New Pictures Give Pleasure, but Don’t Quite Replace the Old Ones

United StatesUnited States Rousseau, Beethoven, Dai Wei, Brossé: Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia / Dirk Brossé (conductor), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 15.5.2017. (BJ)

Rousseau – Overture to Le Devin du village (orch. H. Schwartz)

Beethoven – Symphony No.1 in C major, Op.21

Dai Wei – Two of Us (world premiere)

Brossé – Pictures at an Exhibition (world premiere)

To compose a piece of music at this point in the 21st century and call it “Pictures at an Exhibition” is to confront a challenge of some magnitude. In the 95 years since he made it, Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s work of that title has enjoyed warhorse status in the orchestral repertoire.

No one could accuse Dirk Brossé of timidity in the way – having conceived his idea of writing a “Pictures” of his own – he has gone about the task of bringing it into being. Roughly 50 minutes in duration, his new work, based on seven paintings in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a full 20 minutes longer than its celebrated predecessor. How far it sustains interest is a question that I find hard to answer categorically.

One distinct asset Brossé’s Pictures possesses is a rich orchestral texture notable for its stimulating complexity of counterpoint – a characteristic largely missing from the Mussorgsky/Ravel work, where the writing is predominantly vertical, harmony distinctly overshadowing counterpoint. Brossé’s string textures are full of lines that propel each other forward in a life-giving manner. Given this, and given also that there is some eloquent writing for principal trumpet and horn that was finely set forth by Rodney Marsalis and John David Smith, there was always something to engage a listener’s ear and mind.

I felt, nevertheless, that several movements went on longer than their material justified. Of the seven, it was the one derived from Edward Hopper’s Road and Trees – perhaps, with the exception of a typically uncommunicative Rothko canvas, the least interesting of the paintings featured – that was the most satisfying in its proportions, coming to a close well short of exhausting attention. Arriving last but one, however, in the sequence of movements, its economy and beauty came a bit too late to rectify a prevailing sense of longueurs.

Meanwhile, the treatment of paintings by Edward Hicks, Thomas Eakins (his wonderful Gross Clinic),Thomas Moran, Man Ray, and Winslow Homer could not match the sense of immediate imaginative identification that unites Mussorgsky’s (and Ravel’s) movements with each one of the pictures contained in the Viktor Hartmann exhibition they survey.

If the new work cannot therefore be greeted as a masterpiece, it gave considerable pleasure, and benefitted from a performance that maintained the high standard set by the first half of the concert. In addition to the overture to Le Devin du village by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (yes, the philosopher) and a fluent but fairly forgettable piece by the young Chinese-born Dai Wei, this included an account of Beethoven’s First Symphony notable for lively yet never eccentric tempos, stylish articulation, and some of the most finely polished playing I have heard from the Chamber Orchestra in quite a while.

Bernard Jacobson

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