February was a month of cold weather and hot tickets. "Matisse Picasso" is packing the 7 train to the Museum of Modern Art's temporary headquarters in Queens. Every remaining performance of Francesca Zambello's love-it-or-leave-it Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz's "Les Troyens" is sold out. And jazz buffs pulled on their longjohns and lined up halfway around the block to see Shirley Horn at Iridium.
To Washingtonians, Horn is an old friend and neighbor, but up here in Second City, she's an Event. None of my friends can remember the last time she sang in a Manhattan nightclub. Her engagement was all the more Eventful in light of the fact that it was something of a comeback. Insiders knew that chronic illness had put her in a wheelchair and stopped her from playing piano. It was impossible to imagine anyone else playing for the best self-accompanist in jazz, so when the word got out that she was coming to town, fans marked their calendars, not sure whether to be excited or nervous.
I felt both ways as I waited and waited for Horn to show up. She was a half-hour late, and I was close enough to the bandstand to overhear the members of her trio (including George Mesterhazy on piano, who carried out his unenviable task with skill and discretion) wondering out loud whether she'd go through with it. Finally, she materialized in the wings, and you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as she was wheeled into place, followed in half a heartbeat by a standing ovation. It was quite an opening -- and quite a show. Horn sang in a near-whisper, the whole room leaning on every syllable. "I Got Lost in His Arms" was sly and lustful, "Here's to Life" almost hurtfully poignant. As for "Yesterday," I can't even begin to tell you what it was like to hear her utter the line "I'm not half the girl I used to be." All I can say is that you could have heard a tear drop -- and plenty did, mine included.
I dined with three jazz singers a couple of weeks later, and it turned out that they'd all been to see Shirley Horn, and couldn't talk about anything else. I don't know when I've heard anything scarier or braver, or more beautiful.
Shows like that can't be topped, but I heard two that came close. The Bad Plus, touring in support of "These Are the Vistas," its brilliant debut CD on Columbia, tore up the Village Vanguard with a gnarly, witty set whose highlight was a deliciously deadpan version of "Every Breath You Take." Mark Morris was there, along with what looked like at least half of the Mark Morris Dance Group, all of them cheering wildly for Ethan Iverson, the Bad Plus pianist (and the dance group's music director). It was a historic moment: For once, a jazz band wasn't too hip for the room.
As for the world premiere of Maria Schneider's "Bulerias, Soleas y Rumbas" at Alice Tully Hall, I'll put it even more strongly: Jazz at Lincoln Center has never done anything more important than commissioning this piece. It's no secret that Schneider is the foremost big-band composer of her generation, but this powerful large-scale work, in which she blends jazz and flamenco with the skill of an alchemist, is so good that I hesitate to limit its significance by calling it big-band music, or even jazz. It is as tightly woven and emotionally compelling as a symphony, and I think it ought to be seriously considered for next year's Pulitzer Prize in music. For that matter, I'm damned if I know why Schneider hasn't received a MacArthur Fellowship. I can't think of anyone in jazz -- or any other art form -- who deserves a "genius grant" more.
Elsewhere at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet wrapped up what by most accounts was a troublingly uneven winter season. I can't vouch for the whole season -- I was able to come only a half-dozen times -- but every program I saw was inconsistent. Jennie Somogyi looked great in "Concerto Barocco" (but then, she always does), and Andrea Quinn, the company's music director, actually managed to bring off a secure-sounding performance of "Agon," the first time I've heard such a thing in my 15 years of NYCB-going. On the other hand, the corps was almost always loose and unfocused, especially in "Symphony in C," and the first-night "Coppelia" suffered from some of the worst orchestral playing I've ever heard at a ballet performance. This is not the City Ballet that made me fall in love with dance.
Infinitely more to my liking was "Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting," which opens Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum. Space prevents me from holding forth at sufficient length on the endless glories of this immensely subtle and knowing exhibition. To wander through the galleries is like taking a graduate course in art history, only much more fun. It's a 240-painting blowout, so give yourself plenty of time to savor such strokes of curatorial ingenuity as the side-by-side display of a school-of-Velazquez "Dwarf With a Mastiff" with a copy painted two centuries later by John Singer Sargent. Better yet, come several times, since you don't have to pay extra for a special timed-access ticket in order to get into this blockbuster -- a regular Met admission is all it takes.
"Manet/Velazquez" is up through June 8, so you don't have to hurry, but you've only got until Saturday to catch the Edouard Vuillard show at Berry-Hill Galleries, next door to the Frick Collection. If you thought you'd been Vuillarded out by the National Gallery's retrospective, think again, for this elegant little exhibit is very nearly as wide-ranging in scope as its First City counterpart (albeit on a much smaller scale), and offers connoisseurs a rare chance to see a good-sized group of Vuillard's fragrant pastels. It's worth a trip to Second City all by itself, and if you're coming to town this week to see "Matisse Picasso" or "Les Troyens," you really don't have any excuse to skip it. I mean, didn't we come to Washington to see your Vuillard show? Get with the program!