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Pictures at an Exhibition @ Birmingham Symphony Hall

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Published May 29th 2014
Art and superheroes
Modest Mussorgsky's musical tribute to his friend the architect Victor Hartmann remains ever popular. A series of short pieces all strung together by a recurring Promenade, the piece was inspired by an exhibition of Hartmann's works and is a musical journey with the composer walking round the pictures and responding to each one.

And the ideas are very clear – we have the busyness of the Limoges market as the strings rip into a frenzy of movement or we have the heavy solemnity of the brass section taking us into the Catacombs of Rome where, surrounded by death, we can reflect on our own mortality.

Taking on really well-known pieces of music brings its own challenges. While a 'Classic FM tune' is more likely to encourage people into the concert hall it also means there is a high probability that many in the audience will also have their own 'favourite' recordings and an expectation of how a piece will be performed.

When compared with so many performances of the work, this CBSO performance at Birmingham's Symphony Hall felt just a little hesitant. From the dais, orchestra music director and conductor Andris Nelsons could be seen egging the musicians on, turning up the tempo just a little bit more.

andris nelsons, cbso, hakan hardenberger, birmingham symphony hall, mussorgsky
CBSO musical director Andris Nelsons. Credit: Neil Pugh


Pictures at an Exhibition's finale, The Great Gate of Kiev, saw the orchestra rise to the occasion with lots of percussion and drama.

The UK premiere of Brett Dean's Dramatis Personae was a well-chosen companion piece to the Mussorgsky as thematically it shared some common ground – the idea of a physical and personal journey encapsulated in music.

But while Pictures at an Exhibition is an illustrative stroll round a gallery, Dramatis Personae is a much more elemental search into the psyche. Dean's central character is no longer the composer but a superhero, a single warrior, an individual.

Musically the two have less shared experience. Gone are Mussorgksy's hummable tunes, replaced with a rush of instrumentation.

The piece depends very largely on the trumpet soloist and Brett could not have asked for a more able performer than Hakan Hardenberger whose adaptability has also seen him performing classical Haydn and contemporary Joni Mitchell with the CBSO this week.

Hardenberger, who also performed at the world premiere of Dramatis Personae, took to the piece with relish, clearly enjoying its challenges and the balance of interplay with the rest of the orchestra. At its conclusion, he left centre stage and took his place within the orchestra, a visual sign that the Superman's battle is done.

Beginning the evening was Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. Although this piece is a memorial to French composer Francois Couperin, it is quite a light-hearted and quixotic work which eased us into the rest of the programme.
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Why? CBSO take on the classics and a new work
When: May 29
Phone: 0121 345 0602
Where: Birmingham Symphony Hall
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