Wednesday, October 31, 2012

~ Autumn in New York ~

Times Square, New York
It’s one of those I-had-to-pinch-myself moments but instead I check myself in on Facebook right away, complete with a picture that I’ve just snapped. The location: “Times Square” – Isn’t this what people do in 2012 when they discover themselves in an awestruck situation like this? They share it with their fellow Facebookers and pocket their “LIKEs”???

I’m after all standing on this famed avenue simply known as “Broadway” surrounded by bright neon-lit signboards of various brands and musicals including “Wicked”, “The Lion King” and “Mamamia”.

Well, Mamamia, indeed! Finally, here I am at this world-famous crossroads where people of different stripes, hues and shapes from all corners of the world unite.

New York, to my delight, is just the way I imagined it, nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps, to an extent, many of us visitors are already familiar with the city before making the actual visit.  Through movies, books, photographs and stories told, we somehow get the idea of what is to come or expect. The smell and smoke coming from the hot-dog stands, the busy New Yorkers on the go with lattes in hand, the maddening street chaos caused by the holidaymakers and the big yellow taxis. Or how about those tall, tall buildings that tower above us?

With overall 5937 high-rise buildings, New York can be quite detaining and oppressive from street level, especially in midtown Manhattan area where one can be constantly encircled by its skyscrapers one way or another. In fact, some of these landmark buildings are what bring 50million tourists a year and are hugely associated with the image of the city. Among them, the biggest star of course, is The Empire State building, one of very few skyscrapers in the world that enjoys the cultural icon status, very much in the same way Marilyn or Sinatra, partially due to her unforgettable starring role in the movie “King Kong” (1933). No, unfortunately it was not an Oscar nominated role for her but it has led to countless other cameo appearances and references in pop culture until today. The first ever building to have more than 100 floors, the Empire State Building is best visited on a clear sunny day to fully appreciate its two observatory decks that offer visitors with 360-degree views of the city.
The Empire State Building

The Chrysler Building seen from the Empire State Building 
Worshipped by many contemporary architects as the finest building of New York, this next Art Deco structure, standing at 1,046 ft, defeated the building which now known as the Trump tower in the race and enjoyed a short-lived 11 month reign as the world tallest building until The Empire State Building surpassed her for the crown in 1931. Nevertheless, the Chrysler Building will always have her magnificent terraced crown, thanks to the Brooklyn-born architect William Van Alen who, legend has it that, had to fight bitterly in court to get his fees paid but effectively got his career ruined as a result of the legal battle with the commissioner, Walter P Chrysler. There is no observation desk at the Chrysler, as, I believe, she is only to be seen and admired from the decks of her Art Deco siblings, The Empire State Building and The Rokefeller Centre and very soon One World Trade Centre, the brand new building, being constructed in lower Manhattan.

Rockefeller Centre
Once completed in mid 2013, 1 WTC will become the tallest building in the western hemisphere and hold the record of the priciest single structure ever built with the cost of nearly 4 billion dollars. In the same complex lies the national memorial in which nearly 3000 innocent lives killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and six people killed in the bombing of WTC in February 1993 are remembered with two identical reflective pools, about an acre each in size. The names of every person who lost their lives are inscribed into bronze panels edging around the pools that feature two of the largest artificial waterfalls.

9/11 Memorial
As I stand here along with fellow visitors, many in somber mood, some with tears in their eyes, I try to imagine the twin towers that used to stand on this very ground. My memory of the twin towers before 9/11 is vague but the images of rescuers and survivors covered in blood, dust and rubbles that were repeatedly played out in the media after the attacks are still vivid. How could we forget that ill-fated day  or how our world has been drastically changed by this tragedy? Years have gone by and the city has clearly moved on but I doubt that there is even a day where New Yorkers don’t think about that ordeal they grappled with. May the departed souls rest in peace and their loved ones find peace.

No park in the world is as celebrated as the Central Park. Over 300 movies have been made here, making it the most filmed location in the world, an iconic status rightfully earned. A walk through its orchards, ponds and lakes opens out not only to its usual habitats; friendly squirrels, busy sparrows and quacking ducks but also its daily guests, those lucky ones who enjoy the privilege to run, bike, exercise or walk their dogs in this breathtaking greenery. A young dad is pushing his little girl on the swing while a make-up artist gets his model ready for a photo shoot on a park bench. I pass by three construction workers taking a break from their grueling job, enjoying their packed lunches. This 883-acre land has been coexisting next to the concrete jungle yet doing a marvelous job of providing a much-needed oasis, a breathing space, to the residents since opening in 1857.

Central Park
Metropolitan Museum of Art, or The Met as it’s fondly known, is the mother of all art museums in the United States that could easily rival The Louvre in Paris or The Prado in Madrid. One could certainly spend a day to be able to get through all of its exhibits. From Medieval to Modern art, Arts of Ancient Egypt, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas as well as an extensive collection of musical instruments, sculptures and photographs. In addition to the museum’s permanent displays, luckily for me, a photography enthusiast and Andy Wahol fan, currently there are two special temporary exhibits which will run until the year’s end,  “Faking it; manipulated photography before Photoshop” and “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” which not only showcases over 50 works of the famous artist but also paintings, sculpture and films by sixty other artists who are influenced and inspired by Warhol’s revolutionary work.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The only upset for me though is the momentary closing of The Costume Institute section due to the renovation work being carried out. That means no McQueen’s Lobster-claw shoes, the Chanel exhibit or all things touched and blessed by Anna Wintour. Well, never mind, I console myself with a broad collection of impressionist paintings. Van Gogh’s “self-portrait with straw hat”, many ballerina-inspired works of Edgar Degas including “The Dance Class”, Seurat’s study piece for what later became one of his most celebrated pointillist works, “A Sunday afternoon on the island La Grande Jatte”, not to mention countless other art works by Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin and the list goes on, are dotingly housed at The Met for one gigantic cultural visual feast for its visitors.

Theatre lovers will be pleased to know this; New York’s very own, Broadway shows sold 1 billion dollars worth of tickets in 2011. Theatre is alive and kicking in New York after all. With very limited time I have here, juggling between sightseeing and meeting up with friends I have not seen in a long time, I manage to catch at least one Broadway musical. The hottest tickets in town are the recent multiple Tony-award winner, “The Book Of Mormon” and the revival of “Evita” starring Ricky Martin (No, not as Evita of course!) However, I opt for, what I have always longed to see, “The Phantom Of The Opera”. My first ever Broadway experience has to be a standard, a classic, not Vegas-style  “Spiderman” or “The Lion King” (although I would not mind seeing any of them if I had more time) Majestic theatre has been the home to this longest running musical in Broadway history since it premiered in January 1988. It is a packed house tonight. Folks sitting next to me are mumbling in Spanish and the row in front has a family of five Korean tourists. Many of us here may not have seen the musical but are familiar with its legendary songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber such as “All I Ask Of You” and “Music Of The Night”. The massive chandelier that dramatically goes up and down during the show, the ascending/descending intro of Phantom theme and that soaring soprano of Christine are all there delighting the audience in this historic venue. All of us are hypnotized not only by the menacing Phantom also by the magic of live music and acting that transcends language barriers and cultures.

As the cultural capital of the world, New York, without a doubt, has the most dynamic gastronomic scene. Apart from American diners that serve classic American guilty pleasures, such as Burgers, Wraps, Steak & Fries in enormous portions that could easily shock first-time visitors, it is not at all strange to find an Afghan restaurant, a Turkish Kebab place or an authentic Burmese eatery situated within a short distance away from each other. I bump into one restaurant in the East Village that specializes in Chinese-Spanish cuisine, two blocks down from a Hokien noodles joint that I love.  Although I am not sure what their fusion food must be like, their East-meets-West concept certainly gets my attention.

“Where can we get the best pastrami in New York?” I ask my close friend, a Brooklyn resident. Within 15 minutes, we find ourselves in a thriving restaurant where people line up to get food, to find a table and to make payment after meals. Yes, in a true high-school canteen fashion but sans cheerleaders and a teacher on duty. Katz’s Delicatessen, it’s called. The walls of the restaurant are filled with picture frames of sport stars, politicians and various celebrities who dined here over the years. A big sign hangs from the ceiling that says, “Where Harry met Sally… Hope you have what she had” making a reference to the memorable scene from the movie “When Harry Met Sally” which was filmed here. Despite its modest setting and reasonable prices, this is one of the best meals I’ve had in New York. A large pastrami sandwich, a Matzo balls soup and a plate of hand-cut fries; the food, simple yet delicious, speaks for itself.

The Open-rooftop buses offer cheap and efficient sightseeing options for tourists providing routes to and fro from mid-town, downtown to the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. In all major cities in the United States, these bus companies employ human guides instead of audio guide with multiple languages, which is more common in other parts of the world. Naturally, it is fun and exciting to have a live commentary for those of us who speak English. But I find that it is quite limiting and unfair for tourists who don’t. What are they supposed to do? Sit and watch us interact with the guide and participate in quizzes and questions, while having no clue what’s going on. Nevertheless, here in New York, these buses are on time; the drivers and tour guides are very friendly, charismatic and cheerful. Plus the competition here is stiff. There are many but lines operating in the city. One thing though, to sit on the open-top bus for hours is quite a summer thing to do, I must say. New York in winter or even during autumn can be at times wet or painfully cold especially when the icy wind that blows across Hudson River gets trapped by the buildings and effectively housed within only to generate a maximum cooling effect.

New York metro is not only the best and most efficient mode of transportation it is also an ideal place to hide out from the cold… even for a while. It is safe, moderately clean and very well connected that even those who don’t know the city can get around without having problems. Policemen and women are also there to help out during peak hours or when there are big sporting events and concerts. The presence of NYPD (New York Police Department), though not intimidating, can be felt all throughout the city. In some touristy areas, friendly NYPD officers are found posing with their horses for pictures with tourists.

Although it may not be a cup of tea for folks who dislike heights, shaky situations or being claustrophobic, or worse, splurging 200 bucks for a ride that lasts no more than 20 minutes, viewing the city from a helicopter is by far the most spectacular and memorable thing a tourist can do in this city. Let’s just call it a treat. The ride starts with an aerial view of Brooklyn then the symbol of American dream, the statue of Liberty, which despite its 46-meter height looks miniature from up above, and Ellis Island, once the checkpoint for immigrants who came to America from the sea, then finishes with the famous skyscrapers of Manhattan. As for me, the image of the liberty statue against the backdrop of New York’s mighty skyline will forever be tattooed in my memory.

One World Trade Centre seen from a helicopter

A section of former elevated New York Central Railroad in the meatpacking district has gone through a complete revamp and been reintroduced as a liner park with a fancy name, “The High Line”. This 1-mile long stretch of greenway offers a unique angle of New York. From it, one could observe a glimpse of New York lifestyle, the neighborhoods where people actually live, work and raise family, the graffiti-filled walls expressing beliefs, values and opinions or simply people in motion. Recycling work at its best, this old railway is brilliantly transformed into an urban park with 210 species of plants, an out-door theatre, street performers and roadside stalls at weekends, caf├ęs and even sunbathing decks. Without the annoyance of vehicles and traffic fume, the High Line is one of the most pleasant city promenades that one could ever take. Even better, this activity doesn’t cost a dime.

The New York Skyline from a ferry to Staten Island
Not many people are aware of the fact that New York, after changing its Dutch colonial name, New Amsterdam under English control in 1664, served as the capital for a short period of time, from 1785 to 1790. This city also has experienced its fair share of both tragedies and triumphs. One of its accomplishments has always been accommodating immigrants and providing a home base to all citizens of the world. New York has always been a dream or a standard of many, also both a starting point and a finish line. It attracts opportunities and those who seek them. I feel at ease here. I don’t feel different for I am surrounded by differences. New York to me is a coat of many colors, textures and outlines. Maybe it is the very reason it can keep us all warm and cozy.

On my last morning, armed with a latte, the seasonal pumpkin spice flavor from Starbucks, and a 4-dollar hot dog, I enjoy a little stroll around Times Square. No camera, no agenda and no friend. It’s just me and I try to just… be. Where I came from and where I call home are the complete opposite of what I have been experiencing for the past four weeks. I am hugely inspired by the city’s energy and a tad too envious of its colorful residents. “But is the grass really greener on the other side?” I wonder.

I am a visitor. I’m merely looking in. If I want to be a part of it, if I one day decide to melt away my little town blues, I know that I can for I have an open invite.

Friday, October 19, 2012

~Catching up with Barbra in Brooklyn ~

Everything as if we never said goodbye”, sings Barbra during her opening number from the musical, “Sunset Boulevard”. As for me, I’m glad and grateful that she has not said goodbye to performing after all these years. Otherwise I would have never had the chance to be here, with tears in my eyes, watching her down from the very steep section 225 at the Barclays Centre.

This newly inaugurated  entertainment facility in Brooklyn can accommodate up to 19,000 people (96% packed house for Barbra’s concert tonight). The experience is rather like seeing Barbra perform in the valley from a mountaintop. And I paid nearly $200 for this seat. Rumor has it that the seats closer to the stage can cost up to $5000 each. With my $200, I would have been in the third row right in front of the stage if this were a Katy Perry concert. But then again, I would never be at Katy Perry’s concert unless I got drugged and dragged there.

At 70, Barbra is still one of those few artists whose star power and artistry never seem to wane but continue to inspire generations. The first time I heard Barbra’s music was on a compilation MP3 disk when I was about 17 (which by the way is not very long ago). I was quickly captivated by a voice so powerful yet delicate and her singing style quite unlike anybody’s. I have been spellbound ever since. In my country, we have very limited access to international imports and goods, music being one of them. I could bear with the scarcity of Coca-Cola but I needed more Barbra. Of course there were always plenty of pirated CDs by Madonna or Michael Jackson but unfortunately not artist like Barbra. Later when I started travelling abroad, I began collecting her CDs, biographies, TV specials, movies and concert DVDs and even her recent coffee table book, “My Passion for Design”. In my library now, there is a little Barbra shrine where I keep all her collectables. 

It is disappointing to see no mention of Barbra on the digital board or even her poster hung at the venue. Talking about poster, I’m slightly mad that she is reusing her photos from her 2006 concert tour. Could this be her, the Jewish Barbra, idea to cut the cost and not hang big posters and banners at the venue too? Quite possibly! While queuing to get in, I become increasingly fidgety. I begin to doubt whether my ticket is valid. I get too paranoid and stressed out at times like this. I bought the ticket online. In a worst scenario this ticket could be fake. After flying all the way from Asia and learning at the door that my ticket is nothing but fake would have sent me to my early grave. I bitterly wrestle with my negative thoughts until a lovely lady checks my ticket and kindly lets me in. I feel like a grinning refugee at the border who finally gets the approval stamp to cross over to the land of milk and honey.

In the lobby, they are selling merchandise and concert programs, a large glossy photo book. I would have bought it if it weren’t sold at a whopping $40 price. While I am quietly thinking to myself how ridiculously priced it is, a voice from the crowd tells me that all programs are sold out. They call that “The Streisand Effect”. She sells. (Later at the urinals, I befriended the guy next-door who bought the book and shamelessly browsed through the pages in the loo. Forgive me, Barbra!)

It is really illusory and dreamlike to be watching her move about, sip chicken soup (she claims that she was not feeling well earlier that day) or sing on stage. During the first few songs, I am so consumed by the excitement that at times, I forget to blink or even breathe. I wonder if she is feeling jittery as this is her first homecoming concert in over four decades but I certainly have butterflies in my stomach. Il Volo, the Italian operatic pop teenage trio, appear on stage to duet with her on “Smile”. “My tenors are getting younger and younger” Barbra jokes making a reference to Il Divo who accompanied her on her last tour. These boys, despite their tender ages, sing so beautifully. Their rousing version of “O Sole Mio” keeps the crowd entertained while Barbra takes a short break.

Barbra sings two fan favorites that she has never performed live before. I would have liked her to perform “Woman in Love” but I’m also pleased with “No More Tears (Enough is Enough), the disco duet she did with the late Donna Summer in the late 70’s. She sounds a bit hoarse during the high notes but how could I complain about such a tasty treat that was offered generously, considering this is the first time ever she performs it live.

Barbra then pays tribute to her long-time collaborator and friend, who just passed away a few months ago, Marvin Hamlisch, with his Oscar-winning movie song and her signature hit, “The Way We Were” and “Through The Eyes Of Love”. She looks visibly emotional but keeps it together and gives us a moment to remember. I look around and see people weeping. “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” which can be heard on her latest album “Release Me” mirrors the kind of artist that Barbra is. Notorious for her perfectionist attitude, she breathes a whole new meaning to the song from the 1967 musical, “Hallelujah baby” which is about a young African-American woman’s struggle for equality and her rise to stardom. Barbra concludes her Set 1 of the show with a Broadway medley; “Rose’s Turn” and “Some People” (from Gypsy) and “Don’t Rain On My Parade” (from Funny Girl). The latter, needless to say, receives a well-deserved standing-o.

Jazz trumpeter Chris Botti accompanies Barbra on “Lost Inside Of You”, a sweeping ballad from the movie, “A Star Is Born”. Once again, a rare performance of the song and she manages to pull buckets full of tears from the audience. “Evergreen”, one of my all-time favorites, is done dutifully but without very much emotional impact, I must say. Maybe it’s me who came here with mountains of expectations. It leaves me wanting more.

The second set opens with “You’re The Top” in which her voice cracks a number of times but she manages masterfully till the end. Then comes a video clip made by her son, Jason Gould for her recent birthday, with him singing "Nature Boy" in the clip. It is such a lovely thing but a tad too long for the audience as it spans a full 4 plus minutes. But who would have thought Jason could sing so well? And most importantly, why hasn’t he done anything with that angelic voice? Now aged 45, Jason is releasing his debut album and will carry on the Streisand legacy. Proud Mama invites her only son to the stage and together they perform a touching rendition of “How Deep Is The Ocean”. 

I had my share, I drank my fill 
And even though I’m satisfied, 
I’m hungry still. 
To see what’s down another road beyond the hill 
And do it all again 
So here’s to life”

One of the finest moments arrives with “Here’s To Life”, a song from her “Love Is The Answer” album that fits her far better than that incredible Donna Karen suit she wore during her first set. Barbra once famously said that she is “an actress who sings”- this performance alone verifies how true that statement is. Her poignant delivery hits all the right spots for the audience that consists of folks near, around and from Barbra’s age bracket (I could easily be the youngest member in my section 225). Like “My Way” or “The Impossible Dream”, it is one of those songs that needs to be sung by a seasoned veteran like her.

A dramatic finale is anticipated of course and it finally happens with “Make Our Garden Grow”, one of those Broadway tunes she recorded for “Back to Broadway” album but did not make it to the album. (It is also the song that features her famous 19-second belted note. A video clip of her singing that note again and again till perfection in the recording studio can be found on Youtube.) “We are Mother Nature’s guardians, it’s our responsibility to keep her healthy for our children’s children’s children” Barbra shares her message of concern for our weary world with the audience. All her guest stars and The Brooklyn youth choir join her on stage for a stirring rendition of the song. A snippet version of “Somewhere” is also performed subsequently, although she warbles only the last two mammoth notes of the song, “Some” and “where”, it is more than enough to send shivers down my spine.

Folks are already leaving the venue with determination to hop on the train before anyone else when she returns to stage for encore. In fact she gives us two; an exquisitely sung Jazzy number, “Some Other Time” and politically-charged, “Happy Days Are Here Again”. The latter is sung, after preaching the crowd, humorously of course, who they should vote for in the upcoming election.

Barbra possesses a magical presence. Not to mention, that glorious voice. Her lush lower register, rich velvety tone and one of a kind vibrato that she built a career on are still very much present. Although her voice has become somewhat deeper with age and her upper range getting thin, she is still capable of hitting amazing high notes with accuracy and incredible control. Apart from sounding raspy during some high notes, her voice is astonishingly in top condition all throughout the show. The concert, from every move she makes, her dialogues, projection of images and clips to guest appearances and the orchestra, is tightly rehearsed and even the smallest flaws are not easy to spot. 

To be honest, this is the concert I never thought that I would be able to see. I had given up on that dream of seeing her perform live one day. Simply because a) Barbra seldom gives concerts (Believe it or not, this one I attended is her 82nd in her entire career!) b) she never performs in Asia where I live and c) she’s already 70 years old. Fate has smiled upon me that I am on vacation in the States in the same time she is touring (which may or (hopefully may not!) be her last tour).

Barbra, with her countless accomplishments as an entertainer, has already been regarded and celebrated in the way Pablo Picasso, Katherine Hepburn, Andy Warhol, Luciano Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra are and will be even more so in years to come. I am incredibly lucky to have seen Barbra Streisand perform live. This may just be a concert to some but for me is a lifetime memory to cherish and a piece of history that I was able to take part in or witness. And I, here with a huge grin on my face, can say that some dreams do come true.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Skyfall - Adele (Review)

The world can finally agree on one thing; that they have picked the right singer to carry the theme song of the newest James Bond flick. Not only that, “Skyfall” is a nostalgic tram ride back to the days of glamourpuss-femme fatale sound of Shirley Bassey, the diva originale who is responsible for three of the biggest Bond theme songs in history, “Goldfinger”, “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Moonraker”. Well, in 2012, a true diva may no longer wear her glittery gowns and sky-high wigs but she may simply stand still in the middle of the stage and demand mass adoration with her glorious voice alone. That’s exactly what Adele is capable of. “Skyfall” succeeds in keeping the perfect balance between the signature Adele sound and sexy, sophisticated and stately sound of previous Bond tunes. Adele is well aware that she can neither go over-the-top with her vocals nor under-sing the song. Unlike Madonna’s “Die Another Day”, this orchestra-tinged piano-led ballad does not stray too far from the original Bond anthems from the 60s. It is not only catchy enough to be played on the radios without having any association with the film, but also it will astound the audience when opening credits roll with sexy Bond girls galore on the silver screen. Watch out for the 12-second belted note at the end, not in Miss Bassey’s caliber but precisely executed , the Adele way. “Skyfall” is the ultimate Bond theme song that we’ve been waiting for since Tina Turner’s “Goldeneye”.