Two weeks in New York

A cultural diary of some notable happenings in The Big Apple

March 3, 2012 22:54
Manhattan, New York

New York Manhattan 390. (photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)


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NEW YORK – We recently visited this unique metropolis to savor some museum highlights as well as a few musical events. Here is a summary of some of the current attractions which will catch a traveler’s fancy.

Metropolitan Museum

Of all the museum exhibits, pride of place went to the Metropolitan Museum, with its incomparable showstopper: The Renaissance Portrait: from Donatello to Bellini, which was co-organized with the Berlin State Museums.

Almost 60 institutions and private collectors contributed works of art to this encyclopaedic survey comprising 160 masterpieces which stresses the Italian contribution to this genre. Besides paintings, there was also an outstanding collection of manuscripts, sculptures, coins and medallions.

Most of the major Italian artists were represented, including Masaccio, one of the fathers of perspective. The exhibit focused on portraits of prominent citizens of the Italian city states, with special emphasis on Florence and Venice until the beginning of the 16th century, thus excluding Titian, the greatest portraitist of them all.

It was a real revelation to see how successfully these great artists succeeded in portraying the likenesses, emotions and personalities of their sitters. By so doing, these artists jettisoned the established norm of portraying idealized human subjects.

For me, the highlights were the two spectacular portraits by Sandro Botticelli of the famed Florentine beauty Simonetto Vespucci, as well as those of Giuliano de Medici. Giuliano’s brother, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was represented by his death mask as well as a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and some medallions. Two magnificent female portraits by the Florentine brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo also deserve special mention.

Portraits of famous families and personalities from other city states were also on view, including the d’Este family of Ferrara, the Sforzas of Milan, the Gonzagas of Mantua and the Montefeltros of Urbino.

Although the most famous portrait of Federigo, Duke of Montefeltro, by Piero della Francesco from the Uffizi was absent, the duke was represented in a full-length portrait by Pietro di Spagna together with his son and heir, Guidobaldo. The final section of the exhibit was devoted to Venice, with dazzling paintings by the Bellini family, Mantegna, Carpaccio, Vivarini and Antonella de Messina. On view till 18 March.

Museum of Modern Art

Another exciting exhibit, Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art, attempted to replicate the exhibit originally created specifically by Rivera for his one-man show at MOMA in 1931. Because they were immoveable, none of Rivera’s Mexican murals could be transported to the 1931 exhibit. So the innovative artist devised a portable platform to display his frescoes as freestanding works. Working over a period of six weeks in a room specifically set aside for him at MOMA, Rivera completed the cycle of portable murals.

The current MOMA exhibit celebrated the 80th anniversary of the original show and featured five of the eight original portable murals. Pride of place went to the Mexican agrarian leader Zapata with a white horse, from MOMA’s own holdings. The remaining murals had been dispersed, and are housed in public and private collections in Mexico and the USA. MOMA managed to bring four of the remaining murals to this fascinating show.

Conspicuously absent were two belonging to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which declined to loan them for the current exhibit. The whereabouts of the final mural is unknown. Although this certainly left a void, MOMA made up for it by exhibiting three working drawings, a prototype of the portable mural as well as several watercolors, drawings and prints from Rivera’s oeuvre.

Rivera brilliantly conveyed the social injustices of the time as well as the exploitation of the Mexican peasants. These murals are as relevant today as they were when originally executed. On view until 14 May. (A review of MOMA’s exhibition of Gertrude Stein’s collection appears on Page 24)

Neue Galerie

The Neue Galerie celebrated its tenth anniversary by displaying 345 items from the private collection of its co-founder, Ronald Lauder, which is devoted in large measure to Viennese fin de siècle paintings and drawings by Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Gerstl and Kubin as well as decorative arts by Hoffmann and Moser.

Of interest was a transfer drawing on black chalk and paper of Klimt’s Jurisprudence, one of the paintings commissioned by the University of Vienna but never displayed because the university authorities deemed it too pornographic. The painting itself was destroyed in the Second World War.

Also included were a sizable collection of more modern works from German artists including Kirchner, Heckel, Klee, Beckman, Marc, Grosz, Dix, Schwitters, Polk, Beuys, Baselitz, Richter and Kiefer, among others.

Equally or perhaps even more impressive was Lauder’s large collection of paintings and drawings by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Manet, Klee, Kandinsky, Seurat, Cezanne, Degas and van Gogh, and sculptures by Brancusi and Picasso, as well as four of Matisse’s “woman’s back” series.

The exhibit also included examples of medieval art and arms as well as some Old Master paintings by Albrecht Aldorfer and Quentin Massys, among others. Lauder himself narrated the audio tour, which detailed how he made some of his extraordinary acquisitions. One did however miss a more scholarly interpretation of this great art. Few if any modern private collections can rival this in for depth and breadth. On view till 2 April.

Onassis Cultural Center

Another noteworthy exhibition was on show at the Onassis Cultural Center. This gem of a museum is situated in the heart of midtown Manhattan. Entrance is free, and over the years it has mounted some spectacular shows related to ancient Greek civilization.

Currently on view was Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd-7th Century CE. On show were over 170 objects from Greek, Cypriot and US Museums which highlighted the extraordinary flourishing of the arts in the Greek world during his period.

The exhibit showed how Christian iconography evolved from pagan origins. Roman temples became quarries for building of churches, and artists reworked statues from antiquity to reflect the new religion. During this period, statues of Christ’s apostles assumed the same veneration as did those of the pagan Greek philosophers, and eventually supplanted them. As the power of the Church increased, their bishops became the leading patrons of art.

The exhibition creates the impression that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire, classically referred to as the Dark Ages, wasn’t so dark after all. On view till 14 May.

All the exhibitions mentioned above are accompanied by lavish, informative and scholarly catalogues.

Discovery Times Square

The building formally occupied by The New York Times has been converted into an exhibition center known as Discovery Times Square. Currently on show is the Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times.

The exhibition was created by Israel’s Antiquities Authority and will also travel to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. On display were 10 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the exhibit also presented a showcase of more than 500 artefacts from every epoch of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land.

The exhibit is displayed so as to garner popular appeal, and includes pottery, coins, jewellery, textiles, seals, menoras, ossuaries and other archeological findings. Also on view was a large Herodian stone from the outer wall of the Temple compound.

For Israelis the exhibit does not offer anything new, but it offers an unprecedented opportunity to those not fully acquainted with Israeli history to view these priceless cultural assets. On view till 15 April.

9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero

We made the pilgrimage to the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center destroyed by al-Qaida. In place of the towers, Israeli-born architect Michael Arad has designed two giant reflecting pools, each with a waterfall. The names of every person who perished in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed on bronze panels edging the memorial pools.

Especially poignant were the names of pregnant women listed with their unborn children. This hallowed place certainly conveys a spirit of hope and renewal. At this stage, the site remains very much a work in progress. Ultimately the area will include a museum, cultural center, transportation hub and several office buildings.

New York Philharmonic Orchestra

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra is currently in its third season with its new director, Alan Gilbert. In the two concerts I attended, the programming was very eclectic. Gilbert coaxed the maximum out of this most proficient ensemble in both the classical as well as more adventurous repertoire.

In the first concert, the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Magnus Linderg’s Feria was given its New York premier. The virtuoso Chinese pianist Lang Lang was the soloist in Bartok’s second piano concerto. On this occasion Lang Lang seemed less showy and more reserved, but gave a brilliant, enthralling and fiery account of the work. For this concerto, Gilbert positioned woodwinds and brass to his left with the strings to his right.

The conductor was equally at home in the Russian repertoire and rendered an impassioned performance of Prokofiev’s fifth symphony. The pizzicato of the strings in the second movement was most noteworthy. Gilbert held the orchestra under tight control in the fourth movement before unleashing them for the dramatic climax.

A second concert featured Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Gilbert brought out all the pulsating rhythms and varying tempi, displaying the full virtuosity of the orchestra.

The Philharmonic’s current artistin- residence, Frank Peter Zimmermann, gave an ardent classical rendering of Beethoven’s violin concerto with perfect intonation, blending in beautifully with the orchestra. Zimmerman played the classical Kreisler cadenzas.

The performance of Ravel’s ballet suite Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 was invigorating and exciting and brought out all the inventiveness of the work. Gilbert certainly captured the subtleties of the score and the orchestra responded magnificently.

Initially there was some unhappiness among certain New Yorkers that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra managed to lure away Riccardo Muti, but from what I heard, under the stewardship of Alan Gilbert the New York Philharmonic is flourishing.

Porgy and Bess

Broadway’s new production of Porgy and Bess bears little resemblance to George Gershwin’s original conception. Conceived as an opera, it had to wait over 40 years, until 1976, to receive its first full operatic production. Since then numerous productions have been mounted, and it is now certainly part of the operatic mainstream.

In the current Broadway version, director Diane Paulus, aided by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray, have truncated and compressed Gershwin’s masterpiece. Gone was Gershwin’s lush orchestration, many of the original choral numbers, part of the dialog and even Porgy’s goat cart.

On its own terms this Broadway adaptation was highly entertaining. The magnetic Audra McDonald gave an unforgettable performance as Bess, and Norm Lewis, with his sonorous baritone and likeable stage presence, was her Porgy. On occasion, in softer passages, voices and orchestra were distorted because of the amplification.

Metropolitan Opera

And finally, the memory of New York I will always retain and cherish was the concluding scene of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena with the incomparable soprano Anna Netrebko at the Metropolitan Opera. The absolute high point of the performance was her searing, passionate aria prior to her execution, at the opera’s end. With her tender and expressive voice, Netrebko recalled her past triumphs and contemplated her impending execution. By so doing, she touched the hearts of all. This was artistic excellence at its very peak.

Irving Spitz, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( He blogs at

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