On the cultural front lines in New York

From Rembrandt and Magritte to Kandinsky, Schiff and Gilbert – they’re all there in the New York City cultural scene.

Blue Nude by Matisse 370 (photo credit: The Baltimore Museum of Art/Succession H. Matisse/)
Blue Nude by Matisse 370
(photo credit: The Baltimore Museum of Art/Succession H. Matisse/)
NEW YORK – A visit to New York is always something special. I was there recently for a knee replacement.
Some days later, armed with analgesics and a walker, I was privileged to partake in the cultural extravaganza. Limited space does not allow me to do full justice to all the events, but here are a few choice items.
The Frick Collection
The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague is currently undergoing renovation, and it has loaned the Frick 15 paintings.
What a treasure trove! They date from the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age. These paintings were purchased by wealthy citizens and comprise portraits, still lifes and landscapes, as well as biblical and genre scenes.
Possibly the most dramatic painting is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, a most talented artist and pupil of Rembrandt. His life was tragically cut short by a gunpowder explosion that destroyed much of Delft. The brilliant trompe l’oeil effects in this unique gem are remarkable.
Another eye-catcher is Rembrandt’s Susanna. According to the Book of Daniel, the virtuous Susanna was spied upon by two Babylonian elders while taking a bath.
This is one of art’s supreme examples of voyeurism. The unfortunate Susanna, desperately trying to shield her body, is not idealized but the anguish on her face is readily evident as the two elders leer in the background. Another three stunning paintings by Rembrandt are also part of the exhibit.
Pride of place, however, goes to Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The pensive, enigmatic girl is one of the great icons of Western art and is the Dutch equivalent of the Mona Lisa. The sitter remains unidentified and thus the painting is a tronie, representing an idealized character.
Ironically, this painting was purchased in 1881 for less that $5.
Other masterpieces from the Mauritshuis include those by Hals, Steen, ter Borch and van Ruisdal, among others. The Dutch exhibit complements the Frick’s three genre scenes by Vermeer, as well as its rich trove of paintings by Rembrandt, Hals and other Dutch masters.
Runs through January 19, 2014.
Morgan Library and Museum
Here one is privileged to see another iconic portrait, Head of a Young Woman by Leonardo da Vinci. This metal point drawing served as a study for the angel in da Vinci’s great painting, The Virgin of the Rocks, and has been described by art historian Kenneth Clark as one of the most beautiful drawings in the world. It is part of the collection from Turin’s Biblioteca Reale, which also showcases di Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds. Of particular interest are the artist’s annotations in his left-handed, backward mirror script.
Runs through February 2, 2014.
Also on view are two handwritten manuscript scores of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The first, on loan from the Juilliard Collection, contains annotations and markings by the composer’s hand and is said to have been used by Beethoven as he stood before the orchestra for the symphony’s first performance. This score was used by the printer to prepare the first edition from which all further copies were made. The second score belongs to the Royal Philharmonic Society, which commissioned the work. To see firsthand these original copies of Beethoven’s No. 9, one of the towering masterpieces of Western civilization, was a humbling experience.
Also on display is the first edition of the complete Hebrew Bible, comprising the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, which was published in 1488 by the Soncino family and is the Hebrew equivalent of the Gutenberg Bible.
The New York Historical Society
New York’s oldest museum has mounted “The Armory Show at 100” to celebrate the centenary of this seminal event. The Armory Show was one of the most important art exhibits ever held in the US, since it introduced European avant-garde to America. It opened in New York in February 1913 and approximately 87,000 people attended the one-month event.
The Historical Society has reunited more than 100 paintings of the original 1,350 works displayed.
Half the artists in the original show were American. European artists represented included Brancusi, Braque, Cezanne, Degas, Duchamp, Gauguin, Lautrec, Matisse, Munch, Picasso, Picabia, Renoir, Rousseau and van Gogh.
The bestselling artist was Odilon Redon.
Many of the paintings exhibited in 1913 were new and unconventional, and provoked derision from critics and the public alike. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) was regarded as the most scandalous of all, and attracted the most attention. Matisse’s Blue Nude, considered today as one of the prized paintings in the Baltimore Museum of Art, was also regarded as primitive and depraved.
A scholarly catalogue accompanies the exhibit.
Runs through February 23, 2014.
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938” exhibit includes many humorous, thought-provoking works of this great surrealist. His paintings challenge classical visual perceptions of reality by defamiliarizing the familiar. I was struck by one painting in particular, La Reproduction Interdite (Not to be Reproduced), a brilliant take on the role of the mirror in Western art.
Jan van Eyck in his Arnolfini portrait, and Velazquez in his Las Meninas and Rokeby Venus, accurately depicted the mirror images of those sitting for them. Manet, in his A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, used Impressionist brushstrokes to convey the reflected mirror image.
Magritte takes it a step further. A sitter should see his own face when looking at a mirror; instead, he sees the back of his head.
Runs through January 12, 2014.
Neue Galerie
The exhibit, “Vasily Kandinsky: From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus, 1910-1925,” highlights more then 80 works and includes paintings, drawings and decorative materials.
It is drawn from the Neue Galerie’s own collection, with generous loans from major museums and private collections. Key works by Kandinsky’s contemporaries including Gabriele Munter, Franz Marc and Paul Klee, among others, are also on display.
The exhibit traces the development of the artist over this 15-year period. Born in Moscow, Kandinsky only began painting at the age of 30 when he settled in Munich. It was there that he and his colleagues formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) movement. The name was coined by Franz Marc, who loved horses, and Kandinsky, who had an infatuation with the color blue as well as riders. Kandinsky’s paintings from this period were initially romantic and expressionistic with rainbow colors. He gradually abandoned this free dynamic brushwork and representation altogether, creating a completely non-objective style.
With the outbreak of World War I, Kandinsky returned to Russia, where he devoted his time to teaching. In 1921, Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus school in Weimar.
It was here that he developed his geometric style, which evolved into pure abstraction. Kandinsky was much influenced by music, particularly by that of Arnold Schoenberg, and he often used musical terms such as improvisations, fugues and compositions to identify his works.
Kandinsky believed that art, music and theater, the so-called Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work of Art), were all connected. Central to the exhibition is a special reconstruction of Kandinsky’s lost murals for the Juryfreie Kunstschau (Jury Free Art Show), held in Berlin in 1922. This project was designed by Kandinsky and executed by his Bauhaus students.
Runs through February 10, 2014.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The curators have mounted a small show titled “Kandinsky in Paris, 1933-1944,” drawn from their large permanent collection.
When the Nazis took over, Kandinsky’s art was confiscated and displayed in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibit mounted by the Nazis. In 1938, Kandinsky elected not to renew his German passport and moved to France, where he settled in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-Sur-Seine. Here his palette changed yet again, and biomorphic forms with non-geometric outlines appeared in his paintings, often with softer pastel hues.
These two Kandinsky exhibits, situated three city blocks apart, beautifully complement each other and cover much of the artist’s output.
Carnegie Hall
Over the last few years, the incomparable Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff has been exploring the keyboard oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach. This concert at Carnegie Hall represented the climax of the endeavor, and featured a deeply probing account of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This was followed by Beethoven’s Variations on a theme of Anton Diabelli.
Stripped to its basic element, a simple theme, it is a marvel to see how Beethoven produced a work of such profundity.
The audience who stayed the course were then rewarded with the encore, an incandescent performance of the second movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Op. 111, which is also a set of variations.
To play these supreme keyboard masterpieces in a single recital is a prodigious feat, and was a testament to the pianist’s stamina and consummate skill. This recital, which lasted over three hours, took place two days after the New York City Marathon and was a marathon in itself. Because of the racist policies of the current Hungarian regime, Schiff has elected not to return or perform in his homeland.
Iván Fischer, the imaginative Hungarian conductor, led the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto with soloist Jonathan Biss.
Soloist and conductor succeeded in bringing out all the subtle details of the score, and gave a magisterial account of the concerto.
The concert also included Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches and Leó Weiner’s Serenade for Small Orchestra, both based on Hungarian folk melodies. Weiner was a Jewish composer and his serenade had sweeping romantic themes, which were well-captured by conductor and orchestra.
Fischer is an accomplished Mozartian, and his semi-staged performances of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro have received accolades. His affinity with Mozart was readily apparent in the scintillating account of the composer’s final symphony, “Jupiter.” Conductor and orchestra brilliantly captured the contrapuntal details of the final movement.
Unlike Schiff, Fischer who is the music director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, remains a resident of Hungary. The Red Heifer, an opera which Fischer composed, recently premiered in Budapest. It is based on an anti-Semitic blood libel.
Lincoln Center
 Established in 1842, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is indeed a phenomenon. During the season, week after week, it performs subscription series. I was privileged to attend their 15,630th concert. Which orchestra can compete with this? The clarity and brilliance of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion is probably unmatched.
Theirs is not an easy task. Carnegie Hall is continually hosting visiting national and international orchestras. To perform at Carnegie is the highlight on any orchestra’s calendar, and all give it their best.
The New York Philharmonic must compete with all this, and is amazingly successful.
I heard this great orchestra under their music director, Alan Gilbert, in a concert which also showcased their concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, who is resigning at the end of the season. The rendering of Richard Strauss’s tone poems “Don Juan” and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” was electrifying and impassioned.
Christopher Rouse’s Oboe Concerto also featured. Rouse, the philharmonic’s composer-in-residence, makes great demands on the soloist but Liang Wang, principal oboist of the philharmonic, played with flair and brilliance, successfully capturing the rhythm and color of this concerto.
At another New York Philharmonic concert, Matthew Muckey, the associate principal trumpeter, proved to be an outstanding soloist in Bach’s Cantata No. 51 and “Let the Bright Seraphim” from Handel’s oratorio “Samson.” He accompanied soprano Miah Persson in these two works. The program also included Mozart’s “Requiem.” Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie propelled his forces, giving a dramatic taut account.
Of the soloists, the most impressive were mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and Persson. The exceptional New York Choral Artists played a crucial role in ensuring the success of this concert.
Another memorable event at Avery Fischer Hall was the annual Richard Tucker Gala. This year’s event was especially noteworthy, since 2013 is the centennial of this great tenor. Gala events are often just happenings without much depth or substance. Not this one! The vocal soloists were all topnotch singers, most of whom had been recipients of the Richard Tucker Award, sponsored by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation.
This year’s awardee, the lovely mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, gave a winning account of a little- known aria from Vivaldi’s “Griselda.” She showed charisma and was a highly communicative singer. Up-and-coming soprano Angela Meade gave a remarkable rendition of an aria from Verdi’s early opera, I due Foscari. Another absolute showstopper was Joyce DiDonato, in a dramatic aria from Rossini’s La donna del lago. She has firmly established herself as one of the great Rossini interpreters of our time.
Other contributors to the most successful evening included Blythe, Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, Ailyn Perez, Stephen Costello, Greer Grimsley, Eric Jones and Matthew Polenzani. Soloists were well-supported by Riccardo Frizza, conducting members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). He was recently recognized with the Sidney H. Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field. His photograph album can be viewed at www.pbase.com/irvspitz; he may be contacted at [email protected]