Playing with classical music

Guest post by David Gordon


I am a jazz pianist, harpsichordist, composer, as well as arranger, improviser and educator. I enjoy improvising with and arranging for musicians in the classical world – putting improvisation to work, you might say. I have collaborated extensively, including with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, the London Chamber Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, London Concertante, and now the Orchestra of the Swan, whose leader and artistic director is violinist/composer David Le Page – known almost universally as DLP.

DLP and I have worked extensively and creatively on a variety of projects, and he seems to have a unique understanding of what I, as an improviser, can bring to a largely classical performance situation. So for example I’ve been delighted to engage in the underrated (and sometimes sniffed-at) art of ‘piano continuo’, perfectly suited to, for example, the melodrama of Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata, which we recorded, thrillingly, in a filmed concert with the addition of a dancer; and, more in a soloistic capacity, the orchestra’s hugely successful ‘Sleep’ project, which grew out of my propensity to improvise elaborately on the second movement of Vivaldi’s Autumn. DLP’s brilliance as project creator and programme designer has also encouraged me extend my range as arranger and improviser – for example, a concert entitled ‘Mozart in Cuba’, which includes music from both these sources in roughly equal measure, inspired me to write a mash-up arrangement, and also to improvise cadenzas to the A major piano concerto K. 414 in Cuban style. We know Mozart was such a joker that I didn’t need to pause to think whether the composer would have approved.

Arranging is also an underrated art, often seen as something rather commercial, despite the fact that is inextricably linked with the more highly esteemed art of composition. Composers have always arranged: see for example Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah, which he subtly brought up to date with the addition of clarinets, horns, trombones and more. For me, the most successful arrangements – not unlike the best interpretations – manage to understand, or at least convincingly speculate about, what might be behind the composition. To give two examples: in my concerto Romanesque, originally for recorder, which was inspired by the abbey church of Moissac in southwestern France, the unsurpassed beauty of the sculpture in the porch doorway of Jeremiah inspired the movement entitled ‘Lamentation’, which I based on a lament by Buxtehude, recast in a different rhythm (a version of this movement for violin on Orchestra of the Swan’s recording ‘Labyrinths’ with DLP as soloist, is out in November on the Signum Classics label). The other, oddly, is that when I’ve approached works of J.S. Bach, the unintentional result is often in an American country style! This has made more sense to me since I learned that American folk music was partly derived from émigré musicians from places such as Germany and Moravia – and in fact one of Bach’s (presumably musical) grandchildren ended up in the States. Things begin to look less far-fetched in this light.

One of the things I love about working with DLP is the way he encourages me to make things up, even when we’re playing classics of the violin and piano repertoire. Perhaps that’s because he knows if I try to play the correct notes it won’t be very good! But I hope it’s because the energy that’s transmitted from that approach can bring freedom to the whole performance. I once worked with a choral director who picked me up on playing a 6/5 chord instead of a 6 chord in the Purcell choral work we were rehearsing. That’s unlikely to be a creative working environment. And a reminder that, while the masterpieces of ‘classical’ music are amongst the greatest achievements of humankind, we cannot afford to forget our sense of ‘play’. It is after all, the word we use to say what we’re going to do when we do music.

I’d like to share with you a piece that encapsulates many of the aspects of music I’ve mentioned: baroque, jazz, arrangement, even collaboration – in this case with the composer. François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mistérieuses is one of the most beguiling and delightful pieces of music for solo harpsichord. One day the idea of reharmonising it came to me, and the result is Mysterious Barracudas – which works equally well on the harpsichord or piano. You can hear a performance here with the extraordinary baroque/jazz crossover group Respectable Groove

– or better still, your own one: I’ve tried to make the score as ‘definitive’ as I can, even if it comes out with some different notes each time I play it.


David Gordon is an improviser, composer and keyboard player. Find out more at his website.

His new arrangement of Buxtehude’s Lamentation (Cantata Klaglied BuxWV76) is included on ‘Labyrinths’, the new album from Orchestra of the Swan, released on 19th November 2021 on the Signum Classics label. More information

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