A Magical Friday Night

It was cold last night in New York—an unseasonable 28 degrees or so—and anyone in her right mind would have stayed at home. But my husband and I, when we are in this city, live in extremely cramped conditions, which makes going out seem more inviting. And besides, we had made plans.

Our first stop was the Metropolitan Museum, which is open on Friday nights until 9:00 p.m., and where the new show of Michelangelo drawings was in its preview-for-members phase. I calculated that, despite Holland Cotter’s rave review in the morning paper, most Met members would have booked up their Friday night already and would be unlikely to be at the museum. This may well have been true, but the percentage left over still amounted to quite a crowd in those art-and-people-packed rooms. It was worth it, though, to see drawings I have not seen for 30 years or more (the lovely madonna and child from the Casa Buonarotti, for instance) as well as many, many others that I have never seen and that no one in America is likely to see again soon. There was an incredible “Fall of Phaeton,” for instance, done in several versions; also a sheet of paper on which Michelangelo had tried out two different gestures for God’s hand in the Sistine Chapel (I actually preferred the one he didn’t use); plus a large cartoon of Roman soldiers, and some lovely portraits of beautiful Italian youths, and many figures, both partial and full, seen from the front and the back; and so on, on and on. It was too much to take in at once, and I will certainly have to go back, braving what will no doubt be even huger crowds after it officially opens on Monday.

Afterward, on our way to our late-night concert at the 92nd Street Y, we had intended to drop in at a French bistro on 86th Street for dinner. But they couldn’t take us right away, so instead we ended up at a wonderful “Mediterranean” restaurant called Peri Ela, on Lexington near 91st. Every dish we tasted was terrific, and so was the warm atmosphere and the friendly service, and it all felt especially nice because it was such an unexpected find.

I had admittedly high expectations for the concert—it was devised and performed by Pedja Muzijevic, the adventurous, intelligent pianist who also runs the music programs at the Baryshnikov Arts Center—but even there I was happily surprised. Pedja had put together a program in the Y’s intimate Buttenweiser Hall combining the solo keyboard works of two of Bach’s children (Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann) with pieces by three twentieth-century composers: John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Kurt Schwitters. The Cage pieces, in particular, were a revelation. Performed on a “prepared” piano (which Pedja only described to us after playing on it), the three Cage sonatas and one interlude sounded like unusual string-and-percussion works for Asian instruments, or perhaps something even weirder. Precisely and beautifully performed, they were a true delight to hear: I have always thought of Cage as more of a conceptual artist, and I really had no idea he could be so intensely musical.

After the final Cage piece, and before beginning the second half of the seventy-minute program, Pedja told the audience (to whom he had been speaking casually throughout, as he moved back and forth between the prepared piano and the regular one) that the second half of the program might be a little odd.  “Strange things will happen,” he warned us. “Don’t call the authorities.” He mentioned that, as both a performer and a concert presenter, he was particularly interested in the question “What is a concert?” This second half, he thought, might push that notion to its limits.  And indeed, when he made the transition from C.P.E. Bach’s bizarrely truncated Sonata in E minor (a modernist gesture, if there ever was one) to Henry Cowell’s  glorious Aeolian Harp (which involved plucking and strumming directly on the piano’s strings) and thence to Kurt Schwitter’s manic, spoken Scherzo from Ursonate, we felt we were indeed participating in something new.  It takes a performer of Pedja Muszijevic’s talents and temperament to make an audience feel both astonished and comforted at once, as I think we all did at that performance.

At the concert’s end, he offered to show anyone who cared to gather round how he was going to de-prepare the piano, by removing all the screws, plastic strips, bolts, and rubber plugs he had inserted into it beforehand. A large group formed themselves into a thick circle around him, and as I left, I heard him parrying a few questions as he worked. “Will the piano sound normal after you do this?” a woman asked, and Pedja answered, “Well, let’s find out.” When she followed up with “Is the piano yours?” he said, “Not yet. But they might make me buy it if this doesn’t work.”

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2 Responses to A Magical Friday Night

  1. This is the side of NYC that I’m sure exists somewhere – but probably one that I’ll never see for myself. My meca to the city was the Daily Show, the Subway, and a Broadway play. By the time I was sleeping on the platform outside the turnstiles at the Metro station, I was quite finished. My primary distaste with the city was not that I had been confronted with a Paris Syndrome or that I was out of money – but that I could not subconsciously navigate via the sun – or even glance up to reassure myself of its continued functionality. The people of NYC are mechanic: nobody there uses the sun or the mountains or the trees to subconsciously navigate. They teach themselves to use a system of occurring grid squares called city blocks. Hills and valleys do not separate Hell’s Kitchen from the Financial District. In fact – I walked several miles in the wrong direction multiple times while I was in Manhattan. Once I accidentally walked to New Jersey instead of Brooklyn. That was all my experience at least.
    I also discovered that agents don’t accept half-finished manuscripts. Just think how many masterpieces haven’t been written because the authors didn’t have the assurances in their abilities?
    Anyways – this world of the Met Museum and pianos – I have much more of that life out here with the sun, and in a place where an arts membership only costs 25 a month. A black tie event might get up to 45 dollars a plate, but you can always donate more. And… there are no bedbugs.
    My only problems are those I take with me.

    • Wendy Lesser says:

      I am sorry to hear about your disillusioning experiences; New York can be a hard, mean place. But the events I described in that post were, for a change, utterly affordable. The Met Museum has a “pay what you wish” entry fee, so anyone can see the Michelangelo show for a quarter, or even a dime. And the Pedja Muzijevic concert at the Y cost about the same as a first-run 3D movie.

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