Sydney Symphony Orchestra Mihhail Gerts Pictures at an Exhibition March 2023


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Sydney Symphony Orchestra kicked off their extremely popular season of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” last night to a sold out house. There are four consecutive nights with just a few tickets currently available for 10 and 11 March 2023 (get in quick!) The crowd adored the performance with many curtain calls at the end of each half. It’s the perfect pick for those who enjoy Romantic era popular works, great to take along children or anyone new to orchestra concerts.

Pictures at an Exhibition is an astounding work that gets more interesting each time you hear it. Showcasing all sections of the orchestra there are lots of solos drawing your attention to various instruments with a series of expressive, easy to follow scenes. If you are taking along someone new, you might like to create a quick drawing of each scene to remind them of the story they are listening to. The writer used this idea to present the work at a pre-school many years ago and the children remembered many of the stories asking for a repeat play of the music. So, all ages can enjoy the narrative.

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky composed the piece – originally for piano – around the exhibition paintings of his artist friend Viktor Hartmann who had passed away from an aneurysm the year before in 1874. The two of them had been fast friends, each admiring the other’s work. Inspiration from a tribute exhibition apparently flowed all the tunes into Mussorgsky’s head and he completed the full work within 2-3 weeks.

The fans loved it. His composer “friends” were unsettled by it and for good reason. It’s unique format and clear honest storytelling has made it immensely popular all around the world up to present day. There have been a number of orchestrations. This one by Maurice Ravel was completed in 1922 and is magnificent.

The format of Pictures at an Exhibition is easy to follow. A signature theme represents the viewer attending an art exhibition – you might recognise it as the theme to Rik Mayall’s comedy series “The New Statesman”. It doesn’t remain the same but changes and is affected by each painting viewed. He reacts, then collects himself together as he walks on to the next painting a changed man. Scenes include gossiping nannies and crowds of lively children running around the Tuileries, little chicks rattling their eggs almost ready to hatch, a forlorn young troubadour serenading a window where no one appears, enormous oxen dragging a heavy cart towards you, then passing by, continuing down the street and a poor man making an unsuccessful plea for a loan from a rich, haughty man. Each story is so easy to play out in your mind.

Guest conductor for the concert was Estonian Mihhail Gerts in his Australian debut. A slim figure with a gentle, expressive face, he chose to pull back the tempo on many of the scenes compared to the more aggressive versions we usually hear in Australia these days. Generally speaking, there are many conductors who like to speed up the tempo of music thinking this will make it more exciting. However, a 100-miles-an-hour tempo often causes issues including muddy phrasing and timing; lost detail and tension within the musicians. This creates a tight sound that is anything but grand.

By slowing the tempo, suddenly there is so much more clarity and detail which can be appreciated in the composition. The musicians relax and really fill out all the space with their playing. This was particularly noticeable in the repeat of the Baba Yaga movement. Not everyone liked the choices of tempo but it makes a change and allows you to dig deeper into the genius hidden within the composition. Gerts’ interpretation felt concise, confident, lyrical and spacious.

As mentioned, there were many solos within the piece. Keep your ears and eyes open for the outstanding solo of alto saxophone by Christina Leonard (not credited in the program) in The Old Castle movement. Absolutely beautiful.

Marie-Ange Nguci pianist with Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert review.
Concert pianist Marie-Ange Nguci at Sydney Opera House with Sydney Symphony Orchestra March 2023. Photo credit Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The first half of the concert featured another artist in Australian debut, Albanian 24 year old pianist Marie-Ange Nguci. From a young age she stood out from the crowd showing exceptional musical talent. She completed her Master’s degree in Piano performance at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris when she was only 16 years old. Clearly loving academic life, she has continued her studies through Paris and Vienna expanding into musicology, conducting and pedagogy (the art of teaching).

Nguci chose Saint-Saëns’ “Piano Concerto no. 2” which has many well known tunes easily recognised. It’s a difficult piece which she handled admirably, some times hunched over the keys as if to sink into them with hair covering her face, other times working in close unison with conductor Gerts. Rather than being an entertainer, she is more introverted, looking happier to keep her attention focussed on what’s happening on the stage.

The opening Andante Sostenuto (meaning supported, moderate slow tempo) movement began in a dreamy delicious cloud increasing to a frenzy with her hands crossing one over the other, then paring back to a deep sadness. After a fairly long movement, the orchestra finally get to speak in a few strong chords before the close of the movement. Gerts made full use of the new improved acoustics in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall keeping these chords short and sharp so the sound had time and space to echo around the venue.

Second movement was a playful, giggling Allegro Scherzando which had the orchestra musicians smiling and swaying. The final Presto movement became even more technical but well known enough for audience members to start singing along. Nguci threw herself into this at a devilish speed with Gerts holding back the orchestra volume at the perfect balance for enhancing, rather than overwhelming, the piano.

After generous applause, Nguci returned to play an encore of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. It’s an astounding piece that would surely make the left hand of most people fall off should they attempt to play it. Nguci showed great skill and an emotive interpretation which once again impressed the crowd.

Reversing back through the program, the opening work was by Australian composer Miriama Young. “Reflections on the Harbour Light” which created the vivid scene of an underwater wonderland in Sydney Harbour focussing on the dark depths, then raising to the light above. There were some lovely components to this piece though the abrupt ending took the audience by surprise. The composer was present to take the applause in person.

Yet another fabulous evening from our international quality orchestra which is such a great asset to the city. Grab those final tickets – they won’t last!

This reviewed performance was in the Concert Hall of Sydney Opera House by Sydney Symphony Orchestra on 8 March 2023.  Pictures at an Exhibition will continue until 11 March 2023.


Reflections on the Harbour Light – Miriama Young

Piano Concerto No. 2 – Camille Saint Saëns

Pictures at an Exhibition – Modest Mussorgsky, arr. Maurice Ravel

Guest Artists

Mihhail Gerts – conductor

Marie-Ange Nguci – piano

Related Links

Tickets for Sydney Symphony concerts:

Description of the paintings within Pictures at an Exhibition: 

More about pianist Marie-Ange Nguci

More about conductor Mihhail Gerts: