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Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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A somewhat belated notification of a lovely review from last July of Bobby and Hans vol 2, which was a featured new release at WCLV at the time . Read the original here. 

Hans Gál Symphony No. 4 & Robert Schumann Symphony No. 2— Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods (Avie 2231)

Take music firmly rooted in the German-Austrian tradition, refine it until its lightness of texture seems almost French, infuse the whole with an uneasy mix of tranquility and sorrow that recalls the best music of Chopin, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll come up with the Fourth Symphony of Hans Gál. This is music of incredible richness, and Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan successfully elicit both its charm and its sense of melancholy. It’s paired with a consistently engaging account of Schumann’s Second Symphony. -Jerome Crossley

Featured Mon 7/9, Wed 7/18, Fri 7/27

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A review from Stephen Pedersen of the opening concert of the 2013 Scotia Festival, featuring Ensemble Epomeo. Read the original here.

CONCERT REVIEW: Gifted chamber players echo spring’s diversity

May 28, 2013 – 5:48pm BY STEPHEN PEDERSEN

Philippe Djokic opened Monday night’s Scotia Fest concert in the Dunn with a Bach marathon. (ERIC WYNNE / Staff)

Philippe Djokic opened Monday night’s Scotia Fest concert in the Dunn with a Bach marathon. (ERIC WYNNE / Staff Contemporary music can hardly avoid being influenced by the entire catalogue of classical and new art music. But degrees of acceptance are sometimes slow to catch up.

Monday night, in the Sir James Dunn Theatre, the Scotia Festival of Music launched its 34th annual rite of spring chamber music concert series with the help of Bach, Alfred Schnittke and Franz Schubert.

Violinist Philippe Djokic took the stage alone to recreate the incredible world of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo violin marathon, the Chaconne in D minor from the 2nd Violin Partita.

It was a solid and a thorough performance, articulated throughout with the kinds of musical weights and measures — drawn out phrases, defining articulations — that bring a vivid sense of musical presence to one of the richest scores in the violin repertoire, and take years to develop.

Djokic has lived long with this work, nourished his understanding of it in both his practice and teaching studio. He now plays it with the kind of easy creative absorption that has long gone beyond the need for conscious thought.

Now, it is more a question of gathering its elements gently in and pacing his way through it so that it both speaks and sings with elegant eloquence as it shapes itself in both his mind and ours.

Quietly, thoroughly, Djokic’s Bach music unfolded like a flower, opening itself to our imaginations.

After this calm and light-filled opening, the Ensemble Epomeo — Caroline Chin, violin, David Yang, viola, and Kenneth Woods, cello — gave us a completely different, more angst-ridden kind of eloquence in their performance of Schnittke’s Trio for Violin,Viola and Cello.

At one time, Schnittke’s score would have been slighted as “eclectic” for his use of allusions to other composers’ styles. But critics, after a decade or two of aesthetic collage in all the arts, found a more positive, and more useful term in calling it “polytonalism,” and let it go at that.

Schnittke’s uses these references like a musical James Joyce, fitting them in with sometimes shocking effect, only to calm us down in a measure or two as the logic of their creative energy reveals itself to us.

Violent attacks and harshly, dissonant harmonies provided clues of the musical imagery of mid-20th-century European anguish, as populations coped with boom and bust amid the ideological struggle between Russia and the West. Hints of all this percolated through the sudden shifts of Schnittke’s music from outrage to childlike sentimentality.

Throughout, the excellent Ensemble Epomeo three instruments merged into a rare kind of musical experience. Spacious and uncannily unified, it was wholly successful in towing the audience along as though they were floating in a huge balloon of music and harmony.

You can’t really write about such experiences. But as an audience you know that for a moment or two, for a measure, for a note of harmony, for a tone colour, you were vividly held together in the same aesthetic space.

After the intermission, three Scotia Festival veterans, pianist John Novacek, violinist Mark Fewer and cellist Denise Djokic, took on Schubert’s Trio in E-flat major, D. 929 in a lively performance.

Each of its four movements, but especially the first and the fourth, acutely expressed Schubert’s rhythmic energy, led by Novacek at the grand piano, making it live up to its name.

The delicacy of the repeated note, mandolin-like triplets in the treble of the piano, executed by Novacek with breath-holding evenness and crispness of touch in the fourth movement, contrasted with the warm lyricism of the cello lines, especially in the second movement.

When played as this trio played, Schubert’s sweetness and his intuitive gift for simple but enchanting melodies made for a happy, chatty audience as it exited the theatre.

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When I was young and discovered a new piece of music that really blew me away, the urge to tell a friend about it was sometimes overpowering.

It wasn’t a feeling unique to classical music, and in my formative years, these moments came with thrilling regularity. Of course they did- I had so much to discover as I began my teens. I bought my first Jimi Hendrix record at 12, and was still unearthing bootlegs and live discs when I was 22. In my high school years, I heard all the Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies for the first time, discovered Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin and most of the cello repertoire.

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(Composers James Marshal Hendrix and Philip Sawyers. This blog post is probably the first time these two musical giants have been linked. Read on to find why they should be.)

One quickly learned who to call for what kind of music. When a new  (for me) Hendrix recording came my way, it was usually my friend Doug who came to mind. “Dude- you’ve got to come over this afternoon and check this out- I just got Axis- Bold as Love, and it’s even better than Are You Experienced.” He returned the favor later that week with Electric Ladyland. We were both cellists, but soon gravitated towards electric guitar (me) and bass (him) and within weeks, those listening sessions spilled over into jam sessions, and then my first rock band, as we found new friends to share our discoveries with. Before long, the new guys were calling me up with their own “dude, you’ve got to hear this “ moments. These encounters still seem to play out every day on Facebook and Twitter, but I have to say, I loved the ritual of getting together in person with a friend (or friends), putting an LP on the turntable, dropping the needle on that black vinyl, then handing your friend  the album cover so they could check it out while listening for the first time (usually sitting on the floor-always carpeted in 1980′s Wisconsin).

People often speak of a level of cynicism or even bitterness among professional musicians. To be honest, I see very little evidence of this among the people I work with, whether as a conductor or cellist. I think this is all the more remarkable given the fact that we work in a highly-competitive field where we all have to detail with seemingly ever-increasing pressure and financial insecurity.

However, what hints of jadedness or disillusionment one might detect within an orchestra probably have at their roots a disappointment at the gradual disappearance of those “dude, you’ve got to come hear this” moments. They never go away completely, but they become rarer by the year. I think some version of that feeling at the joy of discovering music, and the recognition that you have a passion to participate in creating and recreating it, was key to most of my colleagues’ decision to spend their lives practicing, rehearsing, composing, teaching and travelling. If those moments stop, we have to question why we’re still in music.

Sadly, later life can never replicate the astounding bounty of our years of discovery. When someone tells me they’ve never heard Mahler 6 or A Love Supreme, I can only smile with envy. How lucky they are- to have that discovery awaiting them. I always tell them, “well dude, you’ve got to hear it.”

But although it’s been many years since I finished that first gluttonous inhalation of Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich and Hendrix, there are still endless wonders to discover in each of those works I’ve come to love.  Coming back the Shostakovich Cello Concerto two weeks ago at the Scotia Festival with soloist Denise Djokic was a case in point- familiarity need not breed contempt. Of all the works I performed at Scotia (and well over half the works I played and conducted were completely new to me), it was the one I have the longest and most intense personal connection with as a listener, cellist, conductor and general lifelong Shostakovich nut, yet I found so many new and fascinating details in the score during my own study and the rehearsal process. Even in the concert, there were a couple of “dude, you’ve got to hear this” moments- things that I suddenly discovered on the page and tired to make happen with my eyes or mental powers as best I could.

My professional path has had its ups and downs, and I can say with a clear conscience  that nothing good has come easy or fallen into my lap- I can’t but help think others have had some more obvious “good luck” in finding their place in the profession. However, I consider myself incredibly lucky that I keep seeming to have these “dude, you’ve got to hear this” moments. Discovering Hans Gál’s music is an obvious example- how had such a wonderful, communicative, complex and engaging voice been forgotten for so long? How did some nobody from Wisconsin get to make the first recording of his orchestral music? Crazy.

But Gál has not been an entirely unique case. A few years ago, I learned that my friend and colleague at Kent County Youth Orchestra, second violin coach, Philip Sawyers, was also a composer. He told me with the kind of tact you would usually use to warn your seatmate on a airplane that you often get violently airsick- “Ken, I’m terribly sorry to have to tell you this, but I’m afraid I’m a composer….”

Then I heard his music and looked at the scores, and it was another one of those moments. I even had a literal “Suzanne (I try to avoid calling her “dude”), you’ve got to come hear this” moment when I played the live recording of his First Symphony the first time. She came upstairs and our conversation went: “This piece is by Philip” “The one from KCYO?” “Yes!” “Get out of here! Really? Wow!”

Since then, I’ve performed several of his pieces, and to my great, great, joy, Phil entrusted me with a recording of three of his works for Nimbus- his Second Symphony (review of the premiere by the London Mozart Players here), his incredible new Cello Concerto and his Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings. After years of discussion and planning, we finally made the record on May 13th and 14th in Stratford with my friends in the Orchestra of the Swan.

Orchestras tend to be sober environments (well, perhaps not literally)- I imagine one does not say “dude, you’ve got to hear this” at a Berlin Philharmonic rehearsal (but I could be wrong). We tend to keep our passions and discoveries to ourselves because we’ve all made the mistake of sharing something with someone who totally turned their nose up at it. There’s nothing (I mean nothing) more soul destroying than coming offstage after a totally transcendent concert and saying to your standparter “dude, wasn’t that amazing” and having them reply “Really? I thought it was torture from beginning to end.” You learn to keep your most important feelings about music to yourself. (And much more- I’ve never,e ever written anything derogatory or even slightly critical about an orchestral colleague here, but I also often hesitate to praise too directly- one can’t help but fear that the time you write “Bubba played amazingly well tonight,” Bubba is down the pub telling everyone how badly you conducted) Nevertheless, I can’t think of a better band for “dude, you’ve got tot hear this” repertoire than Swan. Maybe it’s just because almost everything I’ve done with them is a bit wacko- Gál, chamber Mahler, Saxton and even a Shakuhachi concerto. I expect it’s more than that- I think it comes from the artistry and commitment of the individual members of the orchestra who somehow have found themselves- an orchestra of friends and chamber music colleagues. The name, the brand, the institution- none of these matter when bringing unknown music to life. It’s about having Dave, and Victoria and Nick and Mark and Chris and Sally and Anna and Liza and Shelly and Adrian all the rest of the gang there, listening and playing with expertise, skill, open ears and open minds.

It was a remarkable two days. Cellist Maja Bogdanovic, who played the Cello Concerto (it was written for her at the behest of the Sydenham Festival)  is a significant talent and she played like an angel. I know my cello concertos- this is a very important addition to the repertoire. The Steinberg Duo brought tremendous commitment and a huge depth of experience with Phil’s music to bear on the Concertante- they’ve just recorded his two Violin Sonatas. And take after take, the orchestra showed incredible endurance and focus. I’ll never forget the contribution of one of the string principals- let’s call him Mr A. Mr A broke his right hand before the first session. He went straight to the hospital who told them they couldn’t set the broken bone until the swelling went down. They splinted the hand, gave him some pain medication and anti-inflamatories and he came straight to the recording session, his hand still bleeding from the accident. He played great, missed nothing- all day, three sessions. The next morning, they set the bone, and by afternoon, he was back in his chair, playing full out. If a student or an amateur wonders what kind of dedication it takes to be a great professional player, that’s a pretty inspiring example.

And what can I say about the Second Symphony? It’s compact (just over 20 minutes for a Beethoven-sized orchestra) but incredibly intense and inspired. The contrapuntal writing is staggering, but it’s all coherent and engaging (if you shape it and let it breathe). By the dress rehearsal/final recording session, the orchestra’s performance of it was becoming something to behold. At the end of that session, Phil himself said with surprised bemusement “it seems to have a sort of crazed Mahlerian grandeur to it.”

I’m so glad we were able to cap those two days of recording with a performance of at least the Second Symphony. This is when being in an orchestra really can mean something- when you’re no longer just calling up Doug or Jon and saying “dude, you’ve got to hear this live Coltrane disc” but reaching out to a whole concert hall full of new listeners and trying to let them discover that feeling for themselves. The orchestra, after two huge days of recording, played with astonishing power and involvement. There’s a great bit near the end of what functions like the slow movement (the piece is in a single movement but like lots of the great one-movement symphonies, still hints at the traditional four-movement structure) which I particularly remember. Phil pulls off one of those great compositional party tricks of building to a huge, sustained climax and then finding a way to keep going beyond it. Quite a way beyond it. Everyone is already playing fortissimo, and suddenly the page cries out “get louder.” You’ve given everything already, and the music cries out for more- not just more, but more “more.”

In the concert, I tried to do whatever a conductor does in these situations to find that “more” factor- perhaps you sweat and grunt a bit more, or you reach for the magic move. Maybe you open your eyes even wider. Often (always?), it’s about actually quieting yourself physically and emotionally, and showing something totally unforced, totally unsweaty. Sadly, most times you reach for the “more” in such a moment (which you only dare try when you feel the entire fate of the world depends on finding it) in concert, it’s just not there. Either the players don’t have more “more” to give, or don’t feel the internal motivation to find it. I can count the satisfying “more” moments of my conducting career on ten fingers. That was a big one- as big a wave of “more” as I’ve ever gotten in a concert. Who would have guessed a chamber orchestra of less than forty players could find that much “more,” broken hands, 15 hours of recording in 36 hours and all?

The five or so weeks since that concert have flown by faster than a bullet train in a flurry of projects, and suddenly, today I found out that we might have a first edit of the CD from Simon Fox, our producer, as soon as next week. Part of me is giddy with excitement- one makes a record because it is the record one wants to listen to. I’m sure this will be a good record- great music, fine musicians and a producer I trust to keep me from f*cking it all u.. I want to listen to it!

But can even the best record equal a moment like that in the concert? Experience tells me, probably not- even if that’s the take that ends up in the edit (our CDs together are not usually officially  “live,” but we always record and often incorporate the concerts- the Scherzo of our Schumann 2 is essentially the concert performance without edits). There’s so much more to these moments than ones and zeros can possibly capture. The CD is probably bound to be a high-quality gentle let down. Hopefully one I’ll quickly get over as I get excited about all the new listeners who are going to discover this music through it.

In the end, it may be that we set out to create a “dude, you’ve got to hear this” record and ended up accidentally creating something rarer and more precious.

A “dude, you had to be there” moment.

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A review from Rob Cowan for the Gramola release “Lost Generation” from the July, 2013 issue

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A review of the Scotia Winds performance of Berg’s Kammerkonzert with soloists Robert Uchida and Simon Docking and Mozart’s Gran Partita. Read the original here.

Ensembles blow sweetly in wind

June 5, 2013 – 5:14pm STEPHEN PEDERSEN

Wind ensemble music appears to have fallen off the radar of music composers these days, though it continues to nourish the education of young musicians in our public high schools.

But the clarinet is never far from the Scotia Festival of Music programs, since Chris Wilcox, the festival’s artistic director, is a clarinetist, and Robert Marcellus, who co-founded the festival with him in 1980, was principal clarinet in the Cleveland Orchestra under legendary conductor George Szell.

Tuesday night in the Dunn, the festival assembled a baker’s dozen of fine, mostly local, wind and brass players to balance all the string and piano programming with Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin with 13 Winds, followed in the second half by the extraordinarily inventive sonorities of Mozart’s Serenade in B flat major, also for 13 winds.

The characteristic sound of a symphonic wind ensemble in the Mozart configuration is gritty because of the five double reeds (two oboes, three bassoons), but also mellow because of the clarinets and basset horns (two of each), and heroic too, because of the French horns (four).

Berg’s wind band included trumpet and trombone, as well as two flutes and the two solo instruments (piano and violin).

That’s a lot of variety, a grab bag of sonorities to tickle eardrums more used to the smoothly blended ensemble sound of strings than the grit and shriek and moan of winds, which are only partially mellowed if flutes are included.

Pianist Simon Docking and violinist Robert Uchida played the solo parts in the Berg to add another layer of shimmer to the Milky Way brilliance of the sound produced by the musical stars assembled on the Dunn stage.

The music and playing, conducted by Kenneth Woods, the cellist with festival guest stars, Ensemble Epomeo, were strikingly fine.

Woods played it straight, simply delivering rather than interpreting the scores, trusting the composers to have gotten things right, and anyone within hearing distance of the performance would confirm that they had.

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An incredible day of music making yesterday with my wonderful colleagues in the Orchestra of the Swan.

In many places and with many fine orchestras, doing such a profound, difficult and ambitious program on such a tight rehearsal schedule would have been simply impossible, but everyone yesterday was so well-prepared, flexible and responsive that we were able to go a long, long way towards getting to the heart of 3 really incredible pieces in very little time. Takemitsu’s “Death and Resurrection” was completely new to me- like all his music, it’s very touching, very beautiful and full of longing and thoughtful nostalgia. Britten’s Les Illuminations is one of his finest scores- the inspiration just leaps of the page, and April Frederick sang it with consummate skill.

And what can one say about Shostakovich 14? Forbidding, overpowering, heartbreaking, hilarious, grotesque, beautiful, wretched, terrifying, humbling and haunting. I came away more convinced than ever that it is one of the most important statements on the human condition in any medium to come out of the 20th century. I’ve waited 30 years to conduct it since I first heard it as a kid- let’s hope the wait for the second performance is more logically measurable in months.

Bravo and thanks to April, OOTS and Arwel Huw Morgan, our bass soloist.

I know the blog has been quiet of late. I’ve been holding on for dear life since the beginning of May- it’s been the most interesting, challenging and frenetic 6 weeks of my career to date. The summer ahead is calmer, and I hope to find time to share some more detailed thoughts about all the amazing repertoire and incredible colleagues I’ve encountered these  last few weeks.

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A review of Ensemble Epomeo’s recital on the 27th of May from Chronicle Herald chief critic, Stephen Pedersen. Read the original here.

CONCERT REVIEW: String trio brings zest to range of styles

May 29, 2013 – 5:22pm BY STEPHEN PEDERSEN Ensemble Epomeo — Caroline Chin, violin, David Yang, viola and Kenneth Woods, cello — is a first-rate trio making its mark on Halifax this Scotia Festival season. (BENJAMIN EALOVEGA)

Ensemble Epomeo — Caroline Chin, violin, David Yang, viola and Kenneth Woods, cello — is a first-rate trio making its mark on Halifax this Scotia Festival season. (BENJAMIN EALOVEGA)

Ensemble Epomeo, the remarkable string trio working the Scotia Festival this season, showed us their interesting, but largely unknown, repertoire, at the Dunn Tuesday night.

They played works by 20th century composers Gyorgy Kurtag, Krzysztof Penderecki, Hans Krasa, followed with a bright, energetic performance of Beethoven’s Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello, op. 3.

It really was only then that we got back to familiar turf.

They topped off the program with Richard Strauss’s variations on a Bavarian folk song. Talk about your musical whipped cream. It was a delicious set of variations in 18th-century style, Strauss stepping back from his own time to savour more traditional delights of musical form

The German title is roughly translated as The Girl is Mad at Me.

“Mad” unfortunately is too ambiguous a word to choose among the possible meanings of “angry” and “crazy in love.” Maybe its very ambiguity is the point of the title. Emotions are such sticky things to define once caught up in them.

You always feel you are in good hands with Epomeo, even when trampling through the murky moods of mid-20th century angst. In Europe, at least, that was a dark time, full of dictators, pogroms and organized hatred, a perfect exemplum of what George Orwell was on about in his futuristic 1984.

How music could be made in such anxious times is a human miracle.

Thanks to Ensemble Epomeo, we are allowed not just a glimpse of the times, but a movie of the moods and emotions those closer to the time were exposed to.

There was some compositional preoccupation with form in the seven short movements of Gyorgy Kurtag’s Signs, Games, and Messages for String Trio and more emotional turmoil in the two movements of Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Trio.

On the second half of the program we felt right at home after these turbulent pieces with the familiar vocabulary of Beethoven’s Trio, op. 3.

Ensemble Epomeo is a first-rate trio with such mastery of both the familiar and the new (to us at least) to give us confidence in the music and to seed a desire to hear more of it, more of composers like Kurtag and Krasa. Penderecki as well, except we are probably more at home with his music.

Who, for example, after once hearing his extraordinary Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, can ever forget it?

Ensemble Epomeo is making its mark on Halifax this Scotia Festival season.

Stephen Pedersen is a freelance arts writer who lives in Halifax.

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An interesting feature looking ahead to the (now-completed) 2013 Scotia Festival from senior Chronicle Herald classical critic Stephen Pedersen. Read the original here

Woods, Brady headline festival

May 24, 2013 – 5:34pm BY STEPHEN PEDERSEN Classical music stars Halifax-bound for Scotia Festival of Music, which starts Monday Conductor and cellist Kenneth Woods, left, and electric guitar improv virtuoso Tim Brady will be in Halifax next week for the Scotia Festival of Music, which opens Monday and runs to June 9.

Conductor and cellist Kenneth Woods, left, and electric guitar improv virtuoso Tim Brady will be in Halifax next week for the Scotia Festival of Music, which opens Monday and runs to June 9. Scotia Festival of Music’s latest classical music stars are cellist-conductor Kenneth Woods and electric guitar improv virtuoso Tim Brady.

The festival opens Monday night with Woods, violinist Caroline Chin and violist David Yang of Ensemble Epomeo playing the Schnitke String Trio.

Schubert’s E Flat Major Piano Trio with returning favourites pianist John Novacek, cellist Denise Djokic and violinist Mark Fewer will be sharing the opening program, and violinist Philippe Djokic opens the festival with Bach’s Chaconne (solo violin).

Woods, a Scotia Festival alumnus, has a big career in full stride, both as conductor and as cellist with his Epomeo Ensemble. His waggish sense of humour can be sampled at his blog in his impassioned, tongue-in-cheek defence of repeating the Exposition in symphonies, chamber music and piano sonatas.

At this year’s festival, Woods will conduct three concerts: the final Gala concert June 9, the John Adams Violin Concerto (with Philippe Djokic), a version for winds of the Threepenny Opera, and Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Scotia Festival Strings).

On June 7, Tim Brady premieres his We’re Hardcore with soprano Janice Jackson and string quintet (with double bass).

Brady, who calls Halifax “a very special place,” is contributing not only his skill as an improviser and composer to Scotia Festival Young Artists but an original composition for oboe, electric guitar, string trio (Epomeo) and piano called FLOW.

“I’m giving three 90-minute workshops for students to work on understanding how to approach a new piece, but also doing a bit of improvising to loosen them up. Just because you are learning a Beethoven sonata doesn’t mean you have to turn off your own creative ideas.

“There’s not an inherent contradiction between playing classical music and having your own ideas,” he says.

The biggest barrier to improvising and musical creation, he says, is fear.

“It’s that simple. People are afraid of making mistakes.

“The main thing is to get in a room, start talking, take these basic concepts and ideas and adapt. Once you get into creation mode, you have to let go of the concept of mistakes. It’s a new piece so there can’t be any mistakes. That’s a big leap for people to take.”

With master classes, rehearsals and outreach programs in Halifax schools, Brady will be a busy guy. He also has to find time to practise. “I can probably find an hour or two here and there. You find the time. You can’t live without it, partly because you don’t want to lose your chops. But at a certain point you practise because you like practising.

“There is a certain pleasure in practising, even if I didn’t have shows coming up. I can’t imagine getting so old and crotchety. I’m pretty sure I’m going to practise guitar until they rip it out of my — what’s the Charlton Heston line? — my ‘cold, dead hands.’”

He’ll be busy. Yet, says managing director Chris Wilcox, “this festival is really the Ken Woods Scotia Festival. He came here as a young artist in 1993. He’s been back several times and came back when we did Messiaen’s Turangalila and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.”

“He’s playing in four concerts, conducting three, giving a master class, and two outreach programs with his trio in schools.”

Wilcox pointed out other highlights of this year’s festival, including the rest of Friday’s program, where Brady’s premiere (We’re Hardcore) shares space with Kurt Weill and Benjamin Britten.

Brady’s electric guitar recital (June 2), Airi Yoshioka’s violin recital and also solo works (June 2), the Berg Concerto for Violin and 13 Winds (June 4), the Adams Violin Concerto, along with the Threepenny Opera (version for winds) and, among other treasures, Denise Djokic playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto (June 9) — all are highlight concerts and almost all the works are 20th century masterpieces we don’t hear played in Halifax often, if at all.

Plenty of music for learners, plenty of masterpieces for gourmet concert-goers, plenty of opportunities for young artists getting a taste of how insanely busy things can get in the life of a professional musician.

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A review of the final Gala concert of the 2013 Scotia Festival of Music from critic Stephen Pederson at the Chronicle Herald. Read the original here.

June 10, 2013 Concerto performances stunning  Scotia Festival of Music ended on triple stun Sunday afternoon in the Dunn Theatre: stunning program, stunning soloists, stunning orchestra.

Under the understated guidance of Kenneth Woods (also stunning in its delivery of the music without either mannerism or exaggerated expression), the orchestra of professionals and students simply delivered a full house of concertos with violinist Mark Fewer, pianist John Novacek and cellist Denise Djokic.

Novacek, with his inimitable nimbleness of 10-fingered nuances, played Mozart’s extraordinary Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453 just before the intermission, with Fewer introducing us to the resourceful tangles and inventive graces of John Adams’ 1994 Violin Concerto and Djokic delivering a powerful performance of the Cello Concerto No. l in E-flat major of Dmitri Shostakovich.

A perfect storm, in other words, in the fusion of composers, soloists and players, to end one of the best-programmed Scotia Festivals in its 34 years of annual spring chamber music concerts.

Paradoxically, the Adams’ violin concerto appeared to wander aimlessly, but with intent. It absolutely refused to let us stray from attentiveness. Which means that Fewer knew entirely what he was doing.

Motion in music and even more so, momentum, is animated by repetition. In his concerto, Adams resorted, as he often seems inclined to do in his music, to this time-honoured solution to the problem, to make repetition basic and inevitable.

In this concerto, the solo line is active, wide-ranging, often bizarrely original, but it is tied down by a familiar device, a chaconne figure, a bass line which is repeated.

Fewer gave a remarkably assured and penetrating performance of this entirely new, yet also entirely familiar, music. Technically, though he played it without making it sound so, this concerto is fiendishly difficult.

Novacek played the Mozart concerto with his typical habit of brilliantly nuanced finger work, each note expressive without exaggeration but making even the familiar sound new.

For the finale, Denise Djokic gave a powerful performance of the Shostakovich concerto: strong, assured, expressive. Wood and the orchestra gave her space, acoustic space, for an ideal balance of soloist and ensemble.

It has been two weeks of remarkable concerts in the Dunn at this year’s Scotia Festival. For me, one of the most remarkable was the playing of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, for strings, Op. 10, on Friday night.

Somehow I have missed hearing this powerful work during long years of listening to classical music. Hearing it for the first time under the direction of so honest and intuitive a musician as Kenneth Woods was a shattering experience, leaving me speechless with awe and wonder.

(spedersen@ns.sympatico.ca)

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I’ve just turned in program notes for an upcoming CD in ICA Classics commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passing of Hans Rosbaud, one of the most interesting of 20th C conductors. That disc of works by Sibelius and Debussy is due out in the early Fall, and is rather special.

The first installment in the series was Rosbaud’s recording of Mahler 5 with the Cologne Radio Symphony. I thought Vftp readers might enjoy reading my essay here, and hopefully some of you will be inspired to check out the disc. It’s quite a document. Reviews available from ClassicalSource, Audiophile Audition and MusicWeb.

ROSBAUD CONDUCTS MAHLER

 

‘Music buffs believe that the greatest living conductor is Toscanini; musicians know that it is Hans Rosbaud.’ 

Francis Poulenc, 1954

A native of Graz, Hans Rosbaud (1895–1962) emerged from early studies with his mother and training at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt to become one of the most influential conductors of his generation. Rosbaud’s imprint on the music world may seem to have contracted since his death fifty years ago, but only until one considers the huge body of music he brought into the repertoire, his advocacy of Mahler’s works after the Second World War, and his importance as a role model for a younger generation of interpreters such as Pierre Boulez, Michael Gielen and Bruno Maderna. Boulez himself described Rosbaud as a ‘model’ of what a conductor should be: a ‘very great conductor’ who was ‘not specialised’, but was ‘very involved in contemporary music’.

It was in the emerging world of the radio orchestra that Rosbaud would spend the bulk of his career and have the greatest impact. In 1929, he was appointed as chief conductor at Radio Frankfurt. Rosbaud was one of the first conductors to fully appreciate the opportunity the new medium offered for introducing unfamiliar music to a broad audience under near-ideal rehearsal conditions, and the list of first performances from his Frankfurt years includes several works that have since become staples of the repertoire: Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.2, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings and Schoenberg’s Variations op.31.

Rosbaud was one of the few Austro-German conductors of his generation to remain untainted by affiliation with the Nazis, and tensions with them led to his departure from Frankfurt in 1937 and a period out of the spotlight in Münster and Strassburg. In the aftermath of the War, Rosbaud returned to the world of the radio orchestra in which he felt most at home, first in Munich, and then from 1948 until his death at the South West German Radio Orchestra, Baden-Baden, which Rosbaud built into one of the finest orchestras in Germany (and which was, as this disc went to press, being shut down by the German government). Other highlights of his post-War career included his affiliation with the Donaueschingen Festival, where he became a champion of the post-War modernist school of composers led by Boulez and Stockhausen, and long partnerships with the Tonhalle Orchestra and the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Perhaps his most legendary achievement was conducting the premiere of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron on just eight days’ notice in 1954.

Like Boulez, Rosbaud seems to have seen Gustav Mahler as perhaps the key figure in the birth of twentieth-century music, rather than as the last of the Romantics. While the extent of the neglect of Mahler’s works in the years after his death in 1911 has often been overstated, his music did fall into obscurity in Germany after the Nazis banned performances of his ‘Entartete Musik’ (degenerate music) in the 1930s. Rosbaud understood that the more generous rehearsal conditions of the radio orchestras were ideal for restoring Mahler’s complex and demanding scores to the repertoire.

Rosbaud’s extremely undemonstrative podium presence (even as famously low-key a conductor as Bernard Haitink said of Rosbaud that ‘as he approached the podium you thought, surely that can’t be the conductor’) might have seemed an unlikely fit with Mahler’s volatile musical language, especially in a work like the Fifth Symphony, which ranges from the extremes of violent histrionics to moments of great intimacy and tenderness. But on this occasion in 1952, working with one of his favourite orchestras, the KRSO (Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, now the WDR Symphony Orchestra), Rosbaud manages to elicit a performance of great stylistic sensitivity from an orchestra which could not have had a very strong Mahlerian tradition at the time. Long before Mahlerians began arguing over the correctness of extremely fleet or languorous tempi in the Adagietto, Rosbaud’s reading here seems the very epitome of an innately musical balance of emotional engagement and common sense, with an effortless ebb and flow of tempi and a welcome lack of point-making. On the other extreme, in the outer movements, this most soft-spoken of maestri (in Chicago, where he became a regular guest conductor from 1959 until his death, the musicians were known to have had to pass his comments to the back of the section as his speaking voice was only audible to the front desks) unleashes brass-playing of striking stentorian power.

Rosbaud’s beloved radio orchestras may have been the perfect medium for bringing Mahler’s music, and that of so many essential twentieth-century masters, back into the repertoire after the War, but it is a pity that his devotion to the live broadcast seems to have left us with a small and sometimes uneven recorded legacy, where in many cases modern listeners find frustration with less-than ideal radio sound, or occasional slips in orchestral accuracy. And yet a document like this Mahler 5 reveals, far more meaningfully than any meticulously edited studio recording could, a great conductor at the height of his powers bringing important and hugely challenging music to life solely through a profound knowledge of and engagement with the musical text, without the safety net of an orchestra who know the work through other recordings or past performances. Surely Boulez was right to hail Rosbaud, in this respect as in others, as a ‘model’.

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