer at ABT. One benefit of a membership is the opportunity to observe rehearsals. I recently attended one of the final orchestra rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at NYCB.

The experience begins with a short lecture by one of the volunteers, in this case, Frank, with 10 years under his belt. He explained how Balanchine had developed the score for this ballet by borrowing music from multiple sources and, in effect, cutting and pasting them together with Mendelssohn’s 45 minutes of original music set to the story, so that in total there was enough music for the dancing.

When admitted to the theater, the rules are made very clear: once the rehearsal begins, no talking, texting, applause, photography, recording. Violations will be met with immediate expulsion. There were about 50 attendees and they all got the message. Throughout the rehearsal they seemed almost spellbound by the music.

Now for my usual disclaimer. I am not qualified to judge musical performance. I know what I like, of course, and while I learned a lot about the construction of music during my futile 4-year struggle to play the classical guitar, that effort ultimately failed. That said, I can say without fear of contradiction that the orchestra at NYCB is every bit as good at what it does as the dancers are in their craft.

By the time of this rehearsal, near to performance date, the musicians well know what is expected of them, but as a collective with different roles at different times, they need a conductor to keep time, tempo and, partly through body language, to guide the expressive power of the parts and the whole of the ensemble. This power is more than just volume – it’s timing and something else, as well, something … mysterious, at least to me.

The conductor, Daniel Capps, had postponed the start time for the rehearsal by a half-hour to 10:30, and exactly at time, he said, “here we go.” He takes the entire orchestra through various parts, commenting after each, requiring some replays, directing some changes: “Strings, at 320….” I cannot make out much of what he is saying. This is serious work and it’s just between him and the musicians. The musicians are at the top of their game and can start and stop anywhere the conductor chooses. He’s like a coach, urging his team to execute complicated plays. In some sense he resembles a magician, with the wand in his right hand keeping time/tempo and his left hand directing/beseeching variations with a fist, an open hand gesture, a pointed finger or splayed fingers for different sections of the orchestra.

Two women sit directly in front of the orchestra, but outside the pit, with sheet music, making notations as the orchestra moves along. I believe they must be notating the changes the conductor is mandating, but I’m not sure.

A musical orchestra is an ultimate example of how cooperation and collaboration can produce something entirely new and special that could not exist otherwise. The conductor hears things (e.g., “sluggishness”) that likely few others hear and when he calls for more pace or more power, the collective gives it to him immediately. This is not a debate; it is a performance and the conductor alone is in charge. On a few occasions he speaks to the orchestra while they are still playing. One of the deepest mysteries for me is how each musician can block out what is going on around her and concentrate on what she must do and exactly when, a talent I never acquired but must be essential to keep playing while the conductor is commenting on what is happening but not stopping for evaluation. Obviously, he won’t do this in the actual performance.

The overarching principle here is that the music is being performed so that dancers can dance to it. There are expectations about pace and timing of pauses that are critical to everything synching up in the final realization of the ballet. This is not just another music concert – it is music in concert with dance before the discerning eyes of ballet cognoscenti who have paid a lot to see everything be done perfectly. And it almost always is.

We had been told at the outset that there would be no dancers on stage during the rehearsal, but in the event a number of ballerinas appear from the sides and cruise across the stage silently. During the famous Wedding March, a male dancer appears, going through steps, and then doing hand stands. More dancers appear and cross the stage. The males reappear, doing pirouettes and other moves, clowning to the music.

I don’t think this activity can be pleasing to the conductor and, indeed, after a short break, we return to the theater to find the curtains closed.

I had forgotten how familiar many of the themes from Midsummer Night were familiar. I’ve always liked Mendelssohn’s music, the New Hebrides Overture in particular. The price of the membership that enabled this unique experience was tiny compared to the value received. This Saturday we will see Le Corsaire at ABT and it’s going to be great.

How to Meet People in New York

Here it is – the key you’ve been waiting for: how to meet people in New York. The city has a reputation for being a huge, forbidding, isolating place, packed with people who, for the most part, seem to want nothing to do with each other. But we know that’s not true. People get lonely. They buy dogs. Men even buy dogs to attract women’s attention in Central Park. This is well known. In my (limited) experience, the people of New York are just like people everywhere else and maybe more so.

Of course, you can often succeed in starting conversations by having a cute animal on a leash. I discovered yesterday that you can also succeed without buying an animal or acting like one. I went for a walk wearing this:

 

I was one of the most popular people in New York City. Here’s how it went down.

I walked from my apartment building near West 59th Street and 9th Avenue to Columbus Circle, across the Circle and into Central Park. It was a glorious spring day with plenty of sun, a light breeze and temperatures in the mid-70s. Doesn’t get much better than that here. I wandered down toward the ball fields, hoping to catch a softball game in progress. I arrived, however, just as the “senior” pitcher was recording his 4th consecutive walk and losing the game. He came off the diamond furious, slamming his glove and screaming about the umpire cheating him on “perfect pitches!” His teammates tried to calm him down as the observers, myself among them, inched away from this guy who was taking a pickup softball game a bit too seriously.

At that moment a youngish man, one of a pair, spoke to me, smiling: “Ha, you wore the wrong shirt.”

“What?” I replied, also smiling. “Why is it the wrong shirt?”

“It should say “I love New York,” laughing. I laughed back and said I loved both Hawai’i and New York. We moved on.

Upon leaving the park back at Columbus Circle, I ventured into the basement of the Time Warner business complex to see if the Whole Foods located there had any smoked salmon for sale. While studying the options in the smoked salmon display, a voice penetrated my awareness: “Youngish fella, I agree which you.”

“What?” I am starting to repeat myself. It took me a second to translate “youngish fella” as related to me. I am looking into the face of a mid-30’s man who is ripping open a box of some kind of food product and obviously works for Whole Foods. “I agree which you. That place is sure better than here.”

Now I understood and smile, mumbling something about how I too agree with him. I departed empty-handed.

I walked back on West 58th toward my apartment and decide to continue on to 10th Avenue; it’s so nice out and the extra steps will do me good. As I approached the corner at 10th, I see an older (even than me) man walking toward me somewhat unsteadily, due to health, I think, and very slowly, carrying some plastic bags. His hair is snow white and bushes out chaotically, matched by a large and equally white beard. As the distance between us narrows, he starts pointing at me. I can’t exactly understand what he’s saying but it sounds like “you, with the red thing on your chest….” I elected not to engage, respond with a nod, a smile and a thumbs-up. As I rounded the corner, he was still hailing me. I ignored him and moved on.

Turning right on West 59th to return to my building, I passed the emergency entrances to Mt. Sinai West Hospital and the bays into which the ambulances deliver their charges at all hours of the day and night. A man in uniform emerged from one of the bays as I approached. He was moving quickly but saw me and spoke, “I love it too.”

Me: “Yeah, it’s great.” I kept moving and chose not to see where he was going.

So, I returned to home ground. The roundtrip took less than two hours, including time sitting on benches in the Park, and four people spoke to me about my shirt. It’s clear the shirt was the key because today I replicated most of that walk, wearing a plain heather colored tee shirt and not a single person spoke to me. What’s that old saying: the clothes make the man? What is not so well known is that Mark Twain said that, followed by “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” I suspect, however, that Twain never made it to the Big Apple. Naked people likely have a big influence here.

And the Audience Went Wild

Saturday night we went to see New York City Ballet in a three-part program entitled “Balanchine Meets Peck.” As admonition/confession up front, I once again state that while an enthusiastic fan of ballet, I am not qualified by experience, study or otherwise to be a critic. But I paid for our tickets and am entitled thereby to speak my mind. So I will.

In truth, I am in thrall of what ballet dancers are able to do. Their physical discipline and skills, musical sensibility and endurance are beyond my ability to relate. I noticed on this particular night that I was actually holding my breath as they began the program. I had to remind myself more than once to breathe while I tried to focus on one or two individual dancers at a time while the action swirled around them.

The first section, entitled Principia, choreographed by Justin Peck, listed in the program as Soloist, Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor to NYCB. The name roughly translates to “first principles” and is explained on the composer’s website this way:

“The new ballet is called “Principia,” based on the work of Isaac Newton and inspired by the neo-classical architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée, who designed Newton’s Cenotaph (though it was never built). We can think on the order of the universe to better understand our role in it. Ballet is a great vehicle for investigating the basic principles of life—of movement, physics, thought, aesthetics, politics, and behavior.  New York City Ballet is a great company to see right now as they undergo big changes and return to form. We live among the chaos and according to the laws of nature (and society). Let us not forget ourselves for what we have become. Let us remember who we are called to be.”https://sufjan.com/

Even after seeing the performance, that description escapes me. Nevertheless, there was both structure and connection between the dancers and the music in the performance and, though I am no fan of “modern music,” the performance captured and held my attention from beginning to end. The audience was enthusiastic in its applause for what had to be challenging for the dancers.

The middle section, Symphony in Three Movements, was a wholly different matter. The music was by Igor Stravinsky who, for reasons I cannot explain, is one of my favorite classical composers. George Balanchine choreographed the dance; there is nothing I can add in that regard that would be worth reading. Everything about this was magnificent and, in my view, the audience reaction was stronger than for Principia.

Then, the show went off the rails. The third installment, The Times Are Racing, performed to music by Dan Deacon and also choreographed by Peck, was for me a total failure. It had little to nothing to do with ballet, as I understand the concepts. The music was a monotonous repetitive electronica beat that sounded like what I would expect to hear in a video game arcade. The dancers wore what looked like street clothes, including tennis-style shoes, and I could detect no unifying concepts in their movements or any real connection to the music, such as it was. It’s obvious, of course, that only highly skilled dancers could have “enacted” this performance, but it was not “ballet.” It would have been quite at home, I think, at Paul Taylor Dance Company.

I have to report, however, that the audience response, that I do not begin to understand, was more enthusiastic for this piece than either of the first two or, perhaps, the first two combined. Such are the mysteries of the arts.

No need to belabor this, but I am concerned that Justin Peck’s vision for New York City Ballet is going to dominate the future of its culture. That would be very unfortunate, because I believe this approach to “ballet” at one of the city’s great art institutions will ultimately cost it a large share of its audience. Experimentation is a good thing in art – recreating classical works only goes so far – but if NYCB is going to be dominated going forward by the type of music and dance exhibited in The Times Are Racing, it is headed for trouble. Just one person’s opinion, but strongly held.

Two Nights on the Town

Friday last we visited the West Side Comedy Club on West 75th Street. I have to confess I am no fan of such venues. My experiences with them have been uniformly bad for two reasons: (1) many stand-up comics think they have to use foul and often disgusting language and stories in order to get laughs from modern audiences (Rule 1 is “don’t do this,” and (2) I go to shows to be entertained, not to be part of the entertainment for the other guests (Rule 2 is “don’t try to engage me in your shtick.”) Call me old-fashioned if you must, but that’s how it’s been. I therefore approached this particular evening with some trepidation.

As fate would have it, some of my worst fears were realized. Three of the first four comics were guilty of violating both Rule 1 and Rule 2. I am not sure about the other one because I could understand little of what he said. Old ears, I suppose.

Comic Five, one Sherrod Small, on the other hand, was both funny and also making some serious points about human behavior at the same time. He went on a bit long with a series of “jokes” about Ted Bundy, the serial killer responsible for the gruesome murders of at least 30 women. Then he switched to racial jokes and the audience enthusiasm immediately dimmed. Small observed that it was pretty striking that people were more bothered by racial jokes than serial murderer jokes. Anyway, Small’s deal was within the bounds of acceptable comedy club stuff by my rather stodgy rules.

Then came Brian Scott McFadden, a genuinely funny rascal of a man with numerous mannerisms and voices with great comedic timing who wrapped up the evening with a raucous variety of stories and jokes. His riff on the airline boarding process was hysterical because it was so closely based on the truth about what goes on. McFadden brought to mind George Carlin but without the constant cursing. I would definitely see McFadden again.

Saturday night arrived with little in the way of movies to offer so we decided (actually I just went along with the idea) to go to a poetry slam at the Nuyorican Poetry Club in the East Village. With 46 years under its belt, the Club qualifies as an “institution” by any standard. As this photo shows, the Club is not much to look at inside:

Don’t let that fool you. To some extent, this is one of those “you had to be there” scenes that cannot be adequately conveyed in an after-the-fact report like this one.

Nevertheless, while it’s fair to say that the quality of the “poetry” was highly variable, some genuinely talented performances and powerful messages were delivered, many of which went on for close to five minutes. It was clear that these were mostly practiced and confident slam poets but, some 24 hours later, some of their voices still resonate in my mind.

The poets were all volunteers who just signed up on the spot to speak their minds. A couple of young white boys, roughly college age, from Vermont, a 13-year old girl from Washington DC who had a lot to say in a short space about the sanctity of her person and the threats to it in American policy, a youngish woman from Barbados named Birdspeed, with a lot of anger and passion about her position as a black woman in contemporary society and, most compellingly, a black man from Ohio, LJ Hamilton, who delivered an incredible soliloquy that, if it had a title, would have been “I Don’t Want to be Black No More.” One of the Vermont boys, Birdspeed and LJ made the finals based on audience enthusiasm and ultimately, and wrongly in my view, the Barbadian lady was declared the winner. She was good, very good, but I thought LJ was clearly better. In any case the difference between them was small and, upon reflection, it was impossible not to think that these were at least semi-professionals at their craft. You can see Birdspeed here: http://bit.ly/2IyEgdu and hear LJ Hamilton here: http://bit.ly/2Pn5hBd.

As we departed the club, I stopped to speak to LJ and told him I thought he should be publishing. He was visibly moved, asked my name and shook my hand. He said he had indeed produced some books but from what I can find, the books are related to his poetry but do not contain the poetry. They are more like self-help books. Too bad, because his poetry was among the most powerful in content and voice that I have ever heard.

So, two nights on the town and, once again, unrepeatable experiences that we will long remember. As out of character as it may be, it’s highly likely that I will return to the Nuyorican, or another club like it, to hear more young people (mostly) expressing themselves through spoken word poems of power and passion. As troubling as their anger may be, and it seems fully justified, they also convey a strong message that says, “I understand why I am angry and I intend to do something about it.” In that may lay our salvation.

A Tale of Two Jazzes

A Tale of Two Jazzes

New Orleans is justly famous as the birthplace of jazz in America, but New York City remains the last mecca of jazz in the country. True, there are fine clubs scattered about the country in various cities, but there can be no serious question that, while diminished severely from its heyday, jazz in all its forms is thoroughly alive in the Big Apple.

A multitude of small venues are dispersed throughout the city from Greenwich Village north to Harlem. The principal clubs with major jazz figures playing seven nights a week include at least the Village Vanguard, Jazz Standard, Birdland, Smoke, Blue Note, Dizzy’s Club, Minton’s, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Fat Cat and Mezzrow. Many other spots have less robust calendars but still produce great music. Iridium, for example, still has some jazz but has morphed into rock and what passes for country music in some places.

Having said that, I must also disclose that I am not a big fan of vocal music other than what is called “pure New Orleans” (not Dixieland). I grew up in the age of the big band and club crooners like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and, I guess, had my fill of it from watching them on early television. I have seen a few modern jazz vocalists and did not much enjoy them, while acknowledging their exceptional talent.

HOWEVER, that was before last Friday night when we were privileged not only to visit a new club, the Green Room 42 in the Yotel (yes, the Yotel) on 10th Avenue at 42nd Street, but to see the extraordinary Charlie Romo singing the American Songbook backed by an exceptional quartet that included the guitarist who, in a much earlier day, played with the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra. Not only does Romo have amazing vocal chops, he infused his singing with a maturity and style that sounded like he had actually lived in the era when the content of most of that Songbook was created.

We know that he didn’t because Charlie Romo is only TWENTY-TWO YEARS OLD!! Truly. Romo has everything one could ask for in an exponent of the American Songbook, belting out standards like Mack the Knife, On the Street Where You Live, What Kind of Fool Am I, Unforgettable, My Funny Valentine, If I Ruled the World, among many others. Though it was a long show, his voice seemed to get stronger as the time passed. If that weren’t enough, he easily transitioned to more modern fare, like a medley in honor of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, sandwiched between segments of American Pie. And on and on to a standing ovation at the end.

This young man is a true prodigy and will almost certainly become a national musical figure. He seems genuinely to love singing, flirting with ladies and shaking hands with men in the audience and moved with grace and style as he navigated through the audience on at least two occasions. If I sound a bit overwhelmed, that is probably accurate, rare though it may be.

Speaking of prodigies, the very next night we went to Dizzy’s Club in the Columbus Circle building that houses Jazz at Lincoln Center to see Renee Rosnes (piano) in quartet with jazz veterans Steve Nelson (vibes), Peter Washington (bass), Lewis Nash (drums) for a very different experience than the night with Charlie Romo. Pure traditional but modern jazz in the best way imaginable.

The highlight of the evening for me was Galapagos, the named song in a suite composed by Rosnes. I lack the musical knowledge to speak to the technical elements of improvisation and complex rhythms that inhabit the jazz genre, but there is no question that these four were at the top of their game last night, ending with the packed house clamoring for more. Rosnes is brilliant on the piano, mixing jazz standards with her own compositions in a well thought out mix. She seems to favor the center of the keyboard but is never trite or repetitive. Lewis Nash’s drumming, in particular, played the perfect supporting role, avoiding, as many drummers do not, the tendency to overwhelm the other players. He is “musical” on the drums in the same way as Eric Harland and a delight to hear and watch. Nash seems to be having fun all the while he is playing and that translates to the listening experience for the audience.

These two musical experiences were as different as they could be, yet were joined by a common bond of musical identity that was unmistakable. Now some twenty-four hours later, I can still see Charlie Romo reaching out to his audience through his voice and feel the polyrhythms of the Rosnes quartet fully engaged with each other in a mystifying multi-party improvisation. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Charlie Romo in the Green Room 42:

View from Dizzy’s Club window:

The image at the top of this post is the bandstand at Dizzy’s Club.

King Kong on Broadway

I have not read a professional review of this show that we saw last night, so I’m winging it here. Officially, it is still in “previews,” with the full opening set for November 8.

Judging from the audience reactions, and our own, the show was extraordinary in at least one major respect. The stagecraft was over the top. Of course, there was Kong himself. An amazing achievement to bring to life a 20-foot, 2,000 pound (seemed much bigger) gorilla on a stage. But there were a number of others that blew the audience away. I won’t give them away here.

On the slightly negative side, and this is largely just personal taste, the songs were not particularly memorable. We heard nothing that will be in long term memory to evoke the other responses to the show. I was distracted a bit by the “modernity” of the leading lady’s voice. To be sure, Christiani Pitts gave a lot of heart and energy to her role as Ann Darrow, the aspiring actress picked off the streets by the dastardly Carl Denham as the bait to lure Kong from his lair on Skull Island. Her voice was clear and strong throughout and playing the love interest of a giant gorilla has to be a challenge for anyone. Some of her language and mannerisms just seemed out of sync with the 1930s in which the story takes place. Moreover, I don’t know how this “issue” could have been cured by choosing another performer. All that aside, she deserved the standing ovation she received at the end. So did Kong and his “handlers.”

In any case, the staging of this show is over the top and that will be remembered for a long time. The action, especially during the first half, was fast-moving and captivating. I was actually surprised when the intermission arrived at about the one-hour mark.

One more thing; if you’re thinking of taking a child to see this show (minimum posted age is only 4), you should prepare the child for the ending. It seems to take a long time to bring off the violent, inevitable and tragic conclusion to the tale. Knowing what is going to happen doesn’t make it easier to watch.

Bohemian Rhapsody – Ignore the Critics

To be clear, I am not a fan of rock music and in fact mostly “missed” the era of the 70s and 80s entirely while pursuing a nascent career as a lawyer in Washington, DC. Thus, perhaps amazingly, I was really not acquainted with the rock group Queen or Freddie Mercury, its mercurial lead singer.

Nevertheless, my wife insisted that we see Bohemian Rhapsody as soon as possible. It turned out to be opening night of the movie in New York City this weekend and, fortuitously, it was playing at a theater within walking distance of our apartment.

Upon arrival at the theater, I learned why the tickets were so expensive. The movie was in the IMAX Theater. Happily for me, the eye-watering blasts of the previews were toned down to normal loud hearing range for the movie itself. Do overpowering sounds really make people want to see a movie more?

I went in with some concern because I had read a few of the critics’ reviews which were mostly negative, leading to a kind of anticipatory piling on of negative expectations. However, in the event, I must state that I think the critics are dead wrong about this movie. Everyone who enjoys a compelling story of hard work, success, heartache and ultimate resolution, well told and brilliantly acted by everyone, will like this movie. A lot.

To be sure, you’ve likely seen this movie before, or, to be more precise, a movie about a famous star with a remarkably similar story line. The early music savant, a renegade in conflict with a traditional family, strikes out on a path that leads to sudden fame and with it, the demands, gains and losses, that come with it. The great one has what is portrayed as a weakness, a fatal flaw, that threatens to bring him down. In Mercury’s case, I think it was that he believed, as so many famous people seem to, that he could have everything he wanted without risk or consequences. He is difficult but always confident and often overbearing. Personal relationships develop and dissolve. He is alone in the crowd that surrounds him at every moment. Then things really get bad. In the end, the human spirit triumphs and all are lifted up. The movie will, I suggest, rock you.

Here’s the thing. Rami Malek turns in an extraordinary rendition of a complex character. While I was put off by the camera work that seemed always to point at Malek’s reconstructed dental work to mimic Mercury’s overbite (he was born with extra teeth), the essence of the story was one of building tension surrounding the star. Where would fame lead? How could any normal human survive such exposure and remain “normal?” Knowing the end did not diminish the drama, an accomplishment that says, this movie was well done.

I will not give away any secrets about exactly how the story plays out. Suffice that between exceptional acting all around, a compelling story line, great music (yes, I said that), just enough “dirt” to give you the flavor without dwelling on it to the exclusion of the personal side of the singer and those who surrounded him, this movie deserves better than the critics quibbling. Mercury’s conflicted relationship with his wife/friend is laid out but does not overtake the main story line. The casting for the movie was brilliant and many Oscar nominations will undoubtedly result, for Malek certainly, and likely for many of the supporting case.

The critics seem to think that there were major elements of Mercury’s life and personality that were not fully developed but it seems to me that this story is the story that is repeated for every person, like Freddie Mercury, who is challenged and often brought low, at least for a time, by the heavy weight of unimaginable fame. I am, of course, surprised at myself for liking this movie so much, but I am confident that most of the people who see it will find it interesting, fun and, ultimately, satisfying.