Friday, November 30, 2007

The Piano as Orchestra, Part 1 of ?

I wrote yesterday about wishing that Copland had created a better piano reduction for his Clarinet Concerto. It's especially frustrating because the music lends itself well to piano - piano is even prominently featured in the original orchestration; however, the version he created looks more like a study score. The other two works I'm playing on tonight's program, Debussy's Premiere Rhapsody and Lutoslawski's Dance Preludes, were originally written for piano accompaniment, although each was later orchestrated by its composer. Curiously, as wonderfully as Debussy usually writes for the piano, I don't think this is his most idiomatic piano writing either - I would have guessed it was an orchestral reduction if I didn't know otherwise.

I've always been fascinated by piano reductions. Back when I was languishing in ABDdom, I had the ongoing, though unwieldy idea of writing something called "The Piano as Orchestra." (The subtitle would have to be "Fake Your Tutti.") I still hope to tackle it some day, although the book I'd like to write would have a much broader focus than a dissertation. Basically, it would be a way of looking at all of my favorite music & meaning topics: translation, identity, faking, constraints. More specifically, it would allow me to explore one of my favorite musical activities - the sometimes Walter Mitty-like experience of pretending that 10 fingers and 88 keys can do what a full orchestra can do.

One of my favorite iPod playlists is full of various tracks that fall under this "piano as orchestra" umbrella: Beethoven symphonies arranged by Liszt; many other works, including The Rite of Spring, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Bolero (!) arranged for two pianos; Alkan's unbelievable Concerto for Solo Piano, meant to imply piano vs. orchestra (I have to write about this piece soon); Glenn Gould's astonishing La Valse, etc. It's not that I don't like orchestral color, but sometimes the B&W version provides a nice change of pace. When Strauss orchestrated his most perfect song, "Morgen," he logically handed the melody from the original piano accompaniment to a solo violin. And yet, to me, the effect is sickly sweet and no more satisfying than a colorized version of a film classic. The way that melody floats in the piano version can't be improved. (Although it's an interesting philosophical question to wonder how I'd feel if the orchestra version had come first.)

I'll close with an example that is both clearly not an ideal transcription and that also reminds me how much fun I have faking my way through a reduction without really trying to be perfect. I wish I could improvise like a jazz musician, but this video kind of illustrates what improvisation means to me, a good sight-reader who doesn't always like to practice. For my daughter' 4th birthday party several years ago, we decided to have a puppet party in which the children would make little stick puppets. Somehow, at the eleventh hour we decided also to put on a puppet show of Peter and the Wolf; my wife, my sister and I constructed the puppets the night before and then performed an abridged version of Prokofiev,with the two of them working the puppets and me at the piano.

Now given that this work is designed to show off the varied colors of an orchestra, it's obviously odd to pianocize it, but Prokofiev's music actually holds up pretty well that way. The tunes themselves are so good and full of character, and Prokofiev's music is just naturally pianistic. I'd like to emphasize that I did not practice much, so not every note goes where it's supposed to go, but I did have fun. The version below was actually shot after the party with just my daughter as the audience - we wanted one more crack at it, although there are still some technical snafus, especially with the annoying rope that appeared too early. (I tried to edit that out in the video, not always successfully.) Unfortunately, the balance is a little heavy towards the piano, so the narration gets drowned out occasionally, but you probably know the basics of the story. Honestly, I enjoy this as much for the amusement provided by the puppets and the puppetry as by Prokofiev and the piano, but polished it's not.

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