Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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Sales of concert tickets and recordings by classical orchestras, opera companies and chamber ensembles skyrocketed this week following the arrest of a  cellist who was found to be carrying 113 pounds of marijuana in his car.

pot cello

“Dude,” said new classical fan Brian “Tweedy” aka “The Doc” Billings of Austin, Texas, “most music has just been co-opted by the one percent crowd, man. Pop, rock, R&B, even Phish.  It’s all just mass produced, industrial corporate plastic, you know.  It’s time for us to return to nature. Organic music and organic recreation, if you know what I mean, man.”

(Indie rock band Phish have seen many of their listeners shift their allegiance to the music of Robert Schumann)

It is perhaps not surprising that cello music has led the sudden surge in classical popularity. Kieran “Skeeter” Jackson, a ski instructor and white water rafting guide from Boulder, Colorado recently bought Pieter Wispelwey’s highly regarded new recording of the Bach Cello Suites, which he has been listening to while getting “nicely toasted.” “Man, Wispelwey has a radical understanding of the role of dance rhythms in the interpretation of Baroque music. A=415  may be a low tuning note, but gut strings and a lightly applied vibrato are a natural high. I mean, Evil Penguin Records, man. Evil Penguin…”

Sales of tickets to orchestral concerts across the USA have seen a sharp increase, led by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where cellist and alleged weed transporter David Huckaby was a member of the orchestra from 2009-13,  which has seen a 72% increase in single ticket sales, a 41% increase in season ticket sales, and 500% increase in sales of snacks and munchies sold during concert intermissions.

New classical attendees and listeners seem to come from a broad demographic range, ranging from hipsters and dude bros through metal heads, hippie chicks and former hiphop fans who have long since musically outgrown rap. Hiphop legend, actor and pot legalisation advocate Snoop Dogg is reported to have reacted to word of Huckaby’s arrest by buying season tickets to the Los Angeles Chamber Music Society, and spending the weekend listening to bootleg recordings of the complete organ improvisations of Olivier Messiaen.


“I was never really down with classical,” said Dogg between tokes, “but Maestro Huckaby has inspired a rethink. Now I get it, man”

COMING SOON- Vivaldi By Grow Light, Live!


Post script- This post is, of course, satire. I’ve never met David Huckaby, but I do hope that, in an age of rapidly evolving thinking about the legality of pot, his life is not ruined by this episode. There’s nothing funny about the legal risks he’s facing.

3 months ago | |
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Longstanding Vftp readers will have noticed a couple of relatively major shifts of emphasis here at the blog in recent years. As my administrative responsibilities have increased (much to my dismay), my time and mental space for blogging have been in much scarcer supply, and each year’s total output on Vftp seems to be a bit smaller than the year before.

Of course, laying my entire slowing in output at the feet of trying to put on orchestral concerts in the age of austerity doesn’t account for a few key variables. On the positive side, I’ve said an enormous number of things here that I had always wanted to say, and once you’ve covered a topic, there’s not much point in rehashing it. Internet culture prioritises the new at all costs, so there tends not to be much audience for the older essays unless they’re amplified via social media, but every once in a while, I hear from someone who has found an old post here really helpful and relevant.

Another reason I’ve slowed down has to do with what actually seems important (or unimportant) these days. So many classical blogs end up being about the woes of the industry. As I’ve written before, I’ve come to believe that the problems of classical music don’t have a thing to do with whether we let people clap between movements or whether we wear tailcoats or loincloths on stage. Our real problems are society’s problems- without media reform, educational reform, corporate governance reform and political reform, the business and social prospects of all small and medium-sized economic entities, including individual workers, self-employed persons, small business, family businesses and charities (including almost all arts organisations) are going to be pretty grim and getting grimmer all the time.

Talking too much about the state of society (or the music business) is probably not a good career move for a conductor- it’s far too easy to offend and alienate funders and decision makers. Nevertheless, over the last couple of years, I’ve tried to find a few areas of discussion where I felt I could contribute to the debate it seems obvious we all need to be having about where the world is going. One of those was a 2014 post called “Facebook Ate My Blog.” This morning, Pliable (aka Bob Shingleton) seemed to sign off and turn out the lights at his wonderful blog “On An Overgrown Path” with a reference to that very post:

“The thrust of Ken’s perceptive piece was that, to quote him: “Blogging these days is NOTHING without Facebook and Twitter. Nothing”. That is a view I share, and it is one of the reasons why I am now bowing to the inevitable.”

I slightly regret I didn’t preface the sentence he quotes as follows “In terms of reaching a mass audience, blogging these days is NOTHING without….”

Over the years, I’ve learned a couple of things about reaching a mass audience via this blog. This year’s biggest blogpost was a satirical one (Music Industry Shock as Leading Orchestra Appoints Conductor Based on Skill at Conducting) with over 11,000 Facebook Likes and an astounding number of hits. It’s what we talk about when we say a post has “gone viral.” Every writer knows satire is one of most useful tools for speaking truth to power, and I’ve enjoyed the freedom humorous posts have given me to talk about some subjects I wouldn’t dare talk about with a straight face. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that many of the most popular posts in Vftp history are those that took the least work and offer the least substance. Among the most enduringly popular things in the archive here are the various top 10 and top 20 lists. These things are fun and provocative to do, but no more than that. Nevertheless, if I want to attract a lot of readers to these pages, I know better than to try to do it with an essay on Schumann’s anticipation of the Klangfarbenmelodie technique.

Do I need a mass audience here? Back in the day, a lot of friends suggested I add some advertising space to the blog as a way of “monetizing” my readership. My response was pretty consistent- the point of this blog was to promote me and the organizations that work with me. The argument is easy to make that a goofball post about Donald Trump’s penchant for making patently impossible-to-fulfil campaign pledges which brings a few thousand readers here will do more to spread the word about Ken-the-conductor than something technical that gets read by twenty or thirty people. If I want to “monetize” my site by increasing my professional profile, social media driven virality is the key. And the key to making a post viral is to not try hard and not aim too high. As Bob Shingleton wrote:

“The conclusion is quite clear: Facebook and other social media platforms control linkages and therefore audience for online content. And just like television, 95% of Facebook and other social media is crap; so you had better join them by churning out crap, or quit. Which means the Internet now practises a Darwinian form of selection whereby only the crappiest survive.

“The crappiest survive” might also be an apt description of the economics of concert giving, commissioning and broadcasting. Our industry is becoming ever more commercially minded- subsidy and sponsorship now follow earned income, so just as the least substantial blog pieces tend to get the most readers, so to do the least interesting concerts draw the largest audiences.

However, as I pointed out in noting that Facebook Ate My Blog, web traffic no longer monetizes blogs or bloggers, it monetizes social media companies. A hugely read blogpost here might get me invited to speak at a conference or talk on the radio, but neither is likely to pay very well anyway. Who it does make money for is Facebook and Twitter.

The very term “virality” is actually more apt than most people realise. We all know that the one good thing about getting chickenpox as a little kid, or mono as a teenager is that once you have had the virus, you become immune to it. A viral blog post runs its course then becomes essentially useless- everyone who is likely to be interested in it will have seen it, processed it, and to have developed an immunity to it. A viral phenomenon has it’s day, then it dies. A blog post that has gone viral becomes essentially useless. Should we revise Bob’s axiom to “only the crappiest thrive”?

Bob’s post links to an interesting Guardian article by Hossein Derakhshan.

“Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: newness and popularity [emphasis added]. (Isn’t this embodied these days by the real-world dominance of young celebrities?) That philosophy is the stream. The stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex and secretive algorithms.

“The stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open the Facebook app on your smartphone and dive in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites. But what are we exchanging for efficiency?

I think we’re exchanging too much. It is a fundamentally Faustian bargain. Newness and popularity are not the pathway to success for artists and thinkers, they’re the spiders’ web, and we are the flies.

One thing I’ve written about a lot on these pages, and that is a theme in my work, is my belief (shared by many) that the value of art is intrinsic.  Bach’s St Matthew Passion didn’t become a better piece overnight in in 1829 when Mendelssohn revived it after a generation in oblivion. Earlier this year I recorded Krenek’s magnificent First Piano Concerto- a tremendous work that had gone so long without a performance that even his widow was unaware of the work’s survival. It is neither new nor popular, but it is fantastic.

As the example of virality shows, reaching a mass audience can be a futile exercise. I’ve been really thrilled to have contributed a reassessment of Hans Gál’s music. I had a lot of help and luck along the way, but no matter how you cut it, the first complete recording of Gál’s four fantastic symphonies came about, in part, because I worked like a dog to make it happen. Many have since noticed how crazy it is that such good music could go un-played and unheard for decades. Many have pointed an accusatory finger at the BBC’s Glock- and post-Glock -era emphasis on living composers of atonal music. Surely Auntie should have done more for Hans?

Well, actually, they did do some good stuff for Gál. Last year, when Radio 3 finally gave Gál his well-deserved and long-overdue slot as Composer of the Week, one of the most important things they played that wasn’t recently recorded was a live recording of Gáls cantata De profundis. Many archival recordings of Gál’s works from both the BBC and Austrian Radio are actually pretty awful- a recording of Gál’s Triptych made for a BBC birthday concert in his honor nearly put me off recording the work because it made the piece sound so unconvincing and impossible. But the De profundis broadcast was a really good performance of one of his greatest works, that will have reached a massive audience when it was broadcast a  generation ago in the pre-Classic FM, pre-internet era. Why didn’t the Gál revolution start with that broadcast? For a moment there, it was both new and popular. Gál’s music didn’t come back into the mainstream because one piece got heard by a few hundred thousand people one evening on Radio 3. It is starting to happen now because a few stubborn individuals- his family, a few key performers, a few insightful writers- took an interest in the music and have stuck with the project for years and years. Reviving Gál’s music depended not on reaching a mass audience on a passive or superficial level, but on engaging a few key people on quite a deep level.

Nobody seemed less interested in promoting Gál’s music than Hans Gál, and his productivity was completely unaffected by the ups and downs in popularity his music went through in his lifetime. Blogging once seemed appealing because it gave one the freedom to publish without wasting energy persuading a gatekeeper to let you publish. It offered freedom to write without a word-count or a deadline. Now, traffic has become the dominant measure of a blog’s success. However, we now that the measure of success in art, in argument or in ideas is in the intrinsic value of the content, not in whether anyone reads it or hears it. Artists like Henry Darger and Vivien Maier have reached a posthumous mass audience. In their lives, they were anything but popular, and they only became popular once the work was no longer new. For some, it might seem like a tragedy that they didn’t live to see the mass acceptance of their work, but would that kind of engagement with popular culture have actually been good for their work? Darger’s magnum opus was over 15,000 single-spaced pages long. Would he have written so much if he’d spent half his doing book tours and writing a blog for the Guardian? Vivian Maier took over 150,000 photographs and never showed them to anyone. Would she have been better served by having an Instagram account?

Where does that leave people like me? Should more of us follow Bob’s lead and turn out the lights, at least for now, on our blogs? Should orchestras try to program viral concerts? Should composers be writing music for the Facebook listeners? Should we publish and pray- staying off of Facebook and Twitter and hoping our audience comes to us eventually? Or should we turn inward, focus only on the work and leave it to our heirs to find us a readership?

I share one hopeful clue.

Every so often when I’m out among real people in the non-digital world, someone I meet mentions that they read the blog. It happens rather less often than you would think- many acquaintances and colleagues are a bit reluctant to admit they actually read this stuff. It usually takes a special mix of enthusiasm and honesty for someone to really start talking to me about what they’ve read here. The stuff they want to talk to me about is not the satire or the top 10 lists. It’s the nitty gritty. It’s the minutiae. It’s the eccentric.  Chances are, if my blog is going to have any lasting impact on either my life or my world, it won’t be because it briefly reached a mass audience, It will be because it deeply engaged a micro audience. The success of this blog is not in the hands of the 11,000 who liked my post about Berlin, but in the handful who read everything here and think about it long after the latest virus has run its course.

We’re living in an age of apathy. Fantastic books, recordings (in all genres), new compositions and films all struggle to find an audience. I grew up in a generation that paid dearly for Milton Babbit’s famous ambivalence about the audience. I care if you listen. We all want to be read, heard, seen, supported. Right now, readers, listeners and supporters are all in short supply. In such mad times, creators can only continue to create, writers can only write, performers can only perform. Capturing a viral wave these days isn’t going to do you much lasting good, but missing one may not cause you any lasting harm, either. When we talk about the long game, it’s still the strong that are likely to survive.

4 months ago | |
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2015 was quite a year for me- a year of very, very hard work, a year of ups and downs with some incredible highlights and some moments of rather intense frustration.

I started the year talking- giving a long chat on the Gál symphonies at a gala launch event celebrating the release of Avie’s set of Gáls super cycle and Toccata Press’s release of Gál’s wartime diaries Music Behind Barbed Wire, surely the most important book about classical music published in 2015. It was a great occasion, but launching a CD also means closing a chapter, and recording those symphonies had been a huge, multi-year project for me.

Later that month, the ESO kicked off 2015 in real style, with a sold-out performance of Deborah Pritchard’s superb new violin concerto, Wall of Water with soloist Harriet Mackenzie. Deborah’s piece was the first big commission/signature piece of my time at the ESO, and we were so lucky that she delivered a work that is a fantastic showcase for what the orchestra can and will be. Deborah (who played double bass in the orchestra for the occasion) wrote the piece in response to paintings by Maggi Hambling, who joined the performers and National Gallery curator Colin Wiggins for a discussion following the performance. Everyone seemed to love not only the piece and the performance, but also the format. Perhaps more of our concerts should focus on just one work and really dig more deeply into the music?

The Surrey Mozart Players may not have the name recognition of groups like the BBC National Orchestra of Wales or the ESO, but they’re a capable bunch, and a smart conductor knows it’s well worth keeping an orchestra that can be your laboratory to try new things- witness Kent Nagano staying in Berkeley for so long after his career took off, or Marin Alsopp’s long tenure with the Concordia Orchestra. We’ve had a wonderful partnership for many years now, and the orchestra has come on a great deal in the last couple of seasons. Our January 31st concert was one of the best we’ve done, and an exemplar of why I value working with them. We started off with Gál’s Idyllikon, a wonderful piece that hasn’t been played in decades (one I’m sure I’ll record at some point), then did two great oboe concertos with Victoria Brawn, whose incredible playing attracted a lot of attention on all the Bobby and Hans CDs. I’d never done the Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto before, and it it’s really a super piece- there’s a lot more going on in his music than people seem to realise. The concert finished off with Sibelius’ Pelleas and Melisdande, a long-time KW favorite, but not an obvious show-stopper. Something really special happened in our performance that night- the silence after the death of Melisande went on for absolutely ages and the audience response was like nothing I’ve ever heard there. It’s so encouraging when you realise the audience can tell something special has happened on stage without the security of a whiz-bang ending.

Next, it was off to the USA for a busy run of concerts with Ensemble Epomeo. We premiered a fantastic new piano quartet by Jay Reise on this tour with pianist George Lopez. This is about the third new piece of Jay’s we’ve done (and there’s another to come in May), and there’s really something to be said for working regularly with a fine composer across several works. We also did the Mahler/Schnittke Piano Quartet. I’d played the movement that’s all Mahler quite a few times, but this was my first go at the Schnittke, and I absolutely loved it. After the performances, the Newburyport Festival asked me to write a third and/or fourth movement to accompany the two existing ones. Writing in response to Mahler and Schnittke is both a terrifying and irresistible prospect. One of the things I always say I love about the trio is playing pieces over and over again- most things I conduct only once with an orchestra, then must leave for many years. Immersing myself in the Beethoven String Trios since 2008 has been an incredible musical education, and it was great to tour the Weinberg, which we recorded the year before. It starts with a really awkward cello solo- one of those things that sounds really simple but is tricky and unforgiving. Once you’ve learned it, it’s the sort of thing you want to play a lot. The weather on this trip was horrible- our last concert was cancelled and when we flew out of Boston the next day, the entire city seemed literally on the verge of economic and social collapse. Walking around residential neighborhoods with snow piled 10 feet up on either side of the road one saw quite a few people on the edge.

Once safely back in the UK, it was time to pick up the baton again for a concert I’ve been wanting to do for many, many years. Regular Vftp readers will know I’m fascinated by the musical roots of the Mozart Requiem, and on this concert we went whole hog and performed the Mozart alongside most of the major works that helped inspire it. We were very lucky to have a superb team of soloists and a first rate chorus, the Hereford-based Academia Musica for our performance in beautiful Hereford Cathedral and the repeat performance in St John’s Smith Square.  As with the Wall of Water concert, the format was a bit unusual, with me sort of narrating the first half of the concert with demonstrations and excerpts alongside performances of the complete works, and a full performance of the Mozart on the second half. Fortunately, people seemed to really love the format (you can read one review here), and there is surely the basis of a really fascinating CD/DVD in the project once the orchestra and I have had a few more years to find our own distinctive sound in this repertoire.

The cello didn’t stay in the case long this time, as my Epomeo colleagues followed closely behind me for performances the day before and after the Mozart concert here in the UK. In addition to the Weinberg and Beethoven, we gave our first performances of John McCabe’s String Trio. Tragically, John died just days before these performances after a long fight with brain cancer- his illness robbing us of the chance to work on the piece with him. It’s not always a good idea to be too emotional while you’re onstage, but I really was torn to pieces inside from the first rehearsal right through the last performance- David and Diane, my wonderful colleagues, were very patient with me. John was one of music’s brightest lights- I felt very blessed to know him, and very sad to only know him a short time. John’s piece is one of the great works for trio- it has been recorded once, but we’re determined to put our stamp on it in the studio soon. This was a hugely exhausting month for me, with challenging trio concerts flanking a complex ESO concert involving soloists, choir, narration and a lot of stage management. It all happened at a time when the orchestra was down two staff members, too. Part of a conductor’s job is to step in when things go wrong in the administration, and there has been a lot of that since I started in the gig. I survived February, but only just!

Next up in March was a run of performances of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (and other fun stuff) on series’ run by violinist David LePage and cellist Matthew Sharp. It was an absolute joy to return to a piece I’ve put so much work into in recent years with such incredible colleagues. Dave and his wife Cath have built one of the most fantastic series’ in the country in Harborough– the atmosphere there is just incredible.  Matthew is just rolling up his sleeves at St Mary’s, but that’s going to be a great centre for music with him guiding things- it’s a gorgeous church.

Another gorgeous venue is Menuhin Hall- the next SMP concert there with Mark Bebbington surely profited from their superb Steinway. Mark played Mozart’s bittersweet final concerto very beautifully, and we finished up with Schubert 6, a piece I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s a work that needs some thinking about- I’ve heard it done so charmlessly so many times! Thankfully, the orchestra were open to my slightly bonkers (but respectful and affectionate) approach to the piece.

Finally, the first quarter of 2015 ended with another ESO concert, as the orchestra returned to Elgar Concert Hall in Birmingham for a very standard Mozart-Mendelssohn-Beethoven concert. Programmes like these really test any orchestra. It was one of those concerts that seems to point in many directions at once- I did say this was a year of ups and downs and becoming the orchestra we want to be will take time. Working with Tamsin Waley-Cohen, our soloist, is always a joy. There were certainly plenty of thrills and chills, and when we finished Beethoven’s most exuberant finale and walked outside into the brilliant spring sunshine, it felt like springtime for the orchestra.

4 months ago | |
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It’s that magical time of year again, when we take a statistical look back at the musical year that was with our highly anticipated (!) annual repertoire report.

2015 was a very intense and busy year, as can be seen from a substantial increase in total number of works played, number of premieres and number of works new for Ken over 2014. It was so intense and busy that I’d actually forgotten I’d done Ein Heldenleben this year until I started work on the list- and it was a very good Heldenleben, at that.  Beethoven led the way with 7 works in 2015, although if you give Elgar full credit for his almost complete reimagining of the Bach Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, it was a tie. Spiritually, 2015 felt like an Elgar year, with performances of of the Enigma Variations at Scotia Festival and the ESO’s Elgar Pilgrimage among the most memorable musical experiences of this or any year. Out of 90+ pieces, only one stank- can you guess which?

Mahler saw a slightly down year- no symphonies at all in 2015 after 3 in 2014, but 2016 promises to be better on that front. I’ve been wanting to do something by Krenek for ages, and finally hit the jackpot in 2015 with his first three Piano Concertos. Hopefully there will be more to come in the years ahead.

Time allowing, I’ll have more to say about the year that was in another post. Meanwhile, if you would like to add your Repertoire Report to the Vftp archive, just email the office at


2015 by the numbers

Most performed composers

Beethoven- 7
Elgar- 6 (or 7)
Mozart 5
Mendelssohn- 4
Shostakovich- 4
Brahms- 3
Krenek- 3

New pieces for Ken- 45 (28 in 2014)

World Premieres 9 (7 in 2014)

 Number of composers 58 (49 in 2014)

Living composers performed 14 (15 in 2014)

Works by living composer 20 (19 in 2014)

  1. J. S. Bach/Elgar: Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, opus 86 *
  2. WF Bach- Adagio from Sinfonia in D Minor (2) *
  3. Barber- Dover Beach *
  4. Barber- Canzonetta *
  5. Bartok – Music for Strings, percussion, celeste, harp and piano *
  6. Beethoven—String Trio in G major, opus 9 no. 1
  7. Beethoven – String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3
  8. Beethoven- Overture and Incidental Music from Egmont
  9. Beethoven – Triple Concerto
  10. Beethoven- Symphony no. 7 in A major
  11. Beethoven- Symphony no. 1
  12. Beethoven- Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica”
  13. Benjamin – Romantic Fantasy for Violin and Viola *
  14. Brahms: String Quintet in G major, opus 111
  15. Brahms- Symphony no. 3 in F major, opus 90
  16. Brahms (arr. Woods)- Piano Quartet in A major opus 26 (world premiere) *
  17. Evan Chambers- String Quartet “Three Memories”
  18. Copland- Fanfare for the Common Man *
  19. Debussy- Marche Ecossaise *
  20. Dvorak- String Quartet in F major, “American”
  21. Dvorak- Symphony no. 9 “From the New World
  22. Elgar/Fraser- Symphonic Realization of Piano Quintet in A minor, opus 84 (world premiere) *
  23. Elgar- Introduction and Allegro for Strings
  24. Elgar- Overture “Froissart” opus 19 (2)
  25. Elgar- Violin Concerto, opus 61 (2)
  26. Elgar/Fraser- Sea Pictures (world premiere of new version for choir and strings)
  27. Elgar – Enigma Variations
  28. Gade- Jealousy *
  29. Hans Gál- Idyllikon *
  30. Gardel- Por Una Cabeza *
  31. Ginasteraa- Danzas Argentinas No. 2   *
  32. Geoffrey Gordon- Saint Blue, Double Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Strings (2) (world premiere) *
  33. Grieg- Holberg Suite
  34. Handel- “Alleluia” from The Dettingen Anthem 2) *
  35. Handel- Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, “The Ways of Zion do Mourn” (2) *
  36. Harty- Irish Symphony *
  37. Haydn- String Quartet op 76 no.5 *
  38. Haydn- Symphony no. 103 “Drum Roll”
  39. Holst- The Planets
  40. Tom Kraines- Hansel and Gretel for Narrator and Chamber Orchestra (world premiere) *
  41. Ernst Krenek- Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp Major *
  42. Ernst Krenek- Piano Concerto no. 2 *
  43. Ernst Krenek- Piano Concerto no. 3 *
  44. Led Zeppelin (Page/Plant)- Stairway to Heaven (version for string quartet) *
  45. Led Zeppelin (Page/Plant)- Black Dog (version for string quartet) *
  46. Led Zeppelin (Page/Plant)- All of My Love (version for string quartet) *
  47. Mahler- Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
  48. Mahler- Rückert Lieder
  49. Mahler- Schnikttke- Piano Quartet
  50. McCabe – String Trio (2) (Canadian premiere) *
  51. Mendelssohn- String Quartet in D major, opus 44 no. 1
  52. Mendelssohn- Hebrides Overture
  53. Mendelssohn- Trumpet Overture *
  54. Mendelssohn- Violin Concerto in E minor
  55. Freddie Mercury- Bohemian Rhapsody (version for string quartet)
  56. Mozart- Overture to Cosi fan Tutte
  57. Mozart- Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
  58. Mozart Overture and ballet music from Idomeneo *
  59. Mozart Piano Concerto in BbMajor K595 *
  60. Mozart- Requiem in D minor (2)
  61. Mussorgsky/Stravinsky/Burke- The Flea *
  62. Mussorgsky- Night on Bald Mountain
  63. Perich, Tristan – Sequential *
  64. Rogers and Hammerstein- Selections from The Sound of Music
  65. Piazolla- Four for Tango *
  66. Deborah Pritchard- Wall of Water
  67. Jay Reise- Piano Quartet *
  68. Reise- String Trio
  69. Saint-Saens- Danse Macabre
  70. Philip Sawyers-Songs of Loss and Regret (world premiere) *
  71. Sawyers- Trumpet Concerto (world premiere) *
  72. Schönberg- Verklärte Nacht
  73. Schubert- Die Erlkonig *
  74. Schubert Symphony No. 6 *
  75. Schubert- Symphony no. 8 “Unfinished Symphony”
  76. Shore- Suite from Lord of the Rings *
  77. Shostakovich- Two Pieces for String Quartet *
  78. Shostakovich (arr. Barshai)- Chamber Symphony opus 110a (String Quartet no. 8)
  79. Shostakovich- Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings
  80. Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 2 *
  81. Sibelius- Incidental Music from “Pelleas and Melisande”
  82. Smetana Bartered Bride Overture
  83. Kile Smith- Plain Truths (UK Premiere)
  84. Richard Strauss- Ein Heldenleben
  85. Tchaikovsky- Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
  86. Tchaikovsky- Serenade for Strings
  87. Vasks, Petris – Piano Quartet*
  88. Vaughan Williams- Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
  89. Vaughan Williams- Oboe Concerto *
  90. Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
  91. Wagner- Ride of the Valkyries
  92. Weinberg- String Trio
  93. Kenneth Woods- The Ugly Duckling for Narrator and Chamber Orchestra (world premiere) *
  94. Toby Young- The Art of Dancing, Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Strings (world premiere) *












5 months ago | |
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Dvorak poster (2)

Antonin Dvorak- Stabat Mater, op. 58

Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak

Dvorak began and completed his great setting of Jacopone da Todi’s 13th century poem Stabat Mater under a cloud of great personal tragedy. In 1875 his oldest daughter Josefa died only days after her birth. The grieving Dvorak turned to the ancient text of the Stabat Mater, seeing in its evocation of Mary’s grief at the death of her son a portrait of parental love and pain that he related to on a most personal level. He completed an outline of the entire work, but set it aside before finishing its orchestration and the working out of details to work on other pieces. Many scholars believe that the piece’s connection to Josefa made work on it too painful for Dvorak to complete the project at the time.

However, tragedy struck again with even greater cruelty only two years later. In August of 1877 his second daughter Ruzena, then a toddler, died when she drank from a bottle of phosphorus used to make matches. Only weeks later Dvorak’s three-year-old first-born son Otakar died of smallpox. The now childless 36-year old composer returned to the Stabat Mater sketches and completed the work within a month. Although now something of a rarity, it was one of Dvorak’s most popular works during his lifetime, and was performed under the conductor’s baton at the Royal Albert Hall with a chorus of over 600 singers:

“We had our first rehearsal with the choir at the Albert Hall on Monday, a superb building that can comfortably seat as many as 12,000 people! When I appeared on the rostrum I was welcomed with a long, thunderous applause, and it was a considerable while before everything calmed down once more. I was profoundly moved by such a sincere ovation, I couldn’t speak a word; there would’ve been no use in it since no-one would have understood me. […] The head of the association which performs oratorios exclusively, Mr Barnby, who conducted the Stabat mater last year, has studied and rehearsed everything wonderfully, so the rehearsal went very well. The following day we had the rehearsal with the orchestra, and the soloists in the afternoon – London’s finest, I might add, in particular, the tenor and alto have beautiful voices. But I must briefly mention the size of the orchestra and the choir. Please, don’t be alarmed! There are 250 sopranos, 160 altos, 180 tenors, and 250 basses; the orchestral sections were also impressive: 24 first violins, 20 second violins, 16 violas, 16 cellos, 16 double basses. The impact of such a strong ensemble was indeed exhilarating. I can hardly describe it. […] [during the concert] as soon as I stepped up onto the podium I was greeted by a stormy applause from an audience of about 12,000. After each movement their fervour increased and, at the end, the clapping was so loud, I had to take several bows, again and again. The orchestra and choir were also fervent in their applause, showering me with ovations. In short, I couldn’t have wished for a better outcome. All this has given me the conviction that a new and, God willing, more auspicious time has come for me here in England which, I hope, will bear good fruit for Czech music and culture in general.” Dvorak’s letter to his friend Velebin Urbanek, March 14, 1884

The finished piece stands as one of the towering monuments of choral music. There have been other great musical settings of da Todi’s poem, but Dvorak’s is by far the longest and most serious, set in 10 movements for a large orchestra, chorus and four soloists. Although conceived and written on a massive scale, Dvorak’s setting of the Stabat Mater seems to focus primarily on two very personal aspects of the poem’s emotional world, those of grief and of solace.

The work begins with the orchestra alone playing undulating repetitions of the single note f-sharp. Composers from the Renaissance on, including Bach, had often used the sharp sign – #, as a reference to the cross (in fact early texts called the sharp sign a cross). Knowing this, one can’t help but see in this opening the stark vision of the cross and Jesus in his final hours. The first moving notes heard are a descending, chromatic line, played first in the violins then moving from section to section. This lamenting theme may be an evocation of Mary’s falling tears as she weeps at the sight of her son’s suffering. The orchestra builds to a shattering climax, then fades and finally the chorus sings. Dvorak sets the first line with only the tenors, perhaps here the voice of the observer or narrator. The chorus develops the material set out by the orchestra and builds to the same climax on the word “lacrimosaor “tears.”  Finally in the middle section the four soloists join for what becomes a great dramatic scene. The final section is a recapitulation of the opening followed by a stately, hopeful coda.

The first movement is by far the longest and most emotionally complex in the work. Movements 2-9 each seem to meditate on one aspect of Mary’s grief, or the poet’s longing to give solace to her, or to share Jesus’ suffering. The second movement is for the full quartet of soloists and Dvorak uses the mournful english horn to emphasize the feeling of lamentation. The third movement is a dirge-like march for the chorus and orchestra. Some hear in its repeated C minor chords the trudging steps of the march to the crucifixion. The fourth movement is a great operatic scene for the bass soloist. This is Dvorak at his darkest and most tormented. However, it is in this movement that Dvorak also gives us one of the most stunningly sweet moments in all the work. On the words “Holy Mother” the women’s voices intone a simple chorale melody that can’t help but be heard as the voices of angels. The fifth movement, again for chorus and orchestra, is built on a serenely flowing, infinitely simple melody, interrupted in the middle by one of the few truly angry moments in the piece. Is this the music of Dvorak the father, exhausted from comforting his ailing and grieving family, finally releasing his pent-up anguish? In any case, the outburst is short-lived and the movement concludes simply and peacefully.

The sixth movement is a straightforward, almost lullaby-like melody sung alternately by the tenor soloist and the men of the chorus. It is Dvorak at his most direct, using the simplicity of folk-styled music to communicate on the deepest of levels. The seventh movement is the only one to feature a great deal of a cappella singing. The directness and innocence of the choir’s music is contrasted with a great, arching and longing melody in the strings. The eighth movement is a duet for soprano and tenor of incredible tenderness and deep feeling- in the middle section we find ourselves back at that stark sound of f-sharp. It as if Dvorak is forcing these two voices of comfort to face the horror of the cross. Finally, the ninth movement is a somber, march-like aria for the alto soloist, with reference made to the marching theme of the third movement. Now the theme is treated in an even more somber manner, with the pulsating rhythms replaced by a sobbing, almost desperate lyricism.

Finally, in the tenth movement Dvorak brings us to the end of this great meditation and voyage. In it, all the grief and all the tenderness expressed in the previous nine movements are surpassed in an embrace of the joy of transfiguration. The movement opens as the piece opened, with the stark, eerily compelling f-sharps in the orchestra. The four soloists then sing a lamenting restatement of the music of the second movement, which evolves into a restatement of the main themes of the very first movement. He has brought us full circle, back to where we started, but now chorus and soloists sing “Let it be that the glory of paradise is granted to my soul.” The massive crescendo first heard in the first movement on the word “lacrimosais now repeated on the word “paradisi,” and at the climax Dvorak arrives not on the anguished scream of the diminished chord he used in the first movement, but on a radiant G major chord, with which the work finally throws off the burden of grief once and for all. Freed at last of anguish, the soloists, orchestra and chorus burst forth in the first and only really fast music in the piece, a beautiful, almost ecstatic toccata on the work “Amen.” The work ends with one last, majestic statement of the very first theme of the piece, that unmistakable descending melody, heard now in D major, the key used by Bach and Beethoven to depict heaven in their own works. Instead of the opening words of the poem (“The mother stood weeping, grief stricken”) we now hear only one final “Amen.” Paradise attained, Dvorak has created a portrait of grace and peace so compelling, it can’t help but give comfort to all that encounter it.

Copyright 2003 Kenneth Woods

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The public debate has begun in earnest over the future of a new concert hall in London for the LSO and Simon Rattle. I have pretty high hopes for the hall itself, but I don’t expect too much from the debate surrounding it. Where big money meets the arts and government policy, one can be sure that most of what one reads is driven by tribalism rather than belief. It’s a good thing we’ve got blogs!

Everyone with ears to hear knows London needs and deserves a better concert hall. About ten years ago I sat with a legend of London musical life who spent an hour showing me the architect’s drawings he’d had made for a proposed new hall and telling me, in unassailable detail, why none of the existing halls were fit for purpose. Right as he was then, his organization has come out publicly against the new LSO venue because….. well…. um….. it’s not for them.

I sometimes wonder if some audience members are put off by the quality of the venues in which we perform?

I sometimes wonder if some audience members are put off by the quality of the venues in which we perform?

People are already talking a lot about cost. Note that a few months ago, the widely discussed figure was around 500 million pounds. With the feasibility study now released, the number has shrunk to a modest 278 million pounds. Well, what’s 222 million pounds one way or the other, anyway?

Actually, this is the classic way these things are always spun. You present the public (usually via leaking) with a crazy number (“we’re going to cut the Arts Council by ten billion per cent!” or “Simon Rattle’s dressing room will cost one zillion dollars!”) and everyone goes berserk with worry and rage. A few weeks later you “revise” the numbers (“Actually, we’re only going to cut it ten per cent!”) and everyone thinks they’ve been given good news, when , in fact, they’ve been given exactly the bad news you intended to give them all along. Well not quite- because you already know that the £278 million pounds will increase by 30-100% by the time the building is built, meaning the hall will actually cost….. um… about 500 million pounds!

That’s not to say the hall shouldn’t be built. Build it and make it the primary home of the LSO. Let them rehearse there. Let them work with kids there. Let them create there.

On the other hand, how about taking some of that spare 222 million pounds and building a hall in Worcester for the ESO? Wonderful orchestras all over the UK play all the time in venues that are worse than awful- with horrible acoustics, crumbling infrastructure and terrible artist facilities. Most are run by people with little or no interest in music. Yes, there are fantastic halls in Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, and Nottingham, but what about the rest of the country?

In a way, the most important signal that a new home for the LSO could send is one of empowering a performing arts organisation’s place within its home venue. Venues gain enormous prestige and marketing advantage from the orchestras who play there, and use that to drive their commercial activities, and yet, often, it’s the orchestras, choirs and chamber musicians who get the table scraps in terms of dates, marketing and investment . Even in the case of the new LSO building, folks seem sanguine about spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a hall that could be built to a world class standard for 50 million (the best hall in the country cost only £42 million), but are demanding a smoke and mirrors shell game of commercial hires to fund the ongoing operation of the building. Why not just build great concert halls for great concerts? Music Hall in Cincinnati is the home of the Cincinnati Symphony. Their offices are there, they have almost all of their rehearsals there. They’re not desperately trying to hire it out 6 days a week for pantos and Ken Dodd shows.

Back in my old days in Oregon, we spent years trying to improve the orchestra’s venue. We were by far the largest user of the hall, both in terms of hours and number of people we brought into the building every year. Nevertheless, the city never let us improve the acoustics, even when simple, cheap fixes where available (tearing up the horrifically ugly carpet to reveal the antique hardwood floors underneath, anyone?). To them, a multipurpose venue meant acoustics perfect for spoken word theatre (i.e. dead as a doornail), not live music, even though acoustic live music used the building something like 20 times as often as theatre groups or groups requiring amplification. As I was finishing my time at the Orchestra of the Swan, the council there started a major refurbishment of the orchestra’s home building. I’ve not seen the final result (I hope it’s turned out well), but a the time, it was one of the worst acoustics in the country, and the plan for the remodel was only to upgrade the lobby, the chairs and the backstage. This country has too many nice lobbies and not enough decent auditoriums.

If you draw a triangle from Birmingham to Bristol to Cardiff, you’ll find only one purpose built concert hall for orchestral music (apologies if I’ve forgotten any others, although that would be a sad commentary on the situation, too). That’s insane. Venues are a massive problem for artists in the UK. This is a RICH country. We could spend ten times what we do in the arts and education in this country and create hardship for nobody. One of the nicest sounding rooms I’ve performed in recently was a 500-seater built for a mere £12 million. How about taking some of that leftover £222 million and build 15 or so nation changing halls around the country?

And then properly supporting the work of the orchestras that play in those halls?

Is anyone talking about a living wage for freelance musicians in the nation’s chamber orchestras and regional orchestras?

Now that would be a good use of a couple hundred million pounds.

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The Commons Cultural Welfare Select Committee has issued a report calling for a new levy being described by both advocates and critics as a “bullshit tax.”

“Government has long recognized the need for special taxation on items whose use brings certain inevitable costs to the wider society. Taxation on cigarettes and alcohol helps to minimize the impacts of the increased healthcare costs of smokers and drinkers on the NHS as a whole,” said select committee chairman Petroc Robertson. “The government has already taken on board recommendations for a sugar tax. The corrosive impacts of a culture saturated in bullshit are every bit as tangible- overconsumption of bullshit not only has serious mental and physical effects on its consumers, but also impacts people who don’t engage with bullshit through increased healthcare costs, an ungovernable country, and a soul destroying world of endless insincerity and banality. We’ve banned trans fats- surely we can tax Katy Hopkins”

Not all select committee members were prepared to endorse the plan publicly. “While I deplore bullshit and am prepared to look down my nose at people who expose themselves to it to excess, I do not believe this is the sort of area the government ought to be meddling in,” said MP for Snobbusry, Jacob Moest-Wurst. “I believe this is an area where industry self regulation is the way forward. It worked with foxes and hen-houses, and I’m sure it will be effective in this instance.”

The exact scope of the new tax is still unknown, and extensive debate is expected around controversial areas, such as what reform advocates call “secondhand bullshit.”

“Secondhand bullshit is no laughing matter,” said Ima Busiebodey, founder of the charity “Shitfree Minds.” “Overexposure to reality TV, talent shows and the Murdoch press has created a voting majority so apathetic, ill-informed and mentally addled that they’ve voted in a cross-party generation of cynical corporatist political leaders committed to dismantling the nation’s medical and educational infrastructure, even though education and healthcare are things that everybody in society manifestly needs. With hospitals in crisis across the country, second-hand bullshit is a clear and present danger to bullshit non-consumers across the UK.”

Across the musical world, where tastes very widely, the criteria for defining bullshit remain the subject of vigorous debate. “While not everyone can be expected to agree on what makes a great work of art,” said Arts Council chairman Anfällig Gruppendenken “I think it’s clear to everyone that a well-designed bullshit tax will apply to anything using auto-tune on a lead vocal, popular music that combines a trite recycling of formulaic clichés with an over-produced aesthetic where they compress the shit out of everything, and almost all country music.”

Pressed on whether the tax would place an unfair burden on popular music, Robertson said “Absolutely not. The work of artists ranging from Bjork to the Beatles will obviously be exempt, while, in jazz, it’s pretty clear that Kenny G will be affected, and that the work of classical composers like Percy Grainger clearly falls within the widely accepted social-scientific definition of bullshit. And we’ll certainly be taking a hard look at minimalism in due course.” Conducting is also a medium likely to be hit hard by the tax. “Research has shown that conductors range from the extremely helpful, to complete bullshit artists. Right now, a good-looking young bullshitter can do more for an orchestra’s bottom line than a person of normal appearance who actually knows what they’re doing and loves music. This tax will mean that bullshitting no longer enjoys an unfettered competitive advantage,” said Ikspeel Vals, regional vice secretary of the Musicians Union gigger division.

Religion remains a problematic area of discussion. “Governments are historically reluctant to tax religion,” said pastor William Pas de la Merde, president of the advocacy group God Doesn’t Bullshit, “but the costs of religious bullshit are particularly enormous in terms of warfare, misogyny, genocide, and social exclusion. Most religious observers consider the beliefs and attitudes of most other religions to be bullshit, anyway. It’s clear that sentiments like “love thy neighbour,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “thou shalt not kill” would not be affected by the tax anyway, but it is unclear the extent to which these ideas are still part of the wider religious discourse. We hope that a bullshit tax will actually incentivise religious leaders to stop protesting against gay couples’ right to marry, or advocating for World War III, and instead focus on making the human condition more bearable.”

The revenues from the tax, expected to range from 1p to 5p/consumer/minute depending on the “intensity of the bullshit” will be reinvested in art, culture and media output that helps make life worth living, or that helps human beings to become kinder, more curious or more tolerant. Support for reading, participatory music-making and community driven social initiatives is expected to benefit, as is classical music, modern jazz, documentary making and journalism not dependent on corporate sponsorship is all expected to benefit. Libraries, museums and Radio 4 quiz shows are also expected to do well, while Radio 4 comedies and the long running soap opera, The Archers, may become economically unviable.

“Let’s be clear here,” said select committee Chair Robertson, “this is not a bullshit ban. People who want it will still have unfettered access to bullshit, although I do believe we ought to urgently act to restrict minors’ exposure. Neither is this an attack on popularity, frivolity or even triviality. Even mere horsecrap remains unaffected. But the cost of bullshit is real, and it poses a real threat to society as a whole—just look at politics in America.”

Asked by a member of the press whether he was “having a laugh,” Chairman Robertson said: “Bullshit is no laughing matter. Otherwise, one would have to question whether this whole process has been a great big circle jerk to create the impression that we actually care about the future of society, when we really know that this will die a speedy death once it reaches a second reading in the House of Commons.”


How nasty is your preferred bullshit and how much will it cost?

1p/consumer/minute/ level. “Dude, that’s bullshit”

Omitting exposition repeats in Sonata- allegro movements, lifestyle documentaries, soap operas

2p/person/minute level “Sketchy bullshit”

Cuts in Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony, reunion tours involving less than half the members of formerly great rock bands, Dan Brown novels

3 p/person/minute level “Nasty bullshit”

Most “classical crossover,” Simon Cowell, most reality television, playing Mahler without vibrato

4p/person/minute level “Odious, stinking, horrific bullshit”

Climate denial, religious persecutions of women, gays and minorities, Percy Grainger’s orchestration, Country music, the entire Murdoch press empire

5p/person/minute level “Donald Trump”

Donald Trump

Trumphair 2 New

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I was saddened this week to learn of the sudden retirement of conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the age of 86. (For more detail see The Strad and the New York Times news items, and this tribute from the Berlin Philharmonic)


Harnoncourt has long been a bit of a Marmite conductor- people either love or loathe his work. I don’t think he would have it any other way (not that I would know– we’ve never met and have no professional connection whatsoever). However, provocation is by no means the essence of his artistry. To me, what makes Harnoncourt such and interesting, important and original musician has always been the depth of his engagement with the scores he conducts. I’m not keen on Marmite, but I respect Harnoncourt enormously.

Although he’s long been one of the dominant players in the Historically Informed Performance industry, Harnoncourt’s best music making has, in my opinion, very little to do with “style.” Too often with lesser performers, style becomes a sauce used to conceal the insipidness of an under-seasoned musical dish. We’ve all seen conductors take away the vibrato, the rubato and the legato, and burn through a Beethoven or Haydn symphony on stylish autopilot. Harnoncourt has never been about what he leaves out of his performances, but what he pours in, which is a keen eye for detail, a willingness to push the envelope and risk ugly sounds, a rich imagination and a powerful rhythmic sense.

A few years back I heard a radio broadcast of Harnoncourt conducting Beethoven 7 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Not his old CD recording, but a much more recent concert. Beethoven 7, one of the 5 most perfect symphonies ever written, has for the last 25 years or so been piece in which almost every conductor (including me) seems to somehow influenced, inspired or intimidated by Carlos Kleiber’s classic recording and film. When I listened to that performance of Harnouncourt, it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard- he pulled out so much detail I’d never noticed in the piece, and had his own, completely distinctive approach to the phrasing and structuring of the symphony. From bar to bar, phrase to phrase, one felt such a strongly developed point of view about the work- not just what note of the chord or what voice of the counterpoint Harnoncourt thought was most important, but what he saw as its character, its past present and future. I’ve had similar reactions to his performances of a huge range of composers, but his imaginative engagement with textural detail is most apparent in Haydn, a composer whose music usually seems to highlight the glaring superficiality of most conductors (including me).

To the extent Haroncourt has earned his reputation for being a provocateur, he’s done it for the right reasons, with his provocations growing out of an unfiltered engagement with the scores he conducts. Far better this than the work of conductors who seem to be focused entirely on generating outrageous sound effects from period brass and timpani. Harnoncourt understood that working with period instruments meant that the players shouldn’t have to stand on their heads to make the orchestration work- he encourages them to play all out, to push old instruments to their limits, where some others have perhaps fallen into the trap of using a HIP approach as a pathway to what is really an Ikea aesthetic- everything cool, smooth, clean and cheap. With his own Concentus Musicus he created the ideal laboratory to see what the possibilities of old instruments really were.

He’s also been successful in getting the best out of non-period orchestras, which is unsurprising considering his long professional experience in the cello section of the Vienna Symphony. I’ve really soured on modern instrument groups that simply try to imitate the sound of period instrument groups. It’s rarely convincing acoustically- the strings end up thin, edgy and horrible, the brass end up sounding like a toothache, and the woodwinds never seem to get the memo that they’re supposed to be playing any differently than “usual.” Worst of all, focusing on imitation takes the musicians’ attention away from phrasing and listening, and usually also leads to a very simplistic, one-dimensional approach to color which, again, is too much about what you don’t do rather than what you do. Consider this film of him conducting the Vienna Philharmonic- it’s as stylish and vibrant as you like (with one funny edit- can you spot it?), but it doesn’t sound anything like Concentus Musicus. His long affiliations with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw are the stuff of legend, too.

Of course, total fearlessness can have its downside (just ask Ayrton Senna), and among my many Harnoncourt CDs, there are a few real clunkers, but this is not the time or place for worrying about those. A wise teacher told me early on that I should evaluate other conductors not in terms of how much of what they do I like or agree with, but in terms of what I can learn from them. On that basis, can’t think of many conductors who have taught as many musicians and listeners as much as Harnoncourt.

More Harnoncourt content on Vftp:





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From the December-February issue of Classical Music Magazine, Christopher Morley picks the ESO’s performance of Donald Fraser’s orchestration of the Elgar Piano Quintet as his Premiere of the Year.

Congrats to all the wonderful composers and ensembles mentioned in this overview of important first performances. The magazine is on sale now, subscription information is here.

“… but October’s performance under Kenneth Woods in the appropriately named Elgar Concert Hall at Birmingham University was a revelation… This triumph of transcription deserves to be heard worldwide.”

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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.


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*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.

6 months ago | |
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