Allen Whear, violoncello
Our first House of Dreams tour begins at the top of the heap. Over the years, Tafelmusik has earned many New York notches on its belt--The Metropolitan Museum, 92nd St Y, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall—but on this trip we find ourselves staking out new territory far uptown in what turns out to be an ideal place for this kind of program. The American Academy of Arts and Letters is part of a cultural oasis on West 155th and Broadway in Washington Heights called Audubon Terrace. It’s a complex of Beaux Arts style buildings staked out a century ago, sharing a dramatic, rocky slope down to the Hudson River with the very gothic Trinity Cemetery (tombs with a view). The elegant auditorium, built in 1930 with crystal chandeliers, red velvet seats, and classical arches, has beautiful acoustics. This has long made this a popular place for recordings even if live concerts were rare.
Over the years, Academy membership has included leading American authors, artists, and composers; the original members included Mark Twain, Henry James, Childe Hassam, and Edward MacDowell. Members elect future members, and so on. The late John Updike, an enthusiastic member for four decades, wrote an affectionate but revealing essay about the place: “Taxi drivers don’t want to go to West 155th St…Manhattan’s claustrophobic closeness lifts in this vicinity, the buildings throw short shadows, and the neighborhood’s stately elements—the terrace, the walled cemetery, the Episcopal church across Broadway—stand as a kind of pledge the past once made to the future.”
Our program--conceived by our own Alison Mackay—beautifully blends baroque music in its historical context with painting and literature. Although our presenters are Columbia University’s Miller Theatre series, one cannot help feeling, through this program, a kinship with the spirit of the Academy itself. Our wonderful narrator Blair Williams, making his New York debut, describes a certain eighteenth-century Venetian palazzo in the first half of the House of Dreams program as “the favorite meeting place for lovers of art, literature, and music” which Venetians considered “the site of the most perfect union of all the arts.”
That aptly describes this special place, and the auspicious serendipity of kicking off our tour here. And people did come uptown, despite the historic reluctance of cabdrivers. The audience in the sold-out hall applauded warmly and vociferously.
The ceiling in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
After a free day, having enjoyed all the wonders that New York has to offer, (including “claustrophobic closeness”), we gather again for the bus trip to New Haven, Connecticut, zigzagging through Harlem before picking our way through thick traffic on I-95, getting glimpses of Long Island Sound along the way.
This performance is in the beautifully renovated Morse Recital Hall on the Yale campus. More intimate than the Academy but similarly elegant and acoustically gratifying, it has the advantage of regular use by the Yale School of Music. We continuo players appreciate the luxurious Steinway piano benches! On this campus we are surrounded by incredible riches: one of the world’s best rare instrument collections, splendid libraries, and famous art galleries. Our Dominic Teresi is on familiar turf, having spent three years here as a graduate student. We are given a hearty dinner at historic hangout Wall St. Pizza, whose graffiti-carved tables and booths tell a story of generations of peckish Yale music students. Each performance on a tour has its own life and personality; I think we enjoy them more and more as we gain confidence from each other and validation from our audiences… and the “mystic chords of memory” get stronger.
A reassuring sign at Yale!
Coming up next: Seattle, WA and La Jolla, CA!