22 December 2010

Postcards from New York

As I've been repeating endlessly lately, I spend last weekend in Manhattan. Glad about it, mad about it Manhattan. I am no stranger to The Big Apple but Saturday, December 11th has to be the best day I have ever spent in that city of cities.

I owe all of this to my right hand, JD. This whole weekend was his idea and it was for all intents and purposes a Christmas present. I had a couple of meetings in the city on Friday and Saturday was a day set aside for experiencing the many wonders of Gotham. Wonders I usually miss when I'm there.

JD'd booked us at the New York Palace. Without a doubt, it was the best hotel I'd ever stayed in. We were on the 31st floor and we looked across Madison Avenue and down on St. Patrick's Cathedral. That's Rockefeller Center in the middle left side of this photo.

So at around 7:30 on Saturday, I swung open the draperies and that was what I saw. I love Manhattan and I love Midtown specifically. Having a 31st-floor perch on the corner of Madison and 50th was as ideal a location as I can imagine. So after a round of room-service coffee we got dressed and went downstairs to eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Five-star hotels don't just have expensive rooms. I had a $30 bowl of oatmeal.

We walked around the neighborhood for a while after that and then jumped on the subway to head up to The Metropolitan Museum.

The Met is one of the world's largest art museums and it has a collection of nearly 2 million pieces of art broken into 19 sub-collections. The Met renovated its hall of ancient Greek and Roman Art four years ago and I'd never seen it. Their collection is spectacular, one of the best I've ever seen. That bronze in the photo above is more than 2,000 years old and it looks as if it were cast yesterday. Like an idiot, I didn't photograph its accompanying plaque and now I can't remember what it is and what it's representing. Any Met buffs out there who can help me with that statue?

The Met's an enormous museum and I don't think it's possible to get through the whole thing in a day. If you're considering a visit, look over their collections online first and make a plan.

From the Met (on 5th Avenue at 82nd) we headed back toward Midtown via Madison Avnue. It was a sunny, clear day and Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side is one of the best places in New York for window shopping (actual shopping too). It's a residential neighborhood and there's a shopping district that extends the whole way from up there down to Midtown. Along that stretch of Madison Avenue, you'll find everything from Hermès to Betsey Johnson. There are no fewer than four Ralph Lauren shops along that stretch of  Madison.

After a quick lunch I met up with Tess, a college friend who's the media director for the National Urban League these days. Tess and her family live in Harlem and we've both come a very long way from the rolling hills of rural Pennsylvania, that's for sure.

Then it was off to dinner. I'd made reservations earlier for Charlie Palmer's Métrazur. I'd been to Métrazur before at the suggestion of the great Jai Massela from Brizo Faucets. My second visit was even better than my first and dinner that night was easily the best meal I've ever eaten in New York. What pushed it over the edge was a generous serving of truffled mashed potatoes. I'm telling you, those things will haunt me for the rest of my days.

Métrazur is in the East Balcony of Grand Central Terminal and every table in the place has one of the most spectacular views to be had in the entire city.

Despite the fact that Métrazur is perched on a balcony inside of the busiest rail terminal in the United States, up on the balcony it's nearly as quiet as a church. Sound doesn't travel up inside of that cavernous terminal and the effect is pure magic.

After a truly spectacular meal, it was time to head over to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera House for the big event. I've been learning about opera for the last five or six years. I wasn't ready for it until I hit 40 but now it's about all I listen to. It has a tradition that goes back centuries and the very act of singing operatically is a feat of superhuman strength and prowess. Seeing an opera at the Met is a goal of everybody with even a glancing interest in grand opera and JD and I had tickets for La bohème.

La bohème is the world's most-performed opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera has been mounting a production of it every season since La bohème made its US debut in 1900. I had pretty high expectations for what I was about to see and as the curtain rose on Act One and Marcello launched into "Questo Mar Rosso" each and every one of those expectations was exceeded and then some.

The Metropolitan Opera's world famous for the sets it uses in its production of La bohème. They were commissioned in 1981 and master director Franco Zeffirelli's elaborate creations nearly bankrupted the company. I knew they were going to be amazing but again, I didn't quite know how amazing.

La bohème is presented in four acts and act one takes place in the garret shared by Rodolfo, a poet, Marcello, a painter; Shaunard, a musician and Colline, a philosopher. The year is 1830 and it's Christmas Eve in Paris.

La bohème is as funny as it is stirring which is quite an accomplishment since it was composed 120 years ago. After the four Bohemians have their moment, they decide to leave the garret and go to a tavern. The curtain goes down. 20 minutes later the curtain comes back up and reveals the most elaborate piece of stagework I've ever seen.

According to everything I've read, act two of La bohème has a cast of 280 people and it includes a full marching band a live horse. After an exciting romp through the tavern the curtain goes down.

20 minutes later, the curtain comes up and the action's shifted to a snowy pre-dawn. It's at the foot of a bridge on the outskirts of Paris.

It's snowing. As in it's snowing for real. It snows the whole way through act three. The lovers reunite and swear to be together forever again and the curtain comes down.

When the curtain comes back up we're back in the garret and it's spring time.

Now usually, this kind of a spectacle is a way to hide so-so musicianship. But I assure you that wasn't the case with the Met's bohème. The main characters of Mimi and Rodolfo were sung by Krassimira Stoyanova and Joseph Calleja. I'd never heard Calleja sing before and he was incredible. That man has a voice so clear it sounded as if he were sitting next to me. Here he is singing E Lucevan Le Stelle from Tosca, another Puccini opera.

If you listen to him in that piece, pay attention to how he modulates and controls his voice while at the same time singing at something approaching 180 decibels. Many thanks to the Metropolitan Opera Company for the use of those photos.

The opera wrapped up at around quarter to midnight and we jumped back in a train bound for another hidden wonder at Grand Central Terminal, the Campbell Apartment.

The Campbell apartment is tucked into the Vanderbilt Avenue side of Grand Central and most people have no idea it's there. The Campbell Apartment is the one time office and salon of John Campbell, Grand Central Terminal's first general manager. It's been renovated back to its gilded age glory and now operates as one of the coolest lounges in the city.

We'd made arrangements to meet up with six other friends for a night cap and by the time we got there the rest of the gang was already holding court. If you have a group and you want to hang out at the Campbell Apartment, call ahead and make a reservation. That's true of any good lounge in the city by the way.

It was great to see everybody and ward off the usual round of questions about when I'm moving to The City. Yeah right. There are a few places around the world where I feel at home instantly and New York's definitely one of them. By the time we made it back to The Palace it was well past three in the morning. I don't think I'd ever been so tired or so euphorically happy in my life.

My trips to New York don't usually involve five-star hotels and opera tickets but it was a welcome change to my own vie bohème. Flying home on Sunday night was an anticlimax I'm still recovering from. I'll be back in The City again in March only without The Palace, the Met or La bohème. It'll be a working trip next time but working trips have an allure of their own. So it'll back to 14th Street for me.


  1. The Campbell Apartment is on my list for next stops in NYC. That looks incredible! I can imagine how a weekend with JD would rank so high - he is definitely one of my favorite people too - but with opera and the hotel and all the other fun things?! Wow! What a weekend!

  2. Just like Moonstruck! And that restaurant sounds amazing.

    I was there with the whole extended family as well as some new friends from Haiti that same weekend--what mad crowds there were! We stayed right on Times Square, made it as far as 30 Rock for the Lego store and then had go back to the hotel for a nap.

    Still, nothing like NYC during the holiday season. Glad you had such a marvelous time. :-)

  3. What a wonderful holiday, Paul- Thanks for sharing so we can live vicariously through you!

  4. Melody: Do go to the Campbell Apartment. It's easy to miss and that's half the fun of the place. It's hiding in plain sight. There's a small sign for it on the outside of the building on Vanderbilt Avenue. They have a dress code but it's just as well. New York is the best city in the world to play dress up.

    Meredith: You were in town that weekend too? I wish I'd have known, I'd love to meet you in person one of these days. But you stayed over in Times Square? You're a braver soul than I am. Rockefeller Center was bad enough, I cannot imagine ow the crowds were to the west. Lincoln Center was as close to Times Square as I got all weekend.

  5. Thanks Nick! We need to have a design blogger hoe down up there one of these days.

  6. Fantastic trip, it sounds like! Except for the $30 oatmeal. My favorites were the pics of Grand Central. That place is astounding. Happy Holidays to you & yours, Paul!

  7. As part of our room upgrade we had a $100 breakfast credit every day. When we checked in and heard about it I thought "How on earth can you spend $100 at breakfast?" Well, I found out on Saturday morning. Hah!

  8. Wow, Paul, that sounds like a hell of a trip. It also sounds like it is VERY MUCH out of my price range! I have also come to sung classical music very late. I haven’t yet gotten into opera other then a few favorite arias, and Carmen, of course. But I have had some truly glorious experiences with Bach’s Mass in B Minor, all two hours of it! I got it some years ago and played it and very much liked it. It was recorded by The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

    A few weeks later my wife and I attended an amateur performance of it in a church in Long Beach, California. The orchestral playing was about what I expected it would be (I’ve been a classical music fan my entire life), but, I swear, the singing was every bit as good as what I had just heard on the records! The Mass is one that has no real introduction; it starts full on, like someone had just turned on a switch. Within a minute or so, I knew I was in for a treat, and a tear leaked out of one eye, then the other.

    Because of the length of the piece, there was an intermission, and my wife suggested we move to the balcony. “No way,” I said. “If we do that, and I hear that music rolling up through the church, I’ll make a public spectacle of myself!” Well, as it turned out, I was able to control myself until they got to the Sanctus, which is my personal favorite part of the piece.

    Flash forward a few years, and we visited Monument Valley in Utah for the first time. We were playing pop music tapes in the car, but when we made the approach to Monument Valley itself, I put on Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Because of the size of the place, you pay admission at a building and then drive around the site itself. It’s huge. Throughout, I kept the engine running so I could listen to the music. I took a lot of pictures, and there were several times I was so moved at what I was seeing—and that music—that my hands were shaking. At the end, we got back to the parking lot, and I parked the car so I could look out over the entire valley. Just then the Sanctus portion started, and I sobbed like a baby.

    I have long since made up my mind that I will never return to Monument Valley, simply because that time and that mood and that music were very much a peak experience, one to savor and remember, but not one that a person can actually hope to duplicate.

  9. Thanks for the tour and mini-vacation! Looks like a wonderful time was had by all.

  10. There are a couple of classical pieces that have the same effect on me. Hearing Joseph Calleja's "Che Gelida Manina" at the Met last weekend was one such piece. That voice and that aria reduced me to a puddle almost instantaneously. I love your playing Bach's Mass in B Minor at Monument Valley. I've done that before too.

    Here's the story of my connection to Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome: http://www.kitchenandresidentialdesign.com/2010/10/its-florida-orchestras-opening-night.html

    That moment at the Pincian Gate in Rome was a peak moment in my life, one I'll never duplicate nor will I ever try. There are moments of transcendance in life that are fleeting and glorious and I think their value as memories is so precious that it's not worth trying to repeat them.

  11. Well I'm glad that you had such a good time! I'm jealous that they aren't piping out La Boheme to the masses this season and I'll just have to wait to see it for myself.

    Your $30 oatmeal reminds me of when I went to a teacher's conference at Whistler in the months before the Vancouver Olympics. Because it was the off season, they had made arrangements for teachers to get really good deals on the rooms at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.

    On the first morning we were in a hurry to eat and get to our workshops, so we had the breakfast buffet... which was over $30 each. I swear though, it was the best breakfast I've ever had!

  12. Raina: It was an amazing weekend, oh man I love that town!

    Nim: Met Opera Radio isn't simulcasting La Boheme? Hmmm. I just found out yesterday that the performance I saw was Calleja's last night as Rodolfo before they switched out the cast. He was incredible. I mean really incredible. I'm following him on Twitter now and thanks to the miracle of Twitter I was able to compliment his performance directly. Huzzah!

  13. Paul, I don't know about *radio* but they aren't having a satellite fed show of it. I will, however, be seeing the Met's Le Compte Ory and Die Walküre still this season. So I won't go without my opera fix :)

    Your discussion about the sets for La Boheme reminded me of when we saw Carmen live from the Met last season. They had a really interesting set for that, and one of the perks when you watch the satellite-fed show is that they show you all that backstage stuff.

  14. Interesting thing about the Carmen set. They use the same set for Carmen when ever they mount it and right now they are running La Boheme and Carmen at the same time. So get this. I saw La Boheme at 8:30 Saturday night. The Met also mounted Carmen at 3:30 that afternoon on the same stage. What I want to see back stage is how they do a full production of Carmen in the afternoon and then change out the sets in two hours to do a full production of La Boheme that same night. Talk about logistics!

  15. Marvelous photos, Paul! I love your eye. I'm planning a day trip to NYC next week and these images have me anticipating 'seeing' things in a whole new light.

    Happy Holidays!


  16. Thanks CB, I envy you your trip, even if it's just for the day. I swear, just walking down 5th Avenue makes me feel smarter.

  17. "Start spreading the news, I'm leaving today
    I want to be part of it - New York, New York.
    These vagabond shoes, are longing to stay,
    Right through the very heart of it - New York, New York". Sounds like an absolute fabulous time Paul! Thanks for sharing.
    Wishing you and those that are close to your heart .... A Joyeux Noêl. -Brenda-

  18. Well, after all that whining that I wasn't going to get to see La Boheme this year.. a friend of mine has bought tickets for us to see it in Victoria in February! Certainly not a Met performance, but a grand surprise nonetheless!

  19. Woo-hoo! You are going to have a blast. Who's singing your Rodolfo and Mimi?


Talk to me!