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Standing in the Rubble of New York’s Cocktail Life

Classification is practically a divine endowment. As Genesis says, the Lord breathed existence into being, divided the day into two categories, and called them night and day. Why complicate things with intermediacies such as dawn and twilight?

Fortunately for the musical arts, the current era is not Biblical. The dominant theme of twentieth-century music in all categories is the collapse of categories, as genres, styles, and cultural associations mingle and blur. Musically, we’re in the dawn of twilight (or the twilight of dawn, whatever), and I saw the evidence recently in two extraordinary concerts in New York City.

One took place at Le Poisson Rouge, the genre-mashing nightspot above the site of the old Village Gate jazz club, where the late impresario Art D’Lugoff used to books acts as varied as Charles Mingus, Flip Wilson, Allen Ginsberg, and Wayland Flowers’ erotic puppets. Le Poisson Rouge has updated D’Lugoff’s idea, presenting virtually every kind of music (classical, Botswanan folk music, electronica) except traditional nightclub acts. If you want to go to a nightclub in Manhattan, sip a Manhattan, and not hear somebody sing “Manhattan,” Le Poisson Rouge is a good place to go, though every joint in town with a mic stand and a liquor license has gone eclectic now. Last week at Le Poisson Rouge, the evening’s entertainment was a recital of classical music by the magnificently gifted, deeply expressive young Russian-American pianist Natasha Paremski. She played Chopin’s sweet lullaby “Berceuse” beautifully, handled Balakirev’s technically demanding “Islamey” with endearing bravura, and, most impressively, gave a confident and sensitive performance of a new composition, Fred Hersch’s “Variations on a Theme by Tschaikovsky”—a terrifically dizzying musical theme-park ride inspired by the second movement of the Symphony No. 4. Serious classical music by a composer traditionally associated with jazz, played with casual grace in a nightclub in Manhattan. No one needs a calendar to know it’s 2012.

Then, this Thursday, the singers Mary Foster Conklin and John DiPinto did a wonderfully unclassifiable show at the Metropolitan Room, a swanky mid-sized spot in Chelsea. Conklin, a former punk rocker from New Jersey, could sing anything but chooses to sing only what she chooses, and her taste is refined but not parochial. For the past several years, she has been performing, sometimes with DiPinto, in the underground series of “Renegade Cabaret” events staged, initially, on a fire escape by the Highline. In their show at the Metropolitan Room, Conklin and DiPinto, who plays the accordion, of course, presented an unaffectedly varied selection of tunes they love and sing well together. I had never heard half of the songs before, and every one was a pleasure: “Louisiana,” a gem from the 1930s by Fats Waller’s colleagues J.C. Johnson and Andy Razaf; “Shut Up and Talk to Me,” by the celebrated country tunesmith Guy Clark; and “Without Rhyme or Reason,” a deep obscurity by Fran Landesman and Bob Dorough (from a time when Dorough was musical director to the ’60s top-40 group, Spanky and Our Gang); and “Music to Watch Girls By,” done with affection and just enough of wink.

However oppressive the days, some of the nights have been good in New York this summer.