Housed in the former National Sawdust Factory, the venue is an ‘artist-led…place for exploration and discovery…where emerging and established artists can share their music with serious music fans and casual listeners alike.’ Should October 18th’s hour-long performance be an indication of what is coming, the weeks-old National Sawdust already figured out a way of making classical music accessible and exciting. For Pictures in the Making, the small (seating capacity under 200), modestly priced ($25-$40) hall had no barriers or temporary stage separating the artists from the audience. Everyone was eye level. The retro 1970s white paneling with its raised pattern right of out Logan’s Run is lounge-like. The acoustics are excellent.
The comfort level suited the artists as well. Pictures in the Making was planned not months, but weeks in advance. Doug Fitch’s productions of semi-staged operas for the New York Philharmonic have been among the few welcomed blasts of creativity soon-departing Music Director Alan Gilbert brought to an otherwise staid institution. Alessio Bax is on tour in support of his new album Scriabin & Mussorgsky featuring Pictures at an Exhibition. Fitch described the performance as a ‘dress rehearsal.’ The spontaneity made it all the more exciting.
Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) other famous orchestral tone poem is A Night on Bald Mountain (1867), Fantasia’s (1941) penultimate section. (Disney is planning a full-length, live-action version of the Devil in the mountain cartoon.) Pictures at an Exhibition is a tribute to his friend, artist Victor Hartmann (1834-1873). The composer owned several of Hartmann’s paintings and sketches, which he referenced by name in the score’s sections. Fitch and Bax emphasized that Mussorgsky and Hartmann were both experimentalists in an era when Russian culture was moving away from European influence and coming into its own.
Much of Mussorgsky’s music was incomplete at the time of his death, and most of it orchestrated by others. His opera Boris Godunov (1869, 1874), the Hamlet of the Bass repertory, exists in several versions. Pictures at an Exhibition was originally composed as a piano suite in 1874. There is a live, hair-raising recording of it by Sviatoslav Richter, an extraordinary, artistic pianist. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), who composed for the European-based Ballets Russes, wrote the orchestral arrangement that became a permanent concert hall-touring exhibit in 1922. Alessio Bax recorded and performed an arrangement he made with Konstantin Chernov. Thus, Pictures at an Exhibition’s history requires more explanation in program notes than the music itself!
Using Bax and Picture’s section names as starting points, Fitch and his team created their own images. The audience watched the ‘action painting’ via a camera mounted on a tripod, transferring images onto a large video screen. The opening Promenade positioned Bax center stage within a toy stage with red curtains; the Catacomb’s ink stains blended together forming a dark universe, thoughtfully including the audience with a video portrait as the camera settled on the youngest and prettiest attendee. Even without an overarching ‘big picture,’ there were Soviet overtones. The Old Castle‘s miniature sculpture suggested a prison. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, quickly painted with water on a Buddha board, resembled a KGB officer and prisoner.
There is no Great Gate of Kiev. As Bax played the finale’s sweeping melody, Fitch constructed a gate made out of colored tissue paper. As it had been throughout the performance, their timing was perfectly in sync. They both completed the Gate on the final note. Then, rising behind the Gate on the video screen was archival footage of Kiev’s cityscape circa the early 20th century.
Hearing Alessio Bax play Pictures at an Exhibition was more fun than hearing a symphony orchestra. The familiar sounded with possibilities. There was no overplaying or embellishment of what is already extremely expressive music. Bax provided the color for Fitch’s palette.
Doug Fitch noted in post-performance remarks that Victor Hartmann always added people in his sketches of monuments and imaginary gates. At National Sawdust, he and Alessio Bax showed that Pictures in the Making could be a canvas open to interpretation — and any audience.
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Alessio Bax: Scriabin & Mussorgsky is available on Signum Classics.