The Barber Adagio for Strings is a wonderful work for advanced musicians. The two most challenging aspects of this piece are bow control and the key of Bb minor which can create all sorts of intonation problems. I was curious, what if I could eliminate one of these challenges. Just imagine how much easier this work would be in a different key. So, I decided to transpose the Adagio for Strings a half step lower to A minor. Choral directors have few qualms about trying music in a different key. Sometimes it is for vocal range in one or more parts, and sometimes it just feels right in a different key. Why are orchestra directors more reluctant? For me the decision to switch to A minor had to do with fingerings. After all, the key of Bb Major is a lot easier for band than B Major. Similarly, 5 flats for strings was much more difficult than no flats. At first, I wasn’t sure I would actually perform the Barber in the new key, but at least it would be a great way to introduce the piece to my students. Turns out that I have performed the Adagio for Strings twice since then and have never gone back to the original key. I thought it would bother me that the piece would sound too bright in A Minor but the better intonation far outweighs the darker sound of Bb Minor.
I only made one other minor change in the Barber. I talked about swapping parts earlier. There was just one measure in the Barber that had caused problems for my students. Right at the most powerful point of the work every part has a shift up that was almost impossible to play in tune. When I analyzed the score for this section of the piece, I realized that re-voicing this one chord would make every part much easier. Choir directors sometimes do this to avoid difficult skips, why not try it here.
For example, the bottom second violin part note is only a step from the new viola note. The same was true in all the other parts. I simply had to make the 1st Violin part divisi, half the section shifted up for the new note, the other half moved to the 2nd violin note, violas moved to the 2nd violin note, etc. A very simple rewrite and made a big difference and we are, in essence, still playing the exact same pitches the composer intended.
Immediately after this chord change, there is a grand pause and the perfect opportunity to go right back to playing their original parts.