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