Sounds of the City

lang langWhen describing his jazz-fused masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue, created in 1924, composer George Gershwin once said, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Almost 100 years later, the wildly popular pianist Lang Lang, whose latest offering, New York Rhapsody, was released on Sony Classical last month, recently told the Wall Street Journal that “When I hear Rhapsody in Blue, I see the Empire State Building somehow.”

And so one rhapsody begets another. Rhapsody in Blue is the centerpiece of a crossover album that offers homage to the city that never sleeps, with appearances by an array of artists from the fields of pop, jazz, and classical. Whatever one can say of the choice of selections, from an eclectic group of composers ranging from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland to Danny Elfman, Lou Reed, and Jay-Z, they are not the expectedly clichéd (no “New York, New York” here, thankfully).

Lang had lofty goals as he went about preparing the album. “One of the greatest stories in the history of human creativity was written in this city – and I wanted to tell it,” he says in the liner notes. That story, an eventful sonic progression from jazz and Broadway all the way to punk and hip-hop, is an ambitious one, though the results here are a bit hit or miss.

On the hit side is a creative mashup of “Somewhere” (from Bernstein’s West Side Story) alongside Reed’s “Dirty Blvd,” featuring Lisa Fischer and Jeffrey Wright. Fischer’s vocal is probably the finest of the album, which also serves up a rare miss from Andra Day, who’s no competition for Alicia Keys on what’s become another signature Big Apple anthem, “Empire State of Mind.” Sean Jones struts a terrific trumpet on “Tonight” (also from West Side Story), but Madeleine Peyroux’s rendition of “Moon River” leaves some wistfulness to be desired.

The use of two little-known pieces by Copland – “Story of Our Town” and “In Evening Air”new york rhapsody – to open and close the album was the idea of Larry Klein, the Grammy-winning producer and brainchild behind the New York Rhapsody project. Both are less soaring than contemplative and capture the “pockets of peace and quiet beauty” that exist within the “vortex of New York City,” in Klein’s words.

Rhapsody in Blue is, of course, where Lang gets to show off his chops, along with the 76-year-old Herbie Hancock – still in fine mettle – and a spirited London Symphony Orchestra. A reprise of an abbreviated performance by the two at the 2008 Grammys, it features both a playfulness and grandeur that highlights two consummate pianists doing what they do best.

In a serendipitous bit of timing, the Chinese-born Lang, now 34, was recently chosen to be New York City’s first-ever “Cultural Tourism Ambassador,” the latest in a long list of plaudits since he burst on the classical music scene in 1999 as a prodigious teenager lionized for his brash and bold technique. Settling into superstardom can always become predictably complacent, so it’s nice to see him trying to expand the audience. It’s New York, Lang says, “that turned classical into this wonderful mess of new sounds and styles.” With New York Rhapsody, the experiment continues.

[Lang Lang’s New York Rhapsody will be featured on the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center on November 25.]

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Shifting Focus

new year's day new yorkNew Year’s Day #4580

(New York City, 2002)

Photograph by Bill Jacobson

On the Street with JR

JR street artHis “name” may be more associated with a famous soap-opera villain of long ago, but the mysterious street artist who goes by the initials JR has already become a legend in photography circles. I first ran across his work in a stunning mural he produced in conjunction with the New York City Ballet last year, and more recently many others were exposed to his imagination via the incredible piece, shown above, that appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in April, for a theme issue titled “Walking New York.” A massive image of an Azerbaijan immigrant named Elmar, pasted on the Flatiron Plaza in New York City, and made up of 62 supersized strips of paper and more than 16o feet long, it was photographed from above by JR (talk about meta!) via a helicopter, so the awe-inspiring expanse of the project could be appreciated.

Barely out his twenties, and determinedly anonymous, JR has already been called “the Cartier-Bresson of the 21st Century”; the photographer himself calls the world of the street “the largest art gallery in the world,” and his work is now celebrated in a recently published retrospective which asks the question, JR: Can Art Change the World? Much as in the case of his visionary (and equally enigmatic) contemporary Banksy, the short answer is most definitely “yes.”

Horse Whispers

horsesThey’ve been a source of inspiration for artists since the beginning of time, and for Czech-born photographer Jitka Hanzlová, a deeply felt affinity for horses led to a series of images that focus on the enigmatic side of this most spirited of animals. A wisp of an ear, shown right, an omniscient eye surrounded by shadows, left, are parts of a moving whole both detached and quietly affecting. The artist, whose works often feature elements of distant isolation, says of her equine subjects, “Their stillness seems to be endless, far in their own time.” An exhibit featuring the pieces, entitled One to One, is on view at New York City’s Yancey Richardson Gallery through early next month.

Late to the Banksy

banksy street is in play
“The Street is in Play”: New York City 2013

Break out the bandwidth for the new Webby Person of the Year, awarded earlier this week to that audacious and elusive genius of graffiti, Banksy, whose month-long New York City “residency” in 2013, “Better Out Than In,” showcased the power of social media and its collaborative influence on the impact of art. For four weeks in October, the mysterious British artist kept enthralled followers guessing at the sites of his “guerilla” creations scattered around the city, via postings on Instagram, YouTube, and his own website.

I’m more than late to the Banksy party, not having followed him at all closely, though he’s long been on the periphery of the radar for anyone interested in cultural matters. From afar, I would hear about his latest adventures and register a vague — and as it turns out, unjustified — sense of gimmickry. Now, delving more deeply into the Banksy experience, I come away hard-pressed to think of an iconoclast more perfectly suited to the times, a prodigious talent not afraid to break the rules — and the law, many would say — forging forward with the ultimate goal of making people think.

As a newbie to the whole Banksy thing, I’d say my first surprise was at the broadness of his artistic reach (which includes film and painting), being most familiar with the stencil drawings found on the walls and streets that’s he’s chosen as grungy canvasses around the world. Next was his facility with words and ability to use language to bring home his message, which is perhaps best summarized in his quote, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” horses nigh vision bansky new york city

The two examples featured here, taken from “Better Out Than In,” present both the consistency of that message as well as the breadth of technique in achieving its execution. (The series really should be viewed in its entirety to appreciate the wideness of imagination on display for those 31 days in New York.)

“The Street is in Play,” top, is in the signature stencil style and subversively Rockwellian. (It was vandalized in a matter of hours, par for the course in the transience of the Banksy terrain.) It stood in stylistic contrast to “Crazy Horses,” above, an Armageddon-like depiction, spray-painted on an automobile and the side of a truck found in NYC’s Lower East Side. Both highlight recurrent themes in Banksy’s work; the meta-like ability to juxtapose the unreal into a seamless narrative with reality, and, in the case of the latter, political commentary by way of the surrealism of war.

To see where things can’t be seen; it’s what I captured most as I pored over the Banksy landscape.

Not that everyone “sees” it quite the same way. A naysayer columnist once wrote in a London newspaper that…”[Banksy’s] work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots.”

So maybe I’m not that smart after all.

Fourth Impression

maurice-prendergast-central park july 4th_

Master of watercolor and Post-Impressionist Maurice Prendergast (1858–1924) rendered a softer side of an otherwise boisterous holiday with his delicate and pastel-hued Central Park, New York City, July 4th, completed in 1903.