This weekend the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado performs a brand new version of the Goldberg Variations for strings and continuo, arranged by our own violist Alexander Vittal. He is a superb arranger whose string arrangements of a wide variety of music are often performed by the Sphere Ensemble. I caught up with Alex to ask him a few questions about the Goldbergs while he was taking a break from his latest project – a medley of Dolly Parton songs!
- What did you find most interesting and enjoyable about this project? Most challenging?
Probably the most enjoyable part was getting to know the Goldberg Variations on a very intimate level. There is nothing like hearing a masterpiece for the first time, and this project provided an incredible opportunity to really dive into the score, many recordings, and to open my creative thinking into how I could orchestrate this for BCOC in a way that is completely respectful to the original and Bach, but perhaps adds new dimensions with the introduction of strings and different groupings of players. Both most challenging and enjoyable about the project was realizing that I could really take some risks and maybe push boundaries a little further knowing that we have outstanding musicians who will be able to handle anything I throw at them!
- How did you approach each variation, and decide what forces to use for each?
When it comes to orchestrating an already existing score, my process has a few established steps. First, read the score and follow along while I listen to a few different recordings to get a few takes on existing interpretations of the music on harpsichord, and also piano. While listening and reading, I am already hearing possible musical phrases played on different instruments based on the “personality” of the music. Next, I carefully examine the ranges of the notes to see if any particular sections exclude any instruments. From there, it is a process of imagination- hearing and seeing BCOC and the specific musicians on stage performing the music.
- What are you hoping the audience will experience through your arrangements?
As an avid listener, I am always most powerfully drawn to music where I can really understand the musical phrasing and structure. I am hoping that my arrangement will amplify both the bigger picture of the musical phrasing as well as the subtle and fleeting beautiful moments that are everywhere in Bach, yet so easy to miss. Also, I am hoping that the ever changing ensemble will keep the audience’s ears fresh and focus attuned to the next unexpected turn!
- It seems like your arrangement was especially well suited for our ensemble and the personality of our orchestra. Can you comment on that and whether that entered into your thinking?
This is a great question, and one I think about often, especially when studying chamber or orchestral works. When writing a new cantata every week, with very limited rehearsal time, I am certain that J.S. Bach made specific compositional choices based on who he knew would be playing the part the following Sunday. Another great example is Mozart. I took a class on Mozart operas in college, and learned that the orchestra in Prague had a very strong viola section, and I can personally attest that the viola part Mozart wrote for Don Giovanni (which was commissioned for a performance in Prague) is really challenging- much more so than the viola part in The Marriage of Figaro (which was composed for Vienna). We could also consider Vivaldi, who wrote many of his works for his students at the Ospedale della Pietà. Likewise, when arranging, the specific performers always factor in to my decisions. As I know all these musicians closely, I have a sense for how to draw on our strengths as a full group, as members of sections, and individually to produce the best results that also hopefully feel good to play and like everyone is being utilized to their full potential.
- How do you think this project, and the performance when it happens, will change your perspective on the Goldberg Variations going forward?
Whenever I have done an arranging project, on future hearings of the original work, I can’t help but hear my version in the performance of the original. In some cases, I hear a unique or different take on the phrasing that I really like and think, maybe I should revisit my arrangement and consider how to work that in. The process is really never finished for me!