Musicians Gave Birth to My Goldberg Variations
Some years ago I surprised my wife Ulla on her birthday by writing a chamber ensemble arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The principal players of the Toronto Symphony gathered at our house to rehearse it in preparation for an evening performance. (Violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn, harp and percussionist playing vibraphone and marimba.) Once the musicians and party guests had filled our living room to capacity, Ulla showed up with a friend. She arrived blindfolded and was put in a front row seat with a copy of the score in her lap.
As I began conducting, a friend removed Ulla’s blindfold and she laughed in delight. She overlooked the awkwardness of our performance as we struggled through my quite challenging arrangement, designed to show off the virtuoso chamber music skills of these principal players. As it turned out, two hours rehearsal was not enough, especially with the time needed to correct the inevitable mistakes in the parts at a premiere performance. But everybody still seemed to enjoy themselves as we banged our way through the 18 selected variations. Afterwards we all walked to a nearby Italian restaurant for a birthday feast.
I’ll admit that my arrangement didn’t find many takers for the next 10 years. In a couple of performances musicians struggled to get it right, and I began to think my arrangement was a dud.
Then last year the University of Central Oklahoma invited me as resident composer. In preparation for my residency, my host and wind ensemble director Brian Lamb suggested a list of my works he wanted to perform — one was the Goldberg arrangement. I warned Brian against it, envisioning myself having to take a bow at an embarrassing performance. But he was adamant.
I was amazed and pleasantly surprised at the rehearsal with the Faculty Chamber Collegium. They even played two variations I had especially warned Brian against because of their tricky hocket rhythms. And the performance a few days later was astonishing. They made a recording — Colgrass Horizons, Equilibrium Records (EQ 118) — and the piece now stands as one of the highlights of my composing career. I finally felt vindicated as an orchestrator of this classic piece.
I can’t say enough about how much a good performance means to a composer. I was proud of my Goldberg orchestration at first, but sank into disappointment and self-criticism when hearing the first few attempts at playing it. The Oklahoma musicians reminded me how good performers complete the creation of a work. Without them, a piece is still unborn. In Oklahoma they devoted some 26 hours of rehearsal time to it, which brought out the finesse and verve that I had originally intended — and the accuracy.
Now if only another chamber orchestra could find that kind of rehearsal time to program the piece, it could get another superb performance. Here’s a link to the first review of the recording.