Have you ever tried to explain a piece of music to someone and come up with nothing to say? Have you found that visual art is easier to discuss? The Montage Music Society sought to change all that when they began planning the “Starry Night Project: Music Based on Visual Art” concert for the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The afternoon included a pre-concert tour that visitors who signed up in advance had the privilege of taking, stopping by several of the pieces in NCMA’s permanent collection and listening to the musical “soundtracks” that the curators had chosen to depict the artwork. It is the notion of linking music and visual art that is at the core of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s Sights and Sounds on Sundays series.

Montage on this occasion offered a basic piano trio configuration, two members of which are based in NC, but the Society’s roster lists ten artists, its lineup being driven by the works it is performing.

The concert, presented in NCMA’s older East Building in an intimate recital hall, featured visual art projected onto the wall behind the performers so that the audience could view the paintings and sculptures upon which the music was based. The performers introduced the artwork and gave the audience clues of what to listen for in the music, which was extremely helpful in making the listener think critically of what was heard and seen. William Grant Still’s Suite for violin and piano was meant to create an “intimate” relationship, explained pianist Debra Ayers, between music and visual art. This was certainly felt in the expression with which she and violinist Marjorie Bagley played this work by the acknowledged Dean of African-American Composers, programmed as Black History Month drew to a close. Bagley, especially, commanded the room with her soaring, ferocious sound, most notably in the first two movements of Still’s Suite, based on a sculpture of an African dancer and a painting of mother and child, respectively.

Cellist Marc Moskovitz introduced the second work, Stephen Paulus’ Art Suite for cello and piano, adapted from the original version for tenor and piano. He explained that the music was supposed to represent the artist’s feelings rather than the actual paintings; for me, these movements were harder to reconcile with the art works. This Suite was certainly a challenge, and it is definitely a credit to Moskovitz and Ayers’ that they played convincingly and technically well while contending with some nebulous rhythms and melodies.

The final piece, Matthew Harris’ Starry Night: Seven Paintings for Violin, Cello, and Piano, was much more literal in its interpretation of the content of the visual art upon which each movement was based. Harris took his inspiration from seven paintings that were all hung on one wall at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1984, much in the style of Modeste Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The most literal and entertaining section was the fifth movement, an “etude” based on Matisse’s The Piano Lesson. This movement featured the violinist plucking the strings to sound like a metronome keeping time, with repetitive figures played by the pianist to represent a student practicing a scale or etude and sharp, sudden notes played by the cellist to represent the teacher’s angry strike. Although all took on different aspects of the piece, the ensemble was magnificently cohesive, blending all elements of the music to create a new kind of artwork.

The next Sights and Sounds on Sundays concert will take place on Sunday, April 15 at 3 p.m. This concert will feature the McIver String Quartet playing a “Paris in the time of Rodin” program, including works by Saint-Saëns, Stravinsky, and Koechlin. For details, click here.