Non-cloth masks (N95, KN95, KF94 or surgical masks), will be required to attend SPCO Neighborhood Series concerts (all venues except the Ordway).

A new life for Bach’s Goldberg Variations

James Ferree

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations will find new life this spring in the world premiere of SPCO Principal Horn James Ferree’s arrangement for chamber orchestra, commissioned and performed by The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. 

“The idea to arrange Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the full orchestra came from SPCO violinist Daria Adams,” said Ferree. “She came to me with this idea of how to include the whole orchestra as a way to feature everybody and also bring to life this great masterpiece … Back in 2019, little did I know it would become my COVID baby.” 

Originally titled “Keyboard Practice consisting of an Aria with Thirty Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals Prepared for the Enjoyment of Music Lovers,” the variations are technical showpieces for the solo keyboardist. It became clear to Adams and Ferree that there was music enough for each chamber orchestra instrument to have its own place in the score. “The more we looked at it, the more we saw so much potential in terms of color, contrast, character, virtuosity, song. It just seemed to have the SPCO’s name written all over it,” Ferree said.  

Throughout the loneliness of 2020, Ferree found solace in arranging the 80-some-odd pages (but, really, who’s counting past page 50?) of dense composition. He was transported, through each line, back to rehearsal, imagining how his fellow SPCO musicians would tackle the technical challenges and rich emotion in store. The more he arranged, the more he felt reconnected with his colleagues. 

Ferree described the process as “a satisfying exercise … to pick Bach’s brain, to take his music apart and put it back together again, which is really what arranging is.” Whether closely studying with a pencil in hand, listening to masterful performance, or playing it yourself, he sees Bach’s music “as a high effort, high reward situation … it is so emotionally rewarding … there’s always something to be found because the composition is so tight, and every note is in its right place.” 

“The most rewarding thing about this project for me is actually very similar to any other week at the SPCO, which is just hearing my colleagues do their thing … They’ve got the Midas touch and tend to turn everything into gold or, in this case, Goldberg.”

—James Ferree, Principal Horn

Finding the deepest inspiration in the dedication and artistry of his colleagues in the SPCO, Ferree said that ultimately “the most rewarding thing about this project for me is actually very similar to any other week at the SPCO, which is just hearing my colleagues do their thing — taking the music and running with it. They’ve got the Midas touch and tend to turn everything into gold or, in this case, Goldberg.” 

Ferree would like to give “a special thank you to a Mister Johann Sebastian for providing an excellent score to work with. My people have reached out to his office for comment, but we have yet to hear Bach.” 

You can enjoy the world premiere of Principal Horn James Ferree’s arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations for Chamber Orchestra in-person April 8–9 at the Ordway Concert Hall in downtown Saint Paul and at-home April 9 during the free live broadcast.