Celebrating Cole Porter and Philanthropy at Lincoln Center

by delarue

“Do you know Bob Steel?” the friendly Arkansas orange magnate asked his tablemate – a Red Sox fan celebrating his team’s fourth World Championship in fifteen years a bit early – at this year’s Lincoln Center fall gala last week. Just to be clear, this fan was not ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has also never tried to hide his fondness for the Boston team, and was also present.

“Not personally,” the considerably younger Sox fan replied.

He’s a good guy,” the Arkansan confided, almost conspiratorially. He’d been at UNC while Steel was at Duke; his friendship with the longtime Lincoln Center benefactor has remained strong since. This particular evening was Steel’s “turn in the barrel,” as he’d sardonically told host Patricia E. Harris in the weeks beforehand.

Fundraising consultant Amy Schiller, who was also at the celebration, empathized. For anyone who’s ever been feted at one of these events, it really is a turn in the barrel, she reminded. It’s less a barrel going over Niagara Falls than the kind in a .357: it feels like you’re hurled out into midair at the speed of sound.

Offstage, Steel and his vivacious wife are exactly as humble and unassuming as Harris described them, a quintessential culturally engaged cosmopolitan New York couple with whom you might have shared a “wow, that was something” moment after, say, a performance by the Philharmonic. The fundamental difference is that they may have essentially underwritten that moment of reflection and transcendence. 

They have three daughters. Pianist/singer Jon Batiste dedicated what may have been the highlight of the musical portion of the night, a glistening, rainswept, New Orleans-tinged wee-hours take of Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night to them: “In the steel of the night,” he quipped.

As the lavish swells of the orchestra rose and fell from the lowlit stage, a full house were treated to a full hour of Cole Porter classics. In her slinky lace dress and heels, singer Kate Davis left no doubt as to what Love For Sale was about, her aching melismas giving the protagonist a poignancy to match the Billie Holiday version. The edgiest moment of the night was pianist Aaron Diehl’s simmering, shapeshifting interpretation of Too Darn Hot. The most kinetic points were located at the heel and toe of tapdancer Jared Grimes‘ shoes; he kicked up a storm to rival any sit-down percussionist.

Other than echoing John D. Rockefeller’s insistence that this continent’s flagship cultural institution should be a place for everyone, Steel didn’t say much. In this particular moment, that sort of quiet advocacy for one of New York’s treasures spoke a thousand times louder than any self-aggrandizing tweet ever could.

Batiste is at the Jazz Gallery on Dec 18, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $20. Diehl is at NJPAC in Newark on Nov 29-Dec 2 at various times with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; $20 seats are available.

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