HSO logo banner, Jed Gaylin Music Director


Program Notes: March 3, 2001

"Picture This"

Symphonic Poem No.1: Release

after LifeLines, 23 platinum prints by Elizabeth Siegfried.

James Grant

commissioned by the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra and the Bay-Atlantic Symphony
Jed Gaylin, Music Director

Program notes by James Grant

In the nineteenth century, composers embraced an emerging single-movement form as an alternative to what had been the dominant orchestral expression of the time, the multi-movement symphony. The one-movement form, called the ``symphonic poem'' or ``tone poem'' (the term preferred by R. Strauss), is descriptive, or ``programmatic'' in nature and often uses as its inspiration the non-musical creative narrative of another artist.

The works of photographer Elizabeth Siegfried caught my attention in the spring of 1998, when I viewed a collection of her platinum prints on exhibition in Baltimore. Each photograph drew me into a space where visual balance and proportion merged effortlessly with deeply personal, meditative, and at times, unsettling content. Moved by the quiet intensity of her images, I asked Ms. Siegfried if she would allow me to compose a symphonic work based on a selection of her photographs; she agreed.

Symphonic Poem No. 1: Release is inspired by 23 platinum prints that make up a body of work Siegfried calls LifeLines. Unlike Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (after drawings and water colors by Victor Hartmann), Release is not literal in its approach to interpreting its source of inspiration; that is, the music does not attempt to ``translate'' Siegfried's images into their exact musical counterparts. Instead, Release (which taks its name from the final image in the LifeLines sequence) seeks to absorb the content of the complete visual narrative and re-express it in musical terms.

The images in LifeLines, viewed in sequence, address the complex issues of aging and the passage of time; how we, like all elements of creation, swim in a constantly evolving sea of overlapping cycles: as one expression of life concludes its cycle of emergence, development, decay, and release, another expression of life begins.

Release responds to that eternal ebb and flow, that counterpoint of overlapping life cycles; and to the emotional and spiritual journey we each face as we pass through life's stages. Underlying tension searches for resolution and sings of longing and vulnerability. Increasing anxiety erupts into stubborn defiance. Cathartic transformation holds the promise of gradual understanding and eventual peace; and the final process of letting go makes way for new life and new dreams. Our own release approaches, motions to us, embraces us like the ocean. And we, too, let go.

Symphonic Poem No. 1: Release is dedicated to David N. W. Grant, Jr., my father, whose own gentle release on December 4, 2000, is remembered in this music.

NOTES:  Eight of Elizabeth Siegfried's 23 platinum prints that comprise LifeLines will be on display outside the concert hall. At intermission, there will be a book signing for Ms. Siegfried's recently published book, LifeLines, that includes all 23 images and an introduction by National Book Award winner Andrea Barrett. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra.

The composer extends his thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Thomas L. Reed, Mr. & Mrs. Robert V. Walsh, and anonymous for their generous support of this commissioning project.

To view more of Elizabeth Siegfried's work, visit www.ElizabethSiegfried.com
To learn more about James Grant's music, visit www.JamesGrantMusic.com

Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky orchestrated by Maurice Ravel

Program notes by Max Derrickson

Victor Alexandrovich Hartmann was a Russian artist and a stauch supporter of the Nationalistic artistic movement that sought to create Russian art in a glorious and contemporary light. A year after his death in 1873 at the age of 39, a commemorative exhibition of his works was shown.

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was another member of the Russian Nationalist school and a close friend of Hartmann's. When the exhibition was held, Mussorgsky had the simple but breathtaking idea of linking the images together musically in a suite by creating a promenade theme suggesting the viewer moving through the gallery between pictures. The creation is certainly his most popular work, however, it was originally composed for piano alone.

Mussorgsky is at times left in the shadows of the 19th century Russian repertoire. Certainly his friend Rimsky-Korsakov was more prolific and was internationally famous in his lifetime. Tchaikovsky of course is best known and eclipses all other Russian composers from this period. But among his circles, and in a broadening admiration from his operatic success with Boris Godunov, Mussorgsky was greatly admired for his Russian realism and raw talent. His early death from alcohol abuse cut short a creative voice in which many had a tremendous belief.

Pictures at an Exhibition is one such piece that exemplifies Mussorgsky's originality and creativity. It might be hard to imagine this piece for piano alone, yet in that medium it is undeniably an artistic masterpiece. Upon Mussorgsky's death, Rimsky-Korsakov set out to bring more of his works to light, often finding reams of unfinished manuscripts. Yet upon review of Pictures at an Exhibition, Rimsky-Korsakov left it completely untouched, feeling that the work could not be improved upon. But in 1922, Maurice Ravel orchestrated the work for a Koussevitsky commission. Other versions have been written, but Ravel's exceptional orchestration is by far the best known.

A brief summary of the works follows: ``Gnomus'' is a wooden nutcracker fashioned into jaws of a grotesque face. ``Il vecchio castello'' is an aged Italian castle with a troubador singing in the foreground. ``Tuileries'' presents the squeal of playing children. ``Bydlo'' is an ungainly Polish ox-cart plodding down a muddy road. ``The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks'' is a dance of two ugly figures dressed in egg-shells. ``Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle'' (this picture is owned by Mussorgsky) represents two Jews, a rich Goldenberg and a whining Schmuyle. ``Market Place (Limoges)'' evokes the incessant chatter and banter found in the market. `` Catacombs'' starkly begins, showing Hartmann and a friend peering into the ancient catacombs of Paris, but ``Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua'' is Mussorgsky's own image of human skulls glowing softly from internal light. The ``Hut of Baba Yaga'' is the treacherous Russian witch living off of human bones. ``The Great Gate of Kiev'' is a fantastic and fanciful old Slavonic style arch with a bell tower and colorful mosaics. Mussorgsky here musically represents a procession of penitents passing through the gate under the symbolized glory of old Russia.