By Kyle MacMillan
Because interviews with classical artists almost inevitably cover such music-related subjects as favorite compositions, stylistic evolutions, or upcoming engagements, it’s easy to forget that they are more than just performers and have other interests in their lives. A case in point is Richard Goode, the esteemed 76-year-old American pianist who will present a solo recital July 25 in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre.
While music is, of course, a central part of his life, much less known is that he is an avid fan of fine art, especially European painting. Although has acquired some small paintings, sculptures, and original prints, he considers himself more an admirer than a collector. He makes a point of visiting the art museums in the dozens of cities he visits each year as part of his international touring schedule. “It’s a continuing love of mine,” Goode says.
The pianist has no idea how many different museums he has toured, but it could be as many as 200. They range from regional institutions like the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, NE, to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, with its renowned collection of Dutch art. Some he has seen only once, but others, like the National Gallery in London and Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he returns to repeatedly.
Legendary pianist Mieczysław Horszowski, one of his teachers at the Curtis Institute of Music, was also what Goode calls an “inveterate observer and lover of paintings,” and he had the ability to remember everything he saw and even recall where in museums the artworks were positioned. “I happily or unhappily don’t have that gift,” Goode says, “so, consequently, if I visit a museum and I haven’t been there for years, I don’t necessarily remember what’s there. What I’m trying to say is that I get a new shock of surprise when I go to a museum that I haven’t been to for a while and have a new, fresh experience.”
Two of his favorite institutions are in his hometown of New York—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he quickly points out is just five blocks from his residence, and the Frick Collection, 17 blocks away. The latter houses the extraordinary art collection of Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) and is located in the once-powerful industrialist’s Gilded Age mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Other favorites include the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO, and Milan’s Museo Poldi Pezzoli, which includes masterpieces by such artists as Sandro Botticelli and Andrea Mantegna.
So excited was Goode to talk about art in what he said was his first-ever interview on the subject, he prepared a list of what he called his favorite “touchstone” works—“Great paintings that I live with and have loved for many years.” Some of them are famous, others less so. Here are his six top picks:
The Hunters in the Snow (1565), oil on wood, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. Meant to depict the season of winter, it shows three men and their dogs returning from a largely unsuccessful hunt.
Stratford Mill or The Young Waltonians (1819–20), oil on canvas, John Constable, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. A group of boys are fishing in a mill pond in this idyllic landscape with billowy white clouds in the background.
The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), tempera on wood, Piero della Francesca, National Gallery, London. The title makes clear the subject matter of what was once the central panel of a chapel altarpiece in an Italian abbey.
Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1665–69), oil on canvas, Rembrandt van Rijn, Kenwood House, London. One of the best known of Rembrandt’s more than 40 self-portraits, it portrays him against a background with two enigmatic partial circles.
St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1476–78), oil on panel, Giovanni Bellini, Frick Collection. Goode calls this portrait of the celebrated Italian saint “one of the greatest paintings I have ever seen.”
Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877), oil on canvas, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago. One of the most beloved works in the Art Institute’s collection, it depicts a bustling Parisian street near the Gare St. Lazare right after the rain has stopped.
These are all European Old Master or Impressionist works, which Goode readily acknowledges are typically his preference. “I’m narrow in that way,” he says, “if there is a European painting collection, I tend to go to that.” That said, he cites two American painters he likes—celebrated 19th-century realist Thomas Eakins and pioneering 20th-century modernist Marsden Hartley.
At the same time, the pianist went out of his away to add a seventh painting to his list of favorites, one that Goode says shows he is not completely stuck in the distant past—Balthus’s Passage du Commerce-Saint-André (1952–54), which is owned by the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland. “I’ve actually visited that street in Paris, which you can still see,” Goode says, “and it looks much as it did when he painted it.”
Beyond simply visiting museums, Goode also likes to perform in them, something he has done at the Frick Collection, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England, which has one of Europe’s finest art-deco concert halls. “It gives me a special pleasure to play surrounded by paintings,” he says. He has a special memory of playing before some 300 people about 15 years ago in San Giovanni Evangelista, a 15th-century church in Venice decorated with frescoes. “In that place, I remember feeling very happy, because I was playing in Venice for the first time,” he says, “and I played Chopin’s Bacarolle, which is certainly a piece inspired by Venice and ideas of a gondola and a trip on the Great Canal. I felt like that was a perfect marriage of music and art and place.”
Goode is not really sure where his interest in art originated, but he has had since he was a child. “I just cottoned to it,” he says. He grew up in the Bronx, and when he was 12, he started taking lessons in Manhattan at the Mannes School of Music, which in those days was located on the Upper East Side, not far from many of the city’s best private galleries. So, as part of his trips to the school, he began visiting the art spaces, seeing his first works, for example, by the sometimes whimsical 20th-century master Paul Klee. “I was very excited by that,” he says. He also recalls being impressed by an exhibition of Antoni Tàpies, one of his first experiences with abstraction. “One of my thoughts was, this could be art too,” he says.
While enjoying art is a kind of hobby for Goode, a diversion from the many hours he spends practicing, rehearsing, performing, or sitting on an airplane, he was quick to point out that there are revealing ties between the pursuit and his music-making. Art enters his mind when he is thinking about composers like Claude Debussy, for whom the visual and auditory are closely related. [Six of Debussy’s Préludes conclude Goode’s Ravinia recital, including two that may have been directly inspired by Arthur Rackham illustrations.]
The pianist makes a distinction between the more linear painting of, say, Mantegna, a 15th-century Italian master and the more painterly style of Rembrandt. “When I think about the Rembrandt self-portraits that I love and Rembrandt’s painting in general, I think about the painterliness,” he says. “I think about the mixture of things. I think about not depending on so much line but what happens when paint can be another reality in the sense of space and light.”
Goode carries over that separation to music. He doesn’t consider impasto (the heavy application of paint) or chiaroscuro (strong contrasts between light and dark) when taking on what is to him the more linear music of Haydn or Mozart. But he does think of those artistic qualities when playing the music of Brahms and particularly Debussy, who is seen as the first Impressionist composer. “I think the visual element enters into it in that case—the way you play the piano, how much pedal you use, how you delineate lines,” Goode says. “It’s part of your thought, conscious or unconscious, it seems to me.”
The pianist went on to make connections between the manuscripts of Johann Sebastian Bach with their scroll lines and Baroque painting of the time that put an accent on the curve. “I think about that often in playing music—not only Baroque music, but particularly that music,” he says. “You have notes that look equal on the page, but in the manuscripts they don’t look so equal, and in the ear, I think they are not so equal.”
In order to sound right, Goode believes equal notes have to be a little bit skewed. Or put differently, they have to be made “unequal in just the right way.” He compares it to a bow stroke on a violin, which by its nature can never be perfectly consistent from start to finish. “You have to create that inequality, you have to create the bow,” he says. “That for me is almost an obsession. I’m not sure how much of that is visual, but it certainly has a visual counterpart in the brushstroke, say, and the curved line.”
For in Richard Goode’s world, art and music, the seen and heard are never far apart. ▪
Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.