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Orchestral Variations offer many possibilities

  • Jul 4, 2012
By Mark Samples From The Register-Guard July 4, 2012 The Portland Baroque Orchestra began the first full week of the Oregon Bach Festival with a performance of the “Goldberg” Variations on Monday night at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall. It was a revealingly fresh take on a beloved piece.
The “Goldberg” Variations are a set of 30 variations on an aria by J.S. Bach. Although originally written for harpsichord, it was played here in an arrangement by violinist and composer Dmitry Sitkovetsky. Violinist Monica Huggett led the orchestra while playing the first violin part. Tinkering with a piece as cherished as this can be dangerous. Many in the audience probably knew the variations beforehand, or even had an opinion as to which pianist’s recording was their favorite interpretation. So if you’re going to tinker, the result must reveal something new about the composition — and Sitkovetsky’s arrangement does just this. The counterpoint, thorny and cloistered on the keyboard, is dispersed throughout the 12-piece orchestra and given room to breathe. The orchestra players clearly had a strong understanding of this new dimension of the piece. They made the cascading, 16th-note lines dance from one side of the stage to the other, all players emphasizing their own turns with the moving line. It was especially true of the variations scored for the full orchestra, such as the third and the fiery 14th. The forthrightness of the full orchestra movements was contrasted with more intimate duets, trios and quartets, interspersed throughout the work. The opening aria, played on violin, was one of these, and Huggett delivered a beautifully delicate melody. At other times, the arrangement amplified rhythmic syncopations in the original. That was accomplished frequently through hocketing — the dividing of a single melodic line across several sections. In the fourth variation, the recurring syncopation was pleasantly disorienting. The dramatic intensity of the piece came to head in the last five variations. The 25th, scored for string trio, was the most pathos-filled of the evening. When played on a period violin rather than a modern piano, there are more possibilities for chromatic shading in this heavily dissonant melody. The 26th arrived with bright relief from the pathos, and the 28th displayed the players’ technical dexterity. The 29th brought the drama to its high point, with the entire orchestra playing at full strength, then relaxed into the final, sustained variation. The piece then ended where it began, with Huggett playing the delicate aria again. It was the culmination of a rewarding musical journey. Sitkovetsky’s arrangement also makes one appreciate what a feat it is to play Bach’s original version. If there is enough going on to fill a whole string orchestra, it is a wonder that it was originally meant for a single player and a single instrument. (You can see Angela Hewitt attempt this very feat when she performs the Variations on piano on July 14 at Beall Hall.) This performance was part of a festival-sponsored tour that has taken the Variations to Astoria, Corvallis and Lincoln City. Mark Samples is a musicologist and adjunct professor at the University of Oregon.