New York's Best Shows and Exhibits Can Often Be Seen for Free or Close to It

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Seat V-111 in Avery Fisher Hall is 21 rows from the stage, just to the right of center and six seats off the aisle. Also known as: the sweetest spot in town to witness a concert by Gotham's great orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. Seat V-111 costs exactly $109 most evenings, a price that, while steep-ish, virtually guarantees a memorable evening of classical fireworks, not to mention tacit assurance that one is a member of New York's Brahmin class.

And all this, my friends, can be yours for the unbelievably low price of . . . $16.

"Take your seats, please," we heard on a recent rainy Wednesday morning, an unseen announcer's voice appropriately hoarse for 9:45. We'd gathered at Fisher, hundreds of us, to witness what the N.Y. Phil calls an open rehearsal, which was both the reason our seat was so cheap and a borderline hilarious misnomer. Yes, one did have to deal with the sight of orchestra members in jeans, and that can be a bit of a shock, depending on the player and the brand of jeans selected. But N.Y. Phil rehearsals aren't anything like the stop-start affairs you might be imagining.

Orchestra players were still setting up -- marking their scores, waving daffily to friends in the audience -- when superstar pianist Mitsuko Uchida mounted the stage in what appeared to be a pair of sweat pants, albeit of the designer variety. And then, with hardly a nod to guest conductor Riccardo Muti, she hurled herself into a $109 performance (and then some) of Ravel's Concerto in G, a bravura morning show that elicited audience cheers of the sort one seldom hears this side of Saturday night.

Granted, the orchestra did rework a few passages of another composition on that week's program, Schubert's Symphony in C, Muti stopping periodically to fine-tune entrances, articulation and balance. But such moments felt like a bonus to these attendees, who relished the rare glimpse behind the curtain. In fact, the only thing they relished more was the chance to spend a little morning time with their classical-crazy confreres, the hall having been liberated, however briefly, from the money-and-status evening crowd.

A few days later, we detected a similar sense of relief on the faces at the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown. It was Friday afternoon, when tickets to that shrine to Pollock and Johns and Warhol are not $20 but . . . zero dollars, a once-a-week 100 percent markdown. Given that, you don't exactly get the place to yourself, but MoMA is so large it seems to take its hordes in stride. (And let's face it, if there's any museum where hushed tones and art-world solemnity are out of place, it's this one.) For a few hours each week, the building is besieged by what appear to be art students clad in 21st-century la vie de boheme drag, some of them getting into heated discussions about various pieces, arguing quite as if the stuff, well, mattered. It's gratifying and disconcerting at once.

"You see that woman over there?," said a man named John Bright the following evening. The 20-something music student was next to us in the standing-room stalls at the Metropolitan Opera. He handed over his binoculars. "She's got this yuck-blue dress on."

No . . . no . . . Wait. I think I do.

"Can you imagine what this evening cost for her?"

A few hundred?

"That wouldn't even cover her ticket!" Bright screamed.

Post-performance research confirmed that Bright was right. Ms. Yuck's parterre seat alone was $375 (plus who knows how many fashion points). Our evening, by comparison, which consisted chiefly of a stellar performance of Verdi's "Rigoletto" and an all-you-can-eat schadenfreude buffet, set us back a mere $15. And what did Ms. Yuck get for paying 25 times as much? The privilege of sitting approximately a hundred feet closer to the stage, and also just sitting, period, and also --

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