There are a few pieces every music major studies in order to emerge with a thorough knowledge of history. One of them is Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Conceived as a musical tour of ten works by artist and architect Victor Alexandrovich Hartmann, whose death in 1873 deeply affected the composer, it would lend itself perfectly to a multi-media concert linking Mussorgsky’s musical ideas to the actual drawings and watercolors, six of which remain intact.
If only Gerard McBurney had made the task simpler in “Beyond the Score: Pictures from an Exhibition,” which came to Syracuse last night.
Originally presented by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005-6, the first part of McBurney’s program deconstructs the musical material of Mussorgsky’s original piano suite, integrating accounts of 19th-century Russia, live projections of a pianist’s hands as he plays through the piece, and images ranging from Orthodox Christian art to Polish villages which loosely provided inspiration for Hartmann's art.
Narrators Elizabeth and Malcolm Ingram wooed the audience with their British diction and vivid anecdotes, but delivered their lines with more attention to form than content, leaving a rather superficial impression which corresponded with the projections floating on the screen behind them. Steinway artist Fred Karpoff played with solid musicianship, but could have brought forth a richer, more nuanced sound from his instrument. The close-ups of his playing only made it easier to cast judgement on his technique.
The program simultaneously explores Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestration, which is the most widely-performed version of the piece, juxtaposing piano passages with the instrumentation adopted in the symphonic score. The symphony played diligently under the baton of David Loebel as specific instruments were isolated to illustrate Ravel's compositional process. At times, parts of the actual score were projected onto the screen, but the rapid timing of the images and poor coordination with the orchestra's playing made it nearly impossible to read along.
In an age of multi-tasking, the YouTube Symphony, and waning interest in what is considered an archaic art form, the use of new media may be crucial for the future of Classical music. Unfortunately, the onstage presentation resembled a hyped-up version of Orchestration 101. The visuals which intended to make the experience more enticing often proved more distracting than anything else.
Some themes discussed, such as the adoption of Klezmer music to represent the “poor Jew” and Ravel's musings on the nature of modern music, allowed for a somewhat rich cultural experience. Other attempts to inform the audience seemed based on the assumption that no one had ever seen an image of a Russian church or a portrait of Mussorgsky.
While education may be key to appreciating a complex work like “Pictures at an Exhibition,” McBurney’s approach lacked focus and continuity. It may have provided decent entertainment and opened people’s minds to the general context in which the score emerged, but ultimately did not lay the solid foundations for understanding of a musical work.
The second part of the concert, which consisted of a straight performance of Ravel’s orchestral adaptation, may have been the saving grace of the evening. Loebel led the SSO with precision, vigor, and elegance. The strings section played with little tension. The winds brought forth round, accurate sonorities which truly brought the music to life.
Despite the multi-faceted approach to presenting Mussorgsky's music, the audience left knowing little about the composer’s original intentions, namely, recreating the experience of Hartmann’s exhibition. It may have gathered vague notions about the urban landscape in which Mussorgsky lived and seen a note or two fly by as the orchestra rehearsed onstage, but in all reality, everyone could have done some reading at home before attending the concert.