While we all sit at home in our pajamas struggling to recall what day of the week it is, let’s look back at an extraordinary solo piano recital at St. Paul’s in 2016 when friend of the festival, Amy Yang, brought the house down with “Pictures at an Exhibition.” I not-so-secretly wish I were a pianist; imagine having what amounts to an entire orchestra at your fingertips. OK, real conductors actually do have an orchestra at their fingertips but that’s different. Take it from me: I actually tried conducting once and my debut turned out to be my retirement concert (which is just as well).
Here are my notes from the program in 2016.
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition
In 1870, Mussorgsky was introduced by the influential critic Vladimir Stasov to artist and architect Viktor Hartmann; the two felt an immediate kinship and developed a deep friendship. The waves of nationalism that swept 19th Century Europe affected the arts and politics of the time and both men endeavored to develop a home-grown Russian art. Three years later, Hartmann died suddenly from an aneurysm at the age of 39 leaving Mussorgsky devastated. Hartmann’s friends organized an exhibition of over 400 of his works in the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg in February 1874 in which Mussorgsky lent many pieces from his personal collection. Walking through the gallery, the composer was moved to commemorate his friend not only by referencing specific works but by inserting himself into the piece as a solitary walker (“Promenade”) moving through the gallery, lingering over some works, and pausing to reflect. Most of the paintings and watercolors have since been lost, yet several remain along with Stasov’s descriptions matching each section to a painting.
Promenade Gnomus - "A sketch depicting a little gnome, clumsily running with crooked legs." Promenade Il vecchio castello - "A medieval castle before which a troubadour sings a song." Promenade Tuileries - "An avenue in the garden of the Tuileries, with a swarm of children and nurses" Bydło - "A Polish cart on enormous wheels, drawn by oxen." Promenade Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their shells Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle - "Two Jews: Rich and Poor" Limoges, le marché - "The Market at Limoges” Catacombæ - "Hartmann represented himself examining the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern" The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yagá) - " a clock in the form of Baba Yaga's hut on fowl's legs” The Great Gate of Kiev – “a monumental gate for Tsar Alexander II”
The more famous version of “Pictures” is an orchestration by Maurice Ravel. I’m going to start with this electrifying performance of the ridiculously charismatic Gustavo Dudamel with his Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar (he also conducts the L.A. Philharmonic). I found it impossible to stop watching once I put this on. When Dudamel lets loose and you see the strings moving in waves, the brass – four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba! – erupt, the whole percussion section unleashed, it is unbelievably stirring.
I came across the piano version only after I had already known the orchestral arrangement. The solo version is necessarily more intimate but no less epic for being one instead of a hundred. It demands extremes from the performer in technique and stamina which, in a way, almost feels more transformative to the listener; I get the same sensation with this that I used to feel returning from a solo bike ride of 50 or 60 miles.
Here is a young Alan Gampel playing his heart out in 1991. At one point halfway through he has to grab a rag to wipe the sweat off the keys.
If anyone ever needed an excuse to stay indoors, this is it.
Distant echoes, the vast roof overhead - I feel a slight chill and sense of awe when I walk into a cathedral. I get the same feeling of immensity when I listen to Bach’s sixth cello suite, a work the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich called “a symphony for solo cello.”
This post refers to the NCMF Winter Baroque streamed concert on Sunday, 20 December at 3:00 PM with Nurit Pacht (violin) and Eliana Yang (cello). Check out this link for more information. Donations are gratefully requested: consider $30, $20, $10, or what you can afford. (The sky's the limit!)
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