Pictures at an Exhibition

Dates & Venues: 21 February at the Orpheum Theatre & 23 February at the Centennial Theatre, North Vancouver

Reviewer: John Jane






Conductor: Tania Miller
Featured Performer:
James Parker - Piano

James Parker
James Parker
Looking around after the intermission at the numerous vacant seats that had hitherto been occupied, it would appear that a portion of the audience only came to see Burnaby native, James Parker. What an opportunity they missed. While Parker’s interpretation of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major was unarguably the evening’s highlight, Modest Mussorgsky’s showpiece work Pictures at an Exhibition was certainly worth staying for.

The orchestra began with an excerpt from Jacques Offenbach’s first full length operetta, Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld. Tania Miller brought out the humour and original Parisian burlesque within the framework of the composer’s ageless music.

Next was Claude Debussy’s haunting Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Opening with a flute solo, it continued with floating harp and strings, and intermittent brass. In the introduction, Maestra Miller expressed to the audience a special regard for the work. Her esteem for the piece was quite obvious in the performance.

Featured soloist James Parker played the Ravel concerto with much warmth and just the right exuberance that the piece required. His exceptional articulation was outstanding, especially the jazzy first movement, Allgramente which was a little reminiscent of George Gershwin.

Immediately following the intermission, the audience was ‘treated’ to an 'unadvertized special' in Jeffrey Ryan’s rather weightless composition And There Was. Alas, for me, it failed to produce any sense of expectancy.


Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is a collection of ten pieces inspired by paintings created by the composer’s friend, architect Victor Hartmann. Written a year after the artist's death in 1873, it was originally scored for solo piano, and was later orchestrated by Ravel. This is the version that was heard this evening.

Modest Mussorgsky

The Promenade started off the walk through the paintings. This easily identifiable theme recurred at various points in the suite to symbolize the tour through the exhibition. The ‘sketches’ allow an opportunity to feature some of the orchestra’s musicians in solo performances. From the introspective, melancholic, The Old Castle which featured the saxophone, to Beth Orson’s stellar oboe solo in Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. The concluding item was the dramatic The Great Gate of Kiev. With its powerful melody lines, this piece, more than any other paints an image of pre-soviet Russia.

Ravel’s orchestration of “Pictures” may have been recorded by just about every major ensemble on the planet, including a pretentious rendition by the progressive rock trio, Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

An interesting new feature at recent VSO concerts is a multi-media presentation complete with a pair of video screens displaying pre-recorded commentary from the conductor and guest artists. No doubt, it is considered by some to be an extra dimension in the concert hall experience; but perhaps an unwelcome intrusion by the purists.

© 2004, John Jane