Out of Chapin, BSO paints the music of the pictures

What do Danny Elfman and Modest Mussorgsky have in common? Both composers, one could say, have written for the “pictures.”

Such, at least, was the parallel drawn during the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the year, entitled Pictures, which took place on Friday on the ’62 Center’s MainStage. The first half of the program, performed with the help of the Williams College Concert Choir, featured a variety of pieces composed for or used in film; the second half was devoted solely to Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky’s masterpiece of musical vignettes (orchestrated later by Maurice Ravel) that collectively describe the experience of walking from painting to painting inside a gallery.

All selections, in other words, in which the task of sound is to enhance or evoke some kind of image.

As the program notes point out, visual impressions are always a part of the experience of making and listening to music, although their strength depends on the aptitudes of the listener. Those people gifted with synesthesia (“joined perception”), who can experience one sense in response to another, may find whole vistas opened before their eyes at the start of a symphony, but “even the average listener experiences a visual component sometimes.” The notes go on to state that “cinema, with its overlapping sensual experiences, one might argue, simulates a synesthetic experience for those without this unique avenue of perception.”

The program seemed designed to make a shift from this “simulated” visual-aural experience of film music to a more, say, classical model, in which audience members have to dream up their own footage to match the orchestra’s “soundtrack.”

The concert began with a recording of John Williams’ “Wild Signals,” composed for the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which played while the musicians held their instruments at rest in the dark auditorium.

“The ‘Wild Signals’ music is computer-generated,” said Ronald Feldman, director of the Berkshire Symphony. “Much of it would be too difficult to play. Also there is no score for this selection.” When the orchestra reprised its performance at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield this Sunday, he added, the piece was accompanied by a light show.

Yet even without this visual aid, the faint tinkling and sudden blats by which Spielberg’s aliens express themselves stirred a few chuckles from the crowd. People’s inner reels were rolling. The lights on stage came up, and the orchestra moved into the most abstract selection on the program, two pieces composed by John Corigliano for the film Altered States, which attempt to depict, according to the program notes, “the pagan slaying of a seven-eyed goat.”

Even if some members of the audience (such as this reviewer) could make little sense of Corigliano’s scraped strings, “bleating” oboes and far-off piano strains, no doubt most listeners experienced a vivid visual recall as soon as they heard Elfman’s recognizable theme from Edward Scissorhands, sent swirling from the stage by the voices of the Concert Choir. Conducted by Brad Wells, the choir next sang a cappella a soft, ethereal piece called “Os Justi,” which was composed during the 19th century and later used for the film Oscar and Lucinda. John Williams closed out the cinematic portion of the program, as his work for Close Encounters had opened it, with the orchestra playing his jubilant theme, “Exsultante Justi,” from Empire of the Sun.

Was this array of music-made-for-the-recorded-image a sufficient preparation for Mussorgsky’s piece, which asks its listeners to conjure in their own minds, without actual paintings for reference, scenes of markets, parks and catacombs, portraits of gnomes and dancing children? I would answer, yes. To name only one example, at the end of the sixth aural “picture,” “Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells” – its joyful, jumbled staccato phrases suggesting child dancers who think their art is nothing more than the swift execution of leaps and twirls – the audience was once again moved to chuckle, as if in enjoyment of the fanciful image inspired by the music, just as it had done for Spielberg’s aliens.

Despite apprehensions about the Berkshire Symphony’s move to the ’62 Center, necessitated after its stage apparatus for orchestral performances in Chapin Hall was declared a fire hazard, everyone who showed up for Friday’s performance managed to find a seat in the new venue. The carpeted MainStage auditorium doesn’t allow for the sweeping acoustics that one might hear in Chapin, but Feldman views this change as an advantage. “The ’62 has a much better balance on the stage and real time acoustics,” he said. “In other words there is no delay from the back of the stage. We hear each other better. The resonance is drier but more honest. I thought the orchestra played very well as a result.”