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The Symphony combines audio, the visual, the creation of art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 23, 2013 - It is not unusual for artists to gravitate together, regardless of their medium. History is filled with such creative counterparts and companions, with people drawing inspiration from the relationship.

For some, the spark comes simply through the knowing and the loving. For others, a friend’s works create a sort of symbiotic catalyst driving them to take up brush or bow.

As many as three artist friends were known to inspire composer Franz Schubert, and they created works honoring his talent. These include Gustav Klimt’s "Schubert at the Piano" created in 1899. Creative connections were particularly notable in the 1920s with the expats in Paris, the Bloomsbury bunch in England and New York’s Algonquin Round Table and the Harlem Renaissance.

But before the modernists and minimalists, before the turn of the last century in fact, Russia had its own creative camaraderie in the friendship between  Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky and painter Viktor Hartmann.

Mussorgsky’s most famous work, “Pictures at an Exhibition — A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann,” resulted both from Hartmann’s works, and from the artist’s untimely death in 1873. 

GLINKA Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture
BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 3
MUSSORGSKY/orch. Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky channeled his palpable sense of loss, his realization that the creative hand that rendered the shadowy “Catacombs” as well as the whimsy of “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” would render no more. The composer created his work of 10 movements in relatively short order and he directly took inspiration from the works themselves.

This weekend the St. Louis Symphony will pay homage to Mussorgsky and to the sort of connections and inspirations that composers and visual artists take from each other, as well as the sort of epiphany artists conjure when they encounter music that moves them.

To make this happen, Art St. Louis and the symphony invited 20 local artists to Powell Hall to experience a rehearsal and create art based on their time there.

“We wanted to take what Modest Mussorgsky did and do it in reverse,” said Maureen Byrne, the symphony’s community programs manager.

So on a chilly November day, Belleville artist Michael Anderson and Maplewood painter Erin McGrath Rieke joined 18 other artists to hear the symphony rehearse the works of contemporary composer Thomas Ades, along with the tonal poems of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

As Music Director David Robertson took up his baton, Anderson readied his ballpoint pen.

“One of the caveats [the symphony imposed] was that the artists were to bring a small sketch book and a ballpoint pen and that was all. It never struck me as problem — this is how I create,” he said. “The music was so powerful and seeing the artists moved together — it was just amazingly fun to listen and to draw at the same time these great musicians were playing.”

(For those lucky enough to have attended one of those performances -- Nov. 30 or Dec. 1 -- you may recall the majesty, the complexity and the diversity within that concert. Each piece of music offered its own vivid imagery and — in its own way — enveloped Powell in power and beauty with riveting range.)

And while Anderson and the other visual artists created, Byrne watched.

With each movement, with each note, Anderson scribbled, drawing on the ambiance, the musicians’ movements, the glorious sound.

“I’m kind of a speed drawing guy,” Anderson said. “I cannot say that all were fantastic, but I was fairly happy with them.”

The performance so inspired Anderson that he left the hall with more than Byrne had expected.

“On his way out, he showed me six flushed out sketches,” she said. “They were so charged by the experience.”

To Byrne, they seemed completed “fleshed out,” but for Anderson they marked the beginning of the creative process.

“What I did there at Powell were six small sketches,” he said.

The painting he submitted for the jury was based on one of those sketches.

“I walked down during break and was standing closer to the stage,” Anderson said. The point of view for his final piece was based on that proximity — something he believes would have been distracting to the musicians. “From those notes in my sketch book, I based my composition.”

Anderson showed Byrne the sketches to give her an idea of what he saw, but he did it for another reason as well.

“I wanted her to know how much I appreciated the opportunity to draw in that location,” he said. “It was really rare to be able to sketch the symphony and Powell Hall. It is so beautiful to catch the moment and the experience.”

His enthusiasm was not lost on Byrne, but neither was the diversity of the artists themselves and their approaches.

“They loved it, and they sketched in their seats — some were very literal and some were so figurative and interpretive,” Byrne said.

While Anderson caught every note with his pen and committed it to paper, McGrath Rieke took a different approach.

“I attended with nothing in hand,” she said. “I don’t paint like that. I completely respond to emotion and music. Everyone sat there with their sketch pads and what not. I sat there and just absorbed the music and the musicians. There were two movements in particular that were so completely different. One was quiet and the other was just so majestic.”

She also took in her surroundings from the moment she arrived to the moment she left.

“I was so struck by the beauty of Powell,” she said. “It was such an honor to be there — to sit in Powell Hall and be in an audience with so few people. I was struck by the pure beauty and awe of the experience.”

McGrath Rieke worried a bit about how the people at Powell viewed her approach.

“I think people were probably surprised,” she said. “It appeared that I was unprepared, but I can’t take notes.”

Rather, she watched everything, took in ever y detail and rendered a piece based on the mood she took away with her.

The jury selected a work from both McGrath Rieke and Anderson; and those works will be on display this weekend. In fact, at Saturday’s performance, the artists will be at Powell, too, to share their stories and vision with members of the audience, just as McGrath Rieke did.

“Physically, I was just soaking up as much as possible — if I had a notebook, it would be distracting,” she said. “I’m a medium —the emotion is inspired by the music. It comes out of me and has its own destiny.”

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.

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