If you’re a New Yorker and you’re reading this column, chances are pretty good you’re a concertgoer—whether it’s orchestral, chamber music, alt-rock, jazz, experimental, opera, what have you. Some of them are pretty spectacular. To cite a couple of examples off the top of my head, it’s pretty hard to beat the exhilarating production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Met this spring or the New York Philharmonic’s all-stops-out Le Grand Macabre last week.
But spectacular as these performances may be, how do they relate to the rest of your life? You plunk down your hard-earned cash, listen to the music, perhaps dance (if it’s a club), applaud, have a drink or dinner with friends, go home. But unless you happen to know the musicians, any live link to the musicians ends that night.
I got thinking about this recently, because on June 4 I went to my first performance that was part of Carnegie Hall’s “Musical Connections” series, a program begun during the 2009-10 season that brings professional musicians to places like prisons, homes for the elderly, homeless shelters, and healthcare facilities. They’ve produced concerts at Rikers Island, Sing Sing, and Bronx Elderly Care Facilities. The concert I attended brought Haitian singer Emeline Michel to Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn.
The link connecting everyone who attended the concert was Haiti—people who had helped in one way or another after the January earthquake. A large contingent was there from the Bedford Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and others had helped either by fundraising or by providing emergency medical care in Haiti (including several physicians from the hospital). So this was less like a “concert” and more like a “thank you” event to the Brooklyn community—and the signal of how big a thank-you it was, was the presence of Emeline Michel. Michel is a singer of eclectic styles including traditional Haitian/Creole songs (compas), jazz, pop, bossa nova, and samba. She is a formidable presence both vocally and physically; the voice can comfortably go quite low, and it can thin out more delicately on high notes. A big part of her appeal is that she looks genuinely ecstatic to be singing—evident in the photo here, taken in 2008 at Harlem Stage during a Neighborhood Series concert also produced by Carnegie. Her admonition to the audience to “mess the place up” (dance) during the song “A.K.I.K.O.” was answered immediately and energetically by a mostly female contingent of audience members. It was quite a scene to behold. The whole audience, men and women, sang along loudly, and overwhelmingly in tune. During that number and a few others, Michel joined in with her own dancing—in wild fashion, barefoot, hair whipping around.
But an event like this has a purpose, and that is audience and community involvement—in the form of talking about the continued need for Haiti rebuilding, and by speeches and thank-you’s and singing from members of the hospital staff and others. Most notably in this regard, the U.S. National Anthem was sung full-out by Samuel Clarke, associate director of the Kings County Hospital Corporation, and the Haitian National Anthem was sung by (the appropriately named) Sheimyrah Charles-Mighty, an 11-year-old girl whose mother is also a KCHC staff member. A rebuilding effort like Haiti’s requires more inspiration than just one artist, even one as inspirational as Emeline Michel, can provide. But unlike a regular concert-hall experience, this was a more directive type of performance. “Please don’t forget about Haiti,” Michel implored, “because the camera has turned off on Haiti.” Her heartfelt performance—and that final request—were like a commandment that your connection to her, the artist, last beyond just one hour.
Photo of Emeline Michel by Jack Vartoogian.