What Barry Lieberman, and the American String Project do – taking well known and sometimes not so well known – pieces for string quartet, quintet and arranging them for an orchestra of fifteen string instruments isn’t new or even that unique. Composers and musicians have always tinkered with their own music and the music of others in this way. Sometimes they improve the product other times they don’t. Just this morning I was listening to Gideon Kremer’s orchestration of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata. I can report, it isn’t an improvement on the original sonata.
What is unique, is that the string project, now in its ninth season, isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. This season alone, five of the six pieces to be performed are new arrangements by Lieberman. The sixth, Johannes Brahms’ String Quintet Op. 111 was first arranged in 2003, but for this season Lieberman went back to his arrangement, adjusting the piece for Sunday’s performance. All in all, Lieberman has created an impressive repertory of sixty arrangements for string orchestra.
For Thursday’s opening night concert, Lieberman proposed a series of contrasting pieces. The first half featured the classically proportioned, proper sounding String Quartet Op. 64 No. 4 of Franz Joseph Haydn; the second half, Dimitri Shostakovich’s jarring, asymmetrical String Quartet Op. 117. While the musical idioms of Haydn and Shostakovich are worlds apart, the pairing worked well because the string quartet was a form important to both composers. Haydn invented the quartet as a musical form while Shostakovich later spent a lifetime pouring his essence into fifteen, 20th century masterpieces for string quartet.
In a departure from previous seasons, Lieberman and the orchestra’s musicians walked the audience through a series of examples from each piece. The four leaders of each section (first violin, second violin, viola, and cello) played snippets from the original quartet. These examples were immediately followed by the same music played in the string orchestra arrangement.
Listening to the comparisons, it is amazing how much the demeanor of a piece of music can depend on the instrumental arrangement a composer chooses. In string quartet form, the Haydn, is an enjoyable but unmemorable work. Beefed up with a double bass and fourteen other strings, the quartet’s jaunty allegro and affecting adagio assume a serious posture that demands repeated listening. The string orchestra arrangement’s effective, touching moments are the result of Lieberman juxtaposing massed strings with selected, discrete solos from the principal players. Lieberman’s arrangement enticed virtuosic playing from principal players, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Your heart would need to be made of stone not to have loved Joan Blackman’s splendid solo played against a backdrop of pizzicato strings in the minuet.
Not to be outdone, the Shostakovich quartet – a brooding, taunting work that saves its most emotionally varied, demanding music for the finale – came off as impressively as the Haydn. In his fifteen quartets, Shostakovich presents music of deep feeling, emotional power, and personal significance. For these reasons, arrangements of the composer’s string quartets are more common but by no means standard. A few have even entered the repertory as chamber symphonies – the most popular being the Op. 83 and Op. 110 quartets. Here, Lieberman’s arrangement provided incisive, taut solos for each of the principal instruments (Frank Almond, first violin; Arek Tesarczyk, cello; Adam Smyla, viola; and Alexander Kerr, second violin.) Lieberman even included one for double bass too. But all of the musicians played with furrowed intensity, giving the audience plenty of reason to remember Shostakovich’s quartet and Lieberman’s arrangement for months to come.
There are two more American String Project performances. Tonight’s features string quartets by Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Sunday’s concert, a matinee, provides audiences a different glimpse at Giuseppe Verdi’s seldom heard String Quartet and reintroduces Brahms’ String Quintet Op. 111, in a newly revised arrangement for string orchestra.