As a Conductor of community and youth volunteer orchestras for over 40 years, I’ve often had to grapple with the question of utilizing arrangements/abridgements for amateur musicians who may not possess the technical skills to address some of the original compositions of the acknowledged masters.
Some people recognize the necessity and advantages of the many decent arrangements that are available. Others feel that composers are compromised by the efforts to simplify their music 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 which cannot be effectively managed by members of an ensemble only produces insecurities and discouragement which will dampen the enthusiasm of the musicians. And, when programming original works, certain composers will inevitably be omitted from 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 in the 1990’s when the late Gustav Meier was conducting. He had masterfully put together an edit of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony to conform to the time restraint of the music festival. 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, he wrote out 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 was sometimes forced to incorporate “cuts” to eliminate sections of a piece that were just never going to sound good enough for a performance. It is a challenge to do so without butchering the harmonic development of a composition, but it does give the appearance of tackling an “original” work.
My earliest conducting experience was with a community orchestra which 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 era 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 just too difficult for many of the members of my orchestra. So, the compromise for me was student arrangements. This eliminated the problem of transpositions since the arrangements were always scored for the standard of French horns in F, B-flat trumpets and clarinets, and bass-clef trombones. Everyone got to play, and I could program shortened versions of exciting works by composers like Tchaikovsky or Mahler that the group would otherwise never be able to address.
I quickly learned that I needed to peruse a score of an arrangement before ordering it. 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 tune. But I soon learned names like Merle Isaac, Vernon Leidig, Calvin Custer, and Sandra Dackow could usually be relied upon to do an acceptable job of capturing the essence of a masterwork without compromising it too badly.
I recently listened to an old recording of that first orchestra of mine 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 and which the ensemble could never manage in its original form, but it captured the spirit of Mahler and incorporated many of the techniques that so define his music. And the entire orchestra enjoyed rehearsing and performing it. The audience also received it with enthusiasm.
On one occasion I remember integrating an arrangement of Franz Lizst’s Les Preludes with portions of the original work to construct a “meatier” and more satisfying version of the piece. I would encourage such a creative approach when working with a disparate group. Inevitably there was always some faking going on in our string section, 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. “Don’t mess it up for the others by playing things loudly that you haven’t mastered.” Discretion IS the better part of valor when playing in a large ensemble!
Later on, with auditioned groups, I was able to program original works, but still had to address the dilemma of keeping it interesting for the brass and percussion players. Luck’s Music Library now offers “standard transpositions” of trumpet and clarinet parts to many masterworks, so that concern can be effectively dealt with if your musicians don’t own a plethora of instruments in different keys or have the ability to transpose on sight. I found that an isolated movement of a symphony, or a concert overture or suite was usually adequate for both the time restraints and the technical challenges. There was 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 was always judicious about such alterations and concerned for preserving what I perceived to be the artistic integrity of the overall work.
Sometimes an ambitious musician would take it upon themselves to transpose a trumpet or clarinet part to an original work, but while I appreciated such initiative, I was often skeptical and usually checked their work before letting them use it in rehearsal.
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 one of their orchestras 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 and I had the luxury of turning to composers like Chris Brubeck who were willing to tailor their work to the limited abilities of the orchestra, but those situations were rare and always a financial consideration for the sponsoring organization.
In the end, every orchestra director has to find their own way. But keeping the 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.
-Richard Brooks, 2022
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May 3, 2022 at 03:13 PM · I'm fairly sure that no arranger has ever destroyed all copies of the original, nor removed the composer's name from the programme notes. A win-win situation.