Rehearsals have been going well for this weekend’s performance of my arrangement of the Brahms A major Piano Quartet for orchestra in Guildford. For some reason, the A major has always been the least played of the Brahms Piano Quartets. I’m sure it’s absolutely epic scale puts some groups off, but I know many of my chamber music colleagues seem to feel it’s a weaker piece than either the G minor or C minor, or, for that matter, the much more famous Piano Quintet.
I’ve always loved the piece, and spending so much one-on-one time with it lately has really made me admire it all the more. Fortunately, I’m not alone in my affection for the piece, and, predictably, I was able to find a few wise words about it in the much-missed Malcolm MacDonald’s invaluable book on Brahms. He really was one of the most perceptive writers on music I’ve ever come across.*
* Even though he really loved the Schoenberg orchestration of opus 25, which I did finally re-listen to over the weekend with much alarm. Hearing Brahms’s infinitely honest music dressed up in Hollywood regalia feels a little like I would imagine it would feel seeing one’s mother dressed up as a lady of the night. It sounds like opus 25 has been given a roofie. I hope I’ve allowed opus 26 to keep its dignity.
I met Gunther at his wonderful festival at Sandpoint in the 1990’s. On the second night of the festival, I ran into him in the bar and in spite of our vast difference in age, achievement and knowledge, had one of the all-time great bar hangs of my life. Gunther’s public persona could be quite imperious, but one-on-one, one quickly realised that everything he did and said was motivated by an incredibly deep love of music. The man lived music- he only slept about 3-4 hours a day, and while everyone else was talking, resting, eating or chatting, he was always busy composing, writing, organizing or producing.
Sandpoint was a great encapsulation of everything he loved, with courses in chamber music (which I was there for), conducting, composition and modern jazz. I wish I could have done them all, but Gunther being Gunther, every program was an all-day, every-day project.
He quickly picked up on my interest in conducting and we had some inspiring talks about his ethos of score study. One thing you can say about Gunther- he knew exactly what he believed when it came to music.
To my delight, he also invited me to play as cellist and later guitarist and banjo-player on what I think were the last few tours of the New England Ragtime Ensemble. Those concerts were thrilling. If you only know Gunther through his rather Old Testament writings on conducting, it’s quite a different thing to see him beaming away smiling rehearsing and conducting Joplin (always from memory) with such joy and ease.
He leaves behind an incredible body of work. I pity his archivist!
The idea for this orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major, opus 26 came to me spontaneously in a real flash of inspiration while I was coaching chamber music at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival in the Bay of Naples in 2008. I vividly remember the bright blue sea and cloudless sky over Mount Epomeo that morning as I listened to a group play though the first movement of the piece in its original form. As I began to work with them on the piece, I found myself speaking to the pianist, as I often do, in orchestral terms. “Can you try playing the opening phrase like…. a quartet of horns?” I asked. He certainly sounded more convincing with that in mind, but that sound had planted itself firmly in my inner ear. After the coaching I had a bit of free time, and found myself listening to an imaginary orchestral version of the entire first movement emerging out of that horn quartet. I thought it sounded great. By the end of that morning, I’d decided to try to undertake a realization of the orchestration I’d heard.
Mount Epomeo and the campus of the Ischia Festival on the day it all began.
After my initial euphoria, I had a few more sober thoughts. First, there was the question of Schoenberg’s orchestration of opus 26’s evil twin, the Piano Quartet in G minor, opus 25. Should I be deterred by the possibility (certainty) of comparisons, or should I in some way try to look to Schoenberg’s example as a model for my own work? This was actually the easiest of decisions to make- I didn’t feel any need to worry one way or another about Schoenberg’s arrangement. It hadn’t been in any way on my mind when I first thought of the project, so I could answer questions about whether I’d stolen his idea with a clear conscience and an even clearer answer. Also, much as I revere his arrangements of many other composer’s works, including the Monn Cello Concerto and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, I actually have never warmed to his eccentric, and, to me, often vulgar and un-idiomatic take on Brahms’s opus 25. In the end, I decided not to listen to or look at the score of Schoenberg’s orchestration until I’d finished my work on opus 26.
A more serious deterrent was figuring how to translate Brahms’s specifically pianistic writing into an orchestral sound world. Short of deploying an army of harps, which would have sounded almost as silly as Schoenberg’s xylophone in opus 25, it would have been absurd and impossible to try to recreate some of the sweeping piano arpeggios in the second movement of the Piano Quartet in an orchestra. On the other hand, purely decorative writing is very rare in Brahms, and often what first seems like a mere figuration turns into a motive that he works with and develops- one replaces something like that with an easier pattern at your moral peril. In the end, those sweeping arpeggios were a fairly easy question to resolve- their very impossibility mandated a more radical approach. Other, less obvious, spots took more soul searching and the careful balancing between staying true to the original with making things playable and satisfying for the orchestral musicians. Questions of playability and risk also figured into whether and how to realise my idea of the opening being played by horn quartet. A Major is a very high key for the horn, and to transcribe the first few bars of the piano part for horns would mean asking them to play higher in the first phrase of the piece than they do in any of Brahms’s orchestral canon. In the end, I employed a little bit of orchestral sleight of hand to avoid notes that I thought were really unrealistic to ask for, but otherwise, I decided that Brahms would have known and appreciated the sound of high horns in A from the symphonies of Haydn and notably from Beethoven’s 7th, and I hope he would have approved of me modelling my use of the horns not only on his orchestral work but that of his esteemed forbears.
It’s hard to believe that it took nearly seven years from that morning on Ishcia to complete the orchestration of the piece, but it is a massive score. After my initial work on it in 2008, which consisted of annotating my Quartet score with ideas for instrumental colors, the piece was set to one side while I attended to other projects with firmer deadlines. Again in 2012, I made a push, but it wasn’t until my colleagues in the Surrey Mozart Players agreed to perform the work in their 2014-15 season that I had the deadline and the opportunity I needed to justify the massive amount of time it would take to bring the project to completion. I thank them for their patience and support.
Schoenberg famously joked that in orchestrating opus 25, he’d given the world a fifth Brahms Symphony. Many years ago, a more senior conductor posed me a seemingly unsolvable riddle. “What key would Brahms have written his Fifth Symphony in?” he said. I looked at him blankly so he offered a hint: “Try making a melody out of the keys of the four Brahms symphonies,” he suggested. Okay- C minor, D major, F major and E minor. Hmmm, I thought, C, D, F E. Those for notes begin the main theme of the Finale of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony. I instantly knew the answer.
Brahms’s opus 26 is certainly more than symphonic in scope- depending on tempi, it’s potentially longer than any of the symphonies and the first movement is one of the grandest movements he ever wrote, but much of the piece also has elements of a more Serenade-like character, and, in fact, I found myself consulting not only the scores of the Four Symphonies repeatedly during this process, but also that of Brahms’s D Major Serenade, opus 11.
On the other hand, the fifth note of the Jupiter Symphony melody is A.
It all started here. Easy to imagine, but difficult to play! NB- this is in concert pitch.
The orchestration will be recorded next year, and I’ll be keeping it for my exclusive use for another season after that, but looking ahead, the materials will be available for purchase or hire, and I’m happy to send exam scores to interested people at any time.
I was not aware of what had just happened, but sometimes, it’s better not to know.
Today my colleagues (Matthew Sharp, David LePage, Suzanne Casey and Catherine Leech) and I played a noontime recital as part of the English Symphony Orchestra’s Magna Carta 800 celebrations at Worcester Cathedral .
The entire festival has been a musical exploration of the on-going struggle for freedom, liberty and human dignity. Our program was called America’s March Toward Freedom, and focused particularly on America’s troubled history of slavery, race relations and the fight for equality.
Blissfully unaware- rehearsing music for Magna Carta in the unseen shadow of an emerging atrocity.
Yesterday was a busy work day and this morning was a taken up with travel and rehearsal before the concert at noon. The upshot of which is that none of us on stage had any idea we were playing this program in the shadow of one of the most shocking acts of violence motivated by racial hatred in my lifetime. I only found out about the horrific events in South Carolina when I got back to my hotel room after the concert. Part of me wishes we’d known. Maybe we could have said something meaningful, or brought something special to the performance, but on reflection, maybe it’s best we didn’t.
To be honest, I’m not sure I could have managed the right balance of emotion and focus in this repertoire if I was going on stage trying to process this news. Music, and the human body, can actually only take so much emotion and sometimes the music suffers when we’re beside ourselves with anger, grief and outrage. Part of you needs to count the rests and put your fingers in the right places, as well as open your soul. Yes, perhaps, for the music’s sake, it is better we didn’t know. Perhaps it’s also better because we shouldn’t wait for an international outrage to play these kinds of programs with all the commitment and care we can summon.
“In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
I chose Dvorak’s great F major String Quartet for the Magna Carta festival because of what its reception says about the unfinished nature of racial reconciliation in America. Dvorak was inspired during its composition by the melodic riches of African American spirituals and the blues, so much so that in the years after he wrote it in 1893, the piece took on a nickname now considered a hateful racial epitaph. It’s later re-naming as the American Quartet did away with an ugly word, but also effectively, literally whitewashed the piece. Its black inspiration has been largely forgotten- most people in my generation assume that the Americans in the piece are of the decidedly Caucasian variety. I’ve always said that the piece should really be called the “African American Quartet” but today tells me that’s not quite right. Re-naming the piece “African American” would be too facile a shortcut for the real work of education and contextualization that needs to be attached to performances of the piece for us to really understand its musical roots and its modern relevance. As long as we rely on the use of the hyphen to call attention to the involvement of anyone not white in something “American” we’re perpetuating the legacy of exclusion and appropriation we actually mean to fight.
Today’s crime is just one particularly grotesque symptom of a sickening rise in racial hatred among a large segment of the US population, including a disturbing cross section of American law enforcement and political leaders. For these people, the word “American” must always continue to evoke white America. In a horrific cultural moment like this, as we all absorb the shock of an event that seemed calculated to be as evil as possible, we should remember that this is no lone gunman unleashed on society, no aberration. He is and was, a foot soldier- one of the millions in the USA committed to reserving the full promise of the nation for its fair-skinned residents.
No lone gunman here, but a foot soldier in a pretty vast army.
The last 20 years have seen miraculous progress towards equality for LGBT people in the USA, but civil rights, economic opportunities and social perceptions of people of color in the US have not, that I can see, moved forward in millimeter in my lifetime. Rather the opposite- even the Supreme Court has take the step of gutting much of the Voting Rights Act. The Charleston shooter’s manifesto is one shared with millions and millions of people: “you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
So, no- I don’t think I could have done justice to Dvorak’s elegant and gently sorrowful masterpiece today. The anguish of thinking just how little progress we’ve made in the last 100+ years might have been too much. What the horrible synchronicity of this concert and the Charleston crime does point out is that these concerts do, or should, matter. We shouldn’t be waiting for a tragedy to ask art to speak through our art to the need for social justice. Celebrations like Magna Carta 800 can too easily feel like self-congratulatory commemorations of a battle won. They should be a call to action, a reminder of unfinished business. A commemoration of a struggle, not a celebration of victory. Perhaps, it’s a time to remember that our Beethoven needs to be fiercer, our Mozart more subversive, our Dvorak, more tragic because in the last 800 years, we still haven’t finished the project.
At the heart of the concert was the first public UK performance of Kile Smith’s wonderful song cycle, Plain Truths, which begins and ends with the writings of the abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison, taken from his newspaper The Liberator. Kile writes that “I quote from the very first and last issues: his 1831 shot across the bow proclaiming his rejection of moderation in the fight against our national tragedy, to his 1865 valedictory, which followed the Thirteenth Amendment’s official eradication of slavery. “I am aware” is an angry recitative; “Spirit of Freedom,” a marching hymn.” Thirty-four years is a long time to fight for any cause, and I can appreciate Garrison’s wish to see his life’s work validated, to declare victory and move on to happier things, but in 2015, it’s his words from 1831 that seem like they could have been written today. History tells us he should have kept the paper running.
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I do not wish to think, or to speak, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her baby from the fire—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am aware, and I will be heard.
—Wm. Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), from The Liberator (1831)
As artists, we don’t need some racist monster with a gun to motivate us to play music that speaks to fundamental issues of right and wrong. Quite the opposite: we all ought to heed Garrison’s rallying cry. I am aware that each time we take the stage, we should do so without too much undue moderation lest we are still fighting the same sad, pointless battles in another 800 years.
This is a Reblog: Read the original official press release from MusicCo International
UPDATE- A new interview as Ken speaks to Peter Alexander at Sharps and Flatirons here.
Coverage from Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc here: “The Colorado MahlerFest in and around the city of Boulder is one of the boldest musical initiatives of modern times. ”
News feature from ClassicalSource here
Story from Colorado Public Radio here
News from Boulder’s “Sharps and Flatirons” blog here
Boulder Daily Camera story with coverage of final concert of MahlerFest XXVIII and announcement
Luxembourg’s Pizzicato Magazine here
KENNETH WOODS APPOINTED ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF COLORADO MAHLERFEST
Kenneth Woods has been appointed Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest. He is only the second Artistic Director in the festival’s 28-year history and succeeds Founding Artistic Director Robert Olson. Woods will oversee his first festival, MahlerFest XXIX, in May 2016.
Of his appointment, Woods remarks, “I’m thrilled and humbled to be invited to steer the festival’s ongoing exploration of one of the greatest composers of all time. I’ve always been impressed by the sophistication of MahlerFest’s programming and presentation, not to mention the musical standards attained by its participants. I must extend enormous congratulations to Bob Olson for everything he has achieved. The complexity and scale of some tasks can only be fully appreciated once you’ve done them yourself, and as someone who has put together a few crazy Mahler projects of my own over the years, I know something about the kind of heroic effort Bob has made to build and sustain this festival. I take very seriously my responsibility to keep the torch he has lit blazing brightly for many years to come.”
Founded by conductor Robert Olson in 1988, the Boulder-based Colorado MahlerFest is an annual celebration of the life and music of Gustav Mahler. Throughout one week every May, the festival explores Mahler through symposia, exhibits, films and the performance of a major symphonic work by the composer. MahlerFest is currently in the midst of its third cycle of Mahler’s symphonic compositions. In 2005, MahlerFest received the Gold Medal of the Vienna-based International Gustav Mahler Society, an honor so far bestowed on only one other American organization, the New York Philharmonic.
Gustav Mahler’s music has been a lifelong source of inspiration for Kenneth Woods, and has played an important part in his career. He has conducted acclaimed performances of the symphonies and songs across the Americas and Europe. His first recording of Mahler’s music, Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble versions of Das Lied von der Erde and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Somm Records, 2011), received an IRR Outstanding rosette from International Record Review. Off the podium, Woods is in demand as an essayist and speaker on Mahler’s life and music. He has given talks and participated in panel discussions on Mahler for the BBC and NPR, and was the official blogger of The Bridgewater Hall’s Mahler in Manchester series in 2010-11. In his native US, Woods achieved national media recognition as conductor of the Pendleton-based Oregon East Symphony for staging Redneck Mahler, an event that galvanized the community of a small, western Rodeo town.
With its combination of conducting, symposia, pre-concert lectures, films, community engagement and blog posts, MahlerFest’s format plays perfectly into Woods’ multifarious hands. “For me,” he says, “Mahler has a singular creative voice. His music should be experienced as an immersive, transformative experience.”
Mahler- Das Lied von der Erde, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
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PRAISE FOR KENNETH WOODS’ MAHLER
“This is a most important issue, and all Mahlerians should make its acquisition an urgent necessity.” International Record Review
“a richly balanced performance that easily stands out” Gramophone Magazine
“gives Mahler the ride of his life.” The Oregonian
“something that every lover of Mahler should hear.” MusicWeb International
* * * * *
For any media enquiries, interview and image requests, please contact Melanne Mueller, firstname.lastname@example.org, +44 (0) 20 8698 6933 or +1 917 907 2785
For more information about Kenneth Woods please visit http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/
For more information about the Colorado MahlerFest please visit http://www.mahlerfest.org
About Kenneth Woods
Kenneth Woods is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, a post he assumed in 2013, succeeding Vernon Handley.
Hailed by the Washington Post as a “true star” of the podium, Woods has worked with many orchestras of international distinction, and has appeared on the stages of some of the world’s leading music festivals. His work on the concert platform and in the recording studio has led to numerous broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, National Public Radio, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
As Principal Guest Conductor of Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan (2010-2014), Woods made numerous acclaimed recordings, including the first-ever cycle of the Symphonies of Hans Gál (AVIE).
Woods’ unique gifts have been widely acknowledged by some of today’s leading conductors. In 2001, he was selected by Leonard Slatkin to be one of four participants in the National Conducting Institute at the Kennedy Center, where he made his National Symphony debut. Toronto Symphony Music Director Peter Oundjian has praised Woods as “a conductor with true vision and purpose. He has a most fluid and clear style and an excellent command on the podium… a most complete musician.”
A widely read writer and frequent broadcaster, Woods’ blog, A View from the Podium, is one of the 25 most popular classical music blogs in the world. He has provided commentary for the BBC Proms, and has spoken on Mahler on NPR’s All Things Considered and BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. http://kennethwoods.net
Next week the Berlin Philharmonic picks a new Chief Conductor.
There’s always bound to be curiosity about who is going to get the best job in any field of interest to the general public (there seems to be much curiosity this week over who will run the United Kingdom next week), so it’s encouraging that there is so much debate and discussion across the media and the blogosphere about who will succeed Simon Rattle in Berlin. It goes to show that classical music is still a “field of interest to the general public.” Phew!
I’ve followed the debate online with great interest, but not blogged about the issue yet because of my fairly strict rules against commenting on the work of living colleagues. How could I possibly weigh into this raging debate without burning bridges or, worse yet, mixing metaphors? How could tell people who I think will, or should, get the job without being caught offering an opinion on the work of my colleagues? A statistical and scientific approach was called for! I’ve modelled my approach on that of legendary political blogger, poll-tracker and election caller, Nate Silver, whose blog, 538, famously called the last US Presidential election to within something 2 votes.
I’ve gone through the Digital Concert Hall archive, searching for the orchestra’s next Chief Conductor. I figure whoever it is will already be in there. Statistical analysis will tell us who it is.
I’ve ruled out anyone who only appears once- the musicians there are too shrewd and professional to risk the future of the orchestra on someone they’ve barely worked with.
Format: Conductor (number of gigs in the Digital Concert Hall)
I’ve also ruled out anyone who seems really to be at a point in life where age, health or circumstance militates against them taking on a new job- this excludes many of their most regular conductors, including:
Of these, Barenboim has been mentioned by many as a possible candidate but has, apparently, ruled himself out. Could he rule himself in if asked nicely? Nobody seems to be mentioning Zubin Mehta- perhaps because he’s never been a darling of the critics, but the numbers don’t lie- clearly the musicians rate him as one of their most important partners. He’s not young but seems in robust good health.
That leaves (in descending order of most gigs)
Which of these busy and accomplished maestri will get the job? I I think it all boils down to who has done the most and the best concerts with the orchestra. This slightly argues against the candidacies of some of the most highly and publicly touted conductors – especially Ivan Fischer, Riccardo Chailly and Yannick Nezet-Seguin all at 3 gigs each. Of course, the “number of best gigs” measure could be prone to error caused by scheduling conflicts, so for all the conductors at the three gigs level, we’ve applied the “are they happy where they are test.” After all, in sport, coaches rarely leave a winning team just to move to a more prestigious team unless they’re certain they can be even more successful there. It’s exceedingly rare for someone to win a championship at one team then repeat the success at another one. Phil Jackson made it look comparatively easy going from Chicago to Los Angeles, but the great Pat Riley took 18 years and two changes of team to replicate his success in Los Angeles with the Miami Heat. Fischer, Chailly and Nezet-Seguin seem to be comfortably ensconced at orchestras of near-comparative stature where they are perceived as hugely successful and seem to be able to do what they like. Why would they leave?
Starting then from the top- Nelsons and Thielemann would seem the clear front runners for the job at 9 gigs each. Nelsons has only just started at the Boston Symphony and is frightfully young. He hasn’t unequivocally ruled himself out (actually, he pretty much has), but there is much speculation that the job is his for the taking in four or five years of seasoning in Boston after a “care-taker” tenure of an older colleague.
What then of Thielemann? He’s old enough yet young enough, he works with them a lot and he passes the “is pretty much the opposite of the last guy to hold the job” test. It’s not for me to say (and everyone else has said it already), but there is a pretty broad consensus around the industry that he excels in the music of three composers- Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Wagner. His Brahms is more than credible and there’s a fantastic Schoenberg Pelleas and Melisande in the Digital Concert Hall. Is that enough? Even within the German canon, his Beethoven and Schumann are VERY controversial, he doesn’t conduct Mahler (the third-most-popular composer in the Digital Concert Hall after Beethoven and Brahms), and outside German repertoire, he’s even more controversial. It’s well worth watching his Tchaikovsky Six in the Digital Concert Hall to see why. I’ll stop there.
If the numbers tell us these are the orchestra’s two favorite conductors, does the orchestra have to choose one or the other? I suspect so. Does Nelsons need or want more time in Boston before taking on the world’s toughest conducting job? Many think so. Thielemann is in the prime of his career and has a near-perfect gig in Dresden which also includes opera. He would be nuts to come to Berlin for any sort of time-limited role. If he goes to Berlin, he’s planning to stay for life. Also, Thielemann loses points based on the “happy where they are measure.” Between the two, the statistics tell us that Nelsons gets the job, but in 2023. But a lot can happen in five or six years- today’s sure thing is tomorrow’s empty promise, and trust me: EVERY conductor knows that from experience.
Gustavo Dudamel has also clearly ruled himself out this time, so that leaves two statistically likely candidates at six and five gigs respectively- Alan Gilbert and Semyon Bychkov. Neither seem to by high in the bookmakers’ estimation, but there are clear statistical arguments to be made that either could win the job.
Gilbert breezes past the “happy where they are” test. He’s just announced his departure from the New York Philharmonic, so he’s neither happy nor anywhere. In sporting terms, that makes him a big time free agent, a veteran player ready to slot in to an elite team. Gilbert presents an informal media image, but his repertoire and musical culture seem more hardcore Central European than laid-back American, and his work in the Digital Concert Hall seems to embody a near-ideal balance between the canon and major Central European works of the 20th c. Bartok, Nielsen, Lutoslawski, Janacek and Martinu sit alongside Dvorak and Mendelssohn in the archive. His age would seem to argue that he wouldn’t want to only stick around for 5 years or so to make room for Nelsons, but does his mysterious departure from New York indicate maybe he’s someone who is restless and likes to change scenery? Hard to say. There have been rumours of critical or musician discontent behind his departure from New York, but between their relationship with Gilbert and that with Mehta, one thing is clear- Berliners really don’t care what people in New York think about conductors.
That leaves just Semyon Bychkov, one ahead of Gilbert at 6 gigs. Passes the “happy where they are” test because he’s freelance with only part time/semi-honorary position at the BBC Symphony. He’s at the peak of his musical powers and just that little bit younger and healthier than guys like Barenboim and Jansons. His repertoire and recorded history align well with Berlin’s. Few have pointed it out of late, but his appointment would mark an even stronger reconnection with the Karajan legacy than Thielemann would- his name was the first out of Karajan’s mouth back in the 1980’s when asked about his potential successors. Back then, that endorsement was a near career-killer, taken as proof that the old man was finally skating off the rink. Could it work in Bychkov’s favour now? What of the “most/best” concerts? Well, after Nelsons, Thielemann and the old guard, he’s the next most, and may well have conducted the best concert in the Digital Concert Hall. These things are subjective, but his performance of the Alpine Symphony in 2008 is my favorite performance of anything in the Digital Concert Hall, and I remember his Brahms 2 as being really magnificent as well. Plus, he passes the “has also recorded for the wonderful Avie Records” test.
His is not a name that’s been mentioned often in connection with the world’s top job, but often those that know most about what’s going on say the least. One critic suggested he was too Jewish for Berlin. One would hope in these dark times the musicians of the Philharmonic would see the appointment of their first Jewish Chief Conductor as an opportunity to send an important, positive message to a Europe being quickly covered by the stinking storm clouds of rising anti-Semitism.
So there you have it- if the statistics are right, we can say with confidence that we know for sure that the next Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic will be Semyon Bychkov.
“Me? Seriously? You guys are hiring me? Niiiiiice”
Or it could be one of the other guys. I don’t really know. But thanks for reading.
From the May 2015 issue of Gramophone Magazine
Violin Concerto, “Wall of Water”
Harriet Mackenzie vn English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Nimbus Alliance (S) CD NI1555 (21’ . DDD
Every now and then, a new work comes along that simply takes one’s breath away. The Violin Concerto Wall of Water (2014) by Deborah Pritchard is one such. Composed last year “in response to the paintings by Maggi Hambling”—a sequence of at the time 13 paintings inspired by the Suffolk coast—the concerto is scored for a chamber group of 13 strings only: the soloist plus seven orchestral violinists, pairs of violas and cellos and a double-bass.
Despite the modest forces employed, the concerto is ablaze with colour across its twenty-one minutes, mirroring the transitions of colours in the Hambling paintings, with muted tones and colour ranges in the outer sections (corresponding roughly to paintings I-III and XII-XIII) enclosing a richer and more varied palette for paintings IV-XI, the whole framed by an opening solo violin cadenza and its varied reprise emerging from and returning to the darkness. (In live performance, the concerto can be accompanied by a synchronised video display of the Hambling paintings, but the music stands supremely well by itself.)
Wall of Water was written for Harriet Mackenzie (one member of the superb Retorica Duo, 2/13, 4/13), who plays this alternately elegiac and passionate music with a burning commitment and intensity that composers usually only dream of, but then she has been gifted a work whose high quality is rarely encountered. This is a wonderful performance of a wonderful concerto, completed by immaculate accompaniment from the English String Orchestra directed by the tireless Kenneth Woods. Very, very strongly recommended.
Part of a series of vlogs exploring magical minutes in music history- here’s a quick look at the first few bars of the Agnus Dei from the Mozart Requiem.
The ESO will be performing the Mozart Requiem on the 24th of April at St John’s Smith Square. Tickets are available here:http://www.sjss.org.uk/events/mozarts…
24 April, 2014
English Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Woods- principal conductor
St John’s Smith Square
Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA
Academia Musica Choir
Sofia Larsson- soprano, Emma Curtis- contralto, Matthew Minter-tenor, Brain Bannatyne-Scott- bass
Handel- Alleleuia from Dettingen Anthem
WF Bach- Adagio from Sinfonia in D Minor
Handel- Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, The Ways of Zion do MournMozart- Requiem in D minor
Tickets £20, £15, £10. %25 discount for seniors, %50 discount for students/children
BOX OFFICE- St John’s Smith Square
Sponsored by All Pay
Mozart’s Requiem has been shrouded in mystery and rumour since it was first published. Commissioned by an anonymous stranger and completed for performance after Mozart’s death under controversial circumstances, the Requiem is also a work with a complex and intricate connection to Mozart’s musical forebears. ESO Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods takes listeners on a journey of discovery into the origins of Mozart’s last and greatest work, heard here alongside some of the works Mozart turned to for inspiration in the final weeks of his life.
There’s no point in compiling a “worst orchestrators” list- the guilty parties would all be hopelessly minor and un-interesting composers. Far more interesting is to have a look at the who the great composers are who are most able to humble, wrong foot, humiliate or frustrate orchestras and composers. Some ask too much, some didn’t know what to ask for. Either way, when you see their music coming on the season schedule, be sure to set aside a bit of extra preparation time.
Please share your comments below- which composers’ use of the orchestra fills you with dread?
Debussy was perhaps an even more imaginative and visionary orchestrator than Ravel, but he almost completely lacks Ravel’s practical and pragmatic touch. I once did a seminar on balance and texture problems that Debussy has left the composer to solve in my favourite Debussy orchestral work called “If Ravel had orchestrated La Mer.” You can count on Ravel to give you a score full of safe and reliable performance instructions- do as he says, and every little detail comes across. Debussy’s scores suggest breath-taking colours and revelatory ideas, but it’s up to the performers to figure out how to bring them to life for the audience.
In Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony” Shostakovich is quoted speaking rather derisively of Prokofiev’s commitment and prowess as an orchestrator, going so far as to suggest that Prokofiev was one to let others finish his orchestrations for him. I’ve always been sceptical on that count, as I find that Prokofiev has an amazingly strong sonic footprint. I love the sound of his orchestral music- it’s incredibly powerful and distinctive. On the other hand, his use of the orchestra is often eccentric, and things can go badly wrong. His two most popular symphonies, the “Classical” (his first) and the wartime Fifth are among those works most likely sound ragged in concert. They’re just incredibly difficult and very exposed. One does often get the feeling that Prokofiev held a long-standing grudge against orchestral violinists and horn players. Approach his work with caution and plenty of rehearsal time.
In terms of “things people tend to say immediately before publicly humiliating themselves,” the phrase “there’s also some Dvorak overture on the program which I’ve never played, but I don’t think it will be too hard” is right up there with “hey guys, watch this!” I can think of plenty of violin players for whom the mere mention of the Husitska Overture is enough to make them break out in hives. Even as standard a piece as Carnival usually sounds sloppy if you listen carefully to the poor violinists. Musicians often underestimate Dvorak because we all played the New World Symphony in our respective youth orchestras. Dvorak’s orchestral writing gets simpler and more idiomatic as he got older- so just as the New World (his final symphony) is the most playable of the nine he wrote, so too his final concerto, the B minor Cello Concerto, is the most manageable of his works for soloist and orchestra. Dvorak grew up in the great Czech school of string playing- even before Mr Sevcik unleashed his dreaded finger exercises on the world, Czech string players have always seemed to be able to play anything. If you’re not blessed with the technical fluency of a Milos Sadlo or Joseph Suk, and you happen to be playing the Othello Overture on the next concert, get the part early. Dvorak seemed to be among music’s all-time nicest guys, but he sure had it in for second oboists. There are few more dangerous passages in all of music than the low, slow, soft and sustained second oboe parts in the slow movements of the Cello Concerto and the Seventh Symphony. If you know a second oboist tackling either piece, make sure they’re well stocked with hugs and post-rehearsal booze.
As we saw with the music of Dvorak, writing a classic youth orchestra work can create a misleading impression of how difficult a composer’s music is to play. “Hoe Down” is one of those delights that sounds way harder to play than it is, and as a result, it’s a great vehicle for young musicians to get that first experience of playing something really fast and virtuosic. In almost every other piece he ever wrote, the music sounds much easier to play than it really is…. until it all goes horribly wrong. I’ve taught Appalachian Spring countless times to young conductors, and the piece is usually a litany of failure and trauma when they perform it. The piece goes off the rails in concerts all the time, and, familiar as it is, it’s rare to hear a performance in which all the intonation challenges have been addressed. Copland’s famous Third Symphony is one of the most difficult pieces in the orchestral literature- we all know about the Fanfare for the Common Man and the challenge it poses for the brass, but it’s the first violins and high woodwinds who usually need therapy after attempting it. Even more difficult is the Third’s precursor, the Short Symphony. There’s nothing particularly gnarly about the orchestration other than the fact that it’s a fifteen minute piece for which you are supposed to source a hecklephone, but it’s one tough mother to conduct.
LvB himself on this list? Yup. Even the greatest string quartet violinist of Beethoven’s era, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, found some of Beethoven’s violin writing impossibly difficult. When he begged the master to simplify a passage, Beethoven replied, unsympatheticall, “Do you believe that I think about your miserable fiddle when the muse strikes me?” Of course, Beethoven’s use of the orchestra is visionary, but he was not the least bit interested in making anyone else’s work any easier. In fact his music is so incredibly demanding that 90% of the best professional musicians don’t dare even try to get close to the tempos he wanted. In addition to being technically demanding, Beethoven’s music demands perhaps the greatest clarity of rhythmic structure and security of pulse of any composer this side of Stravinsky. Making Beethoven’s music more playable is one of classical music’s most enduring traditions, one that’s been exacerbated by the influx of overpowered modern brass instruments. Slow, mezzo-forte and soggy. Blech! In the music of composer-conductors like Elgar and Mendelssohn, if the musicians tell the conductor “it’s incredibly awkward at this tempo” you can bet you’re going the wrong way with your interpretation. In Beethoven, if you start hearing words like “awkward” or “nearly impossible,” you’re probably very much on the right track.
Pity poor Mussorgsky- officially the most re-orchestrated composer of all time. Even his biggest fans (Shostakovich and Rimsky) felt compelled to try to sort out his use of the orchestra. I’ve conducted the original version of A Night on the Bare Mountain- it’s a way cooler and much more insane piece than the Rimsky version we all know, but it’s incredibly problematic for the orchestra. It needs a lot of patience and mojo to pull off. It’s full of science fiction balances and technically awkward instrumental writing. Too little formal training or just too much vodka? Who knows…..
Schoenberg wrote some of my favourite music, and his re-orchestrations of the music of Mahler and Johann Strauss are gems. However, his track record as an orchestrator is definitely mixed. Pelleas and Melisande is a great work, but Schoenberg’s lack of hands-on experience really shows throughout. The balances all need tweaking and adjusting. Schoenberg played the cello, but I don’t get the feeling that he had much regard for the welfare of the human hand. Richard Strauss’s music is supremely athletic and virtuosic, but it does, in its crazy way, lie under than hand. Schoenberg’s undermines the hand. So much of his instrumental writing is uncomfortable, awkward, tiring and even painful. It’s all of a piece with the neurotic intensity of his musical persona, but sure makes it hard to play.
I’ve previously tried to defend Chopin’s much-maligned use of the orchestra in these pages, but age and experience have led me to concede that really, it’s pretty drab. Krystian Zimmerman’s recording of the Piano Concerti makes the best possible case for his use of the orchestra, but I’m sure KZ had about 100 rehearsals before they rolled tape.
Some nice ideas, but full of balance problems: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a live performance of the Helicopter Quartet where one could hear the countermelody in the second helicopter clearly enough. Joking aside, I suppose the Helicopter Quartet is an over-simplified and overly-convenient piece of cultural shorthand for “20th C. music that is more trouble, expense and difficulty than it’s worth.” Nevertheless, if one must select a work to stand in the place of every work that relies too much on pointless effects, nightmarish difficulty and a general lack of reward for performers and listeners, this is as good a choice as any. Interestingly, John McCabe really rated much of Stockhausen’s music, so I’ll be giving it a rethink over the summer.
I’m afraid The Onion kind of beat me to the punch on this one, but Rimksy-Korsakov: The Great Orchestrator must be the third most overrated figure in music history (the two most overrated figures being Erik Satie: The Great Composer and Joseph Joachim: The Great Violinist). Yes, his adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is a fantastic orchestral showpiece, but it leaves out a great deal of what makes Mussorgsky’s original so interesting- the whole-tone scales, the strange mixture of colors and registers and the general sense that you’re dealing with a very talented madman. It’s a classic case of the baby being tossed out with the bathwater. However, it’s in his own music where the shortcomings in his orchestration really come to the fore: the fact that he codified his over-reliance on attention catching percussion tricks that add little to the music in one of the cheapest books on orchestration you can buy has sent thousands of young composers marching down the path of budget-busting triviality. If you’ve ever played Capriccio Espagnol in a reverberant hall, you’ll know that in Rimksy-Korsakov’s hands, the tambourine can truly be a musical weapon of mass destruction.
At long last- the research has been completed, the results have been tallied. We can now say with absolute, factual certainty who the 15 greatest orchestrators of all time are. Check out the results, then let us know which ones you got wrong…. Er, we mean, let us know who you think should be on the list.
Scoring was on the basis of-
1- How good they were: does their work sound great?
2- How original they were: does their work sound unique?
3- How idiomatic/professional they were: does their work work as they wrote it?
Stay tuned for next time, when we look at the most problematic orchestrators ever chose between 2nd oboe or 2nd clarinet.
A giant, whose musical achievements look bigger and more impressive as the years go by. His Concerto for Orchestra is every bit as great as Bartók’s, and his symphonies are simply amazing works, full of color and originality.
Mozart’s music, is of course, some of the most beautiful ever written. As an orchestrator, he leaves an awful lot of the welfare of the music in the hands of the musicians. It simply has to be well-played to work at all- the orchestration covers no problems and really makes very few effects. On the other hand, there are wonderful diversions and surprises in his orchestral choices- the divided violas in the Sinfonia Concertante, the use of clarinets instead of oboes in the 39th Symphony or the dark sound of basset horns and trombones in the Requiem. His most strikingly original orchestral work is the Gran Partita, a work with only one player (the double bass) there to represent for the strings.
Perhaps no composer better understood the poetic power of orchestral sonority than Bruckner. Often compared to Wagner and Mahler, his sound-world is more austere and restrained, and the music is all the more powerful for it. For me as a listener and conductor, he’s in the top four all-time orchestrators. I’ve bumped him back in this listing out of deference to all those string players who wish they’d learned how to play tremolo without tension before they encountered his music.
Some may be surprised to see Brahms on this list- he’s not a composer known for his attention-grabbing orchestration. Of course, that’s exactly how Brahms would have wanted it: a composer of such exactly honesty and discipline could only have wanted an orchestral world where every detail was completely in service of the musical narrative. The magnitude of his achievement and the skill of his work can be best appreciated by sampling Schoenberg’s well-meaning but desperately incompetent and misguided orchestration of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet
Mendelssohn is one of the many composers on this list who was also an expert conductor of vast experience, and it shows on every page of his music. If less ambitious than Berlioz or Schumann, he was far more polished. Everything works, everything fits under the hand.
Yes, his music is harder to play than Mendelssohn’s or Brahms. If one strays too far from his original number of players and stage setup, it can be hard to make the balances and textures work, but he was far more original, daring and inspired than either of his masterful friends. His brass writing is particularly original- check out the trombone chorale in the Third Symphony or the mind-blowing horn writing in the Konzertstucke.
Shostakovich had the wisdom to recognize early on that Mahler and Strauss had taken orchestral micro-managerialism as far as it could go. There are more expressive markings in the first ten pages of Mahler 7 than in the entire 15 Shostakovich symphonies combined (disclaimer- this statement is probably not actually factually true, but you get my point). Shostakovich’s orchestral palette is incredibly wide-ranging. He can do stark, he can do contrapuntally insane, he can do Russian lyricism. No composer before or since could do so much with contrabassoon and piccolo. And yet, as diverse as the language is, the voice is always instantly recognizable.
Wagner changed everything, especially the sound of the orchestra. From the opening of Rienzi through the final pages of Parsifal, Wagner’s orchestra has a grandeur, a power and a breadth of colour the likes of which had never been seen before. His influence is immeasurable.
If one were to be so curmudgeonly as to try to find fault with Bartók as an orchestrator, the only fault to find might be in the fact that one can hear the influence of Stravinsky and Debussy in so much of his work. Still, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
Stravinsky was the Miles Davis of classical music. Over a long career, he managed to reinvent himself over and over again, and, like Miles, he seemed to almost welcome the despairing cries of his fans every time he left a beloved style behind. He could have written Firebird another 50 times and been the richest composer who ever lived. Instead, he went on a sixty year journey of constant renewal, from the primal fury of Rite of Spring ,to the acidic modernist tang of the Octet for Winds and Symphonies of Wind Instruments, to the neo-Classical delights of Dumbarton Oaks and Danses Concertantes, to the severity of Oedipus Rex, and then on to the atonal abstractions of Agon. And through it all, the listener needs only one of those trademarked tutti staccato chords to know you’re still listening to Miles Davis….. er, I mean Stravinsky. He would rank even higher on this list but for his tendency to revise and fuss- like Mahler, he could never leave his orchestrations alone (profit was a big reason in Stravinsky’s case)
The name “Ravel” has practically come to mean “great orchestrator.” He was a great, great, great composer, too, but with the rare gift of inhabiting the sound world of other composers. Of all the composers who were drawn into orchestrating or re-orchestrating the music of Mussorgsky, I think Ravel strikes possibly the most judicious balance between keeping the best of Mussorgsky’s original ideas and making the music shine for the listener. Has there every been anything lovelier than the Minuet from Tombeau de Couperin or the end of Mother Goose?
Of course, Mahler has to be high on this list. The originality of his orchestral writing is just amazing- and really worlds away from the blocks of sonority favoured by Bruckner and Wagner. It’s chamber music on a vast scale. Possibly the greatest conductor who ever lived, his orchestral writing is informed by a huge depth of practical experience, not least conducting his own works, which he revised again and again whenever he performed them, always seeking to get closer to his musical ideal.
Elgar shares a gift also held by Shostakovich and Bruckner- that of having an instantly-recognizable orchestral fingerprint. His orchestrations of other composers’ works sound more like Elgar than Parry, Bach or the like. A pragmatic professional musician, his orchestration is generally also more fluid and idiomatic than even his great Austro-Bohemian near-contemporary, Gustav Mahler.
2. J. S. Bach
The fact that Bach places at no. 2 on the list of history’s greatest and most imaginative orchestrators is all the more impressive considering the fact that in Bach’s time, orchestration really wasn’t much of a “thing.” Bach’s orchestral Klagnwelt is amazingly wide ranging: from the sparking trumpet-and-drum brilliance of the Christmas Oratorio to the austere and direct atmosphere of the Saint John Passion and the poly-choral and poly-orchestral complexities of the Saint Matthew.
1. Richard Strauss
When it comes to orchestration, Strauss is in a league completely and totally of his own. It’s no accident that so many of the composers on this list (Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner and Elgar) share a certain late-Romantic sensibility. Their music emerges from a time in which the orchestra really was the symbol of civilization and art. However you rank all the figures on this list as composers, as a master of the orchestra, Richard Strauss really has no competition. Where Mahler, Bruckner and Stravinsky seemed to be unable to quite put their musical ideas into a final form, Strauss wrote with supreme confidence and seemed to never need to revise. No composer before or since seems to have been able to put so much on the page at once and have it all make sense. Others who have tried, such as Schoenberg around the time of Pelleas and Melisande and Gurrelider, have come to grief- the balances are almost impossible to get right. Think of the range of his orchestral universe, too- from Heldenleben to Metamorphosen, from the Oboe Concerto to Elektra, from Till Eulenspiegel to Aiadne auf Naxos.
1. There is a sequel to this post here. It’s a (mostly) affectionate look at orchestral music’s problem children.
2. Some very good suggestions have come up in the comments, notably
– Tchaikovsky. Yes! Totally deserves to be high on this list. An absolute genius of an orchestrator who never seemed to put a foot wrong.
– Sibelius. Yes, also. Brahmsian in it’s unobtrusive perfection and the absence of pointless effect
– Nielsen. Many amazing things in his music, but it can be damnably hard and there are many things that are baffling. If and where you put him on this list depends on what you think the balance between the bold and the baffling is.
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