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Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia on WRTI: A New Take on "Pictures at an Exhibition," Sunday at 5 PM

The Philadelphia Museum of Art; The George W. Elkins Collection, 1924
The Life Line by Winslow Homer, 1884, is one of the paintings that inspired Dirk Brossé's new composition."

If you love both visual art and music, tune in this Sunday, June 18th at 5 pm to hear the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia perform the world premiere of Music Director Dirk Brossé’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Each of the seven movements was inspired by a different American painting from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.WRTI’s Debra Lew Harder talked with Dirk Brossé, who also conducts the performance, about his piece. Here’s an edited excerpt from the interview.


Debra Lew Harder: Why American paintings?

Dirk Brossé: Good question! Of the hundreds and hundreds of paintings I saw, I selected fifteen. And amongst those fifteen there were some European paintings. But I thought it was more interesting to have only American paintings, to have a unification of the piece in itself. My idea was to have American paintings from seven different periods in the history of art in this country. I re-interpreted the paintings, and tried to add something to each picture.

DLH: Did you work with any of the Museum curators in making your selections?

DB: One of the most interesting visits I had was with Timothy Rub (George D. Widener Director and CEO of the PMA.) He's such an intelligent, wise man, being a musician himself, knowing so much about those paintings. I had a very interesting conversation with him about each painting. He told me about their historical importance, and the impact of the paintings on the society. And we had one of the most intelligent and  interesting conversations that I’ve had in years about art.

DLH: Each of the movements and paintings has a completely different language. I loved the unusual instruments you used in Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, the jazz riffs and harmonies in the Man Ray. I heard minimalism in the Edward Hopper, and an abstract soundscape in the Mark Rothko. Is there any one you consider your signature style?

Each of the seven movements was inspired by a different American painting from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

DB: I’d say Road and Trees (Edward Hopper,) The Life Line (Winslow Homer,) and The Grand Canyon (Thomas Moran) — that’s my musical soul. I’m a melody composer. The melody is the musical shape. I pay a lot of attention to mood changes and to the shape of the music. 

DLH: What comes first for you -- composing or conducting? 

DB:  I think I'm a composer, first. But I'm addicted to conducting, to being onstage, and also learning about other people's music — which is also a danger. When I compose, I sometimes have a very hard time starting with an empty mind and erasing all the music that is in my brain, which is almost impossible, but on the other hand — it's feeding me. Having conducted thousands and thousands of scores not only by classical composers but by modern composers gives me such an extraordinary insight into how other composers create their music in terms of artistry, in terms of architecture, but also in terms of orchestration. As a composer, you can think in a different way, maybe in a more deep way, a more profound way, you can analyze and understand the composition process. That gives you the liberty, as a conductor, to take risks, to bring out certain layers that other conductors would not bring out. Because as a composer, you watch these scores in a completely different way.

Listen on Sunday, June 18th, 5 to 6 pm on WRTI to hear the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia perform Dirk Brossé’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The seven movements are:

The Peaceable Kingdom (1826, Edward Hicks)

Portrait of Dr. Smauel D. Gross/ The Gross Clinic (Thomas Eakins, 1875)

Grand Canyon of the Colorado River (Thomas Moran, 1908)

Untitled (Mark Rothko, 1955)

Fair Weather (Man Ray, 1939)

Road and Trees (Edward Hopper, 1961)

The Life Line (Winslow Homer, 1884)

Check out Debra’s story on the very unusual instruments you’ll experience in the first movement of Brossé’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and watch Dirk play the Native American double flute in a casual moment.

More information about the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.