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Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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5490277-no-music-signA 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.”

No 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!”

2 months ago | |
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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_mahlerGustav 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

M7 2nd Theme

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.

2 months ago | |
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Mahler in Manchester

Originally published in 2010:

I finally managed to make it to one of the Mahler in Manchester concerts this past weekend (in spite of my blog project, I’ve had concerts of my own every previous concert night). Happily, this time I had a rehearsal in Manchester, so I was able to catch Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic giving a quite stunning performance of Mahler 7.

Almost as interesting as the performance were the conversations before and after. There was a small army of rather distinguished composers about, as well as critics, Mahler nuts, broadcasters and other serious listeners. While everyone seemed unanimous in their praise for the performances, the work still sparked some rather pointed conversations- particularly the famous Finale, which still seems to shock and baffle.

For me, however, the experience of sitting back and listening after a week with the score on my desk helped to put the piece in clearer perspective. I really came away thinking that it marks one of the most important and decisive moments in Mahler’s music, and perhaps even in the development of Western music.

It is certainly a culmination. Mahler made clear that he thought of the three middle symphonies as a triptych, a point Gianandrea made back stage after the performance. Still reeling from his workout, he suggested that next time the orchestra perform 5, 6, and 7 all in one day. “Mahler said the 5th was all about horizontal lines, the 6th about vertical lines and the 7th about spirals” was G.N.’s take “It is one gigantic symphony in 3 parts.” I realize that this is some people’s idea of Hell, but I wouldn’t miss such a marathon, although I’m not sure one conductor would be advised to do it all. Maybe we can share.

But I think it marks an even grander culmination. Part of what sets the 5th and 6th apart from their predecessors is a shift to slightly different subject matter. The narrative voice of the first four symphonies essentially disappears. Instead of linear drama, Mahler gives us studies in mood and experience. In the 5th, he creates a vast triptych of Death, Ambivilance and Love. The 6th more or less reverses that trajectory. Gone are the fairy tales and the Wunderhorn imagery- nature remains a powerful force, but a more realistic and less idealized one. The natural world becomes less picturesque and more potent.

Although it is often faulted for being a re-working of the ideas of the 5th, the 7th begins with something of step back to territory of the Wunderhorn symphonies. Although the musical language of the first four movements is quite advanced (it’s no wonder it was Schoenberg’s favourite Mahler symphony), the imagery is much more rooted in the mythology of German Romanticism than anything in the prior 2 works. The imagery of night, the forest, the presence of marches, love songs and even a witches Sabbath are just the tiniest hint of the extent to which so much of the symphony is indebted to, and plays off of, the inherited images and symbols of Romantic poetry and drama. On one level, this symphony is a culmination of the Romantic movement.

In this sense, the piece finds connections Mahler’s earlier works, but, as so often in Mahler, a powerful paradox is at work. On the one hand, we are returning to comfortable and familiar territory- re-telling old stories, re-visiting old haunts, re-haunting old forests. On the other hand, we can’t escape the fact that Mahler’s musical language has moved on. He is showing us familiar territory from a fresh perspective. By placing the first four movements in a nocturnal context, it is almost as if he is making the point that this whole world of Romanticism isn’t real- it is a dreamscape, nothing more or less. All these potent archetypes rightly belong in the subconscious world, not the world of daylight. All those stories- all those symphonies. They are powerful dreams, but only dreams. This re-examining of familiar landscapes with new tools makes us doubt their solidity- their dream nature is strongly hinted at for a long time, then in the Finale, Mahler makes explicit the point that has been lurking throughout. We awaken.

In the Finale, Mahler opens with an obvious shout-out to Wagner. Not just any Wagner, but Die Meistersinger. Why this piece and not Tristan or The Ring? Perhaps it is worth noting what sets this opera aside from the rest of Wagner’s output. It’s largely a question of what it doesn’t contain and isn’t about. There are no gods, no ghosts, no miracles and no magic. It is an opera about real life, stripped of mythology and magic.

One very great musician said to me after the concert on Saturday that he found the material in Mahler’s Finale a little “embarrassing.” I don’t agree, but I understand the reaction. For the first time in Mahler’s output, he is in the world of Meistersinger- in a real human community.

By suddenly shifting from the world of Romantic convention and archetype to a realist perspective, Mahler is all but parodying the artifice of what came before. It is as if he is saying that dreams and myths are all well and good, but this is the real world we must live in, and somehow learn to love. Mahler’s portrait of real life is both generous and affectionate on the one hand and bemused and ironic on the other. It is certainly the most consistently funny Finale of any symphony since Beethoven’s 8th, which it self stood on a similar threshold to its composer’s late style. I find another parallel (be patient with me here) in Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, where near the end of the film, the warring actors spill out of their films set across the MGM lot, wreaking havoc on countless other film sets in the process. Mahler’s Finale is possibly (certainly) more dignified, but it does open up similar questions about this conflict between the world of myth (the Western or the Romantic forest) and reality (the set-the town of Nurnburg).

But the parallel with Wagner and Die Meistersinger has one more thing to tell us. If Mahler simply ended with a joke, I think it would be unworthy of what comes before it. Fortunately, like all great composers, Mahler takes humorous music seriously and always has a deeper point to make. Die Meistersinger is not simply a comedy about town life, it is also a declaration of Wagner’s Schoepenhaurian philosophy-

Although Die Meistersinger is a comedy, it also elucidates Wagner’s ideas on the place of music in society, on renunciation of the Will, and of the solace that music brings in a world full of Wahn (which may be translated into English as “illusion”“madness”“folly” or “self-deception”). It is Wahn which causes the riot in Act 2 – a sequence of events arising from a case of mistaken identity, which can be seen as a form of self-delusion. Many commentators have pointed out that Sachs in his famous Act 3 monologue Wahn, wahn, überall Wahnis paraphrasing Schopenhauer when he describes the way that Wahn, or self-delusion, drives men to behave in ways which are actually destroying them.[7]

In the Finale of the 7th, Mahler creates a vivid depiction of a world rich in “madness” and “folly” but also seems to be underlining the presence of so much “illusion” and “self-deception” in the dreamscapes of the previous movements. It is music that brings solace in Wagner’s philosophy and Mahler’s. On the one hand, this Finale is about Life, not legendary, heroic, Romantic fairy-tale life, but real, simple, smelly, noisy life.  On the other hand, this Finale is about Music. When you are confonted with the madness of life, it is in music that you find solace.

And here we find that Mahler’s choice of material, some of it banal, some of it borrowed, some of it even embarrassing is no accident. His obvious model here is Haydn, who always seemed to treat the most ridiculous themes in the most sophsisticated ways. Think of the Finale of Haydn 92- has such an absurd melody ever been put through such paces? Yes, but only in other Haydn pieces. This process always feels cathartic and humanizing, and so it is in Mahler. He takes this hodgepodge of ideas and makes from them the single most complex and virtuosic movement in all the symphonies, deconstructing almost his whole life’s work in the process. When we think of the symbolic power of the brass chorale at the end of the 3rd Symphony and compare it to the brass chorale which forms the refrain of this movement it’s almost like a mirror image. One is transcendent, the other is just party music, and yet, by the end, the party has become a transcendent experience. This movement marks the birth of late Mahler, the end of Romanticism and the beginning of the musical 20th c. with a movement that invents modernity by re-engineering Haydn using a tune by Wagner.

2 months ago | |
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Mahler in Manchester

Guest blogger Peter Davison will be a symposium speaker at the 29th annual Colorado MahlerFest on Saturday the 21st of May. The MahlerFest Orchestra will be performing Mahler’s 7th Symphony under their newly-appointed Artistic Director Kenneth woods on the 21st and 22nd of May. Details available here.

How Wagner leads us to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

In 1909, Mahler was invited by Willem Mengelberg to perform several of his symphonies at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  A performance of the Seventh Symphony, premiered in Prague a year earlier, was scheduled for 8 October, and Mahler pondered what to perform alongside his vast five-movement work. He proposed to Mengelberg a first-half devoted entirely to Wagner; his early Faust Overture, his Siegfried Idyll and the Overture to Die Meistersinger. Mahler’s symphony would follow after the interval. In the end Mahler simply preceded the symphony with just the Meistersinger Overture – due to limitations of available rehearsal time and presumably also the audience’s stamina. But Mahler’s original proposal remains interesting to us, because of what it tells us about the symphony. Whenever he conducted his own works, Mahler always designed programmes to illuminate his music in some way. So what was he thinking of on this occasion?

The Seventh Symphony picks up on many of the issues confronted in the Fifth and Sixth. Mahler was exploring the Viennese symphonic tradition, especially Beethoven’s symphonies, as models for expressing idealistic aspiration. The Fifth had asked the question – can the idealised musical logic of the Beethoven symphony relate to the fundamental existential questions which confront us through our experience? He left the answer open. In the Sixth, the question found a brutal “no” for an answer. Beethoven’s visionary optimism and transcendence were found wanting, and without compromise Mahler presented the tragic circumstances of the human condition. But this was not the end of everything for Mahler. In fact, it proved a platform for a new burst of creative originality, for the Seventh Symphony is among the most innovative and complex music which Mahler ever wrote. If it appears to mimic aspects of the Fifth, its musical idiom and orchestral technique mark a huge stride in his creative and technical development.

But let us return to Mahler’s Wagner programme and speculate upon what in these three pieces can throw light upon the meaning of the Seventh Symphony. Wagner was, of course, a towering figure in musical life at that time and someone whose music Mahler adored. However, the Faust Overture is not well-known today. It was a relatively early work based on Goethe’s famous story. Faust makes a cynical pact with the devil to ensure his success in the world. For Romantic artists, this story showed that Man was alienated from the forces of life because of his lust for dominion over Nature. In another sense, the Romantic artist also bargains with the devil to pursue his creative vision against the claim of ordinary life. Interestingly, Faust makes his pact with Mephistopheles when he is at his lowest ebb and contemplating suicide, and it is this mood which characterises Wagner’s overture. At the head of the score, he quotes Goethe’s play: “So is my whole being a burden, and hateful life makes

You may know that Byron’s Manfred partly inspired Mahler’s Sixth, and Byron had been inspired by Goethe’s Faust to create the character. Manfred has grown disillusioned with life and his fellow man. He has committed some fearful crime against Nature for which he deserves to die. Mahler’s Sixth belongs in this psychological territory and, if the end of the work is not quite suicidal, it marks a loss of hope and surrender to fate. We know that Mahler felt empty and unable to compose for a while after the composition of the Sixth, as if it had exhausted him creatively. But one day rowing across a lake, he got an idea for the opening of the Seventh. The first movement of the Seventh is profoundly engaged with the dark side of Nature; its wildness, its unwillingness to be contained and the way in which it disrupts human life and conventions. There is (appropriately enough) a volcano of energy in this movement which threatens destruction. Mahler struggles to contain it, and we sense a creative birth full of labour pains. The movement seems to ask – how does man live in harmony with Nature, indeed with the Nature that is in himself? How does he find forms that make Nature civilised and bearable? The alternative, which is apparent at the movement’s end, is a Dionysian power that threatens to become aggressive and militaristic.

So we can now understand why Mahler wanted to allude to Faust in his suggested first-half. But there is another reason. The Faust Overture opens with a slow introduction which is recapitulated in the course of the movement, much as Mahler’s first movement does. In the Mahler, the struggle to contain his material yields a brief visionary glimpse of paradise, but the funereal mood of the movement’s opening returns. The effect in the Wagner and the Mahler is a collapse of momentum; a falling back into the murky gloom of depression with the mind haunted by demonic powers. We can even hear in Wagner’s stormy textures some connection to themes in Sixth and Seventh symphonies.

The relationship between the Siegfried Idyll and the Nachtmusik: Andante Amoroso, (the fourth movement of the Mahler) is much more obvious. Wagner composed his work as a love-gift for Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried, and its subtle expansion of the serenade into a work of symphonic wholeness is remarkable. It also has a dream-like narrative which influenced Mahler’s whole conception of musical form. In fact, I should add that the Siegfried Idyll was the epitome for Mahler of inner contentment and redemptive love. The “Resurrection theme” in Mahler’s Second Symphony is even based on the main theme of the Siegfried Idyll. The Andante Amoroso of the Seventh takes up the idea of the serenade and views it with a fairy-tale nostalgia verging on irony. (The sound of guitar and mandolin are curious anachronisms which place the music in the past and also in the ordinary world). Mahler asks, can we speak any longer with Wagner’s idealized and elevated feeling or with the instinctive trust of coventions that we imagine was the case in the past? For Mahler such eloquence and sincerity were always hard-won, and he reminds us that Nature is always ready to disrupt human love with forces beyond our control.

In the Seventh’s Finale, we can hear the most audible link to Wagner. There are festive trumpets and drums in C major that could have come straight out of  Meistersinger; a work which explores the relationship between the artist and the society around him. Wagner uses the opera’s hero, Walther and his Prize Song as symbols of the artist who expresses true Nature in defiance of social convention, represented by the pedantic Beckmesser. The artist is compelled to follow his muse and that means living by different rules. Yet it is by this expression of individuality that the divine spirit enters the world to renew human society. This leads to the celebrations in last scene of Meistersinger, surely one of the most euphoric moments in all music. There is a reconnection with true Nature, because Walther’s creative talent has been inspired by his musse, Eva and guided to fruition by the wisdom of Hans Sachs. It is an idealised paradigm for the artist’s contribution to the society around him.

Mahler wanted to express something similiar in his Finale, but uses humour to do so, because he is less confident that this reconciliation of  natural talent with the mundane world is really going to happen. In his Finale, we are never quite sure whether he is celebrating his talent entering the world or poking fun at the outside world for standing in his way. The movement is titled, Allegro Ordinario. In what sense is this music ordinary? The title suggests that we are listening to the stuff of everyday life, not something deeply personal and transcendent. It is the hustle and bustle of daily business, social chatter and laughter. These are the modest pleasures and difficulties of the ordinary world, in contrast to the profundities of a night filled with dreams, intimacy and the dark forces of the unconscious. Mahler hovers between the joy of his creative exuberance and the feeling that if he told the whole truth, it would bring him into conflict with his audience and critics. The night-time music of the Seventh doesn’t really find resolution, rather it contrasts with the Finale – and when the main theme from the first movement emerges at the end of the work, its presence is for a time simply disruptive.

But Mahler isn’t taking all this too seriously. It implies more the comic atmosphere of Die Meistersinger than the despair of the Faust Overture. At the end of the work, Mahler is celebrating the paradox, viewing the duality of night and day with emotional distance and acceptance. The scientist and philosopher, G.T. Fechner, a thinker who influenced Mahler deeply, observed that night and day only appear to be in opposition. If we were to view the world from outer space, he suggests (and we can, even if Fecnher could not) we would see that night and day occur at the same time, that they are part of an indivisible unity. Perhaps the message of this symphony is that the meaning of our human experience is subjective and always a matter of perspective. In that sense, what was tragic and hopeless in the Sixth can easily be reconciled with the visionary optimism of the Eighth. The Seventh is the bridge between them that shows us how this is possible. Mahler seems to say, it is not  Creation that is flawed and split down the middle, but our limited perception of it which makes it seem so, and it is our unwillingness to accept this limitation which leads us into Faustian bargains and rigid Beckmesser-like ways of thinking.

Peter Davison

2 months ago | |
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Unquiet Earth will be performed at The Bridgewater Hall on Saturday the 23rd of April, 2016 at 3 PM as part of the BWH’s Echoes of  a Mountain Song series. Tickets and additional information available via The Bridgewater Hall website here. 

Clare Hammond (piano) Jane Wilkinson (soprano)
Suzanne Casey (violin) Kenneth Woods (cello)
Peter Davison (narrator)

Despite her short life, Emily Brontë produced one of the most original novels of the 19th century, Wuthering Heights. In a sequence of words and music, we discover more about this enigmatic freespirit who loved the Yorkshire moors.

Todmorden-based composer Robin Walker has set four of her poems, exploring lost love and resignation. Extracts from the novel and other writings appear alongside a stormy piano sonata by Beethoven, whose cantata about unobtainable love,Adelaide, was among the Brontës’ music collection in Haworth.

Finally, Lancashire-based Andrew Keeling’s piano trio Unquiet Earth responds to Wuthering Heights’ ambivalent last paragraphs in music of rare pathos.

Beethoven Pathétique Sonata
Robin Walker Four Songs of Emily Brontë
Beethoven Cantata: Adelaide
Mendelssohn Adagio from Cello Sonata No.2
Andrew Keeling Piano Trio “Unquiet Earth”

Emily Bronte

From Peter Davison- artistic director

The emotional heart of this concert will be a new work commissioned from composer Robin Walker who has set four of Emily Brontë’s poems for voice, violin and piano, exploring lost love and resignation. Extracts from the novel and other writings will appear alongside a stormy piano sonata by Beethoven, whose cantata of unobtainable love, Adelaide, is among the Brontës’ music collection in Haworth. Finally, the British première of Andrew Keeling’s Unquiet Earth offers a lyrical response to Wuthering Heights in music of rare pathos

Composer Robin Walker

Composer Robin Walker

Emily Jane Brontë was born on 30 July 1818 in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was a younger sister to Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, and she had also an older brother, Branwell. Shortly after the birth of yet another girl, Anne, in 1820, the family moved to Haworth, where her father Patrick Brontë became perpetual curate – taking up residence in the now famous parsonage. When only a year had passed in their new home, Mrs. Brontë died, and the three oldest sisters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were consequently sent away to school. Emily eventually joined them, but there was a typhus outbreak, so the children were withdrawn. However, it proved too late for Maria and Elizabeth, who both died at that time.The four remaining siblings were thereafter educated at home by their father and Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister. Patrick Brontë was a strict and rather puritanical father, although he did not deny his children ordinary pleasures such as toys and books. But, during the day, while he worked in his study, the children would have to remain silent in an adjacent room. The siblings had access to a wide range of literature, including works by Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Shelley, and it was this combination of intense reading, spiritual high-mindedness and domestic confinement which probably encouraged the rich imaginative fantasies that would be the basis of their mature writings.

At seventeen, Emily attended Roe Head girls’ school, where her elder sister Charlotte was a teacher but, after only a few months, she was overwhelmed by homesickness. Returning to Haworth, her younger sister Anne took her place.The aim of the sisters at this time was to acquire sufficient education to allow them to open a small school of their own. Indeed, Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax in September 1838, but her once again her health deteriorated under the strain of the long and stressful hours. She found herself compelled to return to Haworth parsonage, where she took on many of the domestic chores, while also teaching at the local Sunday school.During this period, Emily was able to teach herself German, and she also became a proficient pianist. The children had always been encouraged to attend concerts, to play music and to sing. The family even acquired a cabinet piano in 1833, which Emily and Anne both were able to play. Emily was particularly gifted as a pianist and reached a high standard. The family possessed a range of sheet music, including William Ayrton’sfamous Musical Library; an anthology in four large double volumes which contained many instrumental pieces and songs by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but also works by Handel, Arne, Boyce, Gluck, Spohr and Mendelssohn. Among the most notable contents of these volumes were simplified arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies, as well as songs by him such as Adelaide. It is easy to imagine the whole family gathered around the piano on a winter’s evening, the hail clattering on the window panes as a wild wind blows across the moors. Emily Bronte is crouched at the piano, before throwing herself into a performance of music by Beethoven.

In 1842, Emily accompanied Charlotte to the Héger Pensionnat in Brussels where they attended the girls’ academy run by Constantin Héger. They planned to perfect their French and German before opening their own school. However, the death of their aunt meant that they were forced to return to Haworth. They tried in vain to open a school, but were unable to attract any students. The attempts of the sisters to achieve financial independence seemed to be consistently frustrated, but this perhaps served to turn their attention all the more to writing and creativity. In 1844, Emily began going through all the poems she had ever written, copying them into two notebooks. In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte discovered them and insisted that the poems should be published. Emily at first declined and was also angry that her secret life as a poet had been exposed, but she relented when her sister Anne revealed that she too had been writing poems. In 1846, the three sisters together published a single volume – Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Each adopted a male pseudonym for the purpose of publication, but preserving their initials. They feared that their work would not otherwise be taken seriously. The collection was well received, and Emily’s poems were singled out for their seriousness and musical qualities.

But this literary triumph was short-lived. Emily knew that her health had been damaged by the harsh climate at Haworth. There were also unsanitary conditions in the parsonage, where the water-supply was probably contaminated by the many diseased and rotting corpses in the neighbouring graveyard. Emily caught a severe cold during the funeral of her hapless brother Branwell, who had died in September 1848. She soon afterwards diagnosed with tuberculosis, her condition rapidly worsening. She died aged just thirty on 19 December 1848, having never experienced the success of her sole novel, Wuthering Heights, which had been published in the previous year.

We know very little about Emily Brontë as a person. Her sister Charlotte recorded that she needed to be free in order to thrive. Emily was certainly a free spirit, emotionally sensitive and physically vulnerable, yet also stubbornly individualistic, possessing a wild imagination which was stimulated by long country walks. She was a day-dreamer, often self-preoccupied, her head full of literary ideas and elaborate fantasies. It was said that she preferred the company of her faithful dog Keeper to any human companionship. Such misanthropic characteristics may well have made her less than appealing to potential suitors, and it is doubtful that she ever experienced romantic love. Perhaps at some time in her life, she had loved from afar, or perhaps she had been cruelly rebuffed but, whatever the truth, she felt a deep wound of separation formed by a childhood filled by painful grief and loss.

Robin Walker, who lives and works close to Haworth, in sight of the same Yorkshire moors which so inspired Emily Brontë’s writing has set four of her poems, which explore feelings of grief and separation against the backdrop of Nature. The absent lover is a blissful presence, but only in memory. There is a pervasive longing to restore the lost flow of life and to recover innocence. Death offers an escape; a way finally to unite with the unattainable beloved. Deep sadness suffuses these poems. There is resignation to a tragic destiny. It is true that Emily found some consolation in her Christian faith, also in the beauty of Nature and in her prodigious imagination, but throughout we feel the cold hand of mortality is beckoning her ever closer. By the end of this song-cycle, her faith in redemption seems as fragile her physical well-being.

The second half of the concert begins with Beethoven’s setting of Adelaide; a song which can be found in the Brontë’s Musical collection at Haworth Parsonage. The poem is by Friedrich von Matthisson, and it expresses unrequited love for an idealised other, who is mirrored ultimately in the beauty of Nature. Once again, we sense that broken love may only be healed by death. Beethoven’s obsessive dedication to music led him to a life at times of extreme self-denial. At all cost, he needed to preserve his creative freedom. Rather like Emily Brontë, this made his human relationships fraught with difficulty. He was at the whim of his muse, which possessed him with grand visions and impossible lofty ideals. His ordinary human needs often collided uncomfortably with his will to greatness and high achievement. It was a tension which also haunted all the Brontë siblings in their different ways and especially Emily. One author, R.K Wallace, has gone so far as to suggest that Heathcliff, the wicked anti-hero of Wuthering Heights, was even modelled on Beethoven, whose appearance, like that of Heathcliff, was wild, dark and unkempt. Beethoven was also prone to violent outbursts of temper. Emily would have known about Beethoven‘s passionate nature from playing his music. She may also possibly have read accounts of him as an uncompromising character in published biographies. But we should not exaggerate this connection. Beethoven was, after all, no ill-educated rustic, just as Heathcliff was no musical genius. By the 1830’s, not long after Beethoven’s death in 1827, the composer was already a towering mythic figure in European culture; an archetype for the heroic Romantic artist living in defiance of convention and who harboured for humanity a vision of universal brotherhood. In this new order, social convention and true nature would no longer be at odds. Emily Brontë must have found such ideas inspiring and attractive, although they must also have increased her frustration at the state of the world around her; so full of iniquities, suppressed feelings and dashed hopes.

We find these conflicts at the heart of Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights, where the central theme is the conflict between social convention and the wildness of Nature. The privileged world of the Linton family, restricted by the mores of polite society, is contrasted with Heathcliff’s feral world on the moors, where passions rage uncontrolled and where vengeful mischief is aimed at those who have put him down. Heathcliff had been a mysterious swarthy child plucked from the streets of Liverpool. As he grew up, he was physically abused and mocked, eventually seeking revenge upon his tormentors; those who conspired to steal his beloved Cathy away from him. The intense feelings between Cathy and Heathcliff threaten diabolical consequence for the civilised world, for their desires cannot be repressed, yet nor can they find a form that would not transgress established moral laws. Tragedy must inevitably follow, for Cathy knows that the price of a virtuous and privileged life as Mrs. Edgar Linton entails an unbearable loss of soul. With pagan intensity and reckless longing, Cathy laments her predicament to her servant Nelly:

‘I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. …. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven…It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.’

We can only speculate on the inner frustrations which may have motivated Emily Bronte to pen Wuthering Heights, as she languished at home, devoted to her clergyman father and plagued by ill-health. Creative fantasy and long walks offered some consolation, but her life in many ways embodied the collective conflict of those times which women in particular endured through prejudice and prohibition. Desire and ambition were walled in by domestic duty and the call to obedience. Nature was thus pitted against the human world. Individuality was often trapped in conformity to rigid social conventions. The artist was often cast in the role of the outsider attempting to redefine moral laws and boundaries. These struggles were common themes in 19C art, music and literature, and we can hear such an opposition in the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata. A traditional Lutheran chorale, in the style of Bach, is played by the piano. It symbolises conventional faith, enduring value and moral steadfastness, but the cello plays a plangent ‘song without words’, which disrupts the purity of the chorale. Mendelssohn resolves this tension when the piano finally acknowledges the cello’s sorrow, re-integrating what had previously been excluded from the community of faith.

If Wuthering Heights expresses something of the deep psychological conflicts at the heart of Victorian society, it does not mean that Emily Brontë was always pessimistic about the human condition. At the end of her novel, there are glimmers of hope that differences in society can be overcome by patience, understanding and universal education. But, it is far from an idealistic outcome in the context of the novel’s preceding pages. In truth, Emily Brontë vacillated between peering into the abyss and a visionary sensibility that looked to the stars. Her volatile moods and profound perceptiveness are explored in her essay, The Butterfly, written in 1842, while she was living in Belgium. In a state of deep melancholy, her experience of Nature is meaningless, for one creature must devour another in order to live. Nature’s beauty, she feels, is a deception. She observes a caterpillar eating the petals of a flower and is disgusted by it, filling her with existential doubt and rage:

All creation is equally mad. Behold those flies playing above the brook; the swallows and fish diminish their number every minute. These will become, in their turn, the prey of some tyrant of the air or water; and man for his amusement or his needs will kill their murderers. Nature is an inexplicable problem; it exists on a principle of destruction…This worm lives only to injure the plant that protects it. Why was it created, and why was man created?”

But then a butterfly draws itself to her attention, reminding her to look more generously upon the transformative potential of Creation:

…like a censoring angel sent from heaven, there came fluttering through the trees a butterfly with large wings of lustrous gold and purple. It shone but a moment before my eyes; then, rising among the leaves, it vanished into the height of the azure vault…

In the metamorphosis of the caterpillar in to a butterfly, Emily Brontë could sense the symbolic promise of a release from earthly woes and the cruelties of Nature. Perhaps, she believed, there could yet be some resolution of the conflict between the high spiritual ideals of Beethoven and the low earthly passions which she would later portray driving Cathy and Heathcliff to mutual destruction.

Andrew Keeling’s piano trio Unquiet Earth (2006) was inspired by the final paragraph of Wuthering Heights. The novel ends with tantalising ambiguity. The main characters all lie dead, but the novel’s narrator returns to the scene of the tempestuous events and perverse relationships which made the story. We are compelled to reflect in these last pages upon what may follow. Where Nature has been so rigorously denied, must there always be ghostly echoes of those thwarted desires? Must cries of anger and despair resound through successive generations? Will the souls of the dead continue to haunt the living, as victim and victimiser entangle in an eternally destructive embrace? Or – do the dead rest in peace, finally free of their unhappiness and their need to strive to fulfil themselves?

….the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you’ll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen the two of them looking out of his chamber window on every rainy night since Heathcliff’s death:—

…. I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

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2 months ago | |
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…a witty and mercurial masterpiece. Electric performances all”

Published 13 March, 2016

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Sunday Times Krenek Review

3 months ago | |
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Beethoven's last string quartets are referenced extensively in Shostakovich's Eighth

Beethoven’s Third Symphony is a work of such monumental historic and artistic importance that it’s worth prefacing a discussion of it by reminding the reader that even if Beethoven had died before composing it, he would have already secured his place in the pantheon of the greatest composers who had ever lived. Although it was only the third of his nine symphonies, Beethoven had already written well over half of his total output, and done a great deal to change music forever. His first two symphonies, while less monumental in scale, are every bit as radical as the Third, or, for that matter, any of the symphonies which followed it. Even from his earliest works like the Opus 1 Piano Trios, Opus 9 String Trios, opus 5 Cello Sonatas, and Opus 2 Piano Sonatas, Beethoven’s breadth of spiritual vision, his profundity of emotion, his sky-lifting wit and unconstrained audacity are fully developed.

Nevertheless, there is no doubting that the Third Symphony differs from its predecessors in important ways.  Written mostly in 1803 it was one of two works (the other being the “Waldstein” Sonata for Piano in C major) in which the new “heroic” language of what we now call Beethoven’s “Middle Period” first came to the fore.

Beethoven’s musical relationship to his two most important musical forbears, Mozart and Haydn, is often misunderstood. Too many commentators fall into the trap of describing Beethoven as somehow throwing off the conservative shackles of Mozart and Haydn’s Classical language in favour of a new, more experimental way of composing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mozart and Haydn were every bit as innovative and radical a pair of composers as ever lived, and neither let himself be constricted by the stylistic expectations of his audience or peers. Haydn toyed with the norms and expectations of Classical style and rhetoric as cat plays with a caught mouse, and the works of thisSturm und Drang period are full of as much raw anger, pathos and anguish as anything Beethoven would ever write. At the end of his life, Mozart had left behind almost all of the gallantry and grace of typical late 18th. C. music. Works like the Requiem, the 40th Symphony and the later chamber works seem to have far more in common with the contrapuntal language of Bach and the existential tensions of Brahms and Bruckner than with the elegance and courtly good manners of Stamitz and Hoffmeister. Mozart’s last symphony, the so-called “Jupiter” begins very much in the safe territory of almost ersatz 18th C. C major “trumpet and drum” music, but in the Finale, he embraces a total liberation of the creative possibilities of pure counterpoint.

No, Beethoven was not freeing himself from the Classical confines of Mozart and Haydn’s language because no such confines existed for either composer. Instead, Beethoven in his Middle period seems to stumble upon a new kind of musical monumentality, expressed with a strangely compelling mix of narrative gift and brute force. Although the Eroica stands at the beginning of Beethoven’s most productive decade, it is also the work which most perfectly embodies the qualities that have made the works of his Middle period the cornerstone of musical life for over 200 years. In these works, and particularly in this work, he reveals himself to be greatest of musical storytellers. For the first time in instrumental music, we see a composer again and again writing movements on the most enormous scale that manage to keep the listener engaged through the most perfectly balanced mixture of expectation and surprise.

The sheer scale of the Eroica was the subject of much controversy when the work was first performed under Beethoven’s baton in 1805. One audience member reportedly offered to double his admission fee if the orchestra would stop playing and let him leave. It was to be Beethoven’s longest instrumental work (although he certainly never intended it to be as long or grandiose as it was often heard in the mid 20th C., as conductors and orchestras gravitated to slower tempi and a more massive sonority than the composer could ever have imagined). It was easily twice as long as almost any symphony heard in Vienna up to that point. Nevertheless, Beethoven’s engagement with tradition is also very much in play, and the openingAllegro con brio is modelled on the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E flat major. Both the similarities and differences are telling. On the one hand, Beethoven borrows not only Mozart’s key, but also his use of triple meter and a main theme which outlines tonic and dominant triads. Both composers exploit the possibilities of building up forward momentum by starting with a theme mainly in crotchets and minims and then gradually introducing quavers then semiquavers, driving the music forward with more and more intensity. Even the infamous dissonant chords at the climax of Beethoven’s development are anticipated in the slow introduction of Mozart 39. On the other hand, Beethoven dispenses with the formality of a slow introduction for the first time in his symphonies, throwing the listener straight into the action after the two opening chords. (Mozart had already done the same thing in several of his symphonies, most powerfully in his 40th).

Dramatic as the first movement is, it would be a mistake to think of it primarily as a drama- in many ways it is more of a character study. Most music lovers know that Beethoven was initially inspired to write the work by Napoleon Bonaparte, and in many ways, this movement represents more a portrait of the heroic spirit than a depiction of heroic acts. Beethoven could evoke adversity like no other composer before or since, but in the first movement of the Third Symphony, hardship and struggle are clearly there to be overcome by the heroic protagonist. Yes, the development section contains some of the most intense, dramatic and sorrowful music ever written, but even in the most harrowing passages, one sense that we are safe in our protagonist’s hands. Victory seems assured right from those first two bracing E-flat major chords, never mind the cost.

It is only in the second movement, the Marcia funebre: Adagio assai that Beethoven finally shows us the true cost of the “victory” depicted in the first movement’s heroic endeavours. Again, the sheer scale of this movement must have simply staggered early listeners (to say nothing of the musicians). It is almost a mirror image of the first movement—tragic instead of triumphant, minor instead of major. Even the musical language is markedly different- where the first movement paints the portrait of a great hero through the abstract language of triads, crotchets and quavers, the Marcia funebre is rooted in vernacular music, music of ceremony, full of fanfare rhythms and drumrolls. It is  almost shockingly programmatic for a Classical symphony, although I hasten to point out that Haydn usually saved his more audacious and programmatic touches for his slow movements as well. The presence of our hero is still felt– after all, Beethoven later described the entire symphony as “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” The real Bonaparte was still very much alive at this time, but one gets the sense that the protagonist of the Eroica didn’t quite survive the first movement. The real, horrific price of human conflict is revealed in this movement with shocking directness. Where the heroic character of the protagonist conquers all in the first movement, in the Marica funebre, the heroic character attempts to rise again and again, only to collapse each time into ever blacker depths of despair. Many musicians, including me, consider this to be the greatest symphonic movement ever composed, and probably the darkest as well.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Eroica is the fact that Beethoven is able to continue beyond the Marica funebre. A generation later, Schubert would write two symphonic movements of similar scope and intensity, only to find himself completely stymied as to what to say next. Beethoven might have been forgiven for leaving us with his own “Unfinished” symphony, but, as only a genius could, he manages to show how life reinvents itself when all seems to have been lost.

After the human-centred, drama of the first two movements, I always think of the pianissimo opening of the Scherzo as music of nature- emerging pregnant with energy and potential like the first green shoots of spring after an impossibly cruel winter. In the trio, the horns bring us into the world of the countryside, evoking the raucous spirit of the hunt and the boozy village feast. Humanity gradually returns, and by the movement’s end, we’re well and truly surrounded by beer and laughter.

A short, shocking outburst rips us from the jolly world of the Scherzo and flings into the Finale, wherein Beethoven will pull together all of the threads of this great symphony into a coherent whole. One thing becomes clear almost immediately- after three movements which each explore more or less one mood, the Finale will be one of quicksilver changes and sharp contrasts. After the abrupt and violent opening, we hear the skeleton of an unbelievably simple theme- the first six notes are all either the tonic or dominant pitches of the key. With each restatement, the skeleton adds a few bones, gradually taking on a more and more comic appearance as Beethoven adds echo effects, riotous fortissimo octaves, bars of silence and quirky pauses. Finally, after about 76 bars, Beethoven puts some flesh on his skeleton with a sweeping and gorgeous melody, as attractive as everything that came before it was odd.

Beethoven is working at something very audacious here. We quickly realise we’re in the midst of a Theme and Variations, but it’s more than just that. In the course of the movement, Beethoven manages to bring to his quirky theme the most tremendous range of emotions, and over the course of the movement he takes us back through the drunken party atmosphere of theScherzo, to the striving derring-do of the first movement. There are also two fugues of astonishing audacity and invention, the second fugue based on an inversion of the first. Finally, the tempo slows, and for the final variations we’re back in the mood of the Marcia funebre for a powerful final meditation on all that has come before, all that was fought for and all that was lost. My friend and mentor Michael Steinberg said of this passage “the slow variations here are an apotheosis, a climax of towering force. This kind of climax is new, and the whole nineteenth century lived on it.”

As before, this slow music reaches a point of despair from which there seems no escape, but then Beethoven brings back the violent outburst which opened the Finale. That which previously interrupted the celebratory mood of the Scherzo here throws off the chains of despair we now find ourselves in, and the symphony literally storms to its appropriately heroic conclusion.

It would seem that in this movement Beethoven manages to do just about everything that could possibly be done with so simple a theme, both musically and spiritually, but many readers will already know that he’d already used the same theme in three other works, starting with a set of contradances in 1800, carrying on through the finale of his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, and his Fifteen Variations and Fugue for Piano, opus 35. In some important way, the Third Symphony seems to have begun not with Bonaparte and the idea of a grand, heroic symphony, but with this theme: with this quirky, bare little oddity. There’s something compelling yet funny about the paradox of this most human and dramatic of symphonies growing from such a modest musical idea. Something which I think Haydn would have loved. Yes, Beethoven was as great a visionary as he was a potent revolutionary, but a Janus-faced one, who saw into the past and future with similarly revelatory powers of perception.

c. 2016 Kenneth Woods

3 months ago | |
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Sales of concert tickets and recordings by classical orchestras, opera companies and chamber ensembles skyrocketed this week following the arrest of a  cellist who was found to be carrying 113 pounds of marijuana in his car.

pot cello

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

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

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

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

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


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

COMING SOON- Vivaldi By Grow Light, Live!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I share one hopeful clue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago | |
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