“Limoges” by Cynthia Nathan, inspired by Movement No. 7 “The Market at Limoges” of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Courtesy of Cynthia Nathan and Maine College of Art & Design.

Cynthia Nathan always listens to music when she paints. Lately, she’s been on a disco kick, playing “Lay All Your Love on Me” on repeat.

But one recent piece took her back another 100 years, trading ABBA for Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky.

Nathan, who is a first-year graduate student at the Maine College of Art & Design in Portland, made an abstract painting based on one of 10 movements in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The Russian composer wrote the original piano suite in 1874 as a musical representation of paintings by a friend who died the previous year. Now, Nathan and other artists from the college have used the music as inspiration for original pieces as part of a unique collaboration with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Their work will be projected above the stage this weekend when the orchestra plays “Pictures at an Exhibition” during its season-opening concerts, and it will also be shown in a gallery at the college.

“It has changed the way I think about the relation of music and art,” said Nathan, 23.


The project began with Eckart Preu, the music director at the Portland Symphony Orchestra. The theme he chose for the opening weekend is “Visual Sounds,” and the program includes works that connect visual art and music. The first song, for example, is composer George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which later inspired a film by the same name. The centerpiece is “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which was arranged for an orchestra by French composer Maurice Ravel.

“The Old Castle” by Maureen Hsu, inspired by Movement No. 2 of “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Courtesy of Maureen Hsu and Maine College of Art & Design.

Preu was looking for a novel way to present the famous work. He approached the college with the idea to reverse-engineer it. He wanted to see what art could be inspired by the music, rather than the other way around.

“I did not say, do your research and look up what the original pictures are,” he said. “I didn’t ask them to illustrate the music.”

Steve Drown is the coordinator of the Bob Crewe Program in Art and Music at the college, and he was immediately excited by the request from the orchestra. He knew the work (“one of the greatest hits of the 19th century,” he said) and found students and faculty to work on the project over the summer. Each of the 10 movements of “Pictures at an Exhibition” corresponds to a different painting by Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, and Mussorgsky interspersed a recurring theme that represents a visitor walking from piece to piece in the gallery.

Drown compared the composition to “a modern album” because the movements vary widely in their style.

“There’s a variety of playfulness and darkness and grandiosity,” he said. “It really draws a picture even if people haven’t seen the originals.”


He assigned each artist a movement or interlude and gave them a file to listen to the music. A few were familiar with “Pictures at an Exhibition,” but most were not. When the artists shared their finished products, he found them as varied as the source material. The art includes photographs and paintings, abstract works and cheeky ones.

“Joel’s Scrambled Eggs,” a photograph by Joel Tsui inspired by Movement No. 5 “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens” from “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Courtesy of Joel Tsui and Maine College of Art & Design.

“I think the scope of the orchestra and the individual pieces will be well-matched,” Drown said. “It will be something to behold.”

Preu agreed that the art was surprising and inspired.

“Will the new images that were created just for this concert, will they change the way you listen to the music?” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. To always make people and musicians, myself as well, not just reproduce what has already been produced. To always see the music, especially known music, in new light. I think these new images will help reevaluate how we listen to this music.”

Both the orchestra and the college also saw that the partnership could bring new people into their spaces.

“I really believe in the power of the arts to bring people to a different level,” said Laura Freid, president of the college. “Sometimes you need an experience like this that just shakes you up and creates more opportunities for collaboration and communication.”


Eckart Preu leading the Portland Symphony Orchestra, whose season opens this weekend. Photo courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

For Nathan, a symphony is a familiar space. She grew up in a musical family and attended orchestra concerts while she was growing up in other states. She started her MFA program in Portland this summer and quickly jumped at the chance to participate in this project.

“Whenever I listen to music, I think about how it would look visually, when it comes to large swells or the fast tempo,” she said.

Nathan listened to her assigned movement – the seventh, called “The Market at Limoges.” The piece was about 90 seconds long. The colors came to her quickly – white and yellow for the higher notes, deep blue and purple for the deeper swell – and she felt a sense of upward movement that she wanted to translate on the canvas. But the shapes were harder to figure out.

“The one thing that was very difficult was to capture the way the notes layered over each other,” she said.

She ended up taping off sections of the painting to create layers that are both defined and overlapping. The final piece moves from darker colors in the bottom left to lighter ones in the top right, building on that upward feeling Nathan had when she listened to the music. While Nathan always listens to music when she makes art, this process made her think more directly about how to translate one to the other.

“It really made me think about the piece relating directly to the music, and that is something I don’t want to forget,” she said. “It was challenging, and I like that.”

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