The American String Project: Lieberman invents new classics and reintroduces old favorites

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String Project musicians answer audience questions after Saturday's concert.

For nearly ten years, the American String Project has given Seattle audiences consistently satisfying, well played string orchestra concerts. In addition to playing the standard repertoire for string orchestra, for example Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the ad hoc group of musicians from around the world, has built its reputation playing Project founder Barry Lieberman’s arrangements of chamber music.

The arrangements aren’t easy, Lieberman plays the double bass, and as he explained at Saturday’s concert, the challenge is figuring out what the bass will play. Does the bass just double the cello part? Or, are there opportunities for the instrument to underscore other parts and even carry the melody from time to time?

Saturday’s concert, the second of the American String Project’s three 2009 concerts, demonstrated the rewards and peril associated with arranging small ensemble pieces for a string orchestra. The Project programmed three pieces: Robert Schumann’s String Quartet Nr. 3, Serge Prokofiev’s String Quartet Nr. 2; both arranged by Barry Lieberman, and Manual de Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas” which was arranged by Stephanie Chase, one of the violinists in the ensemble.

Lieberman’s arrangement of the Schumann’s third quartet didn’t fare as well. Unlike the Prokofiev quartet which blended opportunities for solo instruments, string quartet, and the entire ensemble, the Schumann was monotonous. Liebermann worked with a much narrower palette, relying mainly on a quartet of the four principals for each section or the entire string orchestra. The effect, at times, was coagulated; even with peerless playing from the musicians and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violinist Eriko Sato’s supple leadership.

The treat of the night was Stephanie Chase’s arrangement of de Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas” — “Seven Popular Spanish Songs.” De Falla originally wrote the seven songs for violin and piano. Over the years, however, composers have made arrangements for various instruments and even orchestra. Chase explained that for her arrangement she went back to the original piano and violin score. She wanted to work from the material fresh.

Chase let responsibility for the vocal part move lithely around the ensemble. Because the original version of the piece is for violin and piano, I suspect Chase felt liberated to try new combinations of instruments not possible with the Schumann or Prokofiev quartets which have defined parts for each instrument except for the double bass.

For eight seasons, The American String Project has given Northwest audiences a chance to hear chamber music favorites in a new light through Barry Lieberman’s often-inventive arrangements. As Lieberman readily admitted, reaching a satisfying result with an arrangement isn’t always easy. Arrangements are fraught with challenges, including what to do with the bass. Top-shelf playing and generous ensemble work may have buttressed each arrangement, but Schumann’s third string quartet still missed the mark in its arranged form. Lieberman’s early arrangement of Prokofiev’s second quartet was a winner as was Chase’s approach to de Falla’s “Seven Popular Spanish Songs.”

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