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Kenneth Woods- conductor
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In the spirit of fairness and balance and for the good of music in general, we’ve established a list of “top tips” for conductors offered by each section in the orchestra. Take them to heart and you’ll go far.

Or maybe you won’t ??

Flute- I picked this flute because this is the kind of flute I like and make the sound I want to make, and telling me how great the wooden/platinum/graphite/foam-rubber flutes sound in your other orchestra just makes me want to gnaw my own legs off

Oboe- This reed sucks, this reed sucks, this reed sucks.

Clarinet- I’m not conducting the flutes, I’m conducting you.

Bassoon- Please don’t program Beethoven 4 this year. Or next year.

Horn- We’re really the reason people come to the concerts, but we can also be the reason they stay away

Trumpet- Your beat needs to be as precise as our embouchure and tongue or you are going to cause us problems. And when we have problems, you have problems.

Trombone- I have more recordings of this symphony than you do. Just sayin’….

Tuba- I know everything there is to know about coffee and wine. Ask me and learn.

Timpani- It would be better if you were less aware of what stick I was using and more aware of what pitches I’m playing (some of which may be different than in the score)

Tambourine- Wouldn’t it be easier to just tell the rest of the orchestra to play louder?

Harp- The fact I could be making three times as much playing a wedding means I’m really here out of pity.

Violin 1- We’re going with the concertmaster. You work it out with her/him

Violin 2- Learning our names would go a long way towards establishing your credibility.

Viola- The bowings are not fine, they can never be fine.

Cellos- At least half of us are conductors, too, and half of those are more experienced conductors than you. Toscanini, Barbirolli, Ivan Fischer, Harnoncourt- they were all sat in the cello section for conductors just like you, silently making up their minds and waiting for their chance.

Basses- We would rather not be required to gaze at your backside while you lavish your attention on the first violins.

Everyone in the orchestra- Let us go home 20 minutes early and we’ll love you

Your CEO- Let them go home 20 minutes early and I may fire you

3 months ago |
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Photo by Keith Bobo

I recently attended a very enjoyable concert by a fine local student orchestra. When you think of many musical, technical and social skills one must acquire to play in orchestra, it seems implausible that it is actually possible that such a intricate and uncertain enterprise could ever come off successfully.

As I listened, it occurred to me that the environment is so complex and the skills needed so wide-ranging that it might be helpful if each section of the orchestra had one “top tip” to keep in mind to help make the orchestral experience more successful and pleasant and even, I hope, a little simpler. As far as I know, these apply to all kinds of orchestras everywhere in the world at all times and in all circumstances. But maybe they don’t in yours. Advice for conductors can be found everywhere else on this site.

Flute-  The clarinet is never going to adjust to you. All they can hear is the horns and trumpets right behind their head, while all you can hear is….  the clarinet right behind your head that you so far haven’t adjusted to. And- the sound of the flute’s lower register is one of the glories of the orchestra– work it.

Piccolo- If you are playing Beethoven 5, play louder. In all other circumstances, it’s probably already too loud

Oboe- Keep your tuner handy. We are going to tune again today.

Cor anglais- The principal oboist is not retiring or leaving any time soon.

Clarinet- Conducting from the clarinet will not help the flutes and oboes to be with you. They cannot see you.

Bass clarinet- Yes, we know you can play louder than the trombones, but we find it more off-putting than impressive

Bassoon- It is a given that you are sharp and early- that’s just how your instrument is made. The question is how sharp and how early. The good news is that you’re everybody’s favorite section.

Horn- The trombones still don’t understand why you miss so many notes, but they love you anyway and would be happy to take some of those tunes off your hands.

Trumpet– Get a softer/smaller/lighter instrument and play it with more balls rather than getting a cannon and having to tickle it for your whole life.

Trombone- Not being in your chair when we finally get to the last movement does not endear you to the violins who have been playing the whole time without a break. And…. The horns think your instrument is easy, but they love you anyway

Tuba- You probably should have brought the other tuba for this piece.

Timpani- 72% of the time 90% of the people involved, including the rest of the orchestra, the composer, the conductor, the producer and the audience, wish you were using a harder stick and are all too nice and/or scared to tell you

Xylophone- See timpani above

Snare/side drum- If you’re there thinking “everyone in the orchestra has bad rhythm except for me,” reverse that thought.

Keyboard/continuo– Everyone involved managed fine without your advice for the other 20 concerts this year. You can focus on playing and not worry about coaching the celli or the conductor.

Harp- You probably should have started tuning that thing a little sooner.

Violin 1- If your section leader is not with the conductor, you’re screwed (we all are). If your section leader is with the conductor, be nice to them- it’s not easy nor is it a given. And yes, you should get paid more to learn all those notes- oh wait, you’re sight reading…

Violin 2- You need the most active eyes in the orchestra, constantly scanning from first violins cellos and occasionally checking in with the conductor, too.

Viola- The bowings are fine. Leave them as they are. Put the pencil down and stop talking.

Cello- Only use harmonics when the composer asks for them. Not all melodies need be played with the kind of intensity, or volume, one brings to the first page of the Dvorak Concerto.

Basses- It matters a lot if you play in tune. A lot. You may get called out less often for intonation issues than treble instruments, but your intonation (and rhythmic precision) is what makes or breaks the orchestra as a whole. That’s why we love you.

What do you think the true secrets of orchestral greatness are? Share your thoughts in the comments!

3 months ago |
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I find myself thinking of Bartók today. For me, he seemed to rise to the musical challenges of the early 20th C with more vision and creativity than anyone else. In his music, we find blood and mathematics, folks songs and atonal cells, head and heart, earth and dreams. Who is to say who the greatest composer “in” the 20th C was, but I think he was the greatest composer “of” and “for” the 20th C. He answered all the big musical questions of his time.

It is one of the great regrets of my conducting career that I don’t get to do his music more often, and some of my absolute favorite works I have yet to perform (I’d sell a kidney to do a good Bluebeard’s Castle). It’s a sad commentary on the economics of music.

One piece I used to play a lot, and which I miss terribly, is his Second String Quartet. To me, the little red volume which holds the scores of his six string quartets is just about the ultimate “how to compose” textbook.

Here is a live performance of the 2nd with my old quartet from my years in Cincinnati. There are so many wonderful memories of working with my dear friends in this group- Kio Seiler, Eva Richey and Sheridan Kamberger Currie. Fun times!

4 months ago |
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Wonderful new FIVE STAR review in The Times for An Eventful Morning in East London: 21st C. Violin Concertos with Harriet Mackenzie;

Get your copy: https://eso.co.uk/…/an-eventful-morning-in-east-london-21st…/

“Mackenzie’s playing is rivetingly incisive throughout, and Kenneth Woods, conductor obtains exemplary accompaniments from the English String Orchestra and English Symphony Orchestra.”

Classical review: Harriet Mackenzie: An Eventful Morning in East London

The violinist’s playing is rivetingly incisive throughout this recording of five 21st-century concertos
Richard Morrison
June 9 2017, 12:01am, The Times

Harriet Mackenzie shows her zest for adventure in this ambitious album

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The recording’s title is a tease. An Eventful Morning in East London is the name (almost) of Rob Fokkens’s violin concerto, one of five 21st-century concertos played by the indefatigably adventurous violinist Harriet Mackenzie on this superb release. However, although Mackenzie is a Londoner, Fokkens is South African. So his East London,in the Eastern Cape, is 6,000 miles south of Shoreditch.

His concerto reflects it too. Fokkens has Charles Ives’s ability to enrich his own imaginatively orchestrated style with “found” music — in this case an outdoor African soundscape that seems to incorporate a passing funeral procession replete with snatches of Dies Irae as well as a jazz band.

That makes for a fascinating 13 minutes. Yet it’s just one highlight on an album mixing the work of two older composers — Paul Patterson and David Matthews (composer) — working in a generally tonal idiom with the quirky new generation, represented by Fokkens, Emily Doolittle and Deborah Pritchard.

What unites them is an ability to create something fresh out of existing material. Pritchard’s Wall of Water, for instance, is a response to a series of Maggi Hambling paintings. I’m glad they aren’t reproduced in the accompanying brochure, because Pritchard’s music — growing out of a tiny, semitonal twist cloaked in otherworldly harmonics — paints its own pictures in the imagination. It is profusely atmospheric and virtuosically challenging, and it rises to an intense cadenza (a bit too arpeggio-dependent, perhaps) before imploding to where it started.

Doolittle’s falling still has a similar atmospheric quality. The violin, representing a bird in flight, hovers over slow, lush string-clusters representing more inanimate sounds of nature. That suggests a latter-day Lark Ascending, but Doolittle’s style is far more astringent than Vaughan Williams and has a more elegiac hue.

So does Matthews’s Romanza, which, despite its name, is a curiously unsettling piece in which the soloist moves from moodily impressionistic rhapsody to enigmatic Viennese waltz, where the balance between pastiche and irony is never quite fixed. To me it spoke of youthful joys recollected into ruefulness, if not despair.

By contrast, Patterson’s Allusions for two solo violins and strings (Philippa Mo is the other excellent protagonist) is pure pleasure, three movements each riffing on a different operatic character. The first, brilliantly energetic and manically contrapuntal, alludes to Falstaff and his tangled love life. The second, called Mindscape, refers to Don Giovanni’s encounter with the Commendatore, with the music rising from dark rumination to nightmarish crisis. And the third is a glorious postmodern riff on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture, full of dizzy syncopations.

Mackenzie’s playing is rivetingly incisive throughout, and Kenneth Woods, conductor obtains exemplary accompaniments from the English String Orchestra and English Symphony Orchestra.
(Nimbus)

4 months ago |
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This past Sunday afternoon, I conducted the ESO in a performance of Tchaikovksy’s String Serenade which marked the end of our main 2016-7 season. Between now and our return from the summer holidays, my colleagues are doing some fascinating chamber music concerts, the Bach B minor Mass with the wonderful Sarah MacDonald guest conducting, and a few engagements, but for me, the end of our main season is always an important milestone.

What to say about a year like this? I fear most of the really good (outrageous) stories will have to wait for my memoirs. Have no fear, I will write them if I have time and good health, and they’ll be pretty damn funny, occasionally shocking and hopefully interesting when they’re done.

Well, what I can say is that it has been one hell of a year. Depending on how you measure it (I joined the ESO mid-season and my title and duties have changed two or three times since then), this is about my fourth year give or take a year or two minus the odd hiatus. The orchestra has been through a huge amount of change in that time. Almost all of it is change for the better, much of it long overdue, but it’s all happened against a backdrop of austerity, economic upheaval and political instability that has made everything that little bit more of an uphill battle.

Every arts organisation I know these days is frighteningly under-resourced. Because the ESO was going through a difficult patch before the 2008 financial crisis, they were already under-resourced even before the cuts started coming in. I don’t think most people are prepared for what they would see if they look behind the curtain at most performing arts organisations- a gaunt and bleary-eyed skeleton crew soldiering on through untold hours of thankless grunt work to keep the music playing, only be regularly let down by complacent contractors or flaky partners.

So, why do it when we  must spend so much time up to our noses in frustration and worry? I suppose one does it because every once in a while, you get one of “those” concerts or events which refreshes, revives and sustains you for the next year or so. It’s the concert that lights the world (maybe just your world) on fire, the new piece that changes your life, or the guest artist who makes you remember why you perform that keeps you going.

What was amazing about this year is that, after three years of hard work, change and investment, we found ourselves having a year of LOTS of those kind of breakthrough projects, one after another. I hope I can look forward to years in which I’ll make more money, get more sleep and perform for more people, but I’d have to be one luck SOB to have a year with so many incredible projects with the same band.

September: Krenek- Piano Concertos vol 2. Recordings at Wyastone Concert Hall

Recording volume one of the Krenek concerti with Mikhail Korzhev and the ESO was about as much fun as recording/music-making gets. Misha is an incredible pianist, but also a funny, sweet, kind guy with an incredible work ethic. The sessions were a joy and it was also great to work with Michael Haas producing- I have so many of his Decca CDs on my shelves, from the Entartete Musik series to things with Chicago and Pavarotti. To my great surprise (I had thought I was one of about ten people in the world who liked Krenek), the first disc was a huge success. One couldn’t help but worry that the magic would be harder to capture the second time around. Fortunately, this year’s repertoire was, if anything, even stronger, the orchestra has come on even more, we were able to make better use of the hall’s vaunted acoustic by extending the stage, and we were joined by three more wonderful co-soloists. NY Phil pianist Eric Heubner joined Misha for the Concerto for Two Pianos, which is a funny (it’s a series of atonal variations on O Sole Mio) and thrilling piece. Violinist Nurit Pacht played with infinitely refined tone, elegant style and uncanny intonation in the Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, a work I completely fell in love with, and organist Adrian Partington was class personified in the Little Concerto for Organ, String Quartet, Flute and Clarinet, a marvellous, quirky and moving little work. Three wonderful days that I didn’t want to end.

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MusicWeb
Classical Source
Sunday Times

September: Robert Saxton- Resurrection of the Soldiers, Mozart Piano Concerto in D minor with Clare Hammond, and Mozart 40, Hereford Shire Hall

Having conducted Robert’s mega-super-ultravirtuosic trumpet concerto “Psalm” a few years ago, I knew not to expect anything too easy from him. This new work certainly challenged us, but for once, we had a decent amount of rehearsal time, and, to my mild surprise, we were able to tame the beast in half an afternoon. Part of the reason we were able sort it out so quickly was the arrival on the scene of a new guest leader Zoë Beyers, who immediately stood out for her gorgeous playing, flawless musicianship and calm, focused presence. When Robert came to the dress rehearsal on the day of the concert, he was gobsmacked and we were all pretty proud of the noise we were making. I think it’s a really powerful and profound piece. It’s got an absolute beast of a multi-metric fugue in the middle, but the coda is just shivers-down-the-spine moving. At one point, I was worried that the piece was a little harmonically ambitious for Hereford, but the audience response made clear that they knew they’d heard something special

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The Classical Reviewer

October: John Joubert- Jane Eyre: An Opera in Two Acts. Ruddock Performing Arts Centre, Birmingham

It may be that this project took the longest from concept to delivery in my career to date. Siva Oke originally came to me with the idea just as I was doing my first concert with the ESO in 2013. Back then we naively thought that such an obviously worthwhile project involving such an important piece of music with such strong literary connections would be easy to put together. Given John’s lifetime of service to the cultural life of Birmingham, we assumed all the major local arts sponsors, the University and the key members of the music scene would line up to fund it. Hah! Boy did we learn! But, after a few false starts, we found the right fundraiser, got a little lucky with the Arts Council and when all looked hopeless, found a guardian angel to see us over the finish line.

One of the first pieces I learned really, really well as a conducting student was Brahms 1. I completely immersed myself in that score for months and I can remember one afternoon in my Cincinnati flat thinking what it must have been like to be there on the day it was premiered (conducted by the composer’s friend Felix Otto Dessoff, on 4 November 1876, in Karlsruhe). Brahms spent 21 years on it, but people throughout the musical world had been wondering what a Brahms symphony would be like since he was 20. Before that, people had been waiting for the next great symphonist after Beethoven since 1827 (sadly, they slept through Schumann, who may have been an even greater symphonist than Brahms, but that’s a story for a different day). Imagine the years of worry, expectation, frustration and anticipation from all concerned. And then, one night, an orchestra goes onstage and plays Brahms 1 for the first time, and the world changes forever. Humanity’s collective inheritance is forever enriched. When that sort of thing happens, can those there even begin to understand the magnitude of what they’re witnessing?

Well, Jane Eyre was the first time I ever got to experience what it might have been like to be there in Karlsruhe in 1876. No, Jane Eyre is not Brahms 1, but it is, I’m quietly confident, the finest English-language opera written since the death of Britten. So did people notice? Did they get it? Of course, there are always those whose perceptive powers are sadly dulled by arrogance and routine. We can only pity them (him?). For all the others, it was an unforgettable night. To be part of something like the ovation John received at the end, with everyone in the orchestra and the audience standing for him, well, it is a moment to treasure forever. A great example of how music can bring people together. I’m very glad the recording we made that week is available, and I’m very proud of how it sounds, but I would have been perfectly happy to tuck the premiere of Jane Eyre into the most secure vault of my most precious memories and never listen to it again. It was that special.

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Summary of reviews of premiere
Premiere of the Year, Classical Music Magazine (2nd year in a row)
Birmingham Post- Classical Highlight of 2016

October: Premieres and recordings of new works by Deborah Pritchard and Nimrod Borenstein with Simon Desbruslais-trumpet and Clare Hammond-piano

British orchestral musicians are about as resilient a group of people as I’ve ever seen. They’re known world-wide for their speed of learning and their flexibility. This was a particularly challenging project on many levels, and in the end, we found ourselves working under incredible pressure on very difficult repertoire. It probably didn’t help that we were all so drained from Jane Eyre just three days earlier. When we started having issues with the piano in the middle of the recording session it looked entirely possible that the project simply wasn’t going to work. Somehow, it did. And, in the end, it was a happy, if draining, couple of days. All props to Clare and Simon for staying so calm through it all, but even more so to my colleagues in the band who stayed so cheerful and focused through the whole thing. It’s going to be a great disc (comes out Augst 26)

December: Haydn and Mozart at Kings Place and Cheltenham Town Hall

After the torrid pace of the early part of the ESO season, I was away for almost all of November. It was a VERY intense time- a mix of challenging string trio programmes, a solo turn in the Sawyers Cello Concerto in my hometown, and a wonderful trip to the Dominican Republic. When next I saw the ESO, it was a bit like stepping into a time warp with two concerts that repeated the Mozart and Haydn symphonies we’d begun the season with in September. We’d tied these three dates (tied dates mean the musicians must accept/play all the dates or none)- something that is unusual to do when concerts are months apart, and it did create some scheduling challenges, but artistically, it was a great thing for us. Thanks to our Arts Council support for our work in Hereford, we’d actually had quite generous (for us!) time to work on these two great symphonies (especially the Mozart) in September, and now we had the chance to build on that investment with important concerts in two new venues. Mozart 40 and Haydn 44 are about as good as music gets, and somewhere in this project, the orchestra just got into some kind of crazy zone. Both concerts were so fun- incredibly intense, very fiery playing, and wonderful snap and precision. It was clear by this point that Zoë was probably the concertmaster the orchestra had needed for a long time and we started having some conversations about her joining the ESO around this time. Goodness, do I want to record some Haydn with this orchestra now!

On top of all this joyful immersion in the best of minor-key Classicism, we played James Francis Brown’s wonderful clarinet concerto Lost Lands, Shadow Groves at Kings place with Emma Johnson. My goodness, this is a golden age for new music. It’s such a beautiful work. James writes for the strings with profound understanding and the piece has a real arc to it- it’s perfectly suited the poetic character of the clarinet.

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ClassicalSource

January: Recording Concertante works for Violin with Harriet Mackenzie by David Matthews, Emily Doolittle, Paul Patterson and Robert Fokkens, with Philippa Mo, violin (Retorica Duo). Wyastone Concert Hall

In 2014, the ESO had it’s first recent breakthrough success with the premiere of Deborah Pritchard’s Violin Concerto “Wall of Water.” We’d managed to coble together a fine live recording of WoW from the premiere and Nimbus released it as a CD single that year. Ever since, plans have been afoot to record a full program of other works to compliment it. It took nearly 3 years, but it was worth the wait! Paul Patterson’s Allusions is a stonking double concerto for two violins. The other movements brim with wit and craft and the middle movement is both haunting and harrowing. Philippa and Harriet played it brilliantly. David Matthews’ “Romanza” is a rich and sophisticated piece- the kind of work one would ideally like to live with for a long time. The musicians took about 45 minutes to crack David’s language, then suddenly, it all clicked. What a beautiful piece it is, as is Emily’s “falling still,” which I’ve done so many times over the years. It was particularly nice to record something by a friend I’ve known since my student days. The next day, we recorded a work by a friend of Harriet’s from her student days, Robert Fokkens. Day One had been an echt English String Orchestra project. Day two and Rob’s piece for string quintet, piano, huge percussion section, brass and winds brought us to a totally different sound world. It’s one of those pieces that looks so difficult on the page you almost reflexively think it must suck (most super difficult pieces do, in fact, suck).

However, it is AMAZING. Full of color, wit, panache, imagination. It was such a happy day recording it. Once again, a project that could have felt like a real grind turned into something quite joyful. Throughout the two days, we were delighted to work with another supremely gifted guest leader, Hayley Wolfe. When you’ve got the right person in that chair, a conductor’s job doesn’t feel like a job (and yes, the reverse is also true. All too true!).

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Composition Today

February: Sawyers Third Symphony Recording and Premiere, Wyastone and St John’s Smith Square

Remember all that stuff about what it must have been like to be at the premiere of Brahms 1 and how it felt quite a lot like that at the premiere of Jane Eyre. Well… Yes- that, again. Just a few months later.

Somehow in a haze of caffeine and sleep deprivation, I dreamed up the idea of commissioning 9 new symphonies for the ESO and convinced myself we could do it. This was the first work in this series. Philip Sawyers is a dear friend, and I think is music is really special and important. What a gift it is for a conductor to be able to present music you believe in so strongly. One can never know what it must have been like for Boult to conduct Vaughan Williams or Bulow to conduct Brahms (let alone what it must have been like for Mahler to conduct Mahler!), but this is as close as I expect I’ll get. Coming into a project like this with a long acquaintance with a composer’s work is priceless. I’d already recorded a CD of Philips music, premiered his song cycle (Songs of Loss and Regret, also included on this concert and the forthcoming CD) and had played his Cello Concerto in November. The Third Symphony is a bold, slightly frightening, hugely important work. Sometimes listeners say the wisest things about music. One listener I’ve known for many years remarked “I remember reading the backstory of the premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony” she said, “and how that piece seemed to encapsulate all the difficulty of the time and offers some kind of possible answer to the challenges of the moment. This piece is the first thing I’ve heard in ages that seems to speak to the state of the world right now with all it’s uncertainty and anger, and finds a way out.” It’s not a programmatic piece, but it looks straight into the abyss and says an emphatic “no” to despair and apathy. It couldn’t feel more urgently or profoundly of our time, yet it’s so deeply connected to the great symphonic tradition.

Both the concert and the recording session offered more memorable moments than I could summarise in a 10,000 word blog post. Conducting recording sessions (or playing them) offers a unique challenge of endurance. You’ve got to give everything on every take. By the end of the sessions, we were all absolutely wrecked. We seemed to be done- I was dripping with sweat (even by conductor standards), and panting. But somehow, for some reason, we needed one more take of the end. I couldn’t really imagine how anyone in the room had another take in them. Surely the brass players must have felt liked they’d just dragged their chops down the length of Interstate 90 out the back of an old pickup truck. Simon Fox, our producer, implored us to make it worth the pain. “Make it superhuman” he said.  What’s louder than loud, bigger than bigger, huger than huge? That take was it. I literally staggered back to the recording booth and collapsed in a chair. Simon gave his typical half-smile and said “well…. I’ve never gotten an ending like that before.” Me neither. I just hope nobody left their effing mobile phone on to wreck the take (something that happened earlier in the year with a particularly nice take in Jane Eyre). We’ll find out later this month when the first edit arrives. All this, and as a bonus, we offered Zoë the position of Leader (one of two such open positions in the orchestra) and she accepted. Happy times ahead.

When I’m dead and gone, I’m sure there will be all the usual “poor old Ken, he never did quite figure out, did he” talk, but then, perhaps someone will say “maybe not, but in 2016-7, he premiered Jane Eyre and Sawyers 3 within a few months of each other. Dude had one badass year!” I can live with that.

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Bachtrack

April: Wall of Water at The Bridgewater Hall

I have already mentioned the importance of the premiere of Deborah Pritchard’s Violin Concerto “Wall of Water” in 2014 to the orchestra. In addition to finally finding the piece a worthy home on CD, this year also saw us return to the original programme on which it was premiered (at LSO St Lukes in October 2014) for a performance (the orchestra’s debut) at The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.

The Bridgewater might be the best acoustic in the country, but it’s one that demands artists be at their very best. It’s astoundingly transparent, accurate and precise. Yes, it gives the sound a lovely bloom, but it hides no sins. You can hear everything. We had only one rehearsal in the space, and the first 10 minutes, as we worked through the very delicate and exposed opening of Thea Musgrave’s “Green” were telling. But, as so often happens these days, after a few minutes, the musicians make all the right adjustments and then it all just took off. I hadn’t quite felt I’d done “Green” justice three years ago- I thought we played it fairly technically well, but somehow didn’t put across the message of the piece clearly. This time, I was much more convinced by both piece and performance. Returning to Wall of Water was wonderful- having done it a few times now, I feel like both Harriet and I are finding much more space and line in the score, and the orchestra responded with oodles of colour. And, having done “falling still” for the CD in January also meant we were playing a great piece that we knew well and understood.

The last piece on the programme was Saariaho’s Terra Memoria. What a work. Staggering. It’s the first work of hers I’ve done (this was our second performance). I REALLY want to record it. It’s seriously hard, but the orchestra played it so well. All but the Musgrave end in long pianissimos and magical silences. In this case, magical silences accompanied by some pretty amazingly obnoxious mobile phones going off (really, who uses “Celebration” as a ring tone?!?!?!FFS!).

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Guardian 

May: Hans Gál: Concertino for Cello and Strings, Grieg Holberg Suite, Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, Hereford Shirehall

2851 words into this blog post and you must feel like I’ve practically told you what I had for breakfast every day this year, but actually, we’ve skipped over many wonderful, more normal concerts. By the time we got the aforementioned season-ending Tchaikovsky, we’d already played the piece a few times this year, and at least two more times (I lose track) in the previous couple of years. It’s a very standard piece, but I think it needs special care and shouldn’t be hacked at or done routinely. I turned down all chances to conduct it with groups of more mixed standard in my early career. Doing it with ESO has always been fun, but this year, it got a whole lot better. Having Tijmen Huisingh guest leading these concerts must have helped. Tchaikovsky poses two very particular problems- making the right sound (Russian!) and playing with the right amount of flexibility and rubato. Sunday felt about as close as I’ve gotten with this piece on those two counts. Thinking back on where we’d started with the piece in 2014, it felt like a good marker with which to end this year.

Vftp readers will probably know of my involvement with and affection for the music of Hans Gál. It’s a source of some disappointment in humanity (more on that in a later blog post, perhaps) that my phone doesn’t simply ring off the hook with orchestras around the world begging me to come conduct his magnificent symphonies or his incredibly beautiful and engaging concertos for violin, piano or cello. Audiences would LOVE it, and everyone knows we’re wearing out the old chestnuts which don’t sell like they used to. This was my first time conducting Gál in over a year. Again, it was a project long in the planning. We’d almost recorded it with Matthew in 2013 when we did the piece in Malvern, but somehow at that time, the administrative infrastructure wasn’t ready to organise recordings. I’m glad we waited- the orchestra is so much more cohesive and virtuosic these days, and this music needs all the skill you can give it. Matthew Sharp played damn near perfectly right thought the both recording sessions, the dress rehearsal and the concert. Even by Gál’s high standards, the slow movement is thing of heart-wrending beauty. How lucky we are to get to discover and explore works like this.

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Well, that’s it. We made it. At least most of us did!

For those of you who held on for the whole journey, and those who help us here and there along the way, thanks. Have a good summer.

4 months ago |
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A new plugin for Sibelius and Finale music engraving software is taking the music world by storm.

The new “Titleizer” plugin from Demisoft Technology systematically analyses a piece’s duration, instrumentation and pitch content and automatically generates a meaningless and unrelated title for the piece.

“Since Haydn’s time, we’ve all known that music sells better when it has a completely meaningless title that is completely unrelated and irrelevant to the piece of music it is appended to,” said Demisoft CEO, Filbert Verdorbenham.

“Post 1975, when composers world-wide realised the only way to get their music heard was to give their pieces catchy but meaningless titles, coming up with those titles has become an ever greater burden to the creative process. With so much at stake artistically and commercially, some composers spend minutes, even tens of minutes, struggling to come up with the right title for a piece they would otherwise have to call Overture in F Major. Nobody is going to program an Overture in F Major any more but “Green Soundings” is a sure winner, and the Titleizer plugin came up with that title automatically as soon as the composer of Overture in F Major pressed “save”.”

The Titleizer’s algorithm automatically detects the musical language of a work and assigns a title appropriate to the target audience. “We’ve noticed that throughout the various lines of the post-Webern high modernist schools there is a preference for single-word titles,” said Verdorbenham. For something in the Ligeti/Berio/Boulez vane, we prefer one word of 3-4 syllables. Often it is more effective to reach out to a foreign language, or even to add a meaningless diacritical mark to an English word. When in doubt, we also recommend adding a meaningless number We were thrilled by the success one of our clients had with an otherwise unremarkable 9 minute serial work for 13 piece ensemble which the Titleizer auto-named Invesitgâtións 9.”

For more extreme works in the modernist line, including those of the New Complexity school, finding a suitable extreme title is important. “Post-Ferneyhough music needs a word and a number comination that give the audience a good example of the severity of the musical experience. The people who listen to this music are pretty depraved and won’t settle for the easy-listening stylings of Birtwistle and Stockhausen. These are listeners who look at Boulez the way most classical musicians look at Justin Bieber.  They’re looking for works like “Mutilations X,” which was a big hit for one of our clients, or works that imply deep but carefully mediated disillusionment with humanity like “Prevarications Beta.” It’s got to combine severity, discomfort and pretension in just the right balance”

Minimalist works are best presented using the time-honored “random adjective + high energy noun” formula. “One of our clients made the Pulitzer short list this year with “Exploding Vectors,” while another managed to wangle a Proms commission for his otherwise unremarkable 7 minute “Luscious Stampede.”

Of course, today’s most popular new music genre, Kitchen-Sink-ism, combines modernist disregard for melody and a minimalist lack of harmonic vocabulary with an over-reliance on film music clichés and pitched metallic percussion. “We’re so excited about the results we’ve been getting for Kitchen-sink-ist works in the last couple of years,” said Verdorbenham.“We can get great results by just tweaking the minimalist format, avoiding nouns of action and replacing them with obscure colors and  language used on the Weather Channel. Golden Cumulous was a very successful oboe concerto for one of our artists, and we were also very proud of Jade Fog, a very formulaic but heavily over-orchestrated 6 minute concert opener which recently got a $75,000 commission fee out of a plumbing supply oligarch on the East Coast.”

With such a successful plugin, what comes next? “Well, we always knew we’d have to refine things to avoid overlap” said Verdorbenham. “Titleizer 1.1 was a little overgenerous with titles ending in “ions” because those are so popular with audiences. Some of the early titles in generated by 2.0 Beta include promising ones like “Despicable Crunch” for 11 viola da gambas and “Limpid Rectitude” for Brass Choir.”

Titleizer 2.0 is being released in June and is adding a new “subtitle” feature. “Important as catchy but meaningless titles are,” said Verdorbenham, “a good subtitle can help an unknown composer get noticed or help keep a fading brand viable a little longer. We’re already looking forward to 3 major US orchestras performing Invesitgâtións 2.3: Exhumed Soundings” in 2018-9.

For an addition cost, subscribers can also take advantage of the new Instant Program Note feature which saves the composer the minutes of time often needed to come up with a plausible programmatic justification for an otherwise abstract piece of sound art.

What next for this innovative company? “The Titleizer has shown that technology can free artists from the time-consuming creative process. We’re now working on a Composerizer which will analyse a given composer’s record collection and blog posts and generate pieces in his or her chosen style in just seconds. It’s a brave new world out there!”

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UPDATE

My old friend Daniel Meyers has made satire a reality with this incredibly funny piece/title generator.

4 months ago |
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Hans Gal (1890-1987)

Concertino for Cello and Strings, opus 87

Hans Gál was born in the small village of Brunn am Gebirge, just outside Vienna. He studied with some of the foremost teachers in Vienna, including Richard Robert for piano (teacher of Rudolf Serkin , Clara Haskil and George Szell) and Eusebius Mandyczewski for composition, who had been a close friend of Brahms. In 1915 he won the K. und K. (Royal and Imperial) State Prize for composition for a symphony (which he subsequently discarded). In 1928 His Sinfonietta (which was to become his ‘First Symphony) won the Columbia Schubert Centenary Prize. The next year, with the support of such important musicians as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Richard Strauss and others, he obtained the directorship of the Mainz Conservatory. Gál composed in nearly every genre and his operas, which include Der Artz der Sobeide, Die Heilige Ente and Das Lied der Nacht, were particularly popular during the 1920s. When Hitler rose to power, Gál was forced to leave Germany and eventually emigrated to Britain, teaching at the Edinburgh University for many years.

Gál’s music enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity in the years immediately after World War II, and was featured regularly in broadcasts on BBC radio. However, by the 1960s, BBC director William Glock’s programming philosophy, sharply slanted in favour of strictly modernist music, meant that Gál and other tonal composers of the time found themselves unable to get their music on the airwaves of the “Third Programme.” Gradually, performances also became more and more scarce, and Gál was deeply affected by the death in 1964 of his friend and foremost champion, conductor Otto Schmitgen. There were personal tragedies as well- Gál’s younger son Franz died by his own hand during this period. Circumstances for new work in a tonal idiom were similarly bleak on the continent, and commissions for new works in standard genres or for traditional instruments were almost non-existent. Indeed, the main champions and patrons of Gál’s music at this time were recorder player Carl Dolmetsch and Vinzenz Hladky, Professor of Mandolin at the Vienna academy of Music and publisher of mandolin music, who had instigated Gáls’s writing for mandolin in the period back in Vienna between 1933 and the Anschluss in 1938. Now in the 60s, Hladky published and regularly performed Gál’s music with his mandolin ensembles, to which Gál responded with two Sinfoniettas for Mandolin Orchestra, amongst other works. The Concertino for Cello and Strings, the last of Gál’s five concertinos, was written in 1965, inspired purely by Gál’s inner impulse, rather than a commission. It was premiered in 1968 by the Sudwest Rundfunk Orchestra.

What exactly does Gál mean by a “Concertino” rather than a “Concerto”? For some composers, the word “concertino” implies a certain frivolity or lightness of tone, while for others, it implies a work of very modest scale. Neither is true for Gál- the sole unifying factor of his five concertini is that they are all scored for solo instrument and strings, rather than full orchestra. Certainly, there is nothing frivolous about the Cello Concertino, and it is substantial work by any measure- at 27 minutes, it is roughly the same length as his Violin Concerto from 1933. There, however, is plenty of quirky humour in the Finale, which bears the curious tempo marking of “Allegretto ritenuto assai” or “slightly fast, but very held back.” The first movement, which is far more serious in tone, is built from the six note cell which opens the entire piece. Typical of Gál is the persistent ambiguity of major and minor which makes for an atmosphere both questioning and uncertain. At the work’s heart is a touching and lyrical Adagio, absolutely echt-Gál in its bittersweet tenderness. Had he so wished, Gál could certainly have made a killing in the lullaby-writing business.

Kenneth Woods

4 months ago |
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Unfinished/Unheard

— By Kenneth Wooods

In the 100+ years since his death, Mahler’s 10th Symphony has become possibly the most famous, perhaps even infamous, unfinished work of art in Western civilisation. For over 50 years, it was a work shrouded in rumor and myth, as famous for Mahler’s various written outbursts in the manuscript as for its musical message. Music lovers everywhere owe a great debt of gratitude to Deryck Cooke, who was the first to make it possible for music lovers to hear Mahler’s final musical thoughts. His efforts opened the door to performances of completions and performing versions by Remo Mazzetti, Clinton Carpenter, Rudolf Barshai, Yoel Gamzou and Joe Wheeler, whose realisation of the Tenth was given its world premiere here at Colorado MahlerFest in 1997 under the baton of Robert Olson.

Mahler was always a composer of contradictions and extremes, and the Tenth, perhaps more than any of his other works, encourages us to contemplate the most pressing questions of life and death, of love and betrayal, and even to think about the question of what makes a work of art. When does an idea for a symphony become a symphony? This week we also contemplate what it means when music goes unheard by composer or audiences. Most of us think of sound as the essence of music, and yet this week we perform several works that existed only silently, on paper, for decades. We contemplate why some works of art are left unfinished, and whether an unfinished work should remain unheard, and, of course, whether a finished work need stay forever in a single, fixed form.

Mahler never had the satisfaction of hearing any part of the Tenth, or for that matter his Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde. When Mahler ended his last summer holiday in 1910, he made sure that the Tenth was complete in one very important respect- it existed as an unbroken musical structure from beginning to end. This marks a fundamental difference from other unfinished works such as the Mozart Requiem, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and Bach’s Art of Fugue, each of which was left structurally incomplete at the time of each composer’s death. Much work remained to be done on the Tenth when Mahler died—most of the piece still needed to be orchestrated, and in places the continuity of the work is maintained only by the most tenuous of threads, but Mahler went back to New York in the Autumn of 1910 with Tenth Symphony very much a complete and coherent musical and philosophical statement.

Mahler had suffered his famous “three blows of fate” in the summer of 1907—the death of his daughter Maria, the loss of his position as director of the Vienna State Opera and the diagnosis of a serious heart condition. In the months following his diagnosis Mahler was deeply concerned about his new physical frailty. Over the course of the next few years, however, he had largely moved on to a new life, making a huge success in New York with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera and his compositional powers had continued to grow. Just as he had recovered from the near-fatal haemorrhage that had preceded the composition of his Fifth Symphony, it looked like Mahler had once again overcome a devastating turn of events and moved forward with renewed strength and conviction, and ever-greater artistic confidence, into a new chapter of life. Of his final three works, the Tenth is actually in many ways the least valedictory- Mahler in this work is no longer contemplating the terrifying prospect of his own death so much as he is the terrifying prospect of a life without Alma.

Many now believe that Schubert learned he was dying of syphilis around the time he wrote the torso of his own Unfinished Symphony in 1882-3. Like Mahler, in the last years of his life, Schubert’s creative powers continued to grow at an astounding pace after being confronted with his own imminent mortality. Benjamin Britten once said that “It is arguable that the richest and most productive 18 months in music history was the time when Beethoven had just died, when the 19th century giants Wagner, Verdi and Brahms had not yet begun; I mean the period in which Schubert wrote Die Winterreise, the great C Major symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C Major String Quintet, as well as at least a dozen other glorious pieces. The very creation of these works in that space of time hardly seems credible, but the standard of inspiration, of magic, is miraculous and past all explanation.” The Quintet in C major was one of his last works (it was his final chamber work) and for me, as for many other musicians, it is the Everest of chamber music, a work of unmatched beauty, spirituality and profundity. Just as Mahler never heard his last three works, Schubert never heard the Quintet, nor most of his other late works. The Quintet was finally performed in 1850 and published in 1853. Between Schubert’s death and its revival, it was nothing more than dots on the page- silent, unheard, unknown.

More often than not, a composer’s final musical thoughts were part of a work he or she was composing at the time of their death- hence the unfinished nature of not only Mahler’s Tenth, but Bruckner’s Ninth, the Mozart Requiem and the Bartók Viola Concerto. Other composers chose silence long before their death- so it was with both Sibelius and Elgar. Elgar found the disintegration of the world he grew up in during World War I deeply troubling, and the musical revolutions of Schönberg, Stravinsky and the new avant garde left him feeling irrelevant. During the War, he retreated to a cottage at Brinkwells in Sussex, where he completed his last four major works—the autumnal Cello Concerto and his only three mature chamber works: the Piano Quintet, the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet. These four works were his farewell to composition though he lived, in good health, another fifteen years. We’re very excited to present the US Premiere of the new string orchestra version of Elgar’s String Quartet by our Visiting Composer, David Matthews, who also played such an important role in the orchestration and refinement of the Cooke Performing Version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

Matthews became involved in the revisions of the Tenth when he and his brother reached out to Deryck Cooke as, in his words, “teenage Mahler fanatics.” David Matthews would go on to become one of the leading British composers of his own generation and a formidable symphonist in his own right. He has just completed his own Ninth Symphony, which my colleagues in the English Symphony Orchestra and I will premiere in 2018. Just as Mahler couldn’t resist the opportunity to put his mark as an orchestrator on Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor (“Serioso”) or Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Matthews’ work on the Elgar reminds us that a work need not be unfinished to invite further creative engagement from a composer. His Romanza for Violin and Piano, given its US Premiere on the 17th of May, is one of his works in which Mahler’s influence is most apparent, particularly in the delirium of the Viennese Waltz which forms the climax of this powerfully expressive work.

Mahler’s influence has also continued to be felt among composers across Europe and Russia. György Kurtág, now 91 years old and still going strong, has been writing his series Signs, Games and Messages, for decades now. It is both his musical diary and his magnum opus, and it is a work that will forever be, by definition, unfinished. Where Mahler was a composer who always seemed to need to work in enormous forms, Kurtág is the greatest of miniaturists- everything in his music is distilled down to miraculously potent essentials. However, like Mahler, Kurtág is fascinated by contradictions in both life and music, and so in the selection of movements we present this week we have music that is highly structured alongside vernacular music, and music that ranges from quirky humor to deep despair, from violent fortissimos to music that hovers on the very knife-edge of silence.

Alfred Schnittke was another composer for whom Mahler’s influence was incredibly important. His adaptation of the fragment of the second movement of Mahler’s uncompleted youthful Piano Quartet is just the most obvious example of Schnittke’s reverence for Mahler. Where Cooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers went to great lengths to make their Performing Version of the Tenth is true to Mahler’s soundworld as they could, Schnittke’s approach to the Quartet fragment is unashamedly interventionist. He plays with the youthful Mahler’s musical ideas as a cat plays with a caught mouse. It is also fascinating also to hear the more-or-less complete first movement of the Quartet, the earliest music of Mahler’s generally performed today, alongside his final work. It is not hard to see why Mahler never finished this piece- it shows he was still very much learning the art of composition- and yet his personality is very much there. The intensity, the honesty, the passion and the confessional nature of the music in the Quartet is not far at all from that in the Tenth, and yet Mahler grew, changed and reinvented his language throughout his career. It is fascinating to see the astounding growth in technique and confidence between the Piano Quartet and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler’s first mature song cycle, which we showcase in this year’s conducting masterclass. And in a year in which we contemplate so many late and final works of great artists at the ends of their lives and careers, it is wonderful to see the future of our art-form in the hands of artists like our three gifted Mahler Conducting Fellows. Creating opportunities for deserving emerging artists will be an ever-greater part of the mission of MalherFest in years to come.

4 months ago |
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CLASSICAL MUSIC

Review: Kenneth Woods makes shattering impact at MahlerFest

Orchestra performs unfinished Mahler masterpiece

By Kelly Dean Hansen

Camera Classical Music Writer- Boulder Daily Camera

POSTED:   05/20/2017 10:49:21 PM MDT | UPDATED:   3 DAYS AGO

Artistic director and conductor Kenneth Woods bows during Mahlerfest XXX on Saturday evening at Macky Auditorium in Boulder.

Artistic director and conductor Kenneth Woods bows during Mahlerfest XXX on Saturday evening at Macky Auditorium in Boulder. (Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer )

There are still major conductors — some among the most passionate champions of Gustav Mahler’s music — who refuse to perform any version of the composer’s unfinished Tenth Symphony.

For those at Macky Auditorium on Saturday evening to hear it presented by the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra, such purist sentiment must ring incredibly hollow.

Maestro Kenneth Woods — in his second year as music director for the venerable Boulder festival, which is now held every year in late May — made such an impact with his interpretation of the work that this could be pointed to as the moment where he truly took up the mantle of former director Robert Olson, who founded MahlerFest 30 years ago.

For the first time, MahlerFest performed the performing version by Deryck Cooke — the earliest and by far the most well-known of the various full realizations of the symphony. Woods demonstrated a profound familiarity with the Cooke score, and was reverential to the English musicologist’s vision — that this is Mahler’s music, and Cooke was only a medium through which it could be heard.

The first movement — which Mahler basically finished orchestrating — is easily the most familiar part of the Tenth. Woods showed intense focus in shaping the profound 24-minute movement.

Its shattering, dissonant climax arrived with walloping force, yet the peaceful, beautiful coda — which Mahler extended to an almost unbearable level — emerged out of the climax in a natural, wholly organic way.

Where Woods and the MahlerFest musicians were most impressive, however, was in the second movement. A jubilant and rambunctious affair, this scherzo-type piece must surely be the most difficult Mahler ever wrote — and it is more challenging than many better-known 20th-century virtuoso orchestral works.

Its constantly shifting meters, played at a dangerously fast pace, were a tour de force for the musicians of the orchestra. For a group of people who only come together once a year for this purpose, it was an amazing feat of brilliance.

The final three movements (which are thematically related) did not disappoint, especially the huge finale. In the slow introduction to that movement, Kay Lloyd’s flute solo was otherworldly. Woods had a unique take on the famous repeated strokes from a muffled drum that characterize the movement’s opening. Rather than have them blasted out like cannon fire — as is heard on many recordings — Woods placed the drum offstage and went for an authoritative, but not earth-shattering sound.

At the festival symposium during the day Saturday, Woods explained this approach paid homage to Mahler’s supposed inspiration for the drum strokes — a funeral procession for a New York fireman he heard outside his window.

Like the first movement, the finale closes with a greatly extended slow coda, which Woods took to ethereal heights.

Cooke died in 1976, shortly after publication of his performing edition. One of the musicians who assisted him in the work, composer David Matthews, was on hand for Saturday’s performance at Macky. Woods opened the concert with the American premiere of an arrangement for string orchestra by Matthews of the String Quartet by English composer Edward Elgar, one of that composer’s final works.

It was a good choice for several reasons. Being written for strings alone, it allowed the wind players to conserve their energy for the demands of the Tenth. It was a fine display of Matthews’ skill as an arranger, and a fitting tribute for a distinguished guest who played such a large role in the preparation of Cooke’s edition. Matthews himself delivered a beautiful and moving talk at the symposium, paying a heartfelt tribute to Cooke and giving a solid explanation of both the methods used and the justification for preparing a performing version of the Tenth.

With the convincing performance of the Cooke Tenth, Woods filled one of the few holes on MahlerFest’s “bucket list.” The concert is repeated 3:30 p.m. today at Macky. Tickets are available at the door or online.

It was announced that the major work for next year’s MahlerFest XXXI will be the orchestral song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). That piece — written between the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies and often counted among the symphonies (making a total of 11) — was last performed at Macky in 2007 with world-famous baritone Thomas Hampson.

4 months ago |
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That Allan Holdsworth died this week in relative poverty and obscurity (at least considering his enormous artistic legacy) is a sad but completely predictable sign of the times.

I first encountered Holdsworth as an ambitious young guitar player. Even then, in what in retrospect was his heyday, he was the kind of musician described as “the best guitarist you never heard of.” I immediately loved not only his playing but his music. Even when listening very casually, one could tell that it was incredibly harmonically sophisticated, melodically engaging and amazingly well played. One thing that struck me almost immediately was the sheer beauty and lyricism of his music- qualities not often found in virtuoso electric guitar players. He struck me then as much more of a guitar Debussy than a guitar Shostakovich.

From early days of listening to his music for pleasure I gradually moved on to listening more and more analytically and critically, then, bit by bit, trying to understand what he was doing. Holdsworth may have been music’s greatest iceberg. What you see on first glance is beautiful, massive, impressive and even intimidating, but what lies beneath the surface is simply beyond belief.

I’ll make a confession of my youthful arrogance here. I grew up learning the cello and the guitar more or less in parallel. Compared to the cello, the guitar always came easily to me- on the surface it is a much more straightforward instrument to play, and having a certain amount of technical grounding as a cellist put me way ahead of a lot (by no means all!) of my peers (at least until I met my first real guitar super-virtuoso in person, a chap named David Biller. Dave was in a different league the rest of us back then). Trying to learn to play Holdsworth’s chords and solos quickly humbled the living shit out of me. Chord voicings he would flit through in a few tenths of a second I would have to spend ages trying to stretch and bend and contort my hand to reach. I felt like a complete beginner. Somewhere I have an old demo of my band playing Road Games on cassette- I’ll upload it if i can find it. We did a pretty good job, but Allan would have pretty bemused at how hard we had to work to play it. It’s probably one of his easiest tunes.

Later on, during my years at Indiana University, I went through a period of deep disillusionment with classical music. At that time, I often wished I could be a jazz musician. I was completely immersed then in the 60’s jazz of Miles Davis 2nd quintet, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. Working with David Baker in the IU jazz department, I felt like I started to understand the music well and to form solid ideas about improvisation. However, as David Baker knew probably better than anyone, the cello is no instrument for jazz. And for all its pedigree as a jazz instrument, neither is the guitar. When one listens to the solos of people like Trane, Miles, Woody Shaw, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, you realise they were all able to develop single-note improvisation with a kind of agility, ease and expressivity that not even the best guitarists could approach. Even the cream of the crop  of 70’s and 80’s fusion guitarists working with Miles or Freddie Hubbard often ended up sounding like amateurs next to their horn-playing colleagues. In their defence, it wasn’t entirely their fault. Saxophones and trumpets are near-ideal instruments for jazz improvisation. The guitar is not. None of the guitar greats of the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s could approach the kind of expressive ingenuity and creative freedom of a John Coltrane.

None of them, that is, except Allan Holdsworth. Holdsworth seemed not to be bound by the same laws of physics that limited every other guitarist from Django Reinhardt to George Benson. For him, picking didn’t seem to exist. Changing strings didn’t seem to exist. Shifting positions didn’t seem to exist. The notes simply flowed out of the guitar as they might from a scat singer possessing Messiaen’s harmonic knowledge with a four octave range on speed. Harmonically, he was simply in a different league to any other jazz guitarist of his generation. He might well have been the first guitarist to really completely escape the blues-box cliché. His improvisatory language was distinctive- one always knew it was him, but largely because it was so easy to recognise the lack of repetition, the lack of pre-planned licks, the lack of fall-back BS. Holdsworth seemed to be happiest playing in the higher extensions of a chord- weaving patterns around the 9th, the sharp 11th and the 13th. The upshot of this approach was that when he did settle melodically on the root or the fifth of the chord, it sounded somehow new, even a bit exotic.

Holdsworth’s chordal approach was even more astounding and unique. I don’t think any guitarist ever understood the fingerboard as well as him, and he seemed to be able to move between chords with a kind of nonchalant ease that simply beggared belief. One could sense incredible logic and musical purpose over decisions about harmonic subtleties that would flit by in less than a beat. Though some of those voicings seemed to defy the mechanical working of the human hand, he made them all seem so natural, elegant and logical. In purely instrumental, technical terms, Holdsworth was as much better than any other guitarist I ever came across than any human in any field of endeavour I can think of. There are human achievements that are so far removed from what anyone else has done, we eventually accept that they’re by and large unapproachable. Shakespeare’s literary output and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak are obvious examples. DiMaggio’s streak was about 20% longer than the next longest streak before or since. Imagine being 20% faster than the fastest person ever to run the 100 meter dash and you have some idea what a special player Holdsworth was.

Reactions to Holdsworth’s death this week have hammered home yet again that the musical world never really knew what to make of him. In many ways, he embodied the highest ideals of jazz at its best- pioneering, fearless, fiercely original. He also was a remarkably formidable rock musician- Road Games is one of the best rock albums ever made (Holdsworth apparently felt it was a failure). At the end of the day, his astonishing gifts as an instrumentalist were means to a musical end. Nobody else had the technical equipment to play the music Holdsworth heard so vividly in his head so he had to develop that technique to play the music he heard. I don’t think he would have liked the often-used description of him as the “guitarists’ guitartist.” I think he would have preferred “the musician’s guitarist.” Of course, rock and jazz critics are by and large united in their total disdain for music and musicianship. For critics on both sides, calling Holdsworth a “prog rocker” was an easy put down and a way to hide their own lack of perception and taste. Holdsworth was nearly the antithesis of the rock star- he didn’t seem to have a posing bone in his body. In an era in which “attitude” and lyrics were what mattered to critics and looks and showmanship were what mattered to the public, he was always going to struggle.

Holdsworth stuck to his guns, although he struggled financially throughout his life. Being a genius seemed to be a burden for him- over the years he seemed to find playing and composing more and more difficult. The last few clips I saw of him on social media seemed to hint that he was haunted by many demons and that life was not easy for him.

One would have hoped that the age of the internet would have been a boon for an independent musician like Holdsworth. Modern technology meant that an artist like him doesn’t need an expensive studio or access to a pressing plant or all the infrastructure of a label behind him to create and share music. It also means that music, once shared, has very little potential to generate earnings. However, what the Internet has really been a boon for is a generation of imitators and pretenders. Thanks to YouTube, it’s a whole lot easier than it used to be to learn to copy Allan’s stuff and to disseminate second-pressing Holdsworth-isms for a generation of fans who gave up waiting for the next Atavachron. These days music schools are churning out whiz-kid guitarists with the kind of faceless efficiency that would make MacDonalds look like a boutique outfit. Some of them, with enough practice, can probably play Allan’s music cleanly enough to not embarrass themselves. What they lack is the vision to create that music and the courage to promote a completely honest and uncompromising artistic vision as he did. One positive of the internet age is that, in the few bits and pieces of things I was able to pay attention to, Allan’s many fans seemed so grateful for all he had already given, so eager to support him over the last ten years. If any good comes of his death, it will surely be an appreciation that even the most gifted artists need our support and encouragement.

6 months ago |
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