The Casual Blog

Tag: Metropolitan Opera

New York: art, music, traffic

 

Tenth Avenue

We got up to New York City last weekend, where we visited Jocelyn and Kyle, did some wedding planning, saw some art, and heard some great music.  

New York never stops changing.  More and more, once common and likeable little businesses, like Greek diners and pizza parlors, seem to be disappearing, while other less-lovable ones, like towering luxury condos, are expanding.  When we went down to Chelsea, we went by the new Hudson Yards skyscrapers, and noted lots of bigness. This week the NY Times architecture critic did a scathing review of the project, with some fantastic animated graphics.   I recommend checking it out.

On Friday, Sally and I went to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Guggenheim, and liked it.  His mature work was mostly black and white portraiture of famous or beautiful people, done with classical rigor and exactitude.   Mapplethorpe’s subject matter included unashamed homoeroticism and S&M, which was, and still can be, shocking. He challenges non-gay people to be more tolerant and receptive.

A Mapplethorpe portrait

We also went to the Matthew Marks gallery to see some new work of Jasper Johns.  The artist is now 88, and I was not expecting anything particularly new from him.  But the work was strong! It was inspiring to see such vigor from an almost nonagenerian.   Afterwards, we looked in several other Chelsea art galleries.

One of the new J. Johns

On Saturday Sally and Jocelyn did wedding-related shopping, and I went to the Armory show.  This annual four-day art fair, located on piers on the West Side, featured galleries and contemporary artists from all over the world.  The crowd included international jet setters, students, and all types in between. There was a lot of art I didn’t care for, though some of the things I didn’t like I still found worth thinking about.

That’s one of the things serious art does:  gets your head and your eyes working. You start seeing lines and curves, lights and darks, colors and textures.  And of course, you experience a gamut of emotions, from joy to disgust. You may also consider the social aspect of art, from its relation to status and hierarchy to efforts to discover and convey truth.  

At the Armory show

On Saturday we went to the Metropolitan Opera to see Verdi’s Rigoletto.  This production was set in Las Vegas in the 1960s, with the main characters part of a casino-based crime family.  I didn’t love the concept, but I did love the performance by Nadine Sierra as Gilda. Her famous aria, Caro Nome, was really touching and beautiful.  The wonderful opera podcast Aria Code, with Rhiannon Giddens, had a segment on the music and psychology of this aria a few weeks back, with Sierra as the featured singer.   It gave me a deeper appreciation for the music, though I have to say, I thought her live performance was much better than the podcast one.  

On Sunday morning we went to the Metropolitan Museum and spent some time looking at their exhibit of Dutch painting of the 17th century.  I have a minor obsession with Vermeer, and usually find other great work of that period enjoyable. We also had a look at the pioneering photography of Giraux de Prangy, who, in the early 1840s, traveled around the Mediterranean taking the first ever daguerreotypes of the major architectural monuments of western civilization.  

Finally, we looked through the Met’s abstract expressionism exhibit, which had a lot of wall size art.  Some of these paintings still work for me, but increasingly they seem as uncontemporary as Vermeer. Artists are still mining the abstract expressionist vein, along with every other prior vein from Impressionism onward, and people are still enjoying and buying such work.  But more and more, I’m on the lookout for a path to a new kind of artistic language.

There was an essay in the Washington Post this week by Robert Kagan entitled The Strongmen Strike Back, which I hope will start an interesting discussion.  Kagan argues that there is a common thread connecting the various authoritarian regimes that have emerged in the last couple of decades, including in Russia, China, Egypt, Hungary, and elsewhere.  Instead of ideology, these regimes are founded on idealization of traditional cultural touch points of race, religion, values, and status hierarchies. He suggests an answer to something that’s really been puzzling me:  the acquiescence and even support of a lot of American conservatives for Vladimir Putin. He thinks it isn’t just a bloody-minded rejection of liberalism, but a defensive embrace of traditionalism.

Kagan thinks that traditional liberalism has offered individual rights and freedom, but hasn’t offered enough to those who feel their religious and other cultural preferences need protection.  That seems possible. But Kagan doesn’t say much about the fearmongering and disinformation that seems to be a common thread among the new authoritarians. His vision of liberalism seems to embrace traditional American imperialism and preferential treatment for elites.  I don’t think he’s really proposed a workable solution to authoritarianism, but he’s given some helpful new vocabulary.

In these fraught times, I’m always on the lookout for cheering news, and was really cheered this week to read about the young students around the world who mobilized to address climate change.  There were protests in a hundred different countries and 1,700 locations, according to the Washington Post. As some of the students pointed out, adults have created a dire environmental crisis, and the world they threaten to leave to their children looks distinctly worse than the one they themselves got.  This is part of the moral imperative for addressing climate change — protecting the next generation, and the ones after them.

Visiting the Lower East Side, Turandot, recent Chinese art, and The Patterning Instinct

Looking southwest from the Sixty on Allen Street

Friday before last I went to the Software Freedom Law Center conference, and afterwards Sally and I stayed on in New York to see friends and take in some art and music.  We stayed at the Sixty LES (Lower East Side) near Jocelyn and Kyle’s new apartment.  Back in the day, we viewed this neighborhood as a place to be avoided after dark, but now it’s what Soho and Chelsea used to be — a lively and relatively affordable area where young people live and new art can be made.  It hasn’t yet been completely gentrified — there’s graffiti and trash, and little Bohemian businesses.  I enjoyed walking around early in the morning and taking pictures, including the street scenes here.

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We went to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon and saw Puccini’s last opera, Turandot.  My only prior experience with Turandot was from recordings, and I had not particularly loved  the music.  The story,  involving a Chinese princess who murdered all her suitors, seemed far from alluring.

Nevertheless, I absolutely loved it.  Opera is a hydra-headed art with many elements, and here the music, sets, costumes, and acting made a compelling whole.  For this story, Puccini’s music worked brilliantly.  The Zeffirelli production looked fantastic, the orchestra sounded great, and the chorus was excellent.  Sopranos  Oksana Dyka and Maria Agresta sang beautifully, and the tenor, Aleksandrs Atonenk, absolutely killed in the famous Nessun Dorma aria.  

Also on Saturday, we spent some time at the Met Breuer looking at  the photographs of Raghubir Singh and at the Met looking at the old masters drawings exhibit, Leonardo to Matisse.  On Sunday, while Sally went with Jocelyn to see the NYC marathon, I went up to the Guggenheim to see Art in China after 1989.  In that year a decade of relative political freedom in China ended with the Tiananmen Square massacre.  Young Chinese artists went in various directions, with many leaving China, and in various landing spots looking to express their political and personal concerns. There were 71 artists and groups represented, and multiple media and approaches.  Not all of them spoke to me, but a few did, powerfully.  

Ai Weiwei breaking a Han dynasty urn

One of the best known artists in the show is Ai Weiwei, whom I’ve found inspiring as a dissident thinker and conceptual artist.  One of his works here was a room that brought to light thousands of  unnecessary deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to a corrupt system and  shoddy construction of schools.  The work was as much journalism as art, but that was not by accident.  In the exhibition notes he is quoted as saying, “Fight for freedom.  Forget about art.”   I don’t think he means to be taken literally on the forgetting part, but he’s serious about the fight.   

Chen Zhen’s dragon

The big hanging sculpture  by Chen Zhen of a dragon made of bicycle tires and parts was delightful and thought-provoking, invoking China’s shift from bicycles to cars and other technology.  I also liked Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddha room which had little Buddha statues, parts of old computers and other detritus hanging underneath a suspended garden.   Liu Dan had a large work that evoked traditional landscape painting but with a severe twist.  Others used video with varying degrees of success.  I liked the one that had a dozen or so monitors showing people scratching.  

Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddhas

Most of these Chinese artists had been influenced both by their traditional culture and by Western culture, just as we in the West are absorbing Asian influences. I’ve been reading a new and intriguing book about how cultures are made and evolve:  The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent traces the development of several Eastern and Western foundational ideas, including Taoism and neo-Confucianism, which he argues have been successful and remain vital.  He also contends that certain core ideas of monotheism and science, including the mandate to dominate nature, are closely related to each other and are drivers in our global ecological crisis.  There’s a lot in the Patterning Instinct to process, which is why I’m now working my way through it for a second time.  

 

In New York with my kids, and a Snap Pea dinner in Raleigh

St. Patrick's Cathedral from the 35th floor of the New York Palace

St. Patrick’s Cathedral from the 35th floor of the New York Palace

After the Softer Freedom Law Center conference on Friday, I grabbed a cab and headed downtown. The plan was to meet up with Gabe, Jocelyn, and J’s friend Kyle for Italian food and then some jazz. I allowed an hour for the trip from Columbia (116th St.) to the West Village, but the traffic was epically bad, and the trip took almost two hours.

My cabbie was a compulsive talker, and he really wanted to talk about Trump. Out of desperation for another subject – any subject — I started asking him about himself, and learned about his upbringing in Ecuador, his work as a commercial printer with diminishing opportunities as those jobs moved abroad, and his plans to move to California. I ended up liking him.

Olio e Piu, a fine Italian restaurant on Greenwich Ave., was crowded, but they quickly got us a table. My ravioli al funghi was to die for. Afterwards, we walked over to the legendary Village Vanguard and listened to a quartet led by the pianist Enrico Pieranunzi.

Pieranunzi had the elegant pointillism of Bill Evans joined with the percussive emotionality of McCoy Tyner. His original charts were both engaging and bold, and three bandmates were excellent. I particularly loved drummer Clarence Penn, who was a hard-driving yet subtle polyrhythmist with a huge smile, and tenor Seamus Blake channelled the smoldering intensity of John Coltrane. I couldn’t find any online recordings of this current group, but here’s a sample of Pieranunzi’s playing.

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On Saturday afternoon Gabe and I went to the Frick. Since he’s well along in his graphic design program at Parsons, he’s got a high level of visual sophistication, but he hadn’t yet experienced the world class collection of old masters there. It was fun sharing some of my favorite paintings, including the Vermeers and Rembrandts. We had an espresso afterwards, and then he headed downtown to do some studio work, and I walked over to the Met Breuer.

There, I had my second close encounter with the fantastic Diane Arbus exhibit (leaving Nov. 27), and my first with the paintings of Kerry James Marshall. These included some very large-scale works with a lot of painterly quotes, references and influences, with most of the works prominently depicting black people.

Marshall’s art is political in a vital sense: it makes visible previously hidden social forces and assumptions that limit us. Marshall points up that blackness is normal and part of us, but black people have been largely excluded from the paintings in our museums. The implications of this are interesting. His black people as really black – darker than any American with African ancestors that I’ve ever seen. That seemed to be part of his playfulness, but it was also provocative.

A view of St. Pat's from the hotel gym.

A view of St. Pat’s from the hotel gym.

Afer that, I walked over to the main Met to check out the work of Max Beckmann. He’s generally thought of as an Expressionist, though he rejected that label. His best work has the psychological depth and penetration of Picasso. Some of it was dark and macabre, but there were also elements of humor. I liked it. I also spent some time with the pre-Columbian collection and a small current exhibit of Native American work.

That evening, Jocelyn and I ate at Rosa Mexicana on Columbus and 61st, where they made guacamole at the table and served fantastic vegetarian hongo tacos. It was just across the street from Lincoln Center, and so we were confident that we’d get to the opera on time. I was very excited about seeing Rossini’s L’Italiani in Algerie, which I’d prepped for with a recording from Spotify. But it was canceled. New York’s Finest were there in force when we arrived. Apparently there was a scare having to do with a patron throwing some brown substance (possibly human remains) into the orchestra pit.
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Jocelyn proposed a Plan B, which was to go to a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. We got in to the 9:30 show off the waiting list. The band was some 14 ace musicians who recreated the hot jazz of the 1920s with passion and erudition. Vince G played tuba, string bass, and bass sax, and sang a bit as well. It was delightful, toe-tapping fun!musicians

On Sunday, my flight back to Raleigh went smoothly. That evening, we went to our first pop-up dinner by Snap Pea with our friends Gerry and Gay. The Snappea dinners are multi-course vegetarian events held in surprise venues (revealed only hours before) with food created around a theme paired with the physical space.

Jacob Boehm, the owner and executive chef, was inspired by an abstract mural gracing an otherwise vacant shop in North Hills Mall, and used different colors for the 9 courses. As each course came out, he told the group about where the ingredients came from and what he’d done with them. He helped you taste more. I especially liked the spoonbread with turmeric butter and the chestnut soup. Jacob explained that the reason he did not use meat in these dinners was for him not premised on animals rights or health, but rather because using plants inspired more interesting experimental cooking and tasting.

Visiting New York friends, and some new (to me) art and opera

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I got up to New York City last week for the IP Counsel conference where I did a presentation on open source software legal issues. After the conference, I spent a long weekend in the city. It was great to see my sweet Jocelyn and some old friends, and to take in some new art and opera.

Jocelyn got a promotion at Macmillan this week, and was very excited. That’s three promotions in a year! She’s now a manager, titled Ebook Production Manager. She likes the company, likes the work, and is looking forward to the new role. We talked about the being a manager, among other things, as we tried some fun bars and restaurants.

Although opera is not Jocelyn’s most favorite thing, she agreed to come with me to the Met to see L’elisir d’amore (The Elixor of Love) on Saturday, and we both loved it. It’s a delightful confection of melody and feeling. The subject — romantic love — is forever young, and in Donizetti’s deft hands funny, painful, and touching. In this production, the bel canto style was alive and well, with astonishing vocal agility and sweet subtlety. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak was a saucy and savvy Adina, very musical, and tenor Vittorio Grilolo was ardent, goofy, and then transcendent. As the doctor, Adam Plachetka was sublimely funny. Kudos to maestro Enrique Mazzola, who had great rhythmic flexibility and propulsive drive, and of course, to the fabulous Met orchestra.
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Another night Jocelyn and I had a lovely dinner with my old friend Ben Brantley at Niu Noodle House in the Village. Ben and I met in junior high school and started out in NYC together, and with a happy combination of brilliance and hard work became head theater critic of the New York Times. It was good to catch up and hear his views on current shows, being a vegetarian, and other matters.

As to art, I saw several things worth mentioning. I recommend the exhibit at the Whitney by Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who made Citizen Four and other interesting works questioning the War on Terror. This exhibit is political in the sense that it puts in issue the programs of invasion, imprisonment, interrogation, assassination, and mass surveillance that grew out of the great panic following 9/11. It consists mostly of video clips, many of which must be viewed through slits in the wall that remind us of slits through prison doors. It invites us to engage with some disturbing issues, including the possibility of our being monitored at all times.

I also found enriching, if not exactly enjoyable, the exhibit at the Neue Gallery of the works of Edward Munch and German Expressionists. Munch appears to have been a tortured soul, and his works powerfully express alienation, melancholy, and angst. These are feelings that we generally try to avoid or suppress, and seldom discuss with anything but disapproval. But there’s truth in these works that we could benefit from facing. There were strong paintings of several other Expressionists who built on Munch’s bold early works, including Beckmann, Kirschner, Nolde, Kokoschka and Schiele, who were themselves iconoclasts, with energetic new psychological insights into some of our darker recesses.
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At the Edwynn Houk Gallery I saw a photography exhibit by Nick Brandt. On display were ten enormous (6-8 feet wide) black-and-white images of Africa, each with a billboard size photo of an African animal, such as a lion, elephant, or rhinoceros. The billboards were positioned where the animals used to roam, but have been replaced by human activity– factories, roads, and waste dumps. There are people in the images trying to make a living, including by picking through the waste dumps. I found the pictures very powerful, and tragic.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Jocelyn, Pam Tinnen, and I saw This Place, an exhibit of photographs about Israel and the West Bank. It included work of twelve photographers, some of whom did very large images of the people, cities, and stark landscapes. There was little direct reference to anger and armed struggle, but instead humanitarian efforts to comprehend the multiple facets of this complex situation. We also looked at the Assyrian and Egyptian art.
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Finally, I checked out the new Met Breuer, which is what the Met has done with the former Whitney museum. The main current exhibit is about unfinished works of famous artists starting in the Renaissance and coming up to now. It was interesting from a process perspective (seeing how paintings of various periods were assembled). I was surprised to learn that there were few answers on why artists chose not to finish particular works, or even how they determined what was a point of completion. But I enjoyed a lot of the art, particularly works of Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Turner.

Spring blossoms, a new Rossini opera, and good news re ISIS

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It’s been a tough winter, and I’ve been on the lookout for forsythia and daffodils, our early declarants that winter is done. I spotted a few on Saturday, and on Sunday I got up to Raulston Arboretum, where there were blooms and buds, and I took these pictures. Happy spring! _DSC8519_edited-1

Actually, Diane pointed out the first daffodils, when I picked her up to take her to North Hills Cinema to see the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD Production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. As usual, Diane had vetted the reviews, and filled me in on the major points. This was the first ever production by the Met of this 1819 work, and was the result in part of a campaign by its star, mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

I’ve never seen a Rossini opera I didn’t like, and I liked this one, too. The story concerns competing lovers against a background of Scottish clans battling the king. The vocal pyrotechnics that are characteristic of the bel canto style were carried to an extreme in this work, and the principal singers were all virtuosos up to the challenge. I was awed by Juan Diego Florez and John Osborn as the dueling tenors, and also by mezzo Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm. As Elena, Joyce DiDonata had charisma and amazing vocal agility, though I was bothered by her tendency to sing sharp. Conductor Michele Mariotti was young, good-looking, and completely a master of this style.
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As Diane and I compared notes afterwards, we agreed there were some odd moments. Who were those kneeling men with blue faces? What were those metal poles in the battle camp? Why did the cloudy horizon cover only half the background? Even with belief well suspended, the plot has some bumpy parts. But we loved the music, and the production worked.
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There was more news of mayhem in the Middle East this week, as seems to be true most weeks. This is an area of the world that I do not feel a great affinity for. I’m sure there are some good and interesting people there, but their countries have lots of history, culture, and conflicts I never learned much about.

I don’t think I’m unusual in any of this. Those political leaders with the greatest interest in showing deep knowledge of the Middle East to promote their preferred programs, such as war, almost never say anything non-obvious. This makes me tend to believe that despite our massive intelligence programs, we still have little understanding of the drivers of Middle East conflict. This is serious, because we cannot have a reasonable plan for solving a problem we do not understand.
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We generally default to the belief that violent actors all hate all Americans and are primarily concerned with destroying it. But even with the limited information we get from daily journalism, we should know that things are a lot more nuanced than that. The Sunnis hate the Shiites, this kind of Sunnis hate that kind of Sunnis, and moderates hate the Jihadists. Some Jihadists want to wreak worldwide havoc, and others want to build a fundamentalist Islamic state (which is ISIS’s declared objective). And as always, there are people driven primarily by love of power and greed.

In the NY Times this morning, there was a story about how Al Qaeda came to have a lot of money from the CIA. The main story concerned an Afghan hostage situation, but it also discussed how the CIA delivered large bags of cash to then-President Hamid Karzai, in amounts up to $1 million per bag, for him to use to bribe others as he saw fit. Is this not outrageous? Surely we stopped this practice after the odious Karzai left? Well, the report today said … “The cash [is] still coming in . . . .”

Having gone many years without anything like an existential threat from a Jihadist group from the Middle East, you’d think we might be ready to put that behind us and focus on things that are much more serious threats. But the appearance of ISIS has reignited old fears and restarted the drumbeat of war.
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We learned some new things about the war against ISIS this week. Iran is fighting them hard, and with some success. This puts the US in the impossible position of trying to fight ISIS without effectively supporting declared enemies Iran and Bashar al-Assad. We also learned that ISIS is not only losing some battles, but losing some supporters, because of increasing corruption and cruelty. I was glad to hear it, for I wish the homicidal fanatics of ISIS nothing but ill.

But none of this alters my view that this is not our war. I still do not understand why we would sacrifice the life of a single American young person in a fight against them, unless they become an actual threat to us. The countries ISIS now threatens or worries are not our good friends. This is not a situation we understand or can solve.

Cutting out expensive razor blades, plus a beautiful Barber of Seville

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There are certain hygiene-related matters that are, if not taboo, at least highly sensitive to discuss in polite society. I’m referring, of course, to the price of razor blades. As a young man, I was given an electric shaver, and quickly discovered I disliked the buzzy noise it made. So without more ado I switched to the Gillette safety razor. The state-of-the-art Gillette product at that time had two steel blades instead of the traditional one, and worked perfectly well. The same was true when the state of the art became three blades. And four. And five!

But one thing became much worse: the price. Each price increase seemed minor in the great scheme of things, and I rationalized the expenditure with the thought that a good shave was important, and a small increase in price was not important. But in recent months I’ve found myself paying more than $3 per blade. That’s crazy! Somewhere along the way these products got so expensive that drugstores had to put them in special anti-theft shelves. How did they get so ridiculously costly? Dear reader, I say this with shame: because we were not being smart consumers and good stewards of our household resources. We let them take advantage.

Anyhow, this week I discovered a much less expensive alternative to the Gillette product and ordered some on line. Dorco razors have a terrible name, but appear equal to or better than Gillette in terms of form and function. The model I used, the Pace 6, has a slightly heavier handle than the Gillette Fusion, a slightly springier mechanism, and six rather than five blades. It shaves well. The cost is about $1 per blade. What’s not to like?!
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Speaking of great shaves, I want to give a quick shout out of appreciation to the Metropolitan Opera for its new production of The Barber of Seville, which we saw live in HD on Saturday afternoon at North Hills. This may be the most famous opera music of all time, owing partly to the hilarious Bugs Bunny send up, The Rabbit of Seville. But it turns out that Rossini’s 1816 work still has a lot of life in it. The Met’s presentation was bright, touching, and funny, and the singing was wonderful.

Isabel Leonard was a marvelous Roselina. How often do humans get to be great bel canto singers, great comic actors, and beautiful all at once? Lucky Isabel, and lucky us. Christopher Maltman was likewise a wonderful Figaro (the barber) – musical, intelligent, funny, and handsome. Maurizio Muraro was a great grumpy Bartalo, and Lawrence Brownlee was an ardent Count Almaviva with good high notes and amazing vocal agility. Sets and costumes were absolutely wonderful. This was a great Barber!

Taking in some art, sport, and food in New York

14 11 02_3603Last Friday I attended the Software Freedom Law Center’s tenth anniversary conference in New York, wishing my friends at the SFLC happy birthday and learning something about the state of the art in FOSS law. Afterwards I met up with Sally and daughter Jocelyn at the Warwick Hotel for a Manhattan weekend. I had in mind to see some painting, some photography, some opera, and some ballet, all of which we did, plus some good food and conversation and the New York City Marathan.

As for the painting, on Saturday we went to the Metropolitan Museum, where we focused mainly on the exhibit of recently donated Cubist paintings by Picasso, Braque, Leger, and Gris. Cubism has never been my favorite thing, but I was curious to see some reputed masterpieces not shown in public for generations. The exhibit ultimately had its way with me.

I’d known that Braque and Picasso collaborated, but I hadn’t understood that they were basically partners and co-inventors of the Cubist style. What remarkable courage for guys in their mid-twenties to work exclusively in a style that was so radically new and difficult. They must have known it would be tough to sell at a time when, I’m guessing, they needed money. How excited they must have been to be seeing visions no one had ever seen before, and imaging they would permanently change the cultural/visual world. And they were right!

Engaging with art, and particularly art that requires commitment and struggle, changes you at a fundamental level. Your brain rewires itself, neuronal axons and dendrites making new connections. You are a subtly different person afterwards, who sees the world a little differently.

And though it involved some commitment and struggle, I warmed up to the paintings. There is steely rigor, but there’s more than that. There are moods, from sunny to brooding, and a surprisingly amount of humor. But you have to give the paintings some time and let them speak.
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We met Jocelyn for lunch in a Korean place on 37th Street, where our table got covered with savory little vegetarian plates and vegetable dumplings. Our waitress intervened when she realized Sally didn’t know she was supposed to spice up and mix up her kimbap. It was drizzly and chill when we came out and walked up 6th Avenue to the International Museum of Photography.

There we saw an exhibit called Genesis by the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. The black-and-white photos are of remote, vulnerable, and magnificent places around the globe, including Antarctica, Galapagos, Patagonia, Indonesia, and Africa. I was very moved by this art. The works were big, some like large posters, and they had lots to say. Some of the landscapes have a stately lyrical classicism, and his photos of indigenous people are frank and intimate. He succeeded in his aim of making me think more about how beautiful and fragile is our planet.

We had dinner at Robert restaurant on the 9th floor of Museum of Arts and Design looking out at Columbus Circle. The room had the energy of forward leaning design, and the food and service were both really good.

Then we walked up to the Metropolitan Opera to see The Death of Klinghoffer. After all the recent controversy (charges of anti-Semitism, which I thought were way off base), I had some worries that there would be protesters, and a tiny worry that there might be a homicidal fanatic ready to attack. But happily there were only normal opera folk. Sally and I both thought John Adams’s music was beautiful and expressive. However, I found the staging static and dull. I’m not sure how much this problem was a matter of direction and how much is inherent to the work. On the whole, I was glad I saw it, but a little disappointed.
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Sunday morning was clear but chilly as we walked up from the Warwick Hotel to Central Park South to a spot about half a mile from the end of the New York City Marathon. We saw the first wheelchair competitors, then the first women, and then the first men. After almost 26 miles, most looked like they were in a hard, painful place. But they were booking! The leaders were preceded by a truck with a sign showing the elapsed time. It was particularly interesting to see how close the fight was for number one and two for both women and men. As they passed us, both pairs were so close that I thought perhaps they were friends that enjoyed running together. The women’s finish was the closest in the history of the race, and the men’s was also quite close.
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After a quick lunch, Jocelyn came with me to Lincoln Center to a matinee performance of American Ballet Theatre. We saw Sinfonietta (music by Janacek, choreography byJiri Kylian), Bach Partita (Bach, Twyla Tharp), and Gaite Parisienne (Offenbach, Massine). I greatly enjoyed it all, but particularly adored Gaite Parisienne. It was like Nutcracker for grownups: sumptuous, slightly risque fun. Hee Seo was a gorgeous Glove Seller, and Herman Cornejo was a manic, hilarious Peruvian. There were a LOT of really good dancers!

After Jocelyn got on the subway to go home to Brooklyn, I had a little time before we were due to head to the airport. I walked down Fifth Avenue and over to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. I noted that the varied collection of flags from many nations had at some point been replaced by all US flags. Good looking flags, though .

Enjoying opera, and meditating

Looking west at new construction on Glenwood Avenue, October 18, 2014

Looking west at new construction on Glenwood Avenue, October 18, 2014

Some of my musical friends have a phobia about opera, which I can understand, but it’s really a shame. Some of the greatest music ever conceived is found there, and some of the greatest living musicians express themselves in the form. At its best, it is visual, kinetic, psychological — and fun. A case in point: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, which we saw on Saturday.

This was a new production from the Metropolitan Opera, performed live and simulcast in HD video to movie theatres around the world, including our own North Hills cinema in Raleigh. The main story concerns a servant, Figaro, about to marry another servant, Susanna, who is being pursued by their master, the Count. It’s a comedy about love and jealousy, but it also has a tragic side, with elements of deception, abuse of power, and corruption. It gets complicated, with various hard-to-follow schemes, impersonations, betrayals, and stolen letters – enough to make you wonder whether eighteenth-century audiences were smarter than we are. But with subtitles, we get the gist.

The new production, set in the 1930s, had interesting sets, gorgeous costumes, excellent singer-actors, and the great James Levine conducting. The music is perhaps Mozart’s finest — transcendently beautiful. The production took the story seriously, and not just as a sequence of wonderful songs. Along with belly laughs, there was surprising depth in the leads, who were all new to me. I was particularly charmed by Isabel Leonard as Cherubino, Marlis Peterson as Susanna, and Ying Fang as Barbarina. Peter Mattei as the Count sang wonderfully. Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro was very human, funny, and musical.

The schedule for the remainder of the Met’s season of Live in HD productions includes a couple of other favorites of mine (Carmen and the Barber of Seville) and others that look interesting.

Waking Up

I’ve been reading a new book by Sam Harris titled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris is scientist and outspoken atheist, and, it turns out, a serious and experienced practitioner of meditation. He proposes a middle way of approaching what he calls spiritual life that steers between religious mythology and strict scientific rationality. The book is a combination of meditation guide, neuroscience, neo-Buddhist thought, and memoir. It inspired me to find 20 minutes in the schedule for my own meditation practice. If I experience a major illumination, I’ll let you know.
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A great Mozart opera

There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon titled “Life without Mozart,” which shows a desert with a few scattered pieces of junk. Such pith! It is probably an overstatement to say that Mozart is the source of all meaning and order in life, but it is difficult to imagine so much harmony without him.

On Saturday afternoon, I took D, my mother-in-law, up to North Hills Cinema, to experience a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. The music is some of Mozart’s greatest. I’ve listened to the opera a lot recently while working out, and the glorious fountains of melody carries me through the tough intervals.

The basic plot seems sexist and jarring to 21st century sensibilities. Here’s the concept: two soldiers are wooing two sisters and praising their faithfulness, when an older, more cynical friend asserts that all women are by nature prone to stray. They argue, make a wager, and then the soldiers put on disguises and each seduces the other sister. It’s supposed to be light and funny, but the amorality of the plot line is disorienting. Why would the guys do such a crummy thing? But this production explored a more humane side, and also more difficult, aspect of the story.

James Levine conducted this performance. Maestro Levine is a transcendently great musician, but has been in poor health these last few years, and I doubted we would see him again. But he was in great form on Saturday. The broadcast showed close-ups of his face as he conducted the overture, which showed that he conducts with his face as much as his hands. He smiled with pleasure at the beautiful phrases, and I imagined that his musicians felt well supported and inspired by his warmth and enthusiasm.

The show was altogether wonderful, and much more emotionally complex than I expected. There was humor but also strong notes of pain. The sisters seemed genuinely conflicted and struggling with the temptation of new lovers, and the lovers were tortured by forces they did not understand.

The work is an ensemble piece, in the sense that various combinations of voices have great moments – duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets. The acting of this cast was particularly compelling. Susanna Philips as one of the sisters (Fiordiligi) seemed to truly anguished in struggling with the temptation of new love. Her soprano was a little thin at the bottom but full at the top, and very expressive. She had a way of easing into notes, so that the sound seemed to emerge gently from the silence. She had a couple of long pauses where the silence itself was filled with powerful emotion.

The other sister (Dorabella), played by Isabel Leonard, was less complex, but she sang well and looked sensational – she’s quite a beautiful woman. As to the soldiers, there were not simply heartless cads, but in part victims pushed by larger forces (authority, peer pressure, pride, vanity) to betray their lovers and themselves. Tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Rodion Pogossov as the soldiers/Turkish suitors both had great moments, and Maurizio Muraro as Don Alfonso anchored the ensemble with a full bass baritone. I thought Danielle de Niese as Despina, the scheming house maid, was funny and sexy, but as a full on proponent of the view that love meant nothing other than having fun, too exuberant and bubbly for this darker Cosi.

On Sunday I had a piano lesson with Olga. She’d warned me that she was juggling a lot of end-of-school-year projects and could only give me an hour, but in the end we worked for an hour and a half. Like Maestro Levine, she’s a generous musical spirit, patient but also exacting. We did a Brahms Op. 39 waltz, Rachmaninoff’s Elegie, and Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. We talked about slow versus fast attacks and worked on some pedaling techniques that were new to me, including doing a slow release. I always go in thinking I’ve been listening to the music carefully, and she always makes me hear new things.

NYC: finding a nice hotel, good food, great art, and mildly disappointing opera

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Sally and I went up to New York City last weekend to see sweet Jocelyn, eat, and see some art and some opera. Here’s a report.

Accommodations

For all the great things about New York, one problem for visitors is that good hotels tend to be painfully expensive. In quest of the holy grail of a nice-but-not-exceedingly-dear hotel, we tried a new one: the Carlton, at Madison and 28th. Perhaps because it’s not in a high-profile neighborhood, the value proposition is strong: charm, good service, and rooms under $200.

The high-ceilinged lobby was an eclectic-but-stimulating mix of styles (modern, beaux arts, art nouveau). Our room was quiet and comfy. The shower pressure and hot water supply met Sally’s exacting standards. The furniture and fittings were attractive and modern, except for the bathroom sink, which was old school (rounded porcelain with no shelf space). The gym was adequate and available 24 hours. The location was a comfortable walk from the theatre district and within 10 cab-minutes of everything we had planned.

Food

Jocelyn was waiting for us at the hotel when we arrived, and she’d already scoped restaurants and made a reservation for that evening. We checked in, unpacked, and walked one block to Lexington Avenue and an area rife with Indian restaurants known as “Curry Hill.”

The one Jocelyn picked was Chote Nawab. We love eating Indian, although there are common shortcomings: the food often isn’t very pretty (lots of brown), or the atmosphere is a little formal and downbeat. But Chote Nawab was really lively, with many cheerful young people, excellent service, and delicious curries well presented. Jocelyn was as cheerful and lively as any. She was very excited about her new life in New York, and had lots to report.
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Art

On Saturday we did two very different art exhibits: the Art Spiegelman restrospective at the Jewish Museum (92d and Fifth) and the Dutch masters exhibit at the Frick (70th and Fifth).

I was generally aware of Art Spiegelman as a comics artist, but until this exhibit had no clue as to his wide range and depth. He uses a lot of styles and reference points, with courage, exuberance and also humility. His masterpiece, Maus, is a graphic novel about his father’s experience in the Holocaust, which established the graphic novel as a serious art form. The sections I looked at were intriguing and moving. After the show, I ordered a copy.
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The show at the Frick was headlined by Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). This is a painting generally regarded as a transcendent masterpiece, and one that I’d been wanting to see for many years. Vermeer’s work is extremely subtle, with seemingly ordinary subject matter, and seeming straight-ahead realism, but a mysterious emotional power.

The Girl is, at first sight, a fairly ordinary girl. But with more time, the painting transmits a more complicated message. She looks as though she’s been surprised, but not unpleasantly so. Could something be going on between her and the artist, as Tracey Chevalier imagined in her novel? Maybe. The painting is ambiguous, but the truth seems just barely out of reach.

She gave me big, long-lasting goose bumps. I enjoyed the rest of the show, which included works by Rembrandt, Hals, and several other Dutchmen of the 17th century, but nothing that was as affecting. I also revisited the Frick’s permanent collection, which is one of the finest small collections of European painting in the world. Henry Clay Frick seems to have been a particularly brutal captain of industry in the gilded age, but still, he had very good taste. However good or bad the motivation for his philanthropy, I’m grateful.

More good food and some opera

After we finished at the Frick, Jocelyn, Sally and I walked across Central Park as the sun was setting. It was getting colder, so we stopped for some coffee, and then made our way to an early dinner at the Leopard, an Italian restaurant on west 67th Street.
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Jocelyn’s friend Mike joined us, and we had an extraordinarily fine meal. My ravioli with braised artichoke and a tomato marjoram sauce managed to be both hearty and delicate. We shared two desserts, which were delicious, and lost track of time. It was snowing when we got out on the street, and we had to hurry to Lincoln Center to make the 8:00 curtain at the Metropolitan Opera.

We saw Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which is a new production for this season and was completely new to me. I thought the music was gorgeous – as fine as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. But dramatically the thing is puzzling and for substantial stretches fairly boring. Why does Eugene reject Tatiana? Why does he ultimately desperately long for her? I don’t know, and worse, the drama didn’t really make me care.

It was quite cold and snowing when we finished the opera at about 11:15, and there were many more people looking for cabs than there were cabs. We walked past Columbus Circle and over to Sixth Avenue, and finally found a cab to get us back to the Carlton.

A little more art
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On Sunday we had breakfast at the hotel, and then walked a few blocks up Madison to the Morgan Library. They had an exhibit of Leonardo’s drawings and notebooks, including the famous Codex on the Flight of Birds. Leonardo was, of course, an extraordinary individual – a true Renaissance man, curious about everything in the natural and human world, and constantly innovating, or imagining future innovations.

I didn’t realize how few paintings he made, perhaps because he was so interested in everything. His drawings seem effortless and timeless. But his presumed self portrait in red chalk shows an old, bearded man looking extremely remote and grumpy, if not bitter. It’s hard to reconcile his extreme gifts and imagination, which seem reason for great joy, with this persona.