New Sounds for a “New Century”

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
San Francisco Examiner

By Stephen Smoliar

The title for the first program in the new season of the New Century Chamber Orchestra was Pictures at an Exhibition:  New Traditions, where the subtitle referred to the evening consisting of three familiar works (two by Johann Sebastian Bach and one by Modest Mussorgsky) in new arrangements.  The first of these arrangements was of the concluding chaconne movement from Bach's second partita for solo violin, BWV 1004, a composition that has already received several arrangements, the best known of which are probably the version for solo piano by Ferruccio Busoni and the guitar solo by Andrés Segovia.  While Segovia honored the basic idea of that partita serving as an exercise for the development of both technique and invention, Busoni's transcription is a flamboyant adaptation of "academic" Bach into the sort of spectacle that was so popular in late nineteenth century piano recitals.  The Bach is still there;  but it is Bach in the service of Busoni, quite a different affair from Segovia's aspiration that Bach should serve those who wish to play the guitar as well as he has served generations of violin students so well.

According to the Program Notes by Rosemary Delia, the version of the chaconne that the New Century Chamber Orchestra performed was called "a hypothetical orchestral model," rather than a transcription.  This paragraph attempts to explain just what that phrase is supposed to mean:

[Mark] Starr gives us a version of the Chaconne that Bach himself might have heard using instrumental forces that would have been at Bach's disposal, or one that Bach might have heard in his own mind while composing in order to make manifest what the score inherently implies.  Starr describes his conjectural orchestration in this way:  "[My arrangement of the] Chaconne uses a string orchestra with harpsichord continuo.  This is the same orchestral ensemble that Bach utilized in the Third Brandenburg Concerto in G Major, and also the famous Air from the Orchestra Suite No. 3 in D Major."  Starr has no intention of "improving" Bach, nor does he attempt to compete with the massive early 20th century orchestrations of Stokowski or Ormandy.  "My intention is to show an orchestral aspect of this music that is fundamental to Bach's conception, but that, up-to-now, could only be imagined—but not actually heard in live or recorded performances on the solo violin."

Impressive as these words may sound, I do not think they do justice to the listening experience.  First of all, as a point of fact, if there was a harpsichord continuo, then it was so subdued that its presence made little difference.  I did not find this particularly problematic, because this is a composition for which the continuo concept is superfluous, however one may try to adapt it for an alternative setting.  In this particular case the instrumentation is for a rich and strong collection of modern string instruments played by technically-skilled performers.  For all of Delia's protestations, the ensemble is much closer to the string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra of Stokowski and Ormandy than it is to any performing group Bach would have known.

So we should put theory aside and concentrate on the relationship between what we hear and the listening experience that ensues.  Ultimately, what we have is Stokowski at his finest stripped of his excessive indulgences in modern brass, winds, and percussion.  In other words we have a string section with an awesome display of a mighty sound that teases out much of the harmonic and contrapuntal activity that can only be implied in the solo violin conception.  The reality, as it were, trumps the hypothetical;  and the result was as stimulating as either an accomplished violinist performing the original or a virtuoso pianist jumping through all of Busoni's hoops.

The other Bach composition on the program was a reworking of his BWV 1052 keyboard concerto as a violin concerto in a 1917 transcription by the German violinist Robert Reitz.  In this case one was definitely aware of a harpsichord continuo, most likely filling the same duties that the keyboardist would have provided when not playing the solo passages.  This work gave us a much better sense of what Bach expected from a string ensemble, and it is particularly impressive just how expressive he can be when that ensemble is playing in unison, as much of the ritornello material requires.  The violin solo was as virtuosic as the original keyboard part, if not more so.  Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg took that solo, executing it with a vigorous drive that may have been a bit over the top in Bach's time but seemed perfectly appropriate to the current "new century" setting.

The intermission was followed by the namesake of the program, an arrangement by Clarice Assad of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition for the New Century strings supplemented with parts for piano and percussion.  There were the occasional moments when the piano reflected Mussorgsky's original text, but they arose seldom and judiciously.  Far more interesting was the extent to which pianist Roxanne Michaelian supplemented percussionist Galen Lemmon, spending much of her time playing the piano from the inside, either with various forms of percussion mallets or by plucking the strings.  Lemmon had an extensive array of instruments under his control, but Assad exercised excellent judgment in recognizing when he needed help and eliciting that help from the piano.

The last time the San Francisco Symphony performed this work, they used the most familiar orchestration by Maurice Ravel.  However, in his pre-concert talk, my venerable predecessor on this site, Scott Fogelsong, provided a tour of many of the lesser known arrangements of this suite.  In that historical context Assad's contribution was, without a doubt, a unique one, very much in the spirit of the case I made on Friday that we should celebrate opportunities for diversity in our listening experiences.  Her approach exhibited as much understanding of the original piano solo as did any of the examples that Fogelsong had presented;  and many of her "coloration" decisions provided opportunities to think about sounds we thought were familiar in a new light.  Whether or not this will lead to a "new tradition" in the performance of Mussorgsky's suite may be open to question;  but there is no doubt that the opportunity to listen to Mussorgsky through Assad's ears was a stimulating one.