Slatkin tackles 'Pictures at an Exhibition' this weekend

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It was all very high concept. 

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) based his legendary "Pictures at an Exhibition," which the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performs this weekend, on his tour through a show of artwork by a friend who'd just met an early death.

"There's a certain structural integrity to the piece," said Leonard Slatkin, the DSO music director laureate who will conduct, "the idea that this overweight composer is wandering an exhibition hall and getting stopped in his tracks by things he sees."

DSO Music Director Laureate Leonard Slatkin will conduct "Pictures at an Exhibition" this weekend.

Also on this weekend's program will be Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture, and a world premiere, "Another Time," by Mohammed Fairouz. 

"Pictures," Slatkin explains, was very different in style from what other Russian composers were doing in the 1870s. "This was not a set of folk pieces," he said. "It was a real abstract representation of the drawings."

Mussorgsky's good friend, architect Victor Hartmann, had died at 39 in 1873. The following year, the composer wrote his sprawling memorial suite for piano. 

But there were problems with the score, Slatkin said, calling it "awkward and not very well-written for the instrument."

The suite is made up of 10 movements or "pictures" invoking Hartmann's paintings, with a recurring “Promenade” theme that represents Mussorgsky himself strolling through the exhibition. 

In its early years, "Pictures"  wasn't exactly a hit, and might have languished had a number of other composers not adapted it for orchestral performance. 

The most famous arrangement was the 1922 version by Maurice Ravel, which gave the composition new popularity, though any number of other musicians also had a whack at it. (Indeed, Emerson, Lake and Palmer devoted an entire album to their interpretation in 1971.)

For his part, Slatkin, who first conducted the piece in the 1960s with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, continues that tradition by adapting the piece to his taste. 

"Ravel altered the piano part considerably, in one notable case taking out an entire movement," he said. "He changed dynamics, changed harmonies, and did all kinds of things. Nobody knows exactly why. He might have been working with a faulty edition, or just wanted to make an orchestral showpiece."

So over the years, as he's worked on it, Slatkin put much of the original Mussorgsky back into the Ravel orchestral arrangement.

"Where Ravel left out a passage,"  he said, "I’d put it back in, and try to orchestrate it to match what Ravel had done." 

When you think of it, it's all rather remarkable -- a famous piece of classical music that's been tweaked and prodded and rewritten for well over 100 years. But Slatkin argues that's part of what makes it popular with musicians. 

"It’s the one piece that so many people have chosen to tinker with," he said, "and the idea that it’s open to so many possibilities, like no other single piece in the repertoire, is astonishing to me." 

But all that tinkering appears to have given it added appeal for professionals.

"It's always interesting for musicians to encounter a slightly different take – something people have put their hands into," Slatkin said. "Orchestras have a lot of fun with it."

But back to architect Hartmann. Does Slatkin think history would remember the man, had he not been memorialized by Mussorgsky?

"No," he said, "surely not," and seems to imply that the architect wasn't necessarily the world's most talented.

Alluding to Hartmann's never-built scheme for a Great Gate of Kiev, Slatkin said, "You can tell it wouldn’t stand the way it's drawn. It’d collapse."

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Pictures at an Exhibition' with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra 

Berlioz - "Roman Carnival" Overture

Fairouz - "Another Time" (world premiere)

Mussorgsky - "Pictures at an Exhibition"

Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward, Detroit 

10:45 a.m. Fri., 8 p.m. Sat., 3 p.m. Sun.

Tickets: $15 - $105

(313) 576-1111