Reimagining The Brandenburg Concertos

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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 in 1720 and use a rich variety of instruments.

The multiyear New Brandenburg Project culminates in Orpheus’s 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.

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 on 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 explained. “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, 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’s 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 lots 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 said. Hear Theofanidis sing the Bach melodies he incorporated into his work:

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 some ethereal charm. Hear Wagner explain how she incorporated Bach’s name into her Brandenburg:

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,” said Davies. “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 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis is inspired by the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. It attempts to "include everything in music," says Kernis, including "soaring melody, tension, dissonance, drive, relaxation, strong harmony and form." Hear Kernis describe what drives the first movement of his work: