What is American culture in New York?
Fortunately, I started and finished the New York State week (sponsored by Dianne McKeever and Shreyas Gupta) of our American culture project in beautiful, resurgent Newburgh, the small city on the Hudson where George Washington maintained his headquarters during the Revolutionary War.
As the Guardian wrote a year ago, Newburgh is slowly emerging from decades as an impoverished, high-crime city. One of the people helping it do so is quoted in the article above: David Ludwig, the organizer of Queen of the Hudson concert series, on which I performed a recital of American music with pianist Katya Mihailova. A highlight of the project, the recital featured music by Philip Glass, Don Freund, William Bolcom, George Gershwin, David Baker, and Lera Auerbach, and took place in Atlas Industries, a warehouse that David has thoughtfully and artistically converted into a concert venue. I decided not to focus as much on social media and more on joining my friend Katya to provide a high-quality immersion in the diversity of American music for the hundred audience members. Based on the reaction we received, such as this testimonial, that was a good idea.
Downtown Newburgh has a lot to offer: a gourmet cafe/bar/restaurant named Ms. Fairfax, after George Washington's probable mistress; an outstanding juice bar; and a cafe with excellent bagels, among numerous other resources.
I did spend much of the week in New York City. As challenging as it is to share any finite set of experiences that may be representative of the world's most infinitely varied city, I did my best to show how the conversations, events, and spaces that define the city are continuously evolving in ways that confirm some expectations and deny others.
9/11 & New Architecture
New Yorkers were never going to let the most horrific terrorist attack on American soil dampen the vibrancy of our downtown, although the seemingly endless salvage, reconstruction, and construction efforts at Ground Zero proved frustrating and dispiriting at times. Finally, the new skyscraper is up, the 9/11 museum is open to the public, and Sergio Calatrava's already-iconic PATH station is almost fully open. The picture above, showing both the new skyscraper and the train station, is emblematic of New Yorkers' trademark resilience.
The 9/11 museum does a magisterial yet heartbreaking job telling the story of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Huge artifacts, like the mangled communications antenna that perched atop the World Trade Center, give an idea of the scale of the tragedy, yet in the heart of the museum (where no pictures are allowed), the small stories will get you choked up. One man and his wife always kept two-dollar bills with them as a symbol of their love. The man died on 9/11, and the museum exhibits the two-dollar bill from inside the wallet that was one of the only "remains" they ever found.
For a classical musician, Carnegie Hall is our cathedral. Yet, from my own participation as an ACJW fellow (2008-2009) to leading the Afghan Youth Orchestra in a sold-out concert there (in 2013), I've been proud to participate in its radical re-thinking of its role in the community. No longer an elite bastion, Carnegie Hall brings music to a wide variety of communities in the region—and, through programs like Link Up, around the world. My ACJW colleagues went on to found the extraordinary collective Decoda, and as part of the New York week, I attended a concert that was part of their unique and invaluable efforts to create musical compositions in collaboration with individuals who have been through the criminal justice system. Check out my full report and interviews here.
My friend, the great jazz pianist Aaron Diehl, had suggested that we meet at Red Rooster, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant celebrating Southern American and soul food. However, it was so jam-packed with tourists (and locals) seeking an "authentic" experience in Harlem provided by a world-renowned gourmet chef, that we ended up at Chaiwali, a restaurant fusing Indian and international cuisines accompanied by an eclectic and obscure beer list stretching from Japan to Mexico. As we spoke about the changes in Harlem, the move Red Rooster's two-hour wait compelled us to make offered a thought-provoking snapshot of the pluses and minuses of gentrification. Red Rooster, and its older, more famous, more politically significant neighbor, Sylvia's, have turned the cuisine of African-Americans into a marketable tourist commodity, and Harlem is now a neighborhood that seamlessly hosts a restaurant like Chaiwali, which—though excellent—could be located anywhere.
I met with acclaimed Dominican poets Jorge Piña and Karina Rieke in the Bronx and discussed the ways in which the culture of the Dominican Republic has evolved—and stayed the same—in the US. Jorge's poetry has both Caribbean and universal influences, and he finds New York with its varied cultures to be an ideal expression of the US at its best. "You meet different ideas and cultures, and that motivates you to grow," he said. Karina finds that Dominican writers have a better opportunity to get their work published in the US than back home. They both feel, as do I, that the US must prepare itself for the demographic change that will lead to the increased use of Spanish in public and commercial life.
Nearly every tourist and local spends time in Central Park. It says something about American culture that few park architects are as well known as the designer of this famous public space, Frederick Law Olmsted. The park represents how we Americans like our nature just fine as long as it's carefully controlled, managed, and somewhat artificial. Yes, it's beautiful, but you're never very far from a reminder of the human desire to display a masterly ordering and taming of nature's chaos.
On the positive side, Central Park represents American democracy providing all citizens with an equally beautiful experience. On the other hand, I also visited Wave Hill, a private park in the Bronx, accessible for a fee. One seldom forgets in New York that this is the city with more billionaires than any other, and although the billionaires certainly enjoy playgrounds far more difficult for the plebes to access than this exquisitely manicured park overlooking the Hudson, the aura of exclusivity remains a valued commodity in NYC.
ConcertsTwo concerts I attended showed how both classical music and jazz are ever-evolving in New York. Ricardo Romaneiro's extraordinary vision involved conceiving a concert at the House of Yes that scarcely seemed to pertain to the genre of "classical music," though it certainly did. The House of Yes combined the atmosphere of a bar and club; before the concert, bassist and DJ Leo Leite did a kinetic, genre-bending set:
After George Crumb's infamous electric string quartet, "Black Angels," singer Daisy Press gave a haunting performance of the nearly 900-year-old music of Hildegard von Bingen:
Finally, a large ensemble performed Ricardo's own mixed-genre composition, Nocturnal Suite, featuring singing, costumes, strings, a clarinet, percussion, and aerial dancers:
Thank you to Dianne McKeever & Shreyas Gupta for underwriting the New York week; to the Lilly Endowment for underwriting the performance of music by Indiana composers throughout the project (Don Freund is an Indiana University professor, as was the late David Baker); Ed Pass for his kind hospitality; David Ludwig for his compassionate vision and help; Katya Mihailova, for her superb musical partnership; Aaron Diehl, for a thought-provoking conversation and his assistance and advice; and Ricardo Romaneiro, for generously providing access to his visionary Black Angels concert experience.