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Transcriptions and Collaborations, why not mix it up a bit?

Alessio Bax"Bach transcribed"

Some days ago I posted a link on my Facebook page about the upcoming collaboration between a classical pianist and a jazz pianist which I had come across browsing the Internet. The link shows pianists — each an icon in their own right, but coming from entirely different corners of the piano world — playing together in an eminent European concert, the production of which had received a spectacular amount of publicity. There had been very minimal rehearsal time, and the concert was being previewed as a promotional video clip on CNN.

What seemed to me like a decidedly glitzy but still very intriguing venture bringing the worlds of jazz piano and classical music and their respective A-list performers, Herbie Hancock and the inexhaustible Lang Lang, together, served as grounds for some very emotional responses from other well-respected musicians and friends on my Facebook page. Surprised by the vehemence of the comments I received on my post, I felt obliged to give some more thought to the obviously very sensitive issue of crossovers between different types of music.

Called a fusion nightmare and criticized for the absence of sufficient rehearsal time resulting in a mere kissing of rings by some outraged, very poignant voices on my Facebook page, other opinions were of a more moderate nature. Since I love a good philosophical debate, I decided to stay with the issue.

Jeffrey Biegel

Pianist Jeffrey Biegel explained his opinion with his Facebook comment: “It has to be the right combination. I am very careful how I pair myself with jazz, since I am admittedly not a jazz improviser. When it is written out in the score, like in the Concerti by Lalo Schifrin and Keith Emerson, it works absolutely. It’s all a point of ‘know thyself.’ Maybe they will hit it off and do well, who knows.”

So, I am just following arguments regarding the obviously delicate issue of the authenticity of the score and the performer’s commitment to it.

According to Tim Smith’s NPR guide to Classical Music, “… no two interpretations of the same musical score are identical, since every musician brings his own ideas and talent as well as personal understanding to the performance, crafting it according to his taste.” Taste in turn is influenced by zeitgeist and cultural background. The question, as I see it, is where an artist’s obligation to the composer ends and the freedom of the performer starts.

Having been present at the CD release at Le Possion Rouge, the now venerable location of choice for classical music events with a party flavor, I could only marvel at what Gramophone calls Alessio’s “extraordinary pianism.” What also astonished me is the fact that with all the historic varying recreations and reinterpretations of J.S. Bach’s fundamentally genial works, something very new and individual emerged from something familiar and beloved. Alessio Bax’s magnificent pianistic performance brought this new substance to life in its fullest possible expression.

In April of this year, Bax was honored with the annual Avery Fisher Career Grant for 2009, following in the footsteps of violinists Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn, and Gil Shaham — all talented instrumentalists of a young generation of artists showing great potential for solo careers.

What gave the evening at the Poisson Rouge an added dimension, and again brought the differences between the jazz and classical approach to my attention, was Alessio’s idea to invite his friend, jazz pianist Dan Tepfer, who played excerpts of his own rendering of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” adding his jazz improvisations to Bach’s score. (photo: Lucille Chung)

“Finger- twisting” is an interesting choice of words, and a very valid observation, especially when relating to the arranging for piano solo parts of previously different instrumental or even orchestral arrangements.

It is very likely that there will be additional chords, arpeggios, and all kinds of difficult passage work integrated to upscale the piano score. This will be done according to the characteristics of the historically varying taste of the arrangement, burdening the pianist with an additional layer of stylistic interpretation, on top of the originally conceived composition.

Particularly in the case of transcriptions, it certainly depends very much on the presentation of the performer to bring out all the specific characteristics demanded of the “new version” of a piece.

Lucille Chung commented on this process in La Scena Musicale, on the occasion of the release of her CD by XXI Records: “The challenges of playing transcriptions lay in the credibility of the orchestra and the piano part as one, and in preserving the right colors and nuances.”

And she continues:”… also the timing [is essential]. An orchestra is much more ample, vast and takes more sound – so the timing is different from just playing solo parts. I studied the core and the instrumentation to know what should come out each time. It’s important to get the same character as the orchestral piece, to sound like strings here or timpani there, to also make it sound more like a dialogue.”

Transcriptions seem to be meeting a new and popular demand. At the famed Verbier Festival last summer (2009), Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax, who are also married to each other and perform together often, took part in an interesting cooperative performance with Emanuel Ax, as well as pianists J. Quentin, S. Trpceski, N. Goerner and J. Wang. Besides various arrangements for four and six hands piano, like Strauss’ “Radetsky March” and “Trisch-Trash Polka” for six hands, they performed a transcription by M. Wilberg of “Carmen Suite” for four pianos, and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for four pianos. The transcription was by N. Economou, and although I was not able to hear that presentation, I was told that it was most memorable for its elaborate production and the cooperation between the participating pianists who took turns performing.

I also can really relate to what Lucille says about the diversity of musical offerings: “Some musicians can specialize in a composer or style, but I really enjoy how working within one style can make me look at another in a different light. Music transcends its stylistic and historical roots.” And while not all outputs are equally convincing, there is, arguably, a certain relevance to be found in each.

In dealing with the question of how to perform great works, I am really with Allan Kozinn:

A great work can be interpreted innumerable ways, and while some of them add nothing to the unfolding dialogue among a composer, a work, and an audience, it is surprising how many readings yield fresh insights about works that have been kicking around for a couple of hundred years. There is no single, absolute, correct way to play a piece, and although it can be argued that there are plenty of wrong ways, the fact is that an approach that one listener will consider insupportably eccentric may illuminate a work completely for someone else. (The New York Times Essential Library, 2004)


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