This is an anniversary of sorts -- my 50th report from Second City. I'm not feeling especially nostalgic, though, so I'll skip the backward-looking rhapsodies and concentrate instead on something I've learned from writing this monthly column. The superabundance of New York, it seems, can turn even the most idealistic among us into tiresome perfectionists who expect everything to be ideal at all times. We forget that mixed bags also contain good stuff -- and the bigger the bag, the more treats it can hold.
I was reminded of this truth when I visited "Childe Hassam, American Impressionist," the Metropolitan Museum's blockbuster retrospective of a turn-of-the-century painter who has always been popular but long since fell from elite favor. Most of the local critics showed up with shivs in hand, and even though I think well of Hassam, I can't deny that this 140-piece retrospective, which runs through Sept. 12, was in certain ways a missed opportunity. For one thing, it contains too many frankly derivative middle-period paintings -- most of which serve only to show that Hassam was a terrific Monet imitator -- and not nearly enough of his more individual later work. Why, for instance, has the Met hung only eight of the 30-odd American flag paintings from 1918 and 1919 that are Hassam's greatest achievement? They're a series, after all, and they profit immeasurably from being seen en masse.
Still, the sheer size of "Childe Hassam, American Impressionist" means that it has something to offer anyone who cares about pre-modern American painting, though I do think a smaller, more focused exhibition (like, say, Adelson Galleries' 1999 show) might have had a stronger impact. And I give the Met full credit for having pulled a gold-plated rabbit out of its fully funded hat: "Long Island Pebbles and Fruit," a 1931 oil from the American Academy of Arts and Letters that betrays unmistakable post-impressionist tendencies, is hung next to a video screen on which you can see a rare silent film about Hassam that shows him at work on the very same painting!
By contrast, two of the best plays I saw last month were clearly mounted on the cheap. Take "Charlie Victor Romeo," just extended through July 31 at P.S. 122. A production of Collective: Unconscious, it consists of black-box recordings of six airplane crashes (the title is military phonetic alphabet code for "Cockpit Voice Recorder"), dramatized with self-effacing skill and performed on a no-frills cockpit set that looks as though it couldn't have cost more than a couple of hundred dollars to build. The results are as real as an overheard conversation -- and as frightening as a heart attack. It isn't for the squeamish, but if you've got the nerve, "Charlie Victor Romeo" is the scariest show in town.
No less impressive is Jean Cocteau Repertory's revival of the Brecht-Weill "Threepenny Opera," which runs through Aug. 15 at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre. The stage isn't much bigger than a walk-in closet, but the performers are lively and committed, and David Fuller, the director, knows what makes "Threepenny" tick. Keep an eye peeled for Lorinda Lisitza, who plays Jenny with considerable flair -- my guess is that we'll be seeing more of her.
I caught two of the JVC Jazz Festival's main events, both at Carnegie Hall but otherwise totally different. Joao Gilberto, one of the founding fathers of bossa nova, gave a solo recital at Carnegie Hall, and despite his usual mid-concert fit over the sound system, he sang mesmerizingly well, exhaling each song as if it were a cloud of cool mist, accompanied only by his minimalist acoustic guitar. A week later I heard Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland and Brian Blade, who now play together semi-regularly. The music they performed was complex, all but abstract and hugely demanding, at times unproductively so. Too often I felt I was hearing a string of gorgeous moments lacking an ordering principle strong enough to bind them into a fully intelligible whole. Nevertheless, you couldn't help but be fascinated by such involved musicmaking, and I can't wait to hear how the band sounds a year from now.
Rene Marie had a week-long run at Le Jazz Au Bar, Manhattan's newest high-end jazz room, from which I came away with mixed but essentially favorable feelings. She's mostly singing originals now, and the only one I really liked was a haunting Joni Mitchell-style ballad called "Wishes" that had new standard stamped all over it. (I also wish she'd sung at least one up-tempo number.) But . . . what a set of pipes! Think of a warmer, more vulnerable Carmen McRae, soft and smooth, and you're there.
Joanne Tatham, a Los Angeles-based cabaret singer who brought a Jimmy Van Heusen show (nice idea, smart choice of material) into the Duplex, also has an exceptionally beautiful voice. It's reminiscent of the pop balladeers of the late '50s and early '60s, but with a fine-drawn intensity and shimmering vibrato that are all her own. Though her patter isn't as assured as her singing, I loved what she did with "But Beautiful," "Like Someone in Love" and "Only the Lonely," and I was also much taken with Shelly Markham's arrangements and Ross Patterson's full-bodied piano playing. Like Lorinda Lisitza, I expect we haven't seen the last of Tatham.
Finally, I wrapped up jazz and modern dance in a not-so-neat package by going to see the Mark Morris Dance Group at the BAM Opera House. The main event was the premiere of "Violet Cavern," accompanied live by the postmodern sounds of the Bad Plus, the rock-flavored acoustic jazz trio that's all the rage among the cooloscenti (and whose pianist, Ethan Iverson, used to be Morris's music director). Alas, I didn't think it quite added up. Not only did the 50-minute work tend to ramble, but Morris thrives on a kind of structural rigor to which even the best jazz rarely aspires.
On the other hand, I got completely wrapped up in my second viewing of "All Fours," set to Bartok's Fourth String Quartet. When I saw "All Fours" last year at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, I wondered whether so dissonant a work might be too difficult to be suitable for choreography -- the music seemed to get in front of the dancers -- and I felt the same way during the first part of the BAM performance. Before long, though, I told myself to shut up and deal. The score is masterly, the choreography keen-eared and full of sharp twists, and my guess is that after a third viewing I'll be wondering why I ever had any doubts about it.
If you're coming to New York City in the next few weeks, keep these events in mind:
Balletomanes, start your engines: Lincoln Center Festival's two-week Ashton Celebration kicks off July 6 and 7 at the Metropolitan Opera House with two mixed-bill, multiple-company programs of the ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton . . . Also noteworthy is the Brooklyn Philharmonic premiere of "Il Sogno," billed as Elvis Costello's "first orchestral suite," July 17 at Avery Fisher Hall . . . Now in previews: "Much Ado About Nothing," starring Sam Waterston and Jimmy Smits, running through Aug. 8 at Central Park's Delacorte Theater . . . Jazz legend Bob Brookmeyer checks into the Jazz Standard Aug. 4-7 . . . Closing notice: The Roundabout Theatre's five-Tony revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," on July 18 at Studio 54. The company advises that "the show is not playing to capacity and tickets are available."