With Fresh Eyes

The Re-Emergence

I am listening to the closing chords of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral translation of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” his celebrated 1874 piano suite. It is a classical masterwork comprised of ten musical impressions, inspired by paintings from a memorial exhibition of Mussorgsky’s artist friend Victor Hartmann. This work has been orchestrated by many composers, but Ravel’s rendition, completed in 1923, has proven to be the preferred choice in the repertoire of symphony orchestras. The well-known “The Great Gate of Kiev” is its triumphant conclusion.

“Pictures at an Exhibition” was performed with a masterful touch by the West Michigan Symphony, under the assured baton of Music Director Scott Speck, in their season opening concert on September 27. The all-Russian program, with featured works by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky, reverberated through the Frauenthal Theater, the majestic 1930 Spanish Renaissance complex in downtown Muskegon and long-time home to the Symphony.

The Frauenthal, originally the Michigan Theater, was saved from the wrecking ball in 1976 during the height of the urban renewal craze, which claimed many victims, including another downtown theater, the elegant Regent, demolished in 1972. Community patrons, led by industrialist A. Harold Frauenthal, for whom the theater is named, were instrumental in preserving, then restoring, this remaining Muskegon landmark.

The joyous sounds of the Symphony emanating from the Frauenthal are echoed in the resurgence now playing out in downtown Muskegon. There is a new energy, a new pride. Shaking off its dusty and vacuous image, the city has begun its revivification, with maiden businesses, new residents, and the daily rumblings of fresh construction. Yes, Muskegon needs to be attentive to pressing concerns, among them additional affordable housing in its center city and encompassing neighborhoods, and an increase in diverse downtown offerings. Yet, Muskegon has launched itself forward.

Anchoring this re-emergence are the historical and cultural institutions that have endured through the downtown’s varied stages, institutions that have grown in stature and acclaim. The Lakeshore Museum Center, and its offspring in the city’s heritage district, paired with the Muskegon Heritage Museum, are the purveyors of a proud past. The Hackley Public Library commands a prominent station on its downtown corner. The West Michigan Symphony and Muskegon Civic Theater find their sturdy moorings at the Frauenthal.

The centerpiece, though, is the Muskegon Museum of Art. Now in its 117th year, the MMA boasts a permanent collection unequaled by any art museum in a city of its size. This cultural gem is the recipient of international attention, garnering requests for loans of work from its collection for major exhibitions. The MMA’s signature pieces, among them paintings by Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Pierre Bonnard, and John Steuart Curry, have traveled to venues throughout the U.S. and Europe. A collecting priority to diversify the museum’s holdings has resulted in acquisitions of works by prominent African American artists, among them Romare Bearden, Hughie Lee-Smith, Elizabeth Catlett, and Whitfield Lovell. A special treasure in the MMA collection is Edward S. Curtis’s twenty-volume “The North American Indian,” one of the few remaining complete portfolios of this monumental photographic study of the Native American.

We are attentive to history in pursuit of an inspiring future. That is what I heard in the last refrains of the West Michigan Symphony’s performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition” - the grand “The Great Gate of Kiev,” depicting a sketch of a city gate topped by cupolas, with carillon ringing. And, it is the message in Richard Hunt’s massive sculpture “Muskegon Rising,” which fronts the Frauenthal Theater. This symbol of re-birth, maligned by some, speaks of pride, hope, promise, community. “Muskegon Rising” and the Frauenthal bring our history and future together in an imposing coupling. They are both worthy of accolade.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com