Opening night at the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Saturday night. Courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

Hearing the forms, colors, and movements within music has long been a thrilling part of attending a concert by the Portland Symphony Orchestra (PSO). For the opening concert of its 99th season, though, the PSO took things a step further and added corresponding visual arts elements to the major piece in the program.

Students and faculty at the Portland-based Maine College of Art and Design (MECA&D) were asked by PSO Music Director Eckart Preu to provide new, original images to correspond to those suggested within Modest Mussorgsky’s famous 1874 piece “Pictures at an Exhibition” (as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922).

Though the majestic Mussorgsky work was originally inspired by works representing one specific 19th-century artist, Viktor Hartmann, a friend of the composer, the MECA&D creators were simply instructed to listen to the section of the piece each was assigned and then follow their inspiration to produce a work.

Projected above the orchestra on a big screen, the results were all over the map of contemporary visual arts and design aesthetics. Somber atmospheric paintings, moody photos, conceptual gags, and splashy, expressionistic effusions of color added thoughtful diversions to the variety of responses that the composer obviously felt when seeing a posthumous exhibition of Hartmann’s art (also shown in projections).

Among the many works created, Xander Munc’s multimedia collage discovered the depth of Mussorgsky’s movement called “Bydlo,” creating a communicative mystery. Cynthia Nathan’s painting for “Limoges” suggested bright loci of energy. Isaac Kim’s response to “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” seems to evolve in interesting ways and Honour Mack’s take on “The Great Gate of Kiev” suggests the power and depth of this classic movement, doubly resonant today.

With or without audience members glancing at the artwork, the PSO performance of this piece was compelling. Contributions by violinist Charles Dimmick were particularly notable here and throughout the two-hour-including-intermission concert.


The ChoralArt Masterworks chorus, directed by Robert Russell, offered all-too-brief in-person performances on three short selections. Moments of exaltation abounded within Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music” (1938), a piece inspired by “touches of sweet harmony” suggested in a work by Shakespeare. Guest soprano Molly Harmon added to the soaring sense of blissful discovery evoked.

The chorus also contributed to two pieces taken, respectively, from the operas “Nabucco” and “Il trovatore” by Giuseppe Verdi. “Va, pensiero” (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) has long been recognized for conveying a spirit of prayerful determination and the singers and orchestra formed a cohesive whole in a striking performance. Striking of a different sort took place with a performance of the famous “Coro di Zingari” (Anvil Chorus). Clangs and energized voices heralded the piece’s playful praises for the Gypsy life.

The evening opened with an extended, “director’s cut” edition, as Preu put it, of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” The hustle and bustle of the City of Light, countered by dreamy reflections, makes the work a true American classic. The PSO rode it all, as if in one of the honking Paris taxis recalled in the work, into the far corners of Merrill Auditorium.

An arresting encore of Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” was as exciting as it was perhaps unnecessary to close a fine opening night for the PSO and guests.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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