In his most famously evocative work, Pictures at an Exhibition, the great 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky depicted foreboding catacombs, a skittish ballet of unhatched chicks, and quarreling children.
For a new Pictures at an Exhibition, Dirk Brossé cast his eye locally, taking a tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with museum director Timothy Rub. First, he chose 30 works of art, then he whittled that down to 15, and then seven.
“I was driven by the beauty of the painting itself, but I didn’t want to literally depict what I saw in the pictures. I was trying to find my own story that was in the painting, behind the painting,” says the music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, who leads the ensemble in the premiere of the new seven-movement work in collaboration with the Art Museum this weekend at the Kimmel Center.
Brossé didn’t set out to choose works and artists that have Philadelphia connections, but it ended up that many do. Thomas Eakins and Edward Hicks are celebrated local sons. Perhaps less known is that Man Ray was born in Philadelphia, and although Thomas Moran painted the golden vistas of the West, he started his career with a small-bore view, as a journeyman Philadelphia engraver.
Otherwise, the works don’t have much to do with one another. Photographs of the paintings will be projected onto a screen as the chamber orchestra plays each movement, with the diversity of the visual ensemble echoed in seven works of distinct musical styles. Sometimes, the Belgian composer-conductor, who has written extensively for Dutch films, uses his music to draw attention to a single, perhaps overlooked, aspect of a painting.
“For me the most important thing is the heartbeat,” he says of Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. “Because my daughter is a surgeon, I asked her what was going on in this painting, and she said the one thing I can tell you is everyone is enormously nervous, because it was important what Dr. Gross was doing, and you are breathing harder and your heart is beating faster and faster. So the entire piece is about the heartbeat of the people viewing what’s going on, of Dr. Gross, and the person being operated on.”
Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Colorado River called for something “Hollywood,” he said. “It must have been enormously exciting for people seeing this painting for the first time, so I approached this like it was a documentary or Lonely Planet. It’s an overwhelming feeling of nature, and then your eye goes to the center of the painting, where you see a little of the Colorado River, then I start with a religious hymn, and it’s building, building, building, and then you are in the middle of the Grand Canyon, then soaring over the Grand Canyon, then you go higher and higher in the sky, then looking at it from the moon, then from the sun, where it’s only a little thing on the planet. It’s like a religious experience.”
British popular music and Native American instruments are superimposed in The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. In The Life Line by Winslow Homer, “there’s a lot of wind, a lot of tension going on,” and, at a certain moment, Brossé puts the listener’s attention “on the young lady that is being rescued. Is she still alive? In my opinion, yes. The music turns into something very weird, a very contemporary musical language.”
He responded to an untitled Rothko – a black square on top, a color field of blue on the bottom, both floating above a red background – with a piece that divides the orchestra into two parts, with no melody. “You can decide what you want to focus on. If you are focusing on the black, you are aware of the blue unconsciously,” he says, and vice versa. “It’s almost metaphysical.”
For Man Ray’s surrealist painting Fair Weather – with its harlequin, mating/fighting beasts, and dripping blood – he wrote themes for different elements of the painting. It’s then up to the conductor to instruct musicians in which theme to play when. “It’s like when you are looking at the painting, as a viewer you can decide which part to look at, because everything is disconnected from each other.”
Will audiences feel pulled by competing forces by seeing the paintings, and, in a sense, hearing them at the same time?
“I think both art forms are reinforcing,” says Brossé. “They are each helping the other to explain it in a different way. I lived with those paintings for a year and a half, and there is so much to discover that is impossible when you go to a museum and stare at it for two minutes. What I hope to achieve through the music is that people will look at the painting in a different way.”
Dirk Brossé leads the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in the premiere of his Pictures at an Exhibition May 14 at 2:30 p.m. and May 15 at 7:30 p.m at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets. The program also features works of Beethoven, Rousseau, and Dai Wei. Tickets: $25-$89. Information: 215-893-1709 or www.chamberorchestra.org.