How do you write music based on “The Migration Series”? The composer Derek Bermel didn’t set out to do it. Rather, when he began writing his piece — commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center, and described as a concerto for jazz band and orchestra — he noticed a chugging motif emerging in it, which he associated with trains — and which carried him back to childhood memories of seeing Jacob Lawrence’s 60-panel series of paintings about the Great Migration of African Americans to the North in the first part of the 20th century.
Bermel’s piece — which the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble performed last Friday — has music reminiscent of trains and blues and gospel: references to the African American history Lawrence’s paintings illustrate. But what really links it to its visual-arts antecedent is its structural approach: Bermel, like Lawrence, uses big, clear shapes and repeating colors to make sophisticated statements deceptively accessible.
This kind of conceptual kinship, an inspiration of approach, is the only real link between a painting and the work of music it inspires. Yet the idea that music can convey something literal, and that conveying it will make the resulting piece more “accessible,” is widespread, and pernicious. Hence we have NSO performances of works based on Shakespeare interspersed with actors giving earnest Shakespeare readings, or slides projected on screens above the stage. You might as well show pictures of cuckoos and a thunderstorm during Beethoven’s “Pastoral.” Inspiration, be it taken from another work of art or from nature, is a lot more ephemeral than such literal renderings suggest.
There were a couple of chances, this week, to examine music based on art — and the attitudes surrounding it. On Wednesday, the InSeries opened a rare production of Granados’s “Goyescas,” based on early paintings by Francisco Goya. Stage adaptations of visual artworks tend to be the most literal of all — as I observed when writing about the phenomenon before the opening of “Little Dancer,” a musical based on a Degas sculpture — and this “Goyescas” certainly was. Jaime Coronado’s production outfitted the cast in costumes that hewed closely to the paintings, and had them replicate certain tableaux — like the tossing in the air of a scarecrowlike puppet.
The paintings, though, tell us nothing about the music. “Goyescas,” which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1916, is a complex, full-bodied, hyper-romantic one-act opera that calls for some big voices and overblown acting: A flirtation leads to a duel in which one man is killed, meaning that a powerful love duet is capped with a tragic farewell. (The soprano Fairouz Foty, as Rosario, did a lot of big singing, quite commendably.) It’s a far cry from Goya’s lighthearted genre scenes.
But the production — which runs through Dec. 18 — focused more on those paintings than the music — which is to say it attempted to present the whole thing as a sequence of genre scenes, to the extent of adding an extraneous first act of songs by Granados and Manuel De Falla, staged and strung together with sophomoric dialogue. Not only did this have nothing to do with “Goyescas,” but it cut into the rehearsal time that this small company needed to do better musical justice to Granados’s work — to judge from the ragged, barely-together ensembles in the opera’s first scenes.
The University of Maryland, in one of the first forays in its still-new collaboration with the Philips Collection, also nearly lost sight of the point of Bermel’s piece in an eager concert that overzealously blended the curatorial and the didactic. The Bermel was preceded by two other works, Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and John Harbison’s leaden “The Flight Into Egypt,” that turned out not to have much in common, and the whole thing was interspersed with a lot of verbal introduction, including a panel discussion. Happily, Bermel’s work, and the strong performances that brought it across, stayed in the fresh spirit of Lawrence — despite the mitigating forces attempting to explain them to us.