Forget the millennium. Contrary to conventional journalistic wisdom, 1999 alone--all by itself--is fully worthy of a list of cultural bests, especially here in New York City, where some of us still care less about Rudy vs. Hillary than such trivial pursuits as art. I put in a lot of time last year sitting in aisle seats and peering through the congealed smoke of nightclubs, and had a lot of fun doing it. Here are some things I loved, plus one thing I loathed:
Best New Dance: An easy call--Mark Morris's "The Argument," first seen here at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Mikhail Baryshnikov as guest star and Yo-Yo Ma playing Schumann in the background, is an exuberantly melancholy masterpiece.
Best Evening of Dance: Lincoln Center Festival 99 celebrated Merce Cunningham's 80th birthday by presenting the old wizard and his company in a challenging new work, "BIPED," and an explosively vital revival, "Sounddance," with half a dozen New York City Ballet dancers (among them the exquisite Jenifer Ringer) giving the first performance in years of "Summerspace" as a sweet interlude.
Best Art Show: My eyes are still sizzling from Acquavella Galleries' astonishing exhibit of Cezanne watercolors, the first large-scale gallery exhibition of these haunting works in New York in nearly 40 years. (Adelson Galleries' museum-quality Childe Hassam retrospective was also an eye-opener. Would that the Brooklyn Museum of Art had put it on instead of selling its institutional soul to Charles Saatchi for the odious "Sensation," a festival of bisected pigs, dung-encrusted pseudo-paintings and unsexy amateur pornography posing as avant-garde art.)
Best Play: I adored "Contact," but the palm goes to Warren Leight's "Side Man." Alas, I didn't see Leight's first hit until after it finally got to Broadway, but it was worth the wait: I can't remember when the sweet-and-sour world of big-city jazz has been portrayed with such unsparing sympathy.
Best Jazz Gig: At Our Lady of Peace Church, master guitarist Gene Bertoncini gave an unaccompanied solo recital, the chaste lyricism of which still lingers in my mind's ear. (A very close second was singer-pianist Dena DeRose's one nighter at the Phoenix Room, a promising new nightspot on the Upper West Side. Watch this space for future developments; DeRose is hot.)
Best New Piece of Classical Music: Paul Moravec's boldly wrought, highly charged "Mood Swings" was given a near-perfect New York premiere at the Morgan Library by the Bachmann-Klibonoff-Fridman Trio, an ensemble that (like Moravec himself) ought to be world famous.
Best Operatic Production: New York City Opera's spare staging of Verdi's "Falstaff," directed by Leon Major, designed by John Conklin and starring Mark Delavan and Amy Burton, proved that you don't have to throw money at an opera to bring it to electrifying life.
Best Cultural Event That Should Have Taken Place in Manhattan: Miami City Ballet's two-day run at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, during which it performed George Balanchine's "Jewels" and "Prodigal Son" and Paul Taylor's "Arden Court," served as a reminder to snooty Manhattanites that New York City Ballet no longer holds the patent on first-rate Balanchine dancing.
And now, the rotten tomato, please:
Worst Cultural Event of Any Kind: The competition was stiff--"Sensation," the Metropolitan Opera's new "Tristan und Isolde" and the New York Philharmonic premiere of "Disney's Millennium Symphonies" were hard to undercut--but Thomas Ades' opera "Powder Her Face," presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, trumped all comers for sheer repulsiveness. Chauvinistic English critics and submissive American wannabes are touting Ades as the new master of postmodern classical music. Nothing doing: He's a smirking, scabrous parodist whose true subject matter is his own inability to express the passion that is at the heart of all great art. Rarely has the bankruptcy of late musical modernism been dramatized so effectively as by this pestilent Brit.