Marathon weekend in New York City is all-consuming. Runners decked out in brightly coloured running gear and their boisterous hangers-on swarm the streets and crowd the hotels. Even in this huge metropolis, the competitors stand out with their rosy glow and eager anticipation. Everyone has a map of the course. The runners plan their strategy; spectators like us consider the best vantage points on the 26-odd-mile course from which we can cheer on our companions.
The New York City Marathon starts on Staten Island, crosses into Brooklyn, goes up into Queens, and then crosses over Roosevelt Island on the Queensboro Bridge to 59th Street in Manhattan. It then goes up 1st Avenue to 138th Street in the Bronx, through Harlem, and then down 5th Avenue into Central Park at about 86th, back down to 59th, and then into the Park near the west side.
For spectators, the first challenge is to figure out the New York subway system. There are numerous lines, identified only by numbers or letters, running north and south and also across the city. Different directions on the same line are sometimes accessible only from different entrances on the street. Some trains are express and do not make local stops. Others make local stops but may not go to the end of the line. The system is complex and requires paying attention all the time.
We were impressed that the subway was cleaner, and generally without the graffiti which marked it years ago. It is a very big system, however, and maintenance seems to be an issue. Several very long escalators at major exchanges were out of order on marathon day. Climbing long lengths of shut-down escalators is an exercise unto itself. And some exits from the system are narrow, with unstable surfaces on the stairs. Anyone with mobility problems or carrying a stroller has difficulties. For all its problems, the New York subway is a vast resource which reaches into all the boroughs. Clearly, it is the way to cover the course of the marathon.
We decided to make our way to about the ten-mile mark on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, then to the 14-mile mark in Queens, and then to the final leg on 5th Avenue. The first two positions gave us great sight lines. Diverted by lunch, we had to rush to get to about 5th Avenue and 86th Street before our runners passed. The finish line itself was accessible only to those who purchased tickets for seats in the stands (a security precaution?), so we met our runners in “the family meeting area” near Columbus Circle. But for the Marathon, I would have had little reason to learn how the subway works beyond the core.
As our friends did not start the marathon until 11:00 am, we had time to sightsee. Our companion, Mark Pedrotti, is a retired opera singer who has sung in the past with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and the New York Philharmonic, among others. He knows the city well, and loves to meander the streets of Lower Manhattan. For brunch, he found a tiny café in Soho that could have been out of Vienna. It served excellent coffee and freshly baked croissants filled with crab, or prosciutto, or bacon and tomato – a totally satisfying start to the day. Then he led us to the National September 11 Memorial, where two square pools stand in the footprint of the twin towers, surrounded by a large tree-filled garden. Waterfalls (the largest manmade falls in the United States) cascade down the sides of the pools and disappear into a void. The names of all the victims of the terrorist attacks are inscribed in bronze on the walls of the pools. We found the simplicity of the pools and the silence of the scene, broken only by the falling of the water, incredibly moving.
Last, but not least, the Marathon gave us an excuse to see “Tannhäuser” at the Saturday matinée of the Metropolitan Opera. I had never been to the Met before, and was thrilled by the grandeur and immensity of the opera house, and the quality of the production. That we were attending live a performance being seen simultaneously by Cineplex viewers around the world was particularly intriguing. The cameras transmitting to Cineplex are totally unobtrusive to the live audience. The world is truly very small, and New York City is at the centre of it.
Last night marked the restoration of a piano and of a musical tradition. Several years ago, baritone Mark Pedrotti and his partner Bob Dann offered to house an 80-year-old grand piano which had once been used by Eugene Ormandy at the Philadelphia Orchestra. Eventually, they bought it and had it refurbished. Last night, they invited their friends to a concert in their historic home in downtown Toronto to celebrate the renewal of the instrument. Thirty-five people gathered in their large and gracious living room for what was effectively a musical salon. And what a splendid evening it was.
Retired political scientist Joe Wearing played four short pieces by Scriabin. Medical doctor Mario Ostrowski played a Chopin Nocturne. Accompanied by pianist Lawrence Pitchko, Mark sang several Mahler songs of love, passion and separation from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” The musicians played and sang with such verve and sensitivity that everyone present was enchanted. And, of course, the piano resonated with the most beautiful of sounds.
There is something magical about a musical event held in a home. Wonderful music played and sung by talented musicians willing to share with their friends creates an ambiance which is totally engaging. The melodies soothe and delight. The outdoor natural light streaming through the windows casts a warm glow. Maybe it is the immediacy of the situation, the residual memories of family times past around a piano. Or maybe it is the harkening back to earlier eras when making music, and sharing music, was the entertainment of the day.
I don’t know whether musical salons in times past were accompanied by food and drink. This particular musical program, however, occurred after appetizers and before dinner in the garden. Mark is a marvellous cook and Bob loves to entertain, so good food and lavish drink were definitely part of the repertoire. Needless to say, after such an evening, everyone present was keen for another.
It’s funny. Music has never been more accessible than it is today. It seems that everyone of a certain age on public transit is sporting buds in their ears. Radio, iPods, iTunes, music streaming, CDs, DVDs, music videos, YouTube, airplane entertainment programs and all manner of constantly-evolving technology bring the world’s best music of all genres to the masses at the press of a button, or the flick of a switch. Raves are notorious. Famous folk artists, rock stars, crooners attract thousands to their concerts. Culture vultures flock to the symphony, concert halls, theatres, church venues, the opera and even opera shown at the movie theatres.
Yet it strikes me that making music and sharing it with friends occurs rarely. I know many skilled musicians and wonderful singers, but have seldom heard them play or sing. They may participate in a concert, sing in a choir, or play professional gigs of various sorts, and invite their friends to attend. But playing or singing informally with friends or family or, even more formally, as in a musical salon, is rare. Is this modesty? Or a fear of standing out in the crowd? Or of imposing on others? Or are musicians, by nature, perfectionists for whom making music that may not be up to their normal standards is too painful? Or maybe it is my fault, because I have not asked them to play or invited them to sing. Maybe I, like many others, have found it easier to buy tickets and access music commercially than to put in the effort to organize a songfest that I love or a salon like that we enjoyed last night. Whatever the reason, it is our loss.
The ability to make music requires a special talent and reflects years of hard work, discipline and training. Sharing music is a great gift and a wonderful contribution to community. Music lifts the spirit and nourishes the soul. Thank you, Mark and Bob, for showing the way. May your piano continue to age well, may musical salons flourish, and communal music-making continue.
By coincidence, this very morning, my Australian cousin sent this Queensland Symphony Orchestra YouTube video of 21st century community music making, down under. Maybe you will enjoy it as much as I did.