Orchestrating the Brahms Piano Quintet

Look at that beard. I’m green with envy. Also, listen to this:

How freaking awesome is that? I’m in love with this piece. The first time I heard it I was working as an administrative assistant for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The music director, Jeffrey Kahane, was set to play it with some soloists from the orchestra, but unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute due to a family tragedy. My boss managed to book Christopher O’Riley on less than a day’s notice to fill in.

I was standing in her office when Mr. O’Riley’s people called back, heard part of the call, and said, “Wow, we got Christopher O’Riley? I’m a huge fan!” to which she replied, “Great, you can turn pages.”

That afternoon found me in a page-turning masterclass with Christopher, learning that, under stage lights, the glare from my watch is blinding. The dress rehearsal was great. Then came the concert, and holy hell, he and the string players (Andrew Shulman, Roland Kato, Sarah Thornblade, and…dammit I can’t remember the other violinist’s name) tore through it with a force I’d never experienced before. I kept getting wrapped up in what was going on and nearly missing page turns. In the very short break before the final movement, Christopher leaned over and whispered, “I won’t have time to nod twice on this one.” There was a moment of utter heartbreak, followed, about two seconds later, by utter elation as they launched into the finale. Afterward, Christopher said he’d have me page-turn anytime he was in town.

I was sold, and had trouble listening to any recordings after the exhilaration of sitting at the keyboard during a performance that good. Eventually the music itself faded from memory (that was the only time I’d heard it, up until then), and I was just left with the experience.

Flash forward! It’s 2013, and I’m working on my PhD in composition at UCSB¬†under the tutelage of Joel Feigin. I mention that I’m not a big Brahms guy, and he asks if I know the piano quintet, because he thinks I’d like it. I say that it’s cool, but that I have trouble with recordings after that experience, and don’t actually know the piece that well. He recommends the Rubinstein recording (above) and that I take an evening when I don’t have any work (ha), sit down without the score, have a bit of something that’s legal in Washington and Colorado, and blast it as loud as I possibly can.

That worked. It pretty much gained favorite-piece status immediately, and, while I was sinking into listening, I kept hearing brass. And percussion. And thinking how great this would be for full orchestra.

I brought the idea to Jill Felber at UCSB, who approves orchestral programming, and to my friend Chris Rountree, conductor of wild Up, assistant conductor at the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and director of orchestras at UCSB. They were both into the idea. There’s a precedent too, as Schoenberg did it for Brahms’s first piano quartet.

So today I’m announcing it. We don’t have a date yet, though it will likely be in March in Santa Barbara. Hopefully a recording will follow, and some other performances. The whole thing is sketched, and I’m working on a full score now. It’s for a slightly light (and slightly unique) instrumentation – 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, 2 or 3 percussionists (mallets, drums, cymbals, shakers, more), and strings. The first movement is nearly done, and yeah, I’m stoked. Back to work.


  1. Jim Semadeni on December 20, 2014 at 4:10 am


    • Nick on December 20, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      Haha thanks Jim! I did end up adding piano. Originally wanted to keep it out, to force some creative orchestration to cover the parts, but it ended up allowing me to use the original-as-is vs. my version as something to play with. The final we ended up with was – – Timp.+4 – pno/cel – strings. I might further revise that for two bassoons, a little less percussion, and one more trombone.

      • Jim Semadeni on December 21, 2014 at 7:50 am

        Any chance of hearing the premiere? I guess I didn’t realize it had already happened. I guess you know about the Robin Holloway orchestration, too. No piano, it is on Norwegian radio

        • Nick Norton on December 21, 2014 at 1:15 pm

          I did not know about that! Will give it a listen today. I like Robin’s music a lot, though I imagine my take on the piece is pretty different. Thanks for sharing.

          Unfortunately I can’t post the recording publicly. I’ll send you an email with a link.

          • Jim Semadeni on December 21, 2014 at 7:57 pm

            Cool! I also have the scherzo and finale orchestrated by Agnieska Duczmal for pf and chamber orch, if you haven’t heard that, basically just fuller strings, at least to me, he who don’t know nuttin’ ’bout no musik.

  2. M. J. (Al) Albacete on October 11, 2015 at 6:34 am

    I would like to know more on the availability of the various versions of Brahms Op. 34 referred to by Jim and Nick (are first names allowable?), on CD. Somebody want to write to me?.

    • Nick on October 15, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      Thanks for the comment! There’s not a public release of this piece – and I said quite a while back that I’d send a copy to Jim, and failed that upon deciding to revise it a lot. I’ll post here when it’s ready and there’s another performance. Thanks for your interest!