Monday, December 28, 2009

Great source for pearl jewelry with high quality and low prices

Looking for inexpensive but high quality pearls? Check out Black Lotus Designs, a small business run in part by two entrepreneurial, caring, smart and fun women I know from Penn State. I have purchased several items from them for some of the ladies in my life, most recently for Christmas, and they've all been very pleased with the products. The firm offers freshwater Chinese pearls grown from live tissue. They import pieces directly from a family in China that handles their creation from growth to final product. Cutting down on the amount of people who handle the pieces before they arrive on your doorstep keeps prices very reasonable. I'm not an expert on jewelry, but I know I was happy with what they sell.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Quick picks for theater running in NYC

Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights
Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room
Rogers & Hammerstein's South Pacific
Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts
Melissa James Gibson's This
Jerome Robbins' West Side Story
Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Philadelphians at Play

It's been a back-to-Philly few days for me. As much as I love New York and all that comes with it, there are some things from my childhood outside Philadelphia that remain closer to my heart, among them the old hometown baseball team and orchestra. I jumped back onto the bandwagon this month as the Phillies made it into the postseason, watching with anxiety and ultimately excitement last night as they advanced to the NLCS in a nail-biter of a game from chilly Denver.

Tonight, while the team preps for their next series in Los Angeles, I enjoyed in person another group that does well on the road, the Philadelphia Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall. Just as listening to the Phils' games on my bedside clock radio before drifting off to sleep is a fond memory from growing up, so is experiencing the latter-day incarnation of that famous Philadelphia Sound live at the Academy of Music.

Currently without an official music director, the orchestra is under the familiar baton of Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit, who has a longtime association with the ensemble, often guest conducting at the Mann Center summer concerts in Fairmount Park during the '90s. Tonight's concert, unified by the theme of stirring works from composers in their 20s, opened with one of my favorite pieces in the classical canon: Barber's Adagio for Strings. The piece is so familiar from recordings that I was a little worried it might not pack the same sensory punch of early hearings. I was pleasantly surprised. It snuck up on me. By the time the orchestra approached the pinnacle of the work, a warm shiver was washing over me, close kin to goosebumps. It's just the kind of visceral experience I hope to get at the orchestra, proving that no amount of radio can truly replace being there in the same room with a band as accomplished as the Philadelphians.

The guest soloist of the evening was Yuja Wang, a Chinese pianist still in her early 20s. She played a work that was new to me: Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto. If the Barber is a piece that's easy to adore, the Prokofiev is one that commands respect. I can't say I'm going to rush to download a recording of this piece, but Wang's performance certainly deserved the standing ovation she got. It's truly a vehicle for technical brilliance and artistic stamina: sharp chords and staccato textures alternate with perpetual motion passages that are jaw-dropping in the demands they place upon the performer. She and her slender hands were up to the job. At times, the music sounds like it's about to veer off into some heavy-metal number or free-jazz chart. The occasional rhythmic head bob from the pianist wasn't at all out of place.

The concert closed with the almost-hour-long Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, appropriately noted as being a staple of music history textbooks in Carnegie's program notes. Appropriate since that's exactly what I associate the piece with: my summer-camp course in music history, learning about Romanticism ("This is the best day of my life, I'm so depressed"), listening to the cassette tape recording as I completed whatever assignment went along with it. Even better was hearing works lying on the ground in the darkened classroom. Nothing untoward ever happened, but it felt just exotic enough for this sheltered kid. My mind usually wanders somewhere in the third movement, after the waltz of the ball and before the programmatic elements start to take on their macabre twists: the march to the scaffold, the execution, the witches' sabbath, the demented quoting of the Dies Irae and the final appearance of the idee fixe. We began the concert with a rapturous meditation on mourning and ended it with a rousing parody of the same. All in a night's journey through the mind of some twenty-something artists.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A winning show

When we first see the character of Caroline (Christiana Clark) in Carlyle Brown's play "Pure Confidence," at 59E59 Theaters through July 3, she is like an afterthought, an extra in the scene, an antebellum slave girl holding a lace parasol above her white mistress from a doorway, her eyes cast down, speaking only in assent to orders, albeit gently delivered orders. By one of the climactic scenes, she delivers a speech so searing it is like watching someone take control of her life for the first time. Such transformations are the stuff of great theater, especially when they sneak up on you like that.

The play is primarily about Caroline's husband, a black jockey named Simon Cato (Gavin Lawrence) who acquires fame, even as he struggles to buy his freedom in the days leading up to the Civil War. He is a slave, but only in name; his brash take-the-reins attitude is evident from the first scene. As Caroline's mistress ("Mattie," played by Karen Landry) says to her husband, the Colonel (Chris Mulkey), who hires Simon as a freelancer to ride his horse Pure Confidence: "He's already more free than you'll ever be." The second act is years after the war: Simon has chosen to damp some, but not all, of his fire to make do in a new job and a changed landscape. You still see him bristle against the exigencies of the era, but this is the moment for his wife to confront their past and shine. The final scene is a simple pas de deux that barely needs any spoken lines to capture the right emotions.

The play isn't without its flaws -- the heavy use of the n-word may be historically accurate, but it could have delivered the same apt punch without so much of the repetition and the symbolism of slave and master, horse and rider, owned and rented is a little obvious at times -- but it succeeds by focusing on the interrelationships among the older white couple and the younger black pair. Well worth a standing ovation at the end. The production is visiting from Mixed Blood Theatre of Minneapolis.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Water Life Famine Home Sleep Money Air

From Battery Park City on my three-borough Memorial Day bike ride.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"First time"

Ned Rorem has written something like 500 songs in his lifetime as a composer. I heard 11 of them tonight -- three entirely new -- at Carnegie Hall as part of a world-premiere orchestra song cycle prepared for mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. As one of those "unabashedly melodic" contemporary composers, Rorem is someone I probably should have discovered a while ago, but didn't. Sara Fishko's mention and playing the other day on WNYC of a landmark re-released recording of his songs hinted to me that I'd like the music, and tonight's show confirmed it. His quote in the program really summed up well something I noticed: "I like to put down on paper what needs to be put down, and not put down what doesn't need to be put down." It sounds obvious, but isn't always the case.

The compact Orpheus ensemble, famous for performing without a conductor, coheres well with that mentality. Their playing was lush, without overwhelming Graham's vocal lines. She stood at the core of the orchestral semicircle and glanced at the music on her stand only very briefly for each page. My joy as well as frustration with the songs was that they are so economical. Each line of each relatively brief poem is sung just once and then not again (except for the final song, a fantasia on one word only: Alleluia). So just as you are getting to know and love a character, a musical mood, it's over. It reminded me of great movie cues strung together on a soundtrack and separated from the film.

The most touching text for me was "Death and the Young Man," which includes a painfully beautiful repurposing of an old line: "Just be gentle. This is my first time." I especially liked the melding of words and music in "For Susan," "A Journey" and "Clouds." "The Serpent" ('I’m Serious about my Singing Career!') elicited laughter, and "The Lordly Hudson" made me beam with pride to discover a lesser-known pean to New York. Graham's performance was so good you felt the audience straining to withhold their applause after every song. The crowd finally let loose after Emily Dickinson's "Wild Nights," the 10th piece. Perhaps people didn't realize that "Alleluia" was the 11th song, and not just some valediction. Thus, after the clapping died down, the performance of it felt like an encore.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wit after the fact

It's great to get into another book by Francine Prose. I really loved 2001's Blue Angel in college, and her latest, Goldengrove, has me looking forward to subway rides and moments before sleep. One of the sweet touches of the narrator is her incarnation of the "staircase spirit," the direct translation of the French phrase, "L'esprit de l'escalier." It's those witty retorts or phrases that you think of only after you've mounted the stairs to leave the scene. But the staircase spirit in this novel is almost like a character in the teenager's brain, taunting her for NOT saying something eloquent as much as anything else. I was a little worried about getting into another story about a family coping with the death of a child, but Prose avoids the maudlin pitfalls of the premise and actually manages to make the story feel breezy and fresh. The staircase spirit is almost like the narrator's lost sister whispering worldliness into her ear.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rhyme of the moment

"I'm not a psychopath, I'm no Sylvia Plath."
(Approximate lyric from the musical Next to Normal, currently on Broadway.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tail end of The Third Mind

Halfway through a sixteen-mile bike day - my first of the season and first since the ankle sprain - I stopped off at the Guggenheim Museum to catch The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989. (It closes on Sunday.) Unifying the exhibit is a site-specific work by Ann Hamilton called Human Carriage, which was created for the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda. A silver rail runs around the outside of the spiral walkway to carry a little car made up of two temple cymbals draped in transparent fabric. Every so often, a participant in the work sets the carriage in motion from the top of the rotunda. It slides down the rail, nudging past occasional dampers that cause the cymbals to knock into each other and chime. At the bottom of the track, the carriage knocks a glued jumble of sliced-up paperback pages into a pile that has grown as the exhibit has been open.

Another memorable piece was Dream House by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. You enter an anteroom through a series of curtains, where you have to remove your shoes and are warned that the light and sound environment you're about to enter may alter your psychological state (no joke). The carpeted room is mostly dark except for pockets of red and blue light shining against abstract wall hangings. Several banks of speakers emit drones. The volume is just barely on the bearable side of annoying. I lingered for a few minutes and noticed how the drones sounded more static when I was standing still and more wavering when I stepped around the room. I had a flashback to the time I tried sitting and walking meditation at a place on the east side, on the suggestion of my massage therapist, back the last time when I was in physical therapy.

I also was drawn to The Recitation, a 1891 painting by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, on loan from Detroit. Something about the representational depiction of two figures in an otherwise very abstract natural setting captivated me. It got me even more than the Whislters in the room. And at the very beginning of the show, there is a massive five-sided room covered in curling gold leaf, which was just stunning to look at. The title? The Death of James Lee Byars.

Along my walk - from top to bottom: the opposite direction from what they recommend, I know - I spotted the coolest pair of earrings and I had to complement the girl who was wearing them. Turns out she made them herself. They were these Alexander Calder mobile-inspired pieces. She called them a prototype, but gave me her card anyway: Tia Kramer Jewelry. I gather from her web site that she was visiting from Seattle.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mobile moods

More than four out of every five people in the U.S. have a cell phone, and some forecasts have the rate headed to 100 percent. (How long before babies start getting their own handsets in the nursery?) It's pretty amazing to think that the majority of that growth happened in two decades. I got my first one around mid-2001, if I recall correctly, not long before 9/11, when about a third of the nation's population already had one. The phone in my dorm room was really the last home landline that I had, not counting work numbers. In general, I'd rank this whole process as progress. But it's ceased being another consumer item and started being something of a necessity. That makes losing the phone or being unhappy with the model you've chosen all that much more of a hassle, and going to the local phone store more and more like a trip to the DMV, what with the sign-in-and-wait rigmarole they have now to handle the heavy volume of customers.

For the first time in probably half a dozen models, I had buyer's remorse when it came to the Samsung Glyde. Too bad I didn't do anything about it until after the initial return period had passed. Verizon Wireless, those tricky folks, have the contract cycle engineered so that you can get a new, discounted (no longer outright free) phone 22 months into your two-year agreement. So after my old model has sustained 22 months of wear-and-tear, I'm ready to head into a store as soon as possible and get something fresh out of the box. At that point, you sign off another two years of your life to the service provider, without ever letting your old contract expire. Now, I went into the store in October, following some online research, thinking that I was going to buy the LG Venus. But when I felt the fake leather back on the in-store model, I demurred and looked at other phones. I finally settled on the Glyde because of the touch screen and the full QWERTY keyboard.

If I'd bothered to research that model as well, I probably would've come across all the complaints about how the touch screen can be maddening and isn't consistently responsive. Sometimes I'll peck at it a dozen times and get no response, leading me to reboot the whole thing. M. claims she's never been able to get it to respond to her touch. Somehow I muddled along for several months, dropping the phone a few times, you know, like you do. The screen seemed to be getting worse.

When I finally lost the thing the other week in a gypsy cab, I wasn't that sad; I was kind of relieved. I'd gotten so frustrated that I considered breaking the contract and going to buy an iPhone. But then there'd be the ugly termination fee to contend with and the cost of the new phone and the new contract, etc. So I ended up just going back to Verizon and filing a claim with the insurance company that I'd decided to actually pay for this time around. $50 deductible and I had a new one within 48 hours.

So I had to shell out money, but I got a fresh piece of equipment. AND! It was loaded with new software that I guess Samsung released sometime last fall in an attempt to quell the complaints from angry users. It's not as good as the iPhone screen, but it's an improvement. Partly because they stole the idea of the iPhone's screen lock, which requires a swiping motion instead of just a key press to unlock. I also decided to buy a molded Body Glove case and a new kind of screen cover. (Another $30)

The extra $80, while annoying, was probably worth it. The phone works better and I feel like it's now better protected to put up with the daily use and abuse that comes its way thanks to my busy life.

It's still grating to have to be under these rolling contracts. I know there are some companies that offer prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans, like I had in England, but they just don't seem as trustworthy or have as extensive networks as the other big national providers. Any suggestions?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Late adapter

I finally broke down and joined Twitter on the recommendation of DL. Linked it up to FB. Another distraction for posting here.


A word for any moment.
A song for any word.
A person for any song.
A memory for any person.
A moment for any memory.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Poe: "I'm sorry, I was drunk. I'm broke now. Please publish my story."

A letter from the author of "The Raven" to a publisher that had been in private hands until recently has been revealed, and includes these rather timeless lines:
Will you be so kind enough to put the best possible interpretation upon my behavior while in N-York? ... Wallace would insist upon the juleps, and I knew not what I was either doing or saying.
[From Maud Newton]

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Economy-resistant moments

Now more than ever, it's time to find "value" in life that isn't easy to quantify or reduce to a factor of the massive global (faltering) economy. This is something of a challenge, especially when you work at a place where almost every in-depth story needs to be "trade-able" or its chances of seeing the light of day are slim. So, with a spirit of the grassroots rebel, find moments for which you can't buy a credit-default swap. Now, I'm sure you could play devil's advocate and find something to trade on these ideas. I don't care. To me these feel economy-resistant: Opening a gift bottle of wine that's been sitting on your microwave and realizing that it tastes better than the previous one. Smelling that hard-to-define yet instantly recognizable whiff of natural fragrance that's entwined with memories of warm weather on a warm Saturday. Seeing the skyline from a less-famous angle on the walkway of the GW Bridge. Meeting a friend on a street corner. Getting an autograph at the stage door from three famous stars. Shedding tears at the end of a touching television show. Chatting on the phone about the issues of the day with the people who really matter. Sharing a kiss before parting. Wishing peace to a stranger. Singing in four-part harmony, accompanied by upright bass, guitar and piano. Slipping a few folded windfall bills into a box and lighting a candle. Registering a pain-free breath and a clear-eyed view.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Capital preservation made easy

You know how they say you want to try to get your income tax payment/refund as close to zero as possible so that you're not giving the government an interest-free loan AND you don't have to come up with a hefty chunk of change in the spring? Well, this year, I wasn't anywhere near zero. I got a refund. And you know what? I'm glad. I'm happy the U.S. got to keep my money for a little while longer than they should have. If I'd taken home more cash in 2008, I might've been tempted to, you know, put it in stocks or something. So instead, the government was nice enough to hold onto that money for me, and return it to me fully preserved. All of which doesn't solve the problem of what to do with it now. Save or invest?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This made me giggle

Maybe monks have been on to something all these years.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Aside of the day

(Ask Dodgeball, the now-defunct Twitter-esque, what-bar-is-my-friend-at service that was once a hot item but was ultimately used by about 25 drunken bloggers to meet up on the Lower East Side.)
"How Tweet It Is," New York magazine.

See also Daryl's Web 2.0 Death Pool.

Monday, February 09, 2009

A show of shows

One of these days, I'll do something with all the ticket stubs I've been saving in little piles around the apartment. (Why I don't just put them all in one pile, I'm not sure yet.) In the meantime, I was indulging in a little thought experiment the other day, while my mind was wandering during a performance of this Saturday night at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. How many shows -- concerts, plays, dance performances, musicals, revues, etc. -- have I seen in my lifetime? And I mean everything from a Tony-award-winning Broadway production to a free concert in the park. I figured that for the past 10 years, I've seen on average about five things a month -- sometimes more, sometimes less. Add on another 100 performances for the rest of my childhood, and I came up with at least 700. Now, of course, I wouldn't be able to name all of them, although I do have a list of about 100 from this theater club I belong to, but I feel like that number is totally supportable, even as big as it sounds.

Which got me to thinking: If I were ever to become a professional critic of a particular kind of performing art, would I have to largely forgo the variety of other types in favor of my focus area? How many operas, say, does a movie critic end up seeing? Or vice versa? In the meantime, as a happy amateur omnivore, here are three shows I saw recently, enjoyed and would recommend to a friend: Uncle Vanya with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Denis O'Hare, In the Heights with Lin-Manuel Miranda (with whom I share a birthday), and Distracted with Cynthia Nixon. And one opera that blazed only briefly at Carnegie: Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra with Lauren Flanigan.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

RIP John Updike

Who gave us the following quote and so much more.

"The true New Yorker secretly believes that anyone living anywhere else has got to be, in some sense, kidding."

Of course, he lived in Massachusetts and wrote mostly about lives in the Rest of America, so this was probably written with more than a little mocking.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Idea for theater producers out there

Produce Duncan Sheik's new musical, "Whisper House." Album comes out tomorrow. From what I've heard so far, it's great!

(And no, despite getting a letter of interest in the mail today asking whether I want to be a producer, I'm not seeing it on the horizon just yet.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Last Saturday, four days late

Brunch at Nice Matin, L's old place of employment. Very attentive service. No water glass or coffee cup was allowed to reach bottom. Buttery-fresh brunch basket: pain au chocolat, etc. Medieval-looking lion-handled bowl of hot chocolate for M. Might've held mead instead. Still, approaching bar volume.

Lounging in the womb/iris of Pipilotti Rist's enveloping multimedia and multisensory installation at MoMA. Quite a treat. Cozy couch, rug full of amenable strangers. Children bounding about. Y-shaped pillows to share. Entrancing, sensual images of the beauty in natural decay/entropy displayed around the usually quite sterile atrium, former home of Broken Obelisk. Swapping out XY for XX. The video loop turned back upon itself and we craved more. Go before Feb. 2!

Recession chic. Order the expensive and delicious fish dishes at Extra Virgin without appetizers or booze. Wash it down with a round at 55 Bar, where now-Grammy-nominated Kate McGarry was jamming with her trio.

Off to desolate, snowy Bushwick. Morgan Avenue. Reminded me of the scene from Buster Keaton's "The Frozen North." Looking for the show? Not the random art show on the first floor. The random free variety show in the fourth-floor loft. Good, better, worse. Jason Trachtenberg on an especially off night. Happy for an intermission, an out. Subway back to the frozen north of Manhattan.