Sunday, October 26, 2008

'Mass' on Saturday in a Protestant church

The confluence of motifs was certainly unique. There we were on a blustery Saturday afternoon, sitting inside the United Palace, that vast, old wonder theater at 175th Street that does double duty now as church and all-purpose performance venue. Munching on fundraiser popcorn, wearing our respective college football T-shirts for the game that evening and watching the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and hundreds of singers and dancers perform Bernstein's Mass, a post-'60s theater piece inspired by the Catholic liturgy, though not strictly adherent to it. It's a long piece: about 100 minutes without breaks, but it had some pretty captivating moments, like the opening number, "A Simple Song" and the Agnus Dei ("Dona nobis pacem") that devolves into a fist-pumping anti-war march. The Celebrant, played by Jubilant Sykes, captured well the broad range of singing styles and emotions needed for the role, and the city schoolchildren, who took up the center front section of the orchestra seats, were rousing in their selected moments of congregational singing. It was also great to hear the Bersteinian echoes of West Side Story and Candide. The concert wasn't without its distractions, although the restless audience members around us eventually settled down. While we did have to pay $15 to get in, the crowd had more of a free-outdoor-classical-concert vibe than you would expect from an indoor show. The same was true for the Rite of Spring project last year with the Berlin Philharmonic at the United Palace (another Carnegie Hall production). That said, it's great to have so many people get together in an uptown location to see a world-class orchestra join with local students to create impressive spectacles. I look forward to the next idea they come up with.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

It's not even Halloween yet!

It might've been a fluke or a mistake in the playlist, or perhaps it's just that the economy needs all the help it can get this year, but I officially heard the first Christmas song of that ever-lengthening season. (For the record, it was some cover of "All I Want For Christmas Is You.") It was in a Thai restaurant on Ninth Avenue, and I have a witness. Only 67 shopping days left!

Monday, October 13, 2008

'Songs of Fear and Longing: Nellie McKay (attempts to cover) the Classics!'

Nellie McKay gave a disturbingly distracted performance last night at Spiegelworld on the East River's Pier 17. (The venue itself, while novel and captivating the past few summers, seems to have overstayed its welcome this fall, judging by a) the sparse crowds on an evening before a holiday for many people and b) the amount of discounted tickets being flogged for the three marquee shows: Absinthe, Desir and the Gazillionaire.) We audience members were kept waiting in a line outside of the second tent ("Salon Perdu") for half an hour beyond the advertised start time of 10 p.m. When we finally entered the tent, it was clear that McKay didn't exactly sell out the venue. They'd arranged just enough folding wooden chairs in the center to accommodate those expected; the eight-seater booths around the periphery were closed off. If she'd brought her A-game, we might've remembered it as a lovely intimate show.

Now, I enjoy Nellie's own music, her sprightly piano rap and sarcastic sentimental weepies, if you will, but I'd thought of her as a talented musician in general, no matter whose song it is she's singing, having seen her in concert before. Last night, she looked like a frazzled young piano teacher or harried accompanist who's kept the students or auditioners waiting, complete with a canvas bag of tattered fake books. Right from the beginning it was clear something, or a whole Pandora's box of somethings, was bothering her. Where exactly her mind was, we never found out. All we know is we were treated to an evening punctuated by false starts, abrupt cuts, long awkward stretches of her flipping through the worn-out songbooks in search of this tune and that tune and always her apologizing half-heartedly for her less than stellar stage presence and performance.

M. told me afterward, "I wanted to scream out, 'Spit it out: What's wrong?'" She even went so far as to hint that refunds might be in order for people who requested them. When she was playing and knew the song, mostly old standards and American songbook classics with some of her own thrown in toward the end, Nellie played well. And the uptown Manhattan native did a pretty funny vamp on New York politics in the middle of "Take the A Train" that began something like "My mother used to work for David Paterson..."

We all have bad days at work, but not all of us work in the spotlight, which of course can contribute itself to performers having bad days now and then. But I have to say this is the first show that I can remember where it seemed as though the musician was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown before our eyes. I felt like we were caught in a farce. It produced in me this strange mixture of awkward pity and strange curiosity. We kept waiting for her to blurt out what it was that was slowly driving her mad; it never came. The end of performance did come - before midnight, I think. We clapped, she left the stage, and then we stopped clapping. There would be no encore this evening. Does anybody know what's wrong with Nellie?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

AQ Kafe

I discovered a new place to feed that occasional craving for Swedish meatballs I have, and it's not in Red Hook. It's actually right on my way home from the office in a neighborhood that's lacking in low-key, easy, reasonably priced places to get a bite: greater Columbus Circle. It's called AQ Kafe, and it's focused on light Northern European bakery cafe fare (read: mostly Scandinavian). The spare -- though not uninviting -- interior is sort of Le Pain Quotidien meets Ikea showroom floor. The fresh lemonade had the right tang and actually paired well (no wine here) with the lemon vinaigrette in the green salad. There is a side salad and an entree-size one for almost $4 more, but I honestly thought there'd been a mistake when I saw how big the "side salad" actually was. The meatballs are served in two small whole-grain rolls with lingonberry, pickled cucumber slices and just the right amount of cream sauce. As much as I love the ones served up in the shadow of that great blue-and-yellow particle-board paradise, these are pretty sensational. The plate is rounded out with dill potato salad, pickled beets (they're yellow!) and a tiny pickle, just in case you missed the theme. The portion seemed a bit modest upon arrival, but it certainly filled me up while at the same time offering a slightly more piquant kick of flavor than the old standby Ikea cafeteria platter.

Subtle Aussie pun

I'm going to try to catch the first episode of the American version of
"Kath and Kim" tonight on NBC. Even with all the advertising around
town for this show, it wasn't until this morning that I realized it's
a pun on the saying "kith and kin."