Queensland Symphony Orchestra transported its audience from concert hall to art gallery with Pictures at an Exhibition: Musical Vignettes, conducted by Benjamin Northey. In addition to the titular work by Modest Mussorgsky, the Maestro concert also included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Overture from May Night and the world premiere of Gordon Kerry’s Sinfonia concertante for flute, clarinet and orchestra.
The concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Overture, inspired by Nikolai Gorgol’s Ukrainian folk tale May Night, or The Drowned Maiden. Forbidden lovers Hanna and Levko recall a village ghost story in which a witch stepmother convinces her husband to cast out his daughter. The girl throws herself into a nearby lake, becomes the leader of the drowned maidens, and later drags the witch down with her. The witch disguises herself by pretending to be drowned, but Levko helps the maidens to identify her, and is permitted to marry his beloved. The piece started out softly, the quiet of a moonlit night, then rose in intensity as the story unfolded to include pounding percussion, fluttering flutes, and frantic strings all the way to a crisp and vigorous finish.
Composer Gordon Kerry joined the orchestra onstage and spoke briefly with Benjamin Northey about Sinfonia concertante for flute, clarinet and orchestra, which was commissioned by the late Marena Manzoufas, prior to its world premiere. Kerry mentioned that it can be easy for flute and clarinet to be drowned out, and so he had created “backing textures” for the two soloists, with no lower brass or other flutes or clarinets, and a smaller strings section divided into more parts.
The delicate, light-footed interplay of the flute and clarinet was supported by the ebb and swell of the orchestra, featuring QSO Section Principals Alison Mitchell and Irit Silver as the flute and clarinet soloists, respectively. The piece was filled with light and shade – a sudden storm of strings! A quick return to the darting, gentle sounds of the flute and clarinet! – and the four linked movements were played in a single span.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was as evocative as I could have hoped, painting pictures in my mind as the orchestra moved through the ten “paintings” of the piece with sharp and precise conducting by Northey. Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition for solo piano in response to the posthumous exhibition of his friend Viktor Hartmann in 1874; however, it is Maurice Ravel’s 1922 arrangement of the work that is most often performed.
The Promenade that recurred throughout brought to mind an unhurried stroll in the cool air of an art gallery, the trumpet theme carrying the listener from frame to frame. Gnome was a low, scurrying, clattering movement filled with interesting percussion and The Old Castle was heavy with nostalgia, perhaps even mournful. In Tuilerie children flitted about the famous garden, sweet and upbeat, in contrast to the solemn march of Bydło, depicting an ox dragging a cart. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks was frantic and cheerful, easy to picture the children in chicken costumes darting about excitedly. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle returned to lower tones, creating distinctive ‘voices’ in the music for the two men, and then on into the busy jostle of The Market at Limoges. Blasts of brass set the listener on edge in Catacombs,and The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga) was urgent and dramatic. The Great Gate of Kiev was a grand and stirring note to close both the piece and the concert – in the tolling of bells and thunder of hooves, you could almost see the sunlight glinting on Hartmann’s intricate design made real.
Queensland Symphony Orchestra once again delivered an outstanding and evocative performance, an exciting world premiere, and a wonderful opportunity to admire the work of individual soloists whose virtuosity may not always be visible among the strength of the cohesive and coordinated orchestra.