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Goldberg Variations



Arranged for oboe, English horn, and bassoon

Program note for Premiere Performance, Oct 2020


Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a piece for a lifetime - the more one delves into it the more secrets it reveals - endlessly it seems.  I’ve had a unique opportunity to discover the piece through the process of arranging it, and of preparing my own part, all of which has been challenging and immensely rewarding.   Part of the greatness and mystery of the Goldberg Variations lies in its adaptability to interpretation and even instrumentation.  Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this piece isn’t simply playing it correctly - it’s deciding what “correctly” even is - and there is no one right answer, rather, numerous possibilities.   As I worked on arranging the adagio movement, I thought that this enigmatic melody was created for the oboe, the instrument’s character perfect for the movement’s dark and twisting chromaticism.  Yet when I began to practice the adagio, I found that to make it sound convincing was much more difficult than I had ever imagined.  After much searching, I arrived at an interpretation that was nothing like my original ideas.   


The Goldberg Variations, originally for harpsichord, has been transcribed numerous times for various instruments, however to my knowledge this is the first arrangement for oboe, English horn and bassoon.   Our three instruments have a similarity of tone colour that allows us to blend seamlessly, and yet sound different enough that it’s possible to clearly hear our individual interweaving lines.  It’s a combination of instruments that brings out the beauty and satisfaction of Bach’s sliding harmonies, as well as revealing the genius of his imitative counterpoint.   My basic task as an arranger was to divide the voices of the keyboard original amongst the three instruments, and it was often obvious which instrument should play which line.  Sometimes though there was more than one solution, and choosing creatively, so as to capture and magnify the character of the original, was essential; this is what makes a successful arrangement.  A few of the movements of the Goldberg Variations are for four or even five voices.  Using only three notes at once, I strove to arrange these movements in way that sounds complete and true to Bach.  


Bach had a deep appreciation for double reed instruments, and wrote some of his most beautiful music for them - at times haunting, other times uplifting and joyous, his obligato arias for oboe, oboe da caccia (which is now often played on the English horn) and oboe d’amore are some of the most meaningful compositions in our repertoire.  So  this arrangement of Bach’s music seems, and sounds, natural.  In my selection of variations I sought to maintain the dramatic arc of the original, and to include those movements which are landmarks along the route by which we travel away from the Aria, and finally return home.   


After what feels like a long time away from performing, it is thrilling to be making music together again, and to share with you Bach’s deeply moving, transporting musical journey - The Goldberg Variations. 


Arranged for flute, oboe, violin, viola, and cello

In 2012, for my mother’s birthday, we decided to throw a huge surprise party with all of her friends, my friends, our out of town relatives, all of her favourite foods -  the works.  Part of the surprise was that in the middle of the party we would play a house concert in my parents dining room, the only room in that house not completely full of books! We planned a great program with performances by old friends, but I thought we needed something brand new and exciting for the grand finale.  So I began working on an arrangement for chamber ensemble of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.  I had recently moved to Winnipeg and didn’t have a piano or even any music notation software, so I wrote the entire thing out by hand, using only a miniature score as my reference.  I was still copying out the parts on the flight to Toronto for the party - and no one was more surprised than I was when we played it through for the first time, and it really worked!  My friends played beautifully, as always, and the performance was a big success, but afterwards the manuscript collected dust for nearly a decade, until recently when I finally typeset and edited it in preparation for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra’s September 2021 chamber music concert. 


Angelica Beltà


Arranged for oboe, English horn, and bassoon 
Commissioned by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra with assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts

Program note for Premiere Performance, March 2022


I have always enjoyed Renaissance music, from the time when it was first introduced to me in my high school music history classes.  My friends and I, having newly discovered the music of Palestrina, Josquin, and Machaut, would walk down the middle of our street at lunch hour, singing Renaissance motets at the top of our lungs. We played masque dances at our school’s Renaissance fair; I even attempted to make a shawm, with much assistance from my father, and a how-to book of ancient wind instruments.   


Recently there has been a re-renaissance of Renaissance music, and it is more popular than ever.  However, even today most performances and recordings of Renaissance music are on period instruments.  But ancient wind instruments, certainly not without their charms, are also limited in many ways.  So it is both unusual, and I think magical, to play this very old music on modern instruments, and to make use of all of the great range of expression, technical virtuosity, and control, that they allow.


My main inspiration for this piece has been Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances.  These are transcriptions of Italian Renaissance lute music which Respighi, who was also a musicologist (one would have to be, I imagine, to sift through dusty 16th century manuscripts in tablature, in search of hidden gems) wove and expanded into three gorgeous suites for chamber orchestra.  They are works of genius. 


I decided that rather than arrange Respighi’s work, I would indulge in my own love of seeking out hidden gems, and start where Respighi did, by choosing different Renaissance pieces, and creating my own suite.  I have used music by numerous composers, and I’ve taken the liberty of combining music originally for lute, with motets for voice, songs, and anonymous instrumental music.  



The title Angelica Beltà or “Angelic Beauty” comes from the opening piece in my arrangement, a ballata by Francesco Landini.  Landini’s music here is the beginning of an odyssey: “Let me tell you a tale of many years ago…” The suite travels through France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, from music piped by mountain shepherds, to dances at village weddings and royal courts, to echoing cathedrals.  It is my hope that as you listen, you will also find yourself in this ancient world, really not so distant after all. 

Formed out of a lifelong friendship, the Pifa Duo, with cellist Sybil Shanahan, has been a source of great music making for more than half of my life.  Over the years we have played countless concerts and recitals, and covered a vast range of repertoire.  Initially, as young students, we played pieces that we could find in music libraries in Toronto, but as our abilities on our instruments increased, so did our desire to explore new possibilities, and expand beyond the existing oboe and cello repertoire.  With Sybil’s input, I began to create arrangements for us to play.  We have by now performed most of them many times.  They include, among others: 



 Arranged for oboe and cello



Arranged for oboe d’amore and cello



Arranged for English Horn and cello


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