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What does it say to you?

That's a common question when staring at a piece of modern art on a museum wall. But what if the answer wasn't offered in words but in music?That's the premise behind the performance "ZOFOMOMA."

The San Francisco-based piano duo ZOFO — which derives its name from "20-finger orchestra" — asked 15 composers from 14 countries to choose a piece of visual art from their culture and write a short musical work inspired by it.

The two pianists, seated at one keyboard, perform the music while the paintings are projected above them. The duo will perform it at St. Paul's Park Square Theatre Wednesday night as part of the adventurous Schubert Club Mix series.

Inspired by Modest Mussorgsky's suite of piano pieces, "Pictures at an Exhibition," it's a 72-minute journey through the intersecting visions of artists and composers, bridged by interludes based upon the "Promenade" theme of Mussorgsky's work.

We talked to the members of ZOFO — Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi — from their homes in San Francisco, and asked what inspired this confluence of visual art and music.

"We were trying to find a way that we could present contemporary music better," Nakagoshi said. "We've commissioned a lot of people but, a lot of times, we premiere it and maybe do it once more. So one of us suggested: How about having many short pieces and having interludes connecting them? And somehow this idea of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' came up. And we thought it would be a great idea to present the music and art next to each other."

"We started with a few composers and kept adding as we went," Zimmermann added. "So it kind of grew organically together until we had these 15 pieces. Then, at the end, Keisuke composed the interludes, transitional music that looks back upon what you've just heard and transitions to what's to come."

Adorning the screen onstage at Park Square will be the impressionism of Claude Monet, James Gleeson's surrealism, London street art, landscapes from Azerbaijan and Japan, and a street scene from Bali, as well as abstractions and portraits.

The composers hail from five continents, and include such Americans born elsewhere as Lei Liang from China and Pablo Ortiz from Argentina, as well as Australia's Carl Vine, Cuba's Keyla Orozco and a London-based creator of classical/club-music hybrids, Gabriel Prokofiev.

Just as your appreciation of a painting can be aided by reading a description at the museum, the program notes for "ZOFOMOMA" offer the composers' reflections on what inspired them about the accompanying artwork.

"People who have no experience with contemporary music, even if they don't like the painting or don't like the music, they can own their own connections that they make between the painting and the music ... whether cultural or memories or another basis," Zimmermann said. "It will be different for everyone."

Speaking of different, ZOFO has carved out a rare niche for itself: a group specializing in music written for four-hand piano.

Back in the 19th century, that was often the way most listeners first heard pieces now known as orchestral masterworks: People bought the sheet music and played it at home.

One orchestral classic launched Zimmermann and Nakagoshi's partnership.

"I had an injury to my hand, and I had some concerts that I was supposed to play," Nakagoshi recalled. "Eva was one of the pianists who covered for me, and I did the page turning for her. I was so impressed by her playing.

"I always wanted to read Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring,' the piano four-hand version. So, after the concert, I suggested to her that we read that when my hand gets better. … It's the kind of a piece where you can't just sight-read. You really have to work a little bit to play it through. We established a real dynamic just figuring it out."

"I had heard that he was able to go so quickly while sight-reading," Zimmermann added. "So when we started playing together, I was so nervous because I knew that he was very good. He kept saying, 'Let's just play without pressure.' Then I relaxed and saw that it was a good match."

Since joining together in 2009, the two have gone on to create programs of music about space ("ZOFOrbit"), dark fairy tales and music from their countries of origin, Japan and Switzerland ("Sushi-Fondue"). They won a piano competition at New York's Carnegie Hall in 2010 and received a 2013 Grammy nomination for their album "Mind Meld."

So what's next for ZOFO?

"In the spring, we're going to perform 'ZOFOrbit' with a dance company at the Gilmore Piano Festival," Zimmermann said, speaking of that prestigious Michigan mecca of piano performance. "Then, at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, we'll premiere a concerto by Carl Vine. There aren't many concertos for piano four hands. You can count them on one hand."


When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.

Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul.

Tickets: $33, 651-292-3268 or

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities freelance classical music writer.