Peter Breiner's arrangements take you from Russia to China and points in between

By Greg Waxberg

Certainly, you know the feeling: a melody you're hearing for the first time captivates you so much that you can't wait to hear it again. Imagine that melody consisting of a violin with orchestra and lasting four or five minutes. Now, multiply that by eight.

A recent discovery on the Naxos label is "Songs and Dances from the Silk Road," a suite of folk songs from the West of China by composer, conductor and arranger Peter Breiner. He composed it to complement a CD that starts with another Chinese piece, the "Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto."

Naxos has issued numerous CDs that showcase Breiner's arranging abilities. Among them are Tchaikovsky songs, Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons," a collection of Russian folk songs and Christmas songs. The collaboration allows Breiner, who was born in 1957 in Humenne (in the former Czechoslovakia), to focus on a talent that he began using around age 14, when he started to arrange pieces for his school friends. He arranged Bach fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier for a brass quartet and continued to write and arrange for groups of musicians. His first arranging job came a few years later, for an orchestra in Czechoslovakia.

Breiner can write a full score of a five- or six-minute piece in two days, by listening to a song in his head, looking at a score or listening to a recording. Why does he make these arrangements? It stems from his fascination, at an early age, for the sounds of an orchestra. "It's not easy to make a living as a composer. You don't get many opportunities to make money by composing music, so arranging is probably one of the closest activities," he said.

The arrangements have different starting points. Breiner says a project can be very targeted, perhaps for a particular piece, or a joint decision based on what he thinks will or will not work. The proposal might come from him or Naxos, and they've had a lot of discussions over the years, because Breiner has been involved with Naxos since they started - first as a producer, then as conductor of some of the projects. When they discovered that he makes arrangements, they approached him about Malaysian folk songs.

"Peter Breiner's inventive and idiomatic arrangements, from Christmas music to national anthems, provide Naxos with orchestral music that extends beyond the core classical repertoire and is an important part of the Naxos catalogue," said Klaus Heymann, general manager of Naxos.

Most of the arrangements feature violin and orchestra because the soloist, Takako Nishizaki, is Heymann's wife. "After years of collaboration with her, I know exactly the way she plays. I know exactly how I should write the arrangement that would show her in the best light and that would really underline all her qualities," Breiner said.

The recent release showcasing choral arrangements of Christmas songs wasn't a completely new experience for him because he has written his own choral music in the past. Still, he likes to know the performers. "It really helps if you know exactly the group or the orchestra or the choir you are arranging for, because then you know their weak points, their strong points, and you try to avoid the first and stress the second," he said.

A brief survey of other recent CDs reveals his thought processes. "Russian Romance," the aforementioned collection of folk songs, contains two pieces he knew he wanted to include: Snow Flurries and The Light (the second one being a favorite of his father). The other songs were added based on anthologies and popularity. For the CD of Tchaikovsky songs, Breiner researched all of the composer's songs, and the album reflects his personal preferences. "The Seasons" are accompanied by pieces, originally for piano, that he felt would fit the mood.

The genesis of "Songs and Dances from the Silk Road" was a little different. Because he has been arranging folk and popular Chinese music for years, the CD gave him the "chance for something that's almost an original composition based on Chinese folk songs." To accompany Nishizaki's recording of Butterfly Lovers, Heymann proposed an orchestral suite. "This time, my creative input would be something more than just a pure arrangement, and we decided to go that way," Breiner said.

Some of the songs were new for him, while others were familiar, and he says most of them are easy to recognize. Based on his research and instincts, and people who helped him research, the choices were narrowed from approximately two dozen songs, ranging from ancient to almost recent. "I always try to quote, at least, the most recognizable part of the theme, so it would be familiar to the audience," he said. When asked how he chose the sequence for the eight songs, Breiner explains that everything happened during the arranging process. He picked the songs and aimed for contrast - slower, faster, quieter and louder.

As for the percussion, Breiner didn't use any special Chinese instruments. "I don't want to limit performance possibilities for orchestras," he said. A partial list of the classical percussion: wood blocks; congas ("which is not exactly Chinese, but it served the purpose," he commented, with levity in his voice); marimba; vibraphone; celeste; tambourine; tam-tam; and gongs.

As he continues to make arrangements, his technique demonstrates the creative impulse. "I listen to [the music] quite a few times, until I own it in my head, then I try to hear it performed by an orchestra, and it, somehow, just comes to me from somewhere. That's the magic of music that you don't know. It just happens, and suddenly I know what to do with it."

Greg Waxberg is Music Director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting Radio and a freelance writer covering the arts. His most recent publication on FanFaire was an essay about Maestro James Levine.

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