Pictures at an Exhibition (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)
The aptly named principal timpanist Tim Corkeron greeted the 450 high school students in the crowded concert hall, especially the budding timpani players. Everyone was eager to hear the Queensland Symphony Orchestra Photos at an exhibition concert featuring two prominent Russian composers and a world premiere by Victorian composer and writer Gordon Kerry. Fortunately, less border restrictions allowed Kerry and conductor Benjamin Northey to come from Melbourne and take part in this momentous concert. Northey, SpotlightAustralian Artist of the Year 2018: People’s Choice, Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor in Residence of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, exclaimed how happy he was to finally be out of the house after a long, long year!
Benjamin Northey conducts the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Peter Wallis
The QSO opened with the rarely played pagan-themed opening of May night by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The supernatural folk opera is based on the ghostly tale by Ukrainian Nikolai Gogol, about a witch-mother-in-law who drowns her husband’s daughter. The strange music is distinctly Russian, beginning with a slow dolce melody with frantic strings and thundering horns. The contrasting waltz interludes were magnificent and the flute seemed to float above the orchestra.
Northey reminded the musicians that composer Gordon Kerry was in the audience for his world premiere, so there was “no pressure!” The sinfonia was commissioned by Kerry’s friend, Marena Manzoufas, who died in 2019. Sinfonia concertante has a symphonic architecture containing four linked movements, but it is unusual because the flute and clarinet solos are also integrated into the texture of the orchestra.
Alison Mitchell, Irit Silver, Benjamin Northey and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Peter Wallis
The interplay between the crystalline tones of Alison Mitchell’s flute and the smooth throat of Irit Silver’s clarinet was sublime. The harp, strings and vibraphone painted a magical rainforest-like canvas where the playful chirping patterns of the flute and clarinet chased and teased each other in the sun. The brass mimicked the calls of the woods from a distance while the eerie cellos seemed predatory among the shadows. Mitchell’s flute seemed to rise above the musical vault as Silver’s clarinet penetrated the shadows. The two solos intertwined in a mystical and harmonious union, resulting in explosive applause.
The emblematic sound vignettes of Photos at an exhibition, composed in 1874 by Mussorgsky for the piano, were inspired by the paintings of Viktor Hartmann when the composer visited a posthumous exhibition at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Mussorgsky encapsulated the ten paintings with his musical compositions, each sculpted to mimic his own emotions when viewing each. After Mussorgsky’s death in 1881, his friend Rimsky-Korsakov put the composition back in order and in 1922 Maurice Ravel masterfully rearranged it for the orchestra. Ravel recreated the nuances of the brushstrokes using the unique timbres of the instruments to elevate a collection of original piano compositions to a treasured voyeuristic journey through the exhibition.
As Northey deftly walked the QSO through the gallery, each section had the opportunity to shine. The iconic Walk uses the theme of the intermezzo trumpet to scroll pompously between the hundreds of paintings. You can imagine the dominant figure of Mussorgsky walking through the gallery, head held high, arms behind his back, stopping to observe each of Hartmann’s works of art in great detail. The percussionists seemed to have a lot of fun delivering their interpretation of the Gnome. the The coppery pattern was wonderfully menacing with the click of the clapper and the whirl of the rattle interspersed with rapid bursts of cellos and double basses.
The orchestra recreated each painting, including The old castle with Emma Di Marco’s soft saxophone and a soft string ostinato. A dragging snorkel dragged a heavy cart through the Bydło, and beating flutes with pizzicato strings raged Ballet of unhatched chicks. You could feel the cold, clammy hand of the grim reaper as the paperclips and triangle sounded the death knell in the terrifying Catacombs. In The hen’s hut ‘s Legs the strings vibrated with urgency as the brass fled from the fierce Baba Yaga to the lingering clatter of cymbals. Finally, the bells rang on the galloping eighth notes of the horses, raising the dust to The Great Gate of Kiev Northey astutely led the musicians as they frantically climbed and descended the ladders. A tumultuous crash of cymbals and a decisive blow of the stick left the audience ecstatic and the high school students whistling the wolf for more.
The QSO with Benjamin Northey at the helm showed incredible virtuoso mastery in Photos at an exhibition it would be difficult to repeat. Fortunately, you can hear the concert on Classic ABC May 8 at 1 p.m. (AEST).