Sunday, October 04, 2009

How I spent my fall break

The combination of a weekday holiday, a visit from my mother and her friend Dave, and the need to use up leftover vacation days meant that this past week was an early fall break from work. I spent the time pretending to be a tourist and observing how others see this city that I've called home for ten years as of September 25. I thought of the week as a ten-year anniversary present to myself.

Monday was Yom Kippur, so it really didn't count as part of the vacation. I didn't do any work, but if I said I stayed off my computer and didn't watch TV, then I would be lying (which would be a sin that I'd have to atone for next year). I avoided anything that even resembled work, such as doing laundry, but I spent the afternoon catching up on TV, reading my usual blogs, and napping. By the evening I was ready to break the fast and rejoin society.

I met Mom and Dave at their hotel on Tuesday afternoon. The first place they wanted to go was Katz's Deli on Houston St. Despite living here for a decade I've only been to Katz's a few times. The three of us put away a pastrami sandwich, a corned beef sandwich, a cheesesteak, a bowl of matzoh ball soup, a potato & broccoli knish, and a plate of pickles. We took some time to walk around and work off our feast, then we went uptown to the Empire State Building. I had not been to the observation deck of the ESB since 1997. They've recently restored the lobby's ceiling to its original Art Deco luster. While it was clear from the velvet ropes and railings that the ticket line was designed for hundreds of waiting visitors, there were only a few other people in line with us so it took about 15 minutes from arrival to the 86th floor. It had been a cloudy day and evening, but when we reached the top, the clouds had disappeared and we had clear skies and over 10 miles of visibility. It had been a mild day, but at 86 stories, the wind was brutal. I was glad I'd remembered a windbreaker, and I was even more grateful for the warm subway platform as I waited for the train home.

I met my guests at Rockefeller Center on Wednesday morning. We wanted to check out the view from the Top Of The Rock to compare with the Empire State Building. Again, even though it was nearly midday, there was only a brief wait to get to the observation deck. Rockefeller Center has three floors for viewing the city, two of which have thick Plexiglass plates to keep wayward tourists from falling. The uppermost level has no Plexiglass, so if you want the best photos, walk up to the top. As for the differences between the tow vantage points, Rockefeller Center offers better views of midtown, but the Empire State Building is as iconic a New York view as you can find. If you're playing tourist, why not see both? Each building's observation deck is only $20. They both do the cheesy tourist thing where they take your photo as you come in, then try to sell it to you on the way out. I took better photos of our group with my cheap point-and-shoot camera.

We had lunch with my cousin who grew up in Park Slope (just blocks from where I live now), lives in New Jersey, and works in midtown. After lunch, we headed uptown to the Guggenheim Museum, which Dave had never seen before. The museum's current exhibition is an overview of Vassily Kandinsky's works. I like Kandinsky, but a museum full of one artist's work is taxing even under the best circumstances. I hadn't slept much on Tuesday night, and when we reached the museum I was not firing on all thrusters. By the time I reached the top of the spiral I was only glancing at each painting. I did like his “Several Circles” and even thought about buying a poster of it, but the gift shop was sold out. They had plenty of posters of Marc Chagall's “The Green Violinist,” which might look lovely over the dresser in my bedroom.

The highlight of Wednesday (and possibly the vacation as a whole) was that evening's New York Philharmonic concert. My mother had received a NY Philharmonic gift certificate for a holiday present and Dave is a big Emanuel Ax fan, so when they saw Ax would be performing with the Philharmonic this week, they scheduled their vacation around the concert. The orchestra opened the concert with Magnus Lindberg's EXPO (the work Lindberg composed for Alan Gilbert's opening night as music director) and before they played the work, Gilbert brought Lindberg onto the stage for a brief chat about the music. Gilbert is becoming adept at discussing music with the audience; for example, he gave a 10-minute talk about Schoenberg's Pelleas und Mellisande before the Philharmonic played the work last weekend. Lindberg's first language is not English, so his side of the conversation was a bit more stilted. But it was a great idea to bring the composer onto the stage to discuss the music since, as Gilbert pointed out, it's rare that modern audiences have the opportunity to meet the composer of one of the works on the program.

The second piece on the program was Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2. I'm not that familiar with Ives' music, and my mother pointed out all of the popular musical references Ives threw into this work. Ives quoted “Columbia, The Gem Of the Ocean,” “Camptown Races,” “America the Beautiful,” and other themes throughout the symphony. It's not a piece I plan to run out and buy, but I enjoyed it. After intermission, the Philharmonic played Ives' The Unanswered Question, with the solo trumpet offstage in the 3rd tier, a flute quartet in the 2nd tier opposite our seats, and the strings onstage along with Ax, who waited at the piano. As the last notes of Ives' work faded, Ax began Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto, which opens with quiet chords from the soloist instead of an orchestral introduction. I don't think the juxtaposition worked as well as the London Philharmonic's performance last spring of Ligeti's Atmospheres followed immediately by Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, but I applaud the experimentation on the part of the Philharmonic. The concerto was the high point of the program and Gilbert and Ax did an excellent job with such an introspective work. Ax's performance was subdued but elegant, and Gilbert kept the musicians out of his way, balancing the sound and highlighting Beethoven's harmonies and orchestrations.

On Thursday, my guests came out to Brooklyn for lunch and a quiet visit with my cats. We ate at a greasy but tasty Mexican restaurant on 5th Avenue. I say “greasy” because we only spent an hour in the place but I could smell cooking oil on myself for the next few hours. I had to throw my clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes to knock out the odor. After they left, I had time to do some laundry, mark up my music for rehearsal, and eat a light dinner before going into the city for NYRO rehearsal. After rehearsal, several of us repaired to St. Andrews, the Scottish bar across the street, as has become our habit in our new neighborhood. I'm not a big Scotch drinker, but I'm getting into the spirit. I had a glass of Dalwhinnie, then tried Laphroaig for my second round. Laphroaig was like spending an evening in front of a hearth in Glasgow, surrounded by the smell of burning peat. I believe I have found my Scotch of choice, though further research is required. Luckily for my purposes, St. Andrews has a wide variety available.

I had planned to check out the Intrepid on Friday, but I got a late start to the day and thought I wouldn't be able to see the entire floating museum in three hours. On my way to the city, I decided to go to MoMA instead and see the exhibition of Monet's water lilies paintings. I took in not only the water lilies, but the permanent collection, the photography exhibit, and the drawings exhibit on the 2nd floor. MoMA has recently added free WiFi to their offerings, so I used my iPhone as an auditory museum guide. I had planned to spend Friday evening at home catching up on TV and writing this blog entry, but a friend from work tweeted about $4 pints at a bar in Murray Hill. I took that as an invitation and ended up drinking with him and his friends for the night. While I probably should have gone home instead of following the group to a noisy, crowded club on the LES, I still had more fun staying out than going home early.

I devoted Saturday and Sunday to recovery and relaxation after a busy week playing tourist. I worked off Friday's alcohol at the gym on Saturday and on the bike on Sunday. My ride out to Floyd Bennett Field on Sunday morning was marred by a flat tire and several mosquito bites, including one on my face. At the moment I look like someone punched me in the mouth. But the 39 miles on a bright, warm October day were completely worth the trouble.

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