Winds of Change: Adding to the Canon

Winds of Change (premiering November 18th on Marquee TV) features the World Premiere of a new commission for Les Délices by Sydney Guillaume, but that’s not the only premiere included in this dynamic new concert film. It also includes the premiere of a new arrangement of Chevalier de St. Georges’ unpublished sonata for flute and harp, reimagined by LD Artistic Director Debra Nagy as a quartet for flute and strings, and the recorded premiere of an oboe quartet by Karl Bochsa, a composer so little known that he even lacks that most basic Internet benchmark of relevance: a Wikipedia entry. In a recent interview, we spoke to Debra about the challenges and rewards of arranging historical works, the appeal of Bochsa’s unique quartet, and more…

Have you always loved creating new arrangements? How did you get started in it and what makes it a compelling creative challenge for you?

Debra: I’ve created a lot of arrangements for Les Délices and for others. It’s inspired by the historical practice of adapting pieces to the players or ensemble at hand. Initially, that meant making orchestral reductions, or perhaps composing or reconstructing “inner parts” from so-called “short scores” (where a full orchestra was distilled down to treble and bass parts). Ultimately, it’s about making great or wonderful music more accessible – to us players as well as for audiences.

Over Les Délices‘ history, you’ve creatively transformed everything from opera overtures to jazz standards for chamber music forces. What’s special about this new arrangement of this sonata by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St. Georges?

DN: The St. Georges sonata is originally for flute and harp. Historical harps are not terribly easy to come by and the original flute part is both very low and in the awkward key of Eb. I think that choice was meant to favor the harp, which was otherwise at a pretty significant acoustical disadvantage. However, the result is that the piece is very rarely played and a not very satisfying experience for the flute player!

So, in transposing it to G major – a great and frequent key for solo music on the flute – and by adapting the harp part to an ensemble of violin, viola, and cello, we’ve created something that feels and sounds great on the flute AND uses the much more common, available, and practical instrumentation of string trio.

What are the challenges of arranging a work like this? What sorts of musical things (timbre? range? other?) are you attuned to as you work to reimagine the piece while staying faithful to the composer’s original work?

DN: It was an interesting challenge adapting a harp part to a string trio. The harp, of course, is not naturally loud and – being plucked – it doesn’t have a sustained sound. Bowed strings do just the opposite. Furthermore, in order to create more sound, harps play arpeggios, which translates to continuous movement.

So, much of the inner-voice “alberti” arpeggiated accompaniment in the harp part went to the viola. Frequently, the violin has material from the melodic right hand of the harp. I’ve also written some new counter-melodies for the violin that helps us feel like the flute and violin parts are have a traditional chamber-musicky “conversation.” Often, the bass notes were only implied in the harp part, so the cello part frequently plays fundamental pitches that support the harmony.

Expanding the early music canon is a crucial component of addressing diversity issues in our industry. LD’s approach, (commissioning new works and bringing long-neglected works by historically marginalized composers), is two-pronged. Why are both approaches needed?

DN: As an early music player, it makes sense for me to first seek out neglected works by historically marginalized composers. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that’s been published or that is not otherwise lost. Reclaiming works through arrangement to make them more accessible and bring them to a wider public is totally essential.

Working with living composers is another important way to expand (not only our ensemble’s but also) our field’s repertoire, amplify diverse voices, and forge new artistic relationships for artists and audiences. Commissioning new works also creates unique opportunities in programming. In the case of Winds of Change, Sydney Guillaume’s new work A Journey to Freedom strengthens the programmatic connection between French and Haitian Revolutions.

You plan to make your St. Georges arrangement freely accessible for download on our website. What’s your hope for the future of this arrangement? 

DN: I hope that this arrangement gets a lot of play – maybe that it even becomes core flute chamber music repertoire! Why shouldn’t it be featured alongside the Mozart flute quartet? Or perhaps programmed INSTEAD?? ;)

The other premiere on the program is the recorded premiere of Bochsa’s oboe quartet. What’s special about his writing, from an oboist’s perspective? 

DN: I have loved and wanted to perform this piece for a long time. It’s super unusual to have a work like this in a minor key. Usually, it’s a much “lighter” form and quartets are almost uniformly in F major or C major, etc. The key of d minor is great on the oboe, the whole mood is dark and brooding, and the string parts are great. The inner voice textures are interesting and all the string players get solos.

The quartets were dedicated to the finest oboist in Paris at the time, Antoine Sallatin, who was also the first oboe teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. I imagine that the oboe writing is both a testament to Sallatin’s prodigious abilities – and perhaps a challenge to them! I’m thrilled to present it to the public for the first time in this way.