Ladies, it's your day! A Leap Year tradition, New York style

 “When a woman has reached the age of thirty there is nothing left for her but to be good. I am going to make clothes for the poor. Hand me down that roll of flannel, Rachel: I mean to begin at once." 

"If it will be any comfort to you, my dear," began Rachel, soothingly, if monotonously. "I read the other day that women of thirty were all the fashion, and that girls of twenty were quite out of it." 

"That was written by a person of forty then, my dear.”

-- excerpt from 'A Woman of Thirty', New York Times, 1893

Happy Leap Day, single ladies! Put a ring on it! For four years -- 1,460 straight days -- men have been the initiators in romance. Women were to mildly express interest in a mate, her demure politeness disguising anything possibly resembling passion as she awaited a marriage proposal from the confines of her parents home. But not so on February 29, according to custom. On this day, women get to playfully assert themselves in the parlor, boldly proposing to the men they desire.

Although this Leap Day tradition allegedly dates back to the Elizabethan era and even further, the proper folk of the Victorian -- and within the societal confines of New York -- embraced it almost-seriously. But this was no mere pantomime of dating ritual, not simply a crusty poke at female status. Citing 'common law', the Independent in 1908 proclaimed, "[A]ny man refusing a woman's proposal on leap year shall give her a silk dress. Every maiden, widow or divorcee has, therefore, an opportunity this year to replenish her wardrobe even if she fails to satisfy her affections." (The advertisement at top seems to reference this detail of the ritual.)

The tradition in 19th century New York was recognized enough that an uptick in advertisements from female suitors could be found in newspapers on that particular day. A reporter for the Times peers in on "the ladies of Harlem" in 1856 to discover "the fairer half of the assemblage asserted the prerogatives which Leap Year confers upon them to the fullest extent. They selected their own partners for the dance and very probably some of them exercised their privilege of choosing a party for life."  There was even a well-received play by J.B. Buckstone which debuted in 1850 called 'Leap Year - A Ladies Privilege'.

But was this ridiculous tradition ever really taken seriously? There was doubt, even in the Gilded Age. I mean, women proposing marriage? Can you imagine? "It seems almost incredible to us that there was a time when it was considered a humorous thing for a civilized community to assume that women were in the habit of doing what no woman is known ever to have done," wrote a Times columnist in 1880

As with old customs, this might have been taken more seriously outside of major cities, as evidenced by this letter which ran in the New York Times in 1864: "A remarkable (Leap Year) courtship and marriage came off in our quiet village last week, resulting disastrously to all the parties concerned."

For New Yorkers, Leap Day does not seem to have been a 'holiday' that received serious consideration. Among the upper crust, a woman's proposal would have been scoffed at, regardless of the season, while it's doubtful certain lower class women wouldn't have waited for a calendar anomoly to do what she wished. If anything, the urban legend might have actually deterred potential marriage proposals. According to an 1884 article, "The ladies are afraid to marry this [leap] year because people will say they popped the question."

Even William Jay Gaynor, mayor of New York 100 years ago, dismissed the custom and the women of New York in a single swoop: "I do not think women care about leap year. They can propose if they want to, but bless them, leap year or no leap year, they would rather have the fellow propose to them."

Of course, I suppose some are trying to keep this weird custom alive even today.

Illustration at top from the Club Women of New York journal from 1904. Life advertisement courtesy New York Public Library.


I apologize for the lack of posting lately, I have quite the little busy bee juggling my student internship, graduate school applications and job applications. It amazes me how different my time was spent one year ago, with no worries, compared to now with lots of worries. I will admitt that I am a tad stressed and very busy but that hasn't stopped me from loving many things on this gorgeous Wednesday! Perfect time to link up with Jamie at this kind of love.

I'm loving that the weather will be in the 70's until Saturday!

I'm loving my fun Target finds that I meant to post about almost a month ago.

I'm NOT loving that all of my friends are going on Spring Break next week while I must stay here and continue to attend my internship. I AM loving that many of my friends will be heading to the Bahamas, can't help but be excited for them!

I'm loving March begins tomorrow! Where does the time go?

I'm loving the Banana nut muffins my grandmother sent me! yum!

I'm loving that Dr. Seuss birthday is this week!

I'm loving this quote. I have got to start remember this and stop stressing about things!!

Happy Wednesday Friends!

Execution in Five Points: Piracy, slave trade and the Tombs

Sometimes you can look back at history and think that nothing ever changes. And sometimes you find something that makes New York seem extraordinary unrecognizable, a city besieged by near barbaric crises.

The image above depicts a scene from February 21, 1862, in the courtyard of the famous Tombs prison in the Five Points neighborhood. The notoriously dank and foul-smelling complex was the scene of a great many public executions since its opening in 1838, but the one which took place on February 21 was particularly urgent, the crime cutting to the core of America's central dilemma.

The man being hanged was Nathaniel Gordon, and his crime was international slave trade. America was in the throes of a Civil War between the North and South, waged with slavery as its central issue. But the import and export of slaves into the United States has technically been banned decades earlier, and the U.S. Piracy Act of 1820 included human cargo in its definition of international piracy. This did not deter Gordon, who sailed to North Africa in 1860 and loaded a boat with almost 900 people, intending to sell them to Southern plantations.

From a vivid description from Harper's Weekly, the boat was overloaded with "eight hundred and ninety-seven (897) negroes, men, women, and children, ranging from the age of six months to forty years. They were half children, one-fourth men, and one-fourth women, and so crowded when on the main deck that one could scarcely put his foot down without stepping on them. The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive."

Gordon was caught just 50 miles offshore and brought to the United States for trial. He would have received a stern sentence even before the war, but with the conflict in full swing by the time of his trial in late 1861, Gordon's defense team never stood a chance. Despite pleas from wealthy supporters, Gordon was sentenced to die on February 7, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentence by two weeks, and Gordon's supporters might have even convinced him to commute it further had Lincoln's young son Willie not died of typhoid on February 20.

One notable fact about this execution is the Tombs (pictured above, in 1863) is a city prison, but the crime was a federal offense, the only such national execution to have taken place here. Most federal executions took place at military installations. For instance 'Pirate' Albert Hicks was hanged on Bedloe's Island, home of Fort Wood (and today the residence of the Statue of Liberty). Robert Cobb Kennedy, one of the Confederate conspirators who attempted to torch various New York hotels in November 1864, was executed at Fort Lafayette off the coast of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Gordon was also the last person ever executed by the U.S. government for violations of the Piracy Act.

For more details on the execution, check out the great Corrections History blog which details the messy particulars of the execution.

Illustration above courtesy New York Public Library

MOZART'S DON GIOVANNI / Singapore Lyric Opera / Review

Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Theatre
Saturday (25 February 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 February 2o12 with the title "Don of a new age".

Considering that Don Giovanni is widely regarded as Mozart’s greatest opera, it comes as some surprise that the Singapore Lyric Opera had waited some 20 years to stage it. This may be due to the fact that there had been two previous productions in Singapore during the late 1980s and mid-1990s by groups from Britain and Hungary. This, the first featuring all Asian voices, however has much to recommend.

First, veteran director Tom Hawkes does not tamper with the story or setting as a tragicomedy and morality tale, instead allowing the relationships between the characters to be clearly defined. The two lead baritones, Song Kee Chang’s Don Giovanni and Huang Rong Hai’s Leporello, shared a marvellous chemistry together as master and serf (above). Huang’s comical mix of hero-worship and contempt for the Don was well characterised, as was Song’s nonchalant and callous way with women.

The excellent supporting cast was completely Singaporean, now achievable because a critical mass of experienced and young local opera singers exists today. Rising to the fore was soprano Cherylene Liew’s sympathetic portrayal of purity and goodness in the role of Zerlina (above). Her two arias Batti batti, Vedrai carino and the famous duet La ci darem la mano with the Don call to notice an impressive new talent.

But why was tenor Melvin Tan’s believable Don Ottavio denied his few minutes in the limelight of Il mio tesoro? Its excision to keep the show under three hours (the final curtain came down one minute before eleven) seemed cruel. He and relative veterans Nancy Yuen (Donna Anna), Yee Ee Ping (Donna Elvira), William Lim (The Commendatore), Martin Ng (Masetto) and the dependable SLO Orchestra conducted by Joshua Kangming Tan provided a firm bedrock to the proceedings.

Unlike the two previous productions which barely had sets to speak of, Christopher Chua’s backdrops were effective and simple, with an emphasis on stone that seemed to pre-empt the arrival of the stone guest for the final dinner scene. The Don’s fire and brimstone comeuppance, a rare scene with three low male voices (below) and an opportunity for special stage effects, however seemed a tad underwhelming.

With the unrepentant philanderer safely dispatched to Hades, the final sextet was a joyous denouement but was the descending image of a crucified Jesus Christ’s head appropriate? Surely this sent mixed signals about sin, recalcitrance and eternal damnation. Or had the Don made yet another one of his audacious escapes?

This production of Don Giovanni plays at Esplanade Theatre 8 pm this evening (Monday 27 February) and runs till tomorrow (Tuesday 28 February).

SSO Concert:The Sebelius Symphonies: Nos.4 & 5 / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (24 February 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 February 2012 with the title "Every phrase freshly minted".

The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius make for an exhausting listen when heard together in a same sitting. Imagine what it must be like for the performers on stage or the conductor, even if he happens to be the renowned Sibelius interpreter Okko Kamu.

His insights into the enigmatic Fourth Symphony, one so elusive that it reveals only some of its secrets some of the time, translated into a slickly delivered performance even if one still remained baffled after this hearing. The low strings which opened the work provided an atmospheric hush, aided by Principal Cellist Ng Pei Sian’s rich and sonorous solo. This set the tone for the most forbidding of works that ran close to 40 minutes.

Its themes, terse and austere as the Arctic winter, do not lend themselves to easy memory. Following its glacial pace was like a trudge knee-deep in snow, but one had to rely on Kamu as expert guide, to negotiate each treacherous musical crevasse and precarious ice-bridge without encountering disaster.

It was trying but not without its rewards. The slow third movement built inexorably to a sublime climax, one that did not seem plausible earlier, and the finale had a cogency that seemed definitive until its puzzlingly subdued end. This reaction against convention, almost an anti-symphony, was Sibelius’s unique vision of staring into a void.

The Fifth Symphony initially sounded as if cut from the same fabric, except it was to have a totally different outcome. This was after all the seed of Kamu’s love affair with the SSO when he conducted on his debut here some 27 years ago. Dark gave way to light in this far more accommodating work, with the splendid quartet of French horns providing the chiming refrain to a blazing conclusion.

In between all of this was the 19-year-old British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s original and compelling take on Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. That all the notes fell comfortably within his prodigious fingers was no surprise. What was, however, was his sensitivity and prescience of all things musical, making every phrase and gesture count and sounding freshly minted.

Like an ultimate form of chamber music, he knew when to blend in and when to exert himself. The Intermezzo was a masterclass in the art of conversation with the orchestra, and the finale’s off-kilter waltz traipsed unerringly and brilliantly. His encore, Rachmaninov’s salon-like Polka de V.R., offered a delightful sleight of hand. This youngster is already a master.

When New York hosted the Oscars: The show goes bicoastal, as Audrey flips her wig and Eva Marie reveals a baby bump

Audrey, off Columbus Circle: Hepburn sits in nervous anticipation at the New Century Theatre, moments before she wins for Best Actress.

NOTE: In honor of this weekend's Academy Awards, I'm expanding this article originally posted last year with some revisions and newer information.

Despite the Academy Awards being a celebration of all things Hollywood, New York has actually hosted the Oscar ceremony on more than one occasion. Or rather, they co-hosted the event -- from 1953 to 1957 -- in a rare and soon abandoned bicoastal ceremony that taxed the mechanics of television's earliest production crews.

There were two reasons for this complicated arrangement. NBC, who was broadcasting the event, had most of their principal stages in New York. After all, the first NBC studios were at Rockefeller Center, where they still remain today. Even The Tonight Show, perhaps NBC's first and most famous Burbank production, filmed in Manhattan until the early 1970s.

Just as important, many film stars were in New York, unable to get out of theatrical commitments on Broadway. And frankly, in the years before international television viewership, the Oscars simply did not have the same urgency as they do today. Thus, the award show came to them.

Judy Holliday gives Jose Ferrer a friendly squeeze -- and Gloria Swanson bursts with joy -- as Ferrer's name is announced as the winner of Best Actor, at La Zambra in midtown. (Getty Images)

23rd Annual Academy Awards
Best Picture winner: All About Eve
March 29, 1951

Before splitting the broadcast, the Oscars once tried a very strange live radio remote from a New York nightclub.

For the 23rd Annual Academy Awards, held on March 29, 1951, many nominees like Judy Holliday and Gloria Swanson remained in New York. Both Swanson and Jose Ferrer, starring in the Broadway comedy Twentieth Century, were nominated that year.

Instead of disappointing a sell-out theater audience, Ferrer invited all the nominees to an after-theater party at the La Zambra (127 W. 52nd Street), a nightclub owned by Spanish guitarist Vincente Gomez. A live radio link was set up among the tables, and nominees wined and dined waiting for their categories to be announced out in Los Angeles.

The club was hopping that night. Ferrer won Best Actor (for Cyrano de Bergerac), and Holliday won Best Actress (for Born Yesterday), giving their speeches into a radio microphone as champagne corks popped in the background. (Swanson, who thought she might win for Sunset Blvd., was less enthusiastic for Judy's win.) It's appropriate they were in New York, as Ferrer and Holliday both won for film adaptations of Broadway shows in which they had starred. And clearly underscoring the power that the New York stage still had on the film business, Best Picture went to the stage drama All About Eve.

Above: Shirley Booth accepts her Oscar in New York, as the audience in Los Angeles watches on. (LIFE images)

25th Annual Academy Awards
Best Picture winner: The Greatest Show On Earth
March 19, 1953

While the Los Angeles crowd were entertained by host Bob Hope, the attendees to the first official bicoastal New York ceremony were met by co-host Fredrick March, a two-time Academy Award winner. The event was broadcast from 5 Columbus Circle, at the International Theatre.

In 1953, the International was a worn out, tired New York stage, having gone through a host of different owners and renovations since it first opened -- as the Majestic Theatre -- in 1903. At different periods of time, it was owned by Florenz Ziegfeld and William Randolph Hearst, and its stage played hosts to virtually every form of entertainment, from burlesque to ballet.

Definitely an odd setting for an awards program, especially given that this was also the first Oscar show to be broadcast on television. But the International was owned by NBC, who had agreed to fund the inaugural broadcast. And NBC's fees to broadcast the program were especially valuable to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as the film studios had refused to fund an elaborate bi-coastal show.

The broadcast began 7pm PST and 10 p.m. here, to accommodate the Broadway stars just stepping off the stage. Due to staggered entrances, many of the seats at the International were empty for much of the ceremony.

Among the nominees sitting in the Columbus Circle theater was Best Actress nominee Shirley Booth (at left), who was starring in the Broadway play The Time Of The Cuckoo on 40th and Broadway at the now-demolished Empire Theatre. She won the Oscar for the film version of Come Back, Little Sheba; she had won a Tony Award for the stage version in 1950.

Given the limitations of early television technology, it's amazing they were able to broadcast simultaneously between two coasts at all. Glitches did cause a few amusing gaffes for television audiences. When the universally reviled film The Greatest Show On Earth somehow won Best Picture over the favorite High Noon, the camera switched to the New York audience, who sat there not clapping and in mild confusion.

There would not be another Oscar telecast at the International, or anything else for that matter. The very next year, NBC moved out, and the theater was unceremoniously torn down, replaced with one of Robert Moses' pet projects, the ill-fated Coliseum convention center.

Above: Audrey snatches off her blonde Ondine wig as her limousine races her to the Oscar ceremony uptown.

26th Annual Academy Awards
Best Picture Winner: From Here To Eternity
March 25, 1954

For the remainder of the Oscars' short stay in New York, they were broadcast from the New Century Theater*, at Seventh Ave. and 58th Street, right off Columbus Circle and best known as the theater that Orson Welles and his spirited cast stormed in 1937 to perform his musical The Cradle Will Rock.

Film fans were set up in bleachers outside, just as they're popularly done out in Los Angeles. But one New York nominee didn't get there in time to meet her fans. Audrey Hepburn was down at the 46th Street Theatre performing the play Ondine (Playbill at right), costumed in a blonde wig. After the show, she raced to the Century in a limousine (with police escort, no less), ripped off her wig, rushed to bathroom to wipe off her stage makeup, then settled into her seat for less than ten minutes before standing again to accept the trophy for Best Actress for Roman Holiday.

Here's video of Audrey's win. You can see the 'switch off' between the Los Angeles and New York feeds.

The show, hosted in New York again by Fredric March, had another New York icon receiving an Oscar that year -- Frank Sinatra, Best Supporting Actor for his role in the Best Picture that year. However, he was in Los Angeles to accept it.

(You can find tons of pictures of Audrey in her post-Oscar glow at the NBC Photo Bank.)

Above: Claudette Colbert and Joseph Mankiewicz presided over a sedate New York audience, while out in Los Angeles, audiences were energized by young comedian Jerry Lewis. (Courtesy Oscars)

27th and 28th Academy Awards
Best Picture Winners: On The Waterfront, Marty
March 30, 1955; March 21, 1956

It became obvious to most viewers that the bicoastal productions were becoming lopsided. After all, it was early evening in Los Angeles, and most of the young, fresh talent was there. In New York, it was post-theater time, and attracted the older stars -- some exhausted from stage productions. Nothing exemplifies this more than the 28th Oscar ceremony, hosted in New York by proper Claudette Colbert and Joseph Mankiewicz and in Hollywood by the hot new comedian Jerry Lewis, whose ribald antics made the New York cutaways seem drab.

But the awards were all about the East Coast. The Best Pictures these two years were for films set in Hoboken, NJ and the Bronx, respectively. Much of the cast of On The Waterfront were actually at the New York ceremony, including Best Supporting Actress winner Eva Marie Saint (pictured below), her pregnancy concealed by a jacket as she mounted the stage to accept her award. (Here's the video of her win, again highlighting the difference between the New York and the L.A. ceremonies.) Best Director Elia Kazan was also here to accept his trophy. Marlon Brando, however, was out in Los Angeles, apparently where the fun was.

The following year, this time with Colbert going solo as the East Coast mistress of ceremonies, Best Picture went to Marty, another show originating from New York. But not from a Broadway stage. As a symbolic move towards the importance of the small screen, the Ernest Borgnine vehicle was based on a teleplay from the Goodyear Television Playhouse.

Below: Eva Marie Saint, in shock, approaches the podium to accept her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for On the Waterfront, her tasteful ensemble barely concealing her pregnancy. (Courtesy Life images)

29th Academy Awards
Best Picture Winner: Around The World In 80 Days
March 27, 1957

It was clear by this time that the two coast production was more trouble than it was worth. While Hollywood went with Jerry Lewis again, while New York opted for the elegant but comparatively unexciting Celeste Holm (at right). The New York Times called it 'a colossally listless affair.' One of the few shining moments was an honorary Oscar to New York vaudevillian and Macy's Thanksgiving balloon inspiration Eddie Cantor.

This would be the last year New York hosted the Oscars. And this would be the last hurrah for the New Century Theatre as well. It would be torn down in 1962 and replaced with the rather sleek, curvy 200 Central Park South co-op.

*NOTE: The official Academy Awards website actually has the Academy Awards ceremony in 1954 held at the Center Theatre, the former RKO Roxy Theatre that was originally built as a smaller companion to Radio City Music Hall. However most sources have the New Century (often just called the Century or the NBC Century) as the location. Additionally, the Center Theatre was torn down in 1954. The announcement of its demolition was in October 1953, before the '54 Oscars ceremony.

To make it even more confusing, New York also had a Century Theatre on the other side of Columbus Circle that was demolished in the 1930s. Hopefully I've gotten these theaters all straightened out!

ALSO: You might like to see the Life Magazine photographs of Audrey pictured above in the context of the original Life Magazine article.


It's Friday!!

Yesterday when I finished babysitting I had to head outdoors considering it was 70 degrees and gorgeous!! I met up with two of my girlfriends and we did a little "front porch sitting". As amazing as that was, it didn't leave me much time to put a post together for today. I think that's okay though because it's Friday and what more does anyone need to know. YAY!!

Have a great day!!

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2012)

Decca 478 3206 / Rating *****

British pianists are not exactly covering themselves in glory at international piano competitions these days, but all this seems irrelevant in the face of a talent such as the 19-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor. Following up on his appearance at last year’s First Night of the BBC Proms, his new solo recording is a stupendous achievement. Inspired programming plays a large part. For example, instead of playing Chopin’s Four Scherzos straight through, he separates each of these fast and brilliant essays with the calm and tranquillity of the Nocturnes. Blessed with impeccable technique, and with certain liberties taken in tempi and rubato, these contrasts simply enhance the listening experience.

The Liszt contribution includes two transcriptions of Chopin’s Polish SongsMy Joys and The Maiden’s Wish - and the diminutive but sublime nocturne En Reve. He finishes off with Ravel’s diabolical Gaspard de la nuit, which he had performed at the Singapore International Piano Festival in 2010. He simply revels in the impressionism and expressionism inspired by Aloysius Bertrand’s poems. The mercurial allure of Ondine, the droll tolling of a distant bell in Le Gibet, and the maniacal laughter of Scarbo are vividly captured in these perfectly realised vignettes. Here is a reading that matches the best in the business.

BENJAMIN GROSVENOR performs Schumann Piano Concerto
with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu
Esplanade Concert Hall, 7.30 pm / Friday, 24 February 2012

Tickets available at SISTIC

KALINNIKOV Symphonies Nos.1 & 2
Malaysian Philharmonic / KEES BAKELS
BIS 1155 / ****1/2

What if the little-known Russian composer Vassily Kalinninov (1866-1901) had lived to a ripe old age instead of dying in consumptive poverty at the age of 34? Such questions may not be fully answered but what we are left with is a small body of music including two very well-crafted symphonies. The young talent had received praise from Tchaikovsky and moral support from Rachmaninov, but his overtly nationalistic symphonies filled with typically Russian themes and motifs are closer in spirit to Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The melodies are catchy enough, often more memorable than those of the long-lived academic symphonist Glazunov. When the opening themes are reprised in the finale, the effect is as warm as a reunion between good old friends. Strangely for the Swedish label BIS, whose issues usually come hot off the press, this recording dates back to 2000. Only in the third year of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s existence, the playing under its first Music Director Dutchman Kees Bakels is polished, full of passion and involvement. With excellent sound, these readings already surpass those beloved vintage Soviet Melodiya recordings of Yevgeny Svetlanov.

Footnote: Our hearts go out to the nine Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra musicians laid off by the orchestra in the past week, a number of whom have been with the orchestra since its inception in 1998. Your invaluable contribution in invigorating the classical music in Malaysia and Singapore (the MPO has visited at least four times) will not be forgotten.

More on that injustice and ensuing discussion may be found in Norman Lebrecht's blog:

It's time to shape up New Yorkers! Retro fitness madness

I was perusing the New York State video archives and came across the following 1985 video from the New York State Health Department, a "public service announcement encouraging New Yorkers to exercise."

Truly a masterpiece of font and graphic art, rendered even more amazing by the mono quality of the tape.


An unrelated by interesting fact about the New York Health Department: They began distributing free condoms for men at New York STD clinics as far back as 1971, one of the first cities to do so (although men in military were provided with free condoms as far back as the 1940s). Once health organizations became aware of the AIDS epidemic in the mid 80s, the department expanded condom distribution to other community groups. By 2008, the New York condom had a 'fresh new look' -- embossed with a sleek NYC logo -- becoming not only a useful tool, but a tourist collectable!

Back at it

I have had the past two days off from my internship and it was SO nice! On Tuesday I attended my first career fair specifically for education. It was three hours of non stop education talk and resume handing. I left feeling overwhelmed but also excited. I can't believe I actually am old enough to have a resume! All of the school districts I am interested in, with the exception of one, were in attendance so I was pleased!

my outfit

After my overwhelming day, knowing I didn't have my internship the next day and finding out that I PASSED PRAXIS II I couldn't resist celebrating Mardi Gras that night(:

Wednesday morning I woke up bright and early to attend the Mary Lois Staton Language Arts conference. It was an all day program that focused on literacy techniques for teachers. It was absolutley amazing! I'm so glad I had the opportunity to attend. During the conference we were given a one hour lunch break. To a second grade teacher who has to pack a lunch every day and rush to eat it while monitoring 24 seven year olds, an hour break is the best thing since sliced bread. I headed over to a bagel shop and got this delicious Veggie bagel! Yum!

Even though I was still busy both days, having the day off from my internship was very relaxing! I am not well rested and ready to finish off these next two days before the weekend arrives. Happy Thursday friends! .

The Big Wind of 1912: New York skyscrapers in peril, as monster gales hurl "men and women down city streets"

Trauma in Times Square: An electrical sign destroyed by the massive windstorm of February 22, 1912. One Times Square sits to the left, and the Hotel Astor is in the distance. [LOC] Shorpy has an another angle of this damaged storefront.

"The great gale that blew in with Washington's birthday will not soon be forgotten. It was the biggest New York ever knew." -- New York Evening World, Feb. 23, 1912

 I hope you'll indulge me for just one more post about life in February 1912. In fact, my last two posts on pilot Frank Coffyn and the exhausted women of Astor Place have led up to this event, a catastrophic weather anomaly which occurred on February 22, 1912, an event the New York Times referred to as 'The Big Wind'.

This particular day has also been called "a significant day in the history of tall buildings," although I doubt anybody today will be celebrating this rather vicious and sudden test of architectural endurance.

New Yorkers thought it might be worse. The storm system began the previous day as a blinding Midwestern blizzard, paralyzing the railroad and killing cattle. St. Louis received its greatest snowfall ever up to that time from this churning storm, and Chicago reported winds of up to 50 miles per hour. If it held this pattern by the time it hit the East, New Yorkers feared another storm of the level of the Blizzard of 1888, which buried the city in snow, rendered transportation useless, and killed more than 200 people.

In one respect, the city was fortunate that snowfall was relegated to upstate New York. The grim meteorological trade off, unfortunately, was a day of powerful, otherworldly wind gusts, almost double the strength of those during the infamous 1888 storm.

The worst of it came after midnight, when a terrifying frozen bluster "swooped down on the city with all its length and breadth" at speeds of 96 miles per hour. At one point, devices in Central Park registered an unthinkable 110 miles per hour. By morning it had settled to 70 miles per hour and held that speed steady for much of the day. [source]

Some called this "giant among gales" a day-long cyclone, and it certainly acted like one -- uprooting trees, destroying rooftops and even depositing whole houses into the river. People were blown off their feet, carts went flying and pedestrians dodged falling telephone poles in terror. Most leaving home wearing hats ran back inside without them.  If any of those women from yesterday's Astor Place post were trekking through the plaza with their home-work today, they most likely lost it to the wind.

Foremost on the minds of most New Yorkers was the fate of its skyline. In 1888, during the last harsh storm, there were no skyscrapers. In 1912, there were several over 30 floors, including the city's tallest, the 50-floor Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower off Madison Square. Although most buildings were designed to withstand significant wind trauma, none of them were prepared for winds above 70 miles per hour. And the building slated to become the next tallest in New York -- the Woolworth Building -- was still under construction, its metal skeleton now a potential arsenal of deadly debris.

Panes of glass shattered throughout the city, but it appears most of New York's tallest structures survived without significant damage. In fact, it was the shorter, older structures that fared worst, many of them designed with little protection from powerful winds.

Below: the downtown Manhattan skyline in 1912. Most of these buildings survived the 'Big Wind' with only damage to their windows. [pic]

Not that modern invention came away unscathed that day. The electrical signs of Times Square, many no more than a few months old, were no match for the powerful gusts. Several were destroyed, including a one provocative sign at 47th Street, featuring "two scantily clad electric boys who box nightly in Summer underwear." [source] Next to the Hotel Knickerbocker, a 200-foot electric sign crumbled to the sidewalk below in front of Hepners Hair Emporium, a police officer racing into the establishment a minute before the sign crashed into the plate glass window of the railroad ticket office next door.

Across the street, at the Times Building, a drug store window exploded, and "many bottles of perfume and drugs" were hurled at passers-by.

Most boats all along the waterfront were either damaged or untethered. Predictably, beach houses on Rockaway Beach and other quieter locales fared the worst. The luckiest structures survived with nary a window remaining; those less fortunate were found floating offshore. In Astoria, Queens, the roof to the jail was taken off, to the fright of the occupants inside.

At right: Times Square in August 1912. The White Rock sign was probably not around for the February wind storm. The 'electric boys' sign described above sat at this intersection.

In Red Hook, Brooklyn, turbulent winds kept a raging fire alive at a brick manufacturing plant, distributing flaming pitch shrapnel to several buildings across the street, including a hay and horse feed dealership! (One of many reasons they don't keep hay dealerships in crowded cities today.) The brick factory, which took several hours to control, was about three blocks from the location of today's IKEA store.

February 22, 1912, happened to be the 180th anniversary of George Washington's birth, and hundreds of veterans tried marching from Jefferson Market to Union Square. Flags raised aloft in celebration were torn to ribbons. Nobody was injured, although the gusts caused major inconvenience, "Salvation Army object lessons and banner bearers bowled over by the wind."  [source]

Others were not as fortunate. The Times attributed at least one death to the storm and over a dozen concussions from flying debris, messenger boys and seamstresses blown into windows or railings or hit by signs or dislodged cornices. One man, waiting for his wife at St. Patrick's Cathedral, had his neck slashed by flying glass. Where physical harm was avoided, humiliation took its place. A society woman on Riverside Drive, wearing "superabundantly costly furs," was picked up and thrown into a horse.

Meanwhile, down at the Battery, Frank Coffyn was preparing for another takeoff off the water on his pontoon-equipped airplane. The wind had other plans, ripping the wings off the plane and spoiling Coffyn's flight. Later that day, Coffyn wired his old boss Wilbur Wright for replacement parts. (See my post from last week for more information of Coffyn's harbor flights..)

By the late evening, winds had died down to a mere 44 miles per hour. (For comparison, New York City's average wind speed today is just 12.2 miles per hour.) In the morning, things were back to normal -- except for huge mess of metal and glass left scattered on the streets.

Singapore's Bösendorfer Artist JOSEPHINE KOH Piano Recital

It is known that many great pianists also teach, but it is not necessarily the case vice versa that well-established piano teachers perform in public. That will be the day when all of Singapore's piano teachers turn up for a piano recital and fill up Esplanade Concert Hall, but until that happens, JOSEPHINE KOH, Singapore's first and only Bösendorfer Artist, hopes to change that notion that "If you can't perform, teach". Her programme is a very challenging one that deserves an audience, and Pianomania is fortunate to catch up with her for this exclusive interview. Her programme:

SCHUBERT Wanderer Fantasy

CHOPIN Nocturne in B flat minor, Op.9 No.1

DEBUSSY L'isle joyeuse

LISZT Sonata in B minor

Date: Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Place: Esplanade Recital Studio, 7.30 pm

Tickets at $28, $20 for students & senior citizens (SISTIC)

Briefly, tell us about your early musical training in Singapore.

Yes, I had piano teachers, the most memorable and caring was the kind Ms Low Siew Kwi who started me off so very well. I also had very positive teachers at school, for music and other subjects. After completing my “A” levels, Fellowship (Trinity College of London), and having learnt German at the Goethe Institut, I might have left for Germany at 20 or 21, after being accepted into the Hochschule at Berlin and Hamburg. But call it destiny…life's full of it. The West and East Germans were having problems, and it was not a right time to go.

What factors led you into a life of music, teaching and performing? What were your inspirations?

I was advised to take up jobs in Singapore. I became Music Lecturer at LaSalle College, having been known as a pianist at various private functions, particularly by its then-Head of Music, Mrs Georgina Emmanuel and Brother Joseph McNally.

I was lucky in other ways. I had very strong influencing mentors including Mr Paul Abisheganaden (left), then the Director of the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Musical Activities. I was the pianist for their Harmonica Group and tutor for the NUS Piano Ensemble at age 21. Paul guided and enlightened me in many ways, on how to become a really good professional musician. I played for the NUS Symphony Orchestra, his church and at many official occasions. He was my mentor till his last days. He knew every progress I made over the last 20 years. He also introduced me to many people and told me always, what was right and not right to do.

I had many strange life encounters, but one of the earliest and greatest inspiration was from Karel Husa (left), the Czech-American composer who spoke with me after his lecture in Singapore. I still remember: having shown him one of my piano compositions at the lobby of Shangri-la, he told me about in-roads into a musical career. At 70, he seemed to give me a torch. It's really hard to explain. But he was magic to me. He spoke about hoping to see my name on a big screen at the end of a film, or on a concert programme some day. He tried to remember my name, muttering "Josephine Koh" many times.

I also studied composition privately with Mr Leong Yoon Pin (left). He was a very quiet man, and I learnt an “inner peace” from him, about quietly doing one's things. He spoke to me about many things: about life, music, his beliefs… In a way, my life's perspectives were being shaped. I have great respect for him. I learnt through listening very attentively to him and asking questions. His secrets were often revealed at the quietest and most contemplative moments. He studied with Nadia Boulanger. If anyone wonders about the secrets of my theory …… I learnt much about Boulanger's discipline of pastiche writing and teaching methods.

There were the other Abisheganaden brothers too. It was Geoffrey and Alex who advised and helped me set up the Josephine Koh Music Studio. Coming back from Europe, I eventually decided to do the Singaporean thing and complete my Bachelor’s degree in English and Management at the Open University of UK. In 2005, with the restructuring at Yamaha Music, I decided to publish my own books under Wells Music Publishers.

You have devoted yourself to a life of teaching, either inspiring students on the keyboard as well as directing the NUS Harmonica Ensemble. What prompted you to make a comeback in performing on stage?

I never really stopped practising or performing as a musician, just less intense. My last solo recital was in 1997. With my appointment as a Bösendorfer artist and children growing up, it is now possible to return to performing and travelling again.

Tell us a little about your really demanding concert recital programme!

I'm playing it because I won’t be able to do it if I get any older! This programme has been carefully thought out. These are not pieces that I learnt recently or over a few years. The last time I played the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy was in 1994, and the Liszt Sonata in B minor in 1997. Over that period, I studied with Maestro Vincenzo Balzani in Milan and played a number of recitals then, flying between Singapore, Italy and the UK. Those were the days of life's greatest experiences…

How does one prepare for such a recital programme like this?

Practice, exercise and pray… and there are the dos and don'ts. It is both a mental and physical exercise. Behind it all, I cannot deny Maestro Balzani's ears, advice and counsel. I realised recently that every great pianist has had a great, quiet, influential mentor throughout their careers. To be on one's own is far too dangerous. I studied hard at conducting too, and it has given me a lot of insights into my piano playing. My most influential and demanding conducting mentor is Ovidiu Balan, who coincidentally is a great friend of Vincenzo Balzani.

Josephine (centre) with Bösendorfer and Yamaha representatives in Frankfurt.

You are Singapore’s only Bösendorfer artist. What does that actually entail, and how did you get bestowed that title?

There is an agreement and contract. But the Bösendorfer people are such beautiful, gracious people who respect their artists. What really needs to be done or is expected is almost mutually understood by them. When I was nominated, they visited me at my home and music studio. It wasn't even expected. I did not take up the offer initially as I was too busy and caught up with things. But life has its turning points, and I eventually plucked up the courage to give it a shot.

Maybe you might find this Vienna story interesting. I was received at Vienna airport for an impressive week-long itinerary that began with a 2-hour lecture-tour of the Bösendorfer factory. I was introduced to Bösendorfer people at various levels, and was assigned a full day to select my piano. I was brought to met the artist technician, who astounded me with the unbelievable acuteness of his ears and an innate understanding of an artist's touch, sound and needs. After the selection, the piano was brought to the salon and I had to play. It was so so unnerving, and I don't know what could have happened if it didn't go right!

The artist manager took care of me, and I was introduced at lunch to the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. There were concerts and many discussions during lunches and dinners at high profile restaurants, which turned out to be informal interviews!

Eventually, I received my piano in November 2009, a 225 concert model. Having delayed my duties as a Bösendorfer artist by a year due to family commitments, the Premier Piano Launch organised by Yamaha at the Esplanade Recital Studio was held in January 2011. The announcement was made and the title officially bestowed. With the agreement eventually signed in April 2011, I met the Bösendorfer team in Frankfurt at the Musikmesse where we also held an exhibition for Wells Music Publishers. I was told that Bösendorfer had conducted various checks on me over more than a year.

It is well known that there are tens of thousands of music students in Singapore, but that does not translate into concert attendances. What can music teachers to encourage more of their students to attend musical events?

It’s our whole culture here in Singapore, and it’s has been so difficult all this while. If not for the great people behind my life, and God's many blessings, my story would have been a very different one. I would certainly continue to do my best in various ways to help music teachers and their students.

Josephine Koh was interviewed by PianoManiac.

Under The Boardwalk

Under the boardwalk, we'll be having some fun.

I am having an itch to escape to the beach..

I want to wear shorts

and relax all day on the beach

and eat fresh seafood

and do a little shopping

and go to bed tired from my slight sunburn

That is all.. it's not too much to ask is it? Anyone live by the sea that would like me to visit?!(:

This woman's work: Exhausting images of Astor Place and Lafayette Street

Gritty streets, circa 1912. Looking up Lafayette Street, below Astor Place. "The breaking point. A heavy load for an old woman." The building to the right is the DeVinne Press Building, built in the 1880s, and today home to Astor Center Wine & Spirits. In the distance: the Wanamaker Department Store building, today the home to K-Mart! Look here and turn the angle north for the present view of this street. [Source: LOC]

Lewis Hine hit the streets of New York in 1912 looking for dirt. And he found it. The teacher-turned-social activist and photographer had found the camera a useful tool in illustrating poverty and had already drawn attention to deplorable child labor conditions. In the wake of early social crusaders like Jacob Riis, Hine's photos helped the poorest New Yorkers by showcasing their daily toil in a landscape of decrepit quality.

Beyond the social commentary, however, these are still fascinating portraits of New York. None are more striking to me personally than his images taken one hundred years ago this month from Astor Place and along Lafayette Street. Many New Yorkers marveled that month at the exploits of daredevil pilot Frank Coffyn over New York harbor, but after the fun was over, many came home to this.

A highly energetic crossroads today, the destination of college students, shoppers, and theater goers, Astor Place has clearly cleaned up its act since Hine sat his tripod here a century ago. With these particular images, Hines was specifically commenting on 'home-work', poor women and children taking raw materials or clothing to mend back to their tenements, turning their confined living quarters into personal sweatshops.

They say other things to us today. The street conditions speak for themselves. But see if you can identify some of these street corners!

Caption "Woman crossing Astor Place with home-work": Looking up Fourth Avenue, with the Wanamaker department store building (designed by the great Daniel Burnham in 1904) to the left.

Two pictures on the same street corner. Notice the condition of the street in the background. The shop sign advertises 'Choice Fruits, Candies, Cigarettes, Hot Frankfurters'. They also have a public AT&T telephone.

I find this one the most intriguing. "Young girl carrying bundle of coats home to be finished." She's clearly walking up (or down?) along the Third Avenue elevated train. Keep in mind, in context to last week's post on the Coffyn flight, that it's so cold in New York at this time that the East River has frozen over in many places.

Pictures courtesy of the Library of Congress. You can check out their digital archives for hundreds of other Hine photographs from this era.