Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Quick hits

Another 12-hour day has taken it out of me, but the yen to blog is hard to resist. Thus a few quick hits.

-The restaurant Le Cirque: Thumbs up, if you don't have to be the one paying. The food is good, the space is light and airy, and the stuffiness is bearable. First time I've actually eaten there since attending the opening party a few years ago.
-The soon-to-be-released book Slackonomics: Thumbs up, even if you're not actually a Gen X'er. (I'm sort of on the cusp by some definitions). Trenchant and amusing portrait of an underappreciated generation.
-The old book Liar's Poker: In a roundabout way, the most convincing reason yet for why I didn't join a fraternity - or anything like one.
-The somewhat new movie Married Life: Didn't know a thing about it when I noticed it was playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, except that Patricia Clarkson was in it, and I have yet to see a film starring her that I didn't like. Turned out to be a lightly satisfying hybrid of '50s period piece, understated thriller and comedy of manners, all with a respectable cast of some big names (Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams). I'm glad I was ignorant of its middling score on Rotten Tomatoes, as it might've prevented me from liking it as much as I did. (I'm so easily swayed by that site sometimes.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stars fruit

I'm allergic to melons, but it still makes me happy to know that there are such things (above) as "moon and stars watermelons," called that because of the pattern on the rind, as noted in a NYT story on eating endangered American plants and animals to save them. Makes me think of the song "Stars and the Moon" by Jason Robert Brown.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Passionate people in action

Two strong, passionate personalities were at the center of two shows we saw this weekend: both "criminal" to a greater or lesser degree, but both captivating in unconventional ways.

The first was MultiStages' production of a new musical play, The Judas Tree at Teatro La Tea. Inspired by the true crimes of Dorothea Puente, it follows the story of Elena Fiero, a charismatic woman, a drifter once herself, who took some of society's outcasts into her boarding house and - to put it bluntly - helped them to die: sort of sexy Earth Mother meets Dr. Kevorkian, if you will. The book is imbued with the kind of Garcia Marquez-type magical realism that is wonderfully at home on the page, but can be a challenge to bring to the stage. That said, I have to say this production rises to that challenge admirably. The magic is mostly embodied by a team of five dancers that act like a Greek chorus of flowers in the main character's lush garden (she uses "natural" fertilizer that stinks to high heaven). The retired detective who is sent to investigate disappearances at the boarding house - and becomes deeply attracted to Elena - also sprinkles the action with fantasy, as he narrates part of the tale as the Judas tree of the title. Elena believes that she is bringing peace to troubled souls and reuniting them with the earth in the most wholesome way. The people of California, in a courtroom that frames the story, believe she committed premeditated murder dozens of times. Both views, one could argue, end up having their day. (Full disclosure: My girlfriend assisted on the show.)

High-wire artist Philippe Petit (with microphone) told us this afternoon - after the Tribeca Film Festival screening of Man on Wire, a documentary of his memoir - that he has been arrested hundreds of times, but it's usually for something fairly petty like trespassing, disorderly conduct or performing without a permit. The film follows his superior achievement, his "coup" of clandestinely rigging a wire between the top of the two tallest World Trade Center towers in August 1974 and dancing across them one morning. This is one of those moments in history that I've been fascinated by for years now. The latest film does a thrilling job of elaborating and expanding upon the feat that was such a touching part of Rick Burns' history of the trade center, "The Center of the World." That earlier film revealed Petit's walk in the clouds as the heartbreaking high point in the history of the buildings.

All references to 9/11 in Man on Wire, by James Marsh (in white shirt), are indirect and subtle: basically the appearance of airplanes at certain moments. Still, they are just enough. The film focuses on the joyful achievement. But that isn't to say it doesn't have dark undertones. Chiefly, the understanding that the clandestine preparations that Petit and his motley crew undertook to get him up there that morning 34 years ago has parallels with the terrorists who ultimately destroyed the towers and so many of their people. The secrecy, the planning, the obsession. I say this by no means to sully the work of Petit and his compatriots, which I would say ultimately added to the goodness in the world and this city, only to show how there is more in common between the towers' highs and lows than one might first imagine.

In both stories, I was struck by how Elena and Philippe were able to get other people to believe in their visions, however crazy they might seem.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A new alternative on Ninth Avenue

El Centro - the Hell's Kitchen Mexican place that sits in the cozy, but let's admit it, cramped space where Vynl used to be - almost always has a line out the door, whenever I stop by. Luckily, a formidable competitor has opened up down the street, and the salsa is so fresh and delicious I couldn't help remarking on it several times before we reached the bottom of the chips. It's called Lime Jungle, on Ninth Ave. between 53rd and 54th, and it's almost cheaper than it should be, for how good I found the food to be.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Some cracks in the Glass

I hesitate to admit this, because I don't want my recent instances of leaving before things are over to become a habit, but I walked out of the Met's Satyagraha after Act I last night. Why? It was really a confluence of different reasons: I ended up going alone, on a Tuesday night, after two typically long days at work, having taken the cheap route of getting nose-bleed seats in the Family Circle section of the opera house, for an opera listed in the program as ending 15 minutes before midnight. Now, even under all those circumstances, I can imagine seeing La Boheme and staying until the end and loving it. But this isn't your typical repertoire piece. It's more about setting moods than telling a linear story. And there weren't any Met Titles - much to the chagrin of the guy sitting to my left - to guide you in any way. The text projected directly on the scenery was, about half the time, obscured for those of us sitting in the back.

Now, I've considered myself a fan of Philip Glass' music for more than a dozen years or so. I'm familiar with a lot of his work, and enjoy listening to it from time to time. But it's almost always in an audio recording or during a film (gotta love that cameo in The Truman Show). And there are times when I find the repetition and resistance to traditional dramatic arcs too much to take, too boring. Last night was one of those times. As much as I respect the Eastern tenets that inspired his approaches, sometimes - I agree with the New York mag review - I need some more Western-style progression, more purposeful direction, something to hold onto and move forward with. I believe this might be a case where I have to be in the right, receptive mood or circumstances to be able to experience the whole piece. And this was all the more disappointing because I wanted to learn more about Gandhi's life, and the structure of the work doesn't really share it with you if you're not already familiar with the particulars.

With all that said, I do still like Glass' music, but - perhaps I'm realizing - on my own terms and in my own timeframe. With that in mind, check out this cool online applet called the IBM Glass Engine that allows you to browse through his oeuvre by different criteria.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Say HI to the former Lollipop Building

I can't say I'm MAD about the latest incarnation of 2 Columbus Circle for the Museum of Arts & Design - I miss the lollipops at street level and can't help but recall the late Herbert Muschamp's charmingly over-the-top manifesto on the building - but that may change over time. In the meantime, the structure's upper floors seem to shout out "hi" to passersby.

Another round of Kate

55 Bar, the cozy old-Village venue that first introduced me to the music of jazz vocalist Kate McGarry, offered us a chance to meet and chat with the musician herself the other night after she finished up her second (third?) set during the early show Saturday night. I've really grown to be a fan of hers, hearing her songs played on WNYC on weekend afternoons, seeing her at Dizzy's Club in Jazz at Lincoln Center on Columbus Circle, listening to her latest album, The Target. She was very friendly, and told us that she's only just been able to make a living as a musician after years of working a day job and pursuing singing as her avocation. One thing I have to say about the intimate space of 55 Bar: Patrons really seem to listen. You stick out in the small bar if you're nattering too much while the musicians are playing.

One violin concerto away from Midtown

A young violinist was playing outside the Barnes & Noble at 82nd Street the other day, and I had to stop because of this and because he was playing very well and I didn't have anywhere I needed to be. I lingered, recognizing one of the tunes, but not able to place it until I threw some money into his case - just as a little kid was asking his mom, "How does it sound so good?" - and the musician told me it was Philadelphia-area native Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. I later downloaded Hilary Hahn's performance of the work from iTunes, then listened to it on the way to work this morning. Pressed play just as I got on the train and the final seconds of the third movement ticked away as the doors to 59th Street were opening. One third of a concert, beautifully wedged into my morning.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Galaxy grid

State Theater renovations, Harold Prince

I caught the tail-end of New York City Opera's season today, seeing Bernstein's Candide for the first time. Enjoyed it very much. The overture, of course, I've heard many times and loved hearing again. And I later realized that I was familiar - did Jason Danieley sing it? - with the touching-for-its-realism finale, "Make Our Garden Grow." The production values were sensational, and on top of that, we got to applaud the man who had so much to do with keeping alive this work - and creating so many others: Hal Prince. He spoke on stage after curtain, and it was from him that I learned the State Theater is going to be closed later this year for renovations, which are going to abbreviate next year's City Opera season. It makes me disappointed that I didn't take advantage of other productions this year. Still, across the plaza at the Met, I'll be seeing Satyagraha on Tuesday night, my first live Philip Glass opera after many years of enjoying the quirkiness of Einstein on the Beach.

WaHI development roundup

The Manhattan Times, that free newspaper you can get in boxes around Washington Heights and Inwood, featured some neighborhood development projects in a recent edition, including some that I've mentioned in this space and on Curbed. Here's some that caught my eye. (They included ones that appear to be stalled as well.)

-Overlook Terrace and West 184th Street: Formerly a rocky hard-to-develop hillside. Construction started on One Bennett Park (f/k/a Fort Tryon Tower): 25 stories, 114 units, fall 2009 move in. Next to the northeast entrance of the 181st Street A station.
-St. Nicholas Ave. and Audubon Ave. and West 165th Street: New home for Alianza Dominicana community services. Opening 2009.
-203 Cabrini Boulevard: Stop-work order in March for lack of a permit on a site planned to hold a three-family home.
-210 Bennett Avenue near West 190th Street: Permits have expired at site where property owner had planned 40 units of housing in December.
-Dyckman Street Substation near Henry Hudson Parkway: Plans by the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Economic Development for a cultural arts center in an Art Deco building that's been abandoned for more than 20 years.
-Broadway and West 192nd Street: Luxury condo with 63 units, first-floor retail and second-floor community space. Late '09.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Catching just a glimpse in person

Apparently I haven't quite mastered the art of snapping photos of fast-moving things. Such as Pope Benedict XVI's black limousine as it turned down East 66th Street yesterday afternoon, after pulling away from Park East Synagogue following a brief papal visit. I did see the Pope, even if my camera missed him by a few feet. It was warm and beautiful. I got out of work at a decent hour. And walked up until I started seeing some scattered throngs of people. A few dozen police revved their motorcycles, then led the way, and I ended up seeing him for about a second, waving through the window in his traditional white garb, smiling, and I have to say I felt something, a little pang. Someone special had just passed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Living up to that "difficult" reputation?

M. and I saw Kathleen Battle perform a recital at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon. I was excited to see such a famous singer, but I was a little wary since I got the tickets for free. Was there some kind of back story here that I didn't know about? I thought I'd read something in passing about her getting fired from the Met Opera back in the day. But I honestly didn't do much research before seeing the concert.

To begin with, she was rather late arriving on stage - no brisk, on-time appearance from the wings followed by a swift downbeat the way you can often expect from, say, the New York Philharmonic. Strangely, the theorbist, who was to accompany her during songs by Henry Purcell of the English baroque on an instrument that looks like a long-necked lute, came out first and started strumming lightly for a little bit, as if he were some sort of impromptu opening act. Then about a minute or two later, Ms. Battle walked out to thunderous applause, even an ovation from some in the audience. M. turned to me and said, "She hasn't even sung a note yet." Sure, she's a diva, but shouldn't people do a little work to earn it. She was wearing a black dress with a cape-like pinkish train that began at her chest and trailed off behind her like a wedding dress. Except that she didn't have any attendants to lift up the train, so she kept having to kick it out of the way at intervals. Distracting to say the least. And it didn't end there.

Now, I don't go to a lot of vocal recitals, and apparently neither did a lot of the audience members, because they clapped after the first of three Purcell songs. M. told me later that you're supposed to withhold your clapping until the end of a set, even if it isn't an official prescribed song cycle. That set the tone for the rest of the performance, which seemed to make Ms. Battle even more uncomfortable than she already looked at times. She was hesitant to fully embrace the audience's ardor between songs of a set.

She sang a lot of art songs, which can be beautiful and moving, but weren't so much so during the first half. I enjoyed the Mendelssohn and Faure pieces after the intermission. Throughout, she had this habit of pausing for longer than necessary between songs, of turning her back on the audience literally and figuratively, of staring up at the ceiling as if searching for divine help. She reminded me of a batter stepping outside of the batter's box, gesturing to her accompanist, another musician who played the piano for most of the program, as if to the umpire and pitcher to give her another few seconds to compose her self. She adjusted her dress and kept kicking the train out of her way like one might tap his baseball bat against home plate and grab at the shoulders of a sweaty uniform.

Did she sing well? I guess so. She really didn't move me until her a capella version of the great Holy Week spiritual "Were You There?" The problem was, her body language was so distracting, I couldn't focus on her singing. Back at home, I read about how she had a reputation for being "difficult," and supposedly "unprofessional behavior" was the reason she got the pink slip from the little opera house down at Lincoln Center. It would seem she has the tendency to be her own worst enemy in terms of overall poor presentation detracting from her musicianship.

UPDATE: Just now reading the Times review of the recital. ... "More or less a re-entry recital." ... "Relative quiet was the rule on Sunday." ... "a few odd stage mannerisms." ... "Much of her music’s effect lay in the accompaniments." So, somewhat similar observations, I'd say. Although did the review get it wrong, saying that it was "Good News" that was unaccompanied? She went off program and slipped "Were You There?" in before the final two spirituals in the printed book, and I thought that was the one they went crazy over. Does someone need to brush up on their spirituals or am I not remembering correctly?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Make Benefit Glorious Cosmodrome of Baikonur

I can't remember whether anybody made any hay about this when Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat movie first came out, but isn't it a little funny that the oldest and still most active space launch facility is in Baikonur, Kazakhstan? I mean, the space age itself was founded in a place lately ridiculed for supposedly being backwards in all sorts of ways.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Saturday afternoon, Central Park

Modern, hygienic

Gelato/getting there the old fashioned way

The lines to get into certain New York novelties or institutions is enough to make you wonder sometimes whether they're giving something away for free. In the case of the second NYC (and first downtown) location of Grom, the Italian gelato purveyor, the answer was actually yes on Saturday. Having seen the kind of frenzy people get into over places like Pinkberry of late, it took me a while - enjoying the waning nice weather in newly renovated Father Demo Square - to realize that there were actually free cups on offer. I decided to actually wait in the crazy line since I had some time to kill before heading over to Fat Cat - which is a lot bigger than you'd imagine downstairs - for birthday drinks. The lemon and strawberry sorbet was pretty good, but I don't know how often I'd run back to pay $4.75 for a small.

A few spoonfuls in, a girl in going-out mode approached me at the corner of Bleecker and Carmine to ask where Greenwich Avenue was. I told her it was about six blocks north of where we were, which turned out to be a pretty decent snap estimate. She looked at me as if I'd just told her she was in the wrong borough entirely, and proceeded to yell to her friends that they needed to get a cab. Now, I've never walked around in heels, but really. At the speed that the Saturday night traffic was going, they probably could've walked there faster.

Revisionist history on the UWS

Saturday, April 12, 2008

New Leaf Cafe in Fort Tryon Park

I had a wonderful partly sunny and very warm meal outside on the patio at the New Leaf Cafe, one of my favorite brunch places, this morning with M. and her parents, and it turns out the $18.95 prix fixe entrees included coffee, juice and a celebrity sighting. Academy Award-winning actress Julia Roberts and family - apparently - were sitting two tables away, wearing their we're-famous sunglasses. Granted, it was bright out there, and M. and I were wearing our we're-not-famous sunglasses, too, so it wasn't totally out of the ordinary. The nanny - or assistant or whoever that second woman with her was - wasn't wearing any shades. I chose the sunny seat at the table, and ended up having my back to "Julia" the whole time, who was facing the hedge, so I didn't get a good look. But my own table mates insisted it was her. The guy she was with looked more to me like Benjamin Bratt or Clive Owen with his sunglasses on, but then again, I haven't been reading nearly enough celebrity rags since I don't go to physical therapy three times a week anymore, so it might have just as well been her "cameraman husband Danny Moder." So don't start any nasty rumors on account of me.

There were three or four kids at the table as well, all a lot more well behaved than the ones on the subway at midnight last night, during what I've taken to calling "third rush hour." The first two rush hours on the subways are obvious; the last one starts around 10 and extends until about 1 on weeknights, later on weekends. People coming home from or heading out to evening activities.

The park itself is starting to show signs of life here and there. And while it felt a little damp, the rain held off. The wait staff at New Leaf were wearing baseball caps emblazoned with MillionTreesNYC, the city's initiative to plant and care for a million trees in the next decade.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Renowned violinist plays subway, most don't notice

WaPo reporter Gene Weingarten didn't have to brave any war zone or uncover any government secret to write this Pulitzer Prize winning article. What it did take was convincing a world-class violinist to don street clothes and play in a D.C. Metro station for 45 minutes one winter morning last year, and chronicling people's reactions. What follows is a story that embraces themes of beauty, context, time, American priorities, music, taste, dreams, philosophy and more. Frankly, it made me cry at one point, and that was even before listening to the recording of Joshua Bell's performance. This one's worth sitting down with the way you would with a good piece of short fiction. (Hat tip to Daryl.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Some things I used to be (and sometimes still am) afraid of

-Jack o'lanterns
-Fireworks
-Accidentally getting caught up in the mafia
-Not finishing papers on time
-Talking to girls
-Mummies
-Being taunted about my wristwatch
-Having to speak in another language
-Watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
-Getting tooth filings
-Diving into a pool
-Foreign cheeses

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Explosions [in my ears] in the Sky

I must be getting old; I walked out of a concert tonight, not because I didn't enjoy the music, but because it was just being amplified way too loud. I first learned about Explosions in the Sky, the "post-rock" instrumental band from Texas, through Friday Night Lights. The band's music is wonderfully evocative of the desolate but emotion-filled West Texas landscape where the TV show (based on the movie, based on the book) takes place. So I was looking forward to seeing them tonight at the sold-out show at Terminal 5 on the far west side.

The opening acts were pretty cool, and the headliners' set began promisingly, with one band member saying, "This is the biggest show we've ever played." A few minutes in, though, things got loud. Really loud. And the problem is, since the band is so driven by morphing soundscapes, loud stays loud for a while. Distortion persists. I don't know who's fault this is in the end: the musicians or the venue. But I had to wonder whether they compensate for their lack of vocals by jacking up the volume. For me, intensity doesn't have to translate to turning the knobs up to 11. I think I'll continue to appreciate their recorded work, but won't bother to see them live again. Which is a pity, because a lot of their songs are so cool and trance-like.

The other thing that tonight's show taught me: I'm not a salesman. I couldn't find anyone who was free to join me, so upon arrival near the entrance to the venue, I gingerly held up my extra ticket. A guy who looked stoned yet determined - if that's possible - asked me if I'd take $5 for it. I hesitated, told him $10. He started to walk away. Two seconds later, I gave in for the lower price. I'd paid about $23 with fees included. I wonder if he actually used it or scalped it after me. I had a hunch it was the latter. The $5 just paid for one of the tasty empanadas that they were selling inside plus a dollar tip.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Letter on the Blind / For the Use of Those Who See

Six blind people walk into the empty McCarren Park pool in Brooklyn, waiting their turn to touch an elephant and describe it for the camera. The artist is Javier Tellez, a New York resident born in Venezuela, and it's a contemporary take in black and white video on the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant, but it turned out to be more captivating than I imagined when I first sat down in one of the viewing rooms at the Whitney Biennial this Saturday and realized the reference. Not least of all because, while I may be physically sighted, I've never actually had the experience of petting an elephant. Each person really does approach and describe the elephant uniquely, and along the way, telegraph their own perspective as someone who lives without one of the five senses. One man said he wouldn't really want to gain the power of sight, if given the option, for anything more than a day or so, since it meant he'd have to relearn so much. One woman described the thin line between dreaming in bed and waking up in the morning: sounds are her dreams and sounds are also the pathway back into reality. One man said he didn't really like touching the elephant, while another got right up and placed his face against the animal's skin. It made me realize how shut off I am usually from my sense of touch. How sight and hearing and smell and taste somehow take precedent, usually in that order. Hands, for me, are how things get done, not how things are experienced. I've been working to alter that.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Freudian slip, condo edition

There's a new condo going up in the neighborhood: 4469 Broadway at 192nd Street. Top of Washington Heights, near the Fort George Post Office. It's going to have 63 units as well as retail, parking and something dubbed a "community facility," all on the former site of a car wash that the area's two nightclubs had been using as a rocky parking lot lately. It's being done by some outfit called Jackson Builders LLC of Floral Park, NY. Somehow I doubt this is another Robert A.M. Stern job. No rendering to share, alas, but there was a letter from the project manager posted that, in part, read:
We understand the inconvenience of having a construction site next to the area where you live and work, and promise to make every effort to make this process as inconvenient as possible.
Um, yeah. Luckily, I haven't been awoken by any construction noise yet, knock on the wooden plaque full of city building permits.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

I'm up and running again

Took an after-work visit to the big glass cube at 59th and Fifth.
Walked out carrying a big white box. Cabbed it home. Plugged things in
and within a few minutes, I was up and running again. For some reason,
Blogger's been crashing Safari a few too many times for my liking.
That's been about the only hiccup so far in terms of setup. Guess I'll
have to download Firefox and try that out. The display is much bigger
than my last one and the keyboard is much thinner. I'm still annoyed
at the whole situation. But I bought renter's insurance from Geico
today in all of about 10 minutes, so next time (heaven forbid there is
a next time) I'll be better prepared. Ugh.

Not an April Fool's joke

Seems I was the fool on April 1 for getting my computer stolen a day
after I mused on the wording of some other poor victim's lost-laptop
poster. The sad thing is that my thief will probably get something for
my computer since it's still in pretty good shape, despite being about
two and a half years old. Which makes me wonder: What is the average
useful life of computers these days? Any suggestions?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Who's the fool now?

My computer was stolen right out of my apartment today.