Siege’s End: II

I realize that as I’m writing this that in my titles I’m echoing those from the new Arcade Fire album, WE. That music was writ large during this trip, especially on the Saturday while I followed my tradition of not listening to the music of an artist or composer on the same day I am hearing it live. That meant no Shostakovich on Saturday, but it did mean “The Lightning I/II” was playing as I crossed the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. In some ways, it became the soundtrack of the trip.

Sunday. The trip across that same bridge was a little less congested on this day, and when I turned north rather than south on the Henry Hudson, the traffic mostly vanished. Only sparkling water and the odd runner remained. The Cloisters museum, my destination, is in Tryon Park, high on a hill, where it’s easy to completely forget you are in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world.

I’d only ever been to the Cloisters once, back in the early 90s, as part of a small group of medieval recreationists. At the time, my specialization in 13th century religion was still ahead of me, and while I remembered a gorgeous museum, I did not appreciate it fully. This time, arriving just after the museum opened for the day, I had the place almost to myself for the first half hour or so. It’s a unique place, built to resemble a medieval monastic house, incorporating various remnants of actual buildings, mostly from France (including four cloisters preserved by George Grey Barnard, whose collection forms the basis of the museum). John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased the collection and built the museum for the Met, adding elements from a number of additional monasteries in Catalonia and France, as well as funding the acquisition of artwork. The museum is famed in particular for the Unicorn Tapestries, as well as the Merode Altarpiece, but the collection includes stained glass, sculpture, ivories, illuminated manuscripts, paintings, pottery, decorative metalwork, jewellery, furniture, tapestry, and embroidery. But it’s the cloisters themselves with their gardens, along with the architecture itself that makes the museum memorable. I was lucky to experience a little of the stillness that such architecture must have evoked when it was in situ. There is something about the beauty of a garden ringed by columned corridors, adjacent to soaring indoor spaces, sparsely decorated, cool stone broken up here and there by carved wood and beams of light–coloured or plain–that calms this age of anxiety, provoking the turn inward that the dichotomy of treasures nature alongside those made by human hands initiates. It is a place you want to stay in, to linger, to just be.

This is just a sampling of the photos I took.

Once again, I drove down to the Lincoln Centre area and parked the car before taking off on foot up Columbus Ave. I’d found Uno’s on a map–and had been craving Chicago style pizza for some time (yes, in New York City. Fight me.) Once again, I got out and walking–and on a day the street had shut down for an “open streets” event. Brunchers spilled into sidewalk patios, boutiques were open, and I spotted something called the Grand Bazaar, with lots of vendors set up outdoors–as well as a farmer’s market. I had not yet acquired anything for the bracelet that includes charms for every Shostakovich symphony I had heard, and while I had decided to use the six-pointed star charm I’d had on Herissony Cat’s neck (the 5th symphony always gets star-shaped charms, and this was my sixth hearing), I wanted something that said New York, so after my pizza, I stopped by and found a dealer in old silver bits and found a United Nations charm. It recalled for me Shostakovich’s troubled 1949 visit to New York for a conference (not sponsored by the UN, but in some ways part of that same movement), where he played parts of the 5th Symphony in piano arrangement at Madison Square Gardens. It hit me that I’d heard the best performance I’d ever experienced of that same symphony in the same city where he had likely been deeply uncomfortable performing it.

I arrived at the Metropolitan Opera House with plenty of time to raid the gift shop and to enjoy an incredibly overpriced lemonade on the balcony. I discovered that not only had Akhnaten been recorded, it had won a Grammy, and the shop had copies autographed by Anthony Roth Costanzo, the superlative countertenor who had made the title role his own. They also had t-shirts and bags. After very little spending on this trip (apart from parking and tolls) I had to indulge. I also had time for architecture geekery. The opera house, unlike its Lincoln Centre neighbour Geffen Hall, was pretty much perfect as it was designed (by the same architect, incidentally), with acoustics that allow the entire hall to hear spoken dialogue and soft singing from the stage without amplification–even though the hall has a much larger capacity than its troubled companion hall. It was built in the 1960s and is full of mid-century goodness, from its sweeping lines to its “Sputnik” chandeliers, a gift from Austria as thanks for Marshall Plan assistance.

The performance was everything I’d hoped it would be, particularly Costanzo’s frightfully pure, intense voice and Zachary James as Amenhotep III, who has most of the narration in English. Akhnaten’s duet with Nefertiti–with Rihab Chaieb taking over the role from J’Nell Bridges, one of the few changes in the main singers since the original staging–was particularly gorgeous (although Chaieb’s long train got stuck on something as she left the stage, spoiling the effect a bit). But as it was when I saw the production on film, it was the Attack and Fall scene that was the highlight for its heartbreaking intensity–a downfall in slow motion, except for the balls of the jugglers, which are allowed to drop (and which hit the stage with a resounding “thunk” that did not register on the video recording). And the break in Amenhotep’s voice, as he holds the crumpled body of his son, describing what came after his fall–the erasure of Akhnaten’s mere existence–even though the words (taken, as all of it is, from surviving sources) talk about restored glory, the grief of the father is clear.

Even more than when seen in a theatre, the live performance comes across as a long ritual (which was precisely what was intended by the director). Also much more vivid in real life were the colours and some of the details in the set–not to mention the spontaneity of live music. And yes, there was the moments of full frontal nudity, when Akhnaten emerges from funeral wrappings–the king reborn, and must descend a set of stairs and prostate himself (that floor must be cold!) before he is lifted up by attendants and deposited into his pants. There were also the underlayers–skin-coloured shifts– that were omitted in the film in both Akhnaten’s and Nefertiti’s costumes, starting with their duet of naked female forms, making Akhnaten what had been called in some of the press a “trans icon.” This mirrored Akhnaten’s depiction in many sources as having wide hips and apparent breasts–which have been taken by historians and archeologists as either a symbol of the Aten as a creator god, both make and female, or as a sign of a genetic condition of some kind. The fact that the role is for countertenor purposely blurs the line between the defined sexes.

At the end, the packed house gave the cast a standing ovation–every ounce of it deserved.

I am so glad I got to see this. If, perchance, it ever comes to Toronto, I will be there again, but for now, I thank the universe for the chance.

New York was the balm for my weary soul I didn’t know I needed. It wasn’t just the concerts. It wasn’t the museums. It was the city itself. New Yorkers too often get a bad rap, but in Central Park, on Columbus Ave., and in the concert halls I saw, once again, the United States I once believed in without question–one where people care. Lots of rainbow flags and obvious Pride. People who obviously came from many ancestries out playing, laughing, singing, reading, or just relaxing in Central Park. Enthusiasm for the arts–from the concert hall to the buskers collecting around the John Lennon memorial. A city lived in, breathing, being, vibrant and alive. Sure, there was that one guy chewing out a woman for some perceived slight, and perhaps some moments of rudeness–but they were the exception. In the face of the daily news drone, it was good to find that I hadn’t just imagined that the ugliness was not the only narrative.

The drive home on Monday morning followed a different route–this time, first through New Jersey (today’s “Dutch or Indigenous?” placename being Ho-Ho-Kus; the answer, later Googled, is the latter) and then into New York State through the Catskills (where I spotted a sign from one of the few remaining Jewish resorts (specifically for the Orthodox). The air was hazy from blowing dandelion fluff and other ejecta from the verdant landscape. Beyond that, winding my way through the hills (mountains?) as Route 17 braided in and out with the Beaver Kill (a tributary of the Delaware River), I saw a fox trot across the highway. I worked my way through Shostakovich symphonies, ate a roast beef sandwich at Arby’s, and in Buffalo picked up my gallon of minestrone soup. The Wegmans I chose did not have Graeter’s ice cream, but I was tired from the trip and not willing to drive across town to the branch I knew for sure had it, so I contented myself with French bread pizzas and pinwheel twirls this time. A longish wait at the border–several cars were held for five or six minutes each, and I was worried I’d reached a lane where they were doing pop-up COVID tests, but no–my passage through was easy. And then, about half an hour out from home, the first rain I’d seen the entire trip–just enough to wash off the bug strikes.

Now I’m home. Already, the trip feels almost unreal, as if it couldn’t have actually happened. But it did.

What will the light bring?