A gallery for our times

ZOFO

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday May 11

ZOFO

                                     Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi

The concept behind this exercise was an arresting one.  Taking Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as a base, duo-pianists Zimmerman and Nakagoshi assembled 15 discrete compositions inspired by art works chosen by their commissioned musicians, then framed the complex with Nakagoshi’s own take on the Mussorgsky work’s Promenade prelude. But where the Russian master had only five Promenade-plus-variants in his 10-picture construct, these visitors had an initial one to ground their activity, then an interlude between every aural/visual art-work.

In fact, the pianists provided what Mussorgsky couldn’t: reproductions of those works that inspired the pieces.  Apparently, we can be certain of five Viktor Hartmann paintings and sketches that moved the Russian composer, although some of these surviving art-works make you wonder about the composer’s transformational/interpretative powers.  The artist’s Great Gate is surprisingly neat when compared to the overwhelming musical image of it; and how Mussorgsky got his fierce Baba Yaga out of Hartmann’s delicate clock painting is anyone’s guess.

No worries with the new construction, even if the musical complement to certain art works remains non-obvious.  If you don’t get the connection, that’s your problem: Zimmerman and Nakagoshi have supplied all the information required and, as far as I could tell on Saturday night, gave an expert account of the 15 compositions.  Both performers used most of the Promenades as an opportunity to stand up and wander round the piano, miming a stroller moving through a gallery, while the other pianist played the interlude.  The device also served as a means of sharing the labour so that a player could return from his or her stroll and take up the primo or secondo role – a change of performance scenery, then.

Plunging the auditorium into darkness was probably necessary for the projections to work but it made note-taking difficult.  Zimmerman and Nakagoshi eased us into the exercise agreably with a Monet painting, Le Bassin’ d’Argenteuil, underpinned by Gilles Silvestrini’s musical commentary: impressionist shimmers, suddenly interrupted by a chain of strident chords which I wondered about then  –  and later  –   when considering the painting’s bucolic placidity.   Matters did not improve with Brett Dean’s reaction to James Gleeson’s The Arrival of Implacable Gifts, but then the painting’s details failed to travel, so that it wasn’t until much later that you could appreciate how the composer’s fiery active rushes of sound reflected Gleeson’s fluent waves of action, specifically its interweaving three bands of surrealist imagery.

At or around this point, the penny dropped.  You weren’t in the Murdoch Hall to cast a jaundiced eye over the efforts of contemporary composers to give you aural images of some pieces extracted at will from a world-wide Museum of Modern Art (the Monet is from the d’Orsay; Gleeson’s work is in the NSW Art Gallery).  Rather, the duo-pianists were only concerned with entertainment, pure and simple.  You could look at something like Reuven Rubin’s Dancing with the Torah at Mount Meron and not be distracted by the new-style tango by Avner Dorman that accompanied part of it; or you could face Wojciech Fangor’s black-hole celebrating SM 34 without worrying about Pawel Mykietyn’s accelerating bass growls punctuated by upper register pointillist 3rds,

It’s a 21st Century construct so, naturally, you expected some action inside the lid, as in Lei Liang’s Will You Come to My Dream? and a mute of some kind applied to the bass strings in Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Spring Morning in Baku.   As well, there’s always room for the theatrical gesture, as in Jonathan Russell’s Untitled Skeleton during which Zimmerman leaned over a crouching Nakagoshi; so that you suppressed wonder about how the score’s upward-moving acceleration and soft bass-notes postlude gave insight on Stormie Mills cartoon-suggestive painting.

The surprises kept on coming.  The Promenade that preceded I Wayan Gde Yudane’s  Street Solace was calculated to bring to mind one of Satie’s Gymnopedies.  The sound world created by Samuel Adams to support Night Sea (for Agnes) by Emily Davis Adams brought to mind the tendency towards rhythmic alliteration typical of another, older Adams musician.   But, with a keen eye for the final impression, the duo hit a vernacular button in the last two pieces.   Pablo Ortiz’s Paisaje gave us the night’s most old-fashioned ambience with an Argentinian dance sound to supplement Eduardo Stupia’s writhing landscape; Keyla Orozco’s Viajeros. a reminiscence of Russia’s massive influence over most aspects of Cuban life, carried a lot of matter with its use of a Russian song that rang some half-remembered bells from World War Two, a Gershwin-style meditation in the centre, and some Hungarian Rhapsody virtuosity to be going on with, all supporting an optimistic playful work by Douglas Perez Castro.

In the end, this Mussorgsky revision proved to be very engaging, not least for the duo itself which is a collaboration that works without any indications of exhibitionism or trite legerdemain.   Yes, there are some pieces – probably the majority – that I’m glad to have heard but won’t be in a hurry to revisit.   Zimmerman and Nakagoshi handled each of the bespoke compositions with equal deference and dedication, their labour-sharing a pleasure to witness for its certainty and purpose.

However, the duo piano format and this particular program are not your usual Musica Viva cup of tea; it’s back to the familiar script in future months with a couple of pretty orthodox string quartets and a non-boat-rocking piano quartet, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge visiting for cultural reassurance, and a clutch of early music specialists from the Paris Conservatoire who are heavy on Bach, Telemann and the French Baroque.   It’s fair to say that all of these future events will attract a much larger audience than the small number that bothered to show up for ZOFO’s 75-minute recital

A cross-reference that’s  probably worth noting is that the ZOFOMOMA Pictures at An Exhibition can be seen on the internet in a video performance at an unknown venue dating from about a year ago.  This is well worth seeing, just to get a taste of the work quality from these fine musicians – and also as a reminder of details that slipped past in the dark of Saturday’s real-time performance, particularly the eloquence of Nakagoshi’s last two Promenades for both players.