A Musical Journey on Chinese New Year

Image copyright Vince Giordano

Lang Lang, a Mongolian children’s choir, and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks—I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Walking in the rain last night through puddles of what was snow just that morning, I ducked inside the Greene Space in SoHo, where WQXR, for which my wife Martha works, was hosting a live concert and broadcast with Lang Lang, the flashy, masterful Chinese pianist, and Quintessenso Children’s Choir of Mongolia.

WQXR host David Garland, who I was meeting for the first time (and who, surprisingly, looks as he sounds on the radio—tall, with wavy, graying hair and wearing designer, architect-style glasses), began the evening with the children’s choir: twelve boys and girls wearing traditional Mongolian costumes. Ranging in age from 5 to 12, the choir sang their songs in all-but-forgotten dialects of nomadic Mongolian tribes from the grassy central regions.

Next came Lang Lang, who bounded on stage in a t-shirt, black sport coat, and hiking boots with red laces. Known for his flamboyant dress and performance style onstage, Lang Lang selected a subdued piece by Liszt, which he played with incredible grace and subtlety.

After the piece, Garland asked Lang Lang about his inspiration for Liszt. Lang Lang’s answer? Tom and Jerry cartoons—specifically, the one with Hungarian Rhapsody #2.

After the hour-long performance at the Greene Space, Martha and I took a subway up to the theater district where we escaped the rain into Sofia’s Italian restaurant, then descended the red carpet stairs to another era—the world of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, who were playing big band songs from the 1920s and 30s as they do every Monday night. (Giordano and this band perform the music for the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.)

It was an evening arranged by another WQXR host, Jeff Spurgeon, with daytime host Naomi Lewin. We were seated just as the band played their opening number in honor of the New Year, “Chinatown,” recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1931 and later by Louis Prima. The number ended, and the band followed that with two more Chinese-inspired novelty songs from the era.

At the table next to us sat Will Friedwald, music critic and author of some of the best-known books on The Great American Songbook. He wore a red, embroidered Mandarin shirt; others in the audience wore Mandarin caps with a black braided ponytail (most likely purchased at the Pearl River gift store in Chinatown).

A pair of what must have been professional ballroom dancers—looking for a live music opportunity for their fancy footwork—glided in a quick-step foxtrot across the floor. We drank Manhattans and glasses of wine as we watched.

In all, the festivity and celebration could have taken place at any number of clubs in the early 1930s.

At the end, Robert White, the son of a great 1920s crooner—Joseph White, better known at the time as the Silver Masked Tenor — took the mike. He sang from charts—or sheet music—from which his father had sung nearly a hundred years earlier. The song was “Brown Eyes Why Are You So Blue,” and with it, Bobby White, embodying the spirit and the music of an era that was palpably alive in that club last night, sang a beautiful tribute to his father to a standing ovation.

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