by Mike Telin
“When a composer writes a piece of music, they don’t really picture someone with a stick telling the musicians what to do,” BlueWater Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Ken Johnston said during a recent telephone conversation. On Saturday, February 18 at 7:30 at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts, Johnston and his BlueWater colleagues will go conductorless when they perform works by Aaron Copland, Richard Wagner, and Benjamin Britten.
Johnston said that as concertmaster, he is always leading and communicating with the players. “I don’t think this is going to be a huge stretch from what I’m used to doing. And with a group this good, the leadership is going to be shared.”
Composed for choreographer and dancer Martha Graham and premiered in 1944, Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring was originally scored for a chamber ensemble of double string quartet plus bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. The composer revised the work for full orchestra in 1954. BlueWater will perform the thirteen-player version on Saturday.
Johnston, who has played the chamber version, said that he’s enjoyed the opportunity to reexamine the score. “There are so many little textures that are missing in the symphonic version. It’s not that Copland meant to dilute anything with that version — it is big and lush and we all love it — but the chamber version is a lot more intricate.”
Johnston admits that there will be some negotiating to be done among the players, especially when it comes to the tempo of the square dance. “There will be moments that will require some flexibility, and hopefully that will produce a more organic-sounding interpretation. But the ending is so beautiful in this version, and it works better without a conductor. It’s supposed to float away, so you really don’t need extraneous motion around you.”
Wagner composed his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present to his wife after the birth of their son in 1869. The work was first performed by a small ensemble on the stairs of their villa at Tribschen on Christmas morning in 1870.
Johnston described the piece as both intimate and expansive. “The thing about this piece is that it feels so big, although there are so few players. Wagner uses a fraction of the forces he would usually write for, but it doesn’t feel small.”
The third work on the program will be Britten’s Sinfonietta. Composed at the age of 18 while he was still a student at London’s Royal College of Music, the three-movement work is dedicated to his teacher, Frank Bridge. “This piece will also require a lot of shared leadership, especially in the second movement where there are so many solos being traded back and forth.”
Johnston said he’s hopeful that BlueWater will program more concerts like this. “In this context, when musical lines are passed from player to player, we will have to rely on each other to make sure everything holds together. And this communication is something that will also be visible to the audience. We’re all friends and we’ve played together in a million contexts, so I’m sure the rehearsals and the performance are going to be a lot of fun.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com February 15, 2017.
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