Some thoughts from Rafi on retooling the Enecscu Octet for string orchestra!
It's Wednesday evening, and A Far Cry has just finished our first rehearsal for this weekend's program. The repertoire is new enough to be exciting and a little surprising, but not alarmingly so - almost all of us have performed this program in slightly different form last week, partially (mostly) at Kneisel Hall in Maine, and partially at the Hatch Shell in Boston. The Enescu Octet is the big challenge of the concert - the mountain to climb. Even with two performances already under our belt, there's still a lot of maintenance to be done, and a lot of tricky corners to explore. It's a massive undertaking, epic in scope and ambition, and we can't wait to have the chance to share it with our audience.
As the arranger for the Enescu, this concert is particularly exciting for me. On the surface, there may not seem to be much intervention required in the transposition of string octet to string orchestra. Enescu writes simply, “This work can be played with a full string orchestra on condition that certain singing parts be entrusted to soloists.” And certainly the majority of my decisions fell into the category of where to use one player, and where to use a section. Marking a line to be played by a solo player can highlight a moment of dramatic individuality or create one of especial intimacy. In one particular moment, I brought the group down to a solo octet not to soften the texture, but to intensify it by creating a more focused sound - a climactic moment which is eclipsed moments later when the rest of the group comes crashing gleefully in.
I also needed to engage in a little bit of subtle rebalancing in places due to the particular numbers of our group forces - as of Season 11, A Far Cry is essentially double string octet, minus one cello, plus one violin and two double basses. When we're playing traditional repertoire for string orchestra or string quartet, the difference between five first violins and three cellos is well within conventional parameters of balancing (numerically speaking) towards the top; pretty much any standard orchestra will have more violins than cellos. Splitting our group into eight parts, however, you end up with three players in one of the violin sections, and one player in one of the cello sections - and the acoustic difference between three players and one is quite a bit more noticeable. In the case of the cellos, of course, the basses are always there to help out (thank you, basses!) - but not all cello parts work well on bass, and while some moments in the Enescu invite reinforcement with the lower octave, others politely request otherwise. So a little bit of part switching in places was helpful to smooth over some of these numerical irregularities. (Because of this, there are actually eleven different string parts in my arrangement, which overlap the eight distinct voices of the octet in different ways.)
What, in fact, to do with the basses was the other big consideration in preparing this arrangement - each moment in the piece was a new opportunity to have the basses double the first or second cello line, either an octave lower or at the same pitch, either one or both of them, or simply not to play at all. In some places, it was more effective to have the basses simplify one of the cello parts down to its root structure rather than play every note.
Putting the arrangement of the Enescu together was wonderful and intense and a little crazy - I had to go from 0 (knowing nothing about the piece) to 60 (having eleven performance-ready parts) in fairly short order! Here are a couple of the the lessons I (re)learned along the way.
Your first instinct is usually the best. Unless it's terrible.
Before I sat down for a serious exploration of the score with determination and coffee, I did a little casual listening on the drive back from my summer festival. Somehow the movements came up in the wrong order on my playlist, and so the first notes of the piece that I heard were the opening strains of the third movement, doleful and otherworldly, vacillating every measure between major and minor tonality. Immediately I knew how I wanted to present this theme: alternating the inner and outer ring of the ensemble, with the major on the inside - slightly closer to the listener spatially, visually, and aurally - and the minor on the outside, subtly more distant and less visible to the audience. When I sat down to map things out more specifically, however, I came fairly quickly to the conclusion that alternating these groups every bar and every tonal change would start to feel a little heavy-handed, possibly to the point of seasickness. Expanding the cycle to two bars, however, creates a little more continuity, gives each of the ensembles a little time to settle into the sound, and ensures that the alternation of subgroups doesn't happen so many times as to become tedious. (It also lines up nicely with the two-bar repeating cycle in the bass - much more organic.) This was my first concrete idea in the piece, and it's still my favorite moment in the arrangement.
Not all of my first impressions were so successful. Initially, I toyed with the idea of breaking the first theme up antiphonally, with the two sides of the group egging each other on. I also considered using a couple of key players to emphasize structural pitches in the theme to add a bit of dimension to the phrase:
But ultimately this kind of partitioning of the theme felt more than a little tawdry. In the end, it made sense to leave the shaping of the line to the deft artistry of the ensemble.
Proofread until you can't. But allow yourself happy little accidents.
Because almost all of the players switch back and forth between different parts at various times, I had to do a lot of (digital) cutting and pasting. It's easy if you're not careful in such operations to repeat sections inadvertently, or to accidentally eliminate measures entirely. My greatest worry during this process was that I would bring parts to the first rehearsal, the group would sit down to read them, and everyone would have a different number of total measures. As our initial reading devolved into chaophony, everyone would turn to me and sigh disappointedly. Fortunately, that didn't happen - I did indeed botch a few of my part splices, and I caught them all in relatively short order. I checked and doublechecked and recounted measures until I couldn't count straight. But I still missed a few minor details.
One such detail made itself evident at our first rehearsal, at a moment in the slow movement where the two cello parts had traded roles: the first cellos were plunking along on the bass line, while the second cellos had a little melodic gesture higher up. I realized that I had made a notation in my practice score to switch the basses over to the first part, but had neglected to actually make that change in the parts. I quickly scribbled a note to myself - “FIX BASSES BEFORE 50!!” but as the reading went on, I realized that I actually really liked the way this mistake sounded: the delightfully slurpy envelopment of the bass line by the subterior doubling of the melodic gesture veils the sound of the group in a very pleasing way. I left the distribution of the basses as-is and it's now one of my other favorite moments.
Less is more. But more is still the most.
One of the trickiest things about working on a piece of this dimension is managing the pacing. That's certainly true for all of us as performers, and it was likewise true for me as arranger. There were a lot of fussy little decisions to make throughout, but there were also long swaths of music (like pretty much the entire fourth movement!) that I left entirely untouched apart from bass/cello redeployments. This was partly because the sweeping, slightly maniacal waltz that is the fourth movement lent itself so well to orchestral fullness, and partly because I wanted the overall arc of the entire piece to have as its ultimate goal the glory of the entire ensemble playing continuously. I love the moments of solo shadings and textural thinning - but, when all's said and done, there's nothing like the sound of eighteen players pouring their hearts out, united in purpose and transfigured by the joy of making music together.