A new review in the July issue of Gramophone Magazine from Guy Rickards for Sarah Beth Briggs stunning new recording of piano concerti by Hans Gál and Mozart with the Royal Northern Sinfonia on AVIE Records
“If there is a happier twentieth-century piano concerto than Hans Gál’s of 1948, I don’t know what it is…Sarah Seth Briggs gives a wonderfully balanced reading of music that seems familiar—in its Classical poise and charm—and strange (much occurs beneath the surface, especially harmonically, that confirms its modernity). Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany superbly…With crystal clear sound, this is the most enjoyable concerto disc I have heard since Krenek’s Piano Concertos (4/16) and Pritchard’s Wall of Water (5/15). Hang on, didn’t Woods conduct those, too…?”
A review from critic Stephen Johnson in the July 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine for the new Avie Records recording of Elgar’s Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures as orchestrated by Donald Fraser.
“The result is pretty remarkable. Fraser hasn’t just translated Elgar’s notes into rich and powerful orchestral terms, he as added (discreetly it must be said) the kinds of touches of colour and splashes of figuration Elgar himself might well have introduced. It really sounds like Elgar… beautifully realised, performed with warmth and understanding, and sympathetically recorded. Same too with the Sea Pictures”
The second violin section of the Brumington Symphony Orchestra are bracing for a vote on whether to leave or remain in their orchestra. The upcoming referendum has created anxiety throughout the orchestra amidst concerns that the second violins, who are the second largest section in the orchestra, are leaning towards a so-called Brexit (an exit from the Brumington Symphony).
Although the orchestra is one of only 12 salaried orchestras in the country and provides the second violins with a generous pension, paid sick days and funding for personal artistic development, some in the second violins feel that they have lost control over musical decision making. “It’s outrageous that we often don’t even control which direction our bows are going,” said Martin Geigeflegel, one of the organisers of the Leave campaign. “We’re constantly expected to match the first violins’ bowings, which are set by the leader, who is not a member of our section. Some bowings are even set by the conductor, who is not even a member of the orchestra. Voting Leave will restore our musical sovereignty- second violin bowings should obviously be decided by second violin players.”
It is clear that some of the discontent in the second violin section stems from frustrations with the dominance of the first violins, who are the largest section in the orchestra and get to play most of the memorable tunes. “When we came together with the woodwinds, the brass and the rest of the strings to form a musical union,” said Myrtle Shyftmysser, the long-time third assistant principal second violinist of the orchestra, “it was about creating a common marketplace for our musical talents. The first violins have become too dominant- they drive too much decision making and get too much audience attention. Frankly, I hate them all.”
Concerns have been raised as to whether a second violin Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the entire BSO, which has been riding high on a wave of critical adulation, sold out concerts, and one of the most lucrative recording contracts in the UK, one which is reported to generate dozens of pounds in income for the orchestra every year. The orchestra’s CEO Petri Jätehuolto said it would be a step into the unknown, “It is extremely unusual for an orchestra to perform without a second violin section. While they contribute very little to the music making of the orchestra overall and don’t seem to ever play a melody, they do take up quite a lot of space on stage, and I’m very concerned about whether audiences will think they’re getting value for money at our concerts when there is such a large open space on the stage. We’re currently looking at whether putting some small sculptures or possibly a water feature on stage would be a suitable alternative to a second violin section.”
Jätehuolto’s remarks brought Geigeflegel back to one of the major concerns of the Leave the Orchestra campaign- that too much decision-making power was in the hands of un-auditioned bureaucrats. “Jätehuolto and his team sit over there in the office building and decide who is going to conduct, what time rehearsal starts and what colour the posters are, and he’s never had to learn the first page of Don Juan.”
Leaders of the Leave campaign have expressed confidence that once they leave the BSO, the second violins will quickly be able to negotiate a new relationship with the orchestra’s audience for independent concerts. “We won’t be the first group outside the orchestra to perform in Market Hall [which is owned and operated by the BSO], said Shyftmysser, “the Tackacs Quartet and Lang Lang both did concerts last year which sold just as well as the orchestra, and we’re confident that once we’ve reclaimed our artistic independence, the market for our services will be better than ever. Personally, I think the BSO’s programming has become too highbrow, which is why I’ve suggested starting our new Second Violins Live series with a ViennaFest concert featuring all the best second violin parts by Johann Strauss Jr. I’m sure the audience will find it really exciting.”
Concerns have also been raised about the uncontrolled influx of new musicians onto the relatively small stage. “We regularly do concerts with choirs, who take up an enormous amount of room onstage and crowd the dressing room. Lines for the toilets at the intervals are too long, and it’s ridiculous that an amateur singer can come on our stage and sing Mahler and Verdi without even learning how to play off-beats or read alto clef.”
A look at the dynamics of the BSO as a whole reveals a sharp divide between sections seeking greater autonomy, such as the double basses, who many believe will follow the second violins lead and vote Brexit next season, and those demanding ever tighter union, such as the woodwinds.
The basses are reported to harbour deep resentment over having to play at the same time as the rest of the orchestra. “We’re constantly being told we’re late,” said bassist Don Murkee. “Well, who’s to say the rest of the orchestra isn’t early? If we leave the orchestra, I can play the bass when the bass is ready to be played.”
Meanwhile, principal oboist Nigel Bleistifthals says that a wider range of musical details need to be voted on by the entire orchestra. “We in the woodwinds feel that we should really have an equal say in the BSO’s bowings. After all, if the strings run out of bow, or play too loud, we’re the ones who have to bail them out. I’ve long thought Beethoven Five would sound better if the strings started down bow, and it’s crazy I can’t make them try it.”
While most of the orchestra’s artistic and administrative staff have been unified in pleading for the second violins to remain, the BSO’s apprentice conductor Alexander de Pfeffel has given his endorsement to the Leave campaign, although many suspect that in spite of his public calls for second violin autonomy, he intends to poach the entire BSO second violin section for his newly-formed rival orchestra, the Brumington Philharmonic, which is rumoured to be offering “an atmosphere of profound musician empowerment and self-realization in place of the gilded cage of a salary and benefits.”
“I have no plans to poach the BSO’s second violin section,” said de Pfeffel, “although I can hardly imagine a more stalwart group of violinists to build an orchestra around than these wonderful autonomous artists. If I was to form a Brumington Philharmonic, as has been rumoured, I would be honoured to make them the cornerstone of the new orchestra, even though none of them knows how to play above first position. They can always switch to viola in the BPO, which would make for a much stronger viola section than the BSO- everyone knows that most decent violists are actually violinists anyway.”
Meanwhile, members of the cello section expressed surprise at the pending vote. “Nope, I had no idea they were thinking of leaving,” said cellist Murray Nice
Nice’s stand partner, cellist Dwayne Comfort, overhearing Nice’s comments said “wait, you mean this orchestra has two violin sections? Wow- that’s cool. I had no idea- I just thought some of them kind of laid out or faked it when the parts got too hard.”
Government officials are considering a move to permanently do away with alto clef from 2018, sources have revealed.
It has been known for some time that the widely reviled clef, recently voted “worst clef” for a record-shattering 27th year in a row, has long been considered by many in the cabinet as “unfit for purpose.” A recent government white paper on clefs and transpositions cited many shortcomings with alto clef, including insufficient distinctiveness from other so-called “c clefs,” notably the far more popular tenor clef.
Minister for Transposition, Jacob Wayst-Moog, said of the underperforming clef: “For many years now, the government have been aware that alto clef is saddled with a number of intrinsic shortcomings. Almost nobody can actually read it- even violists, who use it everyday, are often as confused about what pitch they are playing as are those listening to them. Most decent violists are actually violinists anyway, and they’d be far better off under the government’s new plan for viola parts to be written in treble clef transposed in F.”
Alto clef has long raised the ire of leading music critics as well as musicians. “The real problem with alto clef,” said one leading London critic, “is that it’s only useable for a register that nobody particularly wants to hear,” while another noted that “it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for alto clef- all it seems to be good for is the wooly region of the viola and missed notes on the trombone. Where tenor clef tends to create a sense of expectation of the bright heldentenor colorings of the cello and stentorian trombone chorals, alto clef is really only used for fuzzy inner voices and passages requiring the use of a toy trombone.”
Some in government expect the “alto trombone” (bottom) to be renamed as the “toy trombone” once alto clef is scrapped in 2018. Photo credit- Edward Solomon
It is understood that a final announcement on the future of the troubled clef has been postponed due to a lack of consensus among ministers as to what to replace it with. While some have advocated for an expansion of the role of tenor clef, others have called for the widespread introduction of transposition among violists, a plan recently derided by the Leader of the Opposition as “the worst musical idea since techno-dodecaphony.”
Side effects of exposure to alto clef include writing bizarre sentences backwards. Photo credit North Muskegon Elementary Strings
Government ministers were quick to discount rumors that the move to replace alto clef was intended to save conductors from public embarrassment. “Let’s face it, if we did away with all musical notation that conductors struggle with, it wouldn’t mean just doing away with alto clef, bass clarinet in A and Glockenspiel, we’d have to rely on conducting Mahler symphonies using guitar tablature,” said one source.
Meanwhile Mervyn Purvue of the British Society for the Preservation of Historic Clefs called for caution: “Alto clef may have its obvious shortcomings, but sometimes it’s important to protect the appropriate place of aspects of our heritage, however grotesque and disgusting we may find them. Like Morris dancing, the music of Percy Grainger and TV talent shows, alto clef reminds us that life often has a dark and distasteful side. Just as we must face up to the brutal atrocities committed over the centuries in the name of the British Empire, we must accept that alto clef, awful as it is, is a part of our musical history we can’t just sweep under the carpet.”
I spent my May Day on a flight from London to Philadelphia this year, which isn’t much fun, but is certainly better than spending a flight from London to Philadelphia calling out “May Day!” I left home with a knot in my stomach and an ache in my heart- since our kids were born, I’ve tried very hard to keep business trips to about a week at the most. There have been exceptions, but this was to be one of the longer trips away from my family in many years.
Looking at my schedule for the month, one might wonder why I was flying to Philadelphia at all, as I didn’t have a single concert or rehearsal in the “City of Brotherly Love.” My mission there was simple, and took only about an hour. From the airport, I made my way to the home of my colleague David Yang, where my second-string cello has been living for the last few years. David was already in New York, where our trio would be working for the next week, so I picked up a key from a neighbour, let myself in and found my cello laying on the floor of his living room, grabbed it, and went back to the waiting cab and on to 30th St Station.
The “second-string cello” is a sad sign of the times. My first-string cello is pretty wonderful, and after twenty-five years together, it feels like its sound and my identity are pretty well fused. It’s also ancient and fragile. Yes, I do often buy a seat for it and travel with it, but the costs of doing so are obscene in an age when presenters are under ever more budgetary pressure. A huge chunk of what Ensemble Epomeo does is on the East Coast, and we tend to rehearse in Philly, so leaving my spare cello there has significantly lowered the threshold of financial viability for trio projects, and it does save me a lot of stress.
After a short and pleasant train ride and a shockingly expensive cab, I finally made it to Brooklyn, where I would be spending most of the next week. Our main project was to be a concert on the Kyo-Shin-An Arts series at the Tenri Cultural Center. The series is run by shakuhachi virtuoso James Schlefer and his wife Meg. James is an incredible musician and a dear friend, Meg is one of the most likable and dynamic people in the industry. We met when performing his Shakuhachi Concerto in Texas about seven years ago, and later recorded the piece with Orchestra of the Swan (it was a 2012 MusicWeb Record of the Year, I might add). Kyo-Shin-An is all about commissioning new works for traditional Japanese instruments and Western ensembles, and they’ve had works from some major figures, including Daron Hagen, Paul Moravec, Victoria Bond and James Matheson. This week, Ensemble Epomeo are performing a new work for shakuhachi and string trio by Matthew Harris, a composer completely new to me, and one by Jay Reise, a wonderful composer we’ve worked a lot with the last few years (and who’s touching work “The Warrior Violinist” was one of the highlights of our Auricolae CD).
Matthew’s piece is a sequence of very short, somewhat enigmatic movements, which on first encounter seem to have a strong Webern influence. It turns out that he was a student of Elliott Carter, but has gained worldwide fame as a choral composer of quite lushly tonal music, so perhaps this piece represents something of a stylistic homecoming? Interestingly, however, alongside all the Webern-esque concision and rigor, there seems to be the ghost of George Gershwin lurking in the background.
We’ve all put the work in on our own parts, but when we meet on Monday, it’s the first time we will have played this piece together. At this stage of the process, there is always an element of guess work- we don’t yet know Matthew or how he wants the piece played. In the end, we decide to start with the Webern thing- seeking austere, cool, smooth textures, and using extreme care with handling of silences, thinking gesturally. It may be the wrong approach, but at least it’s an approach.
(Jay’s “Warrior Violinist”. Have your hankie handy- it’s a tear jerker!)
Jay’s language, on the other hand, is pretty familiar to us by now. In addition to recording “The Warrior Violinist” (which we’ve since performed many times), we’ve played his String Trio and his Piano Quartet and worked with him in some detail on all three works. Jay’s stylistic range is pretty broad, but the new work, “The Gift to Urashima Taro,” actually seems to be very much cut from the same cloth as “The Warrior Violinist- it’s intensely lyrical and full of yearning and longing.
This will be the work’s second performance. James and David (our violist) played it together at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival (where David is Artistic Director). The work was written as a ballet, and in Newburyport, they staged it with a wonderful local dance company and fantastic production values. As often with ballets (the same question comes up with pieces ranging from Appalachian Spring to The Firebird) there is some concern about how to handle the music that is really clearly choreographic or plot driven in nature. It’s why we know most ballet music from suites. “Urashima” is through-composed, and not that long (just over 20 minutes), and nobody is suggesting cutting anything, but in the rehearsals there are quite a few times we find ourselves saying “given that there’s no dance steps to fit in here, perhaps it would be more musically effective if we didn’t take the metronome marking too literally- it seems more like a dance marking than a music marking.” The overall tone of the work is tender and often subdued, but we did find a few places where melodies could be more extrovert without disturbing the character. In such a subtle work, it’s important to keep a strong connection with the listener.
There’s more on the program, of course, David and James will be playing a duo for shakuhachi and viola (a very cool piece). We’re doing one traditional string trio, too- Leo Weiner’s very Romantic trio written in 1908. It poses a few problems for us this week- it clearly stands apart from the rest of the repertoire we’re playing. Where do we put it on the concert? It was originally suggested to end the concert with it. The finale is certainly a barn-burner, but I thought putting the Romantic work at the end would somehow negate or diminish the other pieces we’re playing, as if we were rewarding the audience for enduring all the new pieces with something rather Tchaikovsky-an. Better to start with it. It’s a fairly new piece for us- we just added it to our repertoire this season and it was the “big” piece on our last tour in February. In spite of a lot of really intense work on it, and a few good moments in the concerts, I don’t think any of us were happy with those performances- it just never gelled. These kinds of setbacks are normal for chamber groups, but they need to be handled carefully. Even the most experienced musicians (maybe “especially” the most experienced musicians) live or die by their own confidence in what they’re doing. Even though we all knew we weren’t happy, we’ve not discussed it as a group. Starting a new rehearsal sequence with a post-mortem isn’t going to help anyone to find their mojo.
The score of my quartet
Finally, there’s my piece. This is not something that happens to me very often. As I’ve written about before, I composed quite a lot when I was young- mostly for piano, but hit a wall in my 20’s. A few years ago, with much effort, the wall finally crumbled. This week we’re playing my Quartet for Electric Guitar and String Trio. As with Jay’s piece, the work had been played once before at the Newburyport Festival, who commissioned it for their 10th Anniversary concert. I came away from that performance thinking there was quite a bit in the piece that needed re-thinking, and it sat on my shelf for nearly two years as I struggled to find time to re-examine and revise. With this project, I finally had a deadline, and rather reluctantly got to work on it. It was probably good I waited. Hearing your music played for the first time (especially when you’re playing the cello part) can turn even the most seasoned of composers into a neurotic basket case. With sufficient emotional distance from the premiere, I could look at the piece dispassionately and decided major surgery was not required. There was, of course, a lot I could do clarify my expressive wishes- accents, bowings, dynamics and a few character marks were added. Mistakes (most, but not all!) were corrected. However, structurally, I mostly left it alone, other than shortening a few rests. Of course, there are examples of great composers needing several tries to get the form of a piece “right.” Sibelius’ 5th Symphony is a perfect example- it went through several revisions over a decade before it finally found its perfect form. More often than not, however, you’re never more aware of the mix of motivic and structural issues in your piece than when you’re writing it. Chances are, when you finished it the first time, you knew it was finished because you’d reached a point at which the structure and content seemed to come into balance. Even if there are things about the piece you don’t love, it’s hard, and potentially destructive, to mess with that fragile equilibrium.
As our week in New York continued, our work on each piece of the programme took on its own dynamic. Matthew Harris was to join us for most of our rehearsals on his piece. Matthew proved to be immensely likeable, and like so many composers, he was incredibly sure of what he wanted much of the time, and full of questions at other times. He definitely felt our austere/modernist take on the piece was too severe. Vibrato was turned up, phrasing made more lyrical, some of the rests and silences were adjusted or shortened. Mutes were added in a few places. Unusually, we spent a lot of time, right up to the day of the concert, discussing the ending of the piece. Matthew, James and David all had ideas about what, if anything, to repeat, and exactly how to end. And, as always, it seems, there were some discussions about harmonics- everyone composer’s favorite special effect, but one that often frustrates the musicians. In any case, after working with Matthew, our interpretation of the piece had definitely taken on a more human quality, although when one spends hours micro-studying tiny details in a ten minute piece, it’s easy to get brain lock.
If having Matthew present proved to be an invaluable aid to understanding his language, we were very lucky to already know Jay’s music as he had to miss all of our rehearsals that week due to eye surgery (which went well). Jay had revised the piece after the Newburyport premiere (I’m glad it isn’t just me who has to do these things), and the new version showed up fairly close to our first rehearsals. I managed to re-print and remark my part before leaving home. David and James had a lot of work invested in their parts from last time, so chose to try to mark changes in the old parts rather than starting fresh. On the one hand, this kind of situation can be frustrating when one encounters changes that have been overlooked during one’s personal preparation, but it also helps to understand the composer’s thinking. Where work on Matthew’s piece was dominated by his presence, working on Jay’s piece felt like a happy maturation of the collaboration between James and Epomeo. We’ve done enough together now that working with James feels more like playing in a quartet than like having a guest join the trio.
My wonderful amp, burned to a crisp. RIP
If the sheer logistics of getting a cello to New York were at the forefront of my mind at the beginning of the week, that was nothing compared with the logistics of rehearsing my Electric Guitar Quartet. The first challenge: the building where were rehearsing everything else during the week does not allow electronic instruments of any kind, no matter how softly played. This meant schlepping over to Manhattan to rehearse at the (NY-sized, i.e. very cozy) apartment of our guitarist, Daniel Lippel (who also played the first performance in Newburyport). Such a change of scene is time consuming and rather tiring, so we decided to split our rehearsals between string sectionals without Dan in Brooklyn and full rehearsals with him in Manhattan. The other performance of the piece was just before Diane Pascal joined Epomeo, so it’s her first time playing it. Diane, who lives in Vienna, has about the most impeccable Austro-German/Central European musical pedigree of any American musician I know, but she’s also quite a rocker, and she couldn’t be more in her element in this piece, which switches between the odd hat tip to late Beethoven and bi-tonal heavy metal thrashing. I feel almost embarrassed to have such incredible musicians playing my work.
There’s one more, admittedly absurd, challenge in my piece. While writing it, I found myself thinking that what the work really needed was some Iron Maiden-esque duelling lead guitars. I figured I could switch from cello to electric guitar for this passage, which climaxes in a sequence of traded improvised guitar solos. In order to make this work, I had to overcome a few obstacles. First- I haven’t played guitar in public with any regularity since the early 1990’s, and Dan is one of the best guitarists in the world. In order for any sort of two-guitar shtick to be credible, I’d need to work really hard to get in shape and be careful to play within my current abilities. Of course, my guitars are all in Wales, and my beloved amp was scored in a fire in Pendleton in 2007, which meant borrowing a guitar and amp. In Newburyport, I’d used a beautiful sunburst Les Paul belonging to a friend of the festival. I hope I managed to clean all of the “envy drool” off it before I gave it back. This time, I borrowed a guitar and amp from Dan, who, in addition to being an amazing musician is one of the nicest guys in the business. For the first rehearsal, I borrowed his custom made instrument with an unusual neck- it was built to mimic a classical guitar’s feel, so the neck was thick and wide with big frets and fairly high strings. We were a little worried that I’d struggle (even more!) with the metal-ish writing on such an instrument, but it was okay. For the second rehearsal and the concert, I borrowed Dan’s tobacco sunburst Strat, which was doubly appropriate as it looked just like my guitar at home which I wrote the piece on. By the way, writing for guitar is an interesting challenge, and one most composers smartly avoid. One really needs a very intimate knowledge of the instrument to be sure that what you write is playable. When I was a student at IU, I wrote a song cycle for soprano and electric guitar, so this was actually my second time writing classical music for it.
Getting back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan while carrying a cello is really no fun at all. Doing so with a cello, amp and guitar is actually impossible, unless you take a cab. That meant however much I wanted to be in shape on the guitar, I wouldn’t be able to use the electric between rehearsals. Fortunately, James Schlefer had an acoustic at his place, so I could review my part daily on that. Far better to practice on an acoustic and perform on an electric than the other way round. At the climax of the piece, after all the guitar solos, there’s a wild, very fast, unison passage for all four of us. I was determined to get that right, and must have driven the neighbors mad (even unamplified), playing that sequence over and over again.
And what of the Weiner Trio? Well, in a week chock-a-block with composers, guest colleagues and extra instruments, doing a string trio felt like a moment of calm, which is just what we needed after last time. In fact, we rehearsed it very little during the week. I think this was clearly the right call- whatever our frustrations with last time, it was not down to lack of hard work on the piece. We beat that musical horse long after he was dead. This time, we ran it, discussed a few small tempo changes, then ran it again. It was enough.
As we neared the end of the week, we did a house concert in a very special venue we’ve played at many times. Not all house concerts are created equal. At home in Penarth, Suzanne and I have a music room in which we have concerts- it’s got a decent acoustic and feels like a performing space, which is good for everyone’s confidence. This is not that kind of house concert- here we play in a carpeted living room. The audience is only inches away and there is no acoustic at all. If you can make something sound good there, you’ll sound amazing anywhere else, but it can be bruising to the old ego. On the other hand, the vibe there is really special- one can hardly imagine a more engaged and knowledgeable audience. The concert went well, and we feel somehow less frustrated by the acoustic than usual.
That was Friday night. Our “main” concert is on Sunday (Mother’s Day- why, oh why did we schedule something on Mother’s Day!?!?!). The original plan for Saturday was to rehearse my piece for 3 hours- it had the least rehearsal during the week because of the logistical issues, and we hadn’t originally planned on playing it on Friday, although in the end, we did. As Saturday morning got going, the texts started going round- “do you mind if,” “how would you feel if we didn’t,” “I just think we’d be better off if we got some rest.” As successful as Friday’s performance was, making sound in that room took everything we had and we were all completely drained the next day. As the composer, I felt secure in our ability to play the piece the next day, but there were a few timing and articulation things I wanted to go over. Balancing my roles as cellist and composer is not something I’m used to- in Newburyport, I had slightly regretted not having the nerve to ask for certain things, but it’s not normal (or generally acceptable) to tell your chamber music colleagues how to play. Anyway, I felt that we could cover all that in 45 minutes before the concert the next day, so I put us all out of our misery. It was a good thing for me too- after 10 months without so much as a sneeze, I’d been fighting off some kind of bug all week, and after the exertions of Friday night, I had a bad feeling it was getting worse.
A fantastic new 5-star review for the new recording of the Krenek Piano Concertos no.’s 1-3 with pianist Mikhail Korzhev on Toccata Classics/Toccata Press from International Piano Magazine critic Guy Rickards. Benjamin Michael Haas was producing, Ben Connellan was the engineer.
Five stars: “On the evidence of the first three, magisterially delivered by Korzhev, they should rank at least with Prokofiev and Hindemith. The accompanying English Symphony Orchestra are somewhat out of their usual area, but seem to relish their role under the firm direction of Kenneth Woods, doing for Krenek here what he did previously for Gál”
Review from Boulder Daily Camera critic Kelly Dean Hansen. Read the whole thing here
“For Colorado MahlerFest, whose essence has been synonymous with founder Robert Olson for 28 years, this was potentially even more daunting. But Kenneth Woods, who conducted his first MahlerFest concert Saturday at Macky Auditorium, not only signaled the festival’s future direction, but also showed that he was willing to demand and achieve even more from the festival’s volunteer musicians.
Olson, who announced his departure from the festival two years ago and conducted his last concerts in 2015, did pair the annual Mahler symphony with a piece by another composer from time to time. The last time this year’s work, the Seventh Symphony, was presented was in 2004, and he introduced it with Wagner’s “Meistersinger” Prelude, a spiritual ancestor to the symphony’s finale.
Woods opened the concert with another work in the spirit of the Seventh, but this time it was a U.S. premiere by a living composer. Viennese composer Kurt Schwertsik composed his “Nachtmusiken,” or “Night Music Pieces,” in 2009. The kinship with the symphony here is in its three middle movements, two of which are titled “Nachtmusik.”
The five-movement, 25-minute suite is a sparkling, pleasant affair pervaded with an air of elegiac nostalgia. The use of an accordion to add flavor to the second piece, a waltz, is delightful. The fourth piece, a march, and the finale, a fugue, are technically brilliant, while the first and third movements are more introspective. The third, a beautiful memorial to music critic David Drew, is exquisite, with ringing glockenspiel notes, while the first invokes the spirit of Czech composer Leoš Janá ek.
Schwertsik ends his final fugue with an almost whispered quotation from Mahler’s First Symphony, with which it was originally played.
The MahlerFest musicians are not typically asked to play a new work of such length, but they came through with aplomb. The genial Schwertsik was present, and gave a grateful acknowledgement.
Aesthetically, this was a bold and appropriate choice for Woods, but it was also risky. The 80-minute, five-minute Seventh Symphony is complex and difficult, and it’s certainly possible that Woods was asking for a bit too much from the orchestra.
The musicians, however, love their Mahler, and they provided a robust, committed rendition of the symphony, and Woods showed why he is revered as a Mahler interpreter. He navigated the vast, often thorny first movement with a strong sense of direction, and the “heavenly vision” toward the end was sublime. The opening tenor horn solo was also bold and confident.
The “night pieces” were appropriately atmospheric. Woods took a rather fast tempo for both the march-like second movement and the archetypal serenade (complete with guitar and mandolin) in the fourth. Between them, the ghostly central scherzo movement was played with a daring edginess.
The symphony’s overly exuberant, strangely disjunctive finale has divided Mahler experts and fans for much of its existence, and it takes a conductor of great understanding to pull it off. Woods certainly does force a sense of direction on a movement resistant to this, and the jubilant ending drew a huge ovation from the audience.”
Feature article from the Boulder Weekly by Peter Alexander
Composed in 1904 and ’05, the Seventh is one of the least familiar of Mahler’s symphonies. It comprises five fairly diverse movements, two of which — the second and fourth — are titled Nachtmusik (Night music). The diversity of the movements is sometimes seen as a weakness, but Woods sees the diversity as strength.
“I think so much of what happens in the piece is motivated by his love of music, and what you can do with different kinds of music” he says. “[There is] musical humor, musical drama, marches and devil’s dances and love songs.
“It seems like he wanted to take one symphony and just say, ‘Isn’t life rich and interesting, and isn’t music fantastic?’”
And then Woods ties the symphony to Colorado’s 14ers: “The Seventh Symphony comes from this moment when Mahler’s at the top of his game,” he says. “Anyone who has climbed a 14er knows that when you get to the top you want to savor it. You want to stop and look at the view, but you can’t stay up there all that long. Mahler’s Seventh is that moment when he’s reached the summit.”
Woods believes the Seventh also represents a change of focus for Mahler. His earlier symphonies had featured narratives about a hero who struggles against the world. In the Sixth Symphony, the hero is felled by three cruel blows of fate.
“The Seventh Symphony seems to be pulling back the camera a little bit,” Woods says. “You start to realize how much bigger the world is, and your experiences and the experience of nature, than just what happens to a single man. It’s a much bigger canvas.”
The Nachtmusik movements color parts of the Seventh Symphony, but not all. “You start in a nocturnal landscape, and you end in daylight,” Woods says. “In the last movement we open the door and walk out into downtown Manhattan on a Monday morning — noise and people everywhere, and isn’t this great? Life goes on!”
Feature article from the Boulder Daily Camera by Kelly Dean Hansen
Woods has chosen Mahler’s enigmatic Seventh Symphony, which was last programmed in 2004. Olson had skipped the piece in favor of the Ninth — the composer’s last completed — for his final appearance last year.
Woods said that the 80-minute Seventh is a “virtuosic, compelling piece with amazing orchestration.” Long one of his most neglected symphonies, it has enjoyed resurgence along with increased interest in Mahler himself. Woods said that in many ways, it defies expectations of what a Mahler symphony should be.
“It’s really the one where the autobiographical aspect seen in all of the first six symphonies is really downplayed,” Woods said. “At the end of the Sixth, the heroic protagonist, for the first time, was destroyed at the end rather than being victorious or redeemed. In the Seventh, Mahler pulls back the camera and is more observational, with broader awareness of nature and life.”
The symphony, composed in 1904-05, was admired by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, the later spiritual fathers of modern atonal music. But today, the “modern” aspects seem rather tame. A passage frequently cited from the first movement as forward-looking for its time now sounds similar to the “Star Trek” theme. The movement itself is vast and complex. The middle three of the five movements are all “night pieces,” including the central ghostly scherzo, which is framed by a nocturnal march and a beautiful serenade (in which Mahler asks for the participation of mandolin and guitar). This emerges into an extremely radiant finale whose relentless positivity puzzled many of Mahler’s early admirers and critics.
Woods says that the piece “represents an absolute master at the peak of his craft,” adding that “Mahler was setting aside the metaphysics to focus on the music.”
Interview/podcast with Nathan Heffel from Colorado Public radio
For the first time, someone new will be on the podium at MahlerFest: conductor Kenneth Woods.
Composer Gustav Mahler in 1909
(Library of Congress)
Woods will conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 for his MahlerFest debut on May 21 and 22. He calls it one of Mahler’s most worldly pieces, mixing scenes of nature with sonic cityscapes.
And on his blog, A View From The Podium, Woods posts satirical essays about the classical world alongside thoughtful analysis of music he performs in concert.
The funny essays — like a recent post in which an imaginary orchestra stops performing and recording to spend more time on social media — often get the biggest reaction, he says.
But sometimes the less popular ones resonate more deeply, especially with other musicians. Woods says aspiring conductors sometimes thank him for his more scholarly posts years after he publishes them. (Here’s one he wrote about Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and its connections to the composer’s other music.)
Woods spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel about his love of Mahler’s music, his plans for the festival and his digital presence.
Hear Woods conduct music from Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” — the first Mahler piece Woods remembers hearing as a child:
Hi Mahler fans.
Following on from last week’s post on Mahler 7, I’ve had a number of questions, challenges and queries which have led to some very illuminating discussions. I thought I’d share a few highlights of those here.
A couple of readers asked what the connection (“to be continued”) is between M7 and M8. Well, it’s a very direct, very blatant one. Remember the final appearance of the main theme of M7:
Then jump ahead to the very beginning of M8
The similarities of the two themes, both rhythmically and melodically, are pretty obvious. the most telling difference is that in M7 the 3rd note is a leap upward of a 6th to the 3rd scale degree, but in M8 it is a leap of a 7th to the 4th scale degree (I know this is all a little geeky/technical). I think Mahler is telling us that there is a clear kinship between the two works, but that wider interval somehow hints at the underlying sense of ecstasy and aspiration which is the essence of the 8th. Think then about how the 8th ends. The last time the theme returns, Mahler changes the top note:
M8 Hauptthema Final transformation
In this final statement, the leap is further expanded to a 9th- really reaching to the heavens! Or at least to the 6th scale degree. You can see it’s an incredible moment when we finally reach this huge interval after the long journey we’ve been on.
And that journey is even bigger than just the 7th and 8th symphonies. I wrote the other day about some of the thematic relationships between M6 and M7, particularly the use of the “hero” theme from the Finale of M6 in the first mvt of M7.
Henri-Louis de La Grange points out the similarities between the first themes of the opening mvts of M7:
(Main theme of first mvt of M7)
(Main theme of 1st mvt of M6)
The similarities are obvious. So- that final statement of the haptthema in M8 actually has it’s origins in the first mvt of M6
One criticism of the work I often hear is that there isn’t enough of a link between the outer and inner mvts of the 7th, that it’s almost like two symphonies. That’s not true. I won’t bore you with all the motivic links that unify the WHOLE symphony, but here is a fun example. See how Mahler takes what musicologists call the “Star Trek” section of the first mvt and changes all those fourths to thirds in the 2nd mvt. The two passages share an almost identical structural function, too- Mahler is using the same material in the same way. How much more of a link could you want?
(Star Trek theme and the next generation)
Also- just as we’ve seen how many connections there are between first mvt of M7 and M6, there are also some very interesting references in the 2nd mvt of the 7th to the parallel mvt of the 6th*. I mentioned the other day how the minor-major progression of the first mvt of M7 acts as a kind of rebuttal to the major-minor shifts which permeate the 6th. However, at the end of the first Nachtmusik, there is a wonderful recycling of the major-minor gesture from the 6th exactly as it appears throughout that work (expect for being in a different key here). Note the similarity of mood, too….
(Ending of 2nd mvt of M7 with reference to M6 and parallel moment in the 2nd mvt of M6)
One could go on and on. Of course, it’s impossible to know how many of these connections had real symbolic significance for Mahler, and how many were simply part of his language. I tend to think the linking between works is an important part of his musical personality.
A leading professional orchestra has announced they are giving up rehearsing, teaching and performing music to focus on their “core mission,” it has been announced.
The board and management of the Southlands Sinfonia in Weicester have decided to cancel all future plans for concerts, recordings and music courses to “focus on what makes this orchestra great- our relationship with the community, our sense of partnership and engagement, and the role we play in developing the local economy. We are going to focus all our energies on changing perceptions of the orchestra, reimaging the orchestra as a post-musical organization for the 21st Century.”
“These are difficult times and we have to make hard choices,” said Sinfonia CEO Mortimer Platitüde . “Putting on concerts takes time and money. Sometimes, the cost of rehearsals has been so great that some of the musicians have actually had to take their own time to practice their parts at home instead of learning them where they should- in the safety of the workplace.”
“What’s really important for the future of the SS is the way in which we are perceived in the community. By giving up music, we can focus on developing the community’s perception of what we do for the community we serve with the partners we work in partnership with.”
Platitüde cited a string of new strategic goals for the orchestra as they move bravely into a post- music world. “We want everyone to know how accessible we are. And how friendly. It’s vitally important for everyone in the community who we engage with collaboratively in partnership to know how friendly and accessible we are in the community.”
These are exciting times for orchestras like the SS says Platitüde because orchestras today have so many more tools for spreading the word about how unthreatening and likeable they are. “We’ve found brightly coloured t-shirts are a great tool for changing perceptions of the orchestra from being a group of people who wear dark colours and long sleeves to being a group of people who were jeans, trainers and brightly coloured t-shirts. Our research shows us that for every concert we cancel, we can buy a whole new set of brightly coloured t-shirts. One for everyone in the orchestra! By the end of what would have been our season, we will have t-shirts in yellow, red, green, light green, forest green, funky green, blue, bright blue, navy blue (although we try to avoid using these as they are too close to black and may negatively affect people’s perceptions of us), light navy blue, sky blue, teal, dark teal, pink, lavender, salmon and terra cotta. Of course, there’s only so much we can do in one year- enhancing our reputation for being accessible in the community will take many years and a shed load of t-shirts!” Platitüde was non-committal when pressed about whether the orchestra would be investing in matching jeans for the musicians. “There’s a lot we still have to learn about the shape of the 21st Century Orchestra. We know that trainers are perceived as being more accessible than dress shoes, but are they really the most accessible? Perhaps we’ll be the first UK orchestra to wear crocs in our concerts! Oops, did I say “concerts?” Can you correct that to “family friendly events”?”
The SS will also be changing the focus of its vaunted youth programmes. “The SS Youth will no longer be a youth orchestra- instead they will be a project. We’ve found that trying to teach 60 teenagers to play the last movement of Sibelius 2 in a few days makes it very hard to innovate and deliver social impacts.”
Social media will also be a major focus for the SS as they look to the future. “We all know that there is nothing more important for a modern orchestra than our social media presence. However, our research shows that of our current 1578 Facebook friends, over twelve hundred of them all seem to work on the same click farm in Egypt. The rest seem to be freelance musicians scrounging for work, the orchestra’s librarian and the volunteer who used to run the parents’ group for what was our youth orchestra. We can do better without music.”
The Southlands Sinfonia: Better Without Music!
“By focusing on our key mission, we can use all of our contact time with our musicians to focus on proving to the community how friendly we are. Our musicians are our most powerful advocates for the organization, but many of them are deeply troubled and depressed people. Several are clearly anti-social. It sometimes takes up to 500 exposures to get a picture of one of them smiling with a cute child at a children’s concert. By doing away with music at those events, we can spend the entire event time making sure we’re capturing the wonderful relationship that exists between our musicians and local young people for our social media channels.”
Platitüde says the future of the SS is the future of orchestras everywhere. “I’m just so excited about what this orchestra can do without music!”
Ken’s first summer at Colorado MahlerFest is just around the corner, and so it seems time to add to the Mahler- A Performer’s Perspective library here at Vftp.
This year’s festival centers on Mahler’s 7th Symphony with performances on the 21st and 22nd of May. Festival details and booking information are here.
Gustav Mahler may well have been the first composer to end each of his symphonies with the postscript “to be continued…”
He himself said the funeral march which opens his Second Symphony was a memorial service for the hero of his First Symphony. His Third Symphony is full of hints of the gentle song, Das himmlische Leben, which would later conclude his Fourth. Almost all of the thematic material in his Fifth is drawn from the famous opening trumpet fanfare- a fanfare heard for the first time in the opening movement of this Fourth Symphony. And his Sixth Symphony seems clearly to have emerged from the rubble left behind in the wake of the cataclysm which is the second movement of the Fifth Symphony. Of all the Mahler symphonies, I think the Sixth is the one that ends in the most definitive way. After all, how can you have a story that is “to be continued…” when all of the major characters have been brutally killed off?
I’ve written before about the parallels between the Second and Sixth Mahler symphonies. In both cases, there is a pretty clear narrative of heroic striving against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In the case of the Second, just when all seems lost (and the world literally comes to an end), there is a moment of divine intervention and everything turns out great. In the Sixth, instead of the benevolent hand of a merciful God delivering mercy in humanity’s hour of need, we have the cold hand (or hammer) Fate, unsentimentally beating our hero into oblivion.
Where then in the narrative of the Sixth Symphony is there room for Mahler’s trademark “to be continued…”?
Well, one doesn’t have to look too hard at the first movement of Mahler 7 to see that it is, very much, a musical continuation of the Sixth. The key alone tells us this. It was no accident that Mahler 6 was in A minor- that was the key of the second movement of the Fifth Symphony from which it grew. The first movement of the Seventh is in E (originally E minor, ending in E major). E is the dominant of A, the key of the Sixth. One would have expected E to have been the second most important key in the Sixth Symphony- after all, it is the dominant which we expect to take us home to the tonic. However, in the Sixth, Mahler undermines the role of the dominant. Rather than arriving in the home key of A minor via the dominant E, he almost always approaches it from what we call the parallel major, A major. Even in a minor key, the dominant-tonic cadence is one of the most galvanizing and cathartic gestures in music. In the Sixth, we don’t cadence into the tonic key from the dominant and exhale a sigh of relief, we collapse into it from the parallel major with a scream of despair. The upshot of this is that the key of E never gets its due in the Sixth Symphony.
And so, in the Seventh, it is if Mahler says to us- “ever wondered what happened to the key of E while the key of A was getting his a$$ kicked in the last episode? Well…..”
On the biggest structural level, the opening movement of Mahler 7 also offers something of a rebuttal to the narrative of Mahler 6. If Mahler was the composer of “to be continued…”, Brahms was the composer of “on the other hand….” Brahms almost always composed in opposing pairs. His Tragic Overture is like a dark mirror image of the jolly Academic Festival Overture- the two pieces were written one after the other. The more definitive the statement he made in one piece, the more urgently he seemed to need to present a counter argument. After his taught, dramatic and Beethovenian First Symphony (which took him seventeen years to write), Brahms answered with his pastoral Second Symphony (written in just months). Perhaps the Seventh is Mahler’s “on the other hand…” work?
The collapse from A major to A minor (or, more generally, from major to minor) is the main generative idea of the Sixth Symphony. In the Seventh, Mahler opens with a movement which, after an introduction which starts in B minor and works its way through a few keys (not unlike the slow introduction with opens the last movement of the Sixth), journeys from E minor to E major.
For most composers, such a journey would not be so unusual- all of Beethoven’s minor key symphonies and concerti end in the parallel major, as does Brahms’ First, Schumann’s Fourth, Dvorak’s Seventh and Schubert’s Fourth. For Mahler, this journey is not unheard of (for instance, the Third Symphony outlines a huge journey from D minor to D major). It is, however, not to be taken for granted. The Second Symphony, in C minor, finds salvation not in C major but in E-flat Major. The Sixth taught us that minor doesn’t have to progress to major. After that harrowing work, Mahler’s listeners could never again take a happy ending for granted. “On the other hand,” in the opening movement of the Seventh, Mahler reminds us that minor can lead to major.
There are other stylistic and thematic similarities between the opening movement of the Seventh and the dark world of the Sixth. The march rhythms which underpin the main material of the movement emerge of the same sort of primordial ooze which opens the Finale of the Sixth, and carry us into a strikingly similar sound world. The second theme of the first movement of the Seventh is cut very much from the same cloth as the second theme of the first movement of the Sixth (the so-called “Alma Theme”). Both have the same temporal “tugs” on the weak beats, and similar flowing quavers carrying the line forward.
The “Alma” theme from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony
The 2nd Theme of the first mvt of M7. So much like the Alma theme, but without Alma.
In the dark middle section of the first movement of the Seventh, Mahler brings back one of the main themes of the Finale of the Sixth. In the Sixth, it was the hero’s theme, the theme which reaches ecstatically for the stars just before Fate’s hammer crashes down.
In the Seventh, it becomes a funeral dirge.
This movement is one of Mahler’s most astounding musical creations, and yet for all its structural clarity, its power and originality, I find it is neither as dramatic as the Sixth nor as cathartic as the Second. I believe that this is not due to any compositional shortcomings, but is the result of a profound change in narrative perspective from almost all of Mahler’s earlier music. The first movement of the Seventh is a journey where his previous symphonies have been dramas, it is observational rather than participatory. In fact, this change of emphasis is true of the whole Seventh. In each of his earlier symphonies, Mahler makes us keenly aware of the voice of a heroic narrator. In the First, he describes a Romantic hero who must accept death in order to triumph, and that journey is amplified to apocalyptic proportions in the Second. Mahler’s original program for the Third Symphony was as personal as it was poetic- he describes “What Nature Tells Me” rather than “What Nature Tells us.” In the Fourth, our hero is a child, and in the Fifth, Mahler brings us into his inner world by including his declaration of love to Alma, the Adagietto. In the Sixth, the most dramatic, the most personal, the most participatory of them all, the “hero suffers three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree.” To borrow a literary parallel, after writing six symphonies in the first person, for the first time in the Seventh, Mahler is writing in the third person.
Let’s go back to the Adagietto of the Fifth for a moment- it is about Mahler’s love for Alma (although that is by no means the only level of meaning). The fourth movement of the Seventh Symphony is a different kind of love song- the second Nachtmusik is a serenade, complete with guitar and mandolin, but in this movement we sense Mahler describing an archetypical young lover, not barring his own soul nor revealing his love for his soulmate. He is observing the wider human experience, not drawing us into his inner world, except indirectly- sharing his reactions to the experiences of others.
There are even some subtle thematic recollections of the Adagietto in this movement toward the end, freed from all the longing and rendered wistful, affectionate and breezy.
So it is that in the first movement of the Seventh, when we revisit the hero’s music from the Finale of the Sixth, the voice of the hero is tellingly absent. Instead, the sound world, replete with trombone solo, is that of the first movement of the Third Symphony. In the Seventh, Mahler tells us “here nature roars,” just as it does in the first movement of the Third.
I’ve said many times that one can read each of Beethoven’s symphonies as offering a different answer to the question of whether life is worth living or, for that matter, whether it’s worth getting out of bed tomorrow morning. In his first five symphonies, Mahler seems to me to be asking “will everything be alright in the end?” In each of those works, he is able to arrive at a convincing “yes,” but in the Sixth, the answer, for the first time, is an emphatic and unambiguous “no.” That it was his most perfect and powerful work made moving on from this “no” all the more difficult. Perhaps in the Seventh, Mahler is asking us “how do we live with the certainty of uncertainty, how do we live without the promise of salvation or triumph.”
The answer in the Seventh, it seems to me, is that life has a will of its own, a power and a force of its own. So it is that when we remember the hero of the Sixth, it is only the wild, untamed voice of nature that we hear. If one were to make a criticism of the philosophical underpinnings of Mahler’s early symphonies, it would simply be that there might be something a little naïve and simplistic in the Romantic notion that some mixture of heroic striving and divine intervention could guarantee triumph and happiness. The Sixth powerfully illustrates the naivety of trusting in a higher power to intervene on your behalf, and cruelly demonstrates the limits of human agency. It even makes the heroic imagery of the earlier works look just the slightest bit narcissistic. In the Seventh, it seems to me he’s been forced, for the moment, to accept the smallness of the individual, and to recognize the grandeur and the power of nature, and the messiness of life.
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