Though museums have long been host to musical events, a partnership between the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal with conductor Kent Nagano and Musée des Beaux-arts de Montréal brought art to the concert hall this Wednesday evening. Artwork from MBAM’s permanent collection was projected behind the orchestra at the Maison Symphonique de Montréal during performances of three newly commissioned works by Canadian composers Scott Good, Simon Bertrand and Jeffrey Ryan, all using works of Canadian artists as their point of departure. During the second half of the performance, additional artwork by Canadian artists were projected to accompany the OSM’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The trio of new commissions was the highlight of the program and the most successful pairing of art and music. Simon Bertrand’s Gravité translated the chaos of Riopelle’s 1956 painting Gravity into sound. Scott Good’s Evening, North Shore, Lake Superior offered a beautiful musical interpretation of a painting by Franklin Carmichael. When listening to Good’s piece, you are transported from the concert hall to the landscape in Carmichael’s painting. You can practically feel the last rays of sunshine through orange autumn leaves when hearing his effective use of the woodwinds and the harp.

Jeffrey Ryan’s Moving, Still, inspired by the work of Canadian artist Betty Goodwin, was a rousing finale to this delightful group of works. At first, the particular Goodwin painting projected appeared simple and still, as the name suggests. A group of white, jagged lines cross the canvass from top to bottom. The palette is relatively limited. Upon closer investigation, the painting becomes highly active, agitated, and anxiety producing. Ryan’s piece allowed the audience to experience both the stillness and agitation within the work until it finally explodes. I had visceral reactions to Ryan’s angst-ridden Moving, Still that I rarely experience in the concert hall, and my initial impression of the artwork was transformed.

In the second half of the program, the OSM played Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. MBAM Director Nathalie Bondil curated a series of images to accompany each of the fourteen movements. When Mussorgsky composed his Pictures at an Exhibition, he was likely inspired by particular watercolors that his friend and colleague Viktor Hartmann created during his travels throughout Europe. While the idea to select some of the original Hartmann works that could have inspired Mussorgsky might seem natural, Bondil curated a new “exhibition” to accompany the OSM’s performance featuring paintings by Canadian artists.

Overall, Bondil’s pairings were successful and offered interesting commentary on Mussorgsky’s own musical “exhibition”. For example, the famous “Promenade” that repeats several times in variation offered Bondil the opportunity to present her own visual variations on a theme. For the first several iterations of the “Promenade”, she chose verdant landscapes by Fritz Brandtner and William Brymner. As the “Promenade” variations become increasingly dark throughout the work, the landscapes Bondil selected became increasingly stark until finally were are left with a minimalist landscape by Jean Paul Lemieux, so barren that it only contains a few lonely livestock in the middle of an empty field. Other pairings were less successful. The work paired with the finale, titled “The Great Gate of Kiev”, was far too understated to capture the grandeur of the score or the tremendous sound of the OSM.

Still, Bondil’s “exhibition” was a nice foil to Mussorgsky’s, providing the audience with an interesting mediation on both the art and the music. I am glad I was introduced to the work of Alfred Pellan, in particular. If I had encountered his painting Au soleil blue hanging on the walls of MBAM, I might not have noticed some of its more sinister aspects had I not heard it alongside a movement from Mussorgsky’s Pictures. I am pleased that Bondil’s pairing invited me to examine the Pellan’s painting so closely.

While the collaboration between the OSM and MBAM was indeed the focus of the evening’s performance, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1, featuring violinist Viviane Hagner, and Haydn’s Symphony no. 59 completed the program.

Hagner received standing ovations for her focused performance of Prokofiev’s virtuosic concerto. By the second movement, she was literally shredding on the violin – proving that you’re simply not performing the piece correctly unless you shed half a dozen bow hairs!

Though Haydn’s symphony is nicknamed “Fire”, Nagano’s interpretation of the piece was a bit cool. For example, though the second movement contains frequent and rather sudden changes in mood and key, between major and minor, sometimes to quite dramatic and surprising effect, the performance was rather bland compared to the “fire” the audience heard in the Prokofiev, and especially at the end of the Mussorgsky. Though the orchestra is reduced to play Haydn, you do not need to reduce the drama: this symphony was used as incidental music in a play, after all.

Hopefully, the OSM and MBAM will continue to deepen their relationship in order to bring both art and music to wide audiences. The experience of seeing art projected behind a live orchestra can be a powerful medium, as Ryan’s Moving, Still proved. At times, however, the projections smacked of a YouTube video of classical recordings paired with random paintings, complete with “Ken Burns effect” transitions and superimposed text naming the artist and work. Future performances will no doubt improve upon some of the less-than-perfect aspects of presenting such multimedia events.