Looking at the Big Picture: Presenting Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky

By Ashley Overby

When the board of the Miami University Symphony Orchestra  learned that we would be performing Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, we knew that we wanted to do something special. The Russian composer originally wrote a suite of 10 pieces, interspersed with movements titled Promenades, for piano. The piece depicts a journey through an exhibition of paintings, inspired by the paintings of Viktor Hartmann. Each promenade is a depiction of the viewer or listener walking from piece to piece, reflecting on what they have seen, and the main movements depict the art itself. Ravel later orchestrated this piece for a full symphonic orchestra. Because the music was based on works of art, we wanted to incorporate the visual arts into our performance. We wanted to present our own exhibition.

The idea was suggested that we perform the music during an animated video portraying the images we were imitating through music. One video in particular was based on the art of Natasha Turovksy, who created a series of paintings inspired by Mussorgsky’s music, since many of Hartmann’s original paintings are now lost. We would then present the paintings of Turovsky in the lobby for the audience to view. We also wanted Miami University students to be able to present their works alongside Turovsky’s. All of the paintings would be available for viewing after our performance with the video, coordinated by an Interactive Media Studies student. This program encourages students to consider digital content and media such as graphics, text, and sound, and how people interact with this media. We felt that this was a perfect job for an Interactive Media Studies student because of the presentation of images and music through the use of technology. It was an ambitious plan, but we felt we could pull it off.

There was a lot involved in making it happen. The board members were responsible for proposing the idea to the Art and Interactive Media Studies departments. Thankfully, they were on board and thought it was a fantastic idea. This is when our initial concept began to shift and change. One of the art professors suggested that rather than display student paintings, we have students and professors painting and drawing while we perform. Their art would then be shown after our performance and would be available for sale. This seemed like an even better idea, creating artwork based on the music, the reverse of how Mussorgsky created his work. We eventually learned that we wouldn’t be able to present Turovsky’s paintings, but we now had something better lined up: a live interpretation of the music.

The days leading up to the concert were stressful. Not only was it challenging to put together a proposal, but we also had to develop a plan to market the event. We worked with Jeanne Harmeyer, the Marketing and Communications Director for the College of Creative Arts, to develop a poster. Then we decided what the most strategic locations would be to place the posters as well as the digital displays. We also had to decide on a price point for our tickets. We don’t typically charge entry for our concerts, but because of the cost of renting the video and the intrinsic value of the concert experience, we decided to charge for tickets.

The actual logistics of the concert were tricky. The video was controlled through a special software program run by an Interactive Media Studies student who was also a musician. This made sure that the music lined up with the movie correctly. We also had the responsibility of testing equipment such as the stand lights. There was concern that something wouldn’t run smoothly, that the images and music wouldn’t line up, or that our stand lights would go out mid-performance. There was no telling what would actually happen the day of the concert.

Despite all of our concerns, the performance was a huge success. Everything ran smoothly and the artists created a variety of beautiful artworks. It was a rewarding experience for everyone involved. It was one of the first large scale collaborations between different arts departments that we know of, and we certainly look forward to projects like this one in the future. I think all of the board members began to appreciate how much work goes into planning an arts event, and there are people who do this kind of work everyday in order to present the arts events we all enjoy. It wasn’t easy, but eventually all of the details came together, working in harmony to create a magical experience of Pictures at an Exhibition.

Ashley Overby is an aspiring orchestral musician studying Music Performance and Biology at Miami University.