It takes a big orchestra and a little chutzpah to schedule anything by Mussorgsky in a short, summer music program.
Apparently, Conservatory Music in the Mountains has both – audacity and a large, well-rounded student orchestra.
Conductor Andres Moran will field close to 60 musicians Saturday in the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College for a Conservatory first.
Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” is a grand, 10-movement work that requires a colony of brass, a congregation of winds, a phalanx of percussion and a swarm of strings. In addition, almost every instrumental group calls for solos.
Composed in 1874 as a tribute to his late artist-friend, Viktor Hartmann, “Pictures” imagines the composer strolling through a retrospective of paintings and architectural sketches. Periodic promenades represent walking through the art show, and 10 discrete sections musically imagine various images: an old castle, gardens, a lumbering ox cart, children playing, women gossiping in a French market and a scary, underground catacomb. All culminate at the Great Gate of Kiev with trumpets blazing and chimes ringing.
Mussorgsky originally conceived the work as a piano suite. Later, other composers tried orchestral transcriptions. In 1922, Maurice Ravel completed the one most often played in concert halls today. In terms of color and texture, the orchestration adds layers of French sophistication to an emotional Russian foundation.
It’s a dream piece for musicians, especially this year’s Conservatory students. It would have been out of the question before this summer.
Thanks to Artistic Director Matt Albert and his vision of expanding the Conservatory to include all instruments, Mussorgsky’s gargantua landed on the program.
Conservatory Orchestra Conductor Andres Moran will guide the orchestra through the 35-minute meander.
“It’s wonderful to be able to play big works,” Moran said in an interview last week before daily orchestra rehearsals. On Tuesday, Moran conducted a bumper crop of wind and brass players.
It’s almost embarrassing to list them: two trumpets, three French horns, two baritones, and one tuba. The woodwind brigade includes three flutes, four clarinets, one bass clarinet, four bassoons, and six – yes six – oboes. Three double on the English horn.
Why not program a magnetic Romantic work that shifts from the grotesque to charming, from lightness to nobility?
“Make this as menacing as possible,” Moran said as the musicians rehearsed an ink-black movement known as The Gnome. “This is really rough and angry music. Each note must bleed into the next.”
By the time the musicians arrived at The Great Gate of Kiev, it was all billowing flags and sunlight.
Saturday’s concert will open with a new work by composer Karel Butz, 36, titled “McCormick Fanfare.” The four-minute work will be followed by the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto for Oboe in C Major. Soloist Peter Davies, 15, won first prize in the 2016 Conservatory Concerto Competition. And the concert will close with Mussorgsky.
Over its 30 year history, the Festival Orchestra has performed “Pictures” twice in the Concert Hall. Now it’s time for the Conservatory Orchestra to follow suit. Kudos all around.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.