Interpretive artwork created by fifth-grade students at several area schools will be projected on a screen during a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of 10 pieces for solo piano by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Pianist Jeffrey Chappell will perform the suite at Capital City Concerts on January 18 and 19.
Approximately 60 students from Main Street Middle School in Montpelier, East Montpelier Elementary School, Rumney Elementary School in Middlesex, and Berlin Elementary School created drawings, paintings, and mixed-media collages to illustrate and add texture to Mussorgsky’s famous piano composition, which was originally based on drawings and watercolors by artist Viktor Hartmann.
“It’s a masterpiece that doesn’t get performed that often,” CCC founder and artistic director Karen Kevra said of Pictures at an Exhibition. “I’ve been doing concerts for 20 years and we’ve never done it. I think it’s a big moment in the history of the concert series.”
Conceived by Kevra, the project was designed to help students create a connection between music and visual arts while developing a deeper appreciation for classical composition. Kevra said it is a concept she had successfully implemented before, then with the help of pianist Michael Arnowitt.
“It’s a little bit of a recycling of a former project from way back when my son went to Union Elementary,” Kevra said. “Michael Arnowitt performed Schumann’s Carnavale, Op. 9, which is another piece that is very colorful and has a very descriptive movement, and we projected artwork over the stage. So that was always a fond memory of something I thought we might want to revive.”
In an effort to bring the unique project back to life, Kevra enlisted the help of pianist and longtime Capital City Concerts performer Jeffrey Chappell, and children’s author and CCC board member M.T. Anderson.
“M.T. Anderson is a music aficionado and a creative guy who has this kind of sparkling way of making things happen,” Kevra said. “So when I presented this idea to the board, it became clear to me pretty quickly that he would want to be involved.”
Anderson designed a classroom plan for introducing the students to Mussorgsky’s suite and worked with Main Street Middle School art teacher Jess Dewes to help facilitate the project.
“He’s actually been in Jess Dewes’ classroom a number of times, working with the kids,” Kevra said.
“Mussorgsky had written these pieces as a tour around an invisible museum, and we are asking these kids to go in and picture what the paintings in that invisible museum might look like,” Anderson said. “It’s very much like a film soundtrack, in the sense that the music can change the way you feel about what’s on the screen.”
Dewes said the students were inspired by the “really cool titles” of Mussorgsky’s movements, which include “The Gnome”, “The Old Castle”, and “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks”.
“I think they brought a real playfulness to it,” Dewes said. “It helped them find a starting place for their work, and then the music kind of took the ideas to fruition for them.”
Dewes said the students called upon their own love of film, cartoons, and graphic novels while creating their art.
“You could really see them bringing what they enjoy about visual media to the project,” Dewes said. “They worked in a variety of mediums, from colored pencils to watercolors to oil pastels to delicate and interesting pencil drawings.”
Some students took images from magazines to use as part of mixed media drawings, Dewes said, adding that she encouraged such creativity.
“This particular group of students were very personally disciplined and they were challenging themselves pretty naturally,” Dewes said. “I was very impressed with them.”
“One of the things that makes classical music different is that it’s music of complexity,” Anderson said. “I’m not talking about emotional complexity, because the simplest song can be very emotionally complex, but just that there’s a lot going on.” Anderson added that classical music is also often used “to produce emotion” from audiences of feature films.
“It’s kind of interesting for [the students] to be able to say, ‘Hey, how does music do this? How does this totally abstract sound somehow make us feel a particular way?’” Anderson said.
Anderson said Dewes was instrumental in helping students conceptualize the project.
“[Dewes] taught the kids about the emotional value of color,” Anderson said. “One student was depicting the ancient graveyard, and she said to him, ‘What if you don’t draw this on white paper, which is light and bright and airy, but instead do it with chalk on black paper?’ So, immediately there’s a sense of the night and the secret and hidden.”
Anderson said that while listening to Mussorgsky’s ninth movement, “The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)”, which depicts a Russian witch, the students picked up on the “terrifying and hectic” quality of the piece.
“As they were listening to it they started to sketch stuff, so they could turn the emotional experience back into a picture,” Anderson said.
“Outreach programs are an important part of what a lot of our organizations do,” Kevra said of involving students in the Capital City Concerts performance. “Ultimately, we want to turn kids on to classical music because we love it, and they are the next generation.”