Saturday, April 18, 2015

ART and TRAIF

Last December, on the coldest night of the year, I trekked to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and, literally shaking in my boots, searched for the Castor Gallery, a small, but important exhibition space. Wandering around Broome Street trying to find it took me an hour. Yesterday, as spring finally broke through, and, hoping to bring a closure to this brutal winter, I again went to Broome Street — this time I knew where it was — to the K. Gallery, formally the P. Gallery. (I suppose those names have something to do with the owner, Prem Krishnamurthy.) To fit in with the hip Lower East Side crowd and because it was — wait for it — sunny, I wore my coolest new sunglasses. Here’s my shameful secret: I buy my shades based on whatever style Kyle Chandler, the actor, happens to be wearing on his current TV series. For years I wore the Oakley’s that Chandler’s character Coach Taylor wore on Friday Night Lights; now I sport his Fisherman Eyewear brand from Bloodlines. Wearing the same glasses as Kyle, I somehow feel… pathetic, I know. Back to art: I discovered Brooklyn-based artist Aaron Gemmill at this year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show and was transfixed by his print “To live where other pass (nest II),” with its bolts of white dancing across the luxurious background of undulating blue. For the show at K., Gemmill collaborated with Matthew Schrader, a fellow student of the Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts at Bard College, and the two of them are exhibiting in this joint show, Tactile Pose. The themes seem to be material structures of urban power and the symbols of state power taken apart and reassembled into different shapes and combinations. Gemmill has a history of working with complex systems: manipulating them, redefining them, finding mistakes in them. For his prints at K. he took a road map of Staten Island and separated out all the individual line segments; using a computer program, he condensed them to the smallest possible area. (He made similar work for all the boroughs but this show only exhibits five Staten Island prints.) The works are all called Maximum circulation maximum control and are 72x50 inches (lithographic ink, Plexiglas, paper), my favorite was hung behind the business desk of the gallery, the white “roads” raining down from a sky of dark blue onto a complex surface design of mountains (?) fields (?) despair(?). Schrader’s intense sculptures reference the 83rd Police Precinct in Bushwick (he lives and work in Brooklyn), where a giant frieze adorns the entrance. Working with CNC plasma-cut steel, different printer inks and even lemon juice, he copied the sculpture, deconstructed all the elements of the frieze, aged them, and finally reassembled them at the gallery using magnets to hold the newly created images together. These works also titled Maximum circulation maximum control, 2015 are brutal but strangely moving, almost as if the structural elements themselves are saying, “See, we’re just shapes. Assembly us anyway you like and see how lovely we become.” After the art and continuing my celebration of Persephone’s arrival, I took the train to downtown Williamsburg (of course wearing my sunglasses at night, thank you Cory Hart), repeating a journey I had made recently when I ate at the Michelin-starred Meadowsweet. This time I had a different restaurant in mind. Being a good Jewish boy and preparing emotionally for the Seder at my sister’s, I knew where I was going to eat: the restaurant called Traif. As every New Yorker knows (because every New Yorker’s second language is Yiddish) traif means non-kosher food. It can also be used as an adjective, just like “non-kosher” can, to modify anything from a person to a theatrical event with definite pejorative overtones. Continuing the all-things-ironic motif of Williamsburg, the owners of Traif opened their restaurant right next to the Hassidic neighborhood in Brooklyn. Oy! The unassuming entrance is in direct contrast to the come-hither twinkling lights of Meadowsweet. Maybe the owners wanted to keep a low profile in the land of the black hats: the only signage was a small logo on the temporary wind-blocking structure, a cute little piggy with an “I luv you” heart on drawn on its cute little piggy tummy. What are Traif’s signature dishes? Shellfish and pork, of course, the perfect pre-Seder meal. (Actually, I was looking forward to this Seder because I had somehow persuaded my 93-year-old mother to dress up like Pharaoh and scream during the meal, “Hey Jews, Go back to building my Pyramids.” Fun for all!) Traif is similar to many Clubs where the front door offers no indication of the excitement that lurks within. I was a bit overwhelmed by the joie de vie of the patrons and the lively atmosphere. This was clearly a local hang-out with the clientele eager to drink, mingle and to sample owner and chef Jason Marcus’s latest creations. I gingerly asked our server. “Er…do the Hassidim every come in here?” “Oh, sure,” she happily answered. “All the time, but they usually hide in the back.” The ultimate question answered, our server explained that this is a family-style restaurant where each party is encouraged to share dishes. The menu was a bit overwhelming so I asked her to suggest some favorites. Julie enthusiastically helped us navigate; she said six dishes seemed to be the magic number for a perfect two-person meal and recommended some signatures dishes as well as new ones the chef is experimenting with. (For the full experience, there is also a Chef’s Sampler available for $50 per person.) The dishes arrived two at a time, each one beautifully presented in different geometrically shaped dishes, each form highlighting the presentation. For an amuse bouche we were served a rich, creamy pea soup in a ceramic shot glass which we both downed it in one fell swoop. That’s how we roll in Brooklyn. My guest said he didn’t really like pea-soup, but loved this. The first two dishes to arrive were bay scallops on snap and English pea risotto, with caper-tomato brown butter, and the Salt and Pepper Shrimp, with chunks of pineapple, bits of sweet potato, tiny snow peas and sweet-spicy Thai vin. The food tasted as delicious as it sounded with all the different flavors bouncing off my pallet in a gastronomic counterpoint. The scallops were meaty and succulent and, though the shrimp was a bit spicy for my companion, I loved the kick, especially in tandem with the savory scallops. Waiting for our next dishes, we continued to bask in the friendly environment, quite enjoying the bartender’s “maracas dance” as he mixed cocktails. When the drink was mixed, we marveled at the Kadinsky-esque mural that spanned the length of the restaurant. Next out came my two favorites: spicy big-eye tuna tartar with tempura Japanese eggplant and kecap manis (a slightly thicker soy sauce), and a slowly roasted rack of lamb, English peas, mint green garlic, and pistachio. The eggplant was turned into a cracker, fried into a crunchy delight on which the tuna lay impressively presented, but this was not just your ordinary cracker. The flavor of the eggplant burst out in an exuberant union with the freshness and slight salt of the tuna. The lamb, one of my favorite foods, was pink perfection and I loved the finger bowls (shaped like a three-dimensional ellipse, of course) one of our attentive servers put on the table. By this time we were actually quite full but had two more dishes to come: the traif. Worth waiting for? Is Porky a Pig? (I’m assuming my naughty, guilty pleasure added to the taste.) At this point the strawberry-cinnamon glazed Berkshire baby back ribs sounded like it was possibly a huge mistake. We never kept Kosher at home, (although my mom drew the line with pig) but the cinnamon-strawberry gave a truly unusual kick to the succulent and tender ribs and I was thrilled the dish was recommended. I can understand why the Hassids sneak into this restaurant having tasted the BBQ, braised short rib sliders! Throughout the meal, the locals kept the restaurant humming while the patrons at the bar watched the chef cook at the kitchen that was visible from the back of the bar. The kitchen was so small, it was hard to believe such delicacies and in such quantity could be produced in such an assuming place. I guess size doesn’t matter. At least in a kitchen. We didn’t order dessert but out came another signature dish — the bacon-flecked donuts with dulce de leche and coffee ice cream. I admit I was terrified. But when you’re in Rome (or Traif)… All reservations disappeared when I popped one in my mouth. Chef Jason explained in a recent interview that bacon and doughnuts are both acceptable at breakfast, so this crossover made perfect sense to him. Tying it all together with the dulce de leche was pure brilliance. We were also served hot apple pie, freshly backed by the chef’s mom, keeping it all in the family. After the meal, I discovered there’s a sister restaurant next-door, Xixas, with the same owners, same chef. How is Xixas even pronounced? Shicksa’s of course. I can’t wait to go. With my Jewish friend Jacob and his girlfriend, LaTanya!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Poppin Fresh

POPPIN’ FRESH In my never-ending quest to become hip, cool and trendy—and of course to feel younger and assuage the ravages of time—I have subwayed to distant Williamsburg to eat at the latest bohemian restaurant (http://everydayopera.com/mmm-mmm-good/), I have taxied to the Lower East Side to hear contemporary classical music (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glen-roven/nice-jewish-music_b_6702712.html), and I’ve even attended a concert featuring the foremost virtuoso of the toy piano, (don’t ask!), so when I read one of my favorite gallerys, American Medium, in Bed Stuy Brooklyn of course, was hosting a pop-up show in Manhattan, I simply had to go. Until recently, I didn’t know about pop-up anythings, except the muffins. I first learned about the pop-up restaurant phenomenon watching the HBO series Looking, where Dom, financed by his older boyfriend, commandeers a defunct restaurant, serves his famous Portuguese Chicken for one night and closes before the cops can shut him down. I tried to get into “wastED,” a pop-up restaurant in NYC where star chefs fashion meals from food discarded from other restaurants and supermarkets. As appetizing as that sounds, I’m rather glad I couldn’t get in. I assumed a pop-up gallery was the same: here today, gone tomorrow but hopefully without the police or edible garbage. This pop-up show was called Three Generations: Dorothy Braudy, David Fitzgerald & Travis Fitzgerald. Travis is not only the co-director of the American Medium and a fine artist himself, but the son of sculptor David Fitzgerald, an artist with whom I was not familiar; he is also the grandson of Dorothy Braudy, a painter who’s work I’ve seen and adored at galleries in Santa Monica. Thus the Three Generations. According to Travis, “With mammals there is a certain amount of learning from one generation to the next. The young adopt the traditions of those that came before while also implementing newly found implications, thoughts, and skills, continuing a line already laid out while at the same time re-acting against those traditions. Artists make this process explicit.” There is no better evidence of the creative gene being passed on than the show that Travis Fitzgerald brought to the Home Studios on 873 Broadway. By the time this piece is posted, the show will have been dismantled, and that’s a pity. “It’s an amazing thing that we all are artists,” said Braudy, “and even more amazing that the three of us can show together. Even the Wyeths never managed to pull off three generations at once.” There is no pictorial theme to this show; rather the three generations provide the theme and the underlying unity, one as profound as it is organic. Again from Travis, “The work is all quite different and coming from our very personal ideas of what art is and what we want to make.” Braudy paints with oils on canvas. Usually working from photographs, she transforms those static images with bold and dynamic color. As her grandson says, “Dorothy's paintings are more traditional, but making figurative painting from photographs was radical when she began her career.” Looking around the room, I was overwhelmed by her sensual bursts of colors which have the soaring emotional impact of fireworks on July 4th. The show opens with her Tossing, (1979, 36 inches, oil on canvas) a circular painting of a father in a large swimming pool tossing a young child up in the air. The toss is an explosion of joy as the water cascades around the pair. The father’s expression of cautious enthusiasm contrasts with the unbridled delight of the boy. The water seems warm and inviting, so unlike the cool, clinical pools of David Hockney, another artist who, like Braudy, was seduced by the strange beauty of Southern California. The father/son (or so I assume) relationship seems a direct line from the Mother/Daughter masterpieces by Bertha Morisot. Another highlight in the Braudy canon is “Leo in Italy,” a feast of Mediterranean colors—modulating ochre and sea green—with Leo (Braudy’s husband) lying asleep in a wrought iron bed, the iron casings casting their own geometric art on the wall, the shadows playing happily with the iron. Leo is sleeping deeply and heavily, perhaps spent from an afternoon liaison; I see him as a descendant of Mars in Botticelli’s famous “Mars and Venus.” http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/sandro-botticelli-venus-and-mars. One of Braudy’s signatures is her “Film Noir” series where she works from black-and-white movie stills. By subtly adding brooding colors she transforms a shot into a vivid representation of the entire movie, actually the entire world of this film genre. The dark tone of these searing but non-sentimental works contrast with the gaily colored domestic paintings in this show, highlighting the depth and breadth of Braudy’s exploratory powers. One of my favorites is Raw Deal: Ranger, (2005, 36×47 inches, oil on canvas). It features a figure in a muted orange/brown coat and threatening fedora, his back to the viewer, stalking another figure in silhouette just emerging from a structure (trees? a building?). Despite its bright Diebenkorn background, the entire painting is foreboding, producing a palpable sense of dread. I’m going to call it an oxymoron: Braudy has created a black-and-white painting in color. Another haunting work is Gun Crazy: Rain (35x46 inches 2005) — a cityscape, a sole street lamp in the background illuminating nothing but rain-drenched streets and a dilapidated Feed and Grain store. Here Braudy’s “black and whites” are rendered in muted pinks and purples with TV antennas looking like crosses on the roof of a store and on the houses in the background. David Fitzgerald, the baby-boomer of the three generations, created disturbing and frighteningly beautiful works for the show. “My dad’s work is the most inscrutable,” said his son. “And yet he's always been interested in encaustic and the figure. That's the basis for the busts, but there is obviously more there.” Obviously: the thirteen busts of women were all based on mug shots of female sex offenders. Artists have worked with encaustics for millennia; no surprise these busts have an Egyptian feel, reminding me of the famous Nefertiti in the Louvre. http://culturoid.com/2013/03/artwork-of-the-day-bust-of-nefertiti/ It’s hard to get any sort of detail from this medium so the sculptures radiate a primitive but luminous quality, very much like healthy skin. Before even I knew who the ladies were (David supplied the names and a condensed rap sheet in the artist’s statement), they all felt, well, creepy. Maybe because I am currently binging on Orange is the New Black, I felt a sad familiarity with dead-eye look of the busts, the look the actresses on the series so brilliantly portray. Some of the woman wore dime-store wigs, like the one based on Katherine Cervantes, “a 35-year-old woman from Sellersburg, Indiana … arrested and accused of drinking with a group of teens, including her daughter and her daughter's 14-year-old ex-boyfriend. Cervantes was accused of giving the boy alcohol and marijuana and having sex with him.” Some had no wigs at all. I’m not sure which were more unpleasant, perhaps “Abbie Jean Swogger, 34-year-old former exotic dancer and teacher's aide at Highlands Senior High School, who was arrested in February 2008 for allegedly contributing to the corruption of at least four minors including her own 15-year-old son.” David, who is disarmingly quiet, said, “All these ladies, I don’t what I’m going to with them.” He laughed. “You can’t put them your living room.” Travis Fitzgerald, the millennial of the group, had the most “cutting edge” work, pieces that would be in a gallery in Brooklyn. No surprise there. “My work is a direct result of running two galleries today. I don't hold myself to a medium, but rather follow the work where it wants to go.” In addition to a monumental self-portrait he drew early (!) in his career, and a painting of some evocative, quasi-realistic colorful chairs, his latest works were found cornered off in a small room, isolated from the sex offenders and the colors of Grandma Dorothy. As he and his father designed and installed the work, he clearly chose to “to go his own room,” so to speak, by placing his newest pieces in such a way. He exhibited several gorgeous but subtle tapestries and an installation of a boy’s room related and inspired by Jan Steen’s paintings, “Woman at her Toilet.” While I didn’t know these paintings off hand, I assumed they were the Dutch genre paintings made to sell to the newly formed merchant classes. AShttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Steen The Steens, said Travis, “portray prostitutes sitting cross-legged in bed in a moment of domestic intimacy with their items of comfort and objects of importance strewn about them (lapdog, chamber pot, clogs). They have an inner sexuality, and the portraits pose questions about the objects we transfer desire onto.” For his Object of Permanence I (2014, Woven blanket) Travis working with a dark blue woven background,deleted most of the woman’s body and left us with two sets of legs, one grey, one orange, along with three small articles of her toilet, a chamber pot, a glass and a pair of shoes,perhaps all that’s important to a potential John. For one of the installations, he was inspired to sculpt nine copies of the dogs in the Steens (Kooikerhondfe Reclining, 2014, acrylic paint) and position them in the center of his room so the overflowing crowd had to carefully avoid stepping on the sleeping pups, a piece of performance art unto itself. This multi-generational show was particularly moving to me. I am a musician and have worked in music now for almost thirty years, although my parents, having no interest in music whatsoever, did their utmost to discourage me. They thought I was from another planet, an alien plopped into their domestic life to torture them about orchestras, musicals and operas. In fact my 93-year-old mom still sees my career as a personal affront to her. (Ah, parents!) I can’t imagine what it would have been like with parents supporting my artistic endeavours, despite the personal and financial risks of the future. Travis explains, “I was always super supported in whatever choices I was going to make.” Wow. “It’s a wonderful privilege that I get to show with two of the people who supported me in my decisions, both artistic and personal, throughout my life.” Travis was so inspirational that I will give him the last word here: “We are all unsure, questioning as we go. That, in part, is the nature of making work. The goal is to be sure-footed, striking out with determination as you go, but it takes time and a certain perseverance to get there. All three of us work, question, rework, worry, rework. A familial cycle I am happy to continue.”

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mmm Mmm Good Meadowsweet

Mmm, Mmm, Good What qualifications do I have to review a restaurant, especially one with a Michelin star? None, really, except for the fact that I have eaten every meal out (I mean virtually every meal) for thirty years. I have spent my time and money in restaurants ranging from the much-missed diner, Big Nick’s on Broadway and 77th Street, with it’s 20 page menu and old Russian waitresses, to Daniel’s on the East-side, perhaps the best restaurant in the City. The TasteMakers project was created “for New Yorkers to check out new restaurants we see as forward-thinking and adventurous…to represent the cutting edge of food.” Thirty restaurants, bars and sweet shops are participating ranging from Canelé by Céline on the Upper East Side to the Whiskey Soda Lounge at Columbia Waterfront District (where ever that is!) When I was asked to review Meadowsweet I happily (almost happily) took the train to trendy South Williamsburg, tried to grow some ironic facial hair on the way---a completely failure--and began my life as a food critic. Paraphrasing the Bard, “If food be the music of love, eat on!” I arrived in South Williamsburg in a foul mood having barely survived navigating the underground labyrinth of the 14th Street Train station, a crowded, urine-soaked version of Dante’s First Ring of Hell, searching for the M train (M for Mysterious? Miserable?) When I finally arrived at Mercy Street (indeed, Lord have it!) there was no cell reception so I hadn’t a clue where I was. Instead of bursting into tears, I restarted my iPhone and dear Siri, genuinely surprised I was in Brooklyn, guided me down the grungy-brick road. If this is trendy, I thought, you can have it. The journey started to improve as I past the legendary Peter Luger’s Steakhouse. Ah, the light dawning, this is where the Manhattan glitterati go for meat. Then I passed the monumental Williamsburg Savings Bank, a miniature Saint Paul’s Cathedral plopped down in the middle of nowhere, although the Hassidim walking around in their black coats made me question my metaphor. Finally, in the distance, twinkling like Emerald City, was Meadowsweet (149 Broadway, 718 384-0673), and once inside, my awful journey faded into oblivion as I began an outstanding meal. The welcoming interior is a bright, airy space decorated with whitewashed pine reclaimed from a factory in Kentucky plus a 17-foot herb garden hanging form a loft over the entrance. An old-fashioned mosaic floor, original to the building’s first tenant, a printing factor, added a homey feel to the contemporary white. Polo Dobkin who was the Chef at Gramercy Tavern and guided the much lamented Dressler to its own Michelin star, is now the owner and chef with his wife Stephanie; after an extensive search around Brooklyn including Park Slope and other areas, they decided on reconditioning Dressler’s ground floor location. The people at TasteMakers suggested I order from the special 5 Course Chef’s Tasting menu (each TasteMaker participant has created an affordable one, this one is $65) and I was more than happy to oblige. The waitress asked if we had any food restrictions, any preferences, and then chef would concoct a 5 Course meal tailored specifically for us. Continuing my music metaphor, we left the menu to chance, an edible John Cage-like feast. I was with two friends, so we had the opportunity to taste 15 different dishes. Of the three starters the winner was the one presented to me (the kitchen knew I was reviewing): the Crispy Baby Artichokes with baby arugula, shaved parmesan and creamy garlic dressing, a signature dish. I remember loving another artichoke dish at Piperno a fabulous restaurant in the Jewish section of Rome, but this crunchy, creamy delight put dear Piperno’s to shame. This five-course meal consisted of a starter, a pasta dish, a seafood dish and a meat dish topped off by desert. Plenty of food, indeed, but the portions were exactly the right size (not too small, Goldilocks, not too big) to be enjoyed without feeling stuffed or worse, still hungry. Again, I think I was given the winner, a perfect pasta, the Chitarra Nero with uni, rock shrimp, crab and house-made garlic bread crumbs. Our waitress warned it might be spicy, but the seasoning merely highlighted the fish; the uni was as succulent as the uni served in the best and most expensive Japanese restaurants in the city. At the beginning of the ordering process, I mentioned I loved octopus so I was pleased (and by now, not all that surprised) that I was served the Grilled Spanish Octopus with tomato, fregola and mollica. Suffice it to say that Chef Polo’s roots are Austrian and Spanish (Catalonian) and he likes to keep the Mediterranean menu seafood centric and this octopus dish rivaled the octopus I was served on Mykonos, having just been caught by Tasos, my fisherman friend, and served to me minutes later. The only restriction I gave to our waitress was I would rather not have the Hanger Steak. I was delighted when she served the Duck breast with Tokyo turnips, acorn squash, puffed rice and mole. Even though every dished had been a treat, I think the duck, tender and pick, that seemed to melt in my mouth like a savory M&M, was my favorite. The tiny turnips and squash were farm fresh, lightly steamed, while the puffed rice added a risotto feel to the dish. Of course, every plate was shared with my friends, and Michele a genuine foodie, was rendered speechless by the delicacies. After tasting the three deserts, which I’ll refrain from writing about in case my trainer is reading this article, we were introduced to sous-chef Alex Clark, substituting for Polo on his night off. Twenty-seven year old Alex, heavily tattooed, bearded and pierced like all good Brooklyn-ites, is clearly a disciple of Dopkin’s and was all too happy to share his thoughts about Meadowsweet: “I love the rustic food style. It’s all about the down to earth flavors. The Tasting Menu let’s us play around with some special ideas, to challenge ourselves, as well as offer our signature dishes. I hate to use the phrase fine dining, but we simply want to be a high end restaurant in Brooklyn with really great food.”

Friday, March 6, 2015

EATING ART

The French writer Marcel Aymé once wrote a short story in which the population of a small town, starving to death, suddenly discovered that if they looked at a painting of food with enough intensity, they would feel nourished, as if they'd eaten whatever was depicted on the canvas. I've been working incredibly hard recently (poor me!), the winter weather weighing heavy, and like a member of Aymé's town, I needed to eat some art. So off I went to the Lower East Side seeking nourishment at the new Castor Gallery, featuring young, upcoming artists. The gallery opened in January with a blockbuster show of household names--Banksy, Damien Hirst--but this exhibition focused on their proposed mission statement of featuring younger, but blazing hot artists, Christopher Beckman, Nick Farhi and Matt Jones among others. In this terrific show, curated by Justin DeDemko, each artist created a monochrome work relying on form and medium, rather than a spectrum of colors, to convey emotion and meaning. As this was the coldest night of the year, I was hoping for a show featuring landscapes of Hawaii or the beaches of Mykonos, but strangely enough the monochromatic work generated a heat of its own. Beckman's painting began the show: painted on canvas, a large, empty room with barred window seemed to float in a sea of grey, the saturated background having a crackled texture while some mystical white/grey light tried to illuminate the room (prison?). Maybe it was a ghost ship, floating in a storm tossed sea. In any event, grey has never looked so beautiful. This was a huge departure for an artist usually consumed by color, an artist who has been experimenting with new, iridescent materials. Instead of his irreverent drawing aesthetic, Farhi exhibited one of his signature "drum head" paintings, the biggest I've seen; it had the soothing quality of one of Agnes Martin's sublime white paintings. As a musician, I always respond to Farhi's work although I often wonder what my drummer friends would think. Would they enjoy it for art's sake, or would Steve Gadd and Chris Parker need to take out their drumsticks and give it a good whacking? Brooklyn Artist Matt Jones exhibited an ambitious landscape. Lately he has been working on a series of sci-fi/fantasy works such as this outer-space view of a distant planet. The work subtly changes color as the light morphs in the gallery, which made the painting seem other-worldly. To achieve this space-time effect, the surface was first layered with acrylic paint, painted black, then covered in an iridescent pigment+urethane combo. After it dries, it's coated in resin. All in all, this trip was a much-needed solace in the middle of winter's coldest night. Filling as the Castor Gallery show was, this is the Armory Show Week so the city is a smorgasbord of tasty shows and exhibitions; I couldn't resist a good binge and the fourth annual SPRING/BREAK Art Show specializing in the up-and-coming fit the bill. This year's theme, Transaction, "which explores visions of and commentaries on exchange in all its forms, ...aims to turn observation into interaction and reimagine the trade show platform as an opportune playground, instead of the curator's exhibition ideal." To continue the metaphor (last one, I promise,) just because the menu is in a foreign language doesn't mean the food won't be delicious, and although I hadn't a clue what that art-speak press release meant, the exhibition was sensational. Installed on two upper floors of the old Post Office Building on 31st Street (soon to be condos), each office became an individual curator's playground, filled with art instead of worker drones slaving away at whatever they did before they went postal. Brooklyn artist Agustus Nazzaro exhibited directly across from the Baltimore-based Seth Adelsberger; Nazzaro's dark, anguished work with titles such as "Language 1" and "Rifle Locker II" served as a stark counterpoint to Adlessberger's sensuous, untitled pieces, each with a single color -deep blue, sea green, purple-red--modulating on a translucent, black background. Actually after seeing this room, I almost understood the theme of the show as Nazzaro's works, with their angular verticals and shadowed tonalities, subtly argued with Adelsberger colorful biomorphics. Aaron Gemmill's "To live where other pass (nest II)," lithographic ink, adhesive, and Plexiglas on cotton paper, was another highlight. I had known his brooding series of black, grey and white work with its geometric lines slicing through the darkness, but I had never seen his lighter more ethereal blue work with bolts of white dancing across the luxurious background of undulating color. No surprise these works quickly sold out. Rachel Rossin, an artist new to me, works on CAD software manipulating painting from a digital environment to reality, and although that all sounds a bit technical, her Flower Series lit up the dingy postal office, each flower working its magic, blossoming in the environment. She kindly took me behind the scenes (into an even dingier corridor) where she placed goggles on my head and I was hurled into her virtual 3D landscape; all of a sudden I was actually in one of her paintings. Amazing! Moving into the sculptural world, I loved Frank Zadlo's "Setting," cast, cracked and sanded cement with a pigment in a maple wood frame. The fractured, cement sphere in the center of the flat sculpture became a planet losing its center while a corona of white-hot energy, the energy of destruction, surrounded the sphere. And yet, all this existed in the middle of a calm sand-colored background framed by a simple maple wood frame. "Private Eye," by Adam Parker Smith was the most monumental sculpture of the exhibition. The 8' by 6' work of resin, steel, foam, plastic and wood, exploded with unbridled enthusiasm, as if enormous pieces of construction paper, purple, white, grey and sienna were bisected by a giant orange straw while explosive bits of pale blue and yellow burst forth from the center of the sculpture, a real eye-full. This work was in a room curated by Erin Goldenberger + RJ Supa and hiding unceremoniously near the back wall, well out of the gravitational pull of "Private Eye," I discovered eight disturbing but magnificent tiny sculptures by Chris Beckman, whose work I'd seen at the Castor Gallery. Beckman's "Bedazzled," consisted of melted down and then reconstructed Blackberry's, some of acrylic, some of Bisazza tile, some of cast polymer; Beckman's sculptures were perhaps a post-apocalyptic remnant of our entire society and culture: scary, intense, perverse and ultimately beautiful in their destruction: the entire modern world summed up in eight tiny works. Brilliant and delicious.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Matthew and Joyce in my backyard (from the H Post!)

As a long-time West Sider, I've happily traipsed through the bowels of Brooklyn for my last few posts in pursuit of the most happening events in classical music, theater and opera. But sometimes, as L. Frank Baum and Judy remind us, there is truly no place like home. Last Wednesday and Thursday, I experienced two of the greatest recitals I have ever had the pleasure of hearing in my own backyard Halls -- that would be Mathew Polenzani at Alice Tully and Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie. Both artists have graced the world's most prestigious opera stages in roles ranging from ingénues to English queens, from love-sick juveniles to Emperors of Rome. But in a recital, the singer is laid bare. Sets, costumes and lights are kept to a bare minimum; no orchestra or choreography or other players will help to heighten a character's inner life: there is only the singer and accompaniment. I've seen the most seasoned opera star fall flat simply because there is no support, nothing to lean on, no "character" to hide behind. But when a solo artist is confident, when the music soars from the soul of one person to the heart of the audience, there is simply no musical experience comparable -- as in the everyday world, intimacy is what feeds us, is what brings meaning to life. From Evanston, Illinois, Polenzani has performed the most challenging tenor roles in houses all over the world, but this was the first time I've seen him in recital. Walking on stage in an impeccable dark grey suit, , Polenzani and his pianist, the legendary Julius Drake took their places. He opened with one of Beethoven's most famous songs, "Adelaide," and he had me at the first phrase, Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten, as his clarion, vital, sumptuous tenor gently caressed the gorgeous music. His voice easily filled the hall, echoing through the rafters, but seemed completely effortless, as if he were singing in my living room, his voice needing to fly, needing to be heard. This was also the first time I've heard the British accompanist and chamber musician Drake perform live (though he plays on probably half of my classical CD collection). He seemed to be playing a magic trick with the Steinway Grand -- turning it into a fortepiano, the kind of instrument Beethoven himself played. I don't know quite how he did it; it wasn't just a matter of playing softly or less sustained but somehow the entire tone of a modern piano was brought down to an 18th Century scale. After the Beethoven, Polenzani segued into eight songs by Liszt with Drake now offering virtuosic Listzian pyrotechnics. I foolishly thought that I had heard the full bloom of Polenzani's sound with the Beethoven but I was wrong. His voice opened up even further. It was in this cycle I realized the depth of his emotional commitment as each song took on a completely different sense of character and emotional journey, from a man in the glow of youth appreciating the sound of the lark to a soul in despair, experiencing the death of all hope. Technically the transitions from his lowest notes to the highest were as smooth and as subtle as they were dazzling; when he gently held a pianissimo note and sweetly guided it down step-wards, I held my breath. The German language has never sounded as lovely. I have read that Liszt's songs, works that I'm not as familiar with as I intend to be in the future, are the bridge to the art songs of the great Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. I think it's a tribute to an artist to make the listener need to explore more of the repertoire just experienced. After the intermission, Polenzani and Drake again enchanted in spirited songs by Satie and Ravel but the true revelation of the evening, the highlight of the recital composed of highlight after highlight was Polenzani's transcendent performance of Barber's monumental Hermit Songs. I have loved this song cycle for years but it wasn't until I heard him sing them, that I was finally convinced these songs, though originally premiered by Leontyne Price, truly belong to a tenor. What convinced me was the unmatched pathos in Polenzani's voice and the glorious colors he used. Recently I admit I've been partial to a darker tenor sound, the sound of a Jonas Kaufmann or Charles Castronovo. But hearing Polenzani, I remembered why I originally loved that pure, golden tenor sound. Plus, as strange as it seems, some Americans who can sing beautifully in German, French, Spanish and even Russian, cannot sing at all in their native language; for some reason, unknown to me, they insist on fake extended vowels and annoying guttural consonants. This is definitely not the case here. Polenzani sung beautifully in English, and I could feel the audience being drawn further into the recital experience by not having to read along with the translations. Despite finding unexpected glories in all of the Hermit Songs, Polenzani brought a particular ardor and insight to the final piece in the cycle, "The Desire For Hermitage -- the brilliant climax to an unforgettable evening. Bravo, tenore! Great artists still have plenty to impart long after their peak years (just look at the Matisse cutouts so recently at MoMa). But there is nothing as exciting at seeing a world-class artist, maybe the best in the world, at the height of her career. Such was the case with the incandescent Joyce DiDonato. Oh yes. Instead of performing in the vast Stern Auditorium at Carnegie, which she sold out only a few weeks ago, on Thursday evening she was a "guest star" at the Brentano String Quartet concert in the 599-seat Zankel Hall. (All this while preparing La Donna del Lago at the Met.) The Brentano Quartet dazzled the audience in the first half of the program with a scholarly Charpentier interpretation and a definitive Debussy String Quartet in G Minor. After the break, DiDonato appeared in a stunning black-and-white outfit, the standing-room-only audience, which I have to assume was really there to hear her, embraced her with open arms. She then introduced three songs that had been created by the Lullaby Project; created by the Weill Music Institute, the Project visits women show are dwelling in New York City hospitals, homeless shelters, and at Rikers Island and invites them to write personal lullabies for their children in collaboration with professional artists. The songs, "Hopes and Dreams for My Children (Elsa Negron with Matt Aronoff) "Dream Big" (Shaylor Canteen with Thomas Cabaniss) and "Peace" (Tamilles Fernandes with Deidre Rodman Struck) were mesmerizing. The conviction DiDonato brought to these heartfelt compositions was another tribute to her artistry. Not only can she sing convincingly in any language she choices, but her diction and sensitivity to vernacular lyrics (Will you play soccer just like your daddy does/Am I squishing you when I sleep at night?) lifted the compositions to that rarified world of art song. Similar to the Polenzani recital, she saved the best for last: the premiere of American composer Jake Heggie's monumental "Camille Claude: Into the Fire," a glorious if heart-wrenching new composition, with words by his longtime collaborator, Gene Scheer, As Strauss's "Rosenkavalier" reveled in the waltzes and the schlag of Vienna, as Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" danced to the waltzes and "perpetual sunsets" of Scandinavia, "Into the Fire," suggested by sculptures of Claudel, is filled with sad, heartfelt and at times disturbing waltzes consumed with the passions and longing of rejected lovers, music that could have been heard on the streets and café's of Rodin's Paris. The piece begins with a shimmering high A, at which point the string quartet seemed to be tuning up or metaphorically preparing for life as the first gorgeous waltz emerged, slowly at first, but then with more and more rhythmic, intense ferocity before it broke down again, just as DiDonato entered softly but gloriously with the opening line, "Last night I went to sleep completely naked, which seemed somehow to encompass Claudel's entire life. The warmth and profundity of DiDonato's buttery lower register was gloriously explored in the second song, "La Valse" while her subtle soft notes were on display in "Shakuntala," the most rhythmic of pieces. The composition moved from strength to strength as Claudel sank deeper and deeper, musically and verbally, into despair, finally ending up with the Epilogue, 16 years into her confinement at the Montdevergues Asylum. The solo violin (the astonishing Mark Steinberg) seemed to portray a friend who came to visit, talking to Claudel. DiDonato sang, "Thank you for remembering me", and her pianissimo was radiant. The entire quartet picked up the valse triste as DiDonato ended with another almost unbearable, "Thank you for remembering me." And silence. There was nothing more to say, or hear.

NICE JEWISH MUSIC (from Huff Post!)

Nice Jewish Music When American song writer Jerome Kern announced he was going to write a show based on Marco Polo, an enthusiastic reporter asked, “Mr. Kern, your new musical is based on an Italian who crossed the Alps and then the Leviathan desert, got to Mongolia, then China and finally returned home to Italy. For heaven’s sake, what type of music will you compose?” Kern answered without missing a beat, “Nice Jewish Music.” (Oh, I hope that’s true.) Last Monday, I went to my favorite venue in the city, SubCulture (160 seats-the friendliest staff and a bar that actually closes during the performances) to see CONTACT! a Co-Presentation of 92nd Street Y and the New York Philharmonic, the seminal series dedicating to performing new music. This concert was called New Music from Israel, and yes it was “nice Jewish music!” Substituting for an indisposed Lisa Batiashvili was the erudite Yotam Haber, a composer I deeply admire, Israeli or not. In fact, I knew the music of all four of the composers but had never once thought of three of them as particularly Israeli, although somewhere in my mind I guess I knew they were all born there. As Haber took pains to explain in his welcome speech, Israel today is a melting pot; what it means to be Israeli is completely different than what I meant forty years ago. He joked that what was being presented was a Me'orav yerushalmi, or Jerusalem Mix, a grilled mix of meats that is often served before a meal. He talked about the dilemma of writing “nationalistic” music. Before the twentieth century most classical music did indeed have a nationalistic sound, perhaps not because of a composer’s personal politics but simply because traveling to other parts of Europe, let alone the world, was exceedingly difficult, and for geographical reasons composers were mostly exposed to music of their compatriots. A national sound developed almost by default. In today’s world of instant down-loads from iTunes, or actually ever since air travel became the norm, the nationalist sound of various regions became diffuse; a composer almost has to consciously decide to write music that would be deemed nationalistic. The first composer presented Joseph Bardanashvili was born in Georgia in 1948 and didn’t move to Israel until 1995. Since then he has been one of the countries most performed composers and it’s easy to see why judging from the movement selected from his String Quartet No. 1, Quasi danza macabre. As the music began, I felt it couldn’t be less Israeli if it tried. The danza kicked off with a riotous tango, the rhythms directly from Argentina but the harmonies directly from Bardanashvili’s fertile imagination. It was as if Astor Piazolla, suddenly inspired, discovered Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky. The syncopations, the disjointed rhythms and the delicious harmonies made for a perfect opening. But suddenly as the first section dissolved into the second by way of an astounding cello cadenza (played by the Nathan Vickery,) we high-tailed it out of Argentina, and via El Al landed directly at Ben Gurion Airport. The music turned decidedly modal, with the aching and longings of a wandering Jew, and we were smack in the Old City of Jerusalem. The cello and occasionally the viola kept the incessant beat with a macabre pedal tone as the two violins danced high above with shimmering, but steely harmonics. The main theme returned at the end and the piece came to a rousing climax with a reprise of the infectious tango, the perfect way to open this me'orav yerushalmi. Next up was Haber’s own piece, and though I adore Haber’s minimalist style with his post-Adams tunefulness and post-Glass syncopations this piece, Estro Poetico-armonico II was a dense concentration of sounds and pitches far removed from anything I’ve heard of his before. Suggested by the story of Benedetto Marcello, a Venetian contemporary of J.S. Bach’s who hid in the Synagogue transcribing the ancient melodies, Haber took snippets of these tunes and compressed them into musical atoms. This piece was an interesting contradiction: the densest musically as well as the sparest. I loved how the “tunes” seemed to surface through the lowest notes of the bass clarinet (Lino Gomez) and then swirl into the modular trillings’ of the violins. Shulamit Ran, the second woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for music was perhaps the most well-known of the quartet although her piece, Mirage for five players seemed to me a minor work from a great composer. I was most looking forward to hearing the piece by Avner Dorman, the composer I would have mentioned if someone asked me to name and Israeli composer. I was lucky enough to hear his outrageous piece at the NY Phil, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! in 2009 featuring the now (sadly) disbanded Perca-duo, one of the most sensational performance of a new piece I’ve ever heard. Dorman did not let me down with his, aptly titled, Jerusalem Mix. Blasting off with the rhythms of New York with more than a touch of Bernstein and Gershwin, the syncopated phrases engulfed the audience and took us on a virtually tour of the night-life of New York City. But then just as suddenly as in the Bardanashvili, we were in Tel Aviv with Marc Nuccio on the clarinet and Sherry Sylar, oboe, inviting us to a Jewish Wedding. Of course, with Dorman, this is no let’s-all-improvise-on-D-minor-and-dance-a-hora-type music, but a deeply contrapuntal excursion into the vernacular. All through the evening I kept trying to hear any sort of unifying sound that would link these three disparate composers. It seems that in all of the pieces, surrounded by vibrant rhythms of dance and exotic colors was an aura of sadness, loneliness and desperation. I wonder if that’s the “nice Jewish music.” And a postscript: Before the CONTACT! concert, I went to the York Theater on Lexington (which is completely unmarked, can they please fix that?) for a staged reading of an operatic version The Sleeping Beauty. The composer, Benjamin Wenzelberg, age 15, has been working on the opera since he was 11. He won the 2014 BMI Student Composer Award and a 2015 National Young Arts Foundation Merit winner. He sings in the Met Children’s chorus, was a composer at Tangelwood last summer, studies composition and conducting at Juilliard and I saw him as Miles in the NYCO production of The Turn of the Screw. I never use the “G” word, but if I did, I would burden Wenzelberg with it. So how was the opera? Wonderful. This was a true opera full of recitatives, choruses and arias that define and delineate character but most importantly it is music driven, not surprising for a young composer who grew up singing at the Met, but still. Plus Wenzelberg enlisted his “friends,” to perform, nice to have friends like the legendary Soprano Lauren Flanigan who was at the top of her game. Watch out for this kid!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

In With The New

about to go live on Huff Post In With The New Leonard Bernstein said, “The nineteenth century dies hard.” By that he meant his American concert-going audience would rather hear the lush, romantic music of over a hundred years ago —Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Verdi — than the angular, anguished music of the twentieth —Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich. Personally I love 20th century music, especially Britten, Bartók, and Ives, but when it comes to the classical contemporary concert music of this very moment, what composers have written from 2000 to today, I admit to a gaping hole in my knowledge (although I do know and love the contemporary opera scene). My New Year’s resolution last month was to address that gap. So, I boarded the Q train to Atlantic Avenue in uber-hip downtown Brooklyn to revisit the 400-seat jewel-box theater known as Roulette, the gorgeous and red-hot center of the contemporary music universe. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glen-roven/my-brooklyn-bridge-the-pa_b_6378252.html The moment I took my seat I had a panic attack. There on the stage, in addition to a set-up for a traditional string quartet, was a bright red toy piano. Allow me to explain. A few months ago, in a nascent attempt to experience more contemporary music, I attended a concert featuring “the foremost virtuoso of the toy piano.” This artist performed for twenty minutes, which felt to me like twenty years. Each tinny note was a pinprick to my soul. My concert-going buddy Christopher didn't speak to me for a month. As the audience at Roulette filled up, my dread began to ease. I was thrilled that the orchestra was quite a full one, allowing me to breath freely and stop my silent prayer of “Please don’t be a toy piano concerto, please, please, please.” I was in luck. First on the program was Quatuor Bozzini, a Candian string quartet, three parts woman one part man. The program describes the group as “an original voice in new, contemporary, experimental and classical music.” Their first piece Contact; Vault (1997), despite indecipherable program notes by the very talented Canadian composer, Martin Arnold (who is also a landscape designer but, perhaps, not a writer) was an intensely moving composition with a single melodic line extended over the entire piece. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a softer piece played in a concert hall. It reminded me of an Agnes Martin painting where the stillness and quiet of her delicate pencil marking bring a much-needed sense of calm to our boisterous, exterior world. Even at its loudest, the piece never graduated beyond a quiet piano, and I particularly liked how the first violin played the subtle but angular melody while the second violin doubled the first using softly plucked pizzicato, the plucked sound disappearing instantly while the bowed notes lingered in the air. For their next piece, the members of Quatuor Bozzini all put in earpieces which were clearly connected to two toy pianos on stage (there was a second, black piano that, in my panic, I had not seen). OK, I told myself, Remain Calm. You are facing not one but two amplified toy pianos. Stay strong. I was happily surprised. The piece, Hitchcock Études, turned out to be a multi-media composition, about as contemporary as it gets, and yes, it was about Hitchcock! Projected on the screen behind the players was a mashed up, Vine-style sequence of well known scenes from the British master of suspense: The Birds, Psycho, Vertigo, the familiar images playing over and over, in slow motion, backwards and forwards, cut up and re-cut, complete with a sliced-and-diced Bernard Hermann score playing while at the same time Quatuor Bozzini played Nicole Lizée’s equally arresting score, punctuated by — here it comes — the childish plunk of amplified, twin toy pianos. And surprise of surprises, the toy pianos were a wonderful addition to the string sound of the quartet (played by Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung, momentarily putting down their violins) and the string orchestra of Hermann’s score. This piece had the players (and composer) interact with “the lost, forgotten or even dead icons, simultaneously breathing new life and emotions in the function and storyline.” The quartet also performed James Tenny’s Koan (1984), a minimalist, microtonal creation, the perfect way to end the act. After the intermission came the act that had drawn me to Roulette: String Noise, a violin duo consisting of husband and wife Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris. Even I, with my limited knowledge of “what’s happening,” knew this dynamic duo. As did the audience for they were greeted with a thundering ovation, more common for American Idols than classical musicians. String Noise premiered a new piece written for them by super-nova, interdisciplinary composer Spence Topel, an influential force in the contemporary music and sound art scene, direct from Dartmouth College where he teaches in the Department of Music and the Digital Music’s Program. Topel’s piece needed no toy piano or deconstructed film: in fact, Palavers (2014) was the only piece on the program that, because of its astonishing emotional depth, I felt could easily fill the stage at Carnegie or Avery Fisher Hall. “Palaver” is defined as 1) Talk that is not important or meaningful, and 2) Excitement and activity caused by something that is not important. Topel’s choice of title must be either ironic or counter-intuitive as there is nothing “not important” about this piece. Far from a dialogue of inconsequential chatter, this composition offered a conversation as intense, witty and at times as violent as the dialogue in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, its two violins competing and counterpointing like Martha and George. In fact in the first section of the piece, Ms. Harris’s bow struck the strings with such ferocity that an unexpected puff of resin exploded from her instrument and sailed toward the ceiling. (I wondered if that was notated in the score: “Strike the strings hard so to cause a resin explosion”?) In the hands of these virtuosos, Palaver explored the life of a particularly vivid relationship: the tender courtship, the passion and hunger of new love, the intensity and catharsis of fighting, (complete with string pizzicatos thundering as the hammer blows do in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony) the reconciliations and, finally, peace and acceptance. This piece was “absolute music” and absolute joy. String Noise also performed Dan Siegler’s “Read the Following Before Playing,” which challenged the duo to accompany pre-taped dialogue that they had never heard before. Fascinating. September (2013) by Petr Bakla was an exploration of open strings and high stopped notes, with “strangely meandering tonal constellations,” another tour de force. The vivid finale of the program was an excerpt from Monodologie XXVI (2013) a rollicking roller-coaster of a composition by Bernhard Lang which will also be on String Noise’s first CD to be released in the Spring. I can’t wait. Glen Roven