Monday, November 15, 2010

Off the Beaten Path in New York City

It’s the city that never sleeps. It does eat, though, and it goes out a lot. New York keeps visitors and locals very busy. There is a great deal to do and see, hear and taste.

If you’re a “Highlights” kind of person, you might be absolutely satisfied to hit the ultra-famous spots in New York City. If you have the time, though, a small step off the beaten path will often afford you a closer look or an insider’s perspective on the Big Apple. There is no denying the thrill of the view from Lady Liberty’s crown. But once you’ve seen the Statue of Liberty, you can follow the American immigrant story one step further with a visit to the groundbreaking Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The museum tells the stories of 19th and 20th century immigrants’ experience through tours of the tenement apartments and the surrounding neighborhood.

The beaten path will take classical music enthusiasts to Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall or Metropolitan Opera, two extraordinary performance houses. But visitors in the know will check out the program just down the street at lesser-known Merkin Concert Hall, an ideal space for chamber music and smaller ensembles. The 450-seat hall is nestled in the Kaufman Center, one block north of Lincoln Center. Merkin Concert Hall was twice awarded the ASCAP/Chamber Music America prize for Adventurous Programming. The Tuesday Matinee series here features up-and-coming young musicians and ensembles from around the world. This mid-week, midday gems offer a perfect opportunity to rest your feet and nourish your soul.

You can nourish the rest of you before or after the Merkin Concert Hall performance, at one of the many New York foody institutions on the Upper West Side. Zabar’s is the ultimate “food emporium”. New Yorkers take a number at the fish counter, then elbow one another just for the sport of it as they wait to buy their quarter pound of Nova Lox or a few precious ounces of Sterling Caviar. The Zabar’s CafĂ© offers a bagel and lox, knish, soup, fabulous coffee, and enough baked goods to merit a walk back for dessert after the performance at Merkin Concert Hall.

The concerts at Saint Thomas Church in Midtown Manhattan are a bit less frequent, but no less extraordinary. If you are in New York around Christmas or Easter, don’t miss the performances of the Saint Thomas Church Choir of Men and Boys. Saint Thomas Church has the only church-affiliated boarding choir school in the United States. The talented young choristers are among the most experienced and gifted the country has to offer. The boys’ voices are complemented by professional adult singers in the lower registers. The Saint Thomas Church Choir performances receive rave reviews from the New York Times. The church itself is a stunning example of American neo-Gothic architecture, and it also happens to be located just down the street from the Museum of Modern Art. After you have taken in the many treasures at the recently renovated temple to Modern Art, grab a bite to eat and prepare your eyes for the transition from sleek lines to soaring ornamental splendor.

Another New York insiders’ secret is the concert series of the Amor Artis Chamber Choir and Orchestra. The New Year’s Eve concert at St. Jean Baptiste Church is a festive and unpretentious annual event, with excellent musicians and an uplifting all-Bach program. Amor Artis’ charismatic founder and conductor, Johannes Somary, is entering his 50th year as music director. The years have in no way diminished his exuberance, which spreads through the ensemble and the audience at every performance.

You might notice a few of the singers hurrying off in sports gear after the New Year’s Eve concert. If you are looking for a truly unusual way to spend the rest of the big night, join them for fun in Central Park, as a participant or a spectator at the Emerald Nuts Midnight Run. Urban athletic folks brave the weather, often in flamboyant costumes, for a four-mile run, ending with champagne (this is the USA, so it will be alcohol-free or in a paper bag!) at the finish line.

Prices in Manhattan have squeezed many sworn Manhattanites off the tiny island, and although tourists rarely find their way to the other boroughs, there are more and more reasons to do so. A Manhattanite will tell you that the best reason to leave Manhattan is to get a better view of Manhattan. Well, that is certainly part of the thrill at the Bargemusic concerts in Brooklyn. In 1977, founder Olga Bloom transformed a coffee barge, built in 1899, into a floating chamber music hall. Anchored below the Brooklyn Bridge in the New York’s East River, Bargemusic offers excellent acoustics and fabulous views of the bridge and the lower Manhattan skyline. Local and visiting artists perform a variety of programs in about 220 concerts each year. In addition to standard classical chamber music repertoire, the “Here and Now Series” features contemporary American compositions, while “There and Then” concerts focus on Early Music. Bargemusic is easy to reach with public transportation, but if the weather allows, put on your walking shoes and cross the historic Brooklyn Bridge by foot. There is a separate raised walkway along the center of the bridge. Built in 1883, this connection between the island of Manhattan and the borough of Brooklyn was once travelled by horse-drawn traffic, trolley cars, and the elevated train. It continues to provide a vital connection for commuters and visitors today.

As spontaneous as New Yorkers can be, it is often a good idea to plan and book New York concert tickets ahead. Even the best kept secrets can draw a crowd in this something-for-everyone town. Whether you go the "Highlights" route or choose the road less travelled, there will always be something left to look forward to on your next trip to New York City.