Ahhh, the incomparable New York salon experience: gatherings for artists, musicians, writers and those who love them. Culture, conviviality, and good spirits — i.e. shots. Recently, we had two such soirees, back to back.
The first: at Dame Alice Kandell’s Upper East Side penthouse, also home to her renown collection of Tibetan antiquities. The second: at the Park Avenue home of German Consul General David Gill and wife Sheila, where 12 angel sculptures by Alexander Polzin presided over an evening of commentary, poetry and performance. A grand piano featured prominently in each.
Alice Kandell opened her penthouse duplex for the premiere of Encountering the Buddha, the Smithsonian paean to the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room she donated to their National Museum of Asian Art, Sackler Gallery. That earned her a knighting by the Order of Princess Isabella, and the Knights of Malta. For the film, Phillip Glass performed new compositions and discussed his Buddhist experience.
Since that donation, Alice has already filled a new Tibetan shrine room. She greeted me warmly and led me to it, down a spiral staircase. “Once you enter, don’t speak,” she asked. I understood. Lit gold and silver symbols glowed in the darkened room. It’s literally a religious experience. The Smithsonian curator spent five minutes alone inside, then, emerged in tears. This collection is already earmarked for another museum. “I firmly believe,” said Alice, “art like this does not belong to any one person. It belongs to the world.”
As it was meant to be. “Fifty years ago, the Tibetans wouldn’t sell these objects of devotion,” Alice told me. “As the war with China continued, they parted with them to survive, only because I promised they would go into a sacred space.”
Alice’s love affair with these Buddhas, religious statues and paintings was ignited by another love affair. It began when a fellow freshman in Sarah Lawrence, Hope Cooke, suggested they spend the summer in Tibet. “I said yes,” Alice told me. “But, my parents said, ‘nothing doing!’ Can you imagine two college girls on the back of a mule in the middle of a war with China? Hope went, but could only get as far as the Windamere hotel in Darjeeling. While there, she met the widower crown prince of Sikkim. They fell in love and married.
“In the fullness of time,” Alice continued, “the King passed away, making her husband king and she, his queen. A big, beautiful invitation to the coronation came in the mail. I didn’t think I could leave graduate school, but my Harvard advisor said, ‘When fantasy becomes reality, a member of the Harvard Psychology Department should be there to witness it.’”
The rest is actual history. “Sikkim changed my life completely,” Alice said. “I was wowed by the beauty: the art, the people, the snow blowing off the mountain against the bluest sky.”
At the King’s request, she began photographing the country. When art became available, she began acquiring — and still hasn’t stopped. “It is really an addiction,” she laughed. “My husband said it would be easier for me to give up heroin.”
In 2011, she donated the collection she built over five decades to the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in the presence of the Dalai Lama. Her shrine room is considered the only one of its magnitude and quality in America. The Washington Post called it a top destination in the museum.
“After I had given it away, I was standing in the empty room with cardboard boxes — and realized I was going to start collecting all over again!” she laughed.
When there was no Tibetan art available, Alice turned to Russian religious icons. In a separate room, they shine in the dark.
Dame Jillian Sackler, understands her friend’s obsession. Her collection of antiquities spans many cultures. Jillian’s the widow of Arthur Sackler, who died, in 1987, ten years before OxyContin was conceived, even longer still since he had sold his shares in Purdue Pharma. Thus, his family is removed from the maelstrom and his name remains on the museums he has bequeathed.
Dinner was now being served. I was learning a lot more about Alice from the tight knit group of friends gathered. She is a child psychologist, author and music lover who regularly holds salon performances. A living room platform under glistening greenhouse windows makes the perfect stage.
After desert, the room thinned out. Just as I was about to leave, it filled with music. The piano had been rolled back and Alice’s buddies had decided to perform. “I had no idea they would,” she told me. “They were just invited as friends.”
Grace Field, (Dr.) Michael Fennelly and Jimmy Roberts treated us to a two-hour tour de force. Gershwin, Sondheim, Roberts’ original comedic ditties, touching duets, Field’s bold stylings. It was a New York moment. Fennelly got up first. He’s an international star, a staff pianist for The Juilliard School and the Metropolitan Opera. “He finished George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and was knighted for it in Spain,” someone whispered in my ear. “My son performed with him in Texas last year as The Bad Boys of Opera.” Renee Fleming has performed with him, too.
Grace Field joined him. She’s a Broadway fixture who has sung with Hugh Jackman and tours extensively with her own cabaret act. “I met her on an elevator,” Michael later told me. The group egged Jimmy Roberts up next. He composed the music for I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and has a new musical in the works. They sang and sang. I stayed and stayed. At midnight, I floated home.
The next night found me in another fabulous duplex, belonging to the German Consulate. This evening began on another baby grand, with the jazz stylings of David Chesky — pianist, composer, producer, arranger, and co-founder (with brother Norman) of the independent, audiophile label Chesky Records and HDtracks. He’s also the son of my 8th Grade English teacher and a friend from my 20s. Daughter Paloma Chesky sang. She’s been performing professionally since she was ten and just released an album of original songs she wrote and produced, titled Thirteen. Because, in fact, that’s her age.
They had been brought there by German artist Alexander Polzin, whose angel sculptures were host German Consul General David Gill’s raison d’être for the evening. Pianist Filippo Gorini performed a Beethoven concerto, behind Polzin’s sculpture of the composer.
Gill’s wife, Sheila Shrivastava, read her angel-inspired poem.
The evening turned out to have roots in East Germany. Consul General David Gill grew up in Saxony; Polzin, in East Berlin.
“When you live in a country, where nothing in the newspaper is actually true,” said Polzin, “people have a real sensitivity towards art. When an actor says ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ the audience empathizes. The community of artists had to act with solidarity to survive. I went to theater, concerts, opera.” Polzin was even recruited to become a successful opera director.
“When the wall came down, these open eyes could finally fly into the world and discover the colorful things waiting there,” Polzin told the room. The first thing he did was take a train to Paris. “I had never seen an actual Gaugin or Van Gogh,” he remembered. “The colors were a shock to my senses.”
“It changed my whole life,” Gill told me, of the fall of communism. “I was 23 and had never travelled, never seen a Western country, not even the the Western side of the wall.” As the son of a minister, he was labeled a subversive, and banned from higher education. He had to learn a trade, and became a plumber. (The powder room was in perfect condition!) “I didn’t agree with the Communist regime and I never joined the Communist youth movement,” he continued. “So, I had to pay the price of sacrificing a real career.”
How did he end up here: a diplomat in one of Manhattan’s toniest buildings, supporting the arts, poetic wife at his side?
“There are no political appointees,” Gill told me of the German selection process. “It is 100% career. In East Germany, I was very much involved with the dissolution of the Stasis, the secret police. After the wall came down, I studied law, worked for the State of Berlin, the Protestant Church and then, in politics. I became the State Secretary and Chief of Staff for the former German president, Joachim Gauck. He was also from East Germany. I met him in the process of the dissolution of the Stasi.”
What exactly was involved in that process I wondered. “It’s a long story,” he replied with a smile.
Perhaps his angels had lent a hand. “We need them to guide us through all kinds of battles that we are facing,” Polzin had told me. Were these his angels, then? “All art is personal,” he replied. “You can only do what touches your own heart and is important to your own soul. Then, it has a chance to speak to others.”
Icons. Angels. Persecution. Uncertain times.
Happy New Year!