The Lincoln Center Festival has long since become a summertime fixture in Second City, but one too often noteworthy for the studied eccentricity of its self-consciously wide-ranging fare. Having had sharply critical things to say about the festival in the past, I'm happy -- relieved, actually -- to report that it's now striking a better artistic balance.
This year's offerings, for instance, included a two-week mini-festival of 11 ballets by Sir Frederick Ashton, England's greatest choreographer, and the planners had the smart idea of leading off with two thoughtfully chosen mixed bills danced by three of the four companies taking part in the Ashton Celebration, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and Tokyo's K-Ballet. (Also present later in the run was London's Royal Ballet.) Between them, the two programs offered a representative cross-section of Ashton's work, including one masterpiece, "Enigma Variations," made in 1968 and unseen by New York dancegoers for years. Set to Sir Edward Elgar's well-known score, "Enigma Variations" is a pantomime-flavored story ballet about Elgar and his real-life friends (each of the variations is a deftly worked musical portrait) whose Edwardian warmth and charm were realized to near-perfection by the Birmingham Royal.
This year's festival is now history, but if you don't mind lining up in the noonday sun for a free ticket, you still have time to see "Much Ado About Nothing," the Public Theater's annual Shakespeare in the Park production, which closes a week from today. Yes, it's uneven -- what Shakespeare in the Park production in recent memory hasn't been? Yet this "Much Ado" pulses with excitement, much of it generated by Kristen Johnston. Familiar as the six-foot-tall alien of TV's "3rd Rock from the Sun," Johnston was new to Shakespeare when director David Esbjornson cast her as Beatrice, but she tore into the role with passion and made it her own. It takes Jimmy Smits, Johnston's Benedict, somewhat longer to find the right key, but once the intermission is out of the way, everything clicks into place and the show takes off.
Jazz in July was resplendent, not least because I was lucky enough to be at Birdland when Roger Kellaway and Bill Charlap gave the best live two-piano jazz performance I've heard in my entire life. The bedazzlingly eclectic Kellaway, who has been holed up on the West Coast for years, finally decided to head east and show the rest of the world his formidable stuff. For his long-delayed return to Second City, he joined forces with Charlap, who usually prefers suave understatement to single combat. Not this time: Kellaway was loaded for bear, and Charlap rose to the occasion. Their version of "Blue in Green" suggested an off-the-cuff collaboration between Bill Evans and Maurice Ravel, while the ferociously competitive "Strike Up the Band" with which they set the evening in motion sounded like two guys shooting Roman candles at each other in a locked room. ("Lotta black notes on that page," Charlap said to me afterward, grinning slyly.)
Almost as impressive were Gary Burton and Madeleine Peyroux, who shared a bill at the Blue Note. Burton is touring with a new quintet that features teenage guitar whiz Julian Lage. The solo Lage played on "Test of Time," a slowish blues by longtime Burton pianist Makoto Ozone, was truly memorable -- hot, focused, well shaped -- and Burton stood in the bend of the piano as he let it rip, grinning like a proud father whose son was graduating at the head of the class. Burton's own solos on vibraharp were, as always, perfect, which I suspect is why he doesn't often get the critical attention he deserves. You're constantly tempted to relax and delight in the sensuous appeal of their glittering tintinnabulation, whereas you have to listen closely to break through to the subtle workings of the musical mind that shapes those cascades of notes. The good news is that Burton was clearly inspired by Lage, and threw off sparks all night long.
If you haven't heard of Madeleine Peyroux, don't be embarrassed. "Dreamland," her debut album, was released in 1996, and she hasn't put out any CDs since then. Now she's on the road again and recording for Rounder ("Careless Love," her long-awaited second album, will be out in September). When it suits her, she can sing just like Billie Holiday -- the same salty rasp, the same squeezed-out upward spurts and languorous swoops -- but she also plays acoustic guitar in a down-home finger-picking style reminiscent of Leon Redbone. Her choice of material is no less Redbone-ish, running to a pleasingly off-center combination of standards, contemporary ballads and obscure old-timey tunes. I find Peyroux's restrained yet direct style powerfully appealing, and I'm delighted that she seems to be coming into her own at long last.
I didn't look at much art in July, but I do want to steer you to Joan Mitchell's "Larger Than Life: Color Lithographs From the 1980s and '90s" at the Mary Ryan Gallery through Oct. 9.
I wasn't as impressed as I expected to be by the large-scale Mitchell retrospective seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art two years ago, but this compact exhibition of late prints (Mitchell died in 1992) caught and held my eye. Mitchell's skeins and snarls of color may remind you at first glance of Cy Twombly's enigmatic scribbles, but their initial impact is stronger, and my guess is that their staying power, like that of her best paintings, will prove far greater in the long run.