When the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes asked Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president for programming, if he could collaborate with a video artist on his performance of Musorgsky's epic piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition, she jumped at the chance to find him someone exciting for a New Visions project. After all, Moss established New Visions in 1998 to bring together artists of different disciplines.
Through art contacts in Paris, she came up with several candidates, among them South African-born artist Robin Rhode. Andsnes watched a couple of his short films and felt an immediate affinity with his work, struck by its musicality and poetry. With little ado, they decided to go ahead with the project and she stepped aside, giving them absolute freedom to create their remarkable opus, a special Lincoln Center commission for its 50th Anniversary. The result, Pictures Reframed, opens the New Visions series on November 13 _14 at Alice Tully Hall. Moss knows greatness can develop when artists take risks, as the series has more than proved in various projects, such as the collaborations of Simon Keenlyside and Trisha Brown in Schubert's Winterreise, and of the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of Waves, based on Virginia Woolf's novel, The Waves.
"I was totally knocked out," Moss said after seeing Pictures Reframed in a recent workshop. "It exceeded my wildest dreams; it's an extraordinary achievement. And by no means is it an illustrated concert. These are artists of equal weight, both with strong voices."
Though Andsnes and Rhode are only in their 30s, they have already achieved major stature in their fields. The three-time Grammy Award-winning Andsnes, who garners accolades for his grace and vitality, performs with top European and American orchestras and chamber groups and recently released the CD Shadows of Silence on EMI. Often compared to Warhol and Basquiat, Berlin-based Rhode made his reputation with site-specific, performance-based drawings, photography, and video installations, exhibiting extensively in South Africa, Europe, Japan, and in the United States. They have now added their distinctive voices to one of the wildest and most theatrical pieces of music ever written. Asked if taking on such a famous work was risky, they answered unequivocally, "yes."
Musorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 in St. Petersburg to honor the posthumous show of 400 works by his close artist friend Viktor Hartmann. He structured the piece as a set of responses to the sketches, watercolors, and costume designs, interspersing them with the magisterial "Promenade" theme that reemerges as the mood changes from picture to picture.
The narrative follows a person walking into an exhibition, crashing into the first picture, and then being faced with strong images and textures. Later in the cycle, he even becomes a part of a picture. But for all its variety and emotion, the composition is somewhat incomplete, which has inspired musicians as diverse as Maurice Ravel and Duke Ellington to write reinterpretations. In fact, Ravel's orchestral arrangement is better known than the original piano suite.
"The original work," Andsnes said, "remains almost a sketch that is open for transformations and changes. I'm adding octaves and different figurations to make it sound bigger and grander because, for me, Musorgsky's visions are enormous, but his capacity for writing for the piano was not so great. It's the only piece where I would take liberties with the score."
Rhode may be more familiar with hip hop than classical music, but he has collaborated with musicians before, notably the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, who wrote a percussion piece for one of his performance works. He is also liked by Andsnes, who will perform a world premiere by him on the same program with Pictures Reframed. He has also incorporated musical objects into his animations and performances. In New York, he painted a jazz band on the wall of a gallery space and interacted with the painting of those musical instruments. "I have always worked very closely with music," he said, "playing with the notion of rhythm and sound. This project turned out to be a natural progression."
From the start, Andsnes and Rhode were open to all kinds of artistic possibilities. "I liked our dialogues," Andsnes said. "I didn't know about his films; he didn't know about my music, so we explained them to each other." At an early meeting in a deserted Berlin factory, Rhode began drawing on a bare wall, as he had done as a young man on the streets of Johannesburg: he considers the world a huge sheet of paper with every place a potential framework for his drawings.
When Andsnes saw an imaginary instrument emerging on the wall, he began playing on it, joining in on the illusion. Clearly, they were on the same wavelength: Rhode often uses stop-motion animation with a figure, which is sometimes the artist himself, interacting with two-dimensional images. In Pictures Reframed animations, the figure wears a suit and tie, just like the one Andsnes will wear while playing the piece on stage.
This kind of empathetic give and take continued throughout the process, while the artists also worked on their own. Rhode took as his starting point the drawings described in Musorgsky's suite. During his research, he learned that Hartmann's works often reflected his social consciousness. One drawing, "Bydlo," which is also the title of a movement, shows an ox cart in a Jewish slum. "It's a symbol of the struggling of Polish people in 19th-century Russia," he said.
Andsnes will not be alone when he performs Pictures Reframed. Instead, he will be surrounded by Rhode's works: six abstract, graphically printed panels that orbit the stage, along with the central video projection that evokes a room within an exhibition. "I am very happy that Robin's art sometimes goes with the tempo and rhythm of the music, other times it is completely against it," he said.
"Having performed now for some time doing 'normal' concerts, I have been looking for other challenges. It's not that I don't believe that the music can be enough in itself, but I think we can also look at other ways of presenting it. It will also be a challenge for audiences to use two senses at the same time. I'm very curious how the rhythm of Robin's films might affect how people feel the music and visa versa. But I'll be so caught up in the piece, which is so miraculous, so physical, so emotional, that I won't have any time to dwell on what's happening around me."
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