Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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At long last- the research has been completed, the results have been tallied. We can now say with absolute, factual certainty who the 15 greatest orchestrators of all time are. Check out the results, then let us know which ones you got wrong…. Er, we mean, let us know who you think should be on the list.

Scoring was on the basis of-

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

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

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

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

15. Lutoslawski

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

14. Mozart

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

13. Bruckner

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

 

12. Brahms

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

11. Mendelssohn

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

10. Schumann

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

9. Shostakovich

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

8. Wagner

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

7. Bartók

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

6. Stravinsky

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

5. Ravel

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

4. Mahler

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

3. Elgar

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

2.  J. S. Bach

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

1. Richard Strauss

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

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Updates

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago | |
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“Social media.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The band played on, but who was listening?

The band played on, but who was listening?

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

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

Also in the industry.

Let’s go back to where we started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, if I could just find some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More from Vftp:

Some bonus tips for soloists

Top 11 tips for soloists

Brahms D minor and the Art of the Soloist

2 months ago | |
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IRR Farewell

The news that International Record Review magazine has been forced to stop publishing following the death of Barry Irving is a blow for everyone in the classical recording industry. I met Barry only briefly at a couple of CD launches. He struck me as a very nice man who had invested a great deal of blood, sweat and tears in keeping the magazine going in difficult times.

And a fine magazine it was. Of all the major review magazines, it’s focus was the narrowest- there was almost nothing in it about concerts or personalities. No puff pieces or profiles- just lots of reviews, roundups and discussion. The current state of publishing these days means there is always a wealth of talent out there if you choose to look for it, and IRR had some splendid writers working for it. I’m incredibly grateful for perceptive reviews given to some of my early recordings by Martin Anderson, Robert Matthew Walker, and Malcolm MacDonald. MacDonald’s reviews of my first two Gál/Schumann CDs contain some of the most insightful writing on Gál I’ve ever come across- his phrase “Haydn-like sanity” shall stay with me always. A critic we all miss, and now a magazine we shall all miss.

For me, it is a deeply dispiriting sign of the times that excellence doesn’t seem to be at all related to success. Just ask the musicians in the Minnesota and Philadelphia Orchestras, or the Atlanta and Indianapolis Symphonies who have endured lockouts and pay cuts in spite of their high musical standards. Meanwhile, in the corporate world, we see company after company increasing the profits by lowering the quality of what they produce. So many of the best and most important record companies, magazines and websites are run for love rather than money, and this puts us all at risk. With IRR gone, there will be that much less exposure for worthy projects, that much less discussion of newly-discovered repertoire.

The March issue was the last to be published. In a strange twist, the final page happened to be written by me- the monthly “Too Many Records” column was one corner of the magazine where readers could get to know artists a bit better. Writing the last words in such a fine magazine is not an honor I wanted, so let me share my last words on the magazine- thank you Barry, Máire Taylor (the magazine’s Editor) and all the writers. The recording world will miss your contributions. I wish people outside the core of the industry would do more to support the publishers doing their best to keep the art-form alive and relevant.

IRR March 2015 TMR

2 months ago | |
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Critic Bryce Morrison writes in the Gramophone: 

Throughout her long and distinguished, if insufficiently acknowledged career, Valerie Tryon has remained true to her own lights. Virtuoso teasers such as Balakirev’sIslamey and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit fell effortlessly within her grasp and here in Franck’s Symphonic Variations, sandwiched between two Spanish favourites of the repertoire, she commences a series of recordings for the Somm label. Accompanied by a ringing endorsement from Somm’s Siva Oke (‘Valerie became the yardstick by which I measured most other pianists over the years’) she once more displays her cardinal qualities, her immaculate grace and fluency. Nothing is pressured or exaggerated, everything falls naturally into place. And if others – notably Alicia de Larrocha and Martha Argerich – play with greater urgency and intensity, a sharper sense of profile in Falla’s ever-enchanting Nights in the Gardens of Spain, there is no gainsaying Tryon’s more intimate style and authority.

Polish rather than ardour characterise her encores continuing the Spanish theme (Granados’s ‘The Lover and the Nightingale’ and Debussy’s ‘Soirée dans Grenade’), but in the Bach-Busoni D minor Toccata and Fugue she finds her best form in a masterly performance and with gloriously full-blooded final pages. All three encores are issued on record for the first time; and all this makes a fine follow-up to Tryon’s memorable Mozart concerto disc (APR, 3/10) and a compensation for the lack in this country of a record of the Chopin Scherzos and Ballades, praised to the skies by New York’s Harold C Schonberg. Kenneth Woods provides a sterling partnership and Somm’s sound and balance are as natural as the performances.

3 months ago | |
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From the current issue of International Record Review. A wonderful magazine every music lover should subscribe to. Condolences to everyone there on the death of Barry Irving, the magazine’s founder and publisher, who died last month after a short illness

IRR March 2015 TMR

IRR March 2015 cover

3 months ago | |
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Congratulations are most certainly in order to both Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony on the occasion of Sir Simon’s appointment as the LSO’s next Principal Conductor. I can scarcely imagine better news for either party or for music lovers across Britain. Given the importance of today’s announcement for British music making, I’m going to bend my rule against discussing the work of living colleagues here [Note- I seem to be one of the very few professional musicians in the UK who has never met or worked with Simon Rattle. Hopefully we can remedy that situation some day].

It has, however, been a strange courtship, one that has led to a union of two parties who are seemingly perfect for each other for what I worry may be the wrong reasons.

For conductors of my generation, Simon Rattle was not just a conductor- he was a transformative idea. There had been other young conductors who made huge careers (Bernstein got off to a fast start and so did Haitink, just to name two), but from the time I first came across his name, Rattle seemed like a figure for a new generation. The impact he made on people like me from the beginning of his career was enormous- he seemed like a much more modern kind of orchestra leader. Looking back, a lot of what was most appealing in Sir Simon’s persona had already been developed by Bernstein- the informality (always Lenny and Simon, never Maestro), the forward looking repertoire, the engagement with the community, the advocacy for music education and outreach, the understanding of modern media and culture (and how they overlap). Bernstein may have done it first, but Simon did it with Brian May’s hair. All of this seemed fresh, visionary and badly needed. Like Bernstein, he knew how to deliver a mega project- pieces like Turangalila and Mahler 10 took vision to put on and mojo to bring to life and they always seemed to work (I still have his Bournemouth era LP of Mahler 10 with notes by my friend Michael Steinberg- fantastic!). To me, the idea of an engaged, articulate, open-minded, brave, regular-guy conductor seemed like just what the world needed, and that’s who Simon seemed to be.

The irony, of course, is that the music world has never treated Sir Simon as anything like a regular guy. He became, for the industry, the new archetype- the pop star who replaced the stuffy old maestro. Every orchestra wanted Simon, and if they couldn’t get him, they wanted the next Simon.  The industry has always been prone to elevating the odd musician to god-like status- something I find a bit gross. We call this “anointing.” Once anointed, no number of bad reviews or run of crazy behaviour seems to be able to seriously damage your prestige. I can remember attending a seminar at Aspen with one of the most famous orchestral managers (he was then in charge of one of the Big Five) in the world. He literally spent most of an hour (having seen none of us conduct) explaining that Simon Rattle was a different species to the rest of us, that even his mistakes were the mistakes of a genius. Rattle had been declared a Very Special Musician (VSM) and therefor was above criticism or comparison. We were to understand our destiny as frothing pond scum of the universe.  I found the whole speech not only discouraging (although it’s good I learned about anointing when I did) but stomach-turning, as well. Not just because it pissed me off that this pompous guy had written off twenty young conductors without seeing a single upbeat (turns out this is the norm because most guys like him can’t tell much from an upbeat anyway), but because his attitude to the anointed one was so creepy and sycophantic.  To me, the only measure of a musician is results- not genetics or talent or pedigree or résumé. Much as I’d always been fascinated by Rattle as a kid, I came to see a certain portion of his career as a particularly icky episode of anointed-ness. That’s not a criticism of him but of the industry’s view of him.

For the last several years, Sir Simon has had the best and toughest job in the music world as Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. No doubt there’s been plenty of Schadenfreude among jealous conductors at rumours of difficulties with the musicians and carping from the critics. In Berlin, some of the new“wow” pieces he tried, like Ades’ “Asyla” seemed to fall flat. It’s hard to find another Turangalila or Mahler 10 (and the BPO really struggled in concert with the Mahler), and I’m not sure any of his discoveries in Berlin have ranked in importance with those of his early career. With news of his resignation last year there came the usual litany of what he had done wrong there or why it hadn’t worked. I would advocate for a more balanced, positive assessment, particularly of the 2nd half of his tenure there.

I’ve been more and more impressed by Rattle’s work at the Berlin Philharmonic. The Digital Concert Hall is a fantastic resource and a wonderful innovation. It’s hard to tell if it will be viable financially in the long term in this era of micro-attention-spans and cultural banality, but it’s a great idea perfectly executed, and an incredible, incredible resource. He’s done a lot of good for the orchestra’s repertoire- particularly bringing in more Walton, Elgar and Sibelius. And, he’s made the orchestra more open-minded about how they play- building on the work Harnoncourt did with the orchestra to open eyes and ears to new thinking about how to play core repertoire.

Two things have really stood out for me in his tenure. First, he’s shown remarkable resilience and ability to grow and adapt there. I’m sure the truth of his relationship with the orchestra is more complicated, respectful and nuanced than anything one picks up in the press (this tribute from hornist Fergus McWilliam is most touching and interesting), but the Berlin Philharmonic was probably one of the few orchestras in the world where his “anointedness” would count for nothing from day one, and there he was always going to be a colleague and never a VSM. Berlin likely formed a crucible for Rattle in which this most charismatic and persuasive of conductors had, maybe for the first time, to learn to fight for his ideas among colleagues who had every right to think they knew the core repertoire as well as he did. He’s also shown an ability to change his thinking and to abandon or rethink things that weren’t working. I remember reading an interview with him in the early days in which he spoke about slimming down the string sound and reigning in the famous BPO bass WOOOMPH. That endeavor didn’t last long and instead he’s learned to work with the orchestra’s unique approach to time and sound.

The supposed knock on Sir Simon during his Berlin tenure has been that his work in the core German repertoire has not been what the orchestra and the German audiences want. It’s here, however, that I’ve been most impressed over the last five years or so. Rattle’s Brahms cycle came out just around the time a perfect storm of complaint seemed to be brewing: he was changing the orchestra’s sound, he didn’t do rubato well, that he just didn’t have the depth and intensity this music requires. When I heard those recordings, I was mightily impressed- more “schwoom” and “wuah” from the strings than I’d heard for anyone since Karajan’s death, but actually together (Karajan never seemed concerned about whether the orchestra actually played at the same time or not), and with a lot of line and gravitas. His recent Mahler performances in the Digital Concert Hall completely eclipse his Birmingham cycle and the film of the Fifth made at his first concert with the BPO- they’re infinitely more well thought out, colorful and intense. Likewise the fascinating program with the three final Sibelius Symphonies performed in Berlin in 2010 and repeated in Berlin and London last month. Fifteen years ago, even Rattle’s biggest fans would not have called him a great colorist or someone with an ear for the long line. His recent work seems full of these qualities. I’d never been convinced by his Bruckner, but when the BPO gave the first performance of Bruckner 9 with the “final” version of the reconstruction of the Finale, I was just amazed by the first movement. Granted, the orchestra has this music in their bones, but I’ve heard plenty of disappointing Bruckner 9’s even from them. I thought that performance had everything, and you can’t really fake or luck your way into a performance like that.

So the LSO are getting a conductor who now brings vast experience in the core repertoire, someone who has thought and re-thought the music he conducts and shown a remarkable capacity for growth and self-examination in the prime of his career. He’s developed a great ear for orchestral sonority- not only how to get it, but how to use it. I think he’ll help the LSO, one of the most virtuosic bands in the universe, to play more beautifully, more imaginatively and will produce interpretations that are more deeply thought out than either he or they would have been producing a few years ago. Of course, the charm, the verbal gift, the energy and the big-picture social vision are still there.

So, what a pity then that the entire lead-up to Rattle’s appointment has been a vast orgy of celebrity-culture BS. It seems like way too much of the excitement about Rattle taking this gig is because he’s REALLY FAMOUS, that he’s always been REALLY TALENTED and that he’s coming from a REALLY PRESTIGIOUS JOB at a REALLY GOOD ORCHESTRA. But mostly because he’s already REALLY FAMOUS. That’s right- we’re to believe it’s good he got the job because he’s a VSM. All the discussion of Rattle’s proposal for a new hall has been focused around his celebrity status (“World’s Greatest and Most Famous Conductor Demands New Concert Hall!”) rather than whether it’s a good idea. Read the papers and you’d think that the compelling reason to build a £500-million concert hall is because a Very Special Musician/celebrity wants one. Yes London needs a new hall, but spending that kind of money because a VSM demands it is a terrible idea*. Rattle’s return to Britain has been covered more like a celebrity wedding or football signing than a cultural event, and the PR push in the last month has been awesome to witness. This Guardian article, in which the author attributes Rattle’s struggles in Berlin to his reluctance to play into celebrity culture expectations (“He won’t play the game: Sir Simon Rattle is under attack because he balks at self-promotion and the instincts of a musical elite” byPhilippa Ibbotson) from a few years ago seems amazingly quaint after the last few months:

“Whether the importance of celebrity status today is related to Rattle’s diminished popularity is debatable. But some things are certain. The means often deployed to gain such status have little to do with artistic talent, even less with integrity. Nor will such means deliver better performances; if anything, they are detrimental to their quality. And while it is neither new nor unusual to seek fame, to accord it such worth in our cultural lives is surely to pull a dangerous screen over our senses.”

At the end of the day, there are a lot of big talents in the world, and every once –in-a-while, we find a real genius (Mahler, Hendrix, Haydn), but there’s no such thing as a Very Special Musician. Leaving a great legacy as a conductor is far more about hard work, self-criticism and luck than in-born talent, celebrity shizzle or specialness. The LSO are the busiest and most prestigious orchestra in the UK- it was important to whole UK music scene that they get the right Principal Conductor. Ask not if Rattle can replicate the old CBSO magic in his new post- he’s now ten times the conductor he was when he began his tenure there. Rattle richly deserves this job because he’s worked hard and continued to grow as an artist- it sounds like it’s time to anoint him as a “regular guy,”  let him drop all the celebrity culture crap, and have him get to work. We need musicians running our orchestras, not stars.

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* On the question of a new hall for London, the calculus seems simple:

The city needs a concert hall with a good acoustic.

The question is whether this is the most pressing of many needs in the city. Many have pointed out that it is not. Working conditions for professional orchestra musicians in UK orchestras are shocking. They work insanely hard for miserly pay and endure travel schedules and work conditions that no other similarly expert professionals would.

It also seems self-evident that building an audience for the future is more important than building a concert hall.

The question about the hall is whether building it will improve working conditions for orchestral musicians and develop new audiences. If it does that, and it sounds good, they should build it as quickly as they can.

3 months ago | |
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The current issue of Classical Music Magazine includes a nice feature piece from critic and essayist, Rick Jones. On sale now!

CM Feb 15 Cover CM Feb 15 kw1 CM Feb 15 kw2

4 months ago | |
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SIMON Desbruslais demonstrates his virtuosity in four fresh, vigorous and varied works by three British composers. In Deborah Pritchard’s Skyspace he plays the piccolo trumpet, an instrument familiar through baroque works – famously in Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – but seldom heard in contemporary music. It suits the soaring lines of Pritchard’s work, the seven sections of which portray varying colours of the sky. The two outer movements of John McCabe’s concerto La Primavera bustle with energy, powered by jazzy percussion, while the middle section has Desbruslais playing a romantic flugelhorn solo. Robert Saxton’s psalm A Song of Ascents re minds one of Bloch’s cello work Schelomo – combining the meditative with religious fer- fer vour. His Shakespeare Scenes allows Desbruslais to revel in playing character studies of Falstaff and Lear among its six sections. He’s given excellent support from the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Kenneth Woods, in the first three works, and David Curtis.

–Norman Stinchcombe

5 months ago | |
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Reviewed in the February 2015 issue of Gramophone Magazine buy Guy Rickards

“Four vibrant, attractive concertos…. by three of Britain’s brightest and best, and performed with dazzling virtuosity and musicianship by Simon Desbruslais and the Orchestra of the Swan…A hugely enjoyable disc, strongly recommended”

Psalm Gramo 1

Psalm Gramo 3

Psalm Gramo 4

Read the whole thing here

5 months ago | |
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