Few pieces of music capture the visual imagination like Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky’s vivid renderings – of an old castle, a ballet of unhatched chicks or Baba Yaga’s wooden hut on hen’s legs – combined with a musical ‘Promenade’ that evokes the shifting moods of a gallery-goer strolling from one artwork to the next, create a remarkable musical journey; one that has inspired a new project by piano four-hands duo ZOFO, touring nationally for Musica Viva this month.

ZOFO, Pictures at an ExhibitionZOFO: Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi. Photo © Jim Block

The Russian Mussorgsky – one of a group of five nationalist composers dubbed ‘The Mighty Handful’ – had personal reasons for writing what has become one of his most famous works. Mussorgsky was deeply shaken when a friend, the architect, artist and designer Viktor Hartmann, died very suddenly in August 1873, at the age of just 39. An exhibition of over 400 of Hartmann’s sketches, watercolours, portraits as well as costume and architectural designs – including a clock inspired by the Baba Yaga folk-tale and an award-winning design for a city gate in Kiev that was never built – was held in the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg in March the following year, a few months after the premiere of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. Mussorgsky himself lent two pictures that Hartmann had gifted him to the exhibition.

Inspired, by June that year Mussorgsky was putting the finishing touches on a piano piece that memorialised ten of Hartmann’s works and his experience of the exhibition. In a letter to the critic Vladimir Stasov, a friend of both Mussorgsky and Hartmann, the composer wrote that the piece was “boiling as Boris boiled”. “The sounds and the idea hung in the air, and now I am gulping and overeating, I can hardly manage to scribble it down on paper,” he wrote.

While the piece was played for friends, it wasn’t published until after Mussorgsky’s death, and although it enjoyed increasing attention in the piano repertoire, it was Maurice Ravel’s colourful 1922 orchestration that ratcheted up the work’s fame. In fact, more than a dozen others have since created their own orchestrations, including Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Pictures at an Exhibition remains a favourite of programmers, due in no small part to its ingenious pictorial quality and the instantly recognisable imagery of a viewer making their way through a gallery.

It is this journey that the duo ZOFO – Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi – have sought to channel in ZOFOMOMA, a multimedia project that saw them commission 15 new works from composers around the world. Musica Viva’s Artistic Director Carl Vine, who was one of the composers commissioned, describes it as “a Pictures at an Exhibition for the 21st century”.

The duo, whose name is shorthand for 20-finger orchestra (ZO for 20, FO for finger orchestra), are acclaimed for their dazzling, athletic performances of repertoire for piano four-hands – that is, four hands on one piano. “This is the best piano duo I’ve heard since The Labèque Sisters,” Vine says. “They are just extraordinary – they’re virtuosic players and they play with one mind and one heart.”

So, what led the duo to curate an all new concert based on Pictures at an Exhibition? “I was really intrigued by this idea,” Zimmermann tells me over the phone from San Francisco. “We thought, we can commission new pictures. Not just one composer, but 15 different ones who would each choose their own artwork from their own culture or country.”

While not steeped in tragedy like the Mussorgsky, there was certainly a personal element to the choice of composers for the project. Zimmermann and Nakagoshi compiled a list, aiming for a diverse list of nationalities – as well as a list that both pianists could agree on. “Some of them we knew, some of them we were just asking friends, ‘Can you recommend someone?’” Zimmermann explains.

The pianists put no limitations on which paintings or artworks the composers chose, leaving the decision entirely up to them. “In hindsight, I might do it a little differently,” Zimmermann admits, laughing. “With some of the paintings we had quite a bit of trouble to get the rights to project the images during our performances.”

Artistically, however, Zimmermann and Nakagoshi were thrilled with the paintings, and the pieces, that came through from the composers. “It was like opening presents,” she says. “I think each of them really made a very compelling piece that translates the painting into music very well.”

One of the composers approached was Vine, whom ZOFO had been in contact with previously after performing Vine’s 2009 Sonata for Piano Four Hands. “It had been played a couple of times in Australia and I don’t know how they found it, but they did, and they sent me a recording of it that was simply perfect – it was absolutely perfect,” Vine tells me.

“We had played his beautiful sonata for four hands about five or four years ago,” Zimmermann says. “I think it’s a masterpiece, and really beautifully written for four hands – very smartly written – so he was on the top of the list of people we wanted to ask.”

Gleeson, Arrival of Implacable Gifts, ZOFO, Pictures at an ExhibitionJames Gleeson’s The Arrival of Implacable Gifts, 1985. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW and the Gleeson O’Keefe Foundation

Given such mutual admiration, it was inevitable that Vine would come on board, and he soon chose a painting by Australian surrealist James Gleeson, The Arrival of Implacable Gifts. “His painting has always appealed to me and I’ve had a couple of his paintings on my CDs at various times,” Vine says, and the choice of The Arrival of Implacable Gifts has since had knock-on effects for his music following the ZOFO commission. “It then became the metaphorical source for the Double Piano Concerto, but in this version – in the piano four-hands version – it was the actual visuals of the painting that informed the music, not the philosophy behind it. So, this is a musical response to the look of the painting.”

Zimmermann and Nakagoshi were thrilled with the result. “It’s just kind of these waves that overpower you,” Zimmermann says of Vine’s piece. “He’s probably the biggest composer, by name, in this whole selection, and we were lucky to have him in this project,” Nakagoshi says. “I really liked his music before he wrote a piece for us. I was very happy with what he came up with – it’s just what I was hoping for.”

One of the composers who was recommended to ZOFO was Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, a Berlin-based Azerbaijani composer, who chose as her painting Sattar Bahlulzade’s 1959 Spring Morning in Baku. “We got a referral for her from the Kronos String Quartet, they had just commissioned her and they said it was wonderful,” Zimmermann says.

Similarly, Indonesian composer I Wayan Gde Yudane came on board after a recommendation by the late New Zealand composer Jack Body. Zimmermann met Body years ago in San Francisco and, having spent her early childhood in Indonesia, she recalls being surprised by how good his Indonesian was. “We played Jack Body’s four-hand piece Three Rhythmics in the same concert we played Carl Vine’s four-hand Sonata,” she says. “Later we asked him for composer referrals, and he suggested his friend Wayan Yudane.”

Street Solace, ZOFO, Pictures at an ExhibitionI Made Budhiana’s Street Solace, 2016. Image supplied

Yudane chose the painting Street Solace, a jagged, chaotic scene painted by I Made Budhiana in 2000. “The piece Yudane wrote for ZOFOMOMA describes Bali’s street life,” Zimmermann says. “Having been in Bali many times myself it totally makes sense. Slow and fast moving gestures, the sense of having all the time in the world and having to rush, all mixed together. Unforeseen turns, crazy textures, unpredictable outbursts of energy.”

“There are so many details in the painting,” Nakagoshi says. “The James Gleeson is more curved, very erotic, like liquid – Yudane’s painting is a similar concept but more spiky and a lot of edges. So those paintings are very interesting to contrast.”

ZOFO’s musical art gallery also includes works by French composer Gilles Silvestrini, who chose Monet’s Le Bassin d’Argenteuil, as well as Israeli composer Avner Dorman (Reuven Rubin’s Dancing with the Torah at Mount Meron), Polish composer Paweł Mykietyn (Wojciech Fangor’s SM 24), US composers Jonathan Russell (Stormie Mills’ Untitled Skeleton) and Samuel Carl Adams (Agnes Martin’s Night Sea), Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (Huang Binhong’s Landscapes), Swiss composer Cécile Marti (Verena Marti-Buchmann’s Wendung), Iranian composer Sahba Aminikia (Nicky Nodjoumi’s Inspector’s Scrutiny), Argentinian composer Pablo Ortiz (Eduardo Stupia’s Paisaje), Cuban composer Keyla Orozco (Douglas Pérez Castro’s Viajeros) and UK composer Gabriel Prokofiev (Robert Fry’s Untitled Etching 3).

ZOFO, ZOFOMOMA, Pictures at an Exhibition Yokoyama Taikan’s Sacred Peaks of Chichibu at Spring Dawn, 1928. Image courtesy of The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru-Shōzōkan, Tokyo

With 15 paintings in the ZOFO exhibition, both pianists choose the same one when I ask them to pick a favourite: Japanese painter Yokoyama Taikan’s Sacred Peaks of Chichibu at Spring Dawn. “I have a deeper personal connection to it, I have to admit,” Nakagoshi says of the artwork, a stunning photorealistic mountain vista shrouded in mist painted in 1928. “I’ve been in San Francisco for more than 20 years, but I still miss Japan all the time. Also there’s a fog relationship to San Francisco, so I don’t know – it just really spoke to me.”

“The composition is by Kenji Oh, and it just makes you feel you are in the mountains there in Japan,” Zimmermann says. “The music is much more sparse, it starts with just one note and then it develops. It’s more meditative than Carl Vine’s piece, which is very wild and spontaneous.”

As for putting together the exhibition itself, it fell to Nakagoshi to choose the order of the works and write the connecting ‘Promenade’ sections, which are based on Mussorgsky’s own Promenade theme. “I just came up with as many ideas as possible,” he says, “even before all the composers turned in their pieces.”
Nakagoshi then selected and adjusted his variations to suit the transitions between the commissioned works. He also admits that part of the allure of the concert – and in his mind the genesis of the idea itself – was the fact that continuous music meant not having to break the performance up by speaking to the audience directly. “It’s not my favourite thing to do,” he says. “We wanted to come up with something where there’s transition music so the whole thing just kind of keeps going.”

ZOFOMOMA, ZOFO, Pictures at an ExhibitionEva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi. Photo © Carlin Ma

The ‘Promenade’ sections also serve a practical purpose for the two pianists. “The biggest thing with piano four-hands, as opposed to two pianos, is we have to – or we get to – share the keyboard,” Nakagoshi says. “So, there is, of course, a territorial issue that we have to come up with a solution for. But that’s all part of the joy of it. I think it’s a very unique form of chamber music.”

“We try to mix up who’s on top and who’s on the lower keys,” Nakagoshi says. “We change around all the time, it depends on the pieces.”

Even though ZOFOMOMA is played as a continuous, unbroken performance, the players still need to swap – and that’s where the Promenades come in. “A lot of them are played by just one person, so that the other person actually goes around to switch position,” Nakagoshi says.

Zimmermann and Nakagoshi premiered the project in Los Angeles in 2018, with the artworks projected above the stage. A year – and many successful performances – later, the duo feel like they’ve well and truly settled in. “It’s part of our body,” says Nakagoshi. “Now I feel like it’s our own thing.”

“It feels like we can invite people to this gallery, or this exhibition, which is ours,” Zimmerman says. “Even though we don’t own any of the paintings!”

ZOFO tours ZOFOMOMA nationally for Musica Viva Australia, May 7 – 28