Variations of Variations

  • Jun 29, 2012
From The Entertainer June 29, 2012  After an absence of almost two decades, the Oregon Bach Festival returns to Corvallis this weekend to greet some old friends and maybe make some new ones. And, to mark the occasion, the festival is bringing an old friend in modern garb: A performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in an arrangement written for a string orchestra. Performing the piece: The Portland Baroque Orchestra. The Bach Festival, based in Eugene, last put on a concert in Corvallis in 1995 or 1996, according to George Evano, the festival’s director of communications. But, Evano said, it’s proven difficult to work through the scheduling complexities involved in staging a concert in Corvallis during the run of the festival. (This year’s festival started on Wednesday and runs through July 15.) This year, however, organizers managed to put together a mini-tour featuring the Portland ensemble and the Goldberg Variations: In addition to Corvallis (and Eugene), concerts are scheduled for Astoria and Lincoln City. Corvallis, Evano said, “is a great music town,” and so organizers were thrilled to return: “It was like rekindling some of the friendships we had made way back then.” Bach originally wrote the Goldberg Variations for harpsichord, but the piece is arguably best-known these days for pianist Glenn Gould’s seminal piano recording. This arrangement for string orchestra is by the Russian violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky, and Evano said that listeners familiar with just the keyboard version are in for a revelation: “The arrangement just brings out so many different colors,” Evano said. That’s a sentiment echoed by Monica Huggett, the artistic director of the Portland Baroque Orchestra. “It fits very well for string orchesta,” Huggett said in a phone interview this week with the Entertainer – and she noted that Bach himself was notorious for tinkering with and rearranging his work (and the work of other composers he admired). Huggett said concertgoers likely will be struck by the rhythmic force and complexity of the variations when played by the orchestra. And, she said, the string orchestra arrangement brings a new focus to those variations that are canons (every third variation in the series of 30 is a canon). “That is a relevation for most people, that you can hear the canon and the counterpoint so much more clearly” when played by the orchestra, Huggett said. Despite the logistical and artistic challenges of performing the piece four times in different cities over a four-day stretch, Huggett said she and the orchestra are ready to roll. “There’s no danger of getting bored,” she said. “It’s always a challenge, and every performance is different.” Besides, she added, “Traveling around Oregon is fun, although it’s a little more tiring. We’re not geriatric yet. We’ve got quite a few young players with us.”