Mussorgsky's 'Pictures' Goes Multimedia

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Drowning the Piano (200)
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Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes i i

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes gives his multimedia Mussorgsky a trial run in Norway, complete with seven video screens. EMI Classics/ Norwegian TV (NRK) hide caption

itoggle caption EMI Classics/ Norwegian TV (NRK)
Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes gives his multimedia Mussorgsky a trial run in Norway, complete with seven video screens.

EMI Classics/ Norwegian TV (NRK)

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes works within the refined world of classical music. But that doesn't mean he's not adventurous.

Last year, Andsnes helicoptered a piano to a mountaintop in Norway to play music by his countryman Edvard Grieg. Now, in collaboration with South African visual artist Robin Rhode, Andsnes has reframed Modest Mussorgsky's famous suite for solo piano, Pictures at an Exhibition.

This is about as programmatic a piece as has ever been written. Mussorgsky's Pictures, composed in 1874, is a promenade through a gallery; it stops at the pictures of Viktor Hartmann, an artist and architect — and a friend of Mussorgsky's who died young. The exhibition was a memorial to Hartmann, with each movement inspired by and named for a picture.

"It's unbelievable that it was written in 1870; it's such a modern concept," Andsnes says. "It's also a piece of theater. It has this narrative of a person walking into this exhibition space, and you almost hear his reaction to what he has seen. So, emotionally it is very strong."

Reframing Mussorgsky's Pictures

Andsnes and Rhode have added a new dimension to the Mussorgsky piece that actually undoes the visual associations with the names of Hartmann's drawings and watercolors: So much for "The Ox Cart"; forget "The Old Castle"; and even "The Great Gate of Kiev" gets a major makeover.

When Andsnes performs the world premiere of Pictures at an Exhibition at New York's Lincoln Center in November, he will share the stage with seven video screens, showing images created by Rhode.

Rhode's images are inspired by Mussorgsky's music, but not literally by the pictures that serve as the music's inspiration. For the section called "The Ox Cart," Rhode has added images of a Johannesburg train station.

This musical and visual collaboration — called "Pictures Reframed" — culminates in Andsnes playing the movement, "The Gate of Kiev," ankle deep in the harbor at Bergen, Norway. At the end, the piano drifts into the water. Andsnes says it's not easy, but the idea here is to keep both music and visual images in the foreground.

"It's not without its difficulty to be an audience member," Andsnes says, "because you have to listen and look so actively at the same time. We're not used to that, especially at a concert. The worst thing that could happen was if the music becomes background music, or if the visuals become just a light illustration. We want both things to be strong. I think there will be meetings between these two where we will create a new expression."

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