Jenny Scheinman Orchestra



November 19


107 Norfolk St.

(212-358-7501; tonicnyc.com)

Violinist Jenny Scheinman at Tonic on Sunday

He was a playwright and a poet long before he was a president — Joe Papp brought Havel’s “The Memorandum” to the Public Theater as long ago as 1968, just before the Soviet tanks murdered Prague Spring — but the words “play” or “playwright” or “theater” never came up during the hour Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton kicked things around before a packed crowd in Columbia University’s Lerner Hall last Wednesday, and the word “art” came up only once, when Clinton remarked that one of the enjoyments of being an ex-president was the freedom to take a couple of hours “to go to an art gallery” if he felt like it.

What they talked about, mostly, was the fragility of this world we live in, and what you could not anticipate when conducting a peaceful revolutionary transition from a tyrannical closed society to a democratic open one.

Since “we had no previous experience,” said Havel — president of Czechoslovakia, 1989-92, president of the Czech Republic, 1993-2003 — what we did not foresee, for instance, were the Mafias.

“We all expected the transition from communism to democracy to happen much faster,” said Havel. “I’m a historical optimist; nevertheless it [such a turnover] is a lot more complicated than we imagined.”

Physically, on the stage before 1,500 eager college kids and a salting of faculty, Havel and Clinton were Mutt and Jeff, short dark Vaclav Havel, tall white-haired William Jefferson Clinton, with Columbia University President Lee C.Bollinger  sitting as moderator between them. Also on stage was Slavic Language and Literature Professor Christopher Harwood to translate Havel’s deep, low Czech ruminations.

In this his 70th-birthday year, Vaclav Havel, at the invitation of Mr. Bollinger, is spending seven weeks “in residence” at the university. His duties are… just to be there. Clinton — “our neighbor” said Bollinger — can often be seen walking the campus.

Politician Havel — because he is that too — stressed the need, the hope, for politicians to think in terms of decades, to think of the perils to this planet instead of just the next election.

Clinton picked up the thread. The whole globe, he said, is going to have to face up to “declining arable soil, usable water, green forests, and even oil. We have to develop a level of consciousness that takes all this into account … organize our reality process.”

As example of the latter, he cited the Chinese who — when their government was not only doing nothing about the sars epidemic but not even acknowledging its existence — instead of storming Tiannanmen Square, jammed the government’s Website until they got action.

Power — national power — is highly overrated, Havel and Clinton both said. Where we once thought power would solve all problems, we now know it won’t. “I take a humble view of human nature. There will always be problems,” said the Czech ex-president. “In a world where we will no longer be dominant,” said the American ex-president, “I hope we’ll still be the most important country in the world. The benefits of dominance are ambiguous at best … I grew up in the South, so I’ve always been hypersensitive to abuses of power.” There is also a difference, he pointed out, between a democratic and a “majoritarian” society. Democratic is better.

Iraq lay between all these lines and was later brought up as a question in itself by moderator Bollinger. Neither Havel nor Clinton had any startling new therapeutic suggestions, though Clinton said “whatever she [his wife Hillary] says, I’m for it” (laughter, applause), and that in any event it was clear this country is not going to send what it would take — an armed force “of 400,000 to 500,000” — to a country that, outkilling tiny Bosnia, “is maybe not tired of killing yet” in its “tribal warfares.” It is, in any event, “their country, their future.”

Havel did not disagree. He only wondered: “How is it possible that no one, all these thousands and thousands of experts, couldn’t have predicted this?”

There were compliments flying back and forth during the hour, with Mr. Clinton — “in my 60 years of life” — seeing the “three great fighters for non-violence” as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel.

President Bollinger then brought down the house by asking  Havel: “Do you have anything nice to say about Bill Clinton?” He did, and he also wanted to thank the United States, which had “helped us most” in ex-Soviet Czechoslovakia “when I’m afraid Europeans were a little afraid of us.”

A lot of exes. Here’s one more. Vaclav Havel talking:

“It seems I am always a pioneer. I go where no one has gone before. Now I’m the pioneer of ex-Czech presidents, [whereas] the United States is full of ex-presidents. This gives me a certain creative inspiration. People want to know how to address me. Mr. President? Mr. Ex-President? Mr. Former President? Mr. Havel? I’m waiting for someone to say: Mr. Former Havel?”

You could write a play about that. And if you don’t, Mr. Past and Present Havel, your friend Tom Stoppard probably will.

Jenny Scheinman’s egalitarian orchestra

Violinist Jenny Scheinman is one those delicious young New York musicians whose obvious talent has led to an astonishing breadth of playing experience. Having performed with people as disparate as vocalist Norah Jones and guitarist Bill Frisell, the question that came to mind about her orchestral recital at the Lower East Side’s Tonic was which side of Scheinman would be present. The answer is that while she is a valuable addition to many ensembles, she has also absorbed something from all of them so her own music becomes unclassifiable.

Tonic is a delightfully ramshackle club, so despite the full tuning of the orchestra, the feel was as far away from Carnegie Hall as the trip by F Train. Scheinman augmented her semi-regular band — Doug Weiselman (clarinet), Ron Miles (cornet), Tim Luntzel (bass), Kenny Wollesen (drums) — with secret guest guitarist Frisell (who often performs unannounced at Scheinman’s concerts) and an orchestra of 11 violins, five violas and four cellos, all conducted by Eyvind Kang. For an hour, Scheinman presented 10 original pieces to a very attentive crowd who braved the chilly weather and the prospect of the Monday morning grind. Some were new, others had played before with smaller groups and at last year’s orchestra show (she commented that she hoped this could become an annual event) and none were particularly long, more morceaus than symphonies.

What might have been most refreshing about the evening’s first set was the lack of any traditional hierarchy. Scheinman was ostensibly the leader but she only took two solos and followed the direction of Kang like the other string players. Frisell, by far the most famous, was content to play bandmember, adding tasteful filigrees to the songs. The “band” section either drove the pieces with orchestral accompaniment, or acted as support to the strings. Credit Scheinman’s broad compositional palette for creating such an egalitarian environment.

There was an air of the familiar to the music, one that exceeded Scheinman’s personality. There were moments that recalled Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, the soundtrack writing of Howard Shore, the Mahavishnu Orchestra reborn as a Southern rock outfit, Vivaldi, ‘70s soul and lush CTI jazz arrangements. But this was not a quilt, rather a seamless tapestry. Frisell’s twangy Americana guitar meshed beautifully with exuberant folk melodies. Wieselman’s slinky clarinet musings rode smoothly over Wollesen’s hand-drumming grooves. Moments of freeform pizzicato from the string section were as convincing as lento sections of musical Romanticism.

As would be expected, the longer pieces were more complex and utilized the strings in sections rather than as one “instrument.” The shorter ones were more sketch-like, the strings staying primarily in ostinato mode and usually only featuring one soloist. At times the string arrangements were percussive; at others, they seemed inspired by George Martin’s work with The Beatles.

But vague comparisons aside, what made the evening a success was the cozy charm exuded by Scheinman. The audience already knew that this was not going to be a typical classical recital. Scheinman and Kang’s de facto leadership created a lovely organic ensemble that allowed the compositions and arrangements to breathe and float on air. The result was as entrancing as anything at Carnegie Hall and as comforting as a local hoedown.