13 December 2005
A perfect day in New York
Frank Turk is right. Christmas season is the ideal time to visit New York. Today couldn't have been better. It was crisp but still and sunny. There's a fresh layer of snow, and much of it (especially in Central Park) is still bright white. Everywhere you go, it seems, traditional Christmas carols are playing. Surprisingly, we didn't hear a lot of cheesy contemporary "holiday" music today. In that regard, at least, New York City seems to be in rebellion against the zeitgeist.
I'd chronicle what we did on Monday, because it was all greatbut I hate reading people's travelogues, so I'm not going to write one. The hands-down highlight of our day, however, was the concert we came to see: a Christmas program with Christopher Parkening and Jubilant Sykes, in the Medieval Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The hall is about the size of a small-college basketball arena, but the acoustics are much better. The ambience was perfect, in fact, for highlighting the full range of rich overtones in Jubilant's voice, as well as for hearing the lingering tones of Christopher's quietest guitar notes. The concert was totally unplugged; no amplification at all, except for a microphone that Chris was supposed to use for comments between pieces. He stopped using it about halfway through, and (even though he has a slight case of laryngitis) you could actually understand him better without the sound system.
The room was arranged with a half-circle of 400 or more chairs, every one full. The worst seats in the house were still close enough to make clear eye contact with the performers. The centerpiece of the room is a massive baroque Christmas-tree creche scene with elaborate Neapolitan ceramic figurines, impressive by any measure, even though that sort of thing is not really my cup of tea.
The music was wonderful from start to finish. I'd write a thorough account of every piece, but Sharon (who comments here and wrote three terrific pages of program notes that were handed out at the concert) is probably the only reader who is really interested in that much detail. It truly was all totally superb, both technically and aesthetically.
Jubilant sings with such expression that there's an element of evangelistic preaching in his songs. I'm not a particularly sentimental person, but Jubilant's singing never fails to move me deeply. He conveys power and emotion whether he is singing at full volume or in a barely-audible whisper. And when he sings softly, he does it with more clarity and precise intonation than anyone I have ever heard. (In an acoustic like the Medieval Hall, it's almost other-worldly.) He did a rendition of "I Wonder as I Wander" that made the gospel as clear and poignant as you'll ever hear it sung.
The highlights of the concert for me included a song by Jubilant called "Boi Bumbá," an Afro-Brazilian song, which Jubilant said depicted an argument between the Magi "about who had the best samba." I don't know what that means, and the song didn't make it any clearer for me, because it was in an unfamiliar language (Portuguese, I suppose). But it was both beautiful and fun. The syllables were so fast and complex, I don't know how a non-Charismatic like Jubilant pulled it off. The whole audience's appreciation was obvious.
Another highlight was a piece Christopher played called "Koyunbaba" ("The Shepherd") by a modern composer named Carlo Domeniconi. He's an Italian who lived for a while in Istanbul, so the piece had a Turkish-Italian flavor, if you can picture that. It's written for a guitar tuned in the tones of a c-sharp minor chord (except for the first string, which is tuned as normal). I can't imagine what difficulties that introduces for the performer, but on top of that, the notes and fingerings are lightning-fast. Chris played it with apparent effortlessness. It was a delightful sound, not like you normally hear from a guitar and obviously not completely Western. I loved it.
The concert included several traditional Christmas carols, including "Silent Night," which was an unprogrammed addition to the concert. The traditional carols and a handful of spirituals in particular seemed to have been chosen with the express purpose of honoring Christ, and that was the clear theme that ran like a thread through the whole concert. Jubilant sang the closing number, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" (a Calvinistic spiritual, if you really think about it) with such passionate conviction that at least one Baptist in the audience felt like shouting amen at the end instead of merely applauding.
A little foretaste of heaven in New York City.