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United States A Musical Vacation in New York City - Spring 2003


100+ Posts
By doru from Toronto, Canada, Spring 2003. Music (lots of it), art and food in the big apple.

A Musical Vacation

Two days before departure, I called the Sheraton Hotel and Towers (USD215 at 1/2 rack rate based on Starwood Preferred Guest points).

"We have a reservation for arrival Tuesday, from Toronto", I said. "Any problems with people coming from Toronto, as result of the SARS situation?"

"Oh, no", said the Reservations clerk. "Please do come, we need you and will enjoy having you. Let me make a note: I'll book you into one of our renovated rooms". And so it was.

The actual trip went just as well, except for one major:

DISAPPOINTMENT: Six days I looked for David everywhere I went (because, thanks to Amy, I got his picture) but to no avail: David was nowhere to be seen on the streets of the Great City. Undoubtedly, he had better things (sings?) to do.

The defining moment. Now I am dead serious. It is my view that each trip we take will have at least one defining moment. For example, last year's trip to Spain was defined by seeing the original Guernica. Last year's fall trip to Italy was first defined by a near-death experience when we lost the brakes of our rented car while at 130 km./hr. on the Autostrada between Milan and Como.

This New York trip had a special meaning for me because I wanted to go to the site of the World Trade Center and pay my respects. That was an area I used to know well, having come to New York so many times on business at our New York office. The thought of all who perished there and the skyline of New York without the towers are still hard on me, and I think will stay this way. So, on Wednesday morning, we took the E train down to Cortland from the stop at 53rd and 7th.

As we reached the lower level, two young Japanese men passed us, one of them holding a huge bouquet of flowers. I had a hunch and I said to Josette: "I think they go to the World Trade site". As we were talking about it, the young man with the flowers, a tall, handsome guy who looked like an Asian version of Elvis, coif and sunglasses included, posted himself in front of the sign indicating the direction "Downtown, World Trade Center" and his buddy, who was armed with an incredible array of photographic equipment, took a couple of pictures of him with the sign as a background. Minutes later we boarded the train together and, indeed, they also walked over to the site of the vanished towers, flowers in hand. We allowed them their privacy and we needed ours.

We love New York and we've never been disappointed by it. I think of New York as the belly button of the world. Sure, the Sumerians were the cradle about 5000 years ago, and what are now known as Spain, Italy and France, were the birthing place of so many of the wonders we take pilgrimage to again and again. But New York is the belly button of our overgrown baby world in which we live, the best place to navel-gaze into what people can achieve with freedom. Sorry if I am getting a bit overworked on the subject. I know one is not supposed to wear one's heart on the sleeve so I'll fold the sleeve up now.

So what did we do in New York?

We ate music and breathed music. In the six days, we attended five events at Carnegie Hall and one at the Metropolitan Opera. At the Metropolitan we attended the bladder-beating "Meistersinger von Nüremberg", a 5 hours and 50 minutes Wagner feast. I remember a much younger me going to the "Meistersinger" at the Bucharest Opera, but then it didn't seem to be so long.

At Carnegie Hall we listened to Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, to the Baltimore Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov who rendered a mind-blowing Mahler Symphony no. 5, to the St. Cecilia Choir and Orchestra of New York and the Verdi Requiem, plus a wonderful evening of music chat with Mitsuko Uchida with the discussion moderated by Ara Guzelimian, and finally, another defining moment:

The timing of the trip was imposed by Josette's desire to listen to Maurizio Pollini, one of her favourite pianists. She still rhapsodises enthusiastically over the dashing young Pollini she first saw on stage a long time ago, time much longer than her actual age. Since then, we were treated to Pollini, I believe in San Francisco, and the much stooped and white-haired artist still delivered a great performance. And so, we find ourselves about an hour after checking into the hotel, at the Carnegie Hall wicket to pick up our tickets purchased months ago via Internet. The clerk hesitates and says: "You know, there is a slight problem. Mr. Pollini will not come to New York, as advised by his doctors (Me, thinking: SARS?). However, he will be replaced by a Canadian pianist, Louis Lortie". Well, Mr. Pollini's absence and medical problem first saddened us and then patriotic pride took over. Besides, Josette likes Lortie a lot too, and he is still at the dashing age, so on Sunday afternoon we are seated at Carnegie Hall (damn uncomfortable seats in the Dress Circle, if you want my view) and wait with some trepidation. I was trepidating (word?) in particular since, being in charge of trip logistics, I have arranged a flight back to Toronto which allowed just enough time to rush back to the hotel as soon as the recital ended, pick up our luggage from storage (USD3.00 per item per day! A theft!) and take a taxi to La Guardia.

So we wait, and wait and finally lights dim and on saunters (literally) on the stage Louis Lortie on crutches, right leg half folded. Anybody reading this played piano? The program was all-Chopin. Chopin was particularly fond of pedals! A pianist needs the right foot for the most critical right pedal and the left for the sourdine (soft pedal). As the plot thickens, Lortie sits calmly at the piano, arranges the two crutches against an intriguing black contraption which was already placed by the side of the piano, positions the left foot above the right pedal, the hands above the keyboard and proceeds to a memorable recital, with the audience going bonkers with well deserved applause and Bravos, including my well mannered Josette who otherwise was offended by similarly vocal enthusiasm at a hockey game, refusing since then to ever repeat the experience. And so Mr. Lortie saves the day and shows what a great artist can do under the most difficult of circumstances. On the way back to the hotel I wonder what he would have done if he would have had a problem with the hands. Josette's sense of humour deserts her. She also explains patiently to me how a great pianist like Mr. Lortie can use his playing technique to supplement from the keyboard the nuances usually provided with the soft pedal. OK!

Oh, yes! We made it to the airport well ahead of time despite the Tri-City Bicycle Race event, and boarded an earlier flight home.

But I am getting ahead of myself because at this point we are still in New York, where we enjoyed greatly one the now very fashionable Two Painters exhibitions. This time the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited "Manet/Velázquez: The French taste for Spanish Painting", a most intriguing juxtaposition. Fanatical as I became about Spanish painting since our trip to Spain last year, I greatly enjoyed the parallels presented between the 16th and 17th century Spanish painters (El Greco, Zurbarán, Ribera, Murillo, Goya, of course Velázquez), and their influence on the French palette of the 19th century, Manet in particular paired successively with Velázquez, Zurbarán and Goya. A remarkable exhibition, which will go on until June 8th. Not to be missed.

We also took in the nature's palette in New York, the Central Park in spring. The weather was great and I hope New Yorkers appreciate the fantastic treasure they have in Central Park. We didn't tire of it and being at a hotel so close didn't hurt either.

We are not much in heavy dining, and when one goes to four concerts and one (very long!) opera in five evenings big dining is out of question anyway. I didn't even have my ritual Romanian pastrami at the Carnegie Deli, although we practically lived across from there. But we had two beautiful lunch experiences, one at Café Fiorello (Thank you, David and Sally, for refreshing my memory!) and the Morgan Court Café.

Café Fiorello, for those who don't know, is on Broadway, right across from the Lincoln Centre. Many artists and musicians frequent it, well, frequently. So much so that some have their preferred tables there. For example, at a previous lunch, circa 1999, we sat at the table reserved for Cecilia Bartolli "when she is in town", whispered reverently the waiter, and vis-à-vis that of Pavarotti. This time, we asked for the same table, but were informed with regret that that specific section of the restaurant was closed that day. Asked if we have any other preference, we indicated only a need for comfort, and so we were seated at the nice table, next to which a bronze plaque announced that the table is reserved for an artist by the name "No smoking allowed"!

The lunch was excellent and I much enjoyed, as printed in the menu the "Zuppe (sic!) de pesce", chockfull with mussels and clams, octopus rings, pieces of swordfish, grilled shrimp and lobster tail, all in a wonderfully rich tomato and herbs broth. Yummy. Josette enjoyed her spaghetti with scallops and, between this and coffee, we ordered a tartuffo, to be shared by the two of us. There proceeded to be placed on our table the grandest tartuffo we have ever seen, the size of small watermelon. Josette, took her part (one teaspoon worth) and I was stuck with the rest of the watermelon, at which I worried happily for the next hour. A problem: they don't know how to prepare a double espresso long. The explanation was that a machine makes their espresso and this is it but, if I wish, I could get some hot water on the side! I just had a normal double espresso and capped an altogether wonderful meal (USD83 for two, including a small carafe of one of the house whites-Mount St. Vincent Chardonnay, and tip).

By the way, the "double espresso long" matter is at crisis levels all over New York! Even at the famous Café Petrosian they seem to have never heard of this concoction (but one has to love their "tartinnes").

The other lunch, at the Morgan House Café (26 East on 36th), was more routine (USD57, including beer and tip) but also very enjoyable. The covered inner courtyard is beautiful and serene, with its charming play of light and shade produced by trees and the whispering conversation of the people in the know whom frequent it. (How did WE know? My boss, who headed many years ago our New Office, knows all these special places in New York and he dispenses them to me with careful restraint…). For more colour, think the courtyard of Peggy Guggenheim's in Venice. Alas, if others wish to try this special experience, it ain't gonna work for a while because, we were informed by our waitress, we had the distinction of eating there on the last day before the Café (and the House and Museum) will be closed for renovation which will probably be completed in 2006. But then, we were further informed, the restaurant will be much larger! Which, somehow, didn't sound to me like an enhancement.

Back home, I will be all dedicated to preparing for the September trip to Italy. Wonderful burden!

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