Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An Afternoon Entertainment on Lituanica

Maybe you’ve seen the gothic windows and heavy wooden door of the former funeral parlor on Lithuanica, and wondered what goes on inside. It’s better than you might guess.

At least it was last Sunday, a dark, miserable day -- it was a perfect day for Romantic entertainment. Paul Lewis and Steven Weintraub, the hosts, had invited a roomful of guests to hear Ryan de Ryke, a baritone, sing Schubert’s Die Wintereisse, while Paul accompanied him on piano.

This was only the second time I’ve been a guest at Paul and Steven's apartment. Steven is a Master of Yiddish Dance who performs on both sides of the Atlantic. Paul is Principal Pianist for the Joffrey Ballet.

The first time, they were throwing a Gorey Halloween party. I went dressed as a child being devoured by mice. When I first got there, all the other guests were dressed as Edwardian gentlemen. They wore precisely-shaped whiskers and cravats tucked into waist-coats, they were carrying canes with silver handles, or wearing glossy black riding boots.

It wasn’t clear if they were in costume. The quality of their clothes was too good. And they were in persona. They were making gentle conversation with accents. (“Well done!” they would chuckle, if someone made a particularly smart remark.)

It was a little disconcerting. But it was also a fabulous Halloween party.

Steven and Paul’s friends include dancers and musicians, and a number of steampunks. If you have never met a steampunk before, which I hadn’t, they are members of a sort of futurist movement, but launched from an earlier age -- one based on steam-power and equipped with brass gadgets, as if technology had gone a different way. And in general, they wear better clothes.

As the party progressed, the gentlemen were joined by ladies in corsets, drapery and fringe. A guest in a wild, flowing beard, a kilt and a helmet, holding his mask and goggles so he could better converse, told me one inspiration of the movement had been a boys’ novel penned before the First World War. The boy hero was bionic, but his powers were impressive to his era. He could pull a cart, faster than a horse!

Paul and Steven have only recently moved into the old funeral parlor. It seems perfect for them. You enter through a small anteroom – at Halloween, a mechanical crow burst from a cabinet to warn you into foreboding as you as you arrived.

Then you passed into a parlor and reception hall. It has stucco walls, stained glass windows, a chandelier. It’s decorated with treasure from travels around the world. (And through time.) There are masks and vases from Southeast Asia, a working victrola in perfect condition, and a particularly graceful art deco lamp. Pride of place goes to Paul’s piano. There are sofas and clusters of chairs for guests to gather during the entertainment.

There was entertainment for the Halloween party too. It began with a duet recitation of Edward Gorey’s alphabet of children who all come to horrible ends. (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears.”)

For the finale, Ryan de Ryke, the baritone, performed The Borgia’s Are Having an Orgy, with Paul, the host, on piano. Paul had done the arrangement himself.

So a month later, when Paul and Steven sent out invitations for “A Winter’s Journey Salon,” to feature a more complete display of Ryan’s powers, gloom or no gloom, who would stay home?

“This is exactly what we hoped for when we moved here!” Steven told us, looking over his crowded parlor just before the program started. The room is perfect for intimate performance.

It turns out that Ryan de Ryke is a leading performer of Leider, a genre of German romantic song. Die Wintereisse is a masterpiece of the genre. A piece in 24 poems, composed by Wilhelm Muller, and set to music by Franz Schubert, who finished the composition just before his death at age 31.

The poems describe a young lover whose beloved has fallen for someone else. He’d once been her family’s favorite suitor, but the new suitor is richer than he is. He leaves her house unnoticed in the middle of a winter night, and stalks into a frozen landscape. Every feature of it seems to resonate with his misery, his brief spurts of courage, and his lapse back to despair.

They’re sentiments indulged in a different era. “They’re sentiments I might have indulged in a much younger era of my own life,” Ryan agrees after his performance. But he adds the imagery means more as he performs it.

Ryan is very tall and Germanic looking. He is wearing a black suit, his expression is somber. The performance is a physical feat, you can see it when you are sitting that close to him. He sings about hot tears melting ice, and the perspiration trickles down his face in rivulets.

“Amazing,” one of Paul’s violinist friends says, after it’s finished. He’s a professional, he’s heard parts of Die Winterreisse performed before, but he says it’s rare to hear it performed in its entirety. Later, Ryan will say he’s done it 60 times or more. It’s the piece he suggests, whenever he is asked.

Afterwards he will find a tall glass of water, while the guests mingle, drink wine, feast on sweets, and speculate about performances to come. Before we all head back out into the gloom on Lituanica.

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