Surely everyone who has listened to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition has wondered about the original visual inspiration for this famous suite. Most of the art by Viktor Hartmann that stirred the composer has been lost, but six extant works can, with some certainty, be linked to various movements. While on the one hand there is a natural curiosity about the initial inspiration, the music has developed a life of its own; its vibrancy so strong that it has inspired countless visions in the minds of listeners, not to mention many colourful orchestrations including the one by Ravel.

ZOFO, Musica VivaZOFO: Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi. Photo supplied

American-based pianist duo, Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi, known as ZOFO have brought into being a latter-day Pictures at an Exhibition, commissioning fifteen composers from around the world to write a short piece based on an artwork of their choosing. ZOFOMOMA is the result; a continuous 75-minute performance during which the relevant artworks are projected on a large screen. Linking the commissioned movements are 14 promenades by Nakagoshi, each alluding to Mussorgsky’s promenade theme. The idea of promenade is further enhanced by each performer in alternation rising at the end of a movement, looking around and changing ends at the single keyboard.

Together the artwork and the music make a strong impression. After a calming nod to the nascent impressionism of Monet’s Le Bassin d’Argenteuil by Gilles Silvestrini, Australia’s Carl Vine pays homage to surrealist artist James Gleeson. Gleeson peers out from the bottom left-hand corner of The Arrival of the Implacable Gifts across a strange seascape; Vine’s music reflecting the ripe but disembodied scene.

One of the intriguing aspects of ZOFOMOMA is the subtle referencing of the original Pictures. Avner Dorman’s evocation of Dancing with the Torah brings to mind the Samuel Goldbenberg and Schmüyle movement in the Mussorgsky while Street Solace by Indonesian I Wayan Gde Yudane has something of the Tuileries and the Limoges market about it. Pablo Ortiz’ Paisaje (Landscape) alludes to the imaginary Great Gates of Buenos Aires rather than those of Kiev.

Among other memorable moments are the charm of Spring Morning in Baku by Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, the contemporary La vallée des Cloches that is Lei Liang’s Will You Come to My Dream?, and the delicate timbres of Kenji Oh’s Sacred Chichibu Peaks at Spring Dawn. Jonathan Russell’s take on a street-art skeleton by Stormie Mills has one player hovering over the other, mimicking the unsteady balance of the skeleton, and there is further whimsy in Gabriel Prokofiev’s Untitled Etching 3. A more serious note is struck by Iranian-American Sahba Aminikia in Inspector’s Scrutiny, summoning up authoritarian repression.

Some of the music paired with more abstract images, such as Paweł Mykietyn’s SM 34, requires a little more stretching of the imagination to understand the connection, but as with the Mussorgsky, makes sense even without the image.

Another significant part of the whole is Nakagoshi’s promenades. These display considerable ingenuity and a wonderfully broad appreciation of styles and pianistic techniques. One of my favourites was the promenade à la Satie towards the end of the program. As the concert progressed, I wondered how it would all end. Instead of the grandeur of the Kiev gates, ZOFOMOMA ends with the exuberant Viajeros (Travellers) by Cuban composer Keyla Orozco in which a Russian theme intersects with Cuban traditional music and jazz. An extraordinary glissando which is as much ballet as music brings this extraordinary journey to a close.

ZOFO is much more than the 20-finger orchestra their name represents. Their amazing synergy and synchronicity is always at the service of this captivating program, which is well worth a look as well as a listen.

Buy a Limelight subscription as a gift