Saturday, 30 June 2012

Ilana Eliya - Kurdish Jewish music - in Tottenham!



Iraqi Kurdistan once had a population of 25,000 Jews - descendants of the Israelites driven into exile by the Assyrians. Now there are none. Almost all of them left in the 1950's as part of a great exodus of Iraqi Jews precipitated by virulent anti-semitism in the rest of Iraq (although not it seems in Kurdistan) and a desire to be part of the newly re-established state of Israel.

Today there are around125,000 Israelis who can claim descent from the Jews of Kurdistan. As well as being Israelis they have preserved their Kurdish culture, particularly their music and tonight I was privileged to attend a concert of Ilana Eliya, the queen of Kurdish Jewish music. Born in Jerusalem to Kurdish parents, Ilana explained that when younger she was solely interested in western music but returned to Kurdish music following the death of her father, a cantor and collector of traditional songs from Kurdistan. She remembered watching her father listen to Radio Kurdistan on short wave in Jerusalem and making recordings. She also spoke about her mother and in the second set of the evening wore her mother's beautiful Kurdish wedding dress.

Ably supported by Daphna Sadeh and the Voyagers (who I have already written about, here), Ilana quickly won over the audience of around 70 people at the Bernie Grant Cultural Centre in Tottenham, working her way through a variety of love songs in Kurdish and Hebrew as well as performing one song - Leil Huza - in Aramaic. This song commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples on the fast of Tisha B'Av.

Ilana's voice is clear, powerful and expressive. She is able to move quickly from joyful songs such as Nawrose where she wishes the audience a happy spring festival to the searing pain of Fermane (Devastation) and I Felek (Oh Fate). Both of these songs tell the story of the suffering of the Kurds, without their own homeland. Fermane is particularly powerful. She explained that the song is about the town of Halabja, chemical bombed by Saddam Hussein in 1988 resulting in at least 5,000 deaths.

Her passionate singing of Fermane held the audience spellbound. But Ilana also knows how to start a party and whilst the Voyagers played Debka, she led several members of the audience in a performance of this traditional dance, snaking around the stage, scarves waiving and the rest of the audience clapping in time. Closing with Az Kevukem (Like a Partridge), she again had the audience on their feet, including an impromptu performance by a belly dancer (!) and was given the standing ovation she so richly deserved. I should also mention the Voyagers - Daphna Sadeh as dependable as ever on double bass and as musical director, Stewart Curtis delighted on flute, clarinet and saxophone, whilst Nim Schwartz and Guy Schalom shone on oud and saz and on middle eastern percussion respectively.

The concert was part of a series of events organised by Gulan - a charitable organisation that seeks to promote and preserve Kurdish culture, including minority Kurdish cultures and followed another terrific event held on Thursday evening at the Royal Geographical Society. Music also featured on Thursday evening, as well as a wonderful exhibition of photographs of Kurdistan taken in the 1940's by Anthony Kersting (1916-2008) who travelled widely in the middle east and was a leading architectural photographer of his generation. If only there had been a catalogue! I particularly liked the scenes from Erbil market and from the town of Amadia - the shaded stalls and store keepers, melons piled high in a small shop and the imposing walls of Erbil's citadel.

As if this wasn't enough, the highlight of the evening was Ariel Sabar talking about his book My Father's Paradise. The book tells how Ariel, in his younger days indifferent to his father's culture and origins, began to want to know more and eventually made a journey back to Zakho to look for physical traces of the history of the Kurdish Jews. His father, Yona, is a world expert on Aramaic, the language of the Bible and the original language of the Kurdish Jews and was also present. Yona took questions from the audience, several of whom had links with Zakho and who were clearly delighted to hear his stories of life there. He told about his childhood and education, about the position of women in Zakho society and about the mutual respect the Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents of the town had for each other. As well as respecting each other's festivals and sharing in their major life events, Yona told how in the late 1940's a group of mullahs arrived in Zakho with the intention of stirring up anti-semitism, but were told to leave by local Muslims.

Interestingly, there is a good relationship between the Kurds and Israel, including an Israel-Kurdistan magazine published regularly in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq. These two events have whetted my appetite to know more about this ancient community and about Kurdistan. You might be surprised to know that its relatively easy to visit Iraqi Kurdistan which is both stable and peaceful, with at least one travel agent, the specialist Undiscovered Destinations, offering group tours there. Its already on my list!

Monday, 25 June 2012

Torch Song Trilogy - a very hot evening in the Menier Chocolate Factory

I first saw Torch Song Trilogy - the movie - more than 20 years ago at the pre-rennovation and pre-extension Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. I have seen it several times since then and have never been able to imagine this story without Harvey Fierstein or Ann Bancroft taking the roles of Arnold and his mother. The voices, the facial expressions, the one-liners...for me, they are Arnold and his mother.

I saw the stage version for the first time recently at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Any worries I had about not being able to accept other actors in these roles were soon swept away, with outstanding performances from Sara Kestelman in the role of the mother and Perry Millward as David, the teenager who comes into Arnold's care, as well as an endearing performance from David Bedella as Arnold.

It took me a little time to settle into the stage play as my memories from the film are so vivid, but shortly through the first scene as Arnold is applying his "female impersonator" persona I began to be drawn in to this reading of the story. At least one "official" review of the play has remarked that the drag queen theme is dated and somehow irrelevant to the 21st century. Well I don't know about that but my reading of it was that Arnold was applying a mask that many gay men and women had (and have) to wear in order to survive. This theme continues throughout the play with the fresh faced Joe McFadden as Ed unable to remove his "mask" and face up to who he really is, whilst from a different perspective we see Arnold's mother desperate for her son to "...just not talk about it..."

Torch Song Trilogy is a bitter-sweet story with many moments of humour that had the audience roaring. The quick fire exchange between Arnold and his mother and Arnold and David stood out, and who could help but be amused by the mother's statement "If I had ever talked to my mother the way you just talked to me, you'd be looking at a woman with a size ten wedgie sticking out of her forehead". Class.

But there are lots of tears too. I always have to steel myself up for the cathartic confrontation between Arnold and his mother where all masks are finally stripped away as she gives voice to her real feelings that he has " a sickness" and that he caused his father's illness and death. Arnold's response is equally cathartic - he loves her but if she can't respect him she has no business being in his home. My friend Louise brought tissues because this part always make her cry. I first saw the movie with Louise all those years ago - she cried then too.

The David character was much more alive for me in this production than in the film. Zanily portrayed by Perry Millward who displayed the right mixture of bravado and vulnerability as the tough talking street kid, equally able to charm, annoy and amuse and to represent hope for the future.

I liked Douglas Hodge's direction. The Menier is an intimate venue and seemed right for this production, where we are in Arnold's changing room, in various bedrooms and in a bar where people don't go for the conversation. There were also some nice touches with pictures of Billie Holiday on Arnold's changing room mirror and the bunny rabbit slippers so loved from the movie, which are echoed in the apartment's wall paper! But Douglas, I preferred the songs in the movie - Arnold will forever remind me of Ella's recording of "This Time The Dreams On Me" - any chance of using it here?

Some of the press reviews of this production have been less than complementary, some suggesting that the theme of the play is outdated, that many of the issues it deals with are no longer problematical and that the world is more accepting and tolerant generally. It is certainly true that in many countries significant progress has been made, progress that was only dreamt about when this play was first performed.  However, its also true that a member of the Italian football team can still say publicly that he hopes that there are no gay men in his team, its still possible for a gay man to be beaten to death crossing the Thames between the South Bank and the Embankment and of course its still possible to be beheaded, stoned to death, hung from a crane or thrown from cliffs in Iran, Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries.

One small complaint. The Menier had a full house which is good. The heat was searing. Good for recreating a New York summer for the setting of the play. Terrible for the audience. We need air cooling or it may be appropriate to stage only Tennessee Williams plays in future. Just a thought.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Jean Carne - knocks 'em dead at Ronnie Scotts



Its 40 years since Philadelphia International Records (PIR) began and brought us so many wonderful tracks from Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Archie Bell and the Drells, Dexter Wansel, The O'Jays, the Jones Girls and many more.

Many of the famous "Philly Sound" recordings acted as a soundtrack to my late teens and early 20's, including a couple of brilliant tracks from Jean Carn (as she used to spell it). I remember buying a great vinyl 7 inch single US import from the now sadly departed Fearnley's Records in Middlesbrough - Was That All It Was, backed with My Love Don't Come Easy. Soul perfection as Ms Carn's voice ranged over the five octaves she is credited with. I never thought that one day I would get to hear her sing live.

But...many years later I found myself in Ronnie Scott's for the final concert in a three night run of the Doug and Jean Carne (as she now spells it) Revelation Tour. The diminutive and very trim Ms Carne came to the stage to begin her set with fabulous vocal versions of the John Coltrane classic, A Love Supreme, and Wayne Shorter's Infant Eyes where she demonstrated her prowess at scat. Make no mistake, this woman can sing jazz alright. Nice one Jean.

She then moved into a string of her own Philly hits. We began with Free Love, followed by Was That All It Was and then straight into My Love Don't Come Easy. Now its some years since I first heard these treasures but they still sounded fresh to me and Jean's voice was close to the original recordings. And it might be a cliche but when she sang My Love Don't Come Easy, the hairs on the back of my neck really did stand on end!

This woman had songs written for her and albums produced for her by Gamble and Huff, Dexter Wansel, Jerry Butler and Eddie Levert. I have never been able to understand why she didn't get the recognition she deserved, similarly the now departed and much missed Phyllis Hyman. They knock spots off many of todays "stars" - these women could/ can sing.

The audience, already captured by the earlier numbers were of course completely won over by this point, clapping in time to the intros, singing along with the hits and then at Ms Carne's request performing the chorus of Don't Let It Go To Your Head.  She is a singer who loves the audience and tonight she loved them so much that she sang Happy Birthday to those there to celebrate birthdays, and also invited a young woman from the audience to join her on stage and sing a few lines from Don't Let It Go To Your Head. And she was good too!

Continuing the love-in with the audience, she took a few requests including Valentine Love (which she dueted with Michael Henderson on the original recording) and Naima, another Coltrane number, the lyrics of which were penned by ex-husband Doug Carn. Doug was excellent throughout on keyboards as well as acting as musical director for the evening, holding the band together. The band had a couple of other heroes in Stacey Dill - outstanding on saxophone and for me, the revelation of the night, Duane Eubanks on trumpet. Rashaan Carter on bass gave us one great solo whilst his brother Russell held things together nicely on drums. And speaking of a love-in, well done Jean for not being put off by the couple right at the front of the stage who eventually did leave presumably to get a room. For goodness sake.

Closing with a great version of Closer Than Close, during the intro of which she paid tribute to some of the Philly Stars now departed - Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin, Lou Rawls - she left us wanting more. I was sorry not to hear If You Wanna Go Back or a solo version of I'm Back For More, but that's  just me being churlish. Hopefully, she will be "back for more" very soon. Jean Carne, you were worth waiting for all those years!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Crossing Delancey: New York's Lower East Side

New York by Yekkes

Whilst in New York recently I spent a lot of time in Lower Manhattan. Its a vibrant, changing part of the city with many galleries, cafes, bars and independent shops moving in to old tenement buildings, warehouses and factories. One of my trips to the Lower East Side was in the company of Jared Goldstein, tour guide for Dr. Phil's New York City Walks, who guided me around some of the enduring sites of the old Jewish Lower East Side and explained how although many Jews have now left the area, the legacy lingers on and how some of their traditions are being kept alive by more recent arrivals.

Perhaps the best demonstration of this is Streit's matzo bakery - which houses the last working matzo factory in the Lower East Side. Founded in 1916 by Aron Streit, an immigrant from Europe, the bakery was originally in Pitt Street, moving to its current location in Rivington Street in 1925. Streit's still produces matzos under kosher supervision, but today the staff are almost all non-Jewish, mainly Puerto Ricans. Streit's has also expanded its range and you can buy peppers, seasonings, olive spreads and all kinds of other goodies from their "Ethnic Delights" range! The matzo is prepared in the rear of the shop and visitors can see the workers operate the machinery - the matzo comes through in huge sheets which are expertly split into smaller sizes for packaging and sale.

Not far from Streit's, further down Rivington, there is another long established Lower East Side business, the Economy Candy Store. Founded by one Mr Cohen in 1937 it was typical of many bulk purchase candy stores of its time, but has outlasted them all. Its a long, narrow store, completely packed with shelves of sweets of all kinds. I was amazed (and delighted) to find what I once knew as "sweet cigarettes" - white sugary candy cut into "cigarettes" and packaged in a range of different boxes - so you can choose your favourite brand from Kings, Victory, Roundup and more. I don't believe you can buy these in the UK anymore (and yes I know we shouldn't encourage children to smoke). It was the first time I've brought cigarettes for friends when travelling abroad.

You can also buy many types of lollipop, different flavours of halvah, bubble gum, boiled sweets, chocolates and for the health conscious dried fruits and nuts. Known as the "nosher's paradise of the lower east side", the Cohen family still run the store and include sugar free products as well as the more exciting stuff! Just walk in, take a breath and let the sugary smell transport you back to childhood.

Yonah Shimmel's knishes store is another Lower East Side institution. Schimmel, an immigrant from Romania began by selling knishes in the street from about 1890. By 1910 things were going well enough for him to take a small store on East Houston Street with his cousin Jospeh Berger, who retained the business and the name following Yonah's departure a few years later. The bakery is still on East Houston Street, but at 137 - a short distance from the original location. Currently operated by Yonah's great nephew, Alex Wolfman, the bakery featured in Woody Allen's 2009 film Whatever Works and is regularly visited by celebrities and politicians.  And if you don't know what a knish is, think of a pasty stuffed with potato and kasha, spanish, mushroom, sweet potato, cabbage and a range of other fillings. Delicious.

At the beginning of the 20th century, over one million people crowded into the tenement buildings of the lower east side, many of them Jewish and nearly all of them immigrants. The people were largely poor and despite the great culinary traditions, often hungry. However, sustenance of a higher variety was easily available with hundreds of synagogues and shtiebels (prayer houses) spread throughout the area. Few still remain as working synagogues, but those that do are very special. The jewel in the crown is the fantastic Eldridge Street synagogue which still has services and which is open to, and visited by people from all over the world.

Eldridge Street is now in the heart of New York's China Town, the former Jewish community having left for Brooklyn, New Jersey and other less crowded, more affluent areas. However, the synagogue still attracts the remaining local Jewish community for services in the small ground floor prayer room, as well as visits from people who were born and brought up in the area and who now live far away. On the day I visited, I was shown around by Rochelle, a friendly and interesting volunteer who explained that as the congregation diminished over the years, the upper part of the building which contains a very grand prayer hall, was locked in the 1950's and more or less forgotten. By 1970 the main sanctuary was waterlogged, the wood rotted, the plaster crumbled, windows broken and a whole colony of pigeons nesting in the upper part of the building.

The future looked bleak but a long and slow process of rejuvenation began in 1971 when Gerard Wolfe, University professor and architectural historian persuaded the sexton to let him in to the upper level and was amazed at what he found. Serious restoration did not begin until 1986, 99 years after the synagogue first opened its doors, culminating in the re-opening of the main sanctuary in 2007. The upper floor has been restored to its original riot of colour including the stunning blue ceiling panels dotted with white stars and the breathtaking new stained glass window in the main sanctuary, designed by Kiki Smith and featuring a mass of five pointed yellow stars on blue glass and centred with a six pointed Magen Dovid. At different times of day according to the light it is possible to see additional shapes and features in the window due to the use of flash-glass and silicone technologies. I love it. Standing in the sanctuary made me think about the day back in 1887 when the sparkling new synagogue opened and people turned up in such huge numbers that many had to be turned away. And its not hard to see why that very Orthodox community would want to look at and worship in this most beautiful of sanctuaries. The synagogue has a small museum shop that sells books and other memorabilia - I can heartily recommend Larry Bortniker's book Beyond The Facade which tells the history of the building, details its restoration and is beautifully illustrated. It certainly found its way into my luggage for the journey home!

Eldridge Street is the jewel in the crown but there are other synagogues of note still operating close by. My intrepid guide Jared tried to get me entry to the Bialystoker Synagogue in Willett Street. Built in 1826 as a Methodist Church, it was purchased by Jewish immigrants from Bialystok in Poland for use as a synagogue. The synagogue interior is exquisite - the result of a beautification process during the Great Depression, intended to lift the spirit of its Orthodox congregants. The decoration includes the signs of the zodiac, with the slight oddity of Cancer the (decidedly non-kosher) crab being represented by an (equally non-kosher) lobster! The synagogue has quite a history including having been part of the Underground Railroad, assisting escaped slaves to reach Canada through providing a hiding space within the building.

Sadly, I didn't get the chance to have a look inside. Although someone (the Shammes?) was in the building, he was polite but firm in explaining that we had to call ahead and come at a fixed time if we wanted to look around. My fault for not thinking ahead, but a good reason to return in the future for a closer look. You can have a peak inside the synagogue here (apologies for the advertisement at the beginning of the film).

Close by the synagogue you can find a mikveh (ritual bath) which is still in use and which faces a number of kosher shops including bakeries and a butchers. Further evidence of the importance of sustenance for the body and for the soul!

Another unmissable Lower East Side experience is the wonderful Tenement Museum. The museum consists of a tenement block in Orchard Street with a series of rooms set out and restored to the way they would have appeared at different stages of the building's life. A range of guided tours are available - I chose the Hard Times tour, which takes visitors on a visit to the German-Jewish Gompertz family, whose father disappeared in the great economic panic of 1873 and the Italian Baldizzi family during the Great Depression. The guide was excellent, recreating the day to day life of tenement dwellers in both periods, filling in the known details of the two families and their histories, pointing out how the rooms representing the later period had changed, were better equipped and had (slightly) more possessions. However, the conditions remained cramped, with little natural light, unbearably hot summers and very cold winters, topped off by the shared privy at the rear of the building complete with appalling smell and at best unreliable sewage systems.

The Tenement Museum is a wonderful way of preserving and learning from the past and is lovingly cared for by the staff and volunteers. Many visitors are descended from former tenement dwellers and a nice touch was the story of one of the Baldizzi family who happened to be passing when restoration work started on the building, asked what was happening, told the museum representatives that she had been born there and donated a number of items for display. She now lives in a nice house in Brooklyn! Of course, this part of New York is changing rapidly now and many former tenement buildings have been converted into extraordinarily luxurious and extraordinarily expensive apartments. What would the Gompertz's and Baldizzi's have thought?

The Museum runs an extensive range of activity, including street tours, talks and events. It also has an excellent visitor centre with a great book shop. I am looking forward to working my way through a book I purchased there called A Bintel Brief, a collection of letters over a sixty year period from Lower East Side residents to the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper. The writers ask for, and receive, advice on many issues including the English language, bringing up children, matters of the heart, how to be "American" and a million other challenges preoccupying the minds and lives of new and recent immigrants.

The Forward was launched in April 1897 as a Yiddish language newspaper under the direction of the founding editor, Abraham Cahan. The paper was enormously popular, reaching its peak in the 1930's with a circulation of 275,000. As well as bringing news to several generations of Yiddish speakers, the paper also brought world class literature to its readers with Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eli Weisel amongst others writing fiction for its pages. However, over the next several decades as Yiddish was spoken less and less, readership declined resulting in the newspaper reinventing itself as a weekly in 1983, whilst in 1990 the former English language supplement became a separate daily newspaper, complete today with an online version. The Forward continues to thrive and has featured Cynthia Ozick, Ilan Stavans and other leading Jewish literary figures continuing the traditions of the past. It is still possible to see the original Daily Forward building on Broadway.Today it is an office building but the original features and the newspaper's name have been retained on the exterior.

So, a great day in New York's Lower East Side - a world away from Fifth Avenue and the expensive mid-town stores and restaurants, but perhaps much closer to the real heart of the city - landing point for thousands of families from all over the world, hoping for a better life. Much of the old Lower East Side has gone, but much has also been preserved - all is worth a visit. Oh, and by the way, I understand Mr Goldstein does a terrific Santa Claus tour. I kid you not. I love New York.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Fifth Heaven: Seret UK Israeli Film and Television Festival

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Last night I was privileged to attend the first UK screening of the Israeli film "The Fifth Heaven". The title is a reference to the Talmud's seven heavens, the fifth of which is "home". Home is very much a focus of the film which is based on Rachel Eytan's novel of the same name.

At the centre of the story is Maya, a young girl, abandoned by her mother and placed in an orphanage by her re-married father who is unable or unwilling to look after her. The orphanage is home to most of the girls placed there and the film is set in pre-state Israel where the Jews that the world doesn't want are trying to establish their homeland.

The film addresses many issues, including petty rivalries and bullying between the girls. The imperious Bathesheba is the "queen" of the orphanage, waking the other girls to accompany her to the toilet in the middle of the night, bullying one girl in particular and referring to her as "monkey girl" due to her darker, Mizrachi appearance. She selects Maya, wonderfully played by (at the time) the eleven years old Amit Moshkowitz, as her successor once she is taken in to live with her uncle. Maya herself then goes on to display similar, although less pronounced behaviours.

We also see rivalries and jealousies played out between the adult characters. Dr. Markowksi, the orphanage director tries to win the heart of Frieda the "head counsellor" at the home but loses out to Wolfson, the play boy son of the home's main benefactor. The school nurse suspects her boyfriend Duce of having eyes for Maya rather than for her whilst central to the story is the jealousy between Maya's father and Doctor Markowski who we learn had an affair with the girl's mother and may even be her true father.

Set against all this is the struggle against the British during the Mandate period - Duce is involved in the underground movement and the struggle for independence whilst the orphanage cleaner, Berta, running away from a strict Orthodox family meets and falls in love with a married British officer who promises to leave his wife and marry her "after the war".

Berta believes he will rescue her from her unfulfilling life at the home but on discovering she is pregnant the truth dawns on her that this is unlikely, and there is a devastating denouement. To encourage visiting benefactors to donate money to the home, the girls have "planted" saplings to give the appearance of agricultural work. Berta appears, in a state of miscarriage,  pulling the saplings out in front of the guests and shouting "no roots, no roots" - a clear reference not only to herself, but also to the girls in the orphanage and the Jews, unwanted in Europe but unable to escape.

Amit Moshkowitz shines in the role of Maya. She gives a haunting, understated performance beyond her years as she plays out the awakening of a young girl and her struggle to understand who she is and her place min the world. Yehezkel Lazarov is equally effective in the role of Doctor Moshkowitz veering from passionate suitor of Frieda to caring guardian of the children but also unable to understand where he really belongs. And I completely loved Esti Zakheim as Pani Paula, orphanage cook and former "Queen of Warsaw nightlife".

Film director, Dina Tzvi-Riklis was present and answered questions from the audience following the screening. she explained that the film was autobiographical based on Rachel Eytan's experiences. This is born out by the scenes showing Maya writing her own stories on the roof of the orphanage.

The film was part of London's first Israeli Film and Television Festival - Seret which has included some great movies, the excellent The Flood (starting my all time favourite actress Ronit Elkabetz), hit TV series Ramzor, Tomer Heymann's brilliant documentary The Queen Has No Crown and tomorrow night  the Academy Award shortlisted Footnote. Rather annoyingly I left it way to late to book  for the festival and couldn't get a ticket for Footnote. I also missed this at last year's Jewish Film Festival and the DVD does not include English subtitles. Note to self, book early in future.

The festival is the result of much hard work and dedication from Anat Koren, Odelia Mammon Haroush and Patty Hochmann who wanted to bring the best in Israeli film and TV to British audiences and to show that there is much much more to Israel than the usual newsreel items that inevitably concentrate on the problems the country faces. A big thanks is due to Anat, Odelia and Patty and everyone else involved in bringing this festival to us. I can't wait to see next year's programme.

Oh, and I got a free t-shirt too as did the rest of the audience! Thanks very much!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Toronto - a brief sojourn

On my recent visit to North America, I spent three days in Toronto, primarily to attend some friends' wedding. Whilst that was clearly the highlight of my trip, I did manage to fit in a few other goodies, including the fabulous Sophie Milman concert at the Massey Hall. (You can read about the concert and see Sophie perform here).

Ms Milman's concert was excellent and is very close to the top of my list of Toronto favourite experiences, but running this very close was a wonderful Sunday evening walking tour of art deco buildings in the central business district, led by author, blogger and art deco expert and devotee Tim Morawetz. Tim has authored the excellent and beautifully illustrated "Toronto Art Deco" which is highly recommended to all art deco fans whether you are visiting Canada or not.

Our walk included a number of wonderful examples of deco buildings from the 1920's and 1930's at a time when Canada was asserting its national character and becoming more independent. This was also a period of growth in the city with the expanding population needing more civic buildings to serve its needs. The peak building years came between 1928 and 1930 when over a three year period more than $120 million Canadian was spent on construction within the city. This slowed significantly in the early 1930's during the depression.

Toronto by Yekkes

Toronto was a socially conservative city and this often extended to architecture, with a more understated approach to the style than in the United States and in other countries. However, my absolute favourite from our walk somewhat bucks this trend. The Concourse Building at 100 Adelaide West Street (pictured above, with detail of the entry pictured below), built in 1928 and designed by architects Lawrence C. Baldwin and Gerald E.D. Greene as a rental office space, has stunning mosaics at street level depicting themes of Canadian industry and nature. The mosaics were created by Group of Seven artist J.E.H.McDonald and his son Thoreau.

The base of the building is more Romanesque than Deco with a two storey rounded arch doorway leading to a barrel vaulted lobby. However, above this, the shaft is pure Deco with uninterrupted lines of beige bricks and metal sashed-windows. The facade also features green tinted stone spandrel panels which give additional character to the Concourse. The main brick piers are crowned with brightly coloured geometric designed ceramic tiles. The designs are heavily influenced by Native American art and bring an additional touch of splendour to this wonderful building. Tim explained that there is some doubt over the future of the building since the developer owning the site wishes to redevelop it into 21st century office space which would mean the demolition of all but the first three floors with the "re-creation" of the rest of the tower to suit this purpose. The future of the Concourse is not clear but what an appalling loss this would be to the Toronto skyline.

Toronto by Yekkes

Another truly stunning building is the Bank of Nova Scotia at 44 King Street West. The initial designs were produced between 1929 and 1936 by John M. Lyle before being redesigned and completed by Mathers and Haldenby, Beck and Eadie from 1946-51. This was to have been the major work of Lyle's career, but sadly he did not live to see the end of the project and the final design was completed by the successor team, retaining his overall massing to a large extent but considerably simplifying the facade. The highlights of this very imposing building are a series of relief carved panels above the first floor facade, designed by sculptor Frederick Winkler and depicting figures from classical mythology (two of which are pictured below). The light was unusually good at 7.30 on a June Sunday evening and it was possible to take some very clear pictures.

Toronto by Yekkes

Close by at 234 Bay Street is the former Toronto Stock Exchange, designed by George, Moorhouse and Samuel Maw, and built in 1937. The frontal exterior of the building is again impressive, with windows and doorways recessed into the pink granite base and buff limestone walls. The building has a number of Streamline Moderne elements including wide limestone speed-stripes above the base and narrower granite stripes at the level of the trade floor ceiling. The long narrow windows above ground floor level are the windows of the former trading floor and show exactly the height of that very imposing room, but perhaps the most striking external feature is the frieze above first floor level showing men engaged in various kinds of commerce and industry.

The Stock Exchange moved to another building in 1992 and the Design Exchange which exists to promote Canadian design currently holds a lease on the premises. Interesting enough in itself, the building is now surrounded by later buildings - the TD Centre Towers and a separate pavilion. Two of the Towers and the pavilion were designed by Mies van der Rohe!

Our walk ended in the square outside the "new" City Hall (pictured below) which opened in 1965 and was designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell. The building features a "pod" which houses the Council chamber where the political debates and decision making take place. The pod is sheltered by two towers of unequal height that house the staff, and can be accessed through the ground level doors or by a ramp that leads from the public square to the upper level. I am fascinated by this building, especially at night when coloured lighting is used to show it off. It was possible to have a quick look inside - which is a must if you can - and to see the galleried effect around the pod as the building moves upwards and the "upside down teapot lid" shape of the pod itself.

Toronto by Yekkes

There are many more Deco buildings spread around the city and I understand that Tim has registered some walks with the City of Toronto. It is definitely worth checking to see if any of his walks are available if you are visiting Toronto, and if you can't go, then read the book!

Another great Toronto experience was the Frank Gehry designed Art Gallery of Ontario (or AGO). The building is a bold glass fronted modern structure with a huge collection of Canadian art including many works of the Group of Seven and wonderful examples of Inuit and First Nation (the term used in Canada for original peoples) art. The gallery is also able to attract major international shows and at the time of my visit was hosting a Picasso exhibition. However, for me the show was completely stolen by the fantastic twisted wooden staircase in the main atrium (pictured below) which is a work of art in itself and had a large group of admirers throughout the time I was in the gallery. There is also a very nice (albeit a little expensive) restaurant in the Gallery called "Franks". Nice for a treat but take your credit card or plenty of cash with you.

I was especially keen to view the Canadian collection. I knew of the Group of Seven, but not very much about them and was fascinated to learn that following the First World War, this group (and others) strove to establish a truly "Canadian" art. In the case of the Seven it was expressed in views of the Canadian countryside, in rich greens and browns and a focus on nature. Interestingly, none of the Seven were women although the Montreal based Beaver Hall Group, which included several women regularly exhibited with them.

One interesting feature was a large glass cabinet full of "merchandise" with Group of Seven works reproduced on them and dating from several different decades. The items included mugs, magazine covers, calendars, stamps, t-shirts and more. Also in the cabinet was a beautiful collection of the Group's exhibition catalogues from the 1920's. These held my view for a long time!

The group's work is enormously important to the development of Canadian art, but was not without its critics, including for its apparent depiction of a pristine, uninhabited land when in fact the land had been lived on for thousands of years. John Lyman criticised the group saying its approach was too "nationalistic" and in 1939 he founded his own, rival Contemporary Arts Society based in Montreal.

One of Lyman's paintings was among my favourites from the AGO. "Portrait of Marcelle" from 1935, an oil on canvas work showing a striking woman with aquiline nose and viciously plucked eyebrows dressed in vibrant green hat and scarf and yellow and blue sweater and skirt, with book before her but open on a blank page to match her empty expression. I spent a long time looking at this picture but have been unable to find it anywhere on the internet or as a postcard in the large gallery shop. If anyone knows where to find a poster or postcard please let me know!

Toronto by Yekkes

I was also very struck by some of Emily Carr's works, especially "Trees in the sky" an oil on canvas from 1939. The strangely shaped trees appear to have dead or dying cold grey stumps adjacent to thin, but climbing saplings surrounded by rich blues and greens and lush vegetation perhaps showing the renewal of nature and of life. Ms Carr had close links with the Group of Seven, although she was not a member. She also had an interest in First Nation peoples and their traditions and this can clearly be seen from "Kispiax Village" painted in oil on canvas in 1929 and which shows a number of totems and warm looking houses again set against lush green vegetation.

One of the things I especially enjoyed about the AGO was the opportunity to chance upon small exhibitions focused on particular themes, often tucked away in little side rooms or even corridors. I have already written about being a bit of a Russophile (see here and here) so imagine my delight on discovering a small exhibition entitled "Constructing Utopia" , featuring books and posters from revolutionary Russia, 1910-40, original "spartakiada" postcards by Gustav Klutsis showing idealised young Russians taking part in sporting activity as well as a handful of propaganda posters by Mayakovsky and Malevich. What a find!

I spent a good two and a half hours in the gallery (not counting time in the restaurant and the shop) and could easily have spent at least another hour enjoying the collections. Definitely somewhere to return to should I be in the city again.

As usual, food played a major part in my travels. The wedding had involved a ten course Chinese banquet (and very good it was too), but this didn't stop me sampling the delights of a restaurant in Toronto's Chinatown where I enjoyed some pretty fantastic chicken and black bean sauce - not exactly a "challenging" dish but cooked really well, extremely tasty and a good portion. The name of the restaurant? - Asian Legend - on Dundas Street. Apparently this family owned business now has three other outlets in the city and its not hard to see why. On the Sunday evening, the restaurant was completely full (mainly with Chinese people) and some kind of function was being held in the downstairs room. I followed my delicious main course with my favourite Chinese dessert - mango pudding. Alright, so its not exactly Chinese and it looks like something for kids. Give me break, I was on holiday.

I also came across a small but beautiful cafe called Arabesque. Located on College Street in Little Italy, Arabesque serves middle eastern food including the Lebanese version of kibbeh, falafel, humous, babaganoush and lots of sticky sweet lovely pastries to a few tables in what feels like someone's front room. This cafe is owned by a Lebanese family, is tiny, cosy and very welcoming, providing a place for locals to drop in, chat, read the papers and enjoy the great food together with, you guessed it, very strong coffee. The coffee was made to order - spiced with cardamoms, arabic style and served on a handled tray with a small pouring pot. Wonderful and totally unexpected! And as if that isn't enough, there is also a small deli service with herbs, spices, pickles, fresh ground coffee and other goodies for sale so you can recreate the experience at home. I want one in London!

I managed to fit in another couple of sites - Casa Loma, the largest private home in Ontario and built in a variety of styles from 1911-14, for soldier and financier Sir Henry Pellatt by E.J. Lennox who also designed the old Toronto City Hall. It features 98 rooms, 2 towers, a beautiful terrace and garden and is open to visitors to wander at their will or to take a guided tour. The highpoint of my Saturday morning visit to Casa Loma was the stunning glass ceiling in the conservatory (pictured below) with its beautiful purple and green floral images. The room was being set out for what looked like a wedding so only a quick peek was possible but the ceiling alone made it worth visiting the house for me. There is also a collection, based mainly on the Pellatt family and which includes lots of weapons, so not really my thing, but the building itself is interesting and has been used for many films and TV shows. There are also some stunning views of the Toronto skyline from the windows.

Toronto by Yekkes

A quick look around Kensington Market, where just about any cuisine you can think of is available as well as some interesting independent stores, and a walk through the (mostly closed) Little Italy and Little Portugal on the Sunday morning was interesting as was a quick stop off to look inside the Minsk Synagogue built in 1930 (pictured below) by and for immigrants from, well, Minsk. Deceivingly small (the outside is quite imposing) the synagogue is well maintained with several arts and crafts features. It still serves a local but much reduced community with most Jews having moved to other parts of the city. A group of old men chatting on the steps of the building waved me in when I asked for a look and told me to "go right ahead" when I asked about taking pictures. This was fairly typical of my overall experience of Toronto, with people being friendly, welcoming and extremely helpful.
Toronto by Yekkes


I haven't said yet that it rained for most of the time I was there but that would probably be churlish...and I didn't get time to see Niagara Falls which is only a short distance away. Next time.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis tragic Bauhaus heroine

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was an extraordinary woman. Born in Vienna in 1898 she worked alongside Klee and Kandinsky at the Bauhaus (read about the Bauhaus here and here), was an extremely gifted artist, painting, designing furniture and designing stage sets for Brecht. But her greatest achievements came in the most adverse of conditions when as a teacher in the Terezin concentration camp, she inspired scores of children to produce deeply moving art which remains as a record to these talented lives cut short. Also during this time she managed to develop early theories about art therapy.

Born Friederike Dicker, tragedy struck her early in life. Her mother died before little Friedl reached her fourth birthday. She was looked after by her father who worked as a shop assistant in a stationery store. We are told that she spent her early years preferring to draw and paint rather than play with dolls, and that her father encouraged this interest. Surrounded by the cultural maelstrom that was Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century, Friedl entered the Vienna School of Experimental Graphic Design in 1914 . Studying photography with master photographer Johannes Beckmann, she secured a diploma but did not continue with this discipline, instead moving on to the School of Arts and Crafts paying her way by working as a prop woman, designing costumes and fulfilling the occasional small role on stage.

Her father remarried, but the marriage was beset by constant arguments and Friedl left home at the age of 16 to escape the bickering. In 1915 she was accepted at the School of Applied Arts on painter Franz Cizek's course. Cizek called for reform in arts education and for free development and spontaneity in art. His approach was to have a lasting influence on her. Her friends explain that the young Friedl was defiant, cutting her hair short, skipping classes to attend concerts and sneaking into performances to listen for free.

By 1916, she was ready for something new and discovered the Swiss painter, mystic and Zoroastrian, Johannes Itten. Itten believed that life and art were inseparable and that artistic endeavour was the transference of feelings and impulses to drawing and painting. During her time studying with Itten, she developed a large circle of friends and continued to develop wide artistic interests. With flatmate Anny Wottitz she learned bookbinding and undertook commissions to support herself. She was passionate about music and enjoyed Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In 1918 she went so far as to join Schoenberg's composition course where she met composer Viktor Ullmann. Quite taken with her, Ullmann composed a piece in her name as did composer Stefan Wolpe who later referred to her as his first great (but alas unrequited) love. Instead she became attached to architectural student Franz Singer and together with him in 1919 she applied to the Bauhaus.

At the Bauhaus she learned to use the printing presses and metalworking machines and also acquired weaving skills, continuing to book bind and to draw and paint. When Paul Klee came to teach at the Bauhaus in 1921, she became fascinated with the way he worked and studied with him almost every day. Itten was also working at the Bauhaus by this time and asked Friedl to illustrate a chapter in Bruno Adler's almanac - "Utopia - documents of reality". But her real love was theatre and together with Franz Singer was invited by producer Berthold Viertel to take part in productions of some of his plays. Shortly afterwards they began to work with Brecht - designing sets, posters and other items for the theatre. During this time, Singer met and fell in love with singer Emmy Heim, marrying her soon afterwards. Friedl buried herself in work, amazingly continuing to collaborate with Singer, continuing to amuse and entertain the other students, some of whom she was now teaching. However, she wrote to her friend Anny Wottitz "I often have the feeling that I am a swimmer being carried away by a horrible flood...For a moment I raise my head above water...and I manage to cry out to the other swimmers. It is good that I am not making any plans, not even for a minute in advance".

By 1923 the internal rivalries that began to rage within the Bauhaus were becoming more public. Friedl and Singer decided to leave and go it alone, establishing the "Workshops of visual art" in Berlin with colleagues Naum Slutzki and Franz Skala. The workshops made toys, games and jewellery and also took commissions to produce textiles, bookbinding and graphics. For the next two years they had tremendous success, designing sets for plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare and Robert Musil. Although Singer remained married and fathered a child, his relationship with Firedl continued. In 1925 she returned to Vienna and he followed her, to establish the Atelier Singer-Dicker, a successful architectural firm that also designed furniture including in 1930 for the Montessori kindergarten in Vienna. Sadly the kindergarten was destroyed after the right wing revolt of 1934, whilst other important buildings from the atelier were lost in the war.

During her time back in Vienna she began to teach an art course to kindergarten teachers, developing her great love of working with and for children. Her childlessness was a source of great sadness to her. She became pregnant by Singer several times but he refused to bring up a child with her and pressured her into an abortion each time. She treated his son, Bibi with great affection but when he died unexpectedly, her relationship with Singer became even more strained.

Friedl became steadily more interested in politics, leaning towards the communist doctrine and following the right wing coup of 1934 she was temporarily imprisoned and interrogated. Singer came to her aid in court, she was released and left the country for Prague. Her early years in Prague were happier. She began teaching the children of other Jewish refugees, including badly traumatised children who began to recover through Friedl's teaching of tone, texture, collage and rhythmic exercises. Her former student from Vienna, Edith Kramer, worked with her and described her as "a centre of inspiration to them", saying that "the children blossomed before our eyes".

She also worked with psychoanalyst Annie Reich addressing issues she had carried from her childhood, and changed her approach to painting moving from the "simple shapes and colours" method she had used at the Bauhaus to painting portraits, landscapes and still lives. At the same time she organised exhibitions of the work of her young students explaining that the pictures also gave a glimpse of the children's' psychological state and influencing the development of art therapy.

Whilst in Prague she looked up relatives of her mother's - the Brandeis family. Adela Brandeis was her mother's sister and her youngest son Pavel still lived at home. Friedl developed a close relationship with him and they married on April 29th 1936. Soon a child was expected but it was not to be and Friedl miscarried.

She continued to bury herself in her art, her work with children and her political activities, considering briefly the possibility of going to Spain to fight against the fascist forces in the Civil War. But dark clouds were gathering closer to home - Germany had banned the works of many Jewish (and other) artists and the Czech Sudetenland had been annexed in 1938. November 9th 1938 saw Jews, their property and synagogues  destroyed throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland in what became known as Kristallnacht. Many Jews left Europe, including Singer who went to London and Anny Wottitz and her husband who went to Eretz Israel, both of whom encouraged Friedl to join them, Wottitz even securing her a visa. Friedl refused, preferring to stay in Prague with her husband, Pavel, who was unable to secure a visa for any country.

In the summer of 1938, the couple moved to Hronov in the Czech countryside. Friedl wrote "It is peaceful here...I would not believe even in my final hour that something evil was taking place..." During this period they secured work at the Spiegler textile factory, Pavel keeping the books and Friedl designing textiles. In 1939 Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and the Brandeis's lost their jobs. Again, Friedl turned to her art in order to cope, moving away completely from her former style to a much more representational approach, saying "I no longer want to work allegorically, but instead want to express the world as it is, neither modern nor outdated. Although I love Picasso and Kandinsky as passionately as before, I cannot use their means of expression".  She began to produce more portraits, landscapes and views.

As the anti-Jewish laws became increasingly restrictive, the couple were forced to move several times into smaller and smaller accommodation, were required to wear the yellow star and to give up their beloved dog. Public transport was forbidden to them and food strictly rationed. Despite this, they continued to hope and in September 1942 Pavel wrote "Despite the discomforts...we still have courage and hope".  Several local people came to their aid, bringing them additional food, letting Friedl have goods without charge or supplying her with reading material. She remained a voracious reader but was struck another blow when she was diagnosed with avitaminosis of the retina and at times was unable to read or write.

In the spring of 1942, the Brandeis family began to be deported, Pavel's brother Bedrich and his wife Josefa first passing through Terezin  on their way to Izbica where Josefa died, three months before her husband died in Majdanek. Pavel's mother Adela was sent to Terezin and then Treblinka where she was gassed on arrival. During this period Friedl no longer painted, devastated by the constant deportations and the deaths of relatives. In late autumn 1942, Friedl herself was called to deportation. Her friend Hilde Kothny arrived from Hamburg to help her prepare and recalled Friedl's insistence on taking art materials to work with the children at the camp. Kothny recalled saying goodbye to Friedl at the assembly point for deportees and setting off for the train thinking "I will never see her again".

The local police provided the "escort" to the station and the Brandeis's were relieved of most of their money and valuables along the way. The arrived in Terezin on December 17th 1942, Friedl given the number 548 and Pavel 549 from a group of 650 deportees. Only 52 of the 650 were to survive the war.

Terezin was a fortress town to the north-west of Prague, cleared of its 6,000 residents by the Germans who were to make way for 65,000 deported Jews. Throughout the time of its existence, 140,000 Jews passed through this camp, 88,000 of which were sent to be murdered mainly at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A further 33,340 died of hunger, disease and the appalling living conditions in Terezin. Most of the prisoners came from western Europe, many were highly educated and were allowed to sustain some kind of cultural life used by the Germans for propaganda purposes, including in the making of a film used as part of a cover-up exercise when the Red Cross visited in 1944.

Pavel was assigned work as a carpenter and Friedl was sent to the technical department with other artists, but after considerable effort she managed to get transferred to the children's home for girls where she began to encourage and lead artistic activities. This was a feat in itself since education was forbidden to Jews and children over the age of 14 had to work in the ghetto. To circumvent this, all educational work was presented and described as "cultural leisure activity".

Friedl quickly established herself amongst the children and became much loved. One of her Terezin students, Helga Kinsky, remembered that "Friedl would talk about how to begin drawing, how to look at things, how to think spatially. How to dream about something, how to do something, how to realise our fantasies".  Still able to receive packages from one of Pavel's relatives, Friedl used whatever she could to create artists' materials and also established a range of tasks for the children to carry out so that the maximum number could participate.

The children she worked with included a traumatised group who had seen their fathers shot dead and the children in the isolation hospital to whom she took pencils and paper, changed their sheets and helped with their care, unafraid of infection. Interestingly, Friedly chose not to depict any of this misery in her own works produced at Terezin, preferring to paint landscapes, flowers, people, street scenes and to make sketches for theatre productions.

Many of the children's works have survived and are signed and dated. Friedl graded each work according to strength, intensity, dimensions, form, character, composition and colour. In July 1943 she organised an exhibition of their work in the basement of the children's home. During this time she began to consider her experiences of working with children and planned to write a study of "Art therapy for children" once the war was over. She even managed to deliver a lecture on children's art whilst at Terezin, explaining that its meaning and purpose was "the greatest possible freedom for the child".

It was in 1943 that Friedl received news that her stepmother, Charlotte Dicker had died in the camp - she had been unaware that she was also being held there. Shortly afterwards she discovered that her father had also been in Terezin, but had died much earlier. This terrible blow was softened slightly by the arrival of her niece, Eva Brandeis, deported to Terezin in May 1944 and cared for by Friedl and Pavel.

In 1944, rumours began to reach the camp that the war would soon be over and hopes for liberation increased. However Pavel was summoned to join a transport on September 28th as one of 5,000 men who were to work on "...the construction site of a new camp". Friedl appealed to be able to join him but was rejected. Having refused to leave Czechoslovakia without him a few years earlier, she refused to remain without him now and insisted that she be placed on the next transport. Her friends tried unsuccessfully to dissuade her and so fellow prisoner Willy Gloag helped her to pack and hide the children's drawings in an empty attic space, whilst she distributed her books and reproductions amongst her students.

On the morning of October 6th 1944, she was one of 1,550 people transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Marie and Sonja Vitivcova, two of her best students were also on the transport together with a further 34 of her young artists. In 1997, Maria wrote "1,550 people were leaving to find their husbands and fathers in a new labour camp near Dresden - or so they were informed by the Nazis. In the transport were mothers and nursing infants. This was a good sign. They would not start killing infants!"

The transport went directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, not Dresden and arrived on Sunday October 8th. Maria goes on to write "The transport arrived at Auschwitz at moon, when the gas chambers had already processed their daily quota. We had to wait until morning". The infamous Doctor Mengele selected 190 young women from the first and second cars of the train and no-one from the following cars. Maria was separated from her mother and sister and the next day, October 9th, the remaining women and children were gassed at Birkenau. Amongst them, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

Pavel survived the camps, remarried, living until 1971. Willy Gloag also survived and brought the children's drawings to the Jewish Community Centre in Prague. A review of the first exhibition of the drawings included reference to the works as "diamonds in the crown of world culture", only the diamonds that had produced them were (for the most part) no longer alive to receive the praise. Many of the drawings are displayed at the Pinkas synagogue in Prague. A book was published to accompany the exhibition - I never saw another butterfly - edited by Yana Yolavkova.

Whilst at Terezin in 1943, Friedl had written "the drawing classes are not meant to make artists out of all the children. They are to free and broaden such sources of energy as creativity and independence, to awaken the imagination, to strengthen the children's powers of observation and appreciation of reality". She clearly achieved this, and the children's works (as well as her own) are a lasting legacy of proof. Today art therapy is a widely used and almost mainstream technique for helping overcome psychological problems as well as for general well-being. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis pioneered this work in the most impossible circumstances.

Perhaps her achievements are best summed up by former pupil Edna Amit who said "A person can be defined through their influences on others. Sometimes I had the same sort of feeling you get with a doctor. Friedl herself was the medicine. To this day, the mystery of her sense of freedom remains incomprehensible to me. It flowed from her to us like an electric current...you wanted so much to get close to her..."

Thursday, 7 June 2012

I Love New York

In New York for the first time in 17 years I was anxious to revisit some places as well as to discover some new favourites. I wondered how the city would measure up to my fond memories of 1995 when I was there for a particular birthday celebration. Highlights of that trip were seeing Edward Albee's Three Tall Women on Broadway, the fantastic permanent collection at the Guggenheim, a great restaurant in Greenwich called Cafe de Bruxelles (sadly now gone) and a post theatre trip to Carnegies deli where I listened in to the conversations at the adjoining tables to hear a group of women complaining about their husbands and another one wondering what to wear for a special event.

The highlights of this trip were a little different. The city has inevitably changed and changed a lot. This time I managed to hear two great jazz performances - Dee Dee Bridgewater's birthday concert at the Blue Note and Yaala Ballin at the smaller, but very intimate Smalls Club in Greenwich. You can read my review of these gigs here. This was my first time at either venue and Smalls wins hands down. It is true to its name - small, down a flight of stairs and very laid back and friendly. The club has a policy of charging $20 dollars per person and you can stay for as long as you like - there are usually three sets on from late afternoon until after 1am and this is often followed by a jam session. Excellent music, great and friendly service from the bar staff and a generally good vibe put Smalls right up near my top of favourite things in New York.

Before moving away from music, I was a little sad to notice that many of the music stores have disappeared now due to people using the internet for either purchasing hard copies or downloads. I miss those days of browsing through rack after rack of vinyl looking for a particular track or album.

Something new since my last visit is the High Line - a disused elevated rail track transformed into a narrow, elevated, linear park. Earmarked for demolition some years ago, local activists campaigned successfully to retain the line as a public space. It is now home to a very pleasant walkway from Gansevoort Street to 30th Street, along Tenth Avenue, including significant planting, lawned areas, more natural areas, seating, public art, a water feature to cool your feet in on a hot day (and boy was it hot on the day I did the walk - 32 degrees and very humid) and best of all, terrific views of the streetscape below, the warehouses of the Lower West Side and the art galleries and shops that have sprung up partly as a result of the High Line development. At the southern end of the walk there is a small exhibition showing how the line fell into disuse before eventually being saved and now makes a real contribution to the quality of life of New Yorkers. A big thanks to my friend Josef for recommending the High Line to me. (Below - seen from the High Line!)

New York by Yekkes

I love the art deco buildings in New York. My favourite has to be the fantastic Chrysler Building, opened in 1930 and at the time, the tallest building in the world. 11 months later the Empire State Building was completed and supplanted it as the tallest building. However, since the demise of the Twin Towers the Chrysler is again the second tallest building in the city.

The Chrysler is a real New York icon with that fairytale spire and stunning decoration in the lobby. It still operates as a business building so visitors can only see the outside and the extremely grand lobby with its ceiling paintings of different transportation scenes from the 1920's. Believe me, it's worth making a visit just to gaze at the Edward Trumball ceiling paintings and the elevator doors - examples of art deco at its very best, not to mention the silver (metal) and glass entrance on Lexington Avenue.

The building has an interesting story attached to it. The magnificent crowning spire was built secretly in the fire shaft before being raised to the roof to surpass the Bank of Manhattan, the then recently completed tallest building in the world. Architect William van Alen designed the building for motor car millionaire Walter P. Chrysler, but was poorly rewarded when Chrysler refused to pay him, accusing him of accepting bribes from contractors. Incredible. Incidentally, just across the road you can find a great fresh food market selling fruit and vegetables, coffee, gourmet cheeses, pastries and cakes, confectionary and myriad other treats at the rear of the Grand Central Station concourse. Its a great place to buy a coffee and a snack after visiting the Chrsyler and before going on to more sightseeing or shopping on nearby Fifth Avenue.

New York by Yekkes

Still on an art deco theme, I had forgotten just how fantastic the Rockefeller Centre is. Located between 5th and 6th Avenues, it is a city within a city, with the central skyscraper building housing offices and surrounded by high quality shops, cafes and restaurants. These include the great bakery Bouchon where I had breakfast several times - try the sweet cheese Danish, which is delicious as was the mozzarella, pesto and tomato "sandwich de jour", fresh orange juice and good strong coffee. Another delight within the Rockefeller Centre is the satellite shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which has a great selection of books, catalogues, stationery, jewellery, scarves, t-shirts and other items - all related in one way or another to current exhibitions or to the permanent collection. I found a wonderful little book called New York Deco filled with great photographs by Richard Berenholtz, as well as just the right picture book for my grand daughter! (Below - interior glass detail Rockefeller Centre)

New York by Yekkes

I took a guided tour of the Rockefeller Centre. For just $15, you get about an hour of delight with a number of interesting stories about the centre's development, the tea total, observant Christian Rockefeller family and their part in both implementing and overturning prohibition in the city. The story of the art in the Centre is also fascinating as Diego Rivera was initially commissioned to produce a number of wall panels for the main lobby. Despite being a committed socialist, he was happy to accept the commission but included an image of image of Lenin. Clearly this was never going to be acceptable to the uber-capitalist Rockefellers and when Rivera declined to repaint Lenin's face as that of an ordinary worker (as initially intended), the work was paid for and covered in drapes before being removed and replaced with a work by Jose Maria Sert with Abraham Lincoln as its centre point. Rivera was furious, calling this "cultural vandalism" but was able to reproduce the works thanks to one Lucienne Bloch, an employee at the centre who had photographed the original murals. The reproduced work now hangs in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. All this could have been avoided if either Picasso or Matisse had accepted the commission, but these two preferred choices of Rockefeller both rejected it, hence the offer to Rivera. (Below - deco detail over entrance to the Rockefeller Centre)

New York by Yekkes

The buildings that make up the centre are full of art deco motifs and decoration, including the shops that face Fifth Avenue and now sell shoes and other items of clothing - check the golden doors on the front of the stores and the figures from mythology above the entrances. The main entrance to the centre also features some pretty fabulous mythological figures and a quote from the Book of Isaiah "Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times". Something to concentrate the minds of all those entering the building.

Also close to the Rockefeller complex is Radio City - the biggest theatre in the world, with 5931 seats available when it opened in December 1932, which can be expanded to 6,000 under certain circumstances. Another Rockefeller institution, there is usually a weekly art deco tour of Radio City but unfortunately this is currently suspended due to the demands of the current show. You can still have a tour of behind the scenes and have your picture taken with one of the famous Rockette dancers, if you like that sort of thing. I don't, so I didn't.

And as if all this isn't enough, you can also take a lift ride to the 67th floor and then walk up two more levels to enjoy stunning views of the city - Central Park, Harlem and the upper east and west sides on the north side, The Empire State Building, the Chrysler building and the many glorious skyscrapers on the south side. Emerging on to the viewing platform, I was surprisingly taken by emotion at seeing the fabulous Manhattan skyline topped by the Empire State and the view beyond to the sea and could understand why so many people have been drawn to this city over the years. I swear I could hear Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue which for me also signifies the grandeur of New York.

A short step from Rockefeller Plaza, back on 5th Avenue you can find the Fred French building. Constructed in 1927, architect H. Douglas Ives produced an exquisite building, featuring bronze panelling and terracotta on the outside of the upper floors and a highly decorative arch and lobby area. It is possible to wander in to the ground floor unchallenged and to take photographs (at least I did and the security guard just said "hi"). I was unaware of this building and found it by chance whilst out walking. One of the great things about New York is that its still possible to walk into the lobbies of lots of these wonderful buildings from the 1920's and 1930's without being given the third degree and to admire and enjoy the great art and craftsmanship inside. (Below, lobby of the Fred French building)

New York by Yekkes

And then there's food. I loved Dean and De Luca a high end cafe chain with great salads (choose from four types of lettuce and then have the sales assistant make up a salad of your choice), soups, pastries, coffees and cold drinks. I also enjoyed a lower end Chinese restaurant called Congee Village in the lower East Side which served delicious chicken in black bean sauce (congee is not my thing), had many Chinese patrons and was suprisingly cheap. I returned to Carnegie's Deli on 7th Avenue and have to admit I was massively unimpressed. Perhaps I was expecting too much having enjoyed it so much last time but the food was mediocre at best (my hot borscht resembled pink semolina), my boiled potato was baked in foil so not sure how they boiled it and looking around ridiculous portions were being served up to unsuspecting tourists who had opted for salt beef and other sandwiches. I assume they don't need to try hard to get custom, but its not exactly cheap, the food is poor and some of the waiters have a somewhat limited command of English. Apart from that...

Which leads me to service generally. I had some fantastic service in New York. People are friendly and helpful for the most part, almost everyone is polite and people greet you in shops and restaurants. Best examples of super New York service came at the already mentioned Smalls Jazz Club, Jack Spade's store in Greene Street, SoHo and also in Barney's where the elegant HB Nelson, their Gucci specialist (didn't buy any - don't get excited) held some items for me for a couple of days so that I could get them at the sale price. Nice one and thanks. On the other hand, there were some disappointments. 17 years ago I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel at 45th and Madison and loved it. Not so this time. Not cheap, very run down, very few facilities in the room (no drinks of any description were supplied), the telephone didn't work and although there were some really good staff (not least the men on the front door who take a lot of rudeness from people wanting taxis), there were also those who couldn't manage to look at you when speaking to you, gave monosyllabic answers and were generally unhelpful. Very disappointing and not one to return to.

I do like the friendliness in this city, but must admit to be slightly tempted to answer the ubiquitous "how are you today" with an honest answer, such as "well, I have arthritis of the spine, I have been attacked by killer mosquitos, my asthma is giving me trouble and I am seriously overweight".

But, to finish on a high note, I have very little hair - but it needs cutting often. I worry when I travel that I won't find anywhere willing or suitable to cut it. I need not have worried. I found my way to Ilya-Leo's Barber Shop at 33 Lispenard Street in the Lower East Side where my hair was expertly cut, my neck shaved and my head wrapped in a hot towel by an older Russian man with the deepest voice in the world. The gentleman who cut my hair and his one colleague were listening to a Russian radio station and there was a picture of the deceased Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson on the wall. I looked in the mirror when I got out of the chair. The other barber smiled and said "looking good". And indeed I was.

More to come.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Queen of cool, Sophie Milman, warms up Toronto




Queen of cool, Sophie Milman provided some much needed warmth in a cold and rainy Toronto on Friday evening. The historical Massey Hall, built in 1894 was the venue for another great North American jazz experience with Ms Milman, impossibly elegant in a sleeveless peach number and matching shoes, taking us on a journey through some great jazz standards as well as some compositions from her own recent album.

Things got off to a great start with her super cool reading of Kurt Weill's Speak Low, followed by some of the all time greats from the American song book - Cole Porter's I Concentrate on You; Jimmy McHigh and Dorothy Fields' I Can't Give You Anything But Love and a sweet, simple reading of Meredith Wilson's Til There Was You - a song of particular importance to our leading lady and her family.

Story telling figured large, with an ultra confident Milman referencing her family's journey through emigration from Russia to Israel before finally settling in Canada nearly 13 years ago. This included speaking about how important music in general and jazz in particular had been to her family in Russia (and since then), how unable to afford a new stereo her mother had nominated her as the family stereo recognising her singing ability early on, and how a particular song by Jobim had encouraged her mother during a particularly dark time in the early days in Canada.

She performed two Jobim songs (in English) - the ever popular Agua de Beber (and a great version it was too) and the song that inspired her mother - No More Blues. As well as this tribute to Brazil we were treated to one song in French and for an encore a jazz version of the old Russian favourite, Ochi Chernye, which you can listen to by clicking on the picture above! This was a real hit with the many Russians in the audience as well as being a great reading of this much performed song. Indeed, we heard that she had performed in Moscow recently and that the audience had loved this version.

It was touching to hear her speak about her emotions at returning to a country that her family had left along with one million other Jews following the collapse of the Soviet Union and at last being allowed to leave freely and legally. She also spoke of her attachment to Canada, especially Toronto and how for the first time she really felt at home and attached to somewhere.

And the performance? Great. This (young) woman can sing. The voice is silky and clear, respectful of the lyrics, she swings but is understated - reminding me a little of some of Anita O'Day's recordings, which in my book is a huge complement. Her voice is strong enough to deliver a song without resorting to histrionics and this was born out by the excellent and therefore exposing acoustic in the Hall. Her demeanour also reminded me a little of the late great O'Day. Sophie Milman clearly loves performing and being on stage. Giving her very tight band lots of opportunities to shine both as an ensemble and individually, she enjoyed herself with a little dancing, swaying and finger clicking before taking songs back and making them her own.

She also featured some songs written for her including the title track of the latest album - In The Moonlight and So Long You Fool and Take Love Easy from earlier recordings. Not yet thirty and with a string of awards and accolades to her name, Sophie Milman will be with us for a very long time. I can't wait for a chance to see her back home in London and am thrilled for my very short time in Toronto to have coincided with this gig!

The evening had begun with the Robi Botos Trio who treated us to some extremely cool jazz, with Botos outstanding on piano and ably supported by bass and drums. Mr Botos is another European immigrant to Canada, originating in Hungary and of Roma background, he invited his brother to the stage to sing a smooth jazz version of the old Carpenters number - Close To You. A little hesitant at first, but quickly warming to his opportunity he received a warm response from the audience.

The Massey Hall was financed by one Hart Massey as a tribute to his deceased son. The theatre was renovated in 1933 and 1940 and has some art deco features, especially in the lobby. A massive auditorium, it can seat up to 2,765 people, although before the first set of renovations, it could take up to 3,500. It has seen some great performances over the years including in 1953 an unbelievable line-up of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell an event recorded as Jazz at Massey Hall.

Once again, proof that jazz is alive and well, and the second world class performance I've been privileged to attend in a few days. Isn't travel a great thing?