As a conductor of community and youth orchestras for over 40 years, I’ve had to grapple with the question of utilizing arrangements for amateur musicians who may not possess the technical skills to perform all the requirements of an original composition.
Some people recognize the necessity and advantages of the many decent arrangements that are available. Others feel that composers are compromised when their music is simplified and that only unadulterated works should be rehearsed and performed. I see both sides of this argument, but the pragmatic reality, more recognized by those in the educational system, is that any program needs to be tailored to the abilities of the ensemble.
Difficult music that cannot be effectively managed by the ensemble can produce insecurity and even dampen the enthusiasm of the musicians. That is why certain composers are inevitably omitted from the repertoire solely for their technical challenges. The result is a lopsided perspective of classical music, emphasizing early periods and avoiding more contemporary ones.
I remember attending a rehearsal of the All-Connecticut High School Orchestra when the late Gustav Meier was conducting. He had masterfully edited Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 to conform to time constraints. Thorny sections were avoided while thematic material from all the movements was utilized. At one point, a principal wind player struggled with an exposed solo. Meier patiently tried to coax and encourage the player, but it was of no use. During a break, Meier wrote a simplified version of the solo which the young musician had no difficulty playing beautifully. I realized that Meier had effectively created his own abridged arrangement of the original work.
In my own experience, I’ve been forced to incorporate “cuts” to eliminate sections of a piece that were just never going to be performance-ready. It is a challenge to do so without butchering the piece’s harmonic development, but it does give the sense of tackling an “original” work.
Keeping the Entire Ensemble Engaged
My earliest conducting experience was with a community orchestra that had an open-door, no audition policy. The result was a wide disparity of musical abilities and an arduous task of programming. I didn’t want to lose good players who were turned off by simple music, but I also didn’t want developing students to be discouraged and quit. I thought about programming Classical pieces by Mozart and Haydn because they were more manageable from a technical standpoint. But they presented challenges of musicality and often left entire sections of the orchestra, particularly the brass and percussion sections, with little or nothing to do.
The Romantic repertoire, with its expanded instrumental ranges and more sophisticated harmony and rhythm, was simply too difficult for many members of my orchestra. So, the compromise was student arrangements which, for starters, eliminated the problem of transpositions for the winds and brass. Everyone got to play, and I could program shortened versions of exciting works by composers that the group would otherwise not be able to perform, such as Tchaikovsky or Mahler.
I quickly learned that I needed to peruse arrangements before ordering them. There are some pathetic and overly simplistic arrangements out there. In a lot of cases, keys and rhythms are so watered down as to render the selected work virtually unrecognizable except for its most famous theme(s). But I soon learned that arrangers such as Merle Isaac, Vernon Leidig, Calvin Custer, and Sandra Dackow could usually be relied upon to capture the essence of a masterwork with few artistic compromises.
I recently listened to a recording of my first orchestra and was impressed by our performance of the Finale to Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. It was an abridged arrangement of a work that I loved – a work which the ensemble could never manage in its original form. The performance captured the spirit of Mahler and incorporated many of the techniques that define his music. And the entire orchestra enjoyed rehearsing and performing it. The audience also received it with enthusiasm.
First, Do No Harm
I once took an arrangement of Franz Lizst’s Les Preludes and added portions of the original work to construct a “meatier” version of the piece. Inevitably, that meant there was some faking going on in the string sections, but I always promoted the idea of Do No Harm. “If you can’t play something well, leave it out and jump in when you can,” I’d often say from the podium. Discretion IS the better part of valor when playing in a large ensemble!
With auditioned groups, I program original works, but I still need to keep things interesting for the brass and percussion players. Luck’s Music Library offers “standard transpositions” of trumpet and clarinet parts of many masterworks. I’ve also programmed isolated movements of a symphony along with Overtures and Suites. There is also the option of having some first violins play extremely high passages an octave lower or writing out cello tenor clef parts in bass clef or opting for a lower octave. I’ve always been judicious about such alterations and concerned for preserving what I perceived to be the artistic integrity of the overall work.
The Question of Student Arrangements
The youth orchestra I conducted at the end of my career prided itself on the quality of their program and discouraged student arrangements, except for their beginning ensembles. I found the blanket disregard for arrangements to be limiting, and it made the task of programming much more difficult. After leading a youth orchestra for 16 years, I began to feel programming burnout. I felt that I’d programmed nearly every conceivable piece for the level of musician I was assigned to work with, on multiple occasions. It became increasingly difficult to locate appropriate pieces that conformed to the “original music” ideal. On a few occasions I was able to commission new compositions that were tailored to the limited abilities of the orchestra. But those situations were rare and came with a financial burden.
In the end, every orchestra director has to find their own way. But keeping members of your ensemble engaged and involved in active participation should always be the goal. Frustration and discouragement will not generate the kind of musical unity that a developing group relies on. Sitting idle while counting rests will not endear any amateur musician to a group. And a percussionist who is Tacet for entire pieces will most likely find another activity to participate in. If you can provide a taste of a great piece of music literature without desecrating it or alienating many members of your ensemble, then, in my mind, you’ve accomplished a great deal. And if, like Gustav Meier, you have to adapt the music somewhat to preserve a performance standard, then by all means do it!
Programming for amateurs will always present a unique series of challenges but, when it works, the smiles and the music and the compliments will be just the kind of reinforcement we all need to sustain ourselves in this wonderful endeavor.
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