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Friendly Rich Presents Pictures at an Exhibition

  • Friendly Rich & the Lollipop People
  • Pumpkin Pie Corporation

There are dozens of arrangements of Mussorgsky's solo piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition , for everything from full orchestra to clarinet choir to prog-rock band (Emerson, Lake and Palmer, whose 1971 version featured lyrics by singer Greg Lake). To come to the party this late, you need something extra. Would you believe a pennywhistle, toy piano and kazoo?

Toronto composer and flâneur Friendly Rich (Richard Marsella) has surveyed the work of his predecessors, and evidently finds much delusion in their grandeur. His "butchering" (as he cheerfully describes it) reconfigures Mussorgsky's suite for a mongrel band of reeds, horns, harpsichord, accordion and harp, clustered around an ELP-like rock formation (guitars, drum kit and synthesizer), with toy instruments on deck for select cameos.

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And so we get, in the Old Castle, the most lugubrious tune in the suite hummed out on kazoo. Tuileries is introduced by a slack and funky jazz-rock retooling of the opening theme, then the main music slithers by in a sinister tango arrangement, which in turn segues into a reedy snippet from the Great Gate of Kiev, usually heard only at the end of the suite.

The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks has never sounded more deranged, with Trevor Dunn's bass (of the late, great Mr. Bungle) galloping beneath starbursts from bells, clarinets and noisemakers. I think this must be the Chernobyl version, played by demented clowns with glowing red noses.

At several points, the band detours into an instrumental freak-out, like the free improv break between the first, fairly straight theme statement and Gnomus. Mussorgsky's portrait of rich and poor Jews slides almost immediately into a roaring, drooping chaos, and the following theme statement, usually the most luminous bit in the suite, comes out as a series of melodic grunts and squeals from Paul Dutton and Christine Duncan.

The witchy romp of Baba Yaga sounds truly smashed up in this performance (the image Mussorgsky had in mind was evidently of a small Russian clock), but the Great Gate retains some of its grandeur, at least until the last abortive moments.

Some of the performances are a bit loose, but so were the Marx Brothers. It was about time somebody threw a pie in Mussorgsky's face. He sure knows how to wear it.

Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People play Pictures at an Exhibition at the Tranzac Club in Toronto on Nov. 7.

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