Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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It’s not often that something from the New York Times Op-ed pages gets you thinking about music for children, but a blog post by Paul Krugman this week reawakened a line of thought that had been simmering away in my subconscious since the premiere last week of the new orchestral version of my setting of The Ugly Duckling.

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Krugman’s column (interestingly, the right-leaning NYT columnist Ross Douthat picks up on the same study here) examines a recent study which seems to document a genuinely terrifying malaise spreading across the American heartland. White Americans, a group of human beings who start their lives with more advantages than perhaps any other social or ethnic group in history (other than the European aristocracy, perhaps), are literally dying of despair. People are dying at their own hands, dying of drink, dying of drugs, dying of self-inflicted diabetes.

Times are tough all around the world- tougher than they’ve been in more than 75 years. But while economic inequality, political dysfunction and concerns about war, terrorism and security can be a toxic brew, I am concerned there is more at work here, and the problems reach back to the comfortable and prosperous childhoods many of these people now dying of despair grew up enjoying in the 1980’s, 90’s and 2000’s (* see below). I’ve written before about the toxic effects of what I call “junk culture” and it seems that what we’re seeing now in America is a terrifying metastasis of a lifetime’s exposure to “entertainment” which rots the brain and poisons the soul.

(Imagine a modern comic story in which the challenge for the hero is to restore vowel sounds to the human race)

Children’s literature and entertainment underwent a seismic shift during my own childhood in the 1980’s. One need only look at the changes that took place in the output of any of a number of popular children’s franchises, whether they be Scooby Doo or Superman. In the early 80’s, entertainment became far more starkly divided into material for boys or girls, and in both arenas, the tone changed enormously. Plotlines became notably more simplistic, and cartoons started repeating material after commercial breaks, as though kids couldn’t remember what they’d just seen (this technique is now the mainstay of all media, from NPR to the BBC to Fox News- we must constantly remind the view what they’ve just seen and tease them with what they’re about to see). Language became purely functional, and of secondary importance at best. Gone is all the wordplay and wit one can find in children’s entertainment from the 20’s through the 70’s, with sarcasm and snark standing in for sophistication, humour and insight. Today’s Batman is a mono-syllabic psychopath, his enemies screaming madmen. In boy’s entertainment, the tone of everything has become darker and more violent, but the violence has became strangely bloodless, and the plotlines lacking in almost tension or sense of consequence. For girls, stories and shows made in the last 35 years became primarily about social standing. The tensions of high clique-ism in almost any girls’ show, from Strawberry Shortcake through to Saved by the Bell, are just as psychologically- violent and banal as anything in a 1990’s era Superman cartoon.  To summarise the changes we see that-

  1. We began asking much less from viewers and readers in terms of attention span and ability to process language, stay engaged with a story through moments of high tension, remember plot or understand complex messages
  2. Violence, both physical and social (teasing, exclusion, pressuring) becomes more pervasive, but largely consequent-less
  3. Viewers and readers are spared anything that might be genuinely upsetting, but exposed to much that is desensitizing and which normalises things which should not be normalised.
  4. Commercialism and social standing is shown as the path to happiness. Buy the toy of the show, and you will be happy. Being normal will make you popular, and being popular will make you happy. If you’re not popular, you’ll never be happy.

Nowhere is this change more obvious than when one looks at classics of children’s literature of the past. Three years ago when I first had the idea to set The Ugly Duckling to music, I only really knew the story from the Danny Kaye song and the odd modern adaptation. When I finally read Hans Christian Andersen’s story I was completely overwhelmed by it and was determined to set it to music as faithfully as I could. It’s a deeply upsetting work full of pain, heartbreak, exclusion, violence and loneliness. Every time we’ve done it, I’ve been braced for challenges from people saying it’s too dark, too upsetting or too long. Unlike a modern superhero film where the protagonist walks through a blizzard of bullets and emerges unscathed, or destroys a city battling the baddies without hurting any identifiable people, every act of cruelty and misfortune is deeply felt by The Duckling. Andersen constantly reminds us of what the main character is feeling, not just what he is doing, and most of what the Duckling is feeling is pain and despair. In the story, Andersen pulls no punches about where this all leads- the story culminates in the Duckling’s attempted suicide. Compare this to so much children’s entertainment in which a character is socially excluded from the popular gang because she wears glasses for a few minutes, gets a makeover and then lives happily ever after as “one of the in crowd.” The Duckling in the end isn’t welcomed back by his birth family, he doesn’t get invited to a party at the popular ducks’ house, the turkeys don’t apologise for biting him. He is welcomed into a new community, but remains excluded from the one in which he grew up. His salvation isn’t in changing his clothes or winning over his adversaries, it’s in discovering his true self. I recently read a fascinating interview with J.R.R. Tolkien (**see below) in which he dismissed Andersen as a simplistic moralist. I certainly don’t see that in Duckling. The message seems far from the “don’t worry, everything is always fine and all problems resolved at the end of the episode (BUY THE TOY!)” simplicity of modern children’s entertainment. Instead of telling the reader that everything will be fine, it seems to warn us that life is anything but fine, that life is full of pain, disappointment, loss and loneliness. The comfort of the story is not that Andersen says the problems of life can be solved (it appears they can’t be), it is that it teaches us that they can be survived. It teaches that your only real hope is not what you do (nothing the Duckling does in the story improves his condition, he only manages to extract himself from one perilous situation after another. It’s a story about running away, not fighting back.), but who you are, and that is enough.

I was encouraged speaking to my friend Sebastian at the concert to hear that at the local Steiner school in his village, they spend a lot of time exposing children to the work of Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Also on the programme last week was Tom Kraines’ fantastic setting of the Grimm Brother’s Hansel and Gretel, another startlingly dark tale. The last part of the story with the kids imprisoned in the gingerbread house is genuinely terrifying- strip away the shtick with the candy and the archetypical witchy old woman and you have everyone’s worst nightmare of child abduction and attempted ritual murder. Upsetting as this is, the family dynamics that Hansel and Gretel face throughout the story are possibly even more troubling. Their father’s wife (in some versions their mother, but often described as their stepmother) is genuinely evil, pressuring their father to “take them into the forest and leave them there.” He’s obviously not much better, abandoning them twice.

(The opening of Tom Kraines’ setting of Hansel and Gretel performed by Auricolae. David Yang- narrator and artistic director, Diane Pascal- violin, KW- cello)

Fairy tales are dark on purpose- they allow children to prepare themselves for the challenges and terrors of life in psychological safey. By turning the protagonists into barnyard animals, as Andersen does, or cloaking real-life horrors in myth and candy as the Grimm Brothers do, we allow children to engage with deeply troubling but not-uncommon problems. Almost everyone who saw the movie as a child remembers how inconsolably upset they were when Bambi’s mother was shot, but imagine how much more traumatic the experience would have been if Bambi and his mother were depicted as human?   Of course, thankfully only a tiny handful of young children have to deal with the sudden and violent death of a parent, but the realisation that one could lose a parent is potentially one of the most traumatic moments of childhood, and one that all children have to face. I can remember the cultural moment when everyone realised that malign fairy tale of step-parents is largely unfair and grossly stereotypical- most step parents are loving and committed. However, I also knew a little boy growing up whose stepfather subjected him to a childhood of shocking cruelty, lavishing praise and affection on his birth children, while either ignoring or mocking this kid for most of his life. Fairy tales often deal in archetypical characters who are necessarily exaggerated and over-simplified, but they allow authors to depict the very real dark side of humanity in the context of a short and comprehensible story.

Importantly, the long-suffering protagonists of the best classic children’s stories are not the only vivid, realistic or multi-dimensional characters. Not every child will see themselves in The Duckling- more than a handful will recognise more of their own nature and behavior in the brothers, sisters and neighbours who taunt and humiliate The Duckling on the playground. His birth mother starts as a loving figure, and even steps in to protect him from his peers, but as soon as his presence jeopardises her social standing, she abandons all responsibility for him.  Hansel and Gretel’s parents act with astonishing disregard for their children’s well being, but they are driven by starvation and poverty. These stories teach us that normal people, convinced of their own righteousness, are capable of inflecting terrible suffering on others. They teach empathy, where so much modern children’s literature and popular culture actually says that being accepted by bullies into their cliques and gangs is the true measure of one’s success in life.

For more than a generation, we’ve fed both children and grownups a toxic stew of diversionary, dehumanising, commercialistic garbage that teaches nothing, that prepares one for nothing, that helps you understand nothing. The terrible increase in death by suicide, drugs and alcohol we’re now seeing in America is being compared to the state of affairs in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union (Krugman writes “As a number of people have pointed out, the closest parallel to America’s rising death rates — driven by poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases — is the collapse in Russian life expectancy after the fall of Communism.”). The economic setbacks being endured in America now are not to be belittled, but must rank as laughingly minor compared to what happened in Russia in the early 1990’s, yet we’re seeing a similar epidemic of hopelessness. Even the distress faced by those in the former Soviet Union in the early 90’s were less dire than what their parents and grandparents endured across the first half of the 20th C. People can endure much worse and still fight fiercely for survival. White Americans are the only racial group manifesting this sort of large-scale self destructive despair, and yet it’s obvious that, as a group, they’re better off than African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans or almost any other subgroup you care to think of.

What the two countries do share is that they are societies in which the primary motivating factor of most public discourse is manipulation. Whether it is propaganda intended to shore up support for a dying communist government, or advertising, or faux news intended to rally support for a corporatist political and economic agenda, being saturated with messages calculated to control people’s behaviour is incredibly damaging over time. On the other hand, cultures that celebrate literature and learning seem to be remarkably resilient in even the most horrific circumstances. I would recommend everyone reading this to pick up Hans Gál’s Music Behind Barbed Wire, which is an amazing document that shows how music, learning, literature and social engagement can empower people to cope with shocking situations.

Fairy tales teach us to look within for strength in difficult times, where so much of media if the last 35 years tells us to buy, fight or blame our way to happiness. How is one to find happiness when you have no money to spend or there’s nothing left to buy, or nobody else to blame? No wonder we have so many people running around our cities carrying guns. To an outsider, the insanity of the behaviour seems painfully obvious, but these are people who spent their whole childhoods being taught that guns solve problems and that the bullets never hit the main character, and we all think of ourselves as the main character in the movie of our own life.

Both The Ugly Duckling and Tom’s Hansel and Gretel grew out of my friend David Yang’s  “Auricolae” project. It’s something I’ve been very proud to be a part of. Most “classical music for children” is anodyne rubbish- music drained of all power tied to stories sapped of all importance. It’s a welcome reminder that we don’t have to be too sentimental about an idealised litery past- there’s still plenty of room to create new and interesting children’s literature that is of our time. Meanwhile, I would be thrilled to death if my little piece helped more members of my children’s generation to get to know and think about Hans Christian Andersen’s literary masterpiece, but in today’s climate, I don’t expect it to reach more than a few hundred sets of ears. I don’t think it’s likely we’ll ever see Andersen’s masterpiece depicted honestly on film. I can’t imagine a bunch of suits at Disney ever greenlighting it without first gutting it. The Duckling’s tale of heartbreak, bullying, isolation and attempted suicide would surely ruffle too many feathers.


Consumerism sucks. Buy our CD!

*This study is particularly unnerving as it deals with people aged 45-54, most of whom are old enough to have grown up through the transition from one era of children’s entertainment to the current one and thus to have had at least some exposure to healthier content in their childhood. The prognosis is sure to be grimmer for those now 15-45, who’ve grown up in a far more cynical and isolating world. Also, the social cost of the last 14 years of perpetual war are not accounted for in this study- we know depression, addiction and suicide are epidemic among veterans, but much research needs to be done to understand just how widespread the problems are and how they affect veterans’ families and communities.

** I grew up as a huge fan of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings. When I returned to the books as an adult, there was much I found shocking and disappointing, but I found two things really compelling and profound. First, I’d kind of forgotten that Frodo ultimately fails at the moment of truth. It was only because of his earlier mercy towards Smeagol that The Ring is destroyed. Second, and even more telling, is the touching way in which Tolkien shows the price Frodo and Bilbo pay for their adventures. When we re-encounter Bilbo at the beginning of LOTR, he’s a profoundly changed and damaged hobbit. At the end of LOTR, Frodo seems tormented by melancholy- in the end, he’s been so changed by what he’s experienced that a hobbit hole no longer offers the comfort guaranteed in the first paragraph of The Hobbit.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

17 days ago | |
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It was the sort of revelation that will probably be denied to musicians of the post YouTube generation, because when you grow up in a world where a permanent visual record of just about everyone and everything is available instantaneously online, the shock of seeing something or someone significant for the first time will almost always be watered down. But for me, the first time I saw the Berlin Philharmonic was a revelation.

It was in the early 1990’s. My piano trio had been invited to do a short residency at the Lucerne Festival, coaching with our inspiring mentor Henry Meyer, and giving a concert in a breathtaking converted mansion overlooking the lake. During the days, we rehearsed, practiced and worked with Henry. In the evenings, we had passes to all the events of the festival, and what a lineup it was. We saw the Alban Berg Quartet, heard a magnificent recital by Anne-Sophie Mutter, heard Pollini play Schumann, Schönberg and Stravinsky, and we got to hear many of the world’s greatest orchestras. The Cleveland Orchestra played a stunning Dvorak 9 with Dohnanyi, the Concertgebouw rocked Mahler 1 with the then-young Chailly and another great American orchestra played what remains the worst, or at least most upsetting, concert I’ve ever heard. Everything was free, except for the final concert of the Festival- Mahler 9 with Abbado (this was before the founding of new Lucerne Festival Orchestra) and his Berlin Philharmonic. Our kind contact in the office tried hard to get me in for cheap or free, but 2 minutes before the concert started, she told me there was only one seat left and it was an amount equivalent to half a month’s rent for student Ken. Well, I thought, my hands trembling, this is what an emergency credit card is for. I’ve never regretted spending the money- it was an incredible concert.

The music making was unreal and has stayed with me ever since, but the other revelation was to see how the orchestra moved as they played. Growing up in the Midwest we were lucky to be able to go see the Chicago Symphony and later Cleveland, Cincinnati and Minnesota on their home turf, but American orchestra musicians back then really didn’t move. In fact, moving was beaten out of us in conservatory- it was seen as distracting, narcissistic and counterproductive. As my wife’s violin teacher has said-“Why move? It’s harder to hit a moving target.” And we’ve all had to sit next to, or worse yet, behind a real showboater- there is nothing more irritating or distracting.

Then there was Belin, making the greatest sound I’d ever heard, and everyone in the orchestra was moving a lot, and it seemed anything but counterproductive.  I realised that night that there was a flaw in the logic I’d grown up with, but it took me many years to figure out exactly what the lesson of that evening should be.

It’s not just the pre-YouTube-ness of seeing the Berlin Philharmonic work for the first time in an actual concert that seems quaint. It’s the fact that someone working on their doctorate degree at the time could be fairly surprised to see professional musicians moving onstage so demonstrably.  My how times have changed.

(Heifetz and Reiner- not exactly a feast for the eyes, but for the ears?)

For much of the 20th C. the generally accepted view of classical musicians, including soloists and even conductors, was that they should be appreciated by the ears rather than the eyes. Horowitz may have played like a demon, but he dressed and moved more like an accountant. Heifetz was the embodiment of economy of motion- the eyes, when open, said much, but the facial muscles said nothing, and the feet never moved. Young Leonard Bernstein, of course, raised many eyebrows with a conducting style miles away from that of his stoic teacher, Fritz “the evil Rhinoceros”  Reiner, and Georg Solti’s acrobatic and muscular approach was also controversial, but the key to understanding the world in which they worked was the very shock with which their performances were sometimes received.

Today, moving is the norm. In fact, classical music has, in the course of just a generation, become a largely visual medium. Our biggest stars are our biggest movers, from Lang Lang and Gustavo Dudamel right through the ranks. That’s not a criticism of them- merely a statement of fact. Today, more and more musicians and concert planners are making sure that our audience has plenty to look at.  Looks have always mattered in this business, as this historic photo of Abbado and Matha Argerich oozing glamour reminds us.


Karajan reputedly forced bald members of the Berlin Philharmonic to wear hair-pieces when the orchestra was filmed, and Leonard Bernstein had a life-long love affair with the camera. On the other hand, look at vintage footage of Bernstein’s NYPO and you’ll see what you see in most historic orchestral footage- bad hair, bad glasses, ill-fitting tuxes, frumpy dresses and old-fashioned shoes.

(Even Lenny looks bad in this, but does it bother you? Probably not…. until they murder the coda. But till then- WOW!!!!)

I write today not to decry the visual in music. After all, I was once the young conductor whose entire concept of orchestral playing was shaped by seeing how the Berliner’s moved. Instead, I write to question our motivations for creating visual stimuli in the concert hall.

Of course, not everything visual in a concert is motivated. Some people just are very good looking, and I’m fine with that. Being able to appreciate visual beauty is one of the great compensations afforded by the human condition.

And some performers can’t help but move. Jimi Hendrix is my hero- he could be as flamboyant as anyone who ever lived, although in his greatest performance, he hardly moved at all.

(Jimi plants his feet and reaches to the edge of the Cosmos)

These days, the classical music world is full of dazzlingly good-looking people who can play anything perfectly while doing anything else. One might regret that there would surely be no place in today’s musical universe for a Horowitz or Heifetz (and even less room for their female analogues), but times have changed.

(What would the music world do with Myra Hess today?)

We live in an age of instant gratification- even the world of TV seems laid back and cosy compared to the sensory overload of the online universe. In the era of music for YouTube, perhaps we must simply accept that this is now a visual medium and work accordingly? Being a “great communicator” has become synonymous with “looking cool and sexy onstage/on video,” a metric by which someone like Rostropovich, to say nothing of Heifetz or Milstein, must have stank to high heaven as a communicator. After all, there is no shortage of classical musicians who can play The Last Rose of Summer naked while reciting Ibsen in four different languages and tap dancing the Communist Manifesto in Morse code. Everyone is racing to put together the next million click YouTube video. Classical music can no longer count on the kind of engagement and broad popular interest that sustained it through the Horowitz and Heifetz era. It seems that if we want to attract a modern audience, it is no longer enough to stand still and play. We have to dazzle, titillate and entertain.

I fear we’ve missed something? What if that great audience of the mid 20th C existed not in spite of performers like Horowitz and Heifetz, but, in part, because of them? Technically, standards are higher than ever, but what if there was more to music than playing without making mistakes? Oh- you mean there is?

I remember a teacher who had a great trick for teaching students to play things like Flight of the Bumblebee and Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo. He said you should put the metronome on slowing and work it up while reading a magazine. It worked. “When it’s in your fingers, it’s easy- you can be doing anything else.” Such an approach is fine for mastering technique, but doesn’t work for communicating the essence of great music.

My belief is that we only really reach our audience when we’re giving everything of ourselves to the music. Not to the eye or to the camera. You don’t get to touch people’s souls while posing  and thinking about the crossword. With enough practice, you can play the notes and multitask, but nobody can play the music while thinking of ten other things, least of all their own vanity. Solti’s manic energy was a perfect manifestation of an unselfconscious, total focus on the music, as I’ve written about before. I feel the same about much of Bernstein’s work, though others disagree with me. I think the power of the Berlin experience back at Lucerne all those years ago was not that they “were moving” but that they’d given up “trying not to move” which is a form of posing in and of itself. If you move because of the music, or for the music- fine. If you move for the camera or the audience, well…..

I believe we expect most performers and composers to be unrealistically “normal” these days. Everyone is expected to like pop music, be a good cook, tell jokes, dress fashionably and charm people. We used to accept that many artists were eccentric, socially awkward, monomaniacal or neurotic. We certainly didn’t expect them all to buy into the corn syrup phoniness of most pop culture, or be able to jump start a car. Nobody ever accused Horowitz of being normal. Perhaps, to really reach the parts, to really stop listeners in their tracks, to give people a reason to trek across suburbia and look for a parking space before a concert, we need to play music with the kind of all-consuming intensity that means we need to accept the odd un-choreographed moment,  bad haircut, personality disorder, ill-fitting suit or pair of odd socks. If we make music for YouTube, then we must expect to find our audiences there and not in the concert hall.

Maybe as long as we try to reach listeners through their eyes, they’ll continue to look elsewhere.

23 days ago | |
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An extraordinary rave review from senior critic Christopher Morley for Donald Fraser’s orchestration of the Elgar Piano Quintet as heard in the final concert of the 2015 Elgar Pilgrimage

Composer, producer, conductor and arranger, Donald Fraser

“Two of the most exciting events I have experienced during a reviewing career approaching half a century involve symphonies Elgar never wrote….This “War Symphony” (the title taking its cue from an entry in Alice Elgar’s diary) is a triumph in its recreation of Elgar’s rich orchestral sound-world, and though Fraser, unlike Payne, had all the material in front of him, he had the difficult task of making us forget the original medium and accept the new one…Fraser’s assimilation of Elgar’s orchestral methods bears fascinating fruit and then some. His antiphonal use of brass, athletic horns in conversation with the heavier mob on the other side of the stage, is a highly effective resource; his deployment of percussion (quietly menacing timpani, skeletal tambourine) adds to the points being made, and the strings sing and cushion with gorgeous depths of tone….The ESO certainly played with an enthusiastic awareness that they were making history, and the devoted, unassuming Kenneth Woods conducted with an easy flexibility that recalled the work’s chamber-music origins. This “War Symphony” deserves to be acknowledged immediately as a worthy addition to the Elgar canon.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer brought a compelling baritone soloist in Njabulo Madlala…His communication of numbed grief was immediately hypnotic, his voice smooth and shapely, with Woods finding portents of far more Mahler symphonies than just the First with which it is so closely associated.”

1 month ago | |
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 For Immediate Release






As the English Symphony Orchestra (ESO) continues its resurgence under Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods, it’s fitting that the ensemble, based in Elgar’s hometown of Worcester, presents An Elgar Pilgrimage, a four-day festival in October, celebrating the composer’s life and music. Repertoire ranging from Elgar’s earliest to his last, some of his most iconic works, music by contemporaries, new commissions and world-premieres will be performed in a trinity of locations associated with Elgar: the Cathedral in Hereford where he lived at Plas Gwyn from 1904 – 1912, The Forum Theatre in Malvern where he lived from 1891 – 1904, and in the hall which bears his name at the University of Birmingham where he was appointed the University’s first Professor of Music in 1905.

(Composer Donald Fraser)

“By celebrating the music of Elgar and his legacy across the Midlands,” says Woods, “we are also celebrating the orchestra’s rich history with this music and our own pride of place as the professional orchestra of Elgar country. Given that Elgar’s music, which I’ve loved and performed all my life, is so central to British musical discourse, it’s incredibly exciting to be able to share with our audiences a programme that gives our listeners a chance to hear some of his greatest music from new perspectives.”

The curtain rises on An Elgar Pilgrimage on Wednesday, 7 October at Hereford Cathedral and brings together three of the region’s leading musical organisations: select members of the Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Academia Musica, the scholars choir of the Hereford Sixth Form College; and the English String Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods. The programme features two world-premieres, a virtuoso work for strings by Elgar, and an audience favourite by one of Elgar’s English contemporaries. The concert opener, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams was first performed in 1910 as part of the Three Choirs Festival. The ESO’s composer-in-association Philip Sawyers’ Songs of Loss and Regret was commissioned last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I; featuring soprano soloist April Fredrick, the work receives its world-premiere on this concert. Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, scored for string quartet and string orchestra, was composed in 1905 for the newly-formed London Symphony Orchestra. Elgar’s string writing has inspired the Elgar Pilgrimage’s Guest Composer Donald Fraser, who lived and worked for many years at Brinkwells, Elgar’s Sussex cottage. The climax of the Elgar Pilgrimage’s opening concert is the premiere of Fraser’s arrangement of the iconic Sea Pictures for choir and string orchestra. “What Donald has done is quite incredible,” remarks Woods. “He’s not added, changed or removed a single note of Elgar’s work, but has created a new, flexible sound world between two homogenous ensembles.” The performance continues the successful collaboration between the ESO and Academia Musica, who in the spring won critical acclaim for their performance of Mozart’s Requiem at London’s St. John’s Smith Square, and marks a renewed association with the Three Choirs Festival.

Soprano April Fredrick

Woods and the ESO return to the Malvern Theatres on Thursday, October 8, to perform one of Elgar’s earliest works as well as one of his most revered, both put into context alongside a great 19th century symphony. The Froissart Overture was Elgar’s first large-scale orchestral work. Written in 1890, it was commissioned for that year’s Three Choirs Festival. Twenty years later, Elgar penned a work that became an instant hit, his Violin Concerto. This performance will feature Alexander Sitkovetsky, a protégé of Yehudi Menuhin, former Principal Guest Conductor of the ESO, who was indelibly associated with the work, having made the legendary recording with the composer on the podium. The influence on Elgar of continental European composers will be heard in one of his favourite works, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, a work that served as the focus of his first lecture at the University of Birmingham.

Elgar and Brahms will be side by side again for a chamber music concert on Friday, 9 October, at the University of Birmingham’s Elgar Concert Hall. ESO guest artists violinists Alexander Sitkovetsky and Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violist Louise Lansdown, cellist Matthew Sharp and pianist Clare Hammond, will come together to perform Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, the first of his three works in the genre, and Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 85, one of the composer’s latest works that was written at Brinkwells in 1919.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet features again in An Elgar Pilgrimage’s closing concert on Saturday, 10 October at the Elgar Concert Hall, this time in a world-premiere performance of Donald Fraser’s orchestration of the work. Another arrangement opens the programme, that by Elgar of J. S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, one of the composer’s final compositions. In between comes?Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the first great song cycle written by Gustav Mahler, who conducted Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Enigma Variations during his final season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1910-11.

An Elgar Pilgrimage is supported in part by Arts Council England.

* * * * *

All media enquiries, interview and image request, please contact Melanne Mueller,, +44 (0) 20 8698 6933

For further information about An Elgar Pilgrimage, please visit

For further information about Kenneth Woods, please visit

For further information about the English Symphony Orchestra, please visit


English Symphony Orchestra
English String Orchestra
Kenneth Woods – Principal Conductor
Donald Fraser – Guest Composer

7 – 10 October 2015
Hereford, Malvern, Birmingham

Wednesday, 7 October

7:30 pm?(pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm)
Ralph Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Philip Sawyers Songs of Loss and Regret (world premiere)
April Fredrick soprano
Edward Elgar Introduction and Allegro for Strings
Elgar/Fraser Sea Pictures (world premiere of new version for choir and strings)
English String Orchestra
Academia Musica
Three Choirs Voices
Kenneth Woods conductor

Hereford Cathedral
5 College Cloisters, Cathedral Close
Hereford HR1 2NG
Tickets £25, £20, £18, £15. Seniors 25% discount, children and students 50% discount

Hereford Courtyard Theatre Box Office:, 01432 340 555
Thursday, 8 October

7:45 pm?(pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm)
Elgar Overture “Froissart”, Op. 19
Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Elgar Violin Concerto, Op. 61
Alexander Sitkovetsky violin
Malvern Theatres
Grange Road
Malvern, Worcestershire WR14 3HB
English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods conductor

Tickets £22.96 – £33.04 (inclusive of 12% booking fee)

Malvern Theatres Box Office:, 01684 892 277
Friday, 9 October

7:30 pm (pre-concert talk at 6:45 pm)

Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25
Elgar Piano Quintet  in A minor, Op. 85

Elgar Concert Hall
University of Birmingham

Bramall Music Building,
Birmingham B15 2TT
Alexander Sitkovetsky and Tamsin Waley-Cohen violins
Louise Lansdown viola
Matthew Sharp cello
Clare Hammond piano

Tickets £20, £15, £10

Town Hall & Symphony Hall Box Office:, 0121 345 0600



Saturday, 10 October

4:00 pm (pre-cocnert talk at 3:15 pm)
J. S. Bach/Elgar Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, Op. 86
Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
Njabulo Madlala baritone
Elgar/Fraser Symphonic Realisation of Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84 (world premiere)
Elgar Concert Hall

University of Birmingham

Bramall Music Building,
Birmingham B15 2TT
Tickets £20, £15, £10
Town Hall & Symphony Hall Box Office:, 0121 345 0600

2 months ago | |
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Earlier this week I gave a talk on “how to rehearse” for a regional consortium of music educators. The following list formed the basis of our discussions. It’s by no means a complete or exclusive list, but we publish it here without further comment in hopes that some of you find it helpful.

Please share your thoughts about what makes a good rehearsal- whether working with beginners or the Berlin Philharmonic.

General Rehearsal Advice

  • Know the music!
  • Play first, show what you want, then talk
  • Be yourself and rehearse the same way wherever you go. All ensembles need both your highest standards, and your utmost patience
  • Give musicians information in the order they need it, ie “Before letter A, ten bars” rather than “10 bars before A”
  • If you wait to work on musical details and style until you’ve solved technical problems, you’ll never work on musical details and style
  • If you help the players understand the “why’s” of the score, they’re more likely to remember the “what’s”
  • Teach your ensemble the difference between “rehearsing” and “practicing.” When you do have to turn a rehearsal into a practice session, make sure the musicians understand that this is not rehearsing
  • Working on rhythm often fixes many intonation problems, and slow intonation work solves many rhythmic issues
  • If you can write it in their music before the first rehearsal, do
  • Rhythmic subdivision is not only a matter of accuracy, but of character
  • Your ensemble might be the one setting in which a bright student really has to concentrate as hard as they can to do well. It’s up to you to teach them how much of themselves they need to give to the music
  • Rehearsal planning and anticipating what you’ll need to work on is useful, but you can only teach your students/colleagues to be “in the moment” if you are.

2 months ago | |
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Ex-trustfunder turned billionaire-blowhard-reality-show-junkie-cum-presidential-candidate Donald Trump waded into fraught cultural waters today with a speech in Vetterficker, Alabama during which he promised to “put an end to horn splits and fracks in my first 100 Trump-days as Trump-President of the United States of Trump.”

Donald Trump speaking to Mitch McConnell in Vetterficker, AL

Donald Trump speaking to Mitch McConnell in Vetterficker, AL

“Horn splits are a pervasive problem in our orchestral society,” said Trump, speaking to a crowd of about 10,000 on the football field at Peter Hundesperma Memorial HS in scenic Vetterficker. “What could be more un-American than a noise that sounds like a goose being strangled with piano wire at the climax of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony? As President, I’m going to sign an executive order on day one banning all horn splits, fracks, farts and squeaks.”

Trump’s promise to reform horn playing was greeted with ecstatic whoops from the assembled Vetterfickerers. “Trump is right,” said local gun technician Buford Rasistický, “missed horn notes are ruining our society. When the Vetterficker Symphony orchestra played Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica last year, the horns shit all over it. I got so mad, I threw a Confederate flag over the conductor’s head and started singing Skynyrd at the top of my voice during the fugue. If I’d been allowed to bring a gun to that concert, I bet they wouldn’t have missed anything.”

Trumphair 2 New

A promise to restore a sense of national dignity to American horn playing from Donald Trump

The Washington establishment, and Trump’s erstwhile rivals, expressed immediate scepticism as to Trump’s ability to truly deliver on his ambitious promise to eradicate splits from American horn playing. “Donald Trump can “promise” anything he wants,” said Jeb Bush, sipping straight vodka from a one-litre training bottle while smoking Lucky Strikes behind a local Kum and Go after speaking to only three people at a “Bush for Us All” campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa, “but there’s simply no way he can stop horn players splitting notes in the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler all Americans love so much without raising taxes and getting pigs to fly.”

Trump, however, expressed confidence in his ability to deliver on this most ambitious promise of his nascent campaign. “People tell me that Donald Trump can’t stop horn players missing notes. I tell you this- Donald Trump cured his own baldness. Donald Trump can cure horn playing! Not since my multi-millionaire father gave me a mountain of cash and an easy pathway into a lucrative, corrupt and insular industry have I been so certain of my success in any endeavour.”

“I cured my own baldness with class and determination- I can make horn players play good.”

While many Washington think tanks have ascribed the rise in horn inaccuracy to combination of factors including heavier, wider-bore instruments, over-sized concert halls and stress, Trump has no doubts about the primary cause of  not only splits but most perceived shortcomings in American horn playing. “It’s the Mexicans,” said Trump. “Them and the blacks, but mostly the Mexicans. I mean, have you heard a Mariachi band? You call that brass playing? With all that vibrato? How are American horn players to match the cool mastery of a Barry Tuckwell, the agility of a Dennis Brain or the lucid power and searing brilliance of a Norbert Hauptmann with that sound in their ears? In a Mexican-free, Trumped Up America, no music lover need ever fear the second movement of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony again!”

Trump’s plan for error-free horn playing includes introducing a rigorous system of ritual in-rehearsal humiliation in all American orchestras– a program he calls the “No Split Left Behind Act.” “If a horn player makes a mistake, people need to stop the rehearsal and really glare at them. Let them know that by slightly misjudging their embouchure or breathing, they’re contributing to the degradation of our entire society. I mean, really- who misses a note? Assholes.”

“America has been on the defensive for too long,” said Trump. “I want us to be a nation that doesn’t have to fear high-horn squeaks, wails and fracks, nor dread low-horn gurgles, farts, belches and that thing they do when they start like a minor third sharp and then bend their way down to the right pitch. I hate that. China! Mexico! Mexico!!!!!!!!! Trump! Me, Trump!”

Reached for comment on the campaign trail in Portland, Oregon, Bernie Sanders responded to Trump’s announcement by saying “The cultural of victim blaming has to stop. In a nation where 99% of the musical decisions are made by 1% of the musicians, how can we expect horn players get through a piece like Haydn’s Symphony no. 59 in A major without problems? Of course they have problems. They play for conductors and are surrounded by trumpet players. Do you know that in the last 40 years, ninety percent of the sharp notes in orchestras were played by trumpet players? And what more perfect symbol of our slide into oligarchy could there be than a conductor getting paide $50k to carve up  a forgettable and characterless hack-through of Tchaik 5? Being surrounded by that kind of visual and auditory torture day-in, day-out is no way play.”

The horn: trust me, you don't even want to try to play this effing thing.

The horn: trust me, you don’t even want to try to play this effing thing.

As conductor of the Trump Symphony, Donald Trump, seen here with countertenor Boris Johnson, has carved out a reputation as a leading interpreter of Orff and Pfitzner

As conductor of the Trump Symphony, Donald Trump, seen here with countertenor Boris Johnson, has carved out a reputation as a leading interpreter of Orff and Pfitzner

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As many of you know, all of us at the English Symphony Orchestra are busy gearing up for our 2015 Elgar Pilgrimage from the 7th-10th of October, with concerts in some of Elgar’s favourite haunts: Hereford, Malvern and Birmingham (on October 9th and 10th)

Elgar and his moustache in 1917

Elgar and his moustache in 1917

One of the highlights of the festival promises to be world premieres of two new arrangements of major Elgar works by composer Donald Fraser. On the 7th of October, we premiere his arrangement of Sea Pictures for chorus (no solo voice at all) and string orchestra, then on the 10th, we premiere his version of the Piano Quintet, now recast for full Elgarian symphony orchestra.

It’s been really gratifying to see the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the entire program of the festival, but one or two people (including someone I respect enormously) have expressed scepticism about the relevance of new arrangements of the music of Elgar. I was even a little surprised to find that the Elgar Society won’t fund performances of arrangements of Elgar’s music. I thought the subject of arrangements is interesting enough that it merited discussion here.

(Elgar didn’t write this piece, but I can’t tell- can you?)

Of course, Elgar was no puritan when it came to arrangements. He was very happy to see some of his highly profitable salon pieces arranged for all sorts of ensembles and instruments, and pieces like the Pomp and Circumstance marches have been adapted for brass bands almost since the ink on the originals was dry. Elgar was also happy to put on his orchestrator’s hat and work with the music of other composers, and he was not shy about putting his own strong stamp on other composers’ music. The stirring version of “Jerusalem” which ends the Last Night of the Proms every year sounds far more like vintage Elgar than anything else in the catalogue of its composer, Hubert Parry. In the twilight of his career, when his compositional inspiration waned, Elgar made a fantastically over-the-top arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, which we’ll play on the same concert as the Piano Quintet.

(Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony in Elgar’s radical orchestration of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor)

Elgar was also extremely pragmatic about the orchestration of his own music, especially in the recording studio, as one can see from the pervasive use of the tuba to double the bassline in his early recording of Sea Pictures.

(Dig the tuba, and the unsentimental tempo!)

In fact, Elgar lived and worked in a golden age of arrangements and adaptations. His musical cousin and almost-exact contemporary Gustav Mahler was vigorously engaged in adapting and tweaking the works of his heroes for the realities of the modern audience. In an age when audiences for chamber music were dwindling, he adapted Beethoven’s great F minor String Quartet, the Serioso, and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet for large string orchestra.

(Kenneth Woods and the Rose City Chamber Orchestra play Mahler’s orchestration of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet)

He was also unapologetic about adapting the orchestration of earlier composers, particularly Beethoven and Schumann, for larger halls, new instruments and larger orchestras. In doing so, he was carrying on a tradition manifest in Mozart’s re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s cut and re-orchestrated St Matthew Passion of Bach. It’s important to note that there was no criticism of these earlier masters implicit in Mahler’s re-working of their scores for radically different acoustic realities, and that modern research has shown that Beethoven and his contemporaries were also more than comfortable with adapting to varying orchestral forces and performing spaces. We now know that in Beethoven’s time, performances of his symphonies with large orchestra almost always involved the selective doubling of woodwinds and even tutti vs reduced string sections to maximize dynamic range and transparency.

(Beethoven 9 as re-imagined by Mahler, masterfully conducted by Gerhard Samuel)

In and around Beethoven’s own lifetime, arrangements of his works by those close to him were commonplace. Thus we have a version of his Second Symphony (among his most popular works during his lifetime) for piano trio- a version attributed to Beethoven himself, although there is doubt as to its authenticity. Also believed to be by Beethoven is a chamber version of the Fourth Piano Concerto (quintet versions of the other concertos by other arrangers also exist).  Beethoven arranged his Piano Sonata in F major, opus 14 no. 1, for string quartet, but this arrangement is still often omitted from many distinguished ensembles Beethoven Quartet “cycles.” Beethoven’s pupil and friend Czerny arranged the Kreutzer Sonata (originally for Violin and Piano) for Cello and Piano, and there are also arrangements of the Horn Sonata for Cello and Piano and another adaption of the Kreutzer Sonata for string quintet.

(Why don’t all string quartets play this piece?)

In most cases, as with Mahler and Mozart, the reasons for these arrangements had to do with a mixture of audience building, artistic advocacy and economics. Brahms’s most commercially successful works were his Hungarian Dances, which we know today  primarily as orchestral pieces, but they were originally piano works, and Brahms himself only orchestrated three of them, no’s 1, 3 and 10. Even the ubiquitous no. 5 was arranged by the otherwise forgotten Martin Schmeling. However, more eminent artists than Schmeling (whose work on no’s 5-7 is pretty impeccable) contributed to project of orchestrating these seminal works, notably  Antonín Dvorák and Hans Gál (of course, until a few years ago, nobody knew what a great composer Gál was. Will we find forgotten masterworks by Erwin Stein or Max Schmelling someday?). More recently, conductor and composer Ivan Fischer has prepared his own, very colourful but considerably more interventionist, version of the entire cycle of dances.

(Ivan Fischer conducting one of his tamer Hungarian Dance transcriptions. Visit the Digital Concert Hall to see what happens when he unleashes the cimbalom)

An interventionist approach to orchestrating another composer’s work can yield fascinating results, as in Mahler’s wonderful re-orchestration of Beethoven 9, Webern’s orchestration of the Bach Ricercar from the Musical Offering, and Schoenberg’s whimsical take on Johann Strauss Jr’s Emperor Waltz. Where Schmeling, Gál and Dvorák chose to try to keep their orchestrations of Brahms sounding as much like the master as possible, Schönberg threw caution to the wind in his semi-halucinogenic and totally over-the-top orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor: a work of musical marmite if ever there was one. I can’t stand it (as written about here), but Brahmsians as wise and perceptive as Malcolm MacDonald love it. To me, Schönberg fails to see the point at which his instrumental interventions begin to seriously detract from Brahms’s musical choices. This is a miscalculation he shares with another of my heroes, Shostakovich, whose re-orchestration of the Schumann Cello Concerto stands as one of music history’s all time top 5 own goals. When I set out to make my own orchestration of the G minor’s twin brother in A major, I vowed to stay on the Gál/ Dvorák path, but in the end, what comes across is unavoidably imbued with my own musical personality.

(Listen to it in all its vulgar, twerking glory- Schoenberg’s unique, we hope, take on Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor)

Mahler’s efforts on behalf of Beethoven’s Opus 95 don’t seem to have done much to make the piece a hit- it remains once of LvB’s most severe and intense pieces, and will never be a choice for those classical music fans who like their music toothless and tame. Note that I chose to arrange Brahms’s A Major Piano Quartet, one the Cinderellas of his chamber music output, and not the far better known Piano Quintet in F minor, which needs neither further advocacy nor another version. Brahms began the work as a cello quintet, then transcribed it as a Sonata for Two Pianos. When he reworked the piece as a Piano Quintet, he destroyed the cello quintet version (he kept the version as as Sonata for Two Pianos), but that has since been re-constructed, as has the nonet version of his Serenade in D major, which he also discarded after re-orchestrating the piece for symphony orchestra.

(A lovingly-done reconstruction of the nonet version of Brahms’ Serenade in D major by Alan Boustead, played the Orchestra of the Swan and KW. Echt Brahms? Maybe not, but a fascinating window into how the final version came to be, and a joy to play in this form, buy it here)

On the other hand, if you were any composer, living or dead, with a forgotten work to bring to fame, who would you ask to orchestrate it but Maurice Ravel. In addition to his sterling work on behalf of Debussy, he made Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition into one of the most famous pieces ever written. Without his efforts, the original piano work would likely have sat in obscurity for many more years. Now, it is not only a mainstay of pianists everywhere, we have a surfeit of other orchestrations of Pictures to choose from. Leonard Slatkin does a fantastic version of the piece in which each movement is by a different arranger (none of them Ravel), culminating in Henry Wood’s absolutely bonkers finale (I believe he continues to vary the selection even now).

(Leonard Slatkin’s  pick-and-mix Pictures, or is the Pick-and-mixtures at an Exhibtion)

Economics have played a huge role in the kind of arrangements we see of great works. In the relatively rich times of fin de siècle Vienna, Mahler was fond of bigging up the works of  previous generations. A generation later, in a Europe ravaged by war and depression, Mahler’s disciples, including Schönberg, found themselves shrinking Mahler’s orchestra down to ensembles of less than twenty players with hugely successful results. In our own,  worryingly similar times, conductors and composers have again begun coming up with reductions of works by Mahler and other late-Romantics. It’s all  part of the ebb and flow of music history- a facet of history that many writers seem quick to forget.

(Mahler for lean times- one on a part songs orchestrated by Schoenberg)

When Trevor Pinnock recorded Anthony Payne’s reduction of Bruckner 2, one of the major music magazines (I honestly can’t remember which one) said this was the first time such a project had been done, completely overlooking the arrangement of Bruckner 7 done for Schönberg’s Society for Private Performances by  Erwin Stein, Hanns Eisler, and Karl Rankl in 1921. It’s been well recorded a few times, but when I programmed it with the Rose City Chamber Orchestra in 2006, the idiots at the publishers sent the full Bruckner 7 parts instead, so we had to cancel.

(These guys managed to get the publishers to send them the right parts. Jealous!)

String quartets make a particularly appealing target for those with an itch to orchestrate. Rudolf Barshai followed Mahler’s example in arranging Shostakovich’s Eighth and Tenth string quartets for string orchestra (although Barshai always envisioned a chamber ensemble, where Mahler intended something far more massive). Encouraged by Shostakovich’s positive response, he went on to make more interventionist arrangements of the Third and Fourth quartets which would eventually include woodwinds, brass and percussion. Inspired in part by both Mahler and Barhsai, I made an arrangement in 1999 of Viktor Ullmann’s then almost completely unknown Third String Quartet which I’ve been thrilled to see some of my colleagues take up.

(The English Chamber Orchestra recording my orchestration of Ullmann’s Third String Quartet. Damn those cats can play. ( CD available here, score and parts here))

I hope that all this history shows us that as a moral proposition, orchestrations and arrangements are completely neutral. An arrangement or orchestration is as worthwhile as it is effective, engaging and illuminating. An arrangement that respects the original is always welcome, whether it be as self-effacing as Gál’s treatments of Brahms or as wacky as Elgar’s treatment of Bach. In the case of our Elgar Pilgrimage premieres, my choice in programming these versions was easy. Don did me the great, great honour of inviting me to record Sea Pictures after seeing me do Elgar 1 in Wisconsin (in spite of the fact he thought I took the introduction too slowly).

(Slow, but not too slow…)

Recording his sensational new version of this great song cycle in Abbey Road, in the very studio that Elgar opened and in which Janet Baker and Barbirolli made their famous recording thirty years later, was a career highlight. As the Jerusalem setting shows us, Elgar’s orchestral fingerprints are as distinctive as any composer in music history- he’s a gift to every music student ever to have to survive “drop the needle” tests in music history class.

(The making of Sea Pictures as re-imagined by Donald Fraser)

Don’s Sea Pictures sounds like vintage Elgar (he’s modelled the string writing on Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro), while bringing to the fore musical details, especially relationships between the original vocal part and countermelodies in the orchestra, that are not as apparent in the original. With that experience under my belt, there was no doubt in my mind that we had to find a way to do the Piano Quintet arrangement when Don told me about it. He’d been inspired by Alice Elgar’s description of the early material of the Quintet as the basis of a “War Symphony.”   I suggest you join us on October 9th for a performance of the original version of the Elgar Quintet alongside the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor which Schönberg so famously mauled, then come back the next day to hear the piece in an entirely different way, as the symphony it might well have been.

(Former ESO composer-in-association, John McCabe discusses the transformation of his String Sextet, Pilgrim, into a work for double string orchestra)

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It was with real sadness that I learned today of the passing of this pianist Ivan Moravec, a man who was widely recognised as one of the greatest pianists of his generation, but who never quite earned the fame or fortune his artistry merited.


The many recordings he made are really treasures and well worth seeking out. I played with him once, as an orchestral cellist, in the Schumann Concerto. I’d never heard of him before and had no idea what to expect. He was the greatest and most compelling artist at the piano I’ve ever been on stage with, at least that week. His playing was infinitely colorful, but never flashy or for effect. He played with incredible freedom, yet was absolutely easy to follow. There was something so centered and focused about what he did, and this gave the playing a sense of fluidity and clarity that was simply amazing. One wasn’t aware of him having a big sound, but with a large symphony orchestra, you could still hear every note, and every note had beauty, every note had a beginning a middle and an end. We barely rehearsed with him- one run-through and that was all it took to produce a performance I still remember as a career highlight nearly 20 years on. Here is what I wrote about it on the blog in 2008:

One reason this Schumann gets done so often is that it is quite technically accessible for any orchestra. How sad, then, that I have hardly ever heard or played in a really satisfying orchestral performance of the piece. It is so rare for the first movement to really have the infinite range of subtle earth tones to really capture Schumann’s dreamy, rhapsodic world, rarer still for the Intermezzo to be played with anywhere near enough charm, or to be done with the cellos singing, but not bellowing the second theme. And the finale- the poor hemiola theme….. Did Schumann know how badly conductors and orchestras would massacre that elegant and sublime music? What should sound like Fred Astaire dancing on a cloud of perfume too often gets played like drunken soldiers stumbling back to barracks after one too many. Any beast with a metronome can learn Rite of Spring, but the Schumann concerti (piano, violin and cello) are really hard.

One exception was a performance I played in with Ivan Moravec many years ago. I’d never heard of Ivan Moravec, which is quite sad considering I should have known who he was, but I don’t think anyone in the band knew who he was.

The rehearsal began and this older, professor-ly gentleman (several musicians had mistaken him for the piano technician) gave the maestro a gentle smile and we began. Schumann’s bracing opening, which is usually played as violent outburst, without shape or direction, already revealed un-dreamt-of layers of color and texture, and by the second piano entrance after the little woodwind chorale, we were all starting to recognize that we were in the presence of a very special musician. A musician who had that rare power to take other musicians, very good ones, beyond their usual limits and habits.

That afternoon with Moravec was something altogether different- not only did he play beautifully, but maestro and we in the orchestra absolutely outdid ourselves. We played from beginning to end  as if weightless, as if Hiro Nakamura himself had stopped time and given us a frozen moment to hear this music as if played in a totally silent world. One felt incapable of playing out of tune or out of time. One felt as if the music was in touch with something beyond what was happening in that room on that day.

Twenty-three minutes later, we played the last note, and maestro looked at Moravec and asked him if there was anything he’d like to do. Moravec smiled, well, half-smiled, again and got up, shook the leader’s hand and left.

Now that’s what I call a rehearsal.

Here is a short documentary on Ivan Moravec on YouTube

The music world is a poorer place without his musicianship and that matchless sound.

More from Jake Stockinger at The Well Tempered Ear here

3 months ago | |
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The music industry reacted with wide-eyed amazement this month as the world’s leading orchestra announced they were appointing someone to the prestigious position of Principal Conductor based on his ability to conduct. Across Europe, North America and the Far East, orchestral managers, agents, musicians and music lovers expressed genuine shock at the news that a conductor, Kirill Petrenko, had been hired solely on merit, for possibly the first time in recent memory, to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, considered by many to be the world’s greatest orchestra.

News of Petrenko’s appointment sent journalists scrambling to uncover suspected affiliations with the Illuminati, the Masons or Goldman Sachs, but initial inquries left journalists baffled. “I don’t get it,” said New York Herald senior critic Havergal Thomson. “All anyone seems to know about this guy is that he’s really good at conducting.”

Kirill Petrenko: Reputed to be very good at at conducting

Kirill Petrenko: Reputed to be very good at conducting

“It’s not that good conductors never get jobs” said New York-based mega agent Donald Wontford. “It’s just that I can’t think of another instance of a conductor getting a really important job because they were good. Being good has historically been further down the list of desirable qualities in a conductor, just below “legible handwriting” and above “never been convicted of a violent crime”.”

Historically, experts report, conductors have been hired on the basis of fundraising acumen or access to secret private sponsorship. In later years, conductors were often appointed because of their ability to negotiate recording contracts, but as the recording industry has become less profitable, there has been with a shift towards basing hiring decisions on “media imprint” or “potential.” Orchestras are also reported to seek conductors who are perceived as “metrosexual gods.”

“Frankly, this seems like a wildly naïve decision on the part of the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic,” said Simon Standin, long-time general manager of the Southwest Sinfonia. “It calls into question the entire viability of player-run orchestras, as the musicians seem to lack the business acumen needed to understand the importance of a conductor’s number of Twitter followers, achievements as an oboe soloist, or connections to Austrian royalty.”

In fact, Standin’s Southwest Sinfonia has been a part of a recent industry trend towards hiring people for important conducting positions who have never conducted anything. “We’ve found that hiring washed up soloists is cost effective, media savvy and politically expedient,” reports Standin. “A washed up soloist probably recognizes his or her earnings are trending downwards, which gives us incredible leverage in contract negotiations. We are able to cash in on what’s left of their fading reputation as a performer while they can buy time to adapt to their new income level. The weeks they spend conducting us spares them from public scrutiny of their fast-eroding technical accuracy and sound quality, which slows the withering of the value of their brand. The fact that they’ve never conducted before is also extremely helpful in dealing with the musicians, as they have no track record to criticise.”

Petrenko, who rose to prominence as a conductor at the Komische Oper Berlin, the Bayreuth Festival and the Munich Staatsoper where he actually conducted in public regularly, is a marked departure from the recent trend towards the “blank slate” approach to conductor recruitment favoured by many orchestral managers. Where Standin and the Soutwest Sinfonia have gravitated towards soloists past the peak of their careers, William Wortlebothelm, Czar of Artistic Planning at the Eastern Celtic Radio Symphony recently appointed a new principal conductor to lead the orchestra who had literally never held a baton or opened a score. “I plucked him out of a touring youth orchestra because he had good hair and a fantastic Snapchat profile,” bragged Wortehothelm. “After hearing some top London players moan about Haitink last year, I realised there is literally no conductor that professional orchestral players can’t gripe about. My solution bypasses objections of the players’ committee entirely because they can’t criticise what nobody has seen. This new guy is going to be great once he learns to read tenor clef and can remember that you go right on the second beat of a 3/4 bar.” It is hoped that Wortelbothelm’s discovery will prove as successful as the recent appointment of 21-year-old Armando Chernyenko as Music Director of the Chicago Philharmonic in 2013. “We have every confidence” wrote Chicago Guardian music critic Mick Smartie “that in 15 to 20 years, Chernyenko will mature into a fine professional conductor” Chernyenko is currently in the 3rd year of a five-year contract with the orchestra.

Neither most famous Kirill, nor the most famous Petrenko (via Sinfoni)

Neither the most famous Kirill, nor the most famous Petrenko (via Sinfoni)

Wortlebothelm, appointed in 1992 by his ex-wife who was then director of the Celtic Arts Council, said of Petrenko’s appointment “I keep looking at this situation and thinking I must be missing something. In the absence of an ingratiating social media profile, I can only conclude there must be an element of bribery or blackmail here that we’ve not yet heard about.”

Shock was also expressed in the USA by the president of the board of the New Gotham Philharmonic, Dr. Peter Petersnack. “My understanding is that they hired this guy entirely on the basis of how well he conducted three concerts. Surely they should have flown him in for a reception to test his mingling, schmoozing and flirting skills? Even in Berlin, they must have great ladies of a certain age who like to lunch with, or on, conductors. Donors have to be serviced by someone, and they want to know that the artist they’re dealing with at least has their own YouTube channel.” Dr. Petersnack recently made history as the first American brain surgeon with over 100,000 “Likes” for his “Dr. Peter Petersnack- Brain Surgeon” Facebook page, an achievement which led to his appointment as Head of Brain Surgery at Gotham Medical Centre in 2011.

Petersnack’s  own orchestra made history in 2000 when they paid their incoming music director, Maestro Nevile James, with three suitcases of cash without a signed contract at the time of his appointment to “simplify his taxes.” Although the new maestro only conducted 4 concerts over the next nine years, Petersnack defended James’ appointment on the basis that the ensuing controversy did “much to raise awareness of the orchestra in the wider community.” Among James’s noteworthy predecessors at the orchestra was Derich von Kursdorf, who won the position in 1964 after his wife, a window-sealant heiress from Luxembourg, donated $10,000,000 to the orchestra.

Other conductors also seemed caught off guard by news of Petrenko’s appointment. “It just seems kind of weird,” said Walliam Davis, principal artistic director of the East Lubbock Community Symphonic Band. “I sent the Berlin Philharmonic a resume and a really good cover letter when I read Rattle was going, and they didn’t even write back, even though I clearly explained why my Brahms cycle would be better than Rattle’s, which I think is too slow. This guy- I don’t even think he has a Twitter feed? I’m up to like 790 followers, and I didn’t even get asked to send a video. It smacks of favoritism.”

When asked about the orchestra’s strategy for audience development, the Berlin Philharmonic media affairs office issued a statement saying that “we are hoping that if we give really kick ass concerts, lots of people will come to them”

Reached for comment, Berlin Philharmonic musicians’ representative and sub-principal ophecleide player Otto Hasenpfeffer said phlegmatically of Petrenko, “Ja, he’s not zo bat at conducting. Vee looked at a couple of violists in South American youth orchestras mit a scheisse load of Tvitter followers, but I’m 37.  Zee sharks start circling in this orchestra at 45. Zis guy might be zee last  principal conductor I play for. I couldn’t face the prospect of vaysting my entire remaining professional life vaiting for somevone to grow into zee job.”

Kirill Petrenko was unavailable for comment on this article. It is believed he is spending the summer studying scores in his underground lair.

Kirill Petrenko's summer score study retreat on SPECTRE Island

Kirill Petrenko’s summer score study retreat on SPECTRE Island

4 months ago | |
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popA study on the life arcs of 1980’s-era heavy metal fans has been making the news this week, and its main conclusion is no surprise to me:

In fact, researchers find that former metal fans “were significantly happier in their youth, and better adjusted currently” compared to their peers who preferred other musical genres, and to a parallel group of current college students.”

More self-described metal-heads* went on to become “ “middle-class, gainfully employed, relatively well-educated”  adults than their peers who listened to or identified with other music at the time. Metal fans come across in the study as happier in their teen years than their contemporaries and happier and more well adjusted than today’s young people:

“Despite the challenges of adverse childhood events, and other stressful and risky events in their youth,” the researchers write, former metal aficionados “reported higher levels of youthful happiness” than peers with other musical tastes as well as today’s college students. “They were also less likely to have any regrets about things they had done in their youth.”

So far, so good, but I can’t help but feel that the study largely draws the wrong conclusions from this data- at the very least, I suspect they’re missing the majority of the point:

“Social support is a crucial protective factor for troubled youth,” they point out. “Fans and musicians alike felt a kinship in the metal community, and a way to experience heightened emotions with like-minded people.” This sense of belonging ultimately helped propel their positive transition to maturity.

Social support? Really?

Almost all young people seek a place in a group of friends and supporters they can strongly identify with. For some, it’s the cheerleading squad or the football team. For others, it might be youth orchestra, the debating society or a church group. Finding kinship in community is certainly not unique to metal fans.

My strong instinct is that the researchers should be looking at the importance of the music itself. The articles I came across here and here mention only two groups- Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe. I think they’ve chosen poorly- those groups, whatever their merits and popularity, are basically loud pop bands anyway. Real 1980’s metalheads would have had much more sophisticated tastes: Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, early Metalica and so on.

(Iron Maiden. In the words of Bruce Dickinson: “A very long song. This ain’t the usual 3 minute shit. This is about 13 minutes long”)

The heavy metal of the 80’s was different from the mainstream pop of that era and our current time in profound ways. Where pop relies on simple formulas and electronica and a very simplistic lyrical content, metal is often musically ambitious and dramatic, it is played by musicians (many of them real virtulosos), not sequencers, and the music is put across with relatively little technical trickery and lighter post-production. Also, the lyrics can express complex emotions or tell more involved stories. The lyrics of top-40 radio are designed to do two things- indoctrinate and sell. Listening to top 40 songs will tell you what is “normal” and will help you know what to buy to feel more normal when you realise you are not. The lyrics of metal are often about alienation, about isolation, and the anger of metal is there to criticise the shallowness and hypocrisy of popular culture.

But I really think there is fantastic research to be done on how real music (metal, jazz, classical, acoustic folk and bluegrass) affects brain development when compared with junk music (most commercial genres, especially those which rely primarily on electronica). Set aside the lyrics completely and I think challenging music played by humans does a lot more good for the brain than something that’s sequence, sampled, compressed and auto-tuned to death. Just as children of the 80’s who lived on a diet of junk food have grown up to suffer diabetes, heart disease and a whole raft of auto-immune disorders, those who were raise on junk music are now suffering with anxiety, depression, paranoia, anti-intellectualism and neurosis far more than those who got a good, balanced diet of guitar, bass and drums.

(KW’s Open Your Eyes- not exactly orthodox metal, but musically ambitious with a socially critical lyric)

On the other hand, it could all just be that those metal fans were smarter, nicer more well-adjusted people to begin with. Looking back at my memories of high school in the 1980’s such a hypothesis seems anything but far fetched…..

pop sucks


* I would not have identified myself in the 1980’s as a metalhead, although I liked a lot of the music (and still do). My tastes were always too broad to ally myself to a single genre.

4 months ago | |
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