This week: Sculpture, Shostakovich & more.
When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath, by Stuart Isacoff (Knopf): Van Cliburn’s victory at the inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 is, at heart, a story of the universal and unifying powers of transcendent artistic achievement. The competition, created with the purpose of exhibiting Soviet cultural superiority to the world during the height of the Cold War, had all the looks of being impaired by political tampering. But Cliburn’s performance threw a wrinkle in what must have been the politburo’s expectation of Russian success. Cliburn, a skinny twenty-three-year-old from Kilgore, Texas, was so electrifying in his playing—and so endearing to the general Russian populace—that the Soviet judges, with direct approval from Nikita Khrushchev, had no choice but to hand him the award. Stuart Isacoff, a pianist, composer, lecturer, and regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Life and Arts section, recounts those thrilling few days and the history that followed. —AS
“Sculpture 56” at 56 Bogart Street, Brooklyn (through May 27): The dozen galleries of 56 Bogart Street, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, have quietly evolved into the single best concentration of art venues in any building in New York. No doubt this is due to the galleries’ proximity to one another—and their separation from everything else. In the late nineteenth century Alfred Marshall described certain places as “having ideas in the air,” where knowledge “spills over” from one person to the other. The central corridor of this one building, packed with serious galleries and the people who create them, has become the Main Street of New York’s alternative art scene. Through Sunday, these gallerists have come together to organize “Sculpture 56,” their first building-wide exhibition, with eleven venues showing various takes on contemporary sculpture. Highlights include a bespoke version of the Jersey barrier in “Noah Loesberg: Remote Barrier Storage,” at Robert Henry Contemporary (the co-director Henry Chung was an architect of this exhibition series) and the many examples of contemporary ceramics at Honey Ramka (where Julia Kunin’s unsettling Green Bismuth Head is my best in show). The two levels of this dense showing both command attention—and hopefully hint at collaborations to come. —JP
Shostakovich and Mendelssohn at the New York Philharmonic (through May 22): Last week, I heard the New York Philharmonic give one of the best performances of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that I’ve heard in some time. This is one of the great symphonic masterpieces of the twentieth century: when Shostakovich was working on the symphony in 1937, he was still living under the shadow of his recent denunciation by Party censors, and the new work was received as his public penance for prior artistic transgressions. The true meaning of the piece has been debated ever since, but a keen listener can hear in the music the frustration, fear, rage, and deep grief of the composer. Semyon Bychkov’s gripping performance with the Philharmonic left little doubt as to how he reads the piece. One performance remains on Tuesday night.—ECS
“Handwriting Is Not Dead: A Conversation with Collector Pedro Corrêa do Lago” at the Morgan Library (May 31): With a quiet week on the culture front ahead of Memorial Day Weekend, our thoughts turn to next week, when the prospect of an air-conditioned room will surely be a thrilling one. The Morgan will provide just that, and more, in hosting a conversation with Pedro Corrêa do Lago, a collector of handwritten artifacts—letters, documents, manuscripts, and more. The collection will be on display at the Morgan from June 1 through September 16, but those attending the talk will get a chance to see the objects a day early. —BR
From the archive:“At the point of extinction,” by Paul Dean (December 1999). Concerning secondary education in England.
From the current issue:“Writing from the gutter,” by Adam I. W. Schwartzman. A review of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson.