I only vaguely remember Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition as a series of short pieces excerpted in some of my early piano lesson books, but for some reason, the title has been rolling around in my twilight thoughts, like a page of music caught by a wind. I didn't know why my brain decided it wanted to think about Pictures at an Exhibition, or where it was leading me. I just went along for the surprising ride.
When 39 year old Russian architect and artist Victor Alexandrovich Hartmann felt the terrible pain that signalled a fatal aneurysm on his last day on earth in 1873, he could not have known that a great musical work would be created as a monument to his friendship with Mussorgsky. From the depths of grief over the loss of his friend and a visit to a memorial exhibition of Hartmann's work, Mussorgsky created a suite for piano which he called Pictures at an Exhibition. The suite leads the listener, via a repeated Promenade theme, through an imaginary art gallery based loosely on Hartmann's sketches.
Mussorgsky himself would never hear this work performed. He died in 1881 of complications from chronic dipsomania, just shy of his 42nd birthday, and the piece was not performed publicly until five years later.
Mussorgsky wrote Pictures to be performed as a piano solo, but it was composer Maurice Ravel who brought it to the stage in 1922 as a work for full orchestra. There are many versions on YouTube, even one rock interpretation concocted by Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
This one is a classic Ravel-style version performed by the National Philharmonic of Russia, conducted by Ion Marin:
I promenaded through the Internet, reading about Mussorgsky and Hartmann, and sampling various video and audio renditions of Pictures.
That is what led me to the astonishing Nobuyuki Tsujii, a 21-year-old Japanese pianist, blind from birth. As I write, I am listening to what has become my favorite version of Pictures at an Exhibition, bought from ITunes. It was performed by Nobuyuki and released earlier this year.The orchestral versions are grand, but it is to Tsujii's solo piano that I will return again and again.
Nobuyuki Tsujii tied for the Gold Medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn Piano Competition with Haochen Zhang, a phenomenally gifted and engaging 19-year-old pianist from China. (You can view the Competition performances on Cliburn TV from Fort Worth, Texas. The sound and video are fantastic.)
Suddenly my brain slammed on the brakes, reversed, screeched around several more hairpin curves and stopped at the phrases: 19-year-old and 21-year-old. Then, as if I wasn't dizzy enough already, it pulled way back on the zoom lens and focused on an evening this past October in Pensacola, Florida.
The scene was a performance by the Drama Club of West Florida High School.
The Club performed Fog on the Mountain by Tim Kelly and Anatomy of Gray by Jim Leonard. Buck and I attended for one reason: our granddaughter, Andie, a senior at West Florida High, was an actor in the second play, Anatomy of Gray. I knew the efforts of the kids would be sweet and touching, but beyond that, my expectation for professional-level artistic expression was not high. After all, they're just kids. Right?
I laughed, cried, applauded and remembered the almost-forgotten exhilaration of live theatre. My honest brain has now pointed out to me the chauvinism of condescending to the young and denigrating their hard work and, yes, their gifts; gifts that may bloom and may take them away from home and hearth, and out into the wider world.
Andie is a remarkable young writer with fire in the belly for her budding craft. It's a beautiful fire, and one which I wish had burned in me at her age. It is my joy to encourage, celebrate and respect the flame of Andie's storytelling gift. Her work, here, with the Drama Club, is a creative extension of writing that has, I believe, taught her structural aspects of telling a story that no textbook ever could.
Actors Asa Morris-Webb and Andie Gibson grayed their hair and added fake wrinkles for their roles as Phineas Wingfield and Alma Odell .
Buck and Andie.
Andie and mom, Adele.
All the grandkids bring different gifts to the table: Krista is a graduate student at George Washington University, Ariel a third-year architecture student, Alex a multi-instrument musician and stand-up comedian, Garrett a hardworking good dad, Julia a 12-year-old fashionista, and April a serious soccer competitor.The younger generation doesn't appear to be goin' to hell in a handbasket after all. In fact, wherever they're going, I'd like to go along for the ride.