Six local composers interpret 16th-century art in surprising ways

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A composer invited to respond to a 16th-century artwork might be expected to write for harpsichord or viola de gamba. But an electric guitar? A tape recorder? Expect some surprises at a unique Culture Club on Thursday at Carnegie Museum of Art.

Six Pittsburgh residents who are musicians as well as composers each selected one or more images from the exhibition “Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces From the Renaissance to Baroque” and created works that they’ll perform live in the galleries. They are Matt Aelmore, Robert Frankenberry, Jonghee Kang, George Sabol, Jeff Weston and Roger Zahab.

“Culture Club: Old Masters, New Music” begins at 5:30 p.m. with conversation and a cash bar. The performance will be from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Because the artworks are intimately sized, images of them will also be projected. The musicians will talk about why they chose specific artworks and how they approached their compositions. Galleries remain open until 9 p.m. Admission, $10, includes one drink ticket.

The exhibition comprises 200 works from the museum’s collection of more than 8,000 prints, many of which have not been on view for decades. The history of prints is illustrated through works by such masters as Durer, Piranesi, Rembrandt and Tiepolo.

“I’ve been wanting to do a program like this for a long time,” said Lucy Stewart, Carnegie associate curator of education. “I chose these six because they weren’t only musicians but also composers, which is different. They chose from the exhibition and there was only one work that two people wanted.” The project was demanding but “these musicians took it to heart,” Ms. Stewart said, and “all the music is very different. They come with such varying backgrounds, and such varying futures, too.”

“George did an entire orchestration. He wrote for all of the instruments and recorded them. He’ll play electric guitar over the recording. Roger and Rob had done things with the Carnegie in the past. Matt, Jeff and Jonghee are Ph.D. students who hadn’t worked with the museum before. Jeff uses tape recorders to respond to the process of printmaking rather than the subject.”

The performers provide some thoughts about their process in program notes.

Mr. Aelmore was inspired by Rembrandt’s “The Three Trees,” wherein “something unreal is in the air forming [the] clouds ... . My composition, ‘Gallery Cloud,’ puts air into motion-sound. Like the air around the clouds in the etching, the guitars present new figuration from a few different strokes.” His compositions have been performed throughout the U.S. and in Europe. He is completing his doctoral studies in music theory and composition at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Frankenberry, the music director for Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, selected Jacques Callot’s “Riciulina and Metzetin.” Mr. Frankenberry is a tenor, pianist, actor, conductor and orcheastrator who has played roles as diverse as Faust, Willy Wonka and John Adams, and created new orchestrations of complete operas including Bizet’s “Carmen” for Opera Theater’s SummerFest. Last season, he performed the role of Carl_Magnus in “A Little Night Music,” and conducted the premiere of the new chamber version of Daron Hagen’s opera “Shining Brow,” about Frank Lloyd Wright, at Fallingwater. For the current season he is Pollione in “Norma,” piano soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2, and vocal recitalist of scenes from “Tristan und Isolde,” “The King’s Henchmen,” “Samson and Delilah” and “Aida.” He is a member of such ensembles as Pittsburgh’s Music on the Edge, IonSound and AnimeBOP; New York’s Phoenix Players and entelechron.

Ms. Kang chose “Title Plate” and “The Colosseum, Bird’s Eye View,” both by Piranesi. Her music is an “aural depiction” of the “darker character and more complex use of space” she perceives in the former. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” was “an inspiration for me to convey the dynamic beauty and detail of the ‘Colosseum.’ ... Beginning from this, I regenerated the golden moment of the musical past to a piece of rejuvenating present.” Ms. Kang’s music has been performed internationally by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and others. A composer and scholar, her interests and influences range from new concert music to film scores to Korean sanjo music. She is pursuing doctoral studies in music composition and theory at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Sabol responded to Durer’s “Knight, Death, and the Devil” with a composition written in two parts.

“The first represents the Knight confronting Death and his own mortality” via guitar, violin, cello and snare drums. “The second part represents the Knight and his battle with the Devil,” opening “with a ‘call and response’ between them that acts as warning of something wicked this way comes.”

Mr. Sabol, who began playing guitar at age 5, was attracted to the music of Bach and Paganini and also of guitar icons Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi. In 2003 he released the five_song “Nocturnal Overture” with Brazilian-based Moria Records that led to a fully orchestrated CD release in 2004. A fan of early horror films, he’s currently scoring the 1922 German film “Nosferatu.” In 2008, Kennywood Park commissioned Mr. Sabol to create fully orchestrated theme music for their Ghostwood Estate dark ride and Phantom Frightnight’s Voodoo Bayou.

Mr. Weston was inspired by Rembrandt’s “The Flight Into Egypt: A Night Piece.” His composition “was developed using a series of recorded and re-recorded sounds. It is site-specific and was inspired by the degrading over time of the copper printing plate inherent in the printmaking process ... I began to think about this process, its relationship to sound.” Mr. Weston “arbitrarily” recorded thoughts and concepts early in his process and “this original recording will be re-recorded daily using simple tape recorders,” gradually becoming less sharp in the manner that successive prints from an original plate do. His compositions have been interpreted by such new music aficionados as the JACK Quartet, H2 Quartet and Anbubis Quartet. Mr. Weston is pursuing doctoral studies in music composition and theory and a Ph.D. certificate in cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Zahab’s “In the Moment for Violin and Piano” was inspired by “five very different prints”: Piranesi’s “The Drawbridge,” Georg Pencz’s “Horatius Cocles,” Philip Galle’s “Prudentia (Prudence),” Hans Sebald Beham’s “The Story of the Prodigal Son” and Giovanni Antonio Canal’s “Mestre.” This “suite of captured instants are interrelated in a number of ways; on the technical level sets of pitches and of time spans or proportions are worked over and transformed, and there is also an emotional progression from danger to serenity.” A composer, violinist, conductor, teacher and writer, Mr. Zahab is senior lecturer at Pitt, where he directs the University Symphony Orchestra and Music on the Edge Chamber Orchestra. He is founding core faculty member of the master’s of fine arts in music composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has been performed in the Americas, Europe and Asia, and his recordings are available on labels, through iTunes and Spotify. His opera “Happy Hour!,” commissioned by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, will be performed in area taverns in June and July and at SummerFest.

The exhibition continues through Sept. 15. The evening’s performance will live on in the galleries through a museum app accessible by your smartphone or a museum loner. Information:



Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.

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