A journey worth taking: Maureen Nelson arranges Enesco’s Octet
At the turn of the 20th century, 18-year-old George Enesco composed his massive String Octet. It was a labor of love that combines massive power with aching fragility. Now, the SPCO will be presenting it in an arrangement tailored specifically to the ensemble.
Enesco, often likened to Mozart, started composing at the age of five and two years later became the youngest person to attend the Vienna Conservatory. “George Enesco really identified himself as a composer, so you wonder why we don’t know more of his music?” violinist Maureen Nelson asked rhetorically. “Because he was so dang good at playing the violin and piano that he was constantly on tour! We decided to pair this Octet with 18-year-old Mozart’s Symphony No. 29. Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances opens the program to evoke the folk music that would have surrounded Enesco as a child.”
When asked to describe the piece, Maureen released a “Wow!” She has taken up the huge task of arranging the Octet for the orchestra’s full string section.
“I can’t say that it’s ‘easy listening,’ but it’s really worth it once you’ve taken the journey!”
“It kind of traverses a lot of different feelings,” Maureen went on. “It’s grand, it’s epic, it’s breathless but also intimate and exotic. There are moments that are so thorny and intensely volcanic I kind of want them to stop, and right when I’ve almost had enough, it changes to something totally different, totally unexpected. I can’t say that it’s ‘easy listening,’ but it’s really worth it once you’ve taken the journey!” Like a dense work of literature, the piece alludes to the four previous “traditional” movements of music while still paving the way for Modernism that was just around the corner.
Enesco himself once said that he wore himself out “trying to make work a piece divided into four segments of such length that each of them was likely at any moment to break. An engineer launching his first suspension bridge over a river could not feel more anxiety than I felt when I set out to darken my paper.” When it was meant to first premiere, even the conductor thought it was too risky and, as a result, did not premiere until a decade later under Enesco’s baton. So how did it look for Maureen as the arranger?
It is the struggle that makes it all the more gratifying for her. “It is indeed a long piece – I love the fact that he himself struggled with it too. These challenges often make for a much more satisfying end product.”
To fit with a larger cast of players, Maureen explained that, “inevitably, some of the optimal tempos will have to be a touch slower, so I tried to make sure that there were enough changes in texture so that it wouldn’t feel arduous. I’m really excited to hear the epic moments with double strings plus bass!”
The most difficult part proved to be in choosing where to use solo rather than tutti (meaning “all together” in Italian) and vice versa, as the tutti sections, surprisingly, are often much quieter than the solos. “Conversely, a solo [in this piece] can be very loud – especially with the opportunity to put a personal stamp on the phrase, so I tried to keep that in mind with my arrangement,” said Maureen.
“. . . I feel like this is going to be an incredibly memorable concert. I’ll certainly be giving it my one hundred and fifty percent!”
In recent years, arrangements of this nature have been growing in popularity. As a world-leading chamber orchestra, the SPCO is proud to be an example of deep collaboration and creative, experimental spirit. “I love the fact that SPCO embraces new challenging endeavors! I’m nervous, but I feel like this is going to be an incredibly memorable concert. I’ll certainly be giving it my one hundred and fifty percent!”
A free live video stream of this program will take place on Saturday, February 15, 2020 at 8:00pm CST. For more information, visit our Concert Library here.