Sunday, May 29, 2011

The New Croton Dam / Croton Gorge Park - Another of New York's Hidden Treasures

A great pleasure of living in this place is the discovery of these "hidden treasures," places one can visit and enjoy and, often, without any special or costly effort. The Croton Dam Reservoir is such a place, hidden away up in Westchester County, not anywhere near the big and well-traveled interstate highways, and just there for those who know about them.

Our crowd first discovered the Croton Dam about three years ago when we were out for a Saturday drive with a couple of elderly friends. We drove over a bridge we had crossed many times, saw a nicely paved side road and decided to drive down that road. There was hardly any traffic, and we were a little surprised when a car drove up behind us and the driver blinked his lights, apparently trying to signal us. He passed us, then pulled off the road and indicated we should pull off as well.

This man looked respectable enough (although our "safety-first instincts" did make us wonder if we should pull over and speak to someone we didn't know), so we took a chance. I rolled down the window and he said, "I can see by the way you're driving that your out for a ride. Is this your first time here?"

We said it was, and he said, "Well, just be sure you enjoy all there is to see. Have you ever been to the dam?"

"What dam?"

He grinned, and gave us directions for a short drive down the road to the New Croton Dam, which holds back the water of the Croton Reservoir (or part of it - apparently the so-called "Croton Reservoir" is a series of reservoirs). He told us about Croton Gorge Park, some 97 acres of grassland just below the dam, where visitors can picnic, loll on the grass, or - if they're ambitious enough - climb up the steep hill to level themselves with the top of the dam (it's where the Old Croton Trail begins, if hiking is your thing), and then walk across for unbelievable views of this splendid countryside.

We were impressed. And no longer frightened! So we thanked him, and off we went, for one of the most remarkable experiences we've had in our drives about. And our elderly ladies couldn't have been happier.

The New Croton Dam is an amazing engineering accomplishment. Westchester County's website provides the information (and explains why the dam is referred to as "new," since the "old" dam now sits deep down in the water of the reservoir):

"The Old Croton Dam, built to supply New York City with water, was the first large masonry dam in the United States. Completed in 1842, it was the prototype for many municipal water supply dams in the east during the mid-nineteenth century. The city’s needs, however, soon outgrew the Croton Dam water supply. Consequently, work began on the New Croton Dam, also called the Cornell Dam because of its location on land purchased from A.B. Cornell, in 1893. Completed in 1907, the Cornell Dam stands over 200 feet high. The Croton Reservoir has a capacity of about 34 billion gallons of water with a watershed covering 375 miles."

And here's the kicker: our ladies - one 85 and the other 89 - had lived in New York City all their lives, and neither had ever been to this place before! As of course neither had we, and we can't keep it to ourselves, so go to New Croton Dam (May 21, 2011) to see more of Mr. Guy's photos.

It was a remarkable experience, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Now we return from time to time (it's only about an hour's drive - or less - from where we live in Manhattan), often just to see the place but, when the weather's nice, for a picnic with friends. Great fun!

Thursday, May 26, 2011


We New Yorkers take great pride in having so many cultural activities at hand, and truth to tell, thanks to an ever-growing interest in the arts throughout America, New York isn't all that unique anymore. Some of our country's best theater performances take place in other places, and certainly New York has its competition when it comes to "serious" theater.

Still, we do have some special activities, brought about - I would guess - because there is a such critical mass in the area. We have lots of people who will spend money to see a classic or less-popular play, and the current revival of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" is a good case in point.

Returning to Broadway after 16 years or so, this wonderful story connecting modern England to what one commentator refers to as "pseudopastoral" England provides a delightful intellectual journey over the years. Always stimulating, the play tends to keep listeners either on the edge of their seats (so they won't miss a single reference) or they leave at the intermission. There doesn't seem to be any "in-between" with respect to Stoppard's verbiage, and you can see why. He loves words, and when I read a rather tiresome review of this revival a few months back, my first reaction was "This critic doesn't like language - he doesn't like words." (A pretty sad commentary, in fact, about someone who makes his living as a writer.)

The play is great fun, ostensibly about life in 1803 when the landed gentry were changing their landscaped gardens from (their version of) "classical" to something more rustic (and equally artificial), a sort of ersatz "gothic" or "nature"-like form. There is even reference to the great English landscape designer Humphry Repton, complete with a dummied-up prop representing the "before-and-after" book he showed to clients, with pop-up type cutouts demonstrating how the gardens would look when transformed by himself and his workers, except that the cutouts are backwards from the Repton books. (Or, as described by Stoppard in the script: "The sketch book is the work of Mr. Noakes, who is obviously an admirer of Humphry Repton's 'Red Books.' The pages, drawn in watercolours, show 'before' and 'after' views of the landscape, and the pages are cunningly cut to allow the latter to be superimposed over portions of the former, though Repton did it the other way round.")

The early 19th-century scenes in the great house are cleverly contrasted with a second tale - taking place in the same rooms - set in the present, and much of the fun comes from watching the interplay of the two periods of time (and their people), plus trying to figure out the certain mysteries that are sneaked into the dialog.

No matter. Stoppard's ability to combine good story-telling with magnificent word-play leads to a charming evening, full of fun and puns and silly (and sometimes very serious) references. I always feel like I have had a wonderful time of it whenever I leave one of Stoppard's plays. I've been stretched, so to speak, and that was certainly the case with this revival of "Arcadia." I saw the play first at London's famous old Theatre Royal Haymarket back in 1993, the year it opened. It had a wonderful cast, and I loved Felicity Kendal as the leading actress and Rufus Sewell as the young tutor, a role Billy Crudup made famous when he made his Broadway debut in the part. I saw Crudup then, when I saw the play again in New York, and I was delighted to see him back in this revival. This time, thought, he is in a role - the leading man (or one of them) - that is as different as light from day from his role as Septimus Hodge, the tutor.

Sadly, as is often the case with revivals of well-established works, this version of "Arcadia" is a limited run, closing at the end of June. Will I try to go again, for another night of intellectual stimulation and pleasure? We'll see.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Farewell to Dame Joan Sutherland

Many thanks to the Metropolitan Opera Guild for the beautiful program in memory of Dame Joan Sutherland, presented last Tuesday night (May 17, 2011). Since her death on October 10, 2010, there had been two memorial services, including a State Memorial Service on November 9, 2010 at the Sydney Opera House and a service held in Westminster Abbey on February 15, 2011.

This program, though, seemed to have been more "personal" in concept, and that seems just right. Sutherland had a very special place in the hearts and minds of her many American friends and fans, and it was good to have a remembrance event that was organized - obviously by intention - to capture both the professional strengths of this hard-working woman's career and the happier, more down-to-earth approach to her work (and to her life) that she will always be remembered for.

The Guild's program was titled "Stupenda!" and it was appropriate, since the public and the press had anointed her "la stupenda" after her Italian debut, in Venice at Teatro La Fenice in 1960. The name stuck (indeed, there's even a marvelous statue of Sutherland with that name at the Royal Botanical Gardens near Melbourne), and it made sense to title Tuesday's program with a word much associated with this great lady.

And there was an appropriate sub-title, too, "A Loving Tribute." It couldn't have been a more accurate description for the evening. Even the theater itself was chosen with loving care, New York's famous old theater, Town Hall, which had been the site of Sutherland's New York debut in February 1961, in a concert performance of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda. After her long-awaited recognition as a (perhaps the) leading opera singer performing the bel canto repertoire, recognition which came with her performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on February 17, 1959 in Franco Zeffirelli's production of "Lucia di Lammermoor," Sutherland had made her American debut at the Dallas Opera in 1960, and then she came to the Metropolitan Opera on 26 September 1961, singing Lucia to almost-unheard-of acclaim.

As a devoted fan I spent many well-remembered and very special hours in attendance at Sutherland's performances at the Met, and more often then not, listening to her whenever she appeared in a Saturday afternoon opera on the old Texaco (now Toll Brothers) radio broadcasts. Once I had arrived in New York, in the late sixties, I was at the opera house for many of her performances, and often at her concerts as well, including those with Lucio Pavorotti after he became a big star. There were also several - if I'm remembering correctly - hugely successful recitals at the Met, some on Sunday afternoons. A special memory of mine is her performance in the Met's 100th anniversary gala in 1983 (October 22). At that splendid day-long event, Sutherland - with Bonynge conducting - closed the first half of the afternoon program with Rossini's "Bel raggio lusinghier" from Semiramide, bringing down the house! It was a special delight to me and I still have fun re-playing my nearly worn-out old video of that performance! Like her final appearance for us in New York, in a concert at the Met in 1989, this is one of my happiest Joan Sutherland memories.

Marilyn Horne, Sutherland's great friend and professional colleague, was the host for the tribute program. It was a delightful and very well-organized event (and of special note, it should be noted, was the excellence of the video and other technical preparations and implementation - whoever did this did a splendid job). The entire program was all designed to provide us with an accurate demonstration of Sutherland's big, full voice, including excerpts from many opera performances, concerts, recitals, and even the television shows. Yes, there she was, on "The Ed Sullivan Show." And, yes! On "The Dinah Shore Show"! Not only was Sutherland's amazing talent on display, we got to enjoy the light-hearted and very funny side of her personality as well.

As I said, the planning for the event also demonstrated that the program had been arranged with loving care, and the comments and shared memories of such musical luminaries as Sherrill Milnes, Spiro Malas, Regina Resnik, Martina Arroyo, and, finally, Conductor Richard Boynenge, all brought Sutherland again to us for one last time. Boynenge's remarks were particularly poignant, for not only had their long marriage been truly a personal and professional partnership, his obvious respect for and encouraging role in Sutherland's success came through sweetly and touchingly. He is obviously very proud - as he should be - to have been with her throughout her long career.

All of us who love great music are very indebted to the Metropolitan Opera Guild for putting this together, and indeed, to both the Guild and to BNY Mellon Wealth Management, corporate sponsors for the program. We are very grateful to all the people involved in this loving tribute, for enabling us to share these very precious memories.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

More of Central Park

A few more comments about my nice excursion into Central Park last Friday, my afternoon full of walking, enjoying the spring flowers and happy to be having a break from the usual busy schedule. Just wandering about, with no particular goals in mind. Just strolling on toward downtown, toward my own neighborhood.

About halfway down the park, after I tired of looking at the scenery, I stopped at the Boathouse for a coffee and spent a terrific hour continuing with David Brooks' The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. [Isn't the iPad 2 great? I like the Kindle app on the iPad 2 better than the Kindle!] Terrific book, and a super way to while away some time in a beautiful setting.

Then on with the walk, all around to Bethesda Fountain, a popular gathering place for all sorts of New Yorkers. And why not, on such a day? According to some, Bethesda Terrace (of which the fountain is merely the central element) is the "defining feature" of Central Park, but I might argue with that.

I would not argue the beauty of the spot, though. Designed by English-born architect and designer Jacob Wrey Mould, a close collaborator of Calvert Vaux, Bethesda Terrace is best known for all the carvings throughout the design. I failed to do justice to them with my photographs last Friday (so watch for an update in the not-too-distant future - I'll take another day just to capture the carvings at the Bethesda Terrace) In the meantime we can delight in The Angel of the Waters Fountain (also known simply as "The Bethesda Fountain" of course), dedicated in 1873, the work of Emma Stebbins, the first woman sculptor commissioned by the City of New York to create a major work.

My Friday walk continued on down The Mall, intentionally designed to be the only straight line in the park (that tells us a little about what Olmsted and Vaux had in mind, doesn't it?). At the end of The Mall, at a section sometimes called "Literary Walk" - I presume because of the literary figures whose statues are there) - I had fun surveying some of the statues and thinking about what life must have been like when they were erected in the 1870s and 1880s. Then another few minutes resting, looking across the end of the park at our beloved Plaza Hotel, still a great monument to an earlier, more graceful time in New York's history.

A few photos commemorating my walk are at More Central Park Springtime Photos.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Springtime in New York's Central Park

Spring comes to New York's Central Park
For those of us who live in New York, there are plenty of times for quiet thought and life without the daily stresses that seem to characterize urban living in the minds of so many people.

Indeed, the idea of our city as a loud, disruptive place probably comes from somewhere else; it's been my experience for the entire time I've lived in New York (won't tell you how long) that when a New Yorker wants to find a quiet space, he'll know where to go.

And sometimes it's a place where there are lots of other people, but the space is so grand that we don't interact with each other unless we decide to.

Central Park is one of those places. I recently decided to take an afternoon off and head for the park. Often called "the nation's backyard" (a nickname I've never really figured out, because it's really New Yorkers who take advantage of this "backyard" - oh, well), Central Park's 843 acres are the product of the great minds of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. These great masters spent over ten years building the park, and while many people seem to think the park is the last remaining vestige of the city's "natural" land forms, they're wrong. The park is completely man-made, and (as Sara Cedar Miller points out in the best of the many books on the park, Central Park: An American Landscape), in the 1850s it was "America's greatest example of the marriage of aesthetics and engineering."

"Cleopatra's Needle"
I love the park, and I never tire of sneaking a peek at some of the less obvious things to look at. I love the way the statues often seem to suddenly appear amidst some foliage (especially when blooming, like right now). On Friday I had fun with the Carl Conrad statue of Alexander Hamilton, which could easily - in all the blossoms - have been missed. And demonstrating that New York was not to be outdone by European cities with their placement of ancient monuments within the city's borders, our popular "Cleopatra's Needle" truly is an ancient obelisk, dating from c. 1450 B.C. Its placement in the park, though, separates New York a little from its European urban precursors, since they put their ancient obelisks in prominent locations, usually a public square (and that was what Vaux wanted to do, but he didn't win that battle).

Friday's springtime-in-the-park photographs can be see here.