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Work-In-Progress Inspired By Art At The Nelson

This season, the Kansas City Symphony focuses on the theme of “Symphonic Pictures," exploring the intersection between art and music.

It marks a collaboration between the Symphony and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art that will culminate in a new work.

Music as highest form of art

At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Sanders Sosland Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Jan Schall stands next to Wassily Kandinsky’s painting, Rose with Gray, 1924. There’s a circle near the center and other geometric forms, sliced by straight dark lines, on a gold background.

In Kandinsky’s time, Schall says, music was regarded as the highest form of art.

"Artists were a little bothered by that because they wanted their art to be as pure," she says. "So, what was it that made music live on that higher plane? It was kind of the abstractness of it...that it existed and then, there was nothing left of it."

According to Schall, Kandinsky called his paintings compositions or improvisations. The artist had synesthesia; he experienced a sound for each color, such as green for strings, violet for flute, or white for silence. And he put this notion of "painting as music made visible" into the stage design for a 1928 performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – musical interpretations of artwork by a friend who died young.

A "visceral reaction" to Rothko

It's a weekday afternoon rehearsal for the Kansas City Symphony at Helzberg Hall. First up, Mussorsky’s Pictures. Then, AdamSchoenberg's Finding Rothko.

Finding Rothko at rehearsal.mp3

The Symphony’s music director Michael Stern commissioned Finding Rothko when Schoenberg was still in Juilliard’s doctoral program. It premiered with Stern’s IRIS Orchestra in 2007. Finding Rothko is on the program opening the Kansas City Symphony’s season.

"I was living in New York and I was always going to the museums," says Schoenberg. "And that was also around the time that I discovered Mark Rothko. And right when I saw some of his paintings, they just spoke to me." He's described it as having a "visceral reaction," and Rothko's art became his "muse."

The Nelson’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Leesa Fanning says the Rothko painting in the Nelson's collection, Untitled No. 11, 1963, is from a darker period than the works Schoenberg referenced in Finding Rothko. Fanning's doctoral thesis: on Abstract Expressionism, including the work of Rothko.

"The paintings that Adam focused on (in Finding Rothko) are really Rothko’s classic or mature style paintings," she explains. "I would describe them as stacks of color, rectangular bands of color, the edges of which are all extremely ephemeral, so they seem to float. They’re very atmospheric."

Fanning says the idea is that as the viewer stands close to a painting, the colors surround you, much as music surrounds a listener in a concert hall.

Finding new inspiration at the Nelson

Composer Adam Schoenberg says there’s a parallel between Finding Rothko, with its four movements, each inspired by a Rothko painting – and the new work co-commissioned by the Symphony and the Nelson. He's titled it Picture Studies. Schoenberg walked through the Nelson's halls with curators – and also several times by himself - looking again for art that "spoke to him" in a personal way.

But, he says he's not trying to "set" the works to music: "I don’t want people to try to see the painting in the music. I want the music to stand on its own. And that the paintings serve just as initial inspiration."

There are ten movements in Schoenberg’s Picture Studies, inspired by eight artworks from the Nelson - a combination of sculpture, painting, and photography, from the likes of Bloch, Calder, Miró, Kandinsky, and Blake.

"I selected a photograph by Francis Blake, called Pigeons in Flight, which I think has four or five pigeons just in motion," says Schoenberg. "And I find it really beautiful. And that is actually the last movement of the Symphony piece." 

Notes written, orchestration in progress

In a quiet room near Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center, Schoenberg leafs through tall sheets of paper, each line representing an instrument. He makes quick notations in pencil.

"Even when you have a score finished," he says, "There’s always something that you’ve missed, always."

But, the score for Picture Studies is not finished yet. The notes are written, says Schoenberg, he just has to finish the orchestration.

The composer has until mid-October to complete the finishing touches, then the score is off to the printer.

Friday, September 28 - Sunday, September 30, 2012. Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern, presents Adam Schoenberg Finding Rothko, Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major and Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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