Alan Gilbert, Simon Rattle, and Rokia Traoré were among New York City’s cultural highlights in autumn 2014. Illustration by Elina Nykänen.
Every autumn New York, the world’s cultural capital, offers a dizzying array of cultural possibilities. It’s my work highlight of the year, beyond the shrewdly curated New York Film Festival.
Charlie Chaplin’s films deserve the big screen. Modern Times’ sharpest images, like Chaplin’s worker literally going through the machine, don’t date. The impact goes next level being accompanied by the New York Philharmonic, one of the world’s two best orchestras. Modern Times’ ending, how you just gotta keep on keeping on, is poetic and inspiring.
The New York Philharmonic also impressed under the baton of conductor Alan Gilbert, particularly for Brahms’ ‘Violin Concerto’. Combining fierce passion and precise grace, Gilbert honours and builds on Bernstein and Mahler’s tradition.
Carnegie Hall showcases icons from Groucho Marx to the questionable Louis CK. I’ve previously seen the Berlin Philharmonic at their canary-yellow German home, with its stunning acoustics. In New York they impart a superb sound, too, with Rachmaninoff’s ‘Symphonic Dances; and Stravinsky’s ‘The Firebird’. Simon Rattle is an extraordinarily emotional and expressive conductor.
Later, again on Carnegie’s German front, Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisarone conveys Schubert’s (and Goethe’s) glorious sadness with flair. I’m not at all sure about the CMJ Music Marathon, but Australian rapper Tkay Maidza is the real deal, slaying catchy tracks like ‘U-Huh’ and ‘Imprint’. The Adelaide 18-year-old is a refreshing delight, especially after NSW’s export Iggy Azalea’s shameless, disrespectful cultural misappropriation.
Rokia Traoré was dazzling at BAM Brooklyn’s distinctive opera house. Her beautifully textured performance was freighted by dynamic vocals, backed by ambient guitars. As when she performed at WOMAD Taranaki with Tchamantche, the main event was her new album, Beautiful Africa (her fifth). Most moving was her call for solidarity with Mali’s oppressed people and banned music, under fascist jihadists. Like Abderrahmane Sissako’s shimmering NYFF film Timbuktu, she evoked potent, irrepressible images.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” powerful to experience The Wire’s Reg E. Cathey, aka Carcetti’s smooth Svengali Norman Wilson, in The Tempest. La Mama is a very atmospheric, spacious old school New York theatre well suited to Shakespeare’s farewell to the world. Tony Torn entertains as drunken butler Stephano. Cathey delivers Prospero’s immortal soliloquys with understated power. “Our revels now are ended,” I found myself on the verge of tears. “And like the baseless fabric of this vision / The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces / The solemn temples, the great globe itself / Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded / Leave not a rack behind.”
With the damning abuse allegations against Jian Ghomeshi also raising the issue of unacceptable consent practises within the BDSM community, Smoke gains even more topicality. It’s a riveting, involving two-hander—one man and one woman—in a kitchen at a New York sex party. Young Maddy Bundy, one to watch, is particularly daring and striking. Sharp comment on artists being unpleasant, interning, etc., also. 2014 off off Broadway pick.