How to make an old work new again
From its premiere in 1938* to the present day, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has been probably the most universally beloved work of American classical music. Through many recordings (the current discography lists 171), its role in many films and TV shows, and of course many concert performances, the Adagio is virtually ubiquitous, one of the very few American classical works to approach household music status. Since its broadcast following the reports of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, the Adagio has assumed the role of America's unofficial music of mourning and remembrance. Barber's Adagio for Strings is more than a work of art; it's an American national treasure. And like all our other national treasures, it requires constant reinterpretation to maintain its relevance over time. How nice, then, for a young group of musicians from overseas to make such a nice contribution to the Adagio's upkeep.
That young group of musicians would be the dog.ma chamber orchestra, founded in Germany in 2004. dog.ma chamber orchestra? Here we go again with the funny orthography, just like in my last blog post. But I guess nowadays, a group has to do something to stand out...or is it to fit in? Anyhow, here's part of dog.ma's mission statement:
do.gma stands for an unadulterated approach to classical music that goes beyond a slick, polished aesthetic: one which plays to as wide a consensus as possible. Its perspective is that of a generation of younger artists performing for today’s audiences: faithful to the original music, but also intensively seeking new interpretative possibilities - as has been the case in all periods of musical history.
Let us first thumb our noses at the straw men in the first sentence, unless dog.ma can tell us the name of the groups that espouse a "slick, polished aesthetic," or which don't attempt to play to "as wide a consensus as possible." But after that, this is as good a description as any of what I listen for in new interpretations of old classics. It's what I think these well-worn works desperately need, and don't always get. And it's what I think the dog.ma — straw men, funny orthography and all — delivers big-time on their latest CD.
The CD is called "American Stringbook," and contains five of the best American works for string orchestra. You may preview and download the album here; it's also available to subscribers of Spotify (an essential app for every self-styled music maven). The performances are all absolutely terrific, from the propulsive proto-mimimalism of David Diamond's Rounds for String Orchestra (coming up Wednesday afternoon on WFCR), to the suave sheen dog.ma gives to New England romantic Arthur Foote's Suite in E, Op. 63 (the Boston Symphony premiered this work and later recorded it under Serge Koussevitzky), to the bittersweet elegance of Barber's Serenade, Op. 1 (a most impressive composing debut) to the all-American brusqueness and rhythmic energy of William Schuman's Symphony for Strings (recently performed also by the Springfield Symphony). And they save the best for last, a performance of Barber's Adagio that does the near-impossible: getting me to hear this work almost as if for the first time.
How do they do that? Primarily by minimizing vibrato, the rapid wavering of pitch and intensity that normally adds richness to a string section's sound. With their relatively straight sound, dog.ma emphasizes the archaic quality of the Adagio, playing it like a modern equivalent of an Elizabethan viol consort (check out this example). It also changes the expressive arc of the piece; I'll leave it to you, once you heard it, to describe its emotional effect it has on you. For me, it was unlike anything I've felt while listening to this work, or even while singing its choral version, Barber's Agnus Dei.
For a modern string section to do without vibrato is nothing new; indeed, it's a standard, if controversial feature of "historical" performances of romantic and even early 20th-century works by such conductors as John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington. For the dog.ma to have done the Adagio this way for purposes of historic authenticity would have been wrong anyway, since the 1942 recording of the Adagio by Arturo Toscanini (who premiered the work in 1938) and the NBC Symphony features vibrato and other "romantic" effects, a fact conceded by a "historical" group, the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, by doing the same in their "authentic" recording. But the dog.ma has something beside historical recreation in mind here, something much more valuable: taking an old work and, while remaining faithful to it, making it new. Just like they told us in their mission statement above. Kudos to them; we'll be listening for more.
*Barber's Adagio is the composer's arrangement for string orchestra of the central Adagio movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11 of 1936.