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NYO-USA Musician Blogs: Pictures at an Exhibition

As the apprentice orchestra manager for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA), Josh Davidoff is on call during the orchestra’s rehearsals. As a result, he spends much of his time listening to the orchestra prepare for its upcoming concerts.

Josh Davidoff:

As the apprentice orchestra manager of NYO-USA, I have the surprisingly engaging opportunity to sit in on rehearsals, following along with the scores to each piece of music. The rehearsals are typically three hours long, but to me (and, likely, to everybody on stage) they seem to be three hours too short. Despite the nasty case of “catchy-musical-phrase-interminably-stuck-in-my-head” syndrome that has inevitably developed, I have had a ton of fun reading along to some of my favorite pieces in the orchestral canon.

Hartmann - Plan for a City GateViktor Hartmann's painting "Project for a city gate in Kiev–main façade" is the inspiration for the final movement in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

The piece we are rehearsing that I think best showcases the excellent sonority of our 120-strong ensemble is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Ravel. Mussorgsky originally wrote the suite as a virtuosic piano composition, drawing inspiration from artworks by his recently deceased friend Viktor Hartmann. Each movement depicts a different painting, interspersed with variations on the “Promenade” theme. Introduced by a solo trumpet at the beginning of the work, the "Promenade" is meant to guide the listeners through a tour of the various paintings. While I have never seen most of the paintings in question (in fact, some are long lost), Mussorgsky’s thematic material does a remarkable job of conjuring up an image of them in my head. When I hear the haunting saxophone that heralds the “Old Castle” movement, I can very clearly picture the crumbling, dilapidated structure to which it refers. Similarly, the “Great Gate of Kiev” movement is so uplifting and welcoming, I feel like I am approaching a sprawling metropolis, guarded by a magnificent gateway. Full disclosure: The first time NYO-USA played the “Great Gate,” I was holding back tears. Its power is undeniable and unmitigated.

A lot of the strength of Pictures can be attributed to Maurice Ravel’s magnificent orchestration. Ravel (probably best known for his Bolero) was a well-established transcriber and orchestrator in addition to being an acclaimed—if a bit eccentric—composer. While he makes very few changes to the core harmonies and structure of the work, Ravel’s treatment of each precious line of music is just awesome.

NYO-USA Purchase Rehearsal with James Ross, PicturesOrchestra Director James Ross leads NYO-USA in a rehearsal of Pictures at an Exhibition, side-by-side with faculty.

The enthusiasm surrounding the rehearsal of Pictures here at Purchase College, SUNY, is electric. The piece is a personal favorite of many of the musicians, and I have had many exciting and intense conversations about its various merits. It is especially appropriate for NYO-USA because it highlights each section of the orchestra; another one of Ravel’s strengths. From brass fanfares to intricate woodwind chorales, vibrant melodies in the strings and spine-tingling tuttis, everybody has a moment—or several.

If my brief history lesson on Pictures at an Exhibition has at all intrigued you, you might consider hearing NYO-USA play the work in its entirety at any (or all) of our eight tour stops across the United States. It’s a piece that means an awful lot to me, and I’m really excited to share it with the country!

Learn more about the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.

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