EARLY YESTERDAY EVENING I found myself on the West Side and with a bit of free time, so I sauntered down Broadway to Columbus Circle to finally investigate in the flesh this great public place after its complete rehabilitation some two years ago. I am happy to report that the Circle’s refurbishment is quite a successful one. My only reservations were minor details, but as these were all done in an extremely simple and smooth modern style, they are much less objectional, and perhaps serve to focus attention on the sculptor Gaetano Russo’s splendid monumental column from which Cristóbal Colón, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the New World presides over the grand plaza consecrated to his memory.
Colón’s name is rendered on the monument as ‘Cristoforo Colombo’, which seems appropriate since the monument was paid for by public subscription raised by Italian-Americans, and it is commonly assumed that Columbus was Italian. He may have been Genoese, Catalan, Portuguese, or Corsican, but he described himself as being from lands under the rule of Genoa, which lends significant credence to the Genoese and Corsican theories. In Spain, however, he is apparently Spanish, or so one daughter of Iberia, the wife of a frequent reader of this little corner of the web, informs us. The happy couple were strolling through Columbus Circle recently and the good lady was shocked to discover the purported Italian origin of the man who brought Christianity to the New World. After all, Spain’s national day — the Día de la Hispanidad — is October 12, the day in 1492 that Columbus first set foot in the New World. (In woebegone Venezuela, the vulgar socialist dictator has proclaimed October 12 as the Día de la Resistencia Indígena, or Day of Indigenous Resistance, and the Columbus Column in their capital city of Caracas was toppled on that day in 2004).
Anyhow, not only was the good lady was shocked at our monument’s proclamation of the Discoverer’s Italian-ness but the combination of that with the presence in Columbus Circle of the beautiful U.S.S. Maine Monument led the observer to conclude that the public plaza should be instead be named “Anti-Spain Square”. It was the disastrous sinking of the Maine, after all, which led to the Spanish-American War, the result of which was America’s most unfortunate and regretful act of taking Spain’s empire off her hands. (Contrary to Mr. Kipling’s idealistic urging of America to take up the imperial mantle in his poem ‘White Man’s Burden’, this turned out to be a fairly good deal for the Spaniards, and a very poor deal for the peoples of the United States).
Politics aside, I enjoyed the few minutes during which I ruminated in the square (or circle, if ye be pedants). I recall many years ago the debate surrounding how to improve Columbus Circle that there was a near-universal desire for there to be more trees but that the very shallow depth between the street surface and the subway below presented difficulties in this regard. The redesigners have solved this problem by encircling the center of the circle with a raised ridge, on which are planted a number of trees which, we trust, will be even more appreciated as they mature. The raised ridge, which features jets of flowing water around the inner circle, also serves to innoculate the center from the noise of the traffic which, the Circle being situated at the confluence of Broadway, Central Park West, Central Park South, and Eigth Avenue, is considerable.
And so, I judge the new Columbus Circle a success, and I am happy to the report that the American Society of Landscape Architects concur, having awarded it their General Design Award of Honor. Another random fact which surprisingly few people know is that Columbus Circle is the spot from which distances to New York are numerated, akin to Moscow’s Red Square and London’s Trafalgar Square (if I recall correctly).
LEAVING COLUMBUS CIRCLE, I sauntered back up Broadway to another of Manhattan’s engaging places, Lincoln Center. Critics accused the architects of the performing arts complex of cribbing off of Rome’s E.U.R., but one wishes the three halls facing Lincoln Center’s plaza had the same crispness of those modern Roman structures. The thirty years between the E.U.R. of 1930s Italy and the Lincoln Center of 1960s New York were years in which the quality of modernism declined just as greatly as its supremacy increased. Despite this, the plaza of Lincoln Center is one of the most successful public places in Manhattan. I have often lamented the absence from New York of the open piazza so common on the Continent. This plaza competes with Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace as the best example of the type in Manhattan.
The plaza is raised above the neighboring Lincoln Square (one of the many triangular squares created by Broadway’s healthy disregard for the grid) and is reached by a gentle rise of stairs. Viewed from the square it appropriately seems like a stage upon which all our great dramas are played. The dance of the New York City Ballet in the State Theatre on the left, the music of the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall on the left, and in the center, the Metropolitan Opera in the Metropolitan Opera House; the greatest opera company in the Americas, not to mention one of the best in the entire world. And from the hour of seven or so on the evening of performances, the three arts mix and mingle in the plaza as attendées wait to meet their companions and enter whichever of the respective halls they are to spend the evening. Some jealously preserve a seat of honor on the rim of the central fountain, while others hide from the elements (the beating sun, the heaving rain) in the shelter of the arcades, while still more meander slowly to and fro around this piazza dell’arte.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the elders of Lincoln Center insist on erecting temporary stage structures in the middle of the plaza, partially obstructing the fountain, during the warmer months when, above all other times, it should be open for all to enjoy. The creators of Lincoln Center conceived of the obvious desire for outdoor performances during the summer, and so they built the bandshell in Damrosch Park in between the Opera House and Avery Fisher Hall, just diagonally adjacent to the plaza. Surely the plaza is meant to be an open space where all the events can mix, blend, interact, influence, before finally separating into their appropriate places. If there are to be outdoor performances, hold them where they were meant to be, and if that place suffers from some malfunction of design, then redesign that place rather than rudely interjecting a particular event into what was meant to be the public square for all.
THIS PARTICULAR EVENING it was into Avery Fisher Hall for a performance of the New York Philharmonic, now in its 165th year. The program was Rossini’s overture to Semiramide and Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D major (D.500), with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 5 in F major (Op. 76). Riccardo Muti wielded the conductor’s baton and the result was definitely less than was expected. I had only heard Muti’s conducting on the radio in passing and, while admittedly not devoting much thought to it, he seemed a fairly capable conductor. In person, however, he left much to be desired. Rossini’s overture was merely lackluster but Schubert’s symphony was actually surprisingly poor. Perhaps the worst thing was observing Muti in action, for the man looked like an utter fool. His conducting seemed unnatural, choreographed, even foppish. And those ridiculous jestures towards the first violins! I wanted to slap the man, and I shouldn’t be surprised if the violins wanted to themselves. Towards the middle of the Schubert symphony, I began to think of the man as a proper ass, the tails of his evening jacket acting the part of hind legs. My only solution to the St. Vitus’s dance on the conductor’s dais was to shut my eyes and imagine that I was there in the Austrian capital in that autumn of 1815, after the chancellors and ministers of the crowned heads of Europe had departed the Congress of Vienna when peace and order were plotted, in the home of Otto Hatwig where (scholars posit) the work was premiered.
The friend I accompanied that evening actually knows about the inner workings of music (I am actually an ignoramus on the subject, and simply like what sounds good to me) and agreed completely with me on the subject during the intermission. Luckily, the Dvořák fared better, but one had the niggling suspicion that this was the Philharmonic working its magic in spite of Mr. Muti, rather than at the command of his baton. My knowledge and appreciation of Dvořák has slowly grown, from that first passing fondness we all have for his Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”. My appreciation for the Philharmonic grows, when I see they have printed in the program that Mr. Dvořák was born in Mühlhausen, Bohemia, rather than the more modish style of “Nelahozeves, Czech Republic” that would find favor elsewhere.
Perhaps I am too hard on Mr. Muti. Perhaps he and the Philharmonic were simply not a good fit for eachother. At any rate, I shouldn’t complain as one doesn’t often get box seats to a sold-out performance with every seat in the hall occupied (though, to be honest, the sound is better down in the orchestra seats). But how I wish I could have seen von Karajan while he was alive!
After the baton had finally fallen for the night, my friend and I had the same stroke of genius at exactly the same moment and decided to head up to good old Café Lalo, but unfortunately everyone else had the same idea (Saturday night? Lalo’s? What did we expect?) so we comforted ourselves with a pint or two at the Parlour instead.