A reader from Cleveland writes:
Glad to hear you took in our museum. How cool. It’s also heartening to hear your still-warm regard for the “smaller” places in the US (and really, what place is “bigger” than NYC?). Most of the people I know who’ve moved on to big cities develop a contempt for any place less populated (including their own birthplace). I suppose it must always exist within them, but snobbishness of this kind makes little sense to me as location does not make the man.
As a change of pace and in hopes it will be an exercise you’ll enjoy, how about a little classical music advice? Borders is running a 4-for-3 sale and I was browsing the classical music section. I was at a loss. I have works from the most well-known composers, but that’s about it. How about your thoughts on the 5 essential classical works of the 20th century? Please expand the time frame if current constraints make the list unworkable.
I did indeed take in the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of America’s half-dozen greatest museums, a fact of which many American art lovers don’t seem to be aware, perhaps because of its comparatively modest size–34,000 objects, compared to the two million owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If the Met is an encyclopedic museum, then Cleveland is a one-volume desk encyclopedia.
What makes the Cleveland Museum so extraordinary is the jaw-dropping connoisseurship with which those 34,000 objects were chosen. Instead of collecting in depth, Cleveland’s curators, like their counterparts at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, opted for quality over quantity, and time and again they hit the bull’s-eye. When I visited the abstract expressionist gallery last Tuesday, for instance, it contained paintings by William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, sculptures by David Smith and Isamu Noguchi, an Alexander Calder mobile, and a Joseph Cornell box–the whole history of abstract expressionism summed up in fourteen objects, all on display in a single room. Except for the Krasner, each one was of the highest possible quality. The whole museum is like that, more or less.
As for my correspondent’s request for advice, it happens that Time magazine asked me four years ago to pick (anonymously, alas) the greatest classical-music composition and opera of the twentieth century, plus two runners-up in each category. A year before that, I’d written a series of articles for Commentary called “Masterpieces of the Century” in which I drew up “a counter-canon of 50 major works.” Based on those two lists, here are five essential twentieth-century classical works, with links to my favorite recordings of each piece: