China in Nixon

February 5, 2011

Since the Metropolitan Opera premiere this week of Nixon in China, everybody (and by everybody I mean hundreds and hundreds of people) is talking about the great events of the seventies in which the eponymous President went to the eponymous country. My memories of that historic moment are, however, dominated by thoughts of impeccable Chinese food provided by a glamorous woman.

Sheila Chang, born in Shanghai of a Chinese father and a Scottish mother, and educated by aristocratic French nuns, ran an extraordinary restaurant on Third Avenue a few blocks north of Bloomingdales. I was a young musician who had just come to the city and had fallen in with a major Handel series (for which I wrote the program notes and did some continuo playing). But, much more importantly, the late lamented Albert Fuller (or, as he liked to alter that expression, “The Late Demented”) was involved and was a pal of Sheila Chang. So off a hungry band of us would go after rehearsals or performances to Sheila Chang’s Shanghai East. Placed around a large table, we would be visited by the proprietress, who would offer to go see what was best in the kitchen that evening. She would send out to us generous portions of whatever she chose. This was not an inexpensive establishment, and I was a student. But — no fear — when we had eaten our fill of sometimes quite rare delicacies, she would rub her hands together, survey the damage at our places, and demand five or six dollars from each of us.

Presumably she was asking more of Miss Alice Tully, for whom this was also a much-frequented restaurant.

But my reason for bringing this up in an operatic context is not just for the China part but for the Nixon part as well. It may be hard for kids now to imagine, but Americans didn’t just go online and make plane reservations for China in those days. Nixon’s trip is spoken of as having “opened up” that huge country. So, all of a sudden, lots of important people wanted to know all about Chinese food — and not at the level of the ordinary fare of New York takeout and delivery (though I’m the last to despise that variety when I’m hungry for a little hot and sour soup and chicken with garlic sauce). Suddenly we humble minstrels and Miss Tully found ourselves joined by major politicians and media figures who wanted to acquire the savoir faire to dine creditably in China. One night it was Harry Reasoner at the next table, and another brought Senator Kennedy. I was also there on the night when the entire Chinese kitchen staff refused to cook for a delegation of diplomats from what was then ordinarily spoken of as Red China.

It was a sad day for my little musical posse when Sheila Chang decided that the bloom was off the rose for Chinese restaurants in Manhattan, and the torch was passed to Tel Aviv, where I trust she found other appreciative musicians to feed. But I like to think that our great Republic suffered less embarrassment — lost less face — when members of Mr. Nixon’s entourage manipulated their chopsticks with aplomb and didn’t send back their thousand-year-old eggs with the complaint that they were spoiled.

The Envelope. Please.

October 5, 2009

What did we ever do without low-res iPhone snaps?

What did we ever do without low-res iPhone snaps?

Those of us who got to see Waylon Flowers and his ineffable puppet Madame will always recall one of their greatest lines: ” Sylvia Miles would attend the opening of an envelope.” In a Manhattan autumn, the opening of many envelopes with nice, stiff invitations or tickets in them, is followed by many an opening gala.

My first opening of the new season was at the Dicapo Opera, in its surprisingly elegant church basement. No peeling concrete floors or piano-destroying dampness here. This is, after all, an upper-East Side church basement. It was the premiere of a new chamber version of Tobias Picker’s opera Emmeline . After a reputedly grand production at Santa Fe (which I did not see), it was good to have a chance to absorb it in intimate circumstances in a very creditable performance.

Next, on the way to the Metropolitan Opera opening night, there was a Steinway Hall event for Sony Masterworks to launch a remarkable project in which very, very advanced physics are called into play to recreate piano performances by Rachmaninoff — on a piano he may have played in his day. The climax of an already pretty exciting hour came when Joshua Bell showed up to play a duet from his own new release — with “Rachmaninoff” at the piano. The keys moved; the sound was glorious; but we saw only the violinist, since the pianist breathed his last in Beverly Hills in 1943. It was a little spooky and plenty thrilling.

Then, a half-hour later, came the Met opening, which has been sufficiently discussed in the world media, goodness knows. My own experience was to enjoy the performance at the time, allowing myself to wait until later for most of the inevitable critical reflections. That way, the negative perceptions didn’t spoil a brilliant evening. I’ve been able to read all the pros and cons (and to enter into many discussions of the production) without the bitterness that many seem to feel on both sides of the argument. After all, you don’t go to an opening night at the Met to be unhappy.

Though I wasn’t at opening night of the New York Philharmonic, I did hear the dress rehearsal that morning. Having known quite of a lot the work of Magnus Lindberg in the past, I was nevertheless astonished at his ability to capture just what was needed for the festive opening of a new season — and of the new régime of Alan Gilbert — in his premiere that opened the program. I have since heard it again in a subscription concert, and my admiration only increases, as does my conviction that the Philharmonic has made a very good choice in committing so much important work to Lindberg for this crucial season. In another piece of outside-the-box programming, we heard the oft-heard Renée Fleming as I’ve never heard her before in Messiaen’s luminous Poèms pour Mi, and subsequent performances this past week of Charles Ives masterpieces continue to encourage one about the Philharmonic’s immediate future.

Because of another obligation, I had to miss the first night of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, but I did get to the gala — and very lively it was — that opened the New York Film Festival in the same hall a few nights later. As always, it was a thrill to be seeing a new film, with its director and stars present. Really good food, too, which seems to be a dependable feature of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s shindigs (he said, feigning habituation after only two experiences of their galas).

The next night brought the opening of the recommended series Yale in New York, when the School of Music, under the shepherding of David Shifrin gave a stupendous concert at Zankel Hall in honor of Benny Goodman’s centenary. It was made up of classical works with which The King of Swing was closely associated (and which were mostly commissioned by him). While it was all eminently worth hearing, the pièce de résistance, inevitably, was the Copland Clarinet Concerto, played without a conductor by an orchestra from the Music School, with Shifrin himself as the soloist. Sheer beauty.

Then last night, at the other extreme of scale from the large concert halls, there was the opening concert of the Helicon Foundation‘s new season. Since the closing of Albert Fuller’s magnificent salon upon his death, these remarkable sessions have been moved to an ample drawing-room just off Fifth Avenue. My grateful recollection of a delicious Vienna-saturated evening moves me to recommend this membership-based organization for those who like intimate music-making at the highest level.

So many openings; so many pleasures to anticipate. It’ll be nice not to have to dress up quite that much all the time, though — and it’s off to my first fall visit to Le Poisson Rouge tonight.

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