Spring For Music: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Originally published on June 13, 2014 10:47 am

Finding a way to bring orchestral music — an art form squarely rooted in conventions of the 19th century — into the modern world represents an essential challenge for orchestras and their administrators. In 2006, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra spearheaded a novel project designed to help bridge past and present: It commissioned six composers to write companion pieces for Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos, works that were completed around 1720 and use a rich variety of instruments.

The multiyear New Brandenburg Project culminates in Orpheus' opening-night concert at Spring for Music, which brings together pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis, Melinda Wagner, Peter Maxwell Davies, Christopher Theofanidis, Stephen Hartke and Paul Moravec. These were all introduced individually in Orpheus programs in recent seasons, but will be played as a group for the first time here.

The one condition in this project was simple: Each composer had to use the same instrumentation as the Bach model. The first installment, Stephen Hartke's A Brandenburg Autumn, features strings plus three oboes, two horns and a sole bassoon, analogous to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Its first movement, "Nocturne: Barcarolle," was inspired by his time living on the lake that borders western Berlin as well as Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg.

"Down by the shore, there was a marina, and from my room I could hear the sounds of the halyards clanking against the masts of the ships," Hartke says. "There was this wonderful tinkling sound like wind chimes, only I thought more beautiful. And I actually tried to imitate the sound of this in the first movement of the piece, using the muted harpsichord."

New York composer Paul Moravec also took inspiration from a place and time — specifically the 1989 reopening of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, and the exhilaration that accompanied that event. His piece Brandenburg Gate evokes the sounds of Berliners tearing down the Berlin Wall.

"In the 3rd movement," he says, "I have the entire string section pitching very loudly in this chaotic, nutty way, and programmatically I associate that with the sound and the image of these chisels and hammers chipping away at the Berlin Wall."

Inspired by the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Christopher Theofanidis' Muse is bursting with baroque references including Bach's cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, which the composer heard when he was very young. And there's a lot of harpsichord: "It's such a fantastic, wonderful, metallic instrument, and I kind of think of it as the eclectic guitar of the Baroque," he says.

Philadelphian composer Melinda Wagner's Little Moonhead, scored for two solo flutes, violin and string orchestra, is written for the same ensemble as Bach's fourth Brandenburg Concerto and features a mix of inventive riffs and ethereal charm.

Peter Maxwell Davies' Sea Orpheus revisits the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with its solo flute, violin and keyboard lines. Other influences include a Gregorian chant, "Tantum Ergo Sacramentum," which is the work's principal theme, and a poem, "Sea Orpheus," by George Mackay Brown.

"I loved this poem," Davies says. "Of course, in Orkney I live surrounded by the sea. I go out of my door and there is the sea, and you're aware of sea sounds the whole time."

Finally, Concerto With Echoes by composer Aaron Jay Kernis is inspired by the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. It attempts to "include everything in music," Kernis says, including "soaring melody, tension, dissonance, drive, relaxation, strong harmony and form."


  • AARON JAY KERNIS - Concerto with Echoes (inspired by Brandenburg No. 6)
  • MELINDA WAGNER - Little Moonhead (inspired by Brandenburg No. 4)
  • SIR PETER MAXWELL DAVIES - Sea Orpheus (inspired by Brandenburg No. 5)
  • CHRISTOPHER THEOFANIDIS - Muse (inspired by Brandenburg No. 3)
  • STEPHEN HARTKE - A Brandenburg Autumn (inspired by Brandenburg No. 1)
  • PAUL MORAVEC - Brandenburg Gate (inspired by Brandenburg No. 2)


(Spring for Music is a collaboration between American Public Media, WQXR and NPR Music.)

Copyright 2017 WQXR-APM. To see more, visit WQXR-APM.


Jeff Lunden has the story.


JEFF LUNDEN: And when Alan Kay, one of the artistic directors of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, was thinking about a commissioning project, Bach was in his mind, too.

ALAN KAY: He's an important figure in just about every musician's life. So, the Brandenburgs, I thought, was a perfect jumping-off point. And so my idea was to get not one but six composers each to write a piece modeled on one of those original Brandenburg concertos.

LUNDEN: In 1721, Bach presented the Margrave of Brandenburg with a manuscript of six works for chamber orchestra, and they all went into his library unplayed. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that the works were discovered and became popular.

KAY: The amazing thing about the original Brandenburgs is the incredible variety, stylistically, instrumentally, in terms of spirit and character over the six pieces.

LUNDEN: So, Kay and Orpheus sought out six composers whose works are equally varied and came up with an eclectic group, which includes three Pulitzer Prize- winners and a British knight of the realm. Kay says each was assigned a Brandenburg to use as a starting point.

KAY: And I said, just take one of those concertos and hang it up on your wall and use it as a model, something to refer to. You don't have to imitate anything. Just see what happens. Just get the juices flowing, and just every now and then peer up at that original and see what happens.

LUNDEN: Composer Christopher Theofanidis, whose pieces have been played by the New York Philharmonic and the Atlanta Symphony, among others, was given the third Brandenburg, a piece he knew well.

CHRISTOPHER THEOFANIDIS: In the first movement, I tried to actually literally have fun with some of the materials in the first movement of Bach Brandenburg 3, you know, the famous tune, the (hums). That line gets kind of turned on its head in my first movement to (hums) and spun out in that way.


LUNDEN: Bach's third Brandenburg and Theofanidis' version, called "Muse," have the very same orchestration: strings and harpsichord.

THEOFANIDIS: I like to think of it as like the electric guitar of the Baroque period. It's this metallic thing that really sounds out, and it was the most fun to kind of figure out a role for that, kind of as a motoric rhythm, as a sense of ornament in the second movement and just kind of the propulsive heart of the piece.


LUNDEN: Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner was given the fourth Brandenburg concerto.


LUNDEN: She says she was thrilled to get the call from Alan Kay offering a commission from Orpheus, but...

MELINDA WAGNER: The Bach part of it was really scary at first, really scary at first. That didn't last very long, but I did some quick thinking, even while I was still on the phone with Alan - how am I going to do this?


WAGNER: Of course, once I got my pencil to the paper, things started to fall together, and I ended up just writing music the way I normally would write music.


LUNDEN: Wagner's piece is called "Little Moonhead." She says she was blown away when she showed up for her first rehearsal with the ensemble. Because Orpheus works without a conductor, its musicians are more prepared than most.

WAGNER: The musicians already owned my piece. They had already sort of taken the ball and they were running with it.


LUNDEN: Composer Aaron Jay Kernis is also a Pulitzer Prize winner. He was offered the sixth Brandenburg.


AARON JAY KERNIS: One of the nice things about it is the Brandenburg 6 was the first Brandenburg I knew as a kid, probably heard it when I was 12 and remember having an old LP. So I had that as a long-standing memory, and it enabled the project just to be that much easier and to find a place from my own past that I could connect to.

LUNDEN: His piece is called "Concerto with Echoes" because Bach's writing in the sixth Brandenburg features instruments playing in close canon, echoing each other. Kernis demonstrates how he uses that idea in his second movement.

JAY KERNIS: Just from the very opening of that, the music in the solo viola is being echoed in the harmony. So I'll just play it with pedal because you'll get an idea of how the instruments basically create reverb by overlapping echoes of the music.


LUNDEN: Kernis' New Brandenburg premiered in October of 2009. Orpheus has been slowly rolling out the pieces for the past five years, but tonight is the very first time all of them will be heard together, says artistic director Alan Kay.

KAY: We gave birth to these pieces. We gave all the first performances. To do them all in one evening is a particularly special experience for all of us.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.