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                                                                   CRITICAL MASS: ARTICLES, REVIEWS and ESSAYS


Piano Life, July 1998


Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who was 75 when he died of heart failure in Lugano on June 12, 1995, made an impression on audiences akin to that of Rasputin on the Empress Alexandra. With the smoldering demeanor of an archemendrite, he radiated importance. His command of the stage, no less impressive than his command of this instrument, proffered a figure larger than life; enigmantic and austere, Michelangeli suggested something greater than the sum of his parts. A Michelangeli recital was more than a concert; it was a religious experience.
Walking briskly on stage to a waiting Steinway, his gait was swift but certain. A certain economy of gesture signaled an immense authority before a note was played. As the audience held its breath, he cultivated quiescence, and thus amplified the opening hush. Without so much as a twitch, he resembled a tiger ready to pounce.
With his craggy face and urbane, black mustache, Michelangeli cut a swarthy figure. Offstage he was a heavy smoker, and favored the pungent tobaccos of Turkish cigarettes or Russian papirosi, which drooped languidly from one corner of his mouth. In his later years he abandoned the slicked-back hair so popular among young, post-war bon-vivants in favor of a natural style that lightly dusted his ever-present houndstooth blazer and black pullover. This was his uniform; he was convinced that their collective enclosure protected him "against cold and warm"…


Long since divorced from his wife, Giuliana, a former student, Michelangeli spent his last years with a female companion in Lugano, playing only a few concerts at festivals in France and Switzerland. In the liberated climate of the time, his renewed scarcity provoked rumors of cocaine addiction and homosexuality. But a 1988 concert at the Grande Theatre of Bordeaux silenced his detractors. It was to be one of many recitals he gave for charity throughout his career, and on this occasion it was in aid of flood victims.
Instead, the concert became the site of a major heart attack, suffered on stage in the middle of Debussy's Ondine (not Bruyéres, as Alain Lombard incorrectly reported in the July 1995 issue of Le Monde de la Musique). His moment of crisis occurred in bar 24 (retenue). Rather than stopping cold, he remained in musical character, lingering on the lone sonority of the dominant. Though in unimaginable pain, he allowed the chord to vibrate and fade out, as if it were bad luck to release it.
Calmly and with unbeleagured diffidence, he whispered an audible "Veneti!!", and was ushered out to hospital. In all of this there's a spooky metaphor at work that may have done more to save his life than any drug or surgeon. As the musical site of his greatest agony, Ondine became the aesthetic equivalent of a near-death experience. Though it was Ravel's, not Debussy's vision of the enchanted water nymph Ondine that Michelangeli came to be identified with, the myth behind the title is the same. At that moment in Bordeaux the sultry siren of the mists called out to him. "Vieni, vieni," she whispered as he evoked her spirit in sound. "And when I responded that I loved a mortal, sulking and spiteful she shed some tears, broke into laughter and disappeared in a sudden storm…"

[Aloysius Bertrand: Ondine. Cited in Gaspard de la Nuit (musical score) by Maurice Ravel. Durand et fils. Paris.]


November 1997

SCRIABIN: Piano Works (excerpt of review)
Constantin Lifschitz, piano

The interpretive demands of Scriabin's music do not forgive those who fail to account for its spiritual dimensions, or probe the relation between his compositional techniques and his mystical beliefs. To a remarkable extent, Scriabin succeeded in duplicating, in compositional categories, the core of his Hindu inspired philosophy: transcendence of the ego. Within an exotic soup of chromatic, whole tone and octatonic scales, legions of tritone saturated, dominant-quality chords annihilate conventional harmonic function and disturb ordinary progression and resolution. As it hovers and exfoliates, the music frustrates our expectations and leaves the impression of time suspended. Here Scriabin's sultry spirituality found an ideal vehicle for expression: the obliteration of a single key center (for centuries the rosetta stone of western music ) in favor of multiple, perpetually shifting centers. The prismatic harmonies, peculiar distribution of pitch material and fragmented rhythmic configurations do not represent the religious ritualism to which they aspire, as much as they reproduce it as the principle of the music's immanent structure, giving way to the obsessive character of ritual itself. For Scriabin, the ambiguity of this approach was to become the musical equivalent of the androgyne, and the non-ego, the governing principles of his Vedanta driven mysticism. Thus, the great interpreter of Scriabin is a kind of translator capable of transforming himself from performer into conjurer; the richly layered, diaphanous textures demand a comprehensive command of structure, dynamics and a rhythmic suppleness that moves beyond purely metrical considerations.
The crown jewel of his middle period musical diadem, the Fifth Sonata is a gigantic waltz whose angular syncopes Scriabin manipulates in the context of expanding and contracting meters. Tumbling forward from a kind of primordial quiescence, it is a tissue of Byzantine cross-rhythms and suspended sonorities that expand and contract as they unfold exponentially. Rhythmic energy accumulates and finally breaks loose in the coda, which culminates in an apocalyptic explosion before reverting, in the final measures, to the ruminative rumblings of its opening. An informed interpretation must strive to duplicate Scriabin's implicit eroticism in an act of symbolic consummation with the listener; whole sequences of truncated climaxes are driven forward cumulatively in waves of rhythmic energy, breathlessly simulating orgasm. The dialectic between performer and composition thus breached, symbolic union is corporeally projected.


November 1998

GRANADOS: Goyescas
Michel Block
ProPiano 224518
52 minutes

Words cannot describe how sublime this performance is. Were the work Russian, Michel Block could easily be dubbed Nicholas to Alicia de Larrocha's Alexandra. (In the current climate of cutbacks and catalog deletions, let's hope the recording industry never does to them, metaphorically speaking, what the Bolsheviks did to the Romanovs). Where Granados and Albeniz are concerned, all other pianists are simply court functionaries kowtowing in their interpretive shadows. Given their status in the musical Diaspora, I suppose that's a good thing; both are benevolent monarchs who never fail to publicly praise the efforts of colleagues. Even so, for reasons that puzzle me, Ms. De Larrocha's international celebrity has for too long eluded this no less great pianist.
That Mr. Block, who rose to prominence in 1960 after winning the first Arthur Rubinstein prize at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, achieves such extraordinary fluency is only a bonus. Inflection and intonation are the capital of his pianistic profile. Indeed, in many ways his playing brings to mind Schnabel and Gilels, though in technical categories he is perhaps even more reliable and pristine. It's not simply that he is capable of delivering a nearly note perfect public performance (this disc was recorded in concert at the University of Indiana in 1981), but that he does so without compromising an iota of the work's immanent concept. Mr. Block finds an uncanny balance between intensity and passivity, between rhetoric and song. What's more, the limitless variety of color and the astonishing seamlessness of his playing give way to a kind liquid sculpture in molten mercury. Mr. Block is proof positive that a musician, as Schnabel (or was it Cortot?) once said, is only as good as his transitions.
From the upward spiral that introduces the flirtatious Los Requiebros, Mr. Block sends us spinning into Granados's luxurious world of crackling castanets and nimble entanglements. Here, Mr. Block manipulates the litany of florid triplets that ornament it with the consummate skill of a dashing swashbuckler, rapier in hand, defending the honor of some sordid seniorita awash in black satin lace. But subtlety prevails: here the swordsman is a lover, and the seniorita a bride to be; the steel edge doesn't pierce its subject as much as it caresses it, at once reflecting then melting the seductress's icy stares. Mr. Block brings much of the same playful vivacity and idiomatic savoir-faire to Coloquio en la Reja; the limpid flourishes that undulate so unerringly through its sad song reverberate with unfulfilled desires and veiled longings. In Mr. Block's hands, the jaunty El Fandango de Candil sautes and shimmers persuasively, while the coquettish Quejas, o la Maja e el Ruisenor weeps quietly en route to the nightingale's song that draws it to a close. But it is in El Amor y la Muerte that Mr. Block pulls out the stops, lending its ambivalent, sanguiferous melisma and tortuous trajectory an uneasy prescience and heartbreaking ardency. If there is a piece de resistance here, it is surely the concluding epilogue, Serenata del Espectro an evocation of the gallant that comes to life in the context of Mr. Block's sultry, subcutaneous and endlessly flexible rubato.
In Michel Block one finds that rare combination of audacity and refinement, rhetoric and poetry. But in his playing, even more is at work: he is a storyteller par excellence, an aristocrat in whom the fullness of ancient and modern traditions seems to exhaust itself. And yet, while he paints in sound, he also speaks in it; he elaborates a work's idiosyncratic punctuation, conveying its tenuous commas, its telling semi-colons, definitive periods and defiant exclamation points. Few pianists interiorize a work's immanent dramas with such authority, allowing them to smolder so transparently under expertly crafted surfaces.
Speaking of surfaces, the recorded ones here are unusually clear for a concert disc. That's a blessing in light of the shallow sounding piano Mr. Block was evidently compelled to use in this academic setting. Given the instrument's limitations, it's a miracle he finds the colors he does. Electronically induced compression and over-equalization compromise climactic moments, which is certainly no fault of the pianist, whose palette of tone colors is preternaturally rich. But such instruments and recording techniques, while typical for a university, are no match for Mr. Block's eloquence and spiritual largesse, which in any event transcend them.



November 1998

DALBAVIE: Seuils; Diademes
Ensemble Intercontemporain; Rie Hamada, soprano; Pierre Boulez, conductor
Ades 205202 (Allegro)
67 minutes

Until savvy music consumers tire of their fetishistic love affair with contemporary Russian music - Gubadalina and the late Alfred Schnitke notwithstanding - their familiarity with French compositional aesthetics will likely languish a bit longer. But even among new music devotees, Marc-Andre Dalbavie is hardly a household name. That's a pity, because Mr. Dalbavie, a protege of Pierre Boulez and Tristan Murail, is no composer-wannabe, but the real thing. Judging from this riveting survey of his recent work, my guess is that history will judge him not only as the inheritor of Boulez's compositional mantle, but as one of the more significant French composers of the early 21st century.
Arthur Schnabel once said that a musician is only as good as his ability to navigate a work's transitions. For Mr. Dalbavie, music is all about transitions, or at least the process of cultivating them as a genre in their own right. The electronic and acoustic instrumentarium that supports the breathy oscillations and dovetailing sonorities of his music do nothing to draw attention to themselves, as they sometimes do in the hands of composers who rely on means over meaning.
The seven movement Seuils (Thresholds), composed between 1991 and 1993, is a tribute of sorts to the timbre-intensive "spectral music", an approach to compositional procedure that gained considerable ground in France in the 1970s and 80s. Here, Mr. Dalbavie wastes no time establishing a kind of sonorous continuum where sound-objects (the composer's own description) tumble forth in a kind of orgy of nearly self-generation. But Mr. Dalbavie's music concerns itself with more than the simple metamorphosis of pitch material. Reverberating in an acoustic environment specifically designed for the music at hand (a technique that Mr. Dalbavie has dubbed "spacialisation") are lingering echoes and quivering rhythmic vibrations deftly manipulated in the service of musical polemics. Thus, what Mr. Dalbavie proposes is essentially a new "species" of counterpoint in which discontinuous elements - timbre, pitch rhythm, spatial distribution of sound - hemorrhage effortlessly one into the other. If Mr. Dalbavie's intent is to saturate the expressive range of the instrumentarium in the context of a discursive hierarchy, he certainly succeeds, and most persuasively at that.
Semiotics, too, play a role in Mr. Dalbavie's aesthetic universe. Guy LeLong's text for Seuils is a homology of sorts; neither poetry nor symbolic abstraction, it becomes a kind of component of the counterpoint, albeit a conceptual one. (That's not an original idea; Scriabin fully intended to do the same in his ill-fated, never completed Mysterium, where exogenous elements, such as odors, movement and light, were to be "choreographed" and integrated, at least conceptually, into a larger contrapuntal fabric). It's no accident, either, that it provides a simultaneous commentary on the musical action, its droning vowels and cracker jack plosives mimicking the aquatic emergence and disappearance of the dovetailing melisma. However provocative (or occasionally anachronistic) its effects, Seuils is a rich and varied work, astutely avoiding any cliche that might make of it an endless, repetitive wash of hypnotic sonorities. Minimalism it's not. The quixotic Seuil III, for example, is a transparent, epigrammatic scherzo which, as it moves headlong into jarring interruptions and querulous interrogative, flies and whispers like a young Aladdin trying to return his Genie to the bottle.
In spite of its title's reference to bejeweled extravagance, Diademes (1986) is a pithy, pristinely constructed affair. A kind of convex, cutting edge concerto grosso, its three movements weave two ensembles - one synthesized (two Yamaha DX7s), the other acoustic (woodwind and percussion) - around an electronically amplified viola. Like a radiant halo, the two groups illuminate and compete for the soloist's attention. Frequencies shimmer and modulate surreptitiously in a perpetually shifting vortex of pitch material. Its essentially convex form, which pits dual ensembles in a spirited opposition, evolves in a kind of sonorous excrescence that eventually neutralizes the viola's short-lived independence.
Electronically manipulated acoustics plays no less vital a role in Mr. Dalbavie's work. The liner notes reveal that he and his like-minded colleagues at IRCAM have developed an acoustic processor whose software program (trademark name: Spat) "enables the composer, the performer or sound engineer to control or reproduce the localization of sound sources and their radiance in a real or virtual auditorium." However, their claims that a 3 dimensional listening experience can be reproduced on conventional stereo equipment seem exaggerated; while one is certainly aware of' heightened acoustic perspectives, it's hardly to the degree the producers would have us believe. Though the effect may indeed be striking in concert, the net result on disc is not appreciably better than that of long available, omni-directional recording techniques. Nevertheless, IRCAM's sophisticated innovations probably enhance delivery, no matter what equipment you may have. The anticipated 3-dimensional effect may indeed be a consequence of "spacialisation" and an immanent characteristic of the music itself, as the composer asserts. But no recording, least of all when reproduced on conventional stereo apparatus, is likely to deliver the riches of a performance experienced in an acoustically appropriate environment. What's more, the esthesic experience generated by the music's spatial dimensions - that is, the manner in which it is received and interpreted by the individual listener in a socialized context - is no less important to its dialectics. But this remains a problem for musical reception theory, a semiological discipline still in its infancy.
Mr. Dalbavie is fortunate to have in Pierre Boulez the ideal protagonist and conductor of his music. Perhaps it takes a musician of Mr. Boulez's caliber to translate the subtleties of these expressive but esoteric scores with such inimitable flair and elegance. The two men seem to have, at the very least, a certain camaraderie of intent, at least in aesthetic categories. Mr. Dalbavie is now at work on a multi-media opera that promises to engage a good deal more than our attention. Given the spectacular results of his work here, that should be a provocative event, and is eagerly anticipated.




by John Bell Young

Excerpt from Chapter I
En garde or Avant Garde: Exploding the Scriabin Myth

Facts don't exist until man puts into them something of his own, a bit of free human genius - of myth.
-Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago

In those mysteries of antiquity there was real transfiguration, real secrets and sanctities...all our little saints of today have forgotten their power of old.2
-Alexander Scriabin

In a discrete corner of the cemetery of Moscow's Novedevechi Monastery, just opposite the tomb of Nikita Khruschev, stands a modest granite obelisk. The famous Muscovite to whom it pays tribute and whose grave it marks has been reduced to a stony silhouette engraved above a simple Cyrillic inscription of his name. Ordinarily, a faded photograph of the deceased, embedded in eggshell porcelain, would lurk in the sepulchral shadows, as if to capture the soul. But there is no photo here, and its absence evokes forgotten days when a poem or a painting was the icon of favor.
Someone has tossed a single white rose, like a tear, off to one side. Presiding regally in the distance beyond the monument, an ancient onion dome mushrooms through the surrounding firs. Its burnished golden patina, embellished by a shallow Slavic sun, smothers the site and the senses in the amber light of Russian culture. In this sacred place, where Arctic air smells of peppercorn-honey and evergreen, it is an image at once stark and alluring. Here lies Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin, born on Christmas day and died at Easter.
Remind you of anyone?

Mystery, sanctity, myth and transfiguration seek symbolic expression in the music of Scriabin. Imprisoned by traditional approaches that attempt to distinguish the mystic from the musician, and a narrow perspective that holds history hostage to continuity, Scriabin has been suffocated, by his apologists as well as his detractors, in a labyrinth of theoretical abstractions and picturesque narrative biography. With all the shortsighted bravado of Kutuzov's army at the Battle of Borodino, musicology beats no retreat from its entrenched position: a reluctance to acknowledge, unequivocally, that in the household of symbolism and psychology, Scriabin's music is inseparable from the spiritual ideology that informs it.
If the prevailing view that Scriabin's mysticism is pathological and irrelevant to his music is to be exploded, the opinion of the formalist rear guard invites rebuttal on at least two fronts:
1) that his compositional language, which musicology envisions as technical rather than strategic, bears no relation to ancient forms of liturgical music, particularly medieval Byzantine and Russian chant and
2) that the spiritual dimensions of his aesthetic, which is mortgaged in part to Greek Music Drama, resist codification in compositional categories.
Implicit in a critique that dares challenge the prevailing view is a threat to dissolve, like sugar in coffee, the formalist position that rejects Scriabin's mysticism as unnecessary to understanding, interpreting and performing his music. Scriabin is an heir to the estate of Russian culture; his aesthetic is a descendant of the ceremonial structures of sectarian ritual, liturgical music and Orthodox pageantry.
But rest assured that obscure motivic parallels that evoke a superficial resemblance of compositional genres, or between unrelated classes of experience are rejected as an oversimplification and find no sympathy here: comparative analysis is exiled as a tool of musical excavation. Moreover, any suggestion that sacralizes Scriabin's music as something more "meaningful" than art is likewise banished; to do otherwise diminishes the integrity of its immanent structure and artistic value.



by John Bell Young
October 26, 1997

Let me say that there is nothing abnormal about being a little afraid of plunging into an environment in which you can't breathe. But that fear can be overcome in most cases, and it's easier and safer than you think."
If this sounds like the cautionary protest of a Mir space station astronaut, or the seasoned advice of Jacques Cousteau, guess again.
Daredevil or not, the man who embraces such confidence as a metaphor for life is a 77 year old scuba diver, pilot, sailor, Arctic explorer, astronomer, grandfather and - oh yes - an Emmy award winning broadcaster.
For the better part of 50 years, Hugh Downs has been an American institution. Long before Bryant Gumbel and Johnny Carson became household names, it was Downs who presided over the Today Show and navigated the starlight shift, alongside Jack with charm and dignity, Downs' urbane persona complemented his skills as a stimulating raconteur.
But Downs, who today is familiar to millions as the co-host of ABC-TV's news magazine, 20/20, is a man whose erudition, wide ranging interests and versatility extend well beyond the footlights.
Indeed, lurking behind his avuncular and imperturbable demeanor is an authentic adventurer. As a sea captain, Downs crossed the pacific in a 65 foot ketch. As an explorer he's braved the mobile glaciers of the South Pole at temperatures so cold that, by comparison, even the surface of Mars seems tropical. And as a broadcaster he's logged more hours in front of the camera than anyone in the history of network television, a fact that has vouchsafed his place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
But to these august accomplishments and monikers, he can now add another: composer.
It is this side of Hugh Downs that Tampa Bay will have a chance to see - and hear - on Tuesday evening at Eckerd College's MacArthur Auditorium, where he will launch this season's Distinguished Speaker Series. Setting aside the usual array of topical concerns that shape 20/20, Downs will instead turn his attention to music, his life-long passion. Alongside his remarks, entitled The Heart of Music, two pianists will perform several of his compositions.
Asked why he prefers to keep a low profile about his musical activities, Downs' responded with characteristic modesty.
"Winston Churchill once said, in speaking about Clement Attlee, 'He's a humble man, and he has a lot to be humble about," says Downs . "In 1946, when I was at work on my Elegiac Prelude for Orchestra, I had no fear about the terrible things the critics might say about my music. Now I'm terrified! I can just hear some critic complaining, 'not bad for an amateur.' It withers me just to think about it."
Interviewed over lunch in New York, Downs, soft spoken, reflective, and impeccably dressed in Saville Row pinstripes, dovetailed effortlessly from one subject into another. The breadth of his experience has done nothing to diminish his curiosity. He is as comfortable talking about the migration habits and spawning grounds of the Norwegian smoked salmon on the table as he is about his own role in 20th century music.
"As long as it's considered for what it is - and I'm not ashamed of what I've composed - my music might develop a life of its own, based on the fact that there is a category of composers who are not known for composing. Even some who were known were professionals in other fields. Borodin, for example, was a chemist and Rimsky-Korsakoff was a Navy man. You brought my attention to the music of the philosopher Nietzsche, and even the actor Lionel Barrymore composed orchestral pieces. I imagine this is the only way I could leave any kind of musical legacy, though I can't imagine that my works will gather a coterie of fans!"
Downs grew up in a musical family. "I sensed my limitations early on," he says. "But I had an idea I might be good at music. My mother was a fairly good violinist, and my father, who planted a seed when he introduced me to chamber music, played tolerably well on the trumpet. I took violin and piano lessons from age 5, and wrote a musical setting of the 13th Psalm when I was 13. That gave me the thrill of creating something I could call my own. It was performed by our church organist. But there's something about a pipe organ that imposes upon a composition a kind of dignity it may or may not deserve."
Though he characterizes his musical output as "unprolific", Downs has composed everything from solo piano works to fully orchestrated orchestral interludes. Together with this writer, pianist Averill Summer , a professor of music at USF, will perform the Elegiac Prelude in a transcription for 2 pianos. Also on the program is his unabashedly romantic solo piano work, An Old Familiar Air that Has its own Tuxedo and Will Travel, that may astonish listeners for its expert craftsmanship and good humor.
He has also tried his hand at popular music. "In 1952, I wrote the music to a nuevo-western pop song called The Ride Back from Boot Hill, which was recorded for RCA by Gogi Grant. It got on the charts but never went gold or platinum. Can't win em all!" That work won't be included on Tuesday's program. Instead, Downs has asked mezzo soprano Theresa d'Aiuto Andrasy of USF to sing a work by Gustav Mahler, a composer whom he reveres.
Downs' life in and around music, which in part led to his hosting duties on PBS television's Live From Lincoln Center broadcasts, has given him pause to contemplate the state of classical music in American life today.
"I'm saddened by the American trait to disregard the artsas something essential to life. Music is so important to me I can't imagine living without it; whatever there is spiritual in life is most closely approached by great music.
"I feel there's a relationship between aesthetics and manners, which are the foundation of a society. Without them there's bound to be more crime and less development of abilities and social skills . Without manners, people cannot develop empathy, and a society cannot move forward. Once manners are lost, it's no surprise kids will carry guns to school, or escape into drugs. It's an important issue, and it seems to me we're putting the cart before the horse.
"Many countries encourage volunteer support for the arts, but also contribute official government support. There isn't much of this 'official' support in the US, and our arts agencies are under constant attack to cut their budgets. This kind of philistine thinking bothers me."
Finding an appropriate analogy to illustrate his concerns, Downs, recalled a chance meeting, on a plane with a Greek merchant. "At that time, I'd never been to Greece,' he explained "so I told him how anxious I was to see her ancient glories, such as the Acropolis and the Parthenon. And he actually said, 'Oh, well that's all ruined, you know. I have a group of friends trying to clear that out to put up some modern buildings.' That the world's treasures are under such pressures is pretty scary."
Though his musical output is small, his Elegiac Prelude has been performed by both the NBC Symphony and St. Louis Symphony orchestras, and he continues to compose when time allows. He's now at work on a solo piece for cello that he's writing specifically for his friend, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. A national television audience will soon have an opportunity to hear his piano music, on ABC's new daytime show, The View, anchored by Downs' colleague and 20/20 co-host, Barbara Walters. The pianist on that occasion will be 13 year old Alexander Zacharias of Sarasota, who impressed Downs and Walters with his performance.
Today Hugh Downs is active in organizations as diverse as his interests. He sits on the Board of Overseers of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is Chairman of the Board of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, and likewise chairs the governing body of the National Space Society. To date he's penned nine books covering a wide range of topics from geriatrics to astrophysics. His most recent, Perspectives, is a collection of whimsical, if penetrating essays. Asked if he'd consider writing a book about music, he paused for a moment, as if it weren't the first time he'd given it serious thought. "If its axis were my life as a composer," he says, "it would be a very short book."
"It has always amazed me that there seems to be almost nothing Hugh Downs cannot do," says Barbara Walters. "He soars in gliders, battles sharks underwater, and composes lovely music. I know because, although he never mentions it, I have heard his composition, An Old Familiar Air. " I asked Hugh once if there is anything he can't do, and he said 'dance'. But I'll bet he can do a great 'macarena'."


by John Bell Young

Like an itinerant gypsy in a foreign village, I spent most of the last two weeks without sleep, wandering the streets of my hometown, New York City. This I did on the heels of unprecedented catastrophe and in the shadow of indescribable misery. Steel and glass and cement mixed effortlessly with acrid, smoky air that smelled of burning rubber and ammonia as it hovered stubbornly over Manhattan. But this was the least significant residue of the tragedy. As a native New Yorker, I always believed, since childhood, that I knew the city about as intimately as anyone possibly could. Certainly, I have always loved it. But it has never been as beautiful or noble a place as it has emerged in recent days, its citizenry rising, with uncommon bravery, to an unwelcome occasion born of the most inconceivable horror.

On September 11 I was in Boston, where I had been for a month recording the dramatic, soulful and often plaintive music of Rachmaninoff, Medtner and Scriabin. Literally en route to New York that morning, I had to turn round when I head the news. New York City, for the first time in memory, had closed its borders, not only to foreigners, but also to American citizens. With neither entry nor egress allowed, I was stranded until the next morning, when Amtrak resumed business.

The World Trade Center, especially for New Yorkers, had long been a part of a skyline whose ubiquitous presence was as reliable and predictable as an old friend. Many years ago, and just out of college, I worked for a year as a waiter at Windows on the World, on the 106th floor of Tower 1. It was brand new back then, and the most glamorous restaurant in the world. Its clients were rich and famous, the atmosphere plush, and the panoramic views formed a spectacular tribute, all by themselves, to the ever-so-American idea of new horizons. The food was sumptuous, too; my fellow waiters and I took every opportunity to consume as much of it as possible between shifts, particularly the delicately seasoned poultry dishes and the fabulous chocolate soufflés. Later on, when I opened my real estate business in Soho, I closed many deals in the WTC. The elegantly appointed offices of my attorneys, Hill, Betts and Nash were still open for business in the Towers on the morning of September 11, but have since bled into the indistinguishable rubble, presumably along with its staff.

Etched painfully on the often blank, expressionless faces of every New Yorker these days is the strain of an unbearable collective sadness. Even those who attempt to hide it cannot; it has something to do with an erosion of attitude and confidence, which New Yorkers have always projected so effortlessly. The brazen joy and once easy exuberance that have always defined them have vanished, at least temporarily.

I recall in particular the face of one young man at a candlelight vigil in Washington Square Park that bespoke utter desolation. Listlessly slumped in the consoling embrace of his girlfriend, a single tear streamed slowly and uneasily towards his chin. He conveyed the unmistakable impression of one who was either a close friend or relative of a victim. His eyes were indescribably lonely and hauntingly distant. He radiated the poignant look of one unfulfilled, as if he were grasping at a thousand good-byes that he never had the chance to say. His look, so intense and solemn, penetrated me to the core, though he had no idea I was even observing him. He looked south towards the smoky remains of the World Trade Center, over and beyond the thousands of candles softly illuminating the no less tortured stares of those commemorating the tragedy. At that moment, it seemed to me as if he were looking for the one person in this world he may have loved but who had become, in the space of a few moments, only a memory.

Just as heartbreaking is the view of the resultant void, the ruins of which resemble Dresden after the war. The void, as Nietzsche once said, has an uncomfortable way of staring back. That the Twin Towers have turned into dust is not the only source of pain. What really comes into view are the thousands of young people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who had so much to look forward to, who had dreams and aspirations, families and good friends, good health and a love of life. That was plain to see on their faces, which today adorn the many "Walls of Remembrance" that have sprung up spontaneously all over the city. These impromptu shrines invariably refer to the dead as missing, thereby providing a modicum of hope. A few nights ago, as I was reading them on the south wall of Ray's Pizza in Greenwich Village, a young woman excused herself, knelt in front of a photo of the smiling baby face of a 22 year old broker, and wrote simply, with a magic marker, "Body found 9/17/01". She hugged a companion, and disappeared in silent agony into an anonymous but sympathetic crowd.

That moment bore down with such overwhelming gravity as to devastate and even immobilize me, as it would any empathetic witness. The intermittent waves of sadneess suffocated me with the weight of a tsunami, giving way to heartbreak. As this grim reality moves in on the psyche, it is impossible to avoid the gripping swells in the chest and the proliferation of tears. And yet, in spite of such overt, if natural selfishness, I cannot help reflecting that so much of life -- which has been so good to me -- was denied with such callous indifference and appalling cruelty to thousands of innocent people. It is a thought that weighs heavy and oppresses, but that also renews the spirit, compelling one, as it does, to re-evaluate just about everything.

In the midst of all this, I felt compelled to take action. To do so was not only to serve and be useful, but also therapeutic. Along the West Side Highway in Greenwich Village near Pier 40, a few stalwart residents, along with several out-of-towners, set up a small distribution center. At first they offered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bottled water to the legions of exhausted police, firemen, sanitation crews and rescuer workers en route to Ground Zero. While other centers, such as those at the Jacob Javits Center or Stuyvesant High School, remained under the strict control of the City of New York or the military, this remained an independent, grass roots effort, expertly organized and run by a few committed individuals who vigorously refused to call themselves its leaders, preferring instead to share both credit and responsibility..

Within 48 hours, this tiny open-air stronghold, which dubbed itself Tent City, had grown to some 7000 square feet, housing massive donations of food, snacks, medical supplies, new and used clothes, bottled water and juice, shovels, coffee, cigarettes, flashlights, hardhats, flashlights and respirators. I joined a hundred or more concerned volunteers, who had come together from dozens of countries, including France, Switzerland, Belgium, Egypt, Italy, Australia, Argentina, Spain, and Russia. Each of us was assigned enough work to last the entire day and through the night. Trucks needed to be loaded and unloaded, sandwiches had to be made, clothing sorted, and supplies handed out. We formed human chains to carry and load with greater efficiency hundreds of boxes of supplies into police trucks. We also filled thumbnail sized glass containers with vapo-rub to counteract the effects of the stench of the dead, which was strong enough to penetrate the rescuers' masks.

This extraordinary effort was spearheaded by a group of young men and women, among them Michael Howard, a strategically savvy, exceptionally well-organized fund-raiser from Union City, New Jersey, who plans to document Tent City's contribution in a book; Darren Strickner, a fundraiser for the Michigan Republican party who drove to New York the moment he heard about the disaster; Bari Pearlman, a neighborhood resident; and by Herman Sanchez, a systems engineer at IBM in Albany and his wife Stephanie. Others, such as Peter Kouletsis, a software engineer with Salomon Smith Barney, were eyewitnesses to explosion itself and threw themselves into the work with gusto. Rarely have I had the privilege to meet such phenomenally motivated, inspired, impressive, caring and humane people. Make no mistake: Like its sister organizations, Tent City, which was dismantled by the military on Thursday evening to make room for transport trucking routes, emerged as a breeding ground for tomorrow's leaders.

At a memorial service at St. Patrick Cathedral, an orchestra and chorus performed Gabriel Faure's Requiem, one of the most exquisite works of music ever composed. At the conclusion of the service, it was an easy thing to look south, over the heads of the vast crowds that had assembled along Fifth Avenue, towards Ground Zero in the distance. The gray clouds of acrid smoke continued to rise from the site, mingling eloquently with the reassuring, avuncular baritone of Cardinal Egan; with the Requiem's ethereal Agnus Dei; and not least, with the exemplary courage and shining nobility of New York's finest: its incredible citizens.

Copyright 2001 John Bell Young. All rights reserved


From the St. Petersburg Times, Mr. Young's article about Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, entitled His Lordship's Wheel of Fortune

From the St. Petersburg Times, Mr. Young's feature on Joanna Porackova, Gian Carlo Menotti and the Washington Opera's production of The Consul.

John Bell Young's article on the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

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