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New Traditions

September 14, 2009

Why is it that no one thinks twice of adapting classic plays to suit certain ensembles and aesthetic predilections in the theatre, whereas the idea of creating new versions of canonical works from classical music repertoire is often frowned upon?

On Saturday, I attended a concert given by the ever-innovative New Century Chamber Orchestra (music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, pictured left) which featured a program of re-envisioned takes for string orchestra on two works by J S Bach ("Chaconne" from Partita No. 2 for solo violin arranged by Mark Starr and Concerto for Violin in D minor transcribed by Robert Reitz from the draft of a harpsichord concerto written in about 1738) and Clarice Assad's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at a Exhibition for string orchestra, piano and a battalion of percussion instruments.

The friend I brought to the performance with me is wild about violinist Rachel Podger's performance of the "Chaconne". "It's such a gobsmacking piece, why would anyone bother adapting it for orchestra?" he said, as we stood in line at intermission for drinks.

Why bother indeed?

While I wasn't completely convinced by the Bach arrangements in the concert, which sounded stormily thick and full but lacked the lightness of touch that I love so much about Bach's music, I valued all three works on the program for the "strangeness" factor. The "Chaconne" and Pictures at an Exhibition are both so well known that one can get stuck in one way of listening to them. Assad's interpretation of Mussorgsky in particular helped me to hear the work in a completely new way -- one that reminds us that Ravel's version is simply a riff on an existing piece, not the definitive take.

I particularly loved the viola solo in "The Old Castle". Anna Kruger's playing was at once mournful and mystical. And the use of percussion -- brought to life by Galen Lemmon -- gave some of the movements, and the playful ones especially, an energy and ebullience that stretched beyond Ravel's capabilities.

Skillful adaptations of canonical works need not always be viewed with derision or as interesting curios. Arrangement has been part of the language of music for thousands of years. In the pop world it's standard. It should also be that way in the classical landscape.


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