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The Modbo gives Mussorgsky a makeover

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Modbo will be giving Mussorgsky a makeover this month. - MARKAUMARK / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • MarkauMark / Shutterstock.com
  • Modbo will be giving Mussorgsky a makeover this month.
If you’re looking for an ambitious combination of high culture and local artistic expression — and why wouldn’t you be? — The Modbo has you thoroughly covered with a month-long exhibition that’ll put a distinctly Colorado Springs spin on a highly beloved classic musical work.

From Oct. 5 to 26, The Modbo will be presenting “The Mussorgsky Project: Pictures at an Exhibition Reimagined,” which features new artwork from acclaimed local artist Phil Lear and a host of live musical collaborations, kicking off on First Friday, Oct. 5 at 5 p.m.

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote the suite “Pictures at an Exhibition” in 1874, following the death of his friend Viktor Hartmann, a painter, architect and kindred spirit in Mussorgsky’s dedication to producing distinctly Russian art and music during the Romantic period — Mussorgsky being among the most prominent musical voices in a so-called “New Russian School” that frequently stood in defiance of contemporary Western artistic conventions.

While Mussorgsky himself was inspired by the artwork of his friend and the despair over his sudden loss, Modbo gallerist Lauren Ciborowski was keen to recontextualize “Pictures at an Exhibition” with new accompanying artwork, admitting that showing an exhibit “more worthy” of Mussorgsky’s cherished music was a long-desired project.

“They aren’t bad, per se,” says Ciborowksi of Hartmann’s original artwork. “But nothing about them seems awe-inspiring enough to have sparked such creative genius in Mussorgsky.”

With Phil Lear up for the unique meta-challenge of creating new paintings inspired by music (which was, as noted, originally inspired by other paintings), the musical aspect of the project offers three performances, showcasing a wide swath of local talent.

Oct. 5 features classical performances by trombonist Jeremy Van Hoy (also a member of Edith) accompanied by Ciborowski on piano, The First Congregational Church handbell choir, The Catamount Quartet and vocalist Solveig Olsen, who will premiere a new vocal arrangement written by Mark Arnest with lyrics by Nico Wilkinson.

The second performance, taking place Friday, Oct. 19, features performances by My Name Is Harriett, Ryan Flores, Charlie Milo, Jeremy Facknitz, Allison Lint, piano duet Swelter and Burn and a reprise of Solveig Olsen’s performance.
The final night, Oct. 26, features a jazz bent with Denver musicians Paul Riola, Joshua Trinidad, Kim Stone, Ian Argys and Michel Stahli taking the stage. This performance will also be livestreamed on Jazz 93.5.

The opportunity to hear area musicians bringing their own respective styles to Mussorgsky’s music will, of course, be a unique experience for local music lovers, but also a practice of arrangement and interpretation that has become fairly well-established for the suite.

“Pictures at an Exhibition” was originally written as a solo piano composition and became a frequent showcase for virtuoso pianists, but the orchestral treatment in 1922 by composer Maurice Ravel is perhaps the best-known and most frequently performed version of the work.

Since then, all manner of arrangements have appeared throughout the years, including a big-band setting by Duke Ellington, a prog-rock orchestration by genre figureheads Emerson, Lake & Palmer, an accordion duet version, an analog synthesizer interpretation by early electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita and, perhaps most astoundingly, internet comedian Neil Cicierega’s 2014 mashup, which creates one movement of the suite entirely out of samples from Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”

What might Mussorgsky himself think of all this? Well, first of all, it’s slightly odd that the Western perception of his music generally skews toward the fantastical and highly programmatic, given that his aesthetic allegiance was that of a staunch, grounded realism. But, hey, good luck explaining his unflinching eye for the 1860s Russian peasant to anyone who has seen the Disney Fantasia sequence based on his tone poem “Night on Bald Mountain.”

That said, given that Mussorgsky’s most famous attribute, aside from his music, was his prodigious drinking habit, I have to believe, somewhere in my heart, that a man who traded in his aristocratic upbringing for a principled, bohemian stance of extreme bacchanalia would have to find some joy in the wildly eclectic performances his work still inspires.

Send news, photos, and music to reverb@csindy.com.

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