Writing a piece of music inspired by a painting can’t be a one-to-one process of translation. The composer Timo Andres looks to Mussorgsky’s evocative “Pictures at an Exhibition,” or to Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel,” which Mr. Andres says is “a much more lively experience than the paintings themselves.”
Add “Upstate Obscura,” a new cello concerto by Mr. Andres that has its premiere on Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of its exhibition “Visitors to Versailles (1682-1789),” to the list of musical works with a clear visual counterpart.
His piece, which features the cellist Inbal Segev performing with the Metropolis Ensemble, is based on John Vanderlyn’s “Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles” (1818-19), a massive painting on nearly 2,000 square feet of canvas that requires its own circular gallery in the Met’s American Wing.
Mr. Andres’s charge for the commission was to write whatever he wanted — as long as it related to something at the Met. He took a series of trips to the museum and stumbled on Vanderlyn’s painting, a 19th-century equivalent to virtual reality first seen in a custom-built space in City Hall Park and later touring, for a form of stay-at-home tourism.
Mr. Andres said he was struck by the strangeness of the work, which came from a time when American artists weren’t quite free from the traditions of European painting.
“The painting itself is not what I find moving about it,” he said. “It’s almost the qualities that the viewer brings to it that are most interesting to me. It’s so much about the viewer’s perspective and creating an experience for them. That has a real musical analog.”
Andrew Cyr, the Metropolis Ensemble’s conductor, described Mr. Andres’s concerto as full of “a sense of space and spaciousness that relates to place,” and Ms. Segev praised the way it conjured light and movement à la Mussorgsky’s Promenade in “Pictures.”
“Upstate Obscura” features Mr. Andres’s deceptively chaotic rhythmic hallmarks, but it also nods to Versailles’ heyday and Baroque ornamentation. Mr. Andres took a book of tunes by Couperin and stretched out mordents, trills and turns until they became their own melodies.
Speaking in front of Vanderlyn’s panorama, Mr. Andres pointed to three scenes in the painting and explained how they appear in his concerto. Below are edited excerpts from what he said, as well as demo recordings of him at the piano accompanying Ms. Segev in her apartment earlier this week.
I don’t know a lot about garden design, but my understanding is that it was all about sort of staging the palace and making the approach as impressive and beautiful as possible. But what strikes me about this painting is just how abstract it all is. It almost feels like you’re in a Magritte painting — that sort of dusky lighting that Magritte often uses to make things extra geometric.
The solo cellist is the stand-in for the viewer and moves through this orchestral landscape. In the first movement we’re walking at a leisurely pace down these very gradual stairs and encountering these familiar yet weirdly stylized objects that are placed very regularly but are also totally disorienting. The entire movement is just paced as one long downward scale, and it’s stretched over the whole five or six minutes.
We have the same protagonist, but now it’s in this incredibly gridded landscape of the building. The rhythm of the building is overwhelming; it’s so huge and repetitive that it is able to articulate your whole field of view. So the second movement takes the music of the first and puts it on a very strict grid.
It’s also kind of imagining what it’s like inside the building, where you have ornament upon ornament, and mirrors. Things are constantly being reflected and inverted and turned up against themselves. It is almost disorienting chaos; when you get to the end of the movement, it’s almost frantic.
The third movement is more reflective and more personal. I was thinking about the painter himself and this whole thing as a kind of boondoggle — this kind of burden to him, the way that the whole of Western art felt burdensome to American artists at the time.
If you look up from the garden and toward the horizon, you might as well be in Kingston, N.Y., or northern Connecticut, which is where I’m from. This is where it becomes a personal work, in a way; I’m almost moved by that more than anything else, this stuff that is almost receding into the distance. So the third movement is this kind of interior space. Finally, it vanishes over that horizon and back to upstate New York.
Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.