Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cultural Tourism on Morningside Heights

April 7, 2008
Cultural Tourism on Morningside Heights

The other night I went up to the Manhattan School of Music on Morningside Heights to see my friend Dona D. Vaughn’s production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aenas.” Dona had warned me that it was going to be unconventional.In remarks before the performance began she said she had done a conventional production of the opera a few years ago and now wanted to do something different.Since the 17th century opera was first performed in a girls’ boarding school in London, there was some wit in dressing the women in this production in ‘50s teenage attire. There were other witty touches as well. Vaughn said she hoped that “ardent traditionalists” would accept this approach.

Strangely, even this ardent traditionalist, who takes umbrage easily, did not object. Under the musical direction of Argentinean born Jorge Parodi, who may have the most expressive conducting hands since Stokowsky’s, the score was so powerful the harmless visuals hardly mattered. It was an enormously moving performance.

It having been a busy week, I had planned to go home and collapse. But when an M104 bus was in too much of a hurry to brake for someone running toward the stop I decided to have a quick bite at Floridita, a Tapas place at the corner of 125th Street and Broadway. When I got inside I was delighted to see a quartet of Flamenco performers filling the crowded room with the heady sounds of Moorish Spain.

The only time I have ever seen a full-fledged evening of Flamenco was in Seville in the fall of 1970. The hotel I was staying at had a discount coupon for something called the Cochera Show.
I was torn. On the one hand, a discount. On the other, a Spanish nightclub that used the English word show -- how authentic could that be?A tourist, after all, is always eager to boast about the bargains he has found. But he’s also always in search of the genuine, an experience other tourists would have missed.Ultimately the discount won the day. But it turned out to be one of the most remarkable evenings of my youth. The night I went there an up and coming Flamenco performer was on the bill.

Moreover, an important Flamenco critic was in the audience. (Everything, it appears, has its critics.) As I recall he entered wearing a cape and a sombrero. The cape is certain; the sombrero may be the embellishment of memory. He also had a large, wavy mustache and intense, gleaming eyes.In any event it was clear that for most of the evening the young performer was directing his performance toward the man seated on a raised platform behind me. The extraordinary intensity of the performance was also no doubt due to his desire to please the connoisseur. It is one of the few instances I can think of when the presence of a critic has benefited everyone.

The wonderful performers at Floridita brought back that happy memory. As is so often the case, the evening was marred by the Moronically Managed MTA. I returned to the bus stop a block down Broadway and noted there was a bus due in five minutes, at 10:25. By 11:10 I was enraged. I refused to budge, rehearsing the tone in which I would ask the driver whether he was the 10:25, the 10:35 or the 10:59. With nothing in sight I had no choice but to take the subway.
At 125th Street it is elevated, and none of the escalators was working. At least after trudging up the stairs, I didn’t have to wait long for a train.

The end of the evening was irritating, but the journey from Purcell to Flamenco was a wonderful instance of the cultural variety available within four blocks of Manhattan.

NB - Happy to see that some Spanish life above 125th Street is being discovered and was enjoyable. Floridita certainly fulfills a need in both of its premises, as an authentic Cuban restaurant and as a Spanish Tapas Bar, presenting authentic Spanish fare, a happy and tasty meeting of the Criollo and the Peninsular cuisines in Manhattanville of all places. - JRM

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