Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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The idea for this orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major, opus 26 came to me spontaneously in a real flash of inspiration while I was coaching chamber music at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival in the Bay of Naples in 2008. I vividly remember the bright blue sea and cloudless sky over  Mount Epomeo that morning as I listened to a  group play though the first movement of the piece in its original form. As I began to work with them on the piece, I found myself speaking to the pianist, as I often do, in orchestral terms. “Can you try playing the opening phrase like…. a quartet of horns?” I asked. He certainly sounded more convincing with that in mind, but that sound had planted itself firmly in my inner ear. After the coaching I had a bit of free time, and found myself listening to an imaginary orchestral version of the entire first movement emerging out of that horn quartet. I thought it sounded great. By the end of that morning, I’d decided to try to undertake a realization of the orchestration I’d heard.


Mount Epomeo and the campus of the Ischia Festival on the day it all began.

After my initial euphoria, I had a few more sober thoughts. First, there was the question of Schoenberg’s orchestration of opus 26’s evil twin, the Piano Quartet in G minor, opus 25. Should I be deterred by the possibility (certainty) of comparisons, or should I in some way try to look to Schoenberg’s example as a model for my own work? This was actually the easiest of decisions to make- I didn’t feel any need to worry one way or another about Schoenberg’s arrangement. It hadn’t been in any way on my mind when I first thought of the project, so I could answer questions about whether I’d stolen his idea with a clear conscience and an even clearer answer. Also, much as I revere his arrangements of many other composer’s works, including the Monn Cello Concerto and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, I actually have never warmed to his eccentric, and, to me, often vulgar and un-idiomatic take on Brahms’s opus 25. In the end, I decided not to listen to or look at the score of Schoenberg’s orchestration until I’d finished my work on opus 26.

A more serious deterrent was figuring how to translate Brahms’s specifically pianistic writing into an orchestral sound world. Short of deploying an army of harps, which would have sounded almost as silly as Schoenberg’s xylophone in opus 25, it would have been absurd and impossible to try to recreate some of the sweeping piano arpeggios in the second movement of the Piano Quartet in an orchestra. On the other hand, purely decorative writing is very rare in Brahms, and often what first seems like a mere figuration turns into a motive that he works with and develops- one replaces something like that with an easier pattern at your moral peril. In the end, those sweeping arpeggios were a fairly easy question to resolve- their very impossibility mandated a more radical approach. Other, less obvious, spots took more soul searching and the careful balancing between staying true to the original with making things playable and satisfying for the orchestral musicians. Questions of playability and risk also figured into whether and how to realise my idea of the opening being played by horn quartet. A Major is a very high key for the horn, and to transcribe the first few bars of the piano part for horns would mean asking them to play higher in the first phrase of the piece than they do in any of Brahms’s orchestral canon. In the end, I employed a little bit of orchestral sleight of hand to avoid notes that I thought were really unrealistic to ask for, but otherwise, I decided that Brahms would have known and appreciated the sound of high horns in A from the symphonies of Haydn and notably from Beethoven’s 7th, and I hope he would have approved of me modelling my use of the horns not only on his orchestral work but that of his esteemed forbears.

It’s hard to believe that it took nearly seven years from that morning on Ishcia to complete the orchestration of the piece, but it is a massive score. After my initial work on it in 2008, which consisted of annotating my Quartet score with ideas for instrumental colors, the piece was set to one side while I attended to other projects with firmer deadlines. Again in 2012, I made a push, but it wasn’t until my colleagues in the Surrey Mozart Players agreed to perform the work in their 2014-15 season that I had the deadline and the opportunity I needed to justify the massive amount of time it would take to bring the project to completion. I thank them for their patience and support.

Schoenberg famously joked that in orchestrating opus 25, he’d given the world a fifth Brahms Symphony. Many years ago, a more senior conductor posed me a seemingly unsolvable riddle. “What key would Brahms have written his Fifth Symphony in?” he said. I looked at him blankly so he offered a hint: “Try making a melody out of the keys of the four Brahms symphonies,” he suggested. Okay- C minor, D major, F major and E minor. Hmmm, I thought, C, D, F E. Those for notes begin the main theme of the Finale of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony.  I instantly knew the answer.

Brahms’s opus 26 is certainly more than symphonic in scope- depending on tempi, it’s potentially longer than any of the symphonies and the first movement is one of the grandest movements he ever wrote, but much of the piece also has elements of a more Serenade-like character, and, in fact, I found myself consulting not only the scores of the Four Symphonies repeatedly during this process, but also that of Brahms’s D Major Serenade, opus 11.

On the other hand, the fifth note of the Jupiter Symphony melody is A.

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 3.42.10 PM

It all started here. Easy to imagine, but difficult to play! NB- this is in concert pitch.


The orchestration will be recorded next year, and I’ll be keeping it for my exclusive use for another season after that, but looking ahead, the materials will be available for purchase or hire, and I’m happy to send exam scores to interested people at any time.

3 months ago | |
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I was not aware of what had just happened, but sometimes, it’s better not to know.

Today my colleagues (Matthew Sharp, David LePage, Suzanne Casey and Catherine Leech) and I played a noontime recital as part of the English Symphony Orchestra’s Magna Carta 800 celebrations at Worcester Cathedral .

The entire festival has been a musical exploration of the on-going struggle for freedom, liberty and human dignity. Our program was called America’s March Toward Freedom, and focused particularly on America’s troubled history of slavery, race relations and the fight for equality.

magna carta

Blissfully unaware- rehearsing music for Magna Carta in the unseen shadow of an emerging atrocity.

Yesterday was a busy work day and this morning was a taken up with travel and rehearsal before the concert at noon. The upshot of which is that none of us on stage had any idea we were playing this program in the shadow of one of the most shocking acts of violence motivated by racial hatred in my lifetime. I only found out about the horrific events in South Carolina when I got back to my hotel room after the concert. Part of me wishes we’d known. Maybe we could have said something meaningful, or brought something special to the performance, but on reflection, maybe it’s best we didn’t.

To be honest, I’m not sure I could have managed the right balance of emotion and focus in this repertoire if I was going on stage trying to process this news. Music, and the human body, can actually only take so much emotion and sometimes the music suffers when we’re beside ourselves with anger, grief and outrage. Part of you needs to count the rests and put your fingers in the right places, as well as open your soul. Yes, perhaps, for the music’s sake, it is better we didn’t know. Perhaps it’s also better because we shouldn’t wait for an international outrage to play these kinds of programs with all the commitment and care we can summon.

“In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
–Antonin Dvorak

I chose Dvorak’s great F major String Quartet for the Magna Carta festival because of what its reception says about the unfinished nature of racial reconciliation in America. Dvorak was inspired during its composition by the melodic riches of African American spirituals and the blues, so much so that in the years after he wrote it in 1893, the piece took on a nickname now considered a hateful racial epitaph. It’s later re-naming as the American Quartet did away with an ugly word, but also effectively, literally whitewashed the piece. Its black inspiration has been largely forgotten- most people in my generation assume that the Americans in the piece are of the decidedly Caucasian variety. I’ve always said that the piece should really be called the “African American Quartet” but today tells me that’s not quite right. Re-naming the piece “African American” would be too facile a shortcut for the real work of education and contextualization that needs to be attached to performances of the piece for us to really understand its musical roots and its modern relevance. As long as we rely on the use of the hyphen to call attention to the involvement of anyone not white in something “American” we’re perpetuating the legacy of exclusion and appropriation we actually mean to fight.

Today’s crime is just one particularly grotesque symptom of a sickening rise in racial hatred among a large segment of the US population, including a disturbing cross section of American law enforcement and political leaders. For these people, the word “American” must always continue to evoke white America. In a horrific cultural moment like this, as we all absorb the shock of an event that seemed calculated to be as evil as possible, we should remember that this is no lone gunman unleashed on society, no aberration. He is and was, a foot soldier- one of the millions in the USA committed to reserving the full promise of the nation for its fair-skinned residents.


No lone gunman here, but a foot soldier in a pretty vast army.

The last 20 years have seen miraculous progress towards equality for LGBT people in the USA, but civil rights, economic opportunities and social perceptions of people of color in the US have not, that I can see, moved forward in millimeter in my lifetime. Rather the opposite- even the Supreme Court has take the step of gutting much of the Voting Rights Act. The Charleston shooter’s manifesto is one shared with millions and millions of people: “you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

So, no- I don’t think I could have done justice to Dvorak’s elegant and gently sorrowful masterpiece today. The anguish of thinking just how little progress we’ve made in the last 100+ years might have been too much. What the horrible synchronicity of this concert and the Charleston crime does point out is that these concerts do, or should, matter. We shouldn’t be waiting for a tragedy to ask art to speak through our art to the need for social justice. Celebrations like Magna Carta 800 can too easily feel like self-congratulatory commemorations of a battle won. They should be a call to action, a reminder of unfinished business. A commemoration of a struggle, not a celebration of victory. Perhaps, it’s a time to remember that our Beethoven needs to be fiercer, our Mozart more subversive, our Dvorak, more tragic because in the last 800 years, we still haven’t finished the project.

At the heart of the concert was the first public UK performance of Kile Smith’s wonderful song cycle, Plain Truths, which begins and ends with the writings of the abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison, taken from his newspaper The Liberator. Kile writes that “I quote from the very first and last issues: his 1831 shot across the bow proclaiming his rejection of moderation in the fight against our national tragedy, to his 1865 valedictory, which followed the Thirteenth Amendment’s official eradication of slavery. “I am aware” is an angry recitative; “Spirit of Freedom,” a marching hymn.” Thirty-four years is a long time to fight for any cause, and I can appreciate Garrison’s wish to see his life’s work validated, to declare victory and move on to happier things, but in 2015, it’s his words from 1831 that seem like they could have been written today. History tells us he should have kept the paper running.

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I do not wish to think, or to speak, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her baby from the fire—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am aware, and I will be heard.
—Wm. Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), from The Liberator (1831) 

As artists, we don’t need some racist monster with a gun to motivate us to play music that speaks to fundamental issues of right and wrong. Quite the opposite: we all ought to heed Garrison’s rallying cry. I am aware that each time we take the stage, we should do so without too much undue moderation lest we are still fighting the same sad, pointless battles in another 800 years.

3 months ago | |
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This is a Reblog: Read the original official press release from MusicCo International

UPDATE- A new interview as Ken speaks to Peter Alexander at Sharps and Flatirons here. 

Coverage from Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc here: “The Colorado MahlerFest in and around the city of Boulder is one of the boldest musical initiatives of modern times. ”

News feature from ClassicalSource here

Story from Colorado Public Radio here

News from Boulder’s “Sharps and Flatirons” blog here

Boulder Daily Camera story with coverage of final concert of MahlerFest XXVIII and announcement

Luxembourg’s Pizzicato Magazine here



Kenneth Woods

Kenneth Woods has been appointed Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest. He is only the second Artistic Director in the festival’s 28-year history and succeeds Founding Artistic Director Robert Olson. Woods will oversee his first festival, MahlerFest XXIX, in May 2016.

Of his appointment, Woods remarks, “I’m thrilled and humbled to be invited to steer the festival’s ongoing exploration of one of the greatest composers of all time. I’ve always been impressed by the sophistication of MahlerFest’s programming and presentation, not to mention the musical standards attained by its participants. I must extend enormous congratulations to Bob Olson for everything he has achieved. The complexity and scale of some tasks can only be fully appreciated once you’ve done them yourself, and as someone who has put together a few crazy Mahler projects of my own over the years, I know something about the kind of heroic effort Bob has made to build and sustain this festival. I take very seriously my responsibility to keep the torch he has lit blazing brightly for many years to come.”

Founded by conductor Robert Olson in 1988, the Boulder-based Colorado MahlerFest is an annual celebration of the life and music of Gustav Mahler. Throughout one week every May, the festival explores Mahler through symposia, exhibits, films and the performance of a major symphonic work by the composer. MahlerFest is currently in the midst of its third cycle of Mahler’s symphonic compositions. In 2005, MahlerFest received the Gold Medal of the Vienna-based International Gustav Mahler Society, an honor so far bestowed on only one other American organization, the New York Philharmonic.

Gustav Mahler’s music has been a lifelong source of inspiration for Kenneth Woods, and has played an important part in his career. He has conducted acclaimed performances of the symphonies and songs across the Americas and Europe. His first recording of Mahler’s music, Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble versions of Das Lied von der Erde and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Somm Records, 2011), received an IRR Outstanding rosette from International Record Review. Off the podium, Woods is in demand as an essayist and speaker on Mahler’s life and music. He has given talks and participated in panel discussions on Mahler for the BBC and NPR, and was the official blogger of The Bridgewater Hall’s Mahler in Manchester series in 2010-11. In his native US, Woods achieved national media recognition as conductor of the Pendleton-based Oregon East Symphony for staging Redneck Mahler, an event that galvanized the community of a small, western Rodeo town.

With its combination of conducting, symposia, pre-concert lectures, films, community engagement and blog posts, MahlerFest’s format plays perfectly into Woods’ multifarious hands. “For me,” he says, “Mahler has a singular creative voice. His music should be experienced as an immersive, transformative experience.”


“This is a most important issue, and all Mahlerians should make its acquisition an urgent necessity.” International Record Review

“a richly balanced performance that easily stands out” Gramophone Magazine

“gives Mahler the ride of his life.” The Oregonian

“something that every lover of Mahler should hear.” MusicWeb International
* * * * *

For any media enquiries, interview and image requests, please contact Melanne Mueller,, +44 (0) 20 8698 6933 or +1 917 907 2785

For more information about Kenneth Woods please visit

For more information about the Colorado MahlerFest please visit

About Kenneth Woods

Kenneth Woods is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, a post he assumed in 2013, succeeding Vernon Handley.

Hailed by the Washington Post as a “true star” of the podium, Woods has worked with many orchestras of international distinction, and has appeared on the stages of some of the world’s leading music festivals. His work on the concert platform and in the recording studio has led to numerous broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, National Public Radio, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

As Principal Guest Conductor of Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan (2010-2014), Woods made numerous acclaimed recordings, including the first-ever cycle of the Symphonies of Hans Gál (AVIE).

Woods’ unique gifts have been widely acknowledged by some of today’s leading conductors. In 2001, he was selected by Leonard Slatkin to be one of four participants in the National Conducting Institute at the Kennedy Center, where he made his National Symphony debut. Toronto Symphony Music Director Peter Oundjian has praised Woods as “a conductor with true vision and purpose. He has a most fluid and clear style and an excellent command on the podium… a most complete musician.”

A widely read writer and frequent broadcaster, Woods’ blog, A View from the Podium, is one of the 25 most popular classical music blogs in the world. He has provided commentary for the BBC Proms, and has spoken on Mahler on NPR’s All Things Considered and BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

4 months ago | |
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Next week the Berlin Philharmonic picks a new Chief Conductor.

There’s always bound to be curiosity about who is going to get the best job in any field of interest to the general public (there seems to be much curiosity this week over who will run the United Kingdom next week), so it’s encouraging that there is so much debate and discussion across the media and the blogosphere about who will succeed Simon Rattle in Berlin. It goes to show that classical music is still a “field of interest to the general public.” Phew!

I’ve followed the debate online with great interest, but not blogged about the issue yet because of my fairly strict rules against commenting on the work of living colleagues. How could I possibly weigh into this raging debate without burning bridges or, worse yet, mixing metaphors? How could tell people who I think will, or should, get the job without being caught offering an opinion on the work of my colleagues? A statistical and scientific approach was called for! I’ve modelled my approach on that of legendary political blogger, poll-tracker and election caller, Nate Silver, whose blog, 538, famously called the last US Presidential election to within something 2 votes.

I’ve gone through the Digital Concert Hall archive, searching for the orchestra’s next Chief Conductor. I figure whoever it is will already be in there. Statistical analysis will tell us who it is.

I’ve ruled out anyone who only appears once- the musicians there are too shrewd and professional to risk the future of the orchestra on someone they’ve barely worked with.

Format: Conductor (number of gigs in the Digital Concert Hall)

  • Antonini, Giovanni (1)
  • Balogh, Sándor (1)
  • Boder, Michael (1)
  • Boreyko, Andrey (1)
  • Belohlávek, Jirí (1)
  • Chung, Myung-Whun (1)
  • Dodds, Stanley (1)
  • Elder, Mark (1)
  • Fikentscher, Saskia (1)
  • Fisch, Asher (1)
  • Forck, Bernhard (1)
  • Froschauer, Helmuth (1)
  • Gatti, Daniele (1)
  • Goebel, Reinhard (1)
  • Griffiths, Howard (1)
  • Gritton, Robin (1)
  • Gruber, HK (1)
  • Hagen-Groll, Walter (1)
  • Heras-Casado, Pablo (1)
  • Holliger, Heinz (1)
  • Honeck, Manfred (1)
  • Horne, Albert (1)
  • Järvi, Kristjan (1)
  • Järvi, Paavo (1
  • Jensen, Eivind Gullberg (1)
  • Jurowski, Vladimir (1)
  • Kitajenko, Dmitrij (1)
  • Koopman, Ton (1)
  • Kusiel-Moroz, Krzysztof (1)
  • Langrée, Louis (1)
  • Leenaars, Gijs (1)
  • Löbner, Tobias (1)
  • Luisotti, Nicola (1)
  • Muti, Riccardo (1)
  • Oramo, Sakari (1
  • Metzmacher, Ingo (1)
  • Netopil, Tomáš (1)
  • Perahia, Murray (1)
  • Pinnock, Trevor (1)
  • Putninš, Kaspars (1)
  • Robertson, David (1)
  • Sado, Yutaka (1)
  • Schiff, András (1)
  • Schubert, Steffen (1)
  • Shelley, Alexander (1)
  • Skrowaczewski, Stanislaw (1)
  • Tanaka, Masahiko (1)
  • Urbanski, Krzysztof (1)
  • Valcuha, Juraj (1)
  • Ward, Duncan (1)
  • Wit, Antoni (1)
  • Wojnarowski, Henryk (1)
  • Zweden, Jaap van (1)

I’ve also ruled out anyone who seems really to be at a point in life where age, health or circumstance militates against them taking on a new job- this excludes many of their most regular conductors, including:

  • Haitink, Bernard (7)
  • Mehta, Zubin (7)
  • Barenboim, Daniel (6)
  • Blomstedt, Herbert (6)
  • Eötvös, Peter (3)
  • Järvi, Neeme (3)
  • Zinman, David (3)
  • Harnoncourt, Nikolaus (2)
  • Boulez, Pierre (2)
  • Ozawa, Seiji (2)

Of these, Barenboim has been mentioned by many as a possible candidate but has, apparently, ruled  himself out. Could he rule himself in if asked nicely? Nobody seems to be mentioning Zubin Mehta- perhaps because he’s never been a darling of the critics, but the numbers don’t lie- clearly the musicians rate him as one of their most important partners. He’s not young but seems in robust good health.

That leaves (in descending order of most gigs)

  • Nelsons, Andris (9)
  • Thielemann, Christian (9)
  • Bychkov, Semyon (6)
  • Dudamel, Gustavo (6)
  • Alan Gilbert (5)
  • Jirka, Kai-Uwe (4)
  • Sokhiev, Tugan (4)
  • Harding, Daniel (4)
  • Chailly, Riccardo (3)
  • Fischer, Iván (3)
  • Nézet-Séguin, Yannick (3)
  • Haïm, Emmanuelle (3)
  • Runnicles, Donald (3)
  • Gergiev, Valery (2)
  • Gläser, Michael (2)
  • Petrenko, Kirill (2)
  • Steffens, Karl-Heinz (2)
  • Zeh, Walter (2)
  • Jansons, Mariss (2)

Which of these busy and accomplished maestri will get the job? I I think it all boils down to who has done the most and the best concerts with the orchestra. This slightly argues against the candidacies of some of the most highly and publicly touted conductors – especially Ivan Fischer, Riccardo Chailly and Yannick Nezet-Seguin all at 3 gigs each. Of course, the “number of best gigs” measure could be prone to error caused by scheduling conflicts, so for all the conductors at the three gigs level, we’ve applied the “are they happy where they are test.” After all, in sport, coaches rarely leave a winning team just to move to a more prestigious team unless they’re certain they can be even more successful there. It’s exceedingly rare for someone to win a championship at one team then repeat the success at another one. Phil Jackson made it look comparatively easy going from Chicago to Los Angeles, but the great Pat Riley took 18 years and two changes of team to replicate his success in Los Angeles with the Miami Heat. Fischer, Chailly and Nezet-Seguin seem to be comfortably ensconced at orchestras of near-comparative stature where they are perceived as hugely successful and seem to be able to do what they like. Why would they leave?

Starting then from the top- Nelsons and Thielemann would seem the clear front runners for the job at 9 gigs each. Nelsons has only just started at the Boston Symphony and is frightfully young.  He hasn’t unequivocally ruled himself out (actually, he pretty much has), but there is much speculation that the job is his for the taking in four or five years of seasoning in Boston after a “care-taker” tenure of an older colleague.

What then of Thielemann? He’s old enough yet young enough, he works with them a lot and he passes the “is pretty much the opposite of the last guy to hold the job” test. It’s not for me to say (and everyone else has said it already), but there is a pretty broad consensus around the industry that he excels in the music of three composers- Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Wagner. His Brahms is more than credible and there’s a fantastic Schoenberg Pelleas and Melisande in the Digital Concert Hall. Is that enough? Even within the German canon, his Beethoven and Schumann are VERY controversial, he doesn’t conduct Mahler (the third-most-popular composer in the Digital Concert Hall after Beethoven and Brahms), and outside German repertoire, he’s even more controversial. It’s well worth watching his Tchaikovsky Six in the Digital Concert Hall to see why. I’ll stop there.

If the numbers tell us these are the orchestra’s two favorite conductors, does the orchestra have to choose one or the other? I suspect so. Does Nelsons need or want more time in Boston before taking on the world’s toughest conducting job? Many think so. Thielemann is in the prime of his career and has a near-perfect gig in Dresden which also includes opera. He would be nuts to come to Berlin for any sort of time-limited role. If he goes to Berlin, he’s planning to stay for life.  Also, Thielemann loses points based on the “happy where they are measure.” Between the two, the statistics tell us that Nelsons gets the job, but in 2023. But a lot can happen in five or six years- today’s sure thing is tomorrow’s empty promise, and trust me: EVERY conductor knows that from experience.

Gustavo Dudamel has also clearly ruled himself out this time, so that leaves two statistically likely candidates at six and five gigs respectively- Alan Gilbert and Semyon Bychkov. Neither seem to by high in the bookmakers’ estimation, but there are clear statistical arguments to be made that either could win the job.

Gilbert breezes past the “happy where they are” test. He’s just announced his departure from the New York Philharmonic, so he’s neither happy nor anywhere. In sporting terms, that makes him a big time free agent, a veteran player ready to slot in to an elite team. Gilbert presents an informal media image, but his repertoire and musical culture seem more hardcore Central European than laid-back American, and his work in the Digital Concert Hall seems to embody a near-ideal balance between the canon and major Central European works of the 20th c. Bartok, Nielsen, Lutoslawski, Janacek and Martinu sit alongside Dvorak and Mendelssohn in the archive. His age would seem to argue that he wouldn’t want to only stick around for 5 years or so to make room for Nelsons, but does his mysterious departure from New York indicate maybe he’s someone who is restless and likes to change scenery? Hard to say. There have been rumours of critical or musician discontent behind his departure from New York, but between their relationship with Gilbert and that with Mehta, one thing is clear- Berliners really don’t care what people in New York think about conductors.

That leaves just Semyon Bychkov, one ahead of Gilbert at 6 gigs. Passes the “happy where they are” test because he’s freelance with only part time/semi-honorary position at the BBC Symphony. He’s at the peak of his musical powers and just that little bit younger and healthier than guys like Barenboim and Jansons. His repertoire and recorded history align well with Berlin’s. Few have pointed it out of late, but his appointment would mark an even stronger reconnection with the Karajan legacy than Thielemann would- his name was the first out of Karajan’s mouth back in the 1980’s when asked about his potential successors. Back then, that endorsement was a near career-killer, taken as proof that the old man was finally skating off the rink. Could it work in Bychkov’s favour now? What of the “most/best” concerts? Well, after Nelsons, Thielemann and the old guard, he’s the next most, and may well have conducted the best concert in the Digital Concert Hall. These things are subjective, but his performance of the Alpine Symphony in 2008 is my favorite performance of anything in the Digital Concert Hall, and I remember his Brahms 2 as being really magnificent as well. Plus, he passes the “has also recorded for the wonderful Avie Records” test.

His is not a name that’s been mentioned often in connection with the world’s top job, but often those that know most about what’s going on say the least. One critic suggested he was too Jewish for Berlin. One would hope in these dark times the musicians of the Philharmonic would see the appointment of their first Jewish Chief Conductor as an opportunity to send an important, positive message to a Europe being quickly covered by the stinking storm clouds of rising anti-Semitism.

So there you have it- if the statistics are right, we can say with confidence that we know for sure that the next Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic will be Semyon Bychkov.

“Me? Seriously? You guys are hiring me? Niiiiiice”

Or it could be one of the other guys. I don’t really know. But thanks for reading.

4 months ago | |
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From the May 2015 issue of Gramophone Magazine


Violin Concerto, “Wall of Water”

Harriet Mackenzie vn  English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance (S) CD NI1555 (21’ . DDD

Every now and then, a new work comes along that simply takes one’s breath away. The Violin Concerto Wall of Water (2014) by Deborah Pritchard is one such. Composed last year “in response to the paintings by Maggi Hambling”—a sequence of at the time 13 paintings inspired by the Suffolk coast—the concerto is scored for a chamber group of 13 strings only: the soloist plus seven orchestral violinists, pairs of violas and cellos and a double-bass.

Despite the modest forces employed, the concerto is ablaze with colour across its twenty-one minutes, mirroring the transitions of colours in the Hambling paintings, with muted tones and colour ranges in the outer sections (corresponding roughly to paintings I-III and XII-XIII) enclosing a richer and more varied palette for paintings IV-XI, the whole framed by an opening solo violin cadenza and its varied reprise emerging from and returning to the darkness. (In live performance, the concerto can be accompanied by a synchronised video display of the Hambling paintings, but the music stands supremely well by itself.)

Wall of Water was written for Harriet Mackenzie (one member of the superb Retorica Duo, 2/13, 4/13), who plays this alternately elegiac and passionate music with a burning commitment and intensity that composers usually only dream of, but then she has been gifted a work whose high quality is rarely encountered. This is a wonderful performance of a wonderful concerto, completed by immaculate accompaniment from the English String Orchestra directed by the tireless Kenneth Woods. Very, very strongly recommended.

Guy Rickards

Gramophone Wall of Water Review

5 months ago | |
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Part of a series of vlogs exploring magical minutes in music history- here’s a quick look at the first few bars of the Agnus Dei from the Mozart Requiem.

The ESO will be performing the Mozart Requiem on the 24th of April at St John’s Smith Square. Tickets are available here:…

Concert information:

24 April, 2014
7:30 PM
English Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Woods- principal conductor
St John’s Smith Square
Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA
Academia Musica Choir
Sofia Larsson- soprano, Emma Curtis- contralto, Matthew Minter-tenor, Brain Bannatyne-Scott- bass

Handel- Alleleuia from Dettingen Anthem
WF Bach- Adagio from Sinfonia in D Minor
Handel- Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, The Ways of Zion do MournMozart- Requiem in D minor
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Mozart’s Requiem has been shrouded in mystery and rumour since it was first published. Commissioned by an anonymous stranger and completed for performance after Mozart’s death under controversial circumstances, the Requiem is also a work with a complex and intricate connection to Mozart’s musical forebears. ESO Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods takes listeners on a journey of discovery into the origins of Mozart’s last and greatest work, heard here alongside some of the works Mozart turned to for inspiration in the final weeks of his life.

5 months ago | |
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There’s no point in compiling a “worst orchestrators” list- the guilty parties would all be hopelessly minor and un-interesting composers. Far more interesting is to have a look at the who the great composers are who are most able to humble, wrong foot, humiliate or frustrate orchestras and composers.  Some ask too much, some didn’t know what to ask for. Either way, when you see their music coming on the season schedule, be sure to set aside a bit of extra preparation time.

Please share your comments below- which composers’ use of the orchestra fills you with dread?

The Dangerous!


Debussy was perhaps an even more imaginative and visionary orchestrator than Ravel, but he almost completely lacks Ravel’s practical and pragmatic touch. I once did a seminar on balance and texture problems that Debussy has left the composer to solve in my favourite Debussy orchestral work called “If Ravel had orchestrated La Mer.” You can count on Ravel to give you a score full of safe and reliable performance instructions- do as he says, and every little detail comes across. Debussy’s scores suggest breath-taking colours and revelatory  ideas, but it’s up to the performers to figure out how to bring them to life for the audience.


In Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony” Shostakovich is quoted speaking rather derisively of Prokofiev’s commitment and prowess as an orchestrator, going so far as to suggest that Prokofiev was one to let others finish his orchestrations for him. I’ve always been sceptical on that count, as I find that Prokofiev has an amazingly strong sonic footprint. I love the sound of his orchestral music- it’s incredibly powerful and distinctive. On the other hand, his use of the orchestra is often eccentric, and things can go badly wrong. His two most popular symphonies, the “Classical” (his first) and the wartime Fifth are among those works most likely sound ragged in concert. They’re just incredibly difficult and very exposed. One does often get the feeling that Prokofiev held a long-standing grudge against orchestral violinists and horn players. Approach his work with caution and plenty of rehearsal time.


In terms of “things people tend to say immediately before publicly humiliating themselves,” the phrase “there’s also some Dvorak overture on the program which I’ve never played, but I don’t think it will be too hard” is right up there with “hey guys, watch this!” I can think of plenty of violin players for whom the mere mention of the Husitska Overture is enough to make them break out in hives. Even as standard a piece as Carnival usually sounds sloppy if you listen carefully to the poor violinists. Musicians often underestimate Dvorak because we all played the New World Symphony in our respective youth orchestras. Dvorak’s orchestral writing gets simpler and more idiomatic as he got older- so just as the New World (his final symphony) is the most playable of the nine he wrote, so too his final concerto, the B minor Cello Concerto, is the most manageable of his works for soloist and orchestra. Dvorak grew up in the great Czech school of string playing- even before Mr Sevcik unleashed his dreaded finger exercises on the world, Czech string players have always seemed to be able to play anything. If you’re not blessed with the technical fluency of a Milos Sadlo or Joseph Suk, and you happen to be playing the Othello Overture on the next concert, get the part early. Dvorak seemed to be among music’s all-time nicest guys, but he sure had it in for second oboists. There are few more dangerous passages in all of music than the low, slow, soft and sustained second oboe parts in the slow movements of the Cello Concerto and the Seventh Symphony. If you know a second oboist tackling either piece, make sure they’re well stocked with hugs and post-rehearsal booze.


As we saw with the music of Dvorak, writing a classic youth orchestra work can create a misleading impression of how difficult a composer’s music is to play. “Hoe Down” is one of those delights that sounds way harder to play than it is, and as a result, it’s a great vehicle for young musicians to get that first experience of playing something really fast and virtuosic. In almost every other piece he ever wrote, the music sounds much easier to play than it really is…. until it all goes horribly wrong. I’ve taught Appalachian Spring countless times to young conductors, and the piece is usually a litany of failure and trauma when they perform it. The piece goes off the rails in concerts all the time, and, familiar as it is, it’s rare to hear a performance in which all the intonation challenges have been addressed. Copland’s famous Third Symphony is one of the most difficult pieces in the orchestral literature- we all know about the Fanfare for the Common Man and the challenge it poses for the brass, but it’s the first violins and high woodwinds who usually need therapy after attempting it. Even more difficult is the Third’s precursor, the Short Symphony. There’s nothing particularly gnarly about the orchestration other than the fact that it’s a fifteen minute piece for which you are supposed to source a hecklephone, but it’s one tough mother to conduct.



LvB himself on this list? Yup. Even the greatest string quartet violinist of Beethoven’s era, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, found some of Beethoven’s violin writing impossibly difficult. When he begged the master to simplify a passage, Beethoven replied, unsympatheticall, “Do you believe that I think about your miserable fiddle when the muse strikes me?” Of course, Beethoven’s use of the orchestra is visionary, but he was not the least bit interested in making anyone else’s work any easier. In fact his music is so incredibly demanding that 90% of the best professional musicians don’t dare even try to get close to the tempos he wanted. In addition to being technically demanding, Beethoven’s music demands perhaps the greatest clarity of rhythmic structure and security of pulse of any composer this side of Stravinsky. Making Beethoven’s music more playable is one of classical music’s most enduring traditions, one that’s been exacerbated by the influx of overpowered modern brass instruments. Slow, mezzo-forte and soggy. Blech! In the music of composer-conductors like Elgar and Mendelssohn, if the musicians tell the conductor “it’s incredibly awkward at this tempo” you can bet you’re going the wrong way with your interpretation. In Beethoven, if you start hearing words like “awkward” or “nearly impossible,” you’re probably very much on the right track.

The Disastrous


Pity poor Mussorgsky- officially the most re-orchestrated composer of all time. Even his biggest fans (Shostakovich and Rimsky) felt compelled to try to sort out his use of the orchestra. I’ve conducted the original version of A Night on the Bare Mountain- it’s a way cooler and much more insane piece than the Rimsky version we all know, but it’s incredibly problematic for the orchestra. It needs a lot of patience and mojo to pull off. It’s full of science fiction balances and technically awkward instrumental writing. Too little formal training or just too much vodka? Who knows…..


Schoenberg wrote some of my favourite music, and his re-orchestrations of the music of Mahler and Johann Strauss are gems. However, his track record as an orchestrator is definitely mixed. Pelleas and Melisande is a great work, but Schoenberg’s lack of hands-on experience really shows throughout. The balances all need tweaking and adjusting. Schoenberg played the cello, but I don’t get the feeling that he had much regard for the welfare of the human hand. Richard Strauss’s music is supremely athletic and virtuosic, but it does, in its crazy way, lie under than hand. Schoenberg’s undermines the hand. So much of his instrumental writing is uncomfortable, awkward, tiring and even painful. It’s all of a piece with the neurotic intensity of his musical persona, but sure makes it hard to play.


I’ve previously tried to defend Chopin’s much-maligned use of the orchestra in these pages, but age and experience have led me to concede that really, it’s pretty drab. Krystian Zimmerman’s recording of the Piano Concerti makes the best possible case for his use of the orchestra, but I’m sure KZ had about 100 rehearsals before they rolled tape.


Some nice ideas, but full of balance problems: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a live performance of the Helicopter Quartet where one could hear the countermelody in the second helicopter clearly enough. Joking aside, I suppose the Helicopter Quartet is an over-simplified and overly-convenient piece of cultural shorthand for “20th C. music that is more trouble, expense and difficulty than it’s worth.” Nevertheless, if one must select a work to stand in the place of every work that relies too much on pointless effects, nightmarish difficulty and a general lack of reward for performers and listeners, this is as good a choice as any. Interestingly, John McCabe really rated much of Stockhausen’s music, so I’ll be giving it a rethink over the summer.


I’m afraid The Onion kind of beat me to the punch on this one, but Rimksy-Korsakov: The Great Orchestrator must be the third most overrated figure in music history (the two most overrated figures being Erik Satie: The Great Composer and Joseph Joachim: The Great Violinist). Yes, his adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is a fantastic orchestral showpiece, but it leaves out a great deal of what makes Mussorgsky’s original so interesting- the whole-tone scales, the strange mixture of colors and registers and the general sense that you’re dealing with a very talented madman. It’s a classic case of the baby being tossed out with the bathwater. However, it’s in his own music where the shortcomings in his orchestration really come to the fore: the fact that he codified his over-reliance on attention catching percussion tricks that add little to the music in one of the cheapest books on orchestration you can buy has sent thousands of young composers marching down the path of budget-busting triviality. If you’ve ever played Capriccio Espagnol in a reverberant hall, you’ll know that in Rimksy-Korsakov’s hands, the tambourine can truly be a musical weapon of mass destruction.

5 months ago | |
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At long last- the research has been completed, the results have been tallied. We can now say with absolute, factual certainty who the 15 greatest orchestrators of all time are. Check out the results, then let us know which ones you got wrong…. Er, we mean, let us know who you think should be on the list.

Scoring was on the basis of-

1- How good they were: does their work sound great?

2- How original they were: does their work sound unique?

3- How idiomatic/professional they were: does their work work as they wrote it?

Stay tuned for next time, when we look at the most problematic orchestrators ever chose between 2nd oboe or 2nd clarinet.

15. Lutoslawski

A giant, whose musical achievements look bigger and more impressive as the years go by. His Concerto for Orchestra is every bit as great as Bartók’s, and his symphonies are simply amazing works, full of color and originality.

14. Mozart

Mozart’s music, is of course, some of the most beautiful ever written. As an orchestrator, he leaves an awful lot of the welfare of the music in the hands of the musicians. It simply has to be well-played to work at all- the orchestration covers no problems and really makes very few effects. On the other hand, there are wonderful diversions and surprises in his orchestral choices- the divided violas in the Sinfonia Concertante, the use of clarinets instead of oboes in the 39th Symphony or the dark sound of basset horns and trombones in the Requiem. His most strikingly original orchestral work is the Gran Partita,  a work with only one player (the double bass) there to represent for the strings.

13. Bruckner

Perhaps no composer better understood the poetic power of orchestral sonority than Bruckner. Often compared to Wagner and Mahler, his sound-world is more austere and restrained, and the music is all the more powerful for it. For me as a listener and conductor, he’s in the top four all-time orchestrators. I’ve bumped him back in this listing out of deference to all those string players who wish they’d learned how to play tremolo without tension before they encountered his music.


12. Brahms

Some may be surprised to see Brahms on this list- he’s not a composer known for his attention-grabbing orchestration. Of course, that’s exactly how Brahms would have wanted it: a composer of such exactly honesty and discipline could only have wanted an orchestral world where every detail was completely in service of the musical narrative. The magnitude of his achievement and the skill of his work can be best appreciated by sampling Schoenberg’s well-meaning but desperately incompetent and misguided orchestration of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet

11. Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn is one of the many composers on this list who was also an expert conductor of vast experience, and it shows on every page of his music. If less ambitious than Berlioz or Schumann, he was far more polished. Everything works, everything fits under the hand.

10. Schumann

Yes, his music is harder to play than Mendelssohn’s or Brahms. If one strays too far from his original number of players and stage setup, it can be hard to make the balances and textures work, but he was far more original, daring and inspired than either of his masterful friends. His brass writing is particularly original- check out the trombone chorale in the Third Symphony or the mind-blowing horn writing in the Konzertstucke.

9. Shostakovich

Shostakovich had the wisdom to recognize early on that Mahler and Strauss had taken orchestral micro-managerialism as far as it could go. There are more expressive markings in the first ten pages of Mahler 7 than in the entire 15 Shostakovich symphonies combined (disclaimer- this statement is probably not actually factually true, but you get my point). Shostakovich’s orchestral palette is incredibly wide-ranging. He can do stark, he can do contrapuntally insane, he can do Russian lyricism. No composer before or since could do so much with contrabassoon and piccolo. And yet, as diverse as the language is, the voice is always instantly recognizable.

8. Wagner

Wagner changed everything, especially the sound of the orchestra. From the opening of Rienzi through the final pages of Parsifal, Wagner’s orchestra has a grandeur, a power and a breadth of colour the likes of which had never been seen before. His influence is immeasurable.

7. Bartók

If one were to be so curmudgeonly as to try to find fault with Bartók as an orchestrator, the only fault to find might be in the fact that one can hear the influence of Stravinsky and Debussy in so much of his work. Still, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

6. Stravinsky

Stravinsky was the Miles Davis of classical music. Over a long career, he managed to reinvent himself over and over again, and, like Miles, he seemed to almost welcome the despairing cries of his fans every time he left a beloved style behind. He could have written Firebird another 50 times and been the richest composer who ever lived. Instead, he went on a sixty year journey of constant renewal, from the primal fury of Rite of Spring ,to the acidic modernist tang of the Octet for Winds and Symphonies of Wind Instruments, to the neo-Classical delights of Dumbarton Oaks and Danses Concertantes, to the severity of Oedipus Rex, and then on to the atonal abstractions of Agon. And through it all, the listener needs only one of those trademarked tutti staccato chords to know you’re still listening to Miles Davis….. er, I mean Stravinsky. He would rank even higher on this list but for his tendency to revise and fuss- like Mahler, he could never leave his orchestrations alone (profit was a big reason in Stravinsky’s case)

5. Ravel

The name “Ravel” has practically come to mean “great orchestrator.” He was a great, great, great composer, too, but with the rare gift of inhabiting the sound world of other composers. Of all the composers who were drawn into orchestrating or re-orchestrating the music of Mussorgsky, I think Ravel strikes possibly the most judicious balance between keeping the best of Mussorgsky’s original ideas and making the music shine for the listener. Has there every been anything lovelier than the Minuet from Tombeau de Couperin or the end of Mother Goose?

4. Mahler

Of course, Mahler has to be high on this list. The originality of his orchestral writing is just amazing- and really worlds away from the blocks of sonority favoured by Bruckner and Wagner. It’s chamber music on a vast scale. Possibly the greatest conductor who ever lived, his orchestral writing is informed by a huge depth of practical experience, not least conducting his own works, which he revised again and again whenever he performed them, always seeking to get closer to his musical ideal.

3. Elgar

Elgar shares a gift also held by Shostakovich and Bruckner- that of having an instantly-recognizable orchestral fingerprint. His orchestrations of other composers’ works sound more like Elgar than Parry, Bach or the like. A pragmatic professional musician, his orchestration is generally also more fluid and idiomatic than even his great Austro-Bohemian near-contemporary, Gustav Mahler.

2.  J. S. Bach

The fact that Bach places at no. 2 on the list of history’s greatest and most imaginative orchestrators is all the more impressive considering the fact that in Bach’s time, orchestration really wasn’t much of a “thing.” Bach’s orchestral Klagnwelt is amazingly wide ranging: from the sparking trumpet-and-drum brilliance of the Christmas Oratorio to the austere and direct atmosphere of the Saint John Passion and the poly-choral and poly-orchestral complexities of the Saint Matthew.

1. Richard Strauss

When it comes to orchestration, Strauss is in a league completely and totally of his own. It’s no accident that so many of the composers on this list (Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner and Elgar) share a certain late-Romantic sensibility. Their music emerges from a time in which the orchestra really was the symbol of civilization and art. However you rank all the figures on this list as composers, as a master of the orchestra, Richard Strauss really has no competition. Where Mahler, Bruckner and Stravinsky seemed to be unable to quite put their musical ideas into a final form, Strauss wrote with supreme confidence and seemed to never need to revise. No composer before or since seems to have been able to put so much on the page at once and have it all make sense. Others who have tried, such as Schoenberg around the time of Pelleas and Melisande and Gurrelider, have come to grief- the balances are almost impossible to get right. Think of the range of his orchestral universe, too- from Heldenleben to Metamorphosen, from the Oboe Concerto to Elektra, from Till Eulenspiegel to Aiadne auf Naxos.



1. There is a sequel to this post here. It’s a (mostly) affectionate look at orchestral music’s problem children.

2. Some very good suggestions have come up in the comments, notably

Tchaikovsky. Yes! Totally deserves to be high on this list. An absolute genius of an orchestrator who never seemed to put a foot wrong.

– Sibelius. Yes, also. Brahmsian in it’s unobtrusive perfection and the absence of pointless effect

– Nielsen. Many amazing things in his music, but it can be damnably hard and there are many things that are baffling. If and where you put him on this list depends on what you think the balance between the bold and the baffling is.

5 months ago | |
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“Social media.”

It’s a phrase we use so often that it’s easy to forget how uneasily the words “social” and “media” sit together.

When I see the word “social,” I think of friends and family, of person-to-person contact. I think of the people with whom I share interests, beliefs or background.

When I see the word “media,” I think of large-scale technological systems for disseminating ideas, information and entertainment to the general public.

The social media revolution was supposed to give individuals a voice in shaping the content of the media, and in the early years of the blogging revolution, that did happen. Where major news organizations capitulated to political and economic power structures in the post 9/11 era, individuals used blogging and social media to speak truth to power. I’ve written before about big companies and governments managed to declaw blogging and return the real power of the media in all it’s forms to ever-larger organizations.

Today, I want to speak specifically to the role of social media in the classical music industry.

There are a lot of reasons one might start a blog. I had thought through a lot of them for a long time before I finally launched Vftp in earnest. In the end, I started the blog for a simple reason- I hoped it would help my orchestra at the time (the Oregon East Symphony) sell more tickets. 

After nine years and 1400+ blog posts, if I were to measure the success of this blog in terms of what it has done to sell tickets and build audiences, I would have to reluctantly conclude that it has been an abject failure.

Fortunately, it has been successful and rewarding beyond my wildest dreams in other ways, and I’m grateful that the fear of empty seats back then gave me the push I needed. I may have started blogging to sell tickets, but I kept blogging because I found it (and still find it) empowering to have a forum in which I can say some of what I believe about life and music without needing to ask permission, seek consensus or pay for the privilege. Here I have only my professional judgement to stop me writing or saying anything. I don’t have to worry about how may copies a magazine might sell or whether a publisher likes me. I can write about what interests me and let the chips fall where they may. This explains why I don’t think a conductor’s blog is going to sell many concert tickets- someone in town who is keen enough on Schumann’s orchestral music to read a blog about his use of Klangfarbenmelodie is almost certainly already coming to my next Schumann concert.

These days, blogging is on the wane, but just about every orchestra, conductor and soloist seems to have a Facebook profile and a Twitter feed. For several years, now, we’ve all been trying to build audiences using social media. Social media may have its rewards, but as an audience building tool, I fear it basically stinks.

The band played on, but who was listening?

The band played on, but who was listening?

The reason it stinks is to be found in the uneasy pairing of those two words- “social” and “media.” Concerts are very social things. Where else in life do people come together in so potent a way as at an event where the performers and the audience are all breathing the same air, living the same moment, in the pursuit of a transcendent artistic experience? It stands to reason that people who want to come to such a social event must want that sense of shared occasion. They must crave not only music but human contact. Given that, is it a bit odd that we put so much stock in the idea of building audiences for concerts by reaching out not to people whose actions demonstrate that they want to engage with other people and with music (if only we knew where to find them), but by reaching out to people who, in their engagement with social media (rather than society) seem to want to engage with a computer screen? I read an essay from an orchestral marketing expert last year that made a simple point- that the essence of good marketing is finding out what people want and convincing them you’ve got it. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that people who spend enough time on Twitter to track the tweets of all the various orchestras out there are really more interested in Twitter than in going to concerts. They want to be on their computers. I can give them more tweets, but I probably can’t sell them a concert ticket.

Of course, people do engage with musicians through social media, and some of them do come to concerts, but this brings me back to my example of Bobby’s Klangfarbenmelodie– most of those folks re-tweeting your gig were coming to it already, or….. worse yet…..

Also in the industry.

Let’s go back to where we started.

Social: “people with whom I share interests, beliefs or background. “My friends, colleagues and buddies. People I am connected to

Media: “large-scale technological systems for disseminating ideas, information and entertainment to the general public.”

When I get on “social media” these days (and that same anxiety about audience building that got me blogging keeps me on FB and Twitter way too much of the time), I’m more and more struck that the social media universe is an amazingly small group of people. Look at the comments on Norman Lebrecht’s blog- for all the huge readership he seems to have, 99% of the comments on that blog seem to come from a pretty consistent group of less than 50 different people. You see the same names and pseudonym’s in other blogs, forums, chat rooms and even Amazon reviews. Mahler may still be the most popular classical composer in terms of average ticket sales, but if one looks at who is on the Mahlerlist email list, the FB Mahler pages and who has commented and read my Mahler series here, it’s a tiny number of people who are really that interested. It’s friends, colleagues and buddies. “Social media” is too “social” to be effective as “media.” We end up just talking to our friends, colleagues and buddies, preaching to the choir, facing inward. I often find myself at musically wonderful concerts absolutely shocked by the incredibly high percentage of the audience who are also musicians. I did a fantastic concert in New York (population c. 7 million) last year that was well publicized but drew only about 70 people (that’s a 1 in 100,000 success rate) and a good 50 % of the attendees were musicians. I’m all for supporting each other, and I love going to concerts, but the social media era seems to have turned the music business into a giant metaphorical…. well, I’d rather not say. It’s a fine line between playing for ourselves and playing with ourselves.

We reach for social media as a way of connecting with our audience because the media have largely let us down. I’ve been pretty lucky with the MSM considering I’ve had a rather modest career- my work has made it into the New York Times, been on All Things Considered (NPR’s evening news programme for a general audience), the BBC and several of the London papers. Millions of people will have at least had the chance to see my name and hear nice things about what I do.

So why am I still wasting time blogging, tweeting and FB’ing? Why am I not famous? And rich? Especially rich?!?! Surely a bit of favourable coverage in the actual “media media” should give one enough name recognition to sell out concerts everywhere you go for the next ten years? Sadly, the media has the capacity to reach beyond our circle of friends, family and buddies to huge, huge, huge numbers of people, but it doesn’t seem to have the power to make those numerous strangers care very much about what we do. Why?

Allow me a bit of self-quotation: “Concerts are very social things… Given that, is it a bit odd that we put so much stock in the idea of building audiences for concerts by reaching out not to people whose actions demonstrate that they want to engage with other people and with music, but by reaching out to people who, by their engagement with social media (rather than society) seem to want to engage with…” Whether it’s a computer screen, a newspaper or a TV… people engage with the media because they want “ideas, information and entertainment.” The media is not where you any sane person goes looking for “an event where the performers and the audience are all breathing the same air, living the same moment in the pursuit of a transcendent artistic experience?”

It’s been said many times that the key to audience building is education. That was the hope behind the origin of this blog. It’s no accident that the most popular recreational activity in society (sports) is supported by the most astounding educational infrastructure in the history of humanity. We think of sports broadcasting as entertainment, but the watching a game on television with all the color commentary, instant replay and telestrating can be an incredible education in the technical minutiae of a sport. I would bet that by the age of 10, 90% of boys (and a huge proportion of girls) in the USA know the incredibly technical rules for pass interference, holding and intentional grounding in American football. A football novice who askes just about any random chap on Main Street, USA “what the deal was with Franco Harris and the “Immaculate Reception,”” (a single play lasting about three seconds that took place over 42 years ago) will get a five minute lecture on what constitutes possession of the football, how long possession must be maintained for it to be established, and so on. Any particularly exciting or controversial moment in sport will be repeated, slowed down, freeze-framed, isolated, diagrammed, explained, argued over and over and over. Imagine watching the Proms on TV taking a moment from that night’s concert and subjecting it to that kind of technical and analytical scrutiny. In fact, a blog post like this one about a single chord in a Mahler symphony grows very much out of the kind of fascination with technical minutiae that is the lifeblood of sports journalism. A short review (or preview) in a mainstream newspaper is a wonderful thing, but when you think of the scale of investment that is made in educating people to be engaged audiences for sport, it’s a bit optimistic to hope that 100,000 Londoners will run out and buy a Hans Gál CD just because they paged past a 100-word review of it in the Sunday paper (much as we appreciate the coverage!!!!). That review presumes the same level of cozy pre-existing interest in classical as one of my blog posts, where every week, broadcasters and newspapers are spending millions and millions to educate and engage sports fans.

To the extent that we make “media” “social” by re-tweeting the MSM stories we find interesting, we’re making it more inward facing. An orchestra can take something printed in a paper with circulation of 500,000 and Re-Tweet it but all that does is take something available to the general public and try to make it the topic of conversation for your friends, colleagues and buddies. It seems to me that to make the media work for the arts, we would need it to be MORE “media media” and less “social media.” We need more space, more detail, more “ideas, information and entertainment” about music to reach “the general public.” Frankly, I have no idea how we make this happen.

On the flip side- we need social engagement to be more social and less dependent on technology. This has been very much on my mind since joining the ESO. My last principal conductorship, at the Oregon East Symphony, lasted nine years, and started with me teaching at the nearby university. When I gave my last concert there, I looked out in the audience knew about 90% of the people I saw. Some I knew well, some I’d just seen around town, but there was recognition. That’s not something one can cultivate on Facebook. Joining the ESO, based in Worcester and performing across the Midlands and in London, while I live in Cardiff, I’ve felt an urgent need to get to know who the actual people in these communities are.  How can I be “reaching out not to people whose actions demonstrate that they want to engage with other people and with music” when the pressure is to spend my whole life facing inward, “talking” via social media to those who, “in their engagement with social media (rather than society) seem to want to engage with a computer screen?” Frankly, we depend on social media in large part because we’ve lost faith in the very existence of society and community. Our towns and cities have become atomized and anonym-ized. My work situation is not unusual- tonight I travelled 3+ hours from Cardiff to Manchester (then back) for rehearsal, and the chap who took me to the train station afterwards had spent his day working in Cambridge- 3 + hours in the other direction. These days, many of us travel or commute for work, which is where we see most of the people we encounter, then we come home to the comfort of our screens. Many of us don’t know our neighbors, so we seek a sense of belonging online. “Social media” is to “society” as “fast food” is to “food.” It is a substitute, not a replacement. The more time we spend on social media, the more we worry that society may no longer exist, the more we fear we’ve sleep-walked into a dystopian world of screens and strangers. What place does music have in such a world?

I’m convinced that at this moment in our history, it is a matter of existential urgency for this art form, and our culture, that we start facing outward, start re-weaving the fabric of society and community. We must start engaging with real people in the real world.

Now, if I could just find some.


5 months ago | |
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So you made a mistake on the gig yesterday. I feel your pain. We all make mistakes- I made a real howler twice in the same place on a cello gig recently and it’s been bothering me ever since.

Mistakes are a controversial and painful subject for musicians. Nobody likes making them, and nobody likes hearing them (except, occasionally in a nasty, Schadenfreude-ish way). Some people think avoiding mistakes is the most important thing a musician can do- this attitude is far too common at orchestral auditions and competitions. It creates a musical climate where caution is king. Blech! On the other hand, it’s awfully easy to become too blasé about accuracy and concentration. I knew an interesting orchestral entrepreneur who set up a recording orchestra where the musicians were encouraged to take big musical risks, and were forgiven if those risks led to mistakes because they weren’t playing safe. Over time, however, some in the orchestra used that mindset to justify a lack of preparation or focus. It became an orchestra more sloppy than brave. Mistakes can seriously get in the way of the music.

The fact is, everyone makes mistakes- even the greats. This means we’ve all got a stake in knowing how to manage our mistakes. For soloists, the stakes are incredibly high- if you want to build a solo career, you’ve got to be asked back. Some time ago, this subject came up after a concert I did when a fine soloist made a really obvious error in the concert. One of the musicians asked me after the concert if the poor chap had been “voted off the island.” Definitely not- I’ve already re-engaged them. Meanwhile, at another orchestra, a soloist from 2 years ago got in touch recently asking about a return visit. That one isn’t going to happen, even though their mistake was far less obvious (and not at all decisive in my decision). Their performance didn’t offer much musical inspiration and they didn’t seem to be enjoying working with us at the time.

So, what can you do as an orchestral player or soloist to minimize the negative impact of the mistakes you’re bound to make sooner or later? Here are a few things you can do that will always increase your chances of living to fight another day when things don’t go to plan.

9. You have a kick-ass sound. Nobody made more mistakes than Horowitz. But nobody had a sound like Horowitz. Even his worst mistakes sound better than most people’s best playing. A really special, captivating, enthralling sound is incredibly rare (and getting rarer all the time). Develop one, and people will cut you a lot more slack because they want to hear you do your thang for the sheer pleasure of it.

 8. You know when to accompany the orchestra. Dorothy Delay used to say this all the time to her violin students at Aspen. Of course, we all want to follow you, but there are times when we can’t. For instance, there are notorious places in the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos where it’s all but impossible for anyone in the orchestra, or the conductor to hear you. The repertoire is littered with passages where your material is doubled by the woodwind- you can hear them, but, much as they want to, they probably can’t hear you. Sometimes, you can avoid a big mistake by knowing when to look like a soloist but play like an accompanist.

7. You practice slowly, softly and calmly, and are comfortable playing at all tempi. This is important for orchestral players, as any practice you do on a concert day is likely to be overheard by either your colleagues or the conductor. Whether it’s the 1st violin part in the Schumann 2 Scherzo, the trumpet solo in Mahler 5 or even the first page of Don Juan (whoever you may be), sitting on stage hacking away fast and loud sends out not only signals of social cluelessness, but warning signs of near-certain ensemble and tuning problems. If someone is warming up on the Schumann at blazing speed, or practicing the last mvt of Tchaik 4 totally “balls to the wall,” experience teaches that they’re almost certain to rush like crazy or miss things when we do it with the orchestra. Flexibility (both physical and philosophical), fluidity and clarity are things we want to work at every day. If you’re counting on talent, adrenaline and mojo to carry the day under pressure, things are bound to go wrong from time to time- you may not see it coming, but we have. Likewise for soloists- if you practice everything only at your ideal tempo, you’re likely to start missing things when you find the orchestra is dragging or rushing (as they always do) in the gig.

6. You got there early. I know, this sounds painfully obvious, but experience tells me it’s not. Once upon a time, I did two sarrusophone (not the actual instrument) concerti in consecutive weeks with different orchestras and different soloists. I’d worked with both soloists before, but both were late to their rehearsal. Although both were fine sarrusophonists, I’ve never worked with either again because the previous time I’d worked with them, they’d only just gotten to rehearsal in time. If you’re an hour early in year one and ten minutes late in year two, your colleagues might forgive your travel difficulties, and even accept that your sarrusophone was having a bad reed day. If you walked in five minutes before the downbeat last year and were ten minutes late in year two, your goose is pretty well cooked even before you squeaked that high note. One finds it hard to separate the temporal brinksmanship from the musical mistake. The musician who cuts their travel time too fine too often is often the one who doesn’t allow quite the practice time a piece requires, too. Maybe somedays they hit everything, and other days they don’t. This goes triple for orchestral musicians, too. In Britain, we all understand that there are days when the transit system collapses. Sooner or later, you’re going to be late- people will be understanding if you’ve built a track record for being reliable. Best to make sure the rest of the time, you get to the gig plenty early.

5.You allow ample mental space on concert days. Being a soloist is a funny thing. One day you’re longing, seemingly for years, for that big chance to play your concerto or sing your aria. Then, almost without warning, it’s your whole life and you’re doing it all the time. A smart soloist remembers that, even if you’re playing your 400th Mozart Clarinet Concerto, playing a concerto (or playing an orchestral concert, for that matter) is not something you can do well if your mind is elsewhere, or if you’re frazzled or fatigued. I’ve seen many a soloist come to grief when they tried to squeeze too much travel, housework or schmoozing into a concert day. I once had a cello soloist confess (almost brag) to me that he’d spent the morning of our concert building kitchen cabinets. It soon became clear his hands and head were worn out before the rehearsal even started. The concert was a travesty. Smart soloists don’t try to do too much on a concert day, and the same goes for smart orchestral players. If you’ve got a nervy solo like the first horn part in Beethoven 7, the cello solo in William Tell or the concertmaster solo in Shostakovich 5, people will be hard pressed to let you off the hook for a mishap if it’s clear you’ve been trying to squeeze ten other things into the same day. Musicians who simplify their concert days play with more focus, more engagement and more imagination- even their mistakes sound better.

4. You respond to what you hear. So many concerti live or die not just on the performance of the soloist, but on the contribution of the soloists in the orchestra. Think of the duo between horn and cello in the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto, the violin and solo cello duet in the Dvorak Cello Concerto or the contribution of the solo oboe to the Brahms Violin Concerto. The contributions your colleagues in the orchestra can make to your performance are enormous. If you can’t respond to and incorporate their ideas into your performance, they’re not likely to forget you came in just a little sharp after their solo. Play chamber music with the orchestra, and they’ll support you from the upbeat to the double bar every time. And… they’ll lift your performance to a different level. (The same goes for the members of an orchestra, too).

3. You trust your playing (or singing) to put your interpretation across. Are you a talker? A fusser? A debater? An interrupter? That’s fine, but….Maybe you don’t have to be? You might be amazed at how little some of the best soloists talk. Is this because they don’t care that the oboes are behind or that the cellos aren’t phrasing with them? No- it’s because they have the confidence that they can put their ideas across musically with such clarity and conviction that the cellos intuitively know how to phrase, and the oboes know when and how to breathe. For me as a conductor, talking is an admission of failure. It means I’ve tried to show something in a couple of different ways and it hasn’t worked. Either I’ve been unclear, or failed to get the musicians’ attention, or they’re just not on top of their parts technically and we have to practice on company time. Talking is a sign that something isn’t working as it should. The same thing goes for a soloist. Talk if you need to (please don’t sit in sulky silence because you think the conductor doesn’t approve of talking), but aspire not to need to talk. Someone like John Lill can get through a whole Brahms Piano Concerto without having to say anything but “you all sound marvellous” because their musical intent is crystal clear to the listeners on stage and off. When you have to tell us “I’m going to take time here” it can come across as if you were saying: “I’m warning you I’m going to take time here because when you hear me play it, it won’t be obvious to you that I’m planning to take time, or why I want to take time, until I suddenly slow down, so just write something in your music along the lines of “guess how much slower to play here” and be prepared for me to glare at you over the sarrusophone when we’re not together.”

2. You know the score! A mistake that’s caused because your part is the only one you’ve learned is hard to forgive. Playing or singing a solo part is only half of the soloist’s job. You must know the score- well. We’ve all seen what happens when an opera singer doesn’t know what is supposed to happen between one entrance and the next. Disaster ensues. Crack a high note? Fine. Come in early because you don’t know what the music you don’t sing sounds like? Not fine. This is so important in an orchestral audition- it’s so easy to tell if someone knows how the excerpt they’re playing fits in with the rest of the orchestra. If that knowledge isn’t there, we’ve got nothing to assess you on but accuracy. Know the score and your mistakes will at least make musical sense.

1. You can communicate an interesting musical point of view. Believe it or not, having an interesting musical point of view is, in my experience, the rarest quality in musicians, and also the most important. Anyone can be derivative, literal, formulaic or wayward. If your take on the Beethoven Violin Concerto sounds just like Mutter’s or Perlman’s but with more mistakes, then the mistakes really count. If you’re doing lots of attention-seeking “musical” stunts, any mistakes will also attract maximum attention. There’s no shortcut to an interesting, personal and engaging interpretation- you’ve got to ask a lot of questions, live with the music, study the score away from your instrument, put your repertoire in context, challenge your ideas (and especially your teacher’s ideas), feed off your colleagues and be in the moment. Once you develop a really interesting point of view, you have to find the technical means to put it across to the listener. If you can play the Bruch Violin Concerto or the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto in a way that makes your colleagues and the audience listen with excitement and anticipation, you can probably be forgiven missing the odd run. Why only nine things on the list? Because this one counts double. Have something interesting to say about the music and you’ll always give yourself the best chance at a second chance when you need it. Cause let’s face it: we all need a second chance sooner or later.


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