Poor Modest Mussorgsky suffered the scorn of his contemporaries, especially his fellow Russian composers. “Insipid, ignorant, complacent, immature, and crude” were their favorite descriptions of Mussorgsky’s music.
But then, who today can hum a tune penned by César Cui, the once respected composer of Russian operas and president of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Musical Society at the turn of the last century, who regularly denounced the composer of the opera Boris Godunov and “Pictures from an Exhibition”?
Under the direction of guest conductor Karina Canellakis, the San Diego Symphony offered a stirring, gorgeously detailed and smartly disciplined account of “Pictures from an Exhibition” Saturday (January 9) as part of the orchestra’s Upright and Grand Piano Festival at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. “Pictures” belongs on this series because Mussorgsky wrote it for the piano, and only after the composer’s demise did musicians see its potential as a knockout orchestral piece.
There may be over 10 different orchestral arrangements of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures,” as the Symphony’s program book commentary explains, but none comes even close to the gold standard set by Maurice Ravel’s 1922 transcription, commissioned by the noted Russian conductor Sergey Koussevitzky, which Canellakis chose for this concert.
What made this performance even more persuasive was the hour multi-media presentation during the concert’s opening half that illustrated the relationship between Mussorgsky and his friend Victor Hartmann, whose 1873 exhibition of paintings and drawings inspired the composer to write “Pictures,” and described in fascinating detail how Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s vivid piano depictions. The combination of lively narration and succinct musical examples provided by the orchestra and by pianist Marc-André Hamelin made this one of the most engaging concert lectures I have ever experienced.
Kudos to San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer, who brought this “Beyond the Score” presentation from the Chicago Symphony, on whose staff she served before coming to San Diego and where she had been intimately involved in the production of this sophisticated educational experience. While the axiom “music speaks for itself” surely contains an element of truth, the more listeners understand about the context of a musical work, the more involved they are likely to be as they experience it.
From this “Beyond the Score” presentation we learned many insightful facts about Ravel’s choices as he made “Pictures” into the vibrant orchestral work we know so well. Two examples: for the chromatic theme in “The Old Castle” movement, Ravel chose a solo saxophone not because it might be associated with jazz popular in Paris clubs of 1922, but because he wanted a more exotic sound than any of the standard orchestral instruments could produce, and Hartmann’s castle suggested an imposing Middle Eastern building rather than a western castle. And to create with the orchestra that resonant effect the piano’s sustain pedal creates when used in a succession of thickly voiced chords, Ravel doubled his brass with horns and other winds to blur the sharp edge of the sonorous brass choir.
In her Friday appearance with the San Diego Symphony, Canellakis demonstrated both her authority on the podium and her easy rapport with the players while conducting a pair of concertos with Hamelin as soloist. She paced “Pictures” well, keeping a sweeping sense of movement from one scene to another while bringing the details of each scene into sharp relief. With the exception of the brass choir’s rocky opening in the initial “Promenade,” the brass presented a unified, bright sonority throughout a work that gives them little rest. Principal Trumpet Micah Wilkinson flew through his treacherous solo in the movement depicting the bickering Jewish men with uncanny precision, and his radiant sonority capped the trumpets and trombones with glory at every turn.
Whether simulating the somber tones of a Russian choir or imitating the antics of barnyard animals, the orchestra’s woodwinds fulfilled Ravel’s varied and clever expectations with grace and agility, and the glorious full orchestra ensemble in “The Great Gate of Kiev” made me wish that the acoustics of Copley Symphony Hall were not so dry and would allow sounds to linger ever so slightly. They were definitely worth savoring!