Home Stretch

Hey friends, I know I have been MIA for a little while now and I blame it all on the craziness of the last little bit of senior year. Last week I came down with a bug and that left me immobile in my bed wondering how I could possibly survive the day. (I could be a little dramatic but it was bad enough to miss two days of my internship!) Believe it or not it is my LAST week of college. Maybe you can believe it but I sure cannot! Time has absolutely flown by!! I'm at my internship today and will be through Wednesday. Friday is the big graduation ceremony day and then I'm all finished and officially a licensed teacher.

I have so much to share that happened while I was taking my little break. I'll start with my favorite part- last Friday my students through me a surprise going away party in class. I will say they went above and beyond and really did surprise me to the fullest. My clinical teacher had me run a fake errand only to my surprise when I returned there was a room full of students, parents, decorations, donuts and gifts galore. My students made me a book titled "How to be a good teacher" and homemade cards. I now have an entire bag full of school goodies- pencils, stickers, stamps, bulletin board supplies, etc. You know you are a teacher when this stuff makes you giddy! I am so appreciative of all my wonderful students I have had this year!

opening gifts

me and my students!

the setup

'Mad Men' notes: Executive (and bohemian) dining

A square meal: The Tower Suite's packed dining room   

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

In trying to contrast the life-altering decisions made by two of 'Mad Men's central characters, the writers certainly did an excellent job last night in choosing two appropriate and familiar locales.

Don Draper (with Megan in tow) made a last-ditch effort to win over a difficult client by dining at the Tower Suite in the Time & Life Building. (The offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were actually several floors below.) The restaurant on the 48th floor served as an executive dining room during the day called the Hemisphere Club, one of a number of elevated lunch spots in midtown Manhattan. The destination for businessmen looking to impress -- waiters were dressed as butlers  -- was opened by George Lang of Cafe des Artistes fame in 1961.

By many accounts however, the Tower Suite was considered a starched and even dreary dining experience. And quickly passe. In 1970, New York Magazine intoned "[T]he Tower Suite is still ideal for enchanting sheltered in-laws, teenagers, the hopelessly in love and out of town clients from Saginaw."

Peggy Olsen, meanwhile, had a more personal dilemma to attend to downtown in the heart of Greenwich Village where she's seen much of her personal growth. She's presented with a decision to make over dinner at Minetta Tavern, a corner Italian restaurant on MacDougal Street at the foot of small Minetta Lane.

This was the former location of The Black Rabbit, one of Greenwich Village's best known speakeasies, operated by Eve Addams. Her infamous tearoom Eve's Hangout right up the street was one of New York's first lesbian hangouts. The Black Rabbit switched to proper Italian cuisine in 1937.

The tavern had been immortalized the previous year in Joseph Mitchell's ode to eccentric bohemian Joe Gould, who frequented Minetta's in his later years. 'Joe Gould's Secret' would become one of Mitchell's best  known New York tales. (It was also be his last book.)

With the Tower Suite long gone, you can no longer enjoy its faux-butler service, but Minetta Tavern was renovated and reopened in 2009 by restaurateur Keith McNally.

Goodbye Dr Marc... For Now

The classical music scene in Singapore will be poorer with the absence of a personality such as Dr Marc Rochester, esteemed Gramophone and International Record Review music critic and official annotator of Singapore Symphony Orchestra's programme notes, who leaves our shores for the deserts of the Middle East in May. Hopefully this would be a short hiatus when he takes a breather from the crazy musical world of Southeast Asia to the international music festival in oil-rich Abu Dhabi.

Marc and his lovely family arrived in Singapore four years ago, having left his post at the oil-rich Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra where he was its musical consultant, organist and annotator. My first impulse was to grab him to write concert reviews for The Straits Times, its readers having been inflicted with my point of view for long enough and deserved an alternative voice. We shared reviewing duties, especially increasingly on evenings when there were concerts at both Esplanade and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. "No good concert should be left uncriticised," seemed to be our shared mission, and it was great see our reviews side-by-side (great for me, at least). There was one crazy weekend in last August which saw four of our concert reviews appear in the Monday morning post!

Marc's reviews are always insightful, entertaining and often hilarious. He will always get you to see his point of view, even if you do not necessarily agree with it. Never shying away from being totally frank and honest, controversy is always around the corner. You can catch his must-read, no-holds-barred blog at: http://drmarcsblog.marcrochester.com

Perhaps it takes a non-Singaporean to burst the myth that Esplanade Concert Hall's acoustics are perfect and without blemish, or to state point blank that the SSO does not hold a candle to the MPO (for now, that is), or that the classical musical scene in Singapore is provincially amateurish. It has cost him some a fair bit, knowing that Esplanade (Singapore's biggest presenter of classical music) has dispensed of his writing services as a result of his opinions. It is wholly their loss, not his. 

He is almost always right, and as a mirror held against our pretensions, he tells it as he sees it, and we would be fools to ignore him (like our provincially amateurish classical radio station invariably will). For all this, we say "Thank You" and I hope the powers that be do listen, take notes and actually do something about it. Perhaps The Arts House would replace their Shigeru Kawai (Marc's bete noire) with a Steinway grand!  

Singapore's "Golden Age" of music criticism? Discuss.

SSO Concert: Pictures at an Exhibition / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (28 April 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 April 2012 with the title "Picture-perfect melodies".

It has been many years since the Singapore Symphony Orchestra last performed a Familiar Favourites Concert. This evening’s offering brought back a flavour of the late-lamented series that was much loved by relative newcomers to subscription concerts, not just because of the friendly repertoire, but also a sense of informality and congeniality.

Central to all this was the final appearance in a concerto by the orchestra’s very popular Concertmaster Alexander Souptel, Russian-born but naturalised Singaporean, whose infectious smile and habitual non-verbal gestures are now standard issues of SSO concerts. In short, he himself had become a “Familiar Favourite” over the past 19 years.

Although not possessing the biggest of tones, infallible technique or spotless intonation, his enduring strength is in coaxing the violin to sing in a most natural and seemingly effortless manner. His namesake and compatriot Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto (left) provided ample opportunities, and how he seamlessly shaped the slow movement’s cloying melody like a crooner who gratefully clings on to every note. 

He makes the listener long that every lingering phrase might never end, not by force of will but by charm of persuasion. After the pyrotechnics of the finale had abated, his encore of Carlos Gardel’s tango Por una cabeza with the orchestra, oozing sentimentality from every pore, was icing on the cake.

More favourites filled the programme, beginning with Dvorak’s rousing Carnival Overture (left), driven at a furious pace by SSO Young Associate Conductor Darrell Ang, but without sacrificing attention to detail. In the same vein was Ravel’s Technicolor orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, also conducted from memory. 

Both instrumental and ensemble prowess shared equal billing, with the plum role falling to free-lance guest trumpeter John Terry Bingham whose stand-out solos in the opening Promenade and the whiny Goldenberg and Schmuyle were outstanding to say the least. Tang Xiao Ping, swapping the saxophone for his clarinet, sang like a forlorn troubadour in The Old Castle, and even the odd raspberry from the tuba helped the lumbering old oxcart of Bydlo sound suitably rickety.

With all the picturesque movements, inspired by sketches from Mussorgsky’s late friend Viktor Hartmann, impressively characterised and deliciously realised, this was a performance to win new friends for the orchestra. Is this a good time to ask for a return of the Familiar Favourites? 

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2012)

Brodsky Quartet
Chandos 10708 / ****1/2

The Britain-based Brodsky Quartet, renowned for its versatility and collaborations with non-classical artists, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with an album comprising solely encores, short pieces performed at the end of a concert. All of these are in the form of transcriptions, mostly by its violist Paul Cassidy. The programme begins in the sunny climes of Spainwith dances by de Falla and Sarasate, culminating with the latter’s rip-roaring Zapateado, punctuated by foot stamping from the players. The Home Countries are represented by Elgar, of course, but there is to be no Salut d’Amour. Instead Chanson de matinand Chanson de nuit, separated by the whimsical La Capricieuse, provide soulful reminiscence without the cloying sentimentality. Oh how the English loved French titles!

Some of the best music here is French, epitomised by the Blues from Ravel’s Violin Sonata, in former first violinist Andrew Haveron’s arrangement, where the jazzy effects of the original are passed around all four instruments. The Central European contribution includes Mendelssohn, Kreisler and Godowsky, although one might consider the piano quintet arrangements of movements from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood to be somewhat superfluous. Most of all, it is the infectious spirit of music-making (with two members from the original 1972 quartet, violinist Ian Belton and cellist Jacqueline Thomas still playing) that makes this disc a very enjoyable one.

EMI Classics 95422 2 (5 CDs) / ****1/2

This budget-priced box-set brings together the music of three British composers whose lives were inevitably intertwined. Irishman Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and Hubert Parry (1848-1928) were important musical and academic establishment figures, whose standings in posterity were gradually and eventually eclipsed by the emergence of Edward Elgar (1857-1934). While Salut D’Amour and Serenade for Strings(included here) are hardly obscure, much of “The Lighter Elgar” is. You will not find profundity in his six partsongs From the Bavarian Highlands, based on German dances, but miniatures like Elegy and Sospiro can be very moving. 

Stanford’s fame now lies in his choral music for the Anglican church, and an entire disc by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge conducted by Stephen Cleobury confirms its quality. His Third Symphony, also called the Irish Symphony, uses Irish melodies, quotes from Brahms’s Fourth Symphonyand sounds like Dvorak. The most underrated of the three is Parry, composer of the ode Blest Pair of Sirens (sung at the Royal Wedding of 2011), who may be referred to as the “English Brahms”. Sir Adrian Boult conducts his stirring Fifth Symphony, the splendid Symphonic Variations (an equal to the German’s Haydn Variations) and quite appropriately, Elegy to Brahms of 1897. Lovers of the traditional in symphonic music need not hesitate.

Partners In Preservation: Help out a NYC landmark!

For almost five years, we have been extolling the virtues of New York's greatest and most treasured landmarks in our podcasts. At last, we can actually bring to your attention a very special project where you'll get to interact with some of these places and help get them get sorely needed funding.

The Bowery Boys: New York City History will be blog ambassadors for the Partners In Preservation initiative, sponsored by American Express in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The initiative has helped historic sites in Chicago, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Boston, Seattle-Puget Sound, San Francisco and New Orleans in prior years. Finally they've come to New York City!

Partners In Preservation is providing $3 million to be given away to historic sites who have submitted grants. Each place has a different need in mind -- basic maintenance, renovation, site expansion, you name it.

Here's how we all come in. You can vote once a day for a particular site you want to support. Go directly to the Partners In Preservation webpage or vote on their Facebook page. The four sites that get the most votes will have their grant requests fully funded, and the remainder of the pot will be split between other sites chosen by an advisory committee made up of civic and preservation figures here in New York.

The list of 40 nominated sites is listed below, after the jump. We have spoken about a great many of them in our podcasts and here on the blog. Over the next few weeks -- up until the voting deadline of May 21 -- we will turn our focus on a few more of these great places. Our new podcast next week will feature one particular spot and its relation to one of our favorite early New Yorkers.

As for the contest itself, we don't have a particular horse in this race. The choice is yours. Just look through the list and find a spot that you have either a particular love for or a place you feel passionate needs the support. There are big places and very small places.  Spread the love! Go here to vote once a day. In a couple days I'll have an interface for the blog and our own Facebook page.

Next weekend (May 4-5), all 40 sites will have an open house with special events. Have fun with this! Visit and explore a place you've never been. And come back here for our take on a few of these interesting sites.

The nominees are:

-- Alice Austen House Museum, Staten Island
-- Apollo Theater, Manhattan
-- Astoria Pool, Queens
-- Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Bronx
-- Brooklyn Public Library, Central Library, Brooklyn
-- Brown Memorial Baptist Church, Brooklyn
-- Caribbean Cultural Center, Manhattan
-- City Island Nautical Museum, Bronx
-- Cleopatra's Needle, Manhattan
-- Coney Island B&B Carousell, Brooklyn
-- Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn
-- Duo Multicultural Arts Center, Manhattan
-- Ellis Island Hospital Complex, Manhattan
-- Erasmus Hall Campus, Brooklyn
-- Federal Hall National Memorial, Manhattan
-- Flushing Town Hall, Queens
-- Gateway National Recreation Area, Brooklyn
-- Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, Brooklyn
-- Guggenheim Museum, Manhattan
-- Helen Hayes Theatre, Manhattan
-- Henry Street Settlement, Manhattan
-- High Line, Manhattan
-- Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Manhattan
-- Japan Society, Inc., Manhattan
-- Jefferson Market Library, Manhattan
-- Louis Armstrong House Museum, Queens
-- Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Manhattan
-- Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center, Bronx
-- Museum of the City of New York, Manhattan
-- New York Botanical Garden, Bronx
-- Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society of Rosebank, Staten Island
-- Queens County Farm Museum, Queens
-- Rocket Thrower, Queens
-- Rossville African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Staten Island
-- Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Manhattan
-- St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, Manhattan
-- Staten Island Museum at Snug Harbor, Staten Island
-- Tug Pegasus & Waterfront Museum Barge, Brooklyn
-- Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn
-- Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx

No Nonsense: Fifth Avenue lingerie from Brooklyn factories

Store: Kayser Hosiery
545 Fifth Avenue at 45th Street

German immigrant Julius Kayser didn't start off being so intimate with women. When he opened his first factory in 1880, he specialized in simple cotton gloves, and soon moved to the silken kind, the sort a proper woman wore to the opera or a masquerade ball. He even patented a 'process for reinforcing fingertips' which quickly made Kayser a rich man.

By 1913, Julius had expanded to hosiery, veils, swimwear and undergarments that were sold in all the most notable department stores. He employed a staggering 2,500 people in Brooklyn (in today's DUMBO area and later in Clinton Hill**) and several other New York state plants, manufacturing not only standard 'knit' underwear but the more exotic 'Italian silk underwear'.

Kayser brought his selection of women's delicates to 545 Fifth Avenue in the 1930s, with a renovation a decade later that included an 'extensive use of mirrors, both inside and outside the shop'. [source]

Further innovations -- like the 'nimble toe' pantyhose -- brought further expansion in the 1950s and a new three-story store at 425 Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, which featured a 1,200-seat 'Theater of Intimate Apparel' for fashion shows and a rooftop garden to display swimwear and outdoor fashions.

Kayser is still atop the women's undergarment pile. The company joined with Chester H Roth in 1958, and the merged company Kayser-Roth debuts the affordable No Nonsense brand of undergarments in the 1970s. I'm not sure if the current company still makes silk gloves, which got them started in the first place.

**222 Taaffe Place, to be exact. I just wanted to say that because Taaffe Street is one of my favorite street names in New York for some reason.

History in the Making: Double Decker Delight Edition

Ladies in their most decorative hats enjoy a sunny ride from a double-decker in the fleet of the Fifth Avenue Coach Company. Anybody recognize this street corner? There's an advertisement for McMullen's White Label Bass Ale, Guinness Stout, Appolinari's mineral water on the building in the background. (Photo by Alice Austen, courtesy NYPL. Labeled 1896, but most likely much later, perhaps early-mid 1910s)

Sage Advice: Sixteen tips and observations from an opinionated 1916 New York tour guide. "Another characteristic of New York, and one that applies to all grades of society, is the lavish and conspicuous mode of dress adopted by New York women on the public streets" [Cenedella]

Evergreen: It's Barbra Streisand's 70th birthday! Find out where she -- and 19 other extraordinary female vocalists -- got their start in New York's hustling nightlife in an older 2010 post from this blog. [Bowery Boys]

On the Menu: Dying to go to the Howard Johnson's restaurant depicted on last Sunday's 'Mad Men' episode and partake of a big, BIG orange sherbet? The Plattsburgh location is closed, but The Retrologist takes you to an original restaurant that's still open in Lake George. [The Retrologist]

Good Golly: The History Chicks podcast takes a look at the Titanic's most famous lady, the 'Unsinkable' Molly Brown. [The History Chicks]

The Wire: There are mysterious, almost invisible wires strung from lampposts all around the city. Ever notice them? [Slate]

Continuing Story: The latest on the embattled St. Mark's Bookshop, one of the last independent bookstores in the East Village. [Jeremiah's Vanishing New York]

Bronx Tracks: A meticulous truly adventurous walk along the old New York, Westchester and Boston Railway in the Bronx, with sights along Gun Hill Road, Dyre Avenue and stops near the old Freedomland amusement park. [Forgotten New York]

Commodious: The Brooklyn Historical Society takes a leap into the records of the Brooklyn Bureau of Sewers. [Brooklyn Historical Society Blog]

And, now, big news! We are very happy to announce our involvement as blog ambassadors for the Partners In Preservation grant program, sponsored by American Express and the National Trust For Historic Preservation. Forty historical places in New York City have been chosen to compete for $3 million worth of funding. It's a great chance for us to finally give back to some of New York's most treasured places we've spent years talking about. And you can help choose the grant awardees. More information on that this Thursday! [Partners In Preservation]

'Mad Men' notes: New York becomes an LSD playground

A mind-twisting exhibit at the Riverside Museum, formerly at 310 Riverside Drive/103rd Street, makes it on the cover of a national magazine. But not everybody would enjoy the trip.

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

Sure, it's 1966. I thought maybe Peggy Olsen might be the one to trip the light fantastic. (She was otherwise engaged this week.) But I never expected hallucinogenics to materialize as they did on last night's 'Mad Men'. After a staggeringly serious dinner party narrated with empty philosophical conversation, Roger Sterling and his wife are invited to take the drug LSD by their host. Far from the dorm rooms and basement clubs of Greenwich Village where one might expect such experimentation, this evening of psychedelia was presented as a drawing-room intellectual exercise, with serene music unspooling from a reel-to-reel and no object more trippy than a mantel mirror.

Lysergic acid diethylamide, which I doubt can actually be said while experiencing its effects, was considered a mind-opening tool for some early psychiatrists, laying bare subconscious feelings and forcing the user to confront difficult issues in a surreal environment. By the mid '60s, its leading advocate was Timothy Leary (below), a psychologist who had studied the benefits of psychedelic drugs to explore the mental capacities. Today we might naturally lump him with the trappings of '60s counter-culture, but in 1966, with the parameters of psychiatry still in flux, his experiments also appealed to intelligentsia.

The depiction of 'Mad Men's after-dinner drug soiree seem to follow Leary's instruction quite explicitly. In 1966, he advised, "Don't take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don't take it unless you have someone that's very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don't take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you're gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility."

An article in March 25, 1966, LIFE Magazine laid out the details of the drugs in almost an introductory fashion. "A black market dose costs only $3 to $5. But that's enough to send a person on a 10-hour 'trip'."

The same article also underscored a growing fear: "A few pounds of it dumped into the water supply of a major city would be enough to disorient millions."

The federal government had been concerned of this supposed conspiracy as early as the 1950s, fearful that Russians might pollute New York's water and "turn drug-addled American citizens against their own government." [source] Of course, the CIA itself experimented with LSD during this period with its covert Project MKULTRA, which conducted experiments in New York during the mid-50s, using prostitutes and junkies they found in local bars in Greenwich Village. An experiment performed on CIA operatives themselves led one agent in 1953 to leap from a window at the Statler Hilton, today's Hotel Pennsylvania. (Or was it murder?)

By the 1960s, the drug had become a virtual entrance exam for New York's blossoming counter-culture music scene, or so the more hysterical believed. "In New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, a girl just off the bus from Boise can find it quicker than the YWCA merely by asking around for 'a trip'," warned Life Magazine.

The fear of an unwitting populace overtaken with LSD only grew with the 1960s, and this time, some thought it was New York's counter-culture rebels itself who may be wielding it.  A 1967 journal opined on the urban legend with all seriousness. "[A] single ounce will provide fuel for 300,000 trips, reported one periodical, and it is believed that a few pounds dumped into the water supply of New York City would disorient the nearly 8,000,000 residents."

Perceptions of LSD were slowly divorced from its supposed therapeutic qualities, especially as the drug soon found itself as the subject of films like Roger Corman's 'The Trip' and 'Enormous Midnight', where town water supply is poisoned with LSD and turns its citizens into orgiastic zombies. In New York, LSD entered the club world; hallucinogenic mid-60s destinations like Cerebrum and the Electric Circus (which became Andy Warhol's preferred spot in 1966) seem almost conceivable without it.

New York legislators quickly vowed to outlaw the new drug. Bellevue Hospital reported over 200 new patients affected by the drug. In April 1966, two local crimes energized the press: a Brooklyn girl accidentally ingested a sugarcube coated with LSD, and a week later, a ex-mental patient killed his mother-in-law, allegedly under the influence of the drug. With the Stagger-Dodd bill in 1968, the possession of LSD became illegal in the United States.

While that effectively ended the living-room therapy sessions such as the one experienced by Roger Sterling, the drug, now underground, would increasingly influence all aspects of New York bohemian culture.

From the Cerebrum club mentioned above:

Pictures courtesy Newsweek and Life Google Images. For more information on the CIA's LSD experiments, you might be interested in watching this video.

If you're watching 'Mad Men' when it broadcasts at 10 PM EST, then follow along with me on Twitter at @boweryboys. I'll be giving a live fact-Tweeting, dropping little factoids about the events being depicted on the show

Singaporean reader posts Gramophone Magazine's Letter of the Month

The Letter of the Month in the May 2012 issue of Gramophone magazine was posted by a Singaporean  reader and musicophile. No prizes for guessing who it was - Phan Ming Yen - retired Straits Times music critic, music historian author and manager of The Arts House. 

A regular writer to the Forum pages of Gramophone and International Piano, this is an umpteenth time his letters has been published, but the first to be awarded Letter of the Month. So he gets to enjoy all those CD vouchers and prizes from Presto Classical. Do you detect a sense of envy here? You bet!

(Click on image to enlarge)

Gunther's magic Wand enchants Phan Ming Yen.

SSO Concert: The Bartok Second / Review

Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (21 April 2012)
Singapore  Orchestra Symphony

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 April 2012 with the title "Fireworks end with Bartok's bang and smash".

The mere mention of the 20th century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok still strikes fear in the hearts of potential concert-goers today. Just witness the rows of empty seats at this evening’s concert, which began with four dances from the ballet Estancia (The Ranch) by Argentine Alberto Ginastera, sometimes described as the “Bartok of the Pampas”.

Conducted by the young Venezuelan maestro Christian Vasquez, this was a case of excellent programming as both composers made use of the folk idioms and dances of their native countries, crafted in an invigorating and often violent way.

The insistent and relentless rhythm of percussion fuelled three of the dances, with the furious and frenetic Malambo making for a most exuberant close. In between, the reflective Danza del Trigo (Wheat Dance)offered flautist Jin Ta and concertmaster Alexander Souptel the most elegant of solos, which they accepted with utmost grace.

Excellent wind and brass dominated the first movement of Bartok’s thorny Second Piano Concerto, a work of nightmarish difficulty to accompany, as they more than kept up with French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s steely fingers. This was an astonishing performance in many ways, most of all because all on deck were functioning beyond the mastery of correct notes. Each rapid cut and thrust by the soloist was matched by equally trenchant responses from the orchestra, all accomplished at a spellbinding speed.

The few moments of repose were afforded in the Adagio, where the hitherto silent strings produced the most evenly burnished sound to evoke the mysteries of the night. This made the hell-for-leather interlude – with piano and orchestra scurrying in all directions - even more exciting.

The brutal Allegro Barbaro–like romp of the finale completed a work that could be classical music’s equivalent of heavy metal. As a touch of supreme irony, the brilliant Bavouzet played as his encore Debussy’s genteel prelude, The Girl With Flaxen Hair. What extraordinary contrasts!

After the bang and smash of the first half, Dvorak’s affable Eighth Symphony seemed almost an anti-climax. It was a good performance overall, with no new insights to be proffered. Vasquez, like many of his prodigious generation, conducted totally from memory. A goodly and non-idiosyncratic pace started the first movement, and it continued merrily and untroubled from there.

Here is a leader who does not try and impose his own will on the score, but let the music speak for itself. Flautist Jin was called upon again for more intricate solos. As the pastorale of the slow movement gave way to a more boisterous Slavonic dance and the final procession, so did the ensemble step up to the plate to close on a high. For many, including this listener, the fireworks had ended with the Bartok.

The missing: Revisiting the Etan Patz disappearance in SoHo and holding on to memories of a transformed neighborhood

The scene at Wooster and Prince Street on April 19, 2012.

 The world has changed since the disappearance of Etan Patz from the streets of New York on May 25, 1979. At least it seemed that way yesterday when the FBI and the New York Police Department reopened the cold case of the boy's disappearance and focused its attentions on a building in SoHo at 127 Prince Street. Etan went missing after leaving his home at a few doors down, at 113 Prince Street, on the way to the bus stop.

The neighborhood today is a concentrated collection of boutiques, franchise clothing stores, art galleries, cafes and an Apple Store. The building that may hold the secrets to one of New York's most famous unsolved mysteries holds a Lucky Brand jeans boutique on its ground floor.

Etan would be about my age now. But I have never lived in SoHo. For Etan, it was the only place he ever called home. The SoHo of today is a broad caricature of that neighborhood he lived in. It's sunny and mostly welcoming now but oddly dispiriting. One block way is a two-story retailer entirely devoted to Crocs.

It's a neighborhood that has changed dramatically in tone over the past thirty years, even if its appearance has remained almost identical thanks to its designation as a historic district in 1973. (Given the madness of development along the neighborhood's western edge, could you imagine what would have happened here without it?) Its sleek, bustling character is of fairly recent invention, a perversion of the 1970s art and fashion scene which flocked here, attracted to the abandoned old factories and warehouses garbed in striking cast iron.

Below: Crosby and Spring Street, 1978 (Flickr/straatis)

The district was pulled from the jaws of destruction -- Robert Moses' failed project, the strange and insane Lower Manhattan Expressway-- in the 1960s, then became populated with adventurous young creatives drawn to the neighborhood's relative isolation and large lofts. Former storage rooms for textiles and other dry goods became ideal for art galleries and performance spaces. The 'cast iron district' may have itself informed the creativity that flocked here. Gallery owners could think ambitiously. High ceilings, canyons of uniform metal, and stark cobblestone streets appealed more to the avant garde.

There was still something mysterious about SoHo in the mid-1970s, a time before high-end fashion became entrenched in the windows. It allowed artists and bohemians to thrive in a place that in many ways seemed off limits from the rest of the city, more rarefied. SoHo took on a different artistic hue from the East Village where art mixed with poverty. Quirky (and expensive) clothing boutiques soon arrived; Betsey Johnson, for instance, opened her first store in SoHo in 1978.

The elevation into a sort of edgy high culture was palpable enough that it soon seeped into pop culture. Between horrifying visions of death, Faye Dunaway traipsed the streets here in 1978's 'The Eyes of Laura Mars'. Martin Scorsese paid homage to its eccentricity in his 1985 film 'After Hours'.

But SoHo would not have been immune to the New York's deteriorating infrastructure of the 1970s. Or its escalating crime. While perhaps not unsafe during the day, this stretch of Prince Street where Etan would have walked in 1979 had far less foot traffic on a weekday, clearly free of today's starving artists, latte sippers and jewelry and tee-shirt sellers. By 1984, when New York Magazine proclaimed SoHo was "on the verge of becoming a downtown Madison Avenue," the crime rate was actually increasing. The depths of the neighborhood's swift gentrification were clashing with reality.

It would take a financial upswing in the late 1980s and early 1990s for SoHo itself to change again. Wealthier residents moved in, as did high-end retailers -- and then, slightly less-than-high-end retailers along Broadway. This forced out a great many of the original galleries, now drawn to a new area of warehouse-filled remoteness in West Chelsea.

When Etan Patz disappeared in 1979, the tragedy literally changed how Americans thought about missing children. The search erupted into a media frenzy with detectives fielding hundreds of false leads driven by lost-child flyers that blanketed New York City.

It became the "widest and longest search for a missing child undertaken by the city's Police Department in decades" [source] and quite possibly the most publicized child abduction in America since the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's infant son in 1932.  In 1983 President Ronald Reagan established National Missing Children's Day on May 25, the day of Etan's disappearance. He became the first missing child to adorn a milk carton.

And so, over 30 years later, this case now leads right back here to a building in SoHo a short distance from his home, in a place he might find unrecognizable and in a country transformed by his disappearance.

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2012)

BARTOK Piano Concertos
BBC Philharmonic / Gianandrea Noseda
Chandos 10610 / *****

The three vastly contrasting piano concertos of the Hungarian nationalist composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) are landmarks of 20th century pianism. The extremely strident First Concerto (1926) emerged from the same cataclysmic epoch of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring and Bartok’s own urban ballet of sex and violence, The Miraculous Mandarin. The Second Concerto (1933), despite its percussiveness, is modelled like a baroque concerto grosso. Here the old and new meet with sparks flying. The Third Concerto (1945), which was incomplete at the composer’s death, returned to an agreeable mellowness tinged with a certain nostalgia. All three are virtuoso vehicles, demanding the utmost from pianists and the orchestral support.

French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, celebrated for performances of the French musical impressionists, downplays on the angularity and hard-edged steel of the first two concertos. He finds a mercurial streak in pages of flying velocity and rare serenity in the slow movements. Bartok was after all influenced by Debussy in matters of orchestral harmonies, textures and colour. This is a totally valid and persuasive view, moving away from the brutal vehemence of Maurizo Pollini’s famous 1970s recordings. With an equally musical view of the final concerto, this set is urgently recommended.

BARTOK Piano Concerto No.2
Performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with
Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christian Vasquez
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday, 21 April 2012 at
7.30 pm

DEBUSSY Complete Piano Solos
BIS CD-1955/56 (6 CDs) / *****

This slimline box-set probably has the most complete edition of solo piano music by French composer Claude-Achille Debussy (1862-1918) in the market. Performed with great sensitivity, finesse and an acute ear for intricate multi-layered sonorities, Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa’s account is one for the ages. From the early salon-like miniatures (including the popular Arabesques, Reverie and lesser-known Ballade, Nocturne) to the great impressionist masterpieces (complete sets of Pr√©ludes, Images, Estampes and √Čtudes), she mines a wealth of nuances, and is recorded in sumptuous sound. Also included are the ballet La boite a joujoux (The Toybox) and several rarities, like the Scherzo from his early Piano Trio and Debussy’s final work of 1917, Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon (Evenings Lit By Glowing Coals), only discovered in 2001.

The final disc unearths the World Premiere recordings of five Preludes And Fugues composed in 1881-83, when he was a student at the Paris Conservatory. Lest one gets overly excited, these are merely well-schooled exercises from an apprentice on his chequered path towards greatness. Closing the set is Debussy’s only piano concerto, his affable melody-filled Fantaisie (1889-90), which gets a spirited contribution from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shui Lan. A further inducement: this set retails at super-budget price in HMV.

MADAM BUTTERFLY 3D / Royal Opera House Cinema / Review

Royal Opera House Cinema
Cathay Cineplexes
Wednesday (18 April 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 April 2012 with the title "Great close-ups but Butterfly's 3-D superfluous".

Synopsis: In 19th century Nagasaki, young Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San (Liping Zhang) forsakes family and religion to marry the American naval officer B.F.Pinkerton (James Valenti) for love. However his true intentions, and how the term “Pinkerton Syndrome” comes about, are the recipe for a poignant cross-cultural tragedy.

The reproduction of opera performances has been making quantum leaps over the past century, from scratchy shellac 78s, through long playing records, VHS videotapes, high definition DVD to the present state of the art - three-dimensional movies in Dolby sound. Each step along the way, one gets every bit closer to the experience of actually being in the opera house for a “live” performance.

Following the success of Carmen in 3D, Julian Napier’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, recorded before a “live” audience, is founded on the same values of combining dramatic realism with musical integrity. There is however one big difference, the rowdy crowd scenes which made Carmen so vivid and lively while rendered in 3D, are absent in Butterfly.

Butterfly has a far more intimate setting, with all the scenes in Cio-Cio-San’s hangar-like chamber occupied mostly by two or three singers in largely static scenarios. The 3D technology becomes almost superfluous, as the very fine production staged by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier would have stood well on its own without the gimmickry.

More successful were the close-ups, often missed in live performances, where each facial expression and nuance is indelibly captured. Besides her sensitive yet powerful vocals, Chinese soprano Liping Zhang in the title role is a terrific and totally believable actress. Who can forget the look of horror and disbelief at the moment she finally realises Pinkerton’s duplicity?

Her agonised death throes, theatrical but bloodless, were equally grabbing, all of which made James Valenti’s dapper looks appear wooden and unsympathetic. Perhaps he was most convincing at playing a real jerk. Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Consul Sharpless and Helene Schneiderman’s Suzuki, caught in the middle and embarrassed by the East-West divide, were also a perceptive presence.

The tragedy in the making was already apparent by the first Pinkerton aria, but it is the genius of Puccini’s sensuous music and his librettists Giacosa and Illica that kept this unfolding saga eminently watchable. A real tear-jerker this truly is, and the price of entry, a fraction of real opera tickets (which can be astronomical these days), is a modest outlay.

Madam Butterfly 3D (Sung in Italian with English subtitles) runs every night at 7.30pm (9.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays) at Cathay Cineplexes until 28 April.

Graduation Announcements

With graduation quickly approaching I had to get the ball rolling with graduation announcements. After viewing someones blog I came across Miss Sarah Anne Watson, a graduate of the University of Florida. After viewing some of her work I decided she was the perfect person to design my graduation announcement! I wasn't sure if I was going to send announcements out seeing as I sent them out for high school graduation four years ago. I decided I did in fact want to send some out but only to my closest friends and family. Sarah was a joy to work with and I couldn't be happier with the final product. You can view her work here.

My announcements are officially sent out so I wanted to share them with all of you as well! Any other graduating seniors, are you sending announcements out this year?

The South Street kidnappings: During Prohibition, did 'shanghai gangs' really lurk in the shadow of the ports?

The old port at night was no place to be. Weathered taverns and boardinghouses sit next to uninhabited warehouses, separated by dimly lit South Street from the shadow of rocking masts and creaking piers that sank into the black water of the East River. A lonely sailor, soused from the wares of the cheapest Water Street saloon, stumbles down the cobblestone. A figure emerges from the corner. A whistle. Another man steps from behind. And the lonely sailor has vanished.

The fear of 'disappearing' in New York kept many awake at night in the 19th century. In a world where everybody was essentially 'unplugged' and 'off the grid', there was a sense that people could simply vanish, almost as if absorbed into the urban environment without a trace. Moral crusaders, in a tirade against personal independence, warned parents to keep close watch on their daughters for fear they would be snatched from the street, plied against their will with opium and turned into prostitutes. Some thought this might have been the fate of 'cigar girl' Mary Rogers back in 1841. And as late as 1911, some speculated this was the fate of the socialite Dorothy Arnold, one of the most prominent disappearances of the Gilded Age.

But it was men who were often the victims of street kidnapping. The transient nature of the New York port world mixed with the influx of new immigrants -- many of them younger men -- fostered a disturbing cottage industry of so-called impressment (or 'shanghaing' in the old vernacular), where drunken men were either forcibly taken off the street or taken advantage of in their inebriated state and put to work on a sailing ship.

In 1870, a sailor 'under the influence of liquor' was tied up and dragged onto a boat. A Fort Hamilton soldier in 1882 was kidnapped and placed aboard a ship off Staten Island. While his message, thrown overboard in a bottle, was received, officials were unable to rescue him as the boat sailed for its destination: Hamburg, Germany.

Below: The forest of masts along South Street, 1890

It's impossible to know exactly how many men were forced onto boats along New York's port, as the victims were frequently drunk, thrown onto boats that embarked on long voyages and then failed to press charges when they returned. An article in 1910 claims that '[h]undreds of sailors were captured [in New York Harbor], usually in the saloons, beaten into insensibility, to awake when the ship was at sea and the Captain an absolute tyrant."

There would be an actual, near legal version of shanghaiing called crimping where the sailors, still taken at will, would be forced to sign an agreement, paid for their services but not allowed to leave. They would embark on often long voyages, and by the time they got back, "his anger is likely to have died out."

By the late 1910s, federal laws protected the rights of seamen, and most shanghaiing and crimping practices were abolished. Except, of course, for those in illegal industries, and especially a brand new one created by the advent of Prohibition in 1920.

This type of kidnapping was perhaps the most frightening of all. "South Street Whispers of Shanghaing" announced a rather in-depth New York Times article in 1925. Now, instead of 'crimps', who lurked in sailor's boarding houses, looking for possible captives, it was whole 'shanghai gangs' that ruled the shadows of the seaport.

"I have been drugged and held captive on a ship," claimed one note found in a bottle and mailed to the police. An anonymous shipping master reported hearing of a victim "drugged in one of these newfangled speakeasies that are run as drug stores. They said along the street that a shanghai gang had got him, stole his money and shipped him to sea....The man is gone, and who can trace him?"

Below: South Street in 1920 in a snowstorm during the first year of Prohibition (Courtesy Flickr/wavz13)

The destination for these unlucky men wasn't a long-distance voyage but rather a line of near-invisible vessels permanently moored off the American coast. 'Rum Row' facilitated the distribution of alcohol into the United States, with product passing to smaller boats and shady, midnight deals made between mobsters and smugglers. It was an unpleasant and dangerous job, constantly under the fear of capture, betrayal and accident. In an illegal industry with few rules, unwilling men could be discarded.

This also made Prohibition-era impressment a mystery and something of an urban legend. How much forced capture really went on? The Times report interviews several sailors and even a salty South Street bartender, but their names are kept out of the story. Two men, thrown aboard a Rum Row schooner, "were made to work, starve and suffer for water, under threats," only escaping when the vessel was captured by authorities.

South Street's changing fortunes may have prevented a widespread problem of the sort which occurred in the 19th century.  The old pubs and grog houses were closed or turned to speakeasies, and heavy shipping had moved on to other ports throughout the harbor, on the Hudson River side, and in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The ports themselves were heavily controlled by mob bosses -- and the promise of mob money -- which perhaps made such forced recruitment unnecessary. And of course the success of illegal Prohibition industries relied on knowing which laws to abide and which to skirt.

Yet the fear of vanishing kept men on their toes at night as they passed through the neighborhood, keeping in the light as they stumbled down South Street.

At top: Drawing by Barbara Latham courtesy New York Times.  It accompanied the article mentioned above.