Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Columbus Day Weekend

Joshua and I arrived in Manhattan just after 3:30 p.m. on Friday.

We called my parents when we were a few blocks from the hotel to let them know we were within shouting distance. They were, as a result, waiting for us in the lobby after Josh and I had grabbed our bags from the trunk, turned our car over to the valet, and walked through the front door of the hotel. My parents assisted us with check-in at the front desk, which involved our being handed room-cards and little else, and we all went upstairs, where we had adjoining rooms.

Despite urgings from Josh and me, my parents had not eaten lunch as soon as they had arrived at the hotel—sometimes my parents can be incorrigible and fail to follow instructions—and our first order of business was to decide how we were going to arrange our meals for the rest of the day, keeping in mind that we had to take into consideration an 8:00 p.m. New York City Ballet performance.

Josh and I were not hungry, because we had eaten sandwiches and fruit in the car during our drive down from Boston, but my parents had had nothing to eat since a light breakfast very early in the morning—and it was unfair to expect them to hold out until dinner, especially if we were to decide to eat dinner after the ballet performance.

In consequence, we went downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant at 4:00 p.m. so that my parents might eat a little something. We immediately learned that we were too late, because the restaurant closes each day at 3:00 p.m.

We next checked the hotel bar, but the menu was very limited and very unappealing.

The hotel also featured a burger restaurant, but the items on the menu were burgers, and only burgers, and my parents decided to give the burger restaurant a pass.

Lastly, we investigated the hotel’s French restaurant, which has always been very renowned, and we discovered that it recently had closed, a victim of the bad economy.

As a result, we were obliged to leave the hotel and walk to a nearby delicatessen, where my parents were able to obtain a belated and light lunch. My mother ordered a fruit salad and a turkey club sandwich, and my father ordered chicken noodle soup and a turkey club sandwich. Josh and I drank coffee.

After the food, we returned to our hotel and chatted for an hour while enjoying the views over New York.

At 6:00 p.m., we started to prepare ourselves for the ballet performance, and shortly after 7:00 p.m. we left the hotel and walked to the New York State Theater, only three long and eight short blocks away.


The program for Friday night’s performance at New York City Ballet was George Balanchine’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces”, and Balanchine’s “Stars And Stripes”.

Josh and I had attended a NYCB performance of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” in January 2009—that night was Josh’s first exposure to the work—but my parents had not attended a performance of this great masterwork for many years. “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is prone to disappear from the NYCB repertory for years at a time, as the ballet, with 55 dancers, absorbs hours and hours of rehearsal time, time that cannot always be found in NYCB’s grueling rehearsal schedules.

“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” may be my single favorite Balanchine ballet. My parents love the ballet, too, as does Josh. It was Balanchine’s first abstract ballet for the new New York State Theater when the ballet was unveiled in 1966, and it is perhaps Balanchine’s grandest creation. The music used is Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 arrangement for full orchestra of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 In G Minor, Opus 25, completed in 1861.

Traditionally, “Brahms-Schoenberg” closes a NYCB program, but on Friday night it was the first work on the program. I assume that “Brahms-Schoenberg” was placed first on the program because it was the most demanding ballet of the night (both for the dancers and for the audience) as well as the longest. However, placing “Brahms-Schoenberg” first came at a price: anything that followed was destined to be anticlimactic.

The performance was not an especially distinguished one—the principals were variable, with none thoroughly encapsulating his or her role—but the greatness of the work was apparent every minute. Each viewing of “Brahms-Schoenberg” reveals a thousand new details, a thousand new images, a thousand new emotions. Balanchine’s invention was limitless, his mastery of imagery profound, his suggestion of emotion and drama subtle and true, his control of the stage supreme. If no other Balanchine work survived, “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, alone, would establish him as the greatest choreographer that ever lived.

Robbins’s “Glass Pieces” was created in 1983, and the ballet is instantly dated by its garish-colored spandex costumes. The ballet needs to be re-costumed (and the lighting re-designed, since the original lighting scheme draws undue attention to itself). Robbins drew upon three Philip Glass compositions for the ballet’s score, including an excerpt from the opera, “Akhnaten”, which was not to premiere until the following year.

“Glass Pieces” has become popular, and the ballet has been taken up by other companies. Some see it as a parable of the city of New York, with its boundless energy and vibrancy, and some see it as a study in loneliness, with its dancers seemingly lost and isolated amid the throngs of a great city. Stephen Sondheim covered this same territory in “Company” in the song, “Another Hundred People”, and Sondheim needed only three minutes to make the same point.

Balanchine’s “Stars And Stripes” is one of his most cherished ballets, deemed an instant classic when the ballet premiered in 1958. I have never been fond of “Stars And Stripes”, and it is possible that I am put off by Hershy Kay’s tin-eared re-orchestration and rearrangement of John Philip Sousa, which I believe to be profoundly unmusical. Kay stretches and elongates the original compositions, trying to create a foundation for dance; in the process, he destroys the essence of the source material.

Balanchine goes through the motions in “Stars And Stripes”—he certainly knew how to do this type of thing—but the ballet lacks richness and resonance, and this is because watered-down Sousa does not provide a suitable framework on which to set and sustain a ballet.

Balanchine is on record as citing “Stars And Stripes” as one of his favorite creations, but I believe that Balanchine was, at least on this one occasion, wrong. Adherents of the ballet, however, have the eloquent Arlene Croce in their corner.


The ballet performance did not end until 10:30 p.m., but we were not worried, dinner-wise, about the lateness of the hour, and this was because we had decided to eat dinner at a French bistro near our hotel, a bistro that remained open, with full kitchen and wait staff, until 2:00 a.m.

It worked out perfectly for us. We were able to amble back to the neighborhood of our hotel and enjoy a leisurely, even lovely, dinner, without once thinking of rushing.

My mother ordered a tomato-red onion-lemon salad, salmon with lemon and thyme served with pink beans, and a white chocolate soufflé with sorbet.

My father ordered a red beet-white cabbage-Gorgonzola cheese salad, black peppercorn steak served with French-fried potatoes, and an apple tart with vanilla ice cream.

Josh ordered French onion soup, baked chicken stuffed with wild mushrooms served with potatoes au gratin, and hot chocolate cake with raspberry sauce.

I ordered black crayfish ravioli with saffron bisque, braised rabbit served with polenta and pearl onions, and hazelnut crème brulee.

The food and service were superb. We all agreed that we had made the right dinner choice.

We had no need to hurry through our dinner both because my parents were operating on Central Time and because our earliest scheduled activity for Saturday was an 11:00 a.m. visit to an exhibition at the Museum Of Modern Art (for which my mother had already obtained timed tickets for us)—and the Museum Of Modern Art was only two blocks from our hotel.

We were, accordingly, not concerned that we did not turn in for the night until almost 1:00 a.m.


On Saturday morning, we were in no hurry to rise. Josh and I rose at 7:00 a.m., my parents an hour later.

We moseyed around, drinking coffee and cleaning up, until 9:30 a.m., when we finally left our rooms.

Our first stop was the hotel restaurant, where we had an excellent breakfast. My father and Josh and I ordered bacon and eggs; my mother ordered blueberry pancakes with Devonshire cream. The food was superb.


After breakfast, we walked the two blocks to the Museum Of Modern Art to see a special exhibition that had received an undue amount of press attention when it opened in July (the final day of the exhibition was yesterday; we got in just under the wire).

The exhibition was “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917”, an examination of the four-year period during which Matisse was reducing his color palette, reacting to criticism from Picasso and Picasso’s adherents that Matisse had become too commercial, trying to come to terms with cubism (which Matisse largely disliked and largely rejected), and working under the cloud of a France at war. The exhibition included more than 100 artworks: paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures.

We enjoyed the exhibition, but “Matisse: Radical Invention” hardly constituted the seminal exhibition that several art writers have claimed on behalf of the show. The years 1913-1917 were clearly not a great period for Matisse, and I suspect that the war had more to do with the artist’s lack of inspiration during this period than any of the other influences set forth by art specialists writing on behalf of or covering the exhibition, all of whom needed to brush up on the history of France during the war years. The scholarly pretensions of the exhibition were off-putting.


From the Museum Of Modern Art we walked to the theater district, where we had Saturday matinee tickets for Roundabout Theatre Company’s unsatisfying and unsubtle production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” at American Airlines Theatre.

Except for Edward Hibbert, who portrayed Mr. Praed, every actor in the company was miscast and misdirected. The confrontations between Mrs. Warren and her daughter, in particular, were overplayed and needlessly vulgarized. Accents, Mr. Hibbert’s aside, were all over the place. We might as well as been attending summer stock in the Poconos.

Shaw was being deliberately provocative in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, and I am not confident that the play—clearly eye-jabbing for its time—holds up to close scrutiny. The play, fundamentally, is little more than a drawing-room comedy that becomes unduly argumentative, and the dialogue is not as sparkling as in some of Shaw’s other “argument” plays.

The play certainly has been overproduced in recent years, and I can think of two stronger Shaw plays—“Androcles And The Lion” and “Caesar And Cleopatra”—that merit the attention currently lavished upon “Mrs. Warren”.


After the matinee, we walked around the theater district for an hour, examining theater marquees and killing time, until we headed a few blocks north and had an early dinner at a Chilean restaurant that had been recommended to us by friends.

We started with avocado stuffed with chicken salad. For main course, my mother ordered a fish and shellfish stew, while my father, Josh and I ordered chicken stew. For dessert, my mother and I ordered chocolate soufflé, while my father and Josh ordered vanilla flan.

The food was not bad, but the servers were alcohol-pushers.

After dinner, we walked up to Lincoln Center, where we had tickets for the second New York City Ballet performance of the weekend.


Saturday night’s program at New York City Ballet presented three works of Balanchine—in order, “Chaconne”, “Concerto Barocco” and “Tarantella”—followed, again, by Robbins’s “Glass Pieces”.

“Chaconne” was first presented by New York City Ballet in 1976, but the ballet that entered NYCB’s repertory that year was based upon a 1963 production of Gluck’s “Orfeo Ed Euridice” at the Hamburg Staatsoper, where Balanchine had created dances for the Gluck opera at the invitation of Rolf Liebermann. In “Chaconne”, Balanchine utilized music both from the 1762 Vienna version of the opera as well as the 1774 Paris version.

“Chaconne” is a work of great nobility, purity, simplicity and restraint. Those attributes are out-of-step with current times, however, and I do not believe that the present crop of NYCB dancers believes in or has confidence in the material. The cast merely went through the motions on Saturday night, and the work did not come off as it should. In fact, it made no impression at all. It was a very disappointing performance.

As a general rule, in a poorly-danced Balanchine performance, one may see through the performance to the ballet itself, and remain captivated despite any shortcomings of the proceedings onstage.

Such was not possible Saturday night, and I say this in part because Josh said that he saw “nothing at all” in “Chaconne”. This was very disappointing to him, since he had eagerly looked forward to the performance (having heard me praise the work).

Peter Martins danced in the 1976 premiere of “Chaconne”, and one would think that Martins, of all persons, would know how to convince a cast of dancers to submit to this great ballet’s spell.

My parents attended a 1976 performance of “Chaconne” at NYCB, and they remember it as one of the most beautiful performances of their lives. It was Suzanne Farrell, however, and not Peter Martins, who impressed them in “Chaconne”. They insist that “Chaconne” provided Farrell with one of her greatest roles. They also insist that “Chaconne” as danced today at NYCB bears little resemblance to the ballet as danced during Balanchine’s lifetime.

“Chaconne” is not unrecoverable. Farrell has staged “Chaconne”, with success, for other companies. It is regrettable that Farrell—persona non grata at New York City Ballet so long as Peter Martins is in charge—has not been called back to her alma mater to restage and renew this great work.

“Concerto Barroco”, from 1941, has always been one of Balanchine’s most popular ballets. Set to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, Balanchine mimics Bach’s counterpoint by casting two principal female dancers to play off each other.

I must hear Bach differently than Balanchine, because “Concerto Barroco” has always grated on me. I have never believed that the ballet was a successful realization of the music. To me, the ballet is pert and slick, no more profound, yet no less pleasant, than Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations”—and the latter most assuredly is nothing more than a mere entertainment, albeit an entirely delightful one.

“Tarantella” is a showy, witty pas de deux from 1964 set to Gottschalk’s Grand Tarentelle For Piano And Orchestra (as reconstructed and orchestrated by the ubiquitous Hershy Kay). It is one of Balanchine’s most effervescent, ebullient works, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

When we entered the theater, we did not know whether we would remain to see the final work on the program, “Glass Pieces”, for a second consecutive evening. After the second intermission, we talked, and decided, “Well, as long as we’re here . . .”

I enjoyed the Saturday evening performance of “Glass Pieces” more than the Friday evening performance, although it probably was no better danced.

After the NYCB performance, we returned to our hotel and turned in at a decent hour.


We rose early on Sunday morning—we rose at 6:45 a.m.—because we had a big day planned.

We were in the hotel restaurant by 8:00 a.m. for breakfast. It being a Sunday, we decided to go for pancakes, standard Sunday fare in my family. My mother ordered Belgian waffles with berries and Devonshire cream. My father ordered buttermilk pancakes with peaches and walnuts. Josh ordered chestnut pancakes with chestnuts and brown sugar. I ordered banana-macadamia nut pancakes with banana butter.

The food was excellent.


At 9:00 a.m., we retrieved our car and headed up to The Cloisters.

The last time my family had visited The Cloisters was, I believe, in 1994, when I was thirteen years old. Josh had never visited The Cloisters until Sunday.

Most visitors enjoy The Cloisters for the Medieval architecture and the Medieval gardens, but it was the Medieval artworks that most captivated me on Sunday (in contrast to 1994, when the Medieval artworks had interested me not at all).

On Sunday, I was most enthralled by the ivories and illuminated manuscripts, but it was a great pleasure to view the tapestries, stained glass, sculptures, icons and reliquaries, too—as well as the great altarpiece of Robert Campin (“The Master Of Flemalle”), something I could not appreciate sixteen years ago.

We spent three happy hours visiting the interior spaces and inspecting the artworks on display, all the while asking ourselves, “Why have we waited so long to come back?”

We stayed at The Cloisters until around 1:00 p.m., when we returned to midtown Manhattan and deposited our car back at the hotel.

From the hotel, we walked to the theater district, as we had tickets to matinee and evening performances.


At Theatre Row, we had tickets for a 3:00 p.m. performance of Michael Frayn’s early and obscure comedy, “Alphabetical Order”, at The Harold Clurman Theatre. “Alphabetical Order” was a presentation of The Keen Company.

Written in 1975, “Alphabetical Order” takes place in the disheveled research library of a failing newspaper in the British provinces. The personal and professional lives of the newspaper’s more-or-less hapless employees are in a perpetual state of near-crisis when the newspaper hires a young woman to put some order into the library’s operations. The young woman proves to be an organizational whiz, if maddeningly so, and a chain of events is set into place that alters the lives of the characters and the newspaper itself (and not all for the better).

“Alphabetical Order” is nowise a perfect play, but the work is very definitely worthy of revival—and I loved the production and I loved the performance. The period stage and costume design were apt, the direction caught precisely the necessary tone, and the cast was uniformly excellent and convincing (and, unlike Saturday’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, even got the accents right).

“Alphabetical Order” was probably the best thing we saw all weekend. It was two hours of pure pleasure.


After “Alphabetical Order”, we had two hours in which to get an early dinner before our evening performance.

We chose a nearby Greek restaurant with a pre-theater menu, and we all selected the same things: Spanakopita, lamb chops served with oregano lemon potatoes, and baklava.

We were very pleased with our dinner.


On Sunday evening, we caught a performance of Arthur Kopit’s “Wings” at Second Stage Theatre. Because the weekend was a holiday weekend, there was a special 7:00 p.m. Sunday performance of “Wings”, and we took advantage of it. Otherwise, we would have had to skip one of the three plays we had some interest in attending this past weekend.

The performance of “Wings” we attended was a preview performance; the production is not scheduled to open for another two weeks.

One would not have known that the production was still in previews based upon Sunday evening’s performance. The performance was at a very high level.

“Wings”, written in 1978, tells the story of a female aviation pioneer who has become a stroke victim late in life. The play shows her battle to regain her faculties and independence and spirit, which she does in part, until her sudden death at play’s end.

The last ten minutes of the play are very beautiful. In a near-trance, the heroine recalls her early days in aviation, flying in the clouds far above the earth, until she has flown so high and so free that she has left the earth far, far behind her.

That moment, of course, represents the heroine’s death. The resolution is solemn, and quiet, and not everyone in the theater on Sunday evening understood that the heroine had died and that the play had concluded.

One row in front of us, at play’s end, a young man asked a woman sitting next to him, “What happened? Is the play over?”

“She died. And, yes, the play is over” was the woman’s answer.

“How did she die?” was his next question.

“She presumably had another stroke” was the woman’s response.

“How were you able to figure that out?” was his next question.

“Her speech about leaving the bonds of earth behind, and floating among the clouds, was a metaphor for her death” was the woman’s reply.

At this point, the young man became sheepish, and he laughed, nervously, and said, “I guess I needed to hear gunshots and see blood to figure that out.”

“Wings” is a very poetic play, even though it is not dramatic in the least. I have read the play, and the play “reads” well—“Wings” was originally written as a radio play—but I did not know whether it would work in the theater.

After Sunday evening, I can now say that “Wings” does work in the theater, and I am pleased at last to have seen a staged presentation of what may probably be termed a minor modern classic.

My parents saw the original 1979 Broadway production of “Wings”, which starred the great Constance Cummings. That production marked Cummings’s final U.S. appearance, and my parents recall Cummings’s performance fondly. It was their only opportunity to see the great actress in person, and they say that Cummings had technique to burn and possessed the stage presence and stage command of an Olivier (with whom Cummings had worked), even when playing a mostly-immobile stroke victim.

I missed the career of Cummings, but I thought Sunday evening’s lead, Jan Maxwell, was very, very fine. I would like to see Maxwell again.

Because “Wings” had an early starting time and because the play lasts only ninety minutes, we were back at our hotel at a decent hour, with two hours to relax and talk before bedtime. Those two hours may have been the best two hours of the entire weekend.


Yesterday we rose at 7:00 a.m.

Our plan was to have breakfast, get our things together, check out of our hotel and be on our way to the Guggenheim Museum by 9:30 a.m.

We went with Eggs Benedict for yesterday morning’s breakfast, and it was the first disappointing breakfast we had had at the hotel. I suspect a different cook was in charge.

We were able to hit our 9:30 a.m. target, because we were in the car, heading north, at 9:30 a.m.


We found a public parking garage near the Guggenheim without much trouble, and we were inside the museum shortly after it had opened for the day.

There were five exhibitions we wanted to view—and we were able to see them all, because we remained in the museum until 3:30 p.m.

All five exhibitions were exceptionally worthwhile (by design, we skipped a sixth). In fact, yesterday was the most enjoyable visit to the Guggenheim I have ever experienced. Even my parents, who have visited the Guggenheim many, many times since the early 1970’s, said they had never witnessed so many Guggenheim exhibitions of such uncommon interest during a single visit.

What the Guggenheim presently has on display far outshines the over-promoted and unaccountably popular Mattisse exhibition we attended at the Museum Of Modern Art on Saturday morning. Since all current Guggenheim exhibitions are scheduled to remain on display until January 9 of next year, this year’s holiday visitors to New York City have a real treat in store for them at Fifth Avenue and 89th Street.

Four of the Guggenheim exhibitions were small.

“Vox Populi: Posters Of The Interwar Years” was exactly as described.

“Kandinsky At The Bauhaus, 1922-1933” was also precisely what one would expect from the exhibition title.

“Broken Forms: European Modernism From The Guggenheim Collection” was of greater interest to us than we had anticipated, since many of the works on display were by German artists (and not solely by “the usual suspects” from France, as is the case in most such exhibitions) and since most of the works were of very, very high quality.

The fourth small exhibition, devoted to art dealer Justin Thannhauser’s collection, presented to the Guggenheim at his death, contained several first-tier masterpieces.

The large exhibition was “Chaos And Classicism: Art In France, Italy And Germany, 1918-1935”, an exhibition devoted to art trends that had evolved in reaction to the horrors of World War I. Paintings, prints, photographs, films, sculptures, architectural models and fashions were among the items on view in the exhibition.

The period saw a return to a conservatism of sorts in the art world: it became acceptable once again to portray the human figure in recognizable form; a nod of the head to Classicism was no longer a mortal sin; the requirement that every new artwork be in some way avant-garde no longer applied; trends such as Cubism that had prevailed before The Great War were losing appeal (and influence). In short, tradition and tranquility had returned to the art world—but were soon to be corrupted by political forces.

Many of the artworks on display in “Chaos And Classicism” were not necessarily first-rate (in fact, many of the artworks were kitsch)—but, as a viewing experience, the exhibition succeeded admirably. It was fresh, thought-provoking, and filled with artworks virtually unknown in the U.S. The exhibition challenged pre-conceived notions about art of the period and pre-conceived notions about certain artists (such as Picasso, who is shown as always ready to bend to the latest fashion—but who also may have been cocking his snoot). The exhibition demonstrated that art, like any endeavor, may be perverted for political purposes—and that artists are as susceptible to such perversion as anyone else.

“Chaos And Classicism” provided an historical journey as much as an artistic one. Beginning with prints of grossly-deformed World War I soldiers, the exhibition went on to trace the rise of Fascist art in Italy, Germany and France (and if Aristide Maillol’s art from 1925 France was not Fascistic, no one’s was), ending with the art of Germany once Hitler had assumed power.

If much of this was too pat—Otto Dix at the beginning, Leni Riefenstahl at the end—and if a professional historian would have taken a jaundiced view of much that was on display (as well as grimaced at some of the conclusions viewers were invited to make), the exhibition was nonetheless riveting. If possible, I would go through it again in an instant.

When we had completed viewing the five exhibitions, we had time—just—to grab coffee and a sandwich at the Guggenheim snack bar.


From the Guggenheim, we retrieved our car and took my parents to Newark Airport.

Since we arrived at the airport more than two hours before my parents’ flight was scheduled to depart, Josh and I parked the car and escorted my parents into the airport. We sat and talked for an hour, and had another coffee. When it was time for my parents to proceed to check-in, Josh and I left the airport and headed for home.

It was a wonderful weekend, one of the best weekend trips we have ever made.

We would not have had half so much fun in Houston, our original destination, even though I regret not seeing the two German Impressionism exhibitions currently on view at the Houston Museum Of Fine Arts.

We will remember this weekend for a long time.

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