Arrangements and Transcriptions 901
At the 901 Club............conductor Henry Lewis was holding court.......
My good friend and colleague, tuba virtuoso and conductor Roger Bobo, has frequently opined that some of the most stimulating discussions in the music world have taken place in venues like cocktail lounges or informal social gatherings, usually when such events were directly related to rehearsals, performances, schools, seminars, conventions, and the like.
At the 901 Club, a USC campus hangout (read: “dive”) noted for beer and great hamburgers during the late 1950s, (the late) conductor Henry Lewis was holding court following a chamber music rehearsal he had coached. Present were some of the student performers from the rehearsal, a few composition students, and their professor whose work had been rehearsed.
For some inexplicable reason, (since the rehearsal involved none) the gabfest turned to the subject of transcriptions, beginning with a question about one of Leopold Stokowski’s now famous/infamous transcriptions for orchestra of a Bach organ work that had been performed at a recent concert. The modern day authentic “Early Music” performance practices movement was then in its infancy; so, questions regarding such issues were just beginning to surface in academic circles.
The consensus opinion was that the organ works of Bach are particularly well suited for orchestral (or other) transcriptions because, when written and performed well, they can actually sound better than the original versions. Lewis did, however, did stipulate that such works are rarely played well because it is particularly difficult to produce the types of seamless performances from instrumental ensembles that one would get from a single organist because, and I quote here verbatim, “there are too many cooks in the kitchen.” He further elaborated that, as a general rule, he thought transcriptions of music written for instruments other than keyboards, particularly those including stringed instruments, were strictly a “no-no,” including the works of the same J.S. Bach whose organ works he thought worked so well when rewritten for other instruments. One of his final comments that evening, at least one of the last ones I remember, was that the closer one got to the twentieth century, the more instrument-specific was the music, and that represented yet one more contributing factor to be considered in the arranging/transcribing equation.