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December 2014

Last Call at Glasslands


"Venturing to Glasslands in the very late evening is a bit like sneaking off to your cool friend’s basement in high school. The space is already dirty, strewn with beer cans and cups from the previous show, and decorated in such an artfully discombobulated way that the effect is ultimately charming, even comfortable." (from a 2012 review)

Glasslands, which closes tonight after eight years in business, was never a great place to see music. The sighlines were bad, the flow sucked. There was one couch and one bathroom for 200 people. Not to mention it was convenient to absolutely nothing. 

But, you didn't go to Glasslands - or its late neighbors 285 Kent and Death by Audio - because they were quality venues. You went there because it represented something different: an antidote to the city's slick, polished venues which offer about as much excitement as a trip to the mall. For all its flaws, I've seen some great shows at Glasslands over the years - such as Bon Iver and Black Mountain back in 2008 - mostly due to the space's quirky intimacy.

I ventured back to the corner of Kent and S. 2nd one last time last night for the venue's penultimate show, headlined by Staten Island rockers Cymbals Eat Guitars, who had the crowd up and jumping to their high-octane set. Openers Mon Khmer played a National-like set with Delicate Steve sitting in on guitar, while Keepaway mixed synths and vocal samples ("What's cooler than ice? Glass. Glasslands!") with ambient guitars. The place was expectedly packed, yet everyone seemed easygoing, happy to pay their respects one last time.

A quick word for those who've been hurling expletives at Vice, who are in the process of taking over the space once shared by these three venues. Vice is not evil, even if one of it's minority backers is. Vice is a business, and has become successful not by selling out, but by catering to the exact audience that populates these venues on any given night. Media is a good investment because it makes money through advertising and subscriptions. Music isn't, because you and all of your friends stopped paying for it a long time ago. And, no, your occasional $12 at the door doesn't cut it. Think about that the next time you're sitting on your couch, surfing your laptop or TV - or both.

More pics on the photo page

Gotham Holiday Swing at The Town Hall

by Robert LeeperVince Giordano and the NighthawksIra Glass, the storytelling public radio icon, might at first seem an odd choice for a holiday concert. But, there he was Friday night at The Town Hall’s second annual Gotham Holiday Swing. Built around bandleader and jazz historian Vince Giordano and his crisp band, the Nighthawks, the evening featured a patchwork of artists from across the Holiday-loving sphere.

The old fashioned variety show was rich with Jazz Age gems. Giordano took full advantage of disparate talents of each performer, coming together to create improvisatory duos and trios among a grab bag of holiday jazz standard and novelty songs. There was a touch of uptown, with snippets of Ellington’s classic arrangement of The Nutcracker in “Sugar Rum Cherry.” David Johansen’s alter ego, the late night novelty song singer Buster Poindexter, set his sights squarely on Louis Armstrong's growl on “Zat You, Santa Claus?”

Giordano slowed the program for a moment of introspection during “The Little Drummer Boy” featuring trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg, vocalist Sofia Rei, and percussionist Pedrito Martinez. The three hit a deep, polyrhythmic groove, with Ms. Skonberg trading trumpet licks with Ms. Rei’s smooth scat singing, cooly breathing new life into a tired standard.

Ira Glass broke things up with a pair of solo segments. The first referenced a holiday-themd episode of his long-running radio show This American Life that recounted his experience growing up Jewish, and children coming up with Christmas jokes. The second was a segment from his recent stage show Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, which ran at The Town Hall in September and is currently touring. It featured the fabulous dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass. Other featured performers included the Xylopholks, legendary jazz violinist Regina Carter, and vocalists Molly Ryan and Kat Edmonson. 

Throughout the evening, the Nighthawks held it all together. With crisp brass stabs and neatly packaged solos, they brought a Christmas show from between the two World Wars to life—an era they’ve mastered as the house band on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Skonberg was featured several times on vocals and trumpet, and used her plunger for a sound that could have come straight from the Ellington band. 

The unabashedly fun holiday show was a romp through the easy charm of the Jazz Age and rang in the holiday with style and swing.

tears become... streams become... at the Park Avenue Armory

DSC09931Over the past seven years, the Park Avenue Armory has hosted an impressive series of musical events and art installations. But, none of these presentations has sought to merge the worlds of art and music until Douglas Gordon's current installation, tears become... streams become..., which runs at the Armory through January 4. Gordon floods the cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall with water, and places in the center two pianos. One is an vintage player piano which plays throughout the day. The other is a Steinway grand, which is played each night by celebrated concert pianist Hélène Grimaud, who has chosen a program of "water-themed" works by Liszt, Debussy, Ravel and others.

At the press preview I attended on December 8, Gordon was still working out the lighting cues, illuminating various parts of the Drill Hall in plain white light. Grimaud's playing was expectedly entrancing, though came out sounding pretty muddy in the capacious space. In a roundtable discussion afterwards with Armory Artistic Director Alex Poots, Gordon was vague as to the precise meaning of tears become...streams become... other than to say: "When I first saw the space, I wanted to piss on it. I wanted to take the fluid out of here (pointing to his pelvis) and put it into here (pointing to his arms)." Well, ok.

The installation is open through January 4; the final performances with Grimaud are tonight and tomorrow night. Additional info here.


One More Time: "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" at the Met Opera

Die Meistersinger Act 3, Met Opera

"The rules are only good if they admit exceptions." - Hans Sachs, Die Meistersinger, Act III

Over the course of the 6+ hours of Otto Schenk's monumental production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnbergwhich I saw Wednesday night at the Met for the fourth time, and the first time in seven years - there are many, many extraordinary moments. (Perhaps too many.) But, the one moment which will forever be burned in my memory comes at the beginning of the opera's final scene: the St. John's Day festival and its climactic song contest. After processioning in with the other Mastersingers to great fanfare, Hans Sachs, the real-life cobbler-composer at the center of this archetypal human comedy, stands before the townspeople of Nuremberg and listens with a mix of gravity and humility as they sing his praises.

"If I must submit to honor," Sachs responds, "let it be that of seeing myself loved by you."

Singing the role of Sachs was the veteran bass-baritone James Morris who, with his gray hair and regal gait, has virtually owned this role over more than two dozen performances at the Met since 2001. (Morris was also the Met's preeminent Wotan in Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung until Bryn Terfel took over in 2012.) Never have I witnessed such a powerful convergence of art and reality: at that moment, Morris was Hans Sachs. (The Met has posted a video of the scene on its website.)

What made this incredible moment all the more extraordinary is that it never should have happened in the first place. Sachs, one of the most demanding baritone roles in the repertoire, was originally to have been sung by Johan Reuter, who bowed out before rehearsals began. The Met first approached Michael Volle as a possible replacement, as he'll be taking over the role of Wotan during the next Ring cycle in 2018. But, Volle had a prior commitment and could only fill two performances - including last Saturday's matinee, which was broadcast live in HD and on the radio. 

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