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By Brian Wise | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Even the most jaded New Yorkers cherish iconic New York City moments—walking in Central Park, sitting by the Lincoln Center fountain, savoring a pizza at Grimaldi’s. But the reason string players love Gotham goes further, to its constant embrace of new experiences—performance venues, chamber ensembles, jam sessions. Here are some of the myriad venues, ensembles, restaurants, and cultural institutions that make this musical city great.

“I enjoy the energy and the feeling that everyone is on their own path to be their best self,” says Melissa White, a concert violinist and member of the Harlem Quartet. “Getting on the subway you see all walks of life. Everyone is going places and has their own hustle. New Yorkers are always trying be their best.”

The pandemic has seriously challenged this creative ecosystem. As of July 2021, Covid-19 had driven a cumulative income loss of nearly $1 billion to city arts organizations, according to a survey by the Center for an Urban Future. Yet even as new waves of the pandemic arrive, the wealth of available experiences remains unbeatable. (Concert halls, museums, and restaurants require people five and older to show proof of having received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Some venues also require proof of a booster and face masks; best to check before you visit.)

David Geffen Hall. Photo: Ajay Suresh

New and Reinvented Stages

Perhaps the most anticipated event on the music calendar comes this October when David Geffen Hall is expected to reopen following a $550 million gut renovation. Originally scheduled to reopen in 2024, the pandemic-enforced cancellation of almost two years of concerts allowed Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic to fast-track the process. This season, the orchestra is performing at a variety of other venues including Alice Tully Hall, where, from May 12–14, concertmaster Frank Huang will take the spotlight in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5.

Beyond the big halls, some of the most popular concerts in town take place in a church crypt and in a catacomb, both presented by the wryly named organization Death of Classical. This year it unveils a third subterranean series, in a space below St. George’s Episcopal Church near Union Square. Dubbed the Cave Sessions, it’s expected at press time to be inaugurated by violinist Jennifer Koh in February with seating for 50 attendees. A fourth series, tentatively called the Speakeasy Sessions, and with venues to be announced, is also being planned.

For those not yet ready for confined spaces, Death of Classical also presents an ongoing al fresco series in Brooklyn’s 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery. Last summer, I donned hiking shoes and joined 60 fellow listeners along Green-Wood’s meandering paths to six different gravesites and mausoleums, where members of the New York Philharmonic performed music by Antonín Dvořák, Florence Price, and Leonard Bernstein (a permanent cemetery resident). The series returns this May with “Hot Dogs, Hooch, and Handel”—a follow-up program to 2019’s “Burgers, Bourbon, and Beethoven”—featuring libations and Baroque repertoire.

New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall (pre-renovation). Photo: Jun Seita

If the alive and kicking are more your speed, the Chelsea gallery space High Line Nine features several “living artist studios,” which allow visitors to see the art-making process and hear occasional classical performances. Jesús Rodolfo, a violist who lives nearby, has performed works by Hindemith and John Williams in its studios. “That was kind of an oasis and a blessing during this time,” he says. “I love the concept of bringing different forms of art together and creating something that is not the normal concert hall experience. The audience could become part of the whole experience.”

A visit to the gallery should be paired with a walk along the High Line, the elevated park built on a former freight train track, which extends 1.45 miles and attracts massive crowds (go early). Take note of the post-industrial landscape including outré buildings by architects Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid and visit the new Moynihan Train Hall, a soaring expansion of Penn Station.

Sampling Multiethnic Brooklyn

Because New York City is a series of islands, the ferry is one of the most pleasurable ways to get around. Seven minutes from the tip of Lower Manhattan is Governor’s Island, where the Rite of Summer Music Festival makes use of the former military post with free, often site-specific performances by groups including the Knights, Alarm Will Sound, and Ethel. Also reachable by ferry is Bargemusic, a longstanding chamber-music series located on a converted coffee barge and docked in the recently completed Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw recommends Bargemusic for a date night, especially when paired with a trip to nearby Juliana’s Pizza. “My wife and I have taken the subway down to lower Manhattan and then walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, enjoyed the concert, had some pizza, and then walked back,” he says. “By that time, it’s dark out and and you see the incredible view of Manhattan.”

Juliana’s Pizza in Brooklyn

Having long beckoned rock and jazz musicians to its scrappier quarters, Brooklyn is also attracting classical musicians who, a generation ago, might have settled in Upper Manhattan. Colin Jacobsen, first violinist of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, lives in the brownstone-lined Windsor Terrace neighborhood, offering easy access to venues like Barbès, a cozy bar that hosts chamber music, jazz, and global sounds, and the Jalopy Theatre, a folk-music institution in Red Hook. In the onetime hipster enclave of Williamsburg, National Sawdust emphasizes experimental music of every stripe while Fort Greene is home to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


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Jacobsen recommends a subway trip to the deeper corners of Brooklyn. The Midwood neighborhood features Taci’s Beyti, considered by many the top Turkish restaurant in the city, offering kebabs, hummus platters, and other delights. For a pizza pilgrimage, he suggests the legendary Di Fara, nearby on Avenue J. The seaside Russian enclave of Brighton Beach is home to the Azerbaijani-style Baku Palace and Tatiana, offering seating along the boardwalk. “And if you’re on a culinary adventure, go to Coney Island,” Jacobsen advises, “where you’ll find restaurants from Bangladesh and other parts of southeast Asia.”

National Sawdust. Photo: flickr/wiredforlego

After sampling Brooklyn’s United Nations of cuisines, head to Roulette, located in a 1927 Beaux-Arts theater near downtown Brooklyn, to hear performers from Armenia, Cuba, India, Senegal, and Syria (Syrian violinist Samer Ali and his Takht al-Nagham ensemble performed there on March 12). “Like National Sawdust, Roulette seems focused on presenting what artists want to present rather than having its own curatorial agenda,” notes John Pickford Richards, the violist in the JACK Quartet. “There’s more focus on atmosphere, with interesting lighting.” After a Roulette show, Richards and his quartet-mates will often visit the Hollow Nickel, an unpretentious pub with a creative beer menu.

On the Trail of Instrument Makers and Dealers

Brooklyn’s well-known artisanal aesthetic extends to its small community of luthiers including Samuel Zygmuntowicz, whom Jacobsen calls the dean of American string instrument makers. “He works out of the brownstone where he lives, so it’s very old-school artisan,” he says. For a visitor on a tight schedule, the Carnegie Hall vicinity includes three international auction houses: Tarisio Fine Instruments and Bows, Reed Yeboah Fine Violins, and Rare Violins of New York. “All of these are fun places to visit and try instruments,” says Jackiw, who lives in the neighborhood. He likens the experience to entering a candy shop, only filled with beautiful instruments. “All three have top-level instruments and incredibly knowledgeable staff.”

Reed Yeboah Fine Violins. Photo: Courtesy of Reed Yeboah

Jackiw is a particular devotee of Tarisio, occasionally soliciting advice from its director of sales, Carlos Tome. “Having a trusted pair of ears who can listen and give feedback is very valuable and Carlos is that person to me,” he says. “He has such a sensitive ear because he spends his life listening to top-level instruments.” Tarisio holds three annual New York auctions, along with six smaller-scale T2 auctions, featuring instruments and bows, tonewoods, books, and other items for the trade. Appointments for auction viewings are required.

Other Lincoln Center–area businesses have persevered amid New York’s steeply rising rents and the growth of online shopping. They include David Segal Violins, offering instruments, restoration, and supplies since 1975, the bow-making shop of Yung Chin, which opened in 1987, and Strings and Other Things, which luthier Christophe Landon opened in 1993, and which provides instrument sales, rentals, repairs, and accessories. Rehearsal spaces also dot the West Side, including the Kaufman Music Center, which rents a variety of studios with pianos for a little as $17 an hour.

Violinist/violist Alexis Sykes at David Segal Violin. Photo: Toby Winarto

Engage All Your Senses

The Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall dining scenes, though pricey, have perked up in recent years, and a trio of restaurants from chef Daniel Boulud bustle with concert-goers and musicians. Jackiw prefers a pre-concert meal at Bar Boulud, a Parisian-style brasserie. “It has a really excellent coq au vin and steak frites,” he notes, also pointing to the French onion soup, oysters, and excellent wine.

Other pre-concert options include the Smith, a popular American brasserie, Rosa Mexicano, for fine Mexican cuisine, and Cafe Fiorello, a neighborhood Italian institution. For a more casual meal, walk to Ninth Avenue in the West 40s and 50s for a variety of smaller eateries offering Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. If a post-concert drink is on your agenda, consider the rooftop bar at the Empire Hotel, where a young Aaron Copland lived in its more workaday incarnation, and the posh Life Rooftop bar on the 29th floor of Le Méridien hotel, steps from Carnegie Hall.

Once boasting an old New York charm, the streets around Carnegie Hall are now dubbed “Billionaires’ Row” and lined with ultra-luxury skyscrapers. While the hall remains a gem, a more authentic streetscape exists elsewhere. Hsin-Yun Huang, a violist and professor at the Juilliard School, e-mails several “must-do” experiences, including a jog around the reservoir in Central Park, a walk by Bartók’s former apartment (marked by a plaque at 309 West 57th St.), and “a great lox cream cheese bagel” from Absolute Bagels on Broadway at 108th Street.

Huang also finds a wellspring of inspiration at the city’s museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which in 2019 opened its beautifully renovated musical instrument galleries. On display are violin-family masterpieces by Stradivari, Amati, and Stainer, as well as the painted “Royal George” cello by English maker William Forster. It is emblazoned with the royal coat of arms of Great Britain and worth the $25 cost of admission on its own.

There are also, of course, discoveries in the three other New York City boroughs, and visitors should also consider a walk through Harlem, says Melissa White, the violinist. “Tourists often don’t get off the tour bus, but it feels like there’s a different sort of energy walking around,” she says, adding a plug for Lenox Coffee Roasters at 129th Street and Lenox Ave.

Jesús Rodolfo, the violist, advises visitors to embrace a little urban grit. “New York is always going to be noisy and busy and frantic,” he says. “It’s so big and raw. But that’s New York, and when you come to the Big Apple that’s what you get.”


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New York Philharmonic Concertmaster Frank Huang’s Top 5 Dining Experiences

Sushi Yasaka, 251 W. 72nd St.

“For a lot of my colleagues, we like to eat at places that take less time. A lot of musicians will have a light dinner here before a concert or lunch between rehearsals. This offers very good, moderately-priced sushi.”

The Smith, 1150 Broadway

“A good go-to would be their burger. But if you have a huge meal before a concert, it doesn’t feel that good onstage.” 

Empire Rooftop Bar, 44 W. 63rd St.

“It has some striking views, it’s open late, and has a great drink menu as well as delicious snacks.”

Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, 1900 Broadway, 20 W. 64th Street

“Before a concert, there are a lot of great upscale restaurants near Lincoln Center. Their prix fixe business lunch is very easy to manage.”

Baekjeong, 1 E. 32nd St. near Fifth Ave.

“If there’s a big gathering and a lot of musicians want to celebrate after a concert, I love going down to K-Town [Koreatown]. This is a really nice Korean barbecue and has some side dishes that are not too common. I would recommend it for a larger gathering because it’s great to share and eat with a bunch of people.”