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Pictures at an Exhibition
Dayton Philharmonic | Masterworks Series

Jessie Montgomery Banner

Sergei Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43


Modest Mussorgsky (orch. Maurice Ravel) Pictures at an Exhibition
1. Gnomus
2. The Old Castle
3. Tuileries (Squabbling Children at Play)
4. Bydło
5. Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells
6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle
7. The Marketplace at Limoges
8. Catacombs
With the Dead in a Dead Language
9. The Hut on Chicken's Legs (Baba Yagá)
10. The Great Gate of Kyiv

Special Support

Aleksandra Kasman Laude appears as the Bill and Dianne Schneider Endowed Guest Artist

This performance is part of New Season Ministry Weekend

Neal's Note


You’d think that second-guessing is something that conductors don’t do very much. A big part of the conductor’s job is making decisions about how music should be played. How fast or slow? How loud or soft? And so on…

Decisions, decisions, decisions… All (or nearly all) of which get made while I’m studying the music. When I step onto the podium for the first rehearsal of a piece, I need to be sure of each and every one of those decisions, because if I have the slightest doubt about any of them, the musicians will sense my indecision and that’ll make their job—playing the music—harder.

Of course, second-guessing is part of what we do. (Heck, orchestras second-guess their conductors all the time! But that’s not the second-guessing I’m talking about here). When we rehearse I get to hear in the real world what I’d only been hearing in my head while studying. So if I discover that a pre-rehearsal decision doesn’t sound right, then I have to second-guess myself and fix things.

But, to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant”, that’s not the kind of second-guessing I came to tell to you about. Came to talk about second-guessing myself when it comes to Pictures at an Exhibition.

Pictures is one of the greatest masterpieces of 19th century Russian music. And it’s got a great backstory. One of composer Modest Mussorgsky’s closest friends was painter/architect Viktor Hartmann. When Hartmann died suddenly at age 39, Mussorgsky was crushed. Shortly after Hartmann’s death, another friend of Mussorgsky’s, art and music critic Vladimir Stasov organized a memorial exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings, drawings, costume designs, and architectural plans. Mussorgsky went to the Imperial

Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg to see the exhibit, and came away with the idea of creating a musical tribute to his dead friend: Pictures at an Exhibition.

He wrote an amazing (and amazingly difficult) suite for solo piano—10 individual movements, each inspired by a different item in the exhibition. On top of that, Mussorgsky came up with the brilliant idea of creating a recurring musical theme to represent himself walking from one exhibit to the next—Promenades. The melody of the Promenades is always the same, but the character of the music changes, reflecting the way Mussorgsky’s mood was affected by each picture he saw.

There was only one problem with Pictures at an Exhibition. It was so difficult that very few pianists could play it. Perhaps because of that, composers who admired the piece but lamented its lack of exposure got the idea of adapting Pictures for orchestral performance. If Wikipedia is to be believed (and why not?), there are at least 27 orchestral versions of Pictures out there, plus numerous arrangements for other ensembles. (Don’t forget the great rock-band version by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer!)

The most famous orchestration (the one we’re playing) was made by the French composer (and brilliant orchestrator) Maurice Ravel in 1922. It’s fabulous, with Ravel drawing wonderful, colorful sounds from his large orchestra, leading to one of the grandest finishes in the orchestral repertoire. For years, I thought it was the ultimate Pictures at an Exhibition.

And here’s where the second-guessing comes in.

My first performance of Pictures with the DPO was in December 2004. That was back in the day of the Classical Connections Series, the “young-people’s-concerts-for-grownups” presentations that we did from 1996 to 2018. The idea was to have pianist Michael Chertock play the piano version on the first half of the show and the DPO play Ravel’s orchestration on the second half. I even apologized to Michael ahead of time because he’d be putting in this herculean effort to play the solo piano version only to have the orchestra upstage him after intermission.

But that’s not how it happened. The Phil played Ravel’s orchestration perfectly, but sitting out in the hall and listening to Michael’s performance I realized that even though the orchestra’s rendition was louder and more varied in sound, the experience of watching one pianist playing Mussorgsky’s amazing music with just their 10 fingers and two feet was incredibly thrilling—actually more thrilling than hearing an orchestra play the same music. Second-guessed!

(But that piano-beats-orchestra realization hasn’t dissuaded me from programming the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures! We played it again the very next season on an educational concert for high school students. Then again on the Masterworks series in 2018. And now, once again, this weekend.)

The second second-guessing has to do with the pictures. Viktor Hartmann was beloved and admired by his friends, but he’s not one of the “big names” of the art world, and nearly all of his output is lost—perhaps to the vagaries of time and history, perhaps to the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and World War II. Only five of the ten artworks that inspired Mussorgsky have survived.

When a conductor programs Pictures they have a decision to make: Show the pictures or not? Having grown up hearing several Pictures several times, I was always frustrated by not seeing the pictures. Reading descriptions of what they were (or were believed to have been) wasn’t enough. I wanted to see them. So when I grew up and found myself as a conductor, I vowed to always perform Pictures with the pictures on display.

But there are problems with that idea. There are ten musical pictures, but only five you can look at. And all we seem to have are photographs (some in black-and-white, some in color, some colorized) of the surviving pictures—sometimes copies of copies of copies. The end result is that most of the pictures are a little underwhelming—most of all, Hartmann’s design for a never-built gate-with-clock-tower for the city of Kyiv. The title says, “The Great Gate of Kyiv”. And the music is, indeed, grand. But the picture is, well, a little meh.

So after doing several performances of Pictures with the pictures, using different display strategies, I second-guessed myself: Maybe Pictures at an Exhibition actually works better as a music-only experience. That’s how we’ll do it this time, anyway.

But if you want to know what the five surviving pictures are, don’t worry. You’ll find them in your program book. And if that’s second-guessing a second-guess, so be it!