For all its Broadway glitter, New York has nothing over the Tarheel State when it comes to our profusion of summer outdoor drama. Public Theatre plays its hand of starry aces in a slate of free Shakespeare in the Park productions under the lights of Central Park, but the glitz is mostly confined to the theater district.
Music is a different matter. Despite the demise of the JVC Jazz Festival, the Big Apple still has its act together.
Last month, when I attended the annual Music Critics Association of North America meeting, the Mostly Mozart Festival was in full swing at Lincoln Center. No, the Mostly Mozart isn't outdoors, and it isn't free. Compared to Broadway prices, admission to see such classical superstars as John Adams, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Piotr Anderszewski, Leif Ove Andsnes, Nicholas Angelich, Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Osmo Vanska, and the Emerson String Quartet is priced to please.
While Mostly Mozart was humming at four indoor Lincoln Center venues from July 26-Aug. 22, a Lincoln Center Out of Doors series kicked in on Aug. 5 at two open-air sites on the cultural campus, offering free programs of music, dance, and spoken word. Before I attended Yevgeny Sudbin's New York debut at Avery Fischer Hall, I was able to peep in on Auktyon, the animated Russian art-rockers, at the Damrosch Park Bandshell. After Sudbin, I had the opportunity to return and behold Plastic People of the Universe, the Czech ensemble renowned for their role in East Berlin's Velvet Revolution.
Other distinguished headliners at these free outdoor concerts included Dave Brubeck, the Derek Trucks Band, Urban Bush Women, Arturo O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Sextet, Abakua Afro-Latin Dance Company, Lizz Wright, and Allen Toussaint.
My daughter Ilana and I split my final weekend in Gotham between the FringeNYC theater festival and Harlem jazz. We found that the quickest way to get to Marcus Garvey Park for the free music at the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival was the 2 and 3 subway trains -- not the Duke's proverbial A train. We arrived at the bandshell in time to catch two greats and their combos one after another, Gary Bartz and Frank Wess. After that, we scooted a few blocks east to the Creole Restaurant, where we had reservations for dinner and Dr. Mambo.
Here's a rundown of what I heard -- and how I heard it:
A Flowering Tree (***3/4 out of 4) -- John Adams' new opera is like nothing we've seen in the Carolinas since Spoleto Festival USA staged Benjamin Britten's Curlew River in 1997. There's a similar mixing of the ceremonial and contemplative with the lurid and grotesque in this engrossing piece -- and a welcome departure from the topical historical subjects Adams usually tackles.
Our heroine, Kumudha, develops the gift of transforming herself into a flowering tree as an enterprising response to her family's poverty. She and her sister are supposed to be the only ones in on the secret: they sell the flowers and make a present of the proceeds to their mother. In true fairytale fashion, a Prince spies Kumudha's transformative powers and falls deeply in love with the pretty peasant, who becomes his bride. Ah, but Kumudha's apotheosis enflames the jealousy of the Prince's wicked sister. So at her most despairing moments -- before the sorrowing Prince rekindles her regenerative powers -- Kumudha has become a scuttling, limbless vagabond, the merest lump of a person.
Adams led the orchestra onstage at the Mostly Mozart Festival while stage director Peter Sellars collaborated in the stylized presentation and in the libretto's adaptation of the ancient South Indian folktale for the theater. Three excellent singers split up the vocal solos, Jessica Rivera as Kumudha, Russell Thomas as the Prince, and Sanford Sylvan as the Storyteller. These were augmented -- or shadowed -- by three dancers, one of whom intertwined chillingly with Rivera to simulate her limbless state.
In a sense, the Schola Cantorum of Venezuela must be considered collaborators in the libretto, since their presence at the world premiere in Vienna was what caused Adams to cast the choral text entirely in Spanish. Really it would be difficult to improve upon the Mostly Mozart version other than by transplanting it to a more ideal venue. The Rose Theatre, on loan from Jazz at Lincoln Center, superbly served the music. With Adams' orchestra and all the colorful, stylized action sharing the same stage, my view of the opera from the third balcony box seats was fatiguing to sustain. Rituals like this are worth the extra effort.
A Tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz (***1/2) -- Down the hall from the Rose Theatre (at orchestra level, not the nosebleed balcony) is Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, maybe the best-engineered jazz joint on the planet. Whether you've booked a table or a barstool, every seat at Dizzy's is a good one, with a nice evening view of Columbus Circle, Central Park, and 59th Street through the huge studio window behind the musicians. Almost as certain as the excellent seating and acoustics, the all-Brazilian Trio da Paz, vibraphonist Joe Locke, and vocalist Maucha Adnet will converge on the Club in August for at least a week.