Arts concert review

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition comes to life

Rob Kapilow’s commentary inspires a greater appreciation for music

What Makes It Great? with Rob Kapilow and NEC Philharmonia — Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
NEC Jordan Hall
Dec. 2, 2016

Imagine walking through an art gallery, dozens of paintings hanging on the walls of the exhibit. Now, imagine those paintings coming to life, the subjects becoming characters in a larger story of your creation, replete with dialogue and detail.

This is the purpose of the 1874 piece Pictures at an Exhibition, the most famous work by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. In a promenade and ten suites, Mussorgsky journeyed through an exhibit of artwork by his close friend Viktor Hartmann, providing scene upon scene of vivid imagery. At the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall last Friday, acclaimed music commentator Rob Kapilow guided the audience through this auditory journey, pointing out the story behind every measure. His energetic and stimulating commentary made the work that much more exciting and accessible.

Kapilow was supported by the NEC Philharmonia, comprised entirely of juniors, seniors, and graduate students. He had sections, individuals, or the entire orchestra at his beck and call, ready to play a phrase to back up his words. As if conjuring sound out of thin air, the orchestra started and stopped on a dime, like a recording.  

The promenade evokes the sense of Mussorgsky “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend,” as Russian critic and friend of Mussorgsky, Vladimir Stasov, commented. Sometimes, the orchestra would settle into the motif, then break it and repeat it higher and louder — representing another picture grabbing Mussorgsky’s attention more strongly.

Kapilow noted that many of the suites were actually speech-like, as in the third movement, “Tuileries.” He pointed out the flute section’s mimicry of children quarrelling in the Tuileries Garden — it’s as if the flutes are saying, “look what they’re doing to me, tell them they can’t do it to me.” Then peals of laughter ring out, before the children start complaining again.

Although many of Hartmann’s paintings have not survived, the ones that did were projected onto the stage as a backdrop for the commentary. “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” was inspired by an absurd sketch of two humans in chick costumes, their limbs protruding from an eggshell and their heads adorned with chick masks.

NEC Philharmonia’s brass section deserves special commendation. The first trumpet was undeniably impressive — often challenged and emphasized in the arrangement, the student handled the pressure with confidence and perfect tone. The tuba, as well, has a long, lonely stretch of painfully high notes in the fourth movement, “Cattle.” He received well-deserved applause for his solo effort.

Kapilow has done so much for music. After years of fostering music appreciation in his “What Makes it Great?” program on NPR, he’s no longer on air, but he occasionally gives these performances live. He’ll be back in Boston in January, this time for a tour of classic jazz.