If you believe that music, like a kiss, is best enjoyed with your eyes closed, Pictures Reframed is not the show for you. Hailed as ‘the artistic sensation of 2009′, the concert presents Mussorgsky’s epic piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition in a new form conceived for a contemporary audience. The backdrop for the music, played by world-renowned pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, is provided by austere grey panels and a screen projecting video art. The images follow the music in spirit and in rhythm: two journeys unfold simultaneously. The concert is touring music venues around the world; in London it was hosted last week by the Southbank Centre.
No rooster had previously been seen roaming on stage at Queen Elisabeth Hall. Artist Robin Rhode chose to follow one with his camera to translate into images the liveliness of one of the movements of Mussorgsky’s piece. A more sober man in a suit, sitting upside down and pushing bubbles in the air with his feet, accompanies most of the piece.
A visit to an art gallery, with its interaction among several mediums, will suffice to get a sense of how hybrid contemporary art tends to be. However, in Pictures Reframed the contamination of different genres is not only a sign of a modern adaptation. This ambitious project aims to trace the genesis of the piano cycle itself: Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition based on ten pictures by Russian artist Viktor Hartmann.
In the modern-day rethinking of the interplay between music and the visual arts, the videos offer a sometimes thoughtful, sometimes ironic commentary on the music. The humour of Rhode’s art is in stark contrast to the nationalistic solemnity of Mussorgsky’s music. A chalk keyboard that crumbles as it is played and a drowning grand piano achieve a desecrating effect, setting this performance apart from the stilted canonical experience of classical music.
The stage presence of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is not diminished in the least by the videos playing above him. His relationship with the instrument is powerfully physical: he embraces his piano, touches its chords in an almost visceral symbiosis, plays parts of the instrument most listeners will be unable to identify, producing unusually eerie sounds. He dominates the instrument to such an extent that he does not even delegate turning the pages of the score.
The multimedia collaboration in Pictures Reframed is only one aspect of this joining of forces. The show, commissioned by NYC’s Lincoln Centre, brought together a Norwegian pianist and a South African artist performing a Russian classic, each with his own medium. Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, inspired by Andsnes’s performance of Pictures at an Exhibition, wrote What becomes, also performed as part of Pictures Reframed. This project proved to be a fertile ground for an open dialogue between different cultures. Where politics fails, art magnificently succeeds.