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Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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Several months ago I was sipping a flat white in a café with a friend and former student who was describing the teaching methods of one of America’s more eminent conducting pedagogues- a gentleman I’ve never met nor observed.

Apparently one of his favorite aphorisms these days is that, when conducting, “the camera is always on.”

Now, I need to include a whole bunch of disclaimers here- I don’t know the context or spirit in which this advice was/is given. It’s possible I completely misunderstood what I was hearing when my friend told me this (we stayed on this subject for maybe five minutes). Perhaps they meant that “the Camerata is always on.” The Manchester Camerata are a very good orchestra. So is the Salzburg Camerata. Maybe he just meant that one of these fine groups is always “on”?

Still, in the six months or so since that conversation, I’ve found myself thinking over and over again about this notion, about the possibility that a generation of young conductors is being trained to think of their conducting in terms of how they look, on camera or off. It’s become a bit like wondering if you’ve left the iron on when you left on vacation- once the idea is planted in your head, it eats away at you until you have to do something about it.

So, here I am, doing something about it.

I suppose I always needed to take on this topic. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve found it hard to believe that any teacher would actually tell a young conductor to approach conducting as if “the camera is always on.” I’m sure his point of view was more nuanced than my friend was able to describe in a few fleeting moments of a wide ranging conversation. Nevertheless, I have seen a growing obsession with the visual aspect of conducting among people who should know better, including other teachers, managers, administrators and critics. “The camera is always on,” regardless of its original context, seems like  extremely handy shorthand for a mindset about conducting I see very often these days, so that is how I propose to use it for the rest of this essay.

Having thought about it now for some months, I think that “the camera is always on” may be the worst and most potentially destructive piece of advice I’ve ever heard given to young conductors. It’s certainly right up there with “be a complete dick to everyone and wear a cape to work,” “be a real maestro and make the effing soloist follow you” and “never look a score outside rehearsal until the day of a concert.” It’s probably even worse that “you can leave out the exposition repeat if you want to.”

Actually, it’s not even close- “the camera is always on” is in a different league of bad conducting advice from almost anything else I can imagine any teacher, colleague, employer or mentor suggesting. Being a jerk, being inflexible, even being incompetent are all behaviours that will instantly get you a lot of negative feedback. You’ll either learn your lesson quickly, or cease to conduct.

Making your  appearance on the podium a prime concern, however, is more like giving yourself a little bit of cancer. By the time you know the damage you’ve done, it’s too late.  In fact, not only will you not get much negative feedback when you first do it, you’ll probably get a fair bit of positive feedback when you start conducting as if “the camera is always on..” It may even help you get an audition or win a job.

But just as a smoking a cigarette can make you feel good, but smoking cigarettes will probably age you prematurely, give you emphysema, lung cancer and cause your death, playing to, or should I say conducting to the camera, may work wonders in the short term (and grad school is the shortest term of them all), but the road it will take you down is likely to be just as ruinous.

So why is this such bad advice? Don’t all conductors, even all performers, kind of want to look cool? Don’t we live in a visual world, and isn’t conducting a visual medium? Am I just being some kind of moralistic fuddyduddy who can’t accept that “the camera is always on” is just sound, pragmatic advice for the modern conductor in the modern world?

Allow me to share a cautionary tale.

About a year before I heard the phrase “the camera is always on” used in the context of conducting, I saw a concert at a major international festival that really got me thinking about this very issue. On the podium was a young-ish conductor with a HUGE career. Ever since he came on the scene, folks have been talking about how charismatic he is, how talented he is, what great hands he’s got, and how the camera loves him. (No, I’m not naming names, and no, it was not Dudamel). I’d seen him before a number of times, both live and on TV, and although I’d never been particularly won over by his musicianship, it only took me seconds to see what everyone was talking about. He was what is known, in the parlance of our time, as “the complete package.” It was also clear to me that he was someone who took his appearance very, very seriously, and who was keenly aware that the camera was on. To his credit, he’d mastered his relationship with the camera- the camera worked for him, it served him, it loved him. Everything he did looked great, every gesture looked like a CD cover.

But the last time I saw this maestro, his complete package was looking like it had been damaged during shipment. What I saw that night was someone teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It looked to me like all he could think about was what he looked like, what move to do next, what pose to strike for the nex t CD cover. He seemed totally disconnected from the music, and completely consumed with anxiety about when to do the next hair toss or when to unleash the next thunderclap downbeat.  He looked awkward, nervous, neurotic and like he might simply stop at any time. In spite of his enormous fee and army of lackeys, I felt bad for him. It’s amazing how fast envy can change to pity.

Why couldn’t he move with the grace and flair he’d had in spades only twelve months earlier? I think he’d forgotten about what motivates us to move as conductors. I suspected that the obsession with his visual style had driven him to a point where he couldn’t figure out how to make decisions about what visual effect he wanted to achieve from moment to moment.

Music making is something that happens at astonishing speed- there’s little time to decide which move to use next when you’re on the podium, especially if you’re trying to figure out what the basis of your decision is going to be. Of course, we all want to look cool, but what is cool? How am I to know in the heat of the moment whether people will think my “Kleiber-esque lefthand swirlyque” or my “Lenny twitch” or my “Reiner-rhino stare” will look coolest? How do I decide what will look best on camera in the middle of a Mahler symphony?

A few years ago, I wrote a post about audition videos, in which I admitted that in this day and age, if you want to get a job audition, you’ve got to have a video that presents you as someone who looks like what the people watching your video expect a conductor to look like. You need to look like what the fourth sarrusophone player learned a conductor was supposed to look like when he took undergraduate conducting thirty years ago at Northeast Sheboygan Community and Veterinary College. Back then, I was still resigned to the fact that being able to look a certain way on the podium at a certain time was probably a hoop one has to jump through at some point in your career.

But would you choose a surgeon to operate on you based on how they looked on a video? “Oh! He looks very medical! I’ll let him do that heart valve replacement I’ve been needing!” Conducting may not be heart surgery, rocket science, or even oboe playing, but most people on orchestral search committees don’t know any more about conducting than they do about the inner workings of the mitral valve. Imagine hiring a sign language interpreter on the basis of how cool you thought they looked, and not realizing that they’re just making things up and don’t actually know sign language?Wait…. Didn’t this just happen?

But the real problem is not that evaluating a conductor on the basis of how they look is unhelpful (although it is), it’s that trying to make your conducting look they way you think people want it to look is deeply self-destructive.

The “camera is always on” highway is a road to nowhere, because once you adopt that approach, you stop learning your craft. The only place you can learn to conduct is on the podium, and the only way you can learn what works and what doesn’t is to listen to the results of the gestures you make.

We have to listen REALLY hard, and we have to be constantly evaluating the musical efficacy of every twitch, jerk, flutter, stab and sweep. We have to listen to see if raising our eyebrows at the clarinets gets a brighter sound. We have to listen to see if smiling at the violins gets them to play more off the string, or moving the baton a little lower stops the trumpets from rushing. We have to listen to see if a more pointed beat helps the orchestra to stay with you or makes them drag.

Combining generative and reactive hearing on the podium is a difficult balancing act

Combining generative and reactive hearing on the podium is a difficult balancing act

And one can’t just be reactive! One’s generative hearing (the process of creating an aural picture in your imagination) also needs to be strong. Every single second we’re up there, we’ve got to think about what’s coming next, holding inside you your concept of sound, balance, phrasing,  and you have to think about every single detail of articulation, intonation and texture the composer is after. We also have to be responsive to the musicians in front of us, building on their strengths, engaging with their creativity, helping them play with confidence and learning from their experience.

If we’re not constantly aware of what we’re after, what we’re doing and what we’re getting, we will never, ever, ever, ever improve as conductors. And if you’re not improving, you’re getting worse.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be focusing on how they look while conducting and really hearing everything an orchestra is doing at the same time.  We may all just have to accept that there are going to be moments on our videos that don’t look cool. One will find other ways, off the podium, to improve them, but at the end of the day, if you look a little awkward, if your posture seems a little strange, if you’re breaking all the rules you learned in conducting school, then that may well be the price you pay for getting the best possible musical result on a given day. How do we know if we got the best possible musical result? By listening to the orchestra at every second in every rehearsal for years and years, and constantly evaluating whether what you were doing was helping or hurting.

  • It’s not just about how effectively you communicate your ideas and instincts about the music to the orchestra, it’s even more about how compelling, vivid, interesting and, perhaps above all, honest, those ideas and instincts are. Any energy or focus that goes into thinking about your next “move” is bound to obscure your inner vision of the music.
  • Thinking about how you look can only get in the way of your connection to the music and your connection with the musicians. Insincerity is poison for a conductor- musicians can spot it in a millisecond, and nothing makes them disconnect from the performance more quickly. Being effective on the podium goes beyond effectively showing what think the composer is after to the musicians. It’s about connecting to the music, and helping your colleagues in the orchestra connect to the music, and to each other.
  • Of course, there are talents like Haitink and Kleiber who manage to elevate conducting to a visual art form with its own aesthetic every time they conduct and make music at the highest possible level, but Mitropolous, Furtwangler, Solti, Gergiev and countless others would never have gotten past the video round for a local youth orchestra gig.

(You can see both tummy and underpants in this video of one of the greatest and most successful recording sessions in music history.Apparently, nobody told him the camera was on that day. Sadly, Sir Georg did not advance to the live round of the auditions for Assistant Conductor of the Bi-Cities Community Sightreading Society on the basis of this audition video)

  • These conductors, the graceful and the awkward, got incredible results from their colleagues because they had perfected a technique for projecting their instincts and ideas about the music to their colleagues in the orchestra. More to the point, they got great results because they were/are great musicians. Some looked cool doing it, some didn’t.
  • We all want to look like cool. At least, none of us wants to look any dorkier than we have to. Trying to look cool, however, is not cool. Coolness comes from within. Solti was cool, even when he looked a little strange. Mr Complete Package last year was not.
  • If you want to be more elegant on the podium (Keiber), become a more elegant person. If you want to be more in command (Reiner) know your music better. If you just try to look more elegant or more in command, you’re posing- musicians know you’re posing, and so do the audience.
  • When you’re making music honestly, how cool you look will depend a lot on how good the orchestra is. If you want to look cooler on the podium, you’ve got to make your orchestra play better. You can’t help them improve if you’re thinking about how you look rather than how they sound.
  • Many of the things we find visually unappealing in conductors are natural response to stress. Fear, frustration, impatience or lack of preparation all tend to manifest themselves in how we stand, how we hold the stick (if we use one), how we move and how we breathe. If you want to look “better” on the podium, you have to address those underlying causes of your visual/technical problems Trying to look relaxed and centred is way less effective than becoming relaxed and centered.
  • Like it or not, we all often have to work in stressful situations, with weaker players, limited rehearsal time or when our study time was somehow inadequate.  This means that we all have days when we struggle to stand, to hold the stick, to move and to breathe. “The camera is always on” teaches us to try to look like we’re not stressed. This approach means that in situations when the weaker orchestra most needs your help, or an under-rehearsed concert needs you to bring things to life, or when you need to REALLY concentrate and not f*ck up, you’re focused on your looks rather than the situation at hand. Go ahead and look like a dork on days like that, but help the orchestra, make the music come to life, and for heaven’s sake, don’t f*ck up if you can avoid it.
  • Conducting auditions should be held behind a screen. Audio recordings can lie because they can be manipulated, but in a live setting, the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of any given conductor with any given orchestra should be instantly obvious to anyone one with ears to hear. I’ve proven this thesis to myself 1,000 times by now at workshops, competitions auditions and watching conductors repeat repertoire with orchestras great and terrible. I’m 100% serious- conducting auditions are the only orchestral auditions that should take place behind a screen.
  • By all means, critique video of yourself- it’s a great tool and one of the biggest challenges for any conductor is knowing whether what you thought you did was what you really did. Be creative about what you can do to become the conductor you want to be, but when you walk in to the next rehearsal, be yourself, be authentic and honest.
  • My advice? When conducting, the camera is always off. But everything is being recorded for CD release by DG. Focus on that.

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Updates and comments-

It’s been great to see the strong response to this post. Thanks for reading and for sharing it.

There are some interesting points made in the comments, and I want to just add a few quick follow-up thoughts.

  • I’m not advocating that conductors should move less or be less “flashy.” What I’m suggesting is that whatever a conductor does onstage should be in service of the music and true to their personality. Remember, Bernstein’s conducting teacher was Fritz Reiner- one would never, ever guess that two such visually dis-similar maestri had a link. Props to both of them- Reiner for teaching Bernstein in a way that freed him to find his own style, and Bernstein for not simply imitating his teacher, who was certainly one of the great conductors.
  • I’m not excusing poor technique or encouraging vague gestures. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that the best way to learn an effective technique, a clear technique, a useful technique, is to listen, not to try to imitate the visual language of another conductor.
  • Along these lines- when I was in my early career, and ripped away from the virtuosic colleagues I’d been at school with and trying to cut my teeth with orchestras of mixed standards, I sometimes found myself beating my head against the wall when, for instance, a section would keep dragging or entering late. I’d try to beat “clearer”, and would even videotape rehearsals to see if what I was doing was what I thought I was doing. I’d get closer and closer to the visual ideal of a perfectly clear beat- showing excatly when to prepare and when to play with maximum clarity and precision, and the orchestra wouldn’t improve. Finally, in desperation, I tried getting completely out of the way, as one might with a better orchestra, and guess what- they got better.  In this case, conducting less “clearly” and precisely obtained a much better result
  • There’s no magic formula. Things that work one place may not in another. I’ve found that my “getting out of the way” method tends to make motoric music way easier to play about 98% of the time, no matter how good or bad the orchestra, but there are exceptions. I had one last summer- a passage in steady 8th notes that went on for days. Moreover, it was a very atmospheric passage- not something you would want to sound “beat-y”. It was not too bad at first, and as I tried to get more fluidity and more atmosphere, and to get the players really listening to each other, I tried to get out of the way a bit more and it all went pear shaped.Just one or two players started fretting, then gradually the virus spread. I thought of the hundreds of times I’d run into similar issues before where just sticking to my guns had worked miracles. Not this time. Things just got worse until I gave in and switched to Kapellmeister mode, and all was then fine. I I should have realized sooner that even though it was a great orchestra, they were losing confidence, not gaining it. The lesson in both this case study and the previous one is that if you find yourself saying “this should be working but it’s not” while in front of an orchestra, think again.  In this  case, conducting more clearly was what was needed.
  • I think teachers can help students to look better and to free themselves from thinking about how they look by directing their awareness in more healthy directions. If I see a technical problem- something that’s perhaps visually hard for the players to read, I try to find a way to correct the visual ambiguity by addressing the music, the musicians and the way in which the conductor is moving rather than what they look like, but I’m still learning strategies for this as a teacher
  • One should never make the mistake of equating technical sloppiness with being “musical.” Technique is very important for conductors and is only getting more and more so as we all lose rehearsal time in this age of austerity. The problem is not that thinking about how we look makes us somehow too technical (or too visual), it’s that it stunts the growth of our technique. Real technique, the ability to engage with sound, to take the performance somewhere, to facilitate the best and most confident playing of the orchestra emerges only in relationship to your musicianship and the orchestra, which you can’t fully engage with if you are thinking about your appearance.

Thanks again for reading, everyone

If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more about how conducting really works, why not come to my talk at The Bridgewater Hall next month?

Magicians of the Orchestra: The Art of Conducting-Strauss’s Voice

International Concert Series

Saturday, 8 February, 2014 2:00PM The Bridgewater Hall

You’ll see me dissect some fascinating footage of great conductors of the past and work with a young conductor in a masterclass with an orchestra of talented musicians from the RNCM

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The first of our guest Repertoire Reports, submitted on behalf of the CBSO Youth Orchestra by their manager, Richard Bratby: Dear Ken, Hope you’re well! Since you’re just doing your repertoire reports, I thought I’d let you know what the CBSO Youth Orchestra has been up to in 2013. As usual, they’ve only three concerts this year, but I’m keen for people to know about them, partly because of some silly things that I’ve heard said lately: about young people not having the attention span for large-scale music, about their supposed lack of interest in serious repertoire, and the idea that to interest young people, you have to stick to popular classics and film scores. I still hear these patronising (and defeatist) ideas repeated depressingly frequently.Everything we do with this orchestra is grounded in the exact opposite of these ideas – our young musicians adore this repertoire and I can testify that they played the socks off it! It was particularly thrilling to watch them fall in love, en masse, with the Revueltas, Messiaen and Korngold. Coming in 2014: “Zarathustra”, Metamorphosen, and premieres by Turnage and Charlotte Bray!

Best wishes, and Happy New Year, Richard Debussy: La Mer (Ilan Volkov) Korngold: Much Ado About Nothing – suite (Michael Seal) Messiaen: Poemes pour Mi (Ilan Volkov / Allison Bell) Mozart: Symphony No.36 “Linz” (Michael Seal) Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Andrew Litton / Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) Ravel: Mother Goose – ballet (Michael Seal) Revueltas: Homenaje a F D Lorca (Michael Seal) Sibelius: Symphony No.5 Mahler: Symphony No.5 (Andrew Litton)

1 year ago | |
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Well, once I broke the seal yesterday and put together my 2013 Repertoire Report, I couldn’t really resist filling in my missing report from last year. So, herewith, my 2012 Repertoire Report.

Interesting points of comparison with 2013:

No Shostakovich in 2012 (compared to Cello Concerto, Chamber Symphony opus 83a, Symphonies 5 and 14 and the 8th String Quartet in 2013)

A lot more Brahms in 2012 than 2013, and (finally) one major work by Bartók.

Some very interesting new pieces and new composer- particularly my first encounters with Robert Saxton, John McCabe and Deborah Pritchard. Conducting my first Tippett was a HUGE awakening, too. A revelation, even.

What did you conduct last year? Send in your list (info@kennethwoods.net ), and we’ll publish it and add it to the archive.

Most played composer of 2012: Beethoven (7 works)

  • Brahms- 5
  • Mozart- 5
  • Gal- 4
  • Vaughan Williams- 3
  • Dvorak- 3
  • Haydn- 3
  1. Bach (arr Sitkovetsky)- Goldberg Variations
  2. Bartók- Concerto for Orchestra
  3. Beethoven: String Trio in Eb Major, Opus 3
  4. Beethoven- Overture “Egmont”
  5. Beethoven- Overture “Coriolanus”
  6. Beethoven- Violin Concerto in D Major
  7. Beethoven- Triple Concerto +
  8. Beethoven- Symphony no. 2 in D major
  9. Beethoven- Symphony no. 3 “Eroica”
  10. Brahms- Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor opus 25
  11. Brahms- Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (soloist)
  12. Brahms- Serenade in D major, opus 11 rec
  13. Brahms- Symphony no. 2  in D major
  14. Brahms – Symphony no. 3
  15. Britten- Variations on a Theme of FrankBridge +
  16. Bruckner- Symphony no. 5 in B flat Major +
  17. Chopin- Cello Sonata in G minor
  18. Melissa Dunphy: The Voyage of the Dreadnaught  *World Premiere* +
  19. Dvorak- Cello Concerto in B minor, opus 104
  20. Dvorak- The Water Goblin +
  21. Dvorak- Symphonic Variations +
  22. Elgar: Serenade for Strings
  23. Elgar- Enigma Variations
  24. Falla- Nights in the Gardens of Spain * + rec
  25. Franck- Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra + rec
  26. Gál- String Trio in F sharp Minor, opus 104
  27. Gál- Serenade in D major, opus 41 Mvt 4
  28. Gál- Triptych for Orchestra
  29. Gál- Symphony no. 2 + rec
  30. Lou Harrison – String Trio (1946) * +
  31. Haydn – Symphony no. 31 (Horn Signal) +
  32. Haydn- Symphony no. 83 “La Poule” +
  33. Haydn- Symphony no. 95 +
  34. Krása- Tanec
  35. Gyorgy Kurtag: Signs, Games, & Messages +
  36. Mahler (arr. Karp)- Adagietto for Cello and Piano + (UK Premiere)
  37. Mahler- Ruckert Lieder
  38. Mahler- Symphony no. 3 +
  39. Mahler- Symphony no. 6 in A minor
  40. John McCabe- Trumpet Concerto “La Primavera” wp * + rec
  41. Mendelssohn- Symphony no. 3 in A “Scottish”
  42. Mozart- Adagio and Fugue
  43. Mozart – Violin Concerto no. 3
  44. Mozart- Piano Concerto in A major, K488
  45. Mozart- Symphony no. 36 “Linz”
  46. Mozart- Symphony no. 38 “Prague”
  47. Deborah Pritchard- Skyspace for Piccolo Trumpet and Strings * + rec
  48. Robert Saxton- Psalm, a Song of Ascents  * + rec
  49. Sawyers- Duo Concertante for violin, piano and strings +
  50. Schubert- Symphony no. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”
  51. Schumann- Genoveva Overture
  52. Schumann- Symphony no. 4 rec
  53. Sibelius- String Quartet in B flat Major opus 4 +
  54. Sibelius- Piano Quintet in G minor +
  55. Schnittke – String Trio
  56. Tchaikovsky- Suite from “The Nutcracker”
  57. Tchaikovsky- Symphony no. 6 in B minor “Pathetique”
  58. Tippett- Little Music for Strings * +
  59. Tippett- Divertimento “Selinger’s Round” * +
  60. Turina- Rapsodica Sinfonica * + rec
  61. Vaughan Williams- Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis 2x
  62. Vaughan-Williams- The Lark Ascending 2x
  63. Vaughan Williams- Overture to “The Wasps”
  64. Michael Vincent Waller – Studiare per Zero Quartetti (2012) for string trio * +
  65. Michael Vincent Waller – Per Mia Madre* (2012) for string trio  * +
  66. Weber- Clarinet Concerto no. 1 +
  67. Weber- Oberon Overture

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It’s that time of year again here at Vftp Int’l Headquarters…

Repertoire Report Season- that exciting time when we look back at the year that just ended and take stock of who has been conducting and playing what. I really can’t believe it’s already been a year since I filed the last one.

Err….Um….

Actually, it’s been two years. This time last year, I was so busy preparing over 170 minutes of music for the sessions for Auricolae; The Double Album (coming out in May, we hope) that I skipped Repertoire Report Season altogether. That means that my last report was actually for 2011, rather than 2012. Sorry!

Anyway- it’s fun to do this, and remember, I’m very happy to post YOUR repertoire report here. Just email it to info@kennethwoods.net and we’ll add it to the archive, and Tweet it to the world.

Here’s a key to the symbols you’ll see in the list below:

  • “vc” = I was playing cello rather than conducting
  • “2x, 3x”= Works that I’ve done with more than one group. Multiple repeats of Epomeo and Auricolae pieces (there tend to be many) are not counted unless they involved changes of personnel
  • “*”= A composer whose music I have not done before in this capacity (conducting/playing for the first time).
  • “+”= A work new to my repertoire
  • rec” = A piece I recorded this year for CD
  • “wp” = A world premiere

Some key stats.

Composer with most pieces on the list: Mozart (8 pieces)

Other composers who did well

  • Beethoven (6)
  • Shostakovich (5)
  • Philip Sawyers (4)
  • Mendelssohn (4)
  • David Yang (4)
  • Britten (3)
  • Tchaikovsky (3)

I’m pleased to see that there are two living composers on that list, plus two composers whose life-spans overlapped with mine (Britten and Shostakovich).

 Other points of interest:

I conducted only two Beethoven symphonies this year, which is low for me, and I conducted them on consecutive days. I also conducted two Mendelssohn symphonies this year, also on consecutive days with the same two orchestras. This was completely accidental. I was very excited to conduct two symphonies by Bruckner for the first time in a calendar year (albeit not on the same weekend), although I’d known the 7th backwards for most of my life and had workshopped it before. The Second was completely new to me, and I can’t wait to do it again. It’s now on my “I really have to record” list.

On the other hand, in 2013, I didn’t conduct any Mahler symphonies at all- a first since I started doing repertoire reports. Fortunately, I’ll do at least 3 next year (No.s 7, 5 and 4). 2013 was the fifth year in a row I recorded a major orchestral work(s) of Hans Gál. Now that the symphonic cycle is in the can, can I keep that momentum going? We’re hoping to record the Cello Concertino soon, but everything is still in pencil. Once we get the recording of the First done, I’ll need to take some time to see what we can do next on that front.

The bad news this year? No Bartók, no Stravinsky, no Debussy, no Ravel, no Janacek, no Messsiaen, no Prokofiev. Did I really not conduct a Brahms or Haydn symphony all year? Crikey. The good news? Finally, a year with more than one work by a “New Viennese” school composer (Schoenberg and Berg).

Speaking of firsts- 2013 is the first year in which any of my own music has appeared on one of these lists. Thanks to the combined miracles of deadlines, shame, pressure, coffee, support-from-friends, determination, booze and fear-of-failure I managed to finally shake off 15+ years of writers block and finish and perform two decent sized pieces. I’m not sure premiering your own music is ideal, but it sure is humbling- you sit down at the instrument knowing every note, but not being able to play any of them well.

It’s a longer list than the most recent one from 2011: 84 works versus 66. 2010 was a bit longer at 90 pieces. What pleases me, however, is that I think it’s the most interesting list I’ve come up with so far in my career. There are a lot of major pieces on here that anyone would consider a rare privilege to perform, works that are difficult to play or program, particularly dark or forbidding (Berg Chamber Concerto, Sibelius 4, Shostakovich 14- all from the month of June- spring to mind), contemporary works (I count 19 living composers). Also, all those composers with *’s (10-11 new composers for me this year): it’s so important and inspiring for performers to learn new musical languages. For instance- I’d never conducted anything by John Adams- learning the Violin Concerto took a lot of work, but understanding it took way more, and was incredibly rewarding. I expect to do more of his music in the years ahead.

Here’s the full list:

  1. John Adams - Violin Concerto  * +
  2. Beethoven Overture – Creatures of Prometheus
  3. Beethoven- Overture “Egmont”
  4. Beethoven – String Trio in E-flat, Op. 3 vc
  5. Beethoven- String Quartet in E flat, opus 127 vc
  6. Beethoven- Symphony no. 2
  7. Beethoven – Symphony no 4
  8. Berg - Concerto for Piano, Violin & 13 +
  9. Bernstein- On the Waterfront +
  10. T. Brady – “We’re Hardcore”  * +
  11. Brahms- Violin Concerto 2x
  12. Britten Les Illuminations 2x
  13. Britten – Sinfonietta +
  14. Britten – Variations on a Theme of FrankBridge, Op.10
  15. Bruckner- Symphony no. 2 +
  16. Bruckner- Symphony no. 7 in E major
  17. Andrea Clearfield - “Three Tenses of Light” for string quartet and chorus vc * +
  18. Melissa Dunphy - “Captain Samuels Speaks to the Sea” for string trio and narrator 2x vc *
  19. Dvorak- Symphony no. 6 in D major
  20. Elgar- Sea Pictures (world premiere of new choral arrangement by Donald Fraser *) rec +
  21. Gál- Concertino for Cello and Strings +
  22. Gál- Symphony no. 1 rec +
  23. Peter Gilbert - Awake and Shine for acoustic guitar and string quartet vc * +
  24. Handel- Messiah
  25. Haydn- Cello Concerto no. 2 in D major (soloist)
  26. Haydn- Trumpet Concerto
  27. Holst- A Somerset Rhapsody +
  28. Andrew Keeling- Piano Quartet * +
  29. Tom Kraines- Hansel and Gretel vc rec
  30. Krása – Tanec & Passacaglia and Fuga
  31. Gyorgi Kurtag – Signs, Games and Messages * +
  32. Martin Kutnowski- How the Toad Got His Spots vc rec
  33. Gerald Levinson-Three Fables by Robert Lax  vc rec
  34. Mahler- Piano Quartet +
  35. Mendelssohn- Overture “Hebrides”
  36. Mendelssohn- Violin Concerto no. 2 in E minor
  37. Mendelssohn Symphony No. 1
  38. Mendelssohn- Symphony no. 3 “Scottish”
  39. Mozart- Serenade: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
  40. Mozart – Don Giovanni Overture
  41. Mozart- Clarinet Concerto
  42. Mozart – Oboe Concerto
  43. Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453
  44. Mozart- Requiem in D minor
  45. Mozart - Wind Serenade No. 10, K. 361, Gran Partita
  46. Mozart Symphony No. 33 +
  47. Penderecki – String Trio +
  48. Jay Reise- The Warrior Violinist vc rec * +
  49. Respighi- Ancient Airs and Dances Suite no. 2 +
  50. Philip Sawyers- Overture “The Gale of Life”
  51. Philip Sawyers- Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings rec
  52. Philip Sawyers- Cello Concerto 2x rec +
  53. Philip Sawyers- Symphony no. 2 rec
  54. Schnittke - String Trio
  55. Schoenberg- Verklarte Nacht vc rec +
  56. Schubert – Rosamunde Overture
  57. Schumann- Symphony no. 1 “Spring” rec
  58. Shostakovich - Cello Concerto  No. 1
  59. Shostakovich- Chamber Symphony opus 83a (arr. 4th Quartet)
  60. Shostakovich- String Quartet no. 8
  61. Shostakovich Symphony no. 5
  62. Shostakovich- Symphony no14 +
  63. Sibelius- Symphony no. 2
  64. Sibelius – Symphony no 4 +
  65. Kile Smith- The BremenTown Musicians vc
  66. Kile Smith - “Plain Truths” for baritone, chorus, string quartet (expanded, World Premiere), vc +
  67. Suk- Serenade for Strings + *
  68. Toru Takemitsu- Death and Resurrection * +
  69. Tchaikovsky- Andante Cantabile (arr. String Orchestra) +
  70. Tchaikovsky- Violin Concerto
  71. Tchaikovsky- Symphony no. 2 “Little Russian”
  72. Ullmann (arr. Woods)- Chamber Symphony opus 43a
  73. Andrew Waggoner- The Emperor’s New Clothes vc rec
  74. Walton- Cello Concerto (soloist) +
  75. Weber- Oberon Overture
  76. Kurt Weill – A Little Threepenny Music –Suite for Wind Ensemble +
  77. Weinberg - String Trio vc * +
  78. Tom Whitman- The Princess and the Man with a Pure Heart vc rec
  79. Kenneth Woods- The Ugly Duckling vc rec wp+ *
  80. Kenneth Woods - “Demonstrations” for electric guitar and string trio vc rec wp +
  81. David Yang- Lubin, from Chelm vc rec
  82. David Yang- Two Brothers vc rec
  83. David Yang- The Matzoh Ball Man vc rec +
  84. David Yang- Three Wishes vc rec+

1 year ago | |
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It’s that time of year again, when musicians all around the world are taking another stab at Handel’s Messiah. For me, it means coming back to a piece I’ve done many times after a long-ish break.

Handel, lookin' suave- Extensive research has shown Vftp blog posts with pictures get more hits

Handel, lookin’ suave- Extensive research has shown Vftp blog posts with pictures get more hits

I didn’t always love Messiah. In fact, when I first encountered it, I really disliked it.  In my small-minded way, I couldn’t help but compare it damningly with Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, a piece I’d always loved and knew more intimately.  (For all the complexity of his music, I think Bach is one of the easiest composers to “get.” I can’t think of any Bach piece I couldn’t tell was a work of genius the first time I heard it, no matter how awful the performance or how discombobulated my thinking. I can’t think of another composer I can say that about). There are still moments in the libretto of Messiah that really bother, even upset me.

Of course, recognizing that a piece of music is not as great a work as the Saint Matthew Passion is no great act of critical discernment- the same could be said of every other piece of music ever written with the possible exception of the Schubert Cello Quintet and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Eventually, however, if one has ears to listen , one realizes that a piece you might not have loved on first sight is good- maybe even great.

Then, you start figuring out why it is great, and the more you figure out, the greater you realize it is. For a conductor, this is about the time that you seriously start itching to “do” the piece, and through study and performance, you hope to find a sort of beneficial cycle of practical experience and genuine insight.

Long time readers of this blog will recognize that I’m a big believer that as musicians, we owe the composer the benefit of the doubt. As often discussed on these pages, any idiot can see that the “invasion theme” in Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony is pretty repetitious, and rather obviously “un-symphonic.” After all, he’s replaced the development section of a symphony with something two or three times as long as a “normal” development section in which essentially no development takes place. I’m amazed that many good musicians still can’t seem to get past this- it seems obvious that Shostakovich knew he was breaking the rules. Don’t we owe him the benefit of the doubt to find out why? When a great composer frustrates us, when the music disappoints our expectations, there’s usually a very good reason.

Shostakovich after the publication of

Dmitri Shostakovich- you’d be amazed how many people come to this blog just looking for a picture of Mr.DSCH

Back when I didn’t care for Messiah, one of my gripes was that so many movements seem to cover awfully similar musical territory.  As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to understand that what at first seems like torturously pointless repetition is really an extremely sophisticated large-scale structural plan that is actually, in a way, quite symphonic (I’m talking about Messiah, not Shostakovich 7). This time around, I’ve been particularly struck by the way that the big ideas of the piece emerge from the fabric of what comes before. There’s possibly no more galvanizing-ly powerful moment in choral music than the bit in the Hallelujah chorus with the sequence “And He shall reign.” How interesting that the musical substance of that passage has long been coming into being, evolving gradually from near the very beginning of the work, with the similar descending sequence in “Let all the angels of God worship Him” and the rising fourths to the word “goodwill” in “Glory to God” marking major landmarks on the road to this moment.

Of course, 99% of the people who hear this music at all hear “Hallelujah” long before they hear any other part of Messiah (if they ever get beyond “Hallelujah” at all), and yet, to me the sort of super-charged joyful intensity that particular passage has in “Hallelujah” seems to be somehow informed by the journey that precedes it. A listener hearing the chorus for the first time won’t know this, but just about everyone seems to sense that there’s something about this music that is suffused with energy.

The opening of “Hallelujah” used to kind of mystify me, too. The first three bars seem so ordinary (and so many performances of them sound so WOODEN)- they just sort of trot along with a kind of inside-out, non-descript wordless version of what will become the “Hallelujah” theme. Why didn’t Handel come up with a more dramatic opening? And why only three bars?  Surely a four-bar intro would have been more powerful- was he just being fancy? Lazy? And why not let the violins play the real theme? I always think it’s funny that audiences traditionally stand as soon as the movement starts- surely it’s the music in the fourth bar, when the choir sings the first “Hallelujah” that should make you want to jump out of your seat. Conductors so often seem wrong footed by these three bars, as if we don’t really know what to do with them. Many go for the “just try something” approach- we might try the “amp up the pomposity” approach or the “show ‘em your Birkenstock’s” extra-HIP version. Handel doesn’t help- there’s no dynamic in the intro, nor is there one for the entrance of the chorus. There are lots of possibilities, but I’ve also heard a lot of unsuccessful stabs at “the REALLLLLLY soft opening” or “the conspicuous crescendo.” Let’s face it, whether you bulk it up with Brucknerian steroids or make it extra mincy, it’s just three bars of medium tempo trotting with the tune turned inside out.

Yet Handel, who knew a thing or two about drama having written who-knows-how-many operas (forty-two or forty-six depending on what you count) by this point in life, knew exactly what he was doing, which is obvious if we give him the benefit of the doubt.  This sort of seemingly non-descript “trotting” music has actually permeated the work up to this point. That was always one of my problems with the piece when I was young and taking in the work one movement at a time. When you’ve just heard “And he shall purify,” doesn’t “For unto us a Child is born” sound eerily similar? Medium temp, jolly, trotting eighth-note groove, a melody in moderate note values and a bit of sixteenth-notey coloratura. Then there’s “His yoke is easy.” Similar tempo, similar tune, just a slightly jazzier flourish to those sixteenth-notey runs. Fast forward a few tracks, and you’ve got “All we like sheep.” Sure it’s funnier than the others, in ways both intentional and unintentional (sheep jokes just get funnier and funnier the longer I live in Wales), but it’s still that same trotting bass line, the same mid-tempo grove, with thematic gestures similar in length and shape to those in “For unto us.”

I’ve certainly heard MANY performances that left me thinking that Handel was probably just trying to cover all this theological bases with some thinly spread recycled stock musical ideas, but experience teaches that the failing in these cases was in the performance, not the piece. Over the years, I became convinced that a lot of this was to do with tempo and put a lot of thought into making sure that I wouldn’t fall into the “universal tempo” trap, trying to highlight the differences between these admittedly similar movements, and actively seeking out the textual motivations for those differences. This time, however, I’m realizing that for all it’s important to do that (like most music lovers, I have come close to chewing my own arm off to relieve the boredom during an ill-conceived Messiah), it’s also important for me to realize that Handel, the dramatist, knew what he was doing, and that the similarities are very much part of the point. Those similarities are obvious, so it’s likely they’re both intentional and important. Why?

All of these choruses seem to be on one level about expectation, about the promise of divinity. They all sing about what humanity hopes or expects or believes divine intervention will bring to the world.

If you’ve had this idea of expectation in mind every time you’ve heard those seemingly banal trotting eighth notes over the previous 90 minutes, then surely those first three bars of “Hallelujah” can be seen as literally bursting with anticipation, with tension, with barely contained joy. After all the waiting, after all the hoping, the endless expectation, in these three bars we’re literally standing on the threshold of the vision the piece has been seeking throughout. Of course, I can now see why the choir comes in after just three bars- this close to the moment in which the biggest of all promises is fulfilled, nobody could expect them to wait one moment longer, let alone a fourth bar.

1 year ago | |
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Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, Greater Boston Youth Orchestras and Kentucky Youth Symphony has passed away at the age of 97. Marvin was one of the most universally admired and loved people I have ever encountered in the music world- a man remembered with deep affection by seemingly everyone who played under his baton, and deeply respected by every colleague he worked with.

Two beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013

Two great conductors and beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013

I last saw Marvin only a few weeks ago at my concert with the UW-Madison Symphony. It meant the world to me that he came to the concert because the main work on the program, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, had been the first piece of orchestral music I had ever heard live- played by WYSO under Marvin’s baton when I was just a very little boy. After the concert, we spoke at length about the piece, and Marvin’s intimate knowledge and love of the score was as inspiring as ever. Although he had not conducted the piece in decades, he remembered every metronome marking- something far too many conductors never bother to learn in the first place. Although Marvin’s eyesight and hearing had both been failing in recent years, it was clear to me that he had taken in every note and every nuance of that concert, and every other one he had been to in recent years, through sheer force of will and love of the art. Marvin was pleased to know I was living and working in Britain, and talked with great fondness about the year he came to this country to observe how the British youth orchestra programs worked. “My favourite program,” he told me, “was the one founded by Béla de Csilléry in Kent.” This moment, when the man who opened the door to me being a conductor talked about watching rehearsals at the Kent County Youth Orchestra, where I’ve been conducting regularly for nearly a decade, really hit home how deeply connected we all are in life.

Marvin was, by all accounts, both a great musician and a great music educator, and he also understood how to create youth orchestras that had the right organizational framework and the right outlook to give young people a chance to experience great music first hand. Having conducted WYSO through its early years with great success, Marvin was that rare founder of an organization who was able to step aside gracefully. He was always available to the board, the organization and his successors as resource, sounding board or cheerleader, but never seemed to need to remind the world of his role in establishing the program.

I never had the privilege of watching one of Marvin’s clinics or coachings, but I’ve heard a number of music educators and conductors speak with awe of his ability to transform an orchestra of young players with a few suggestions, and to open the eyes of a colleague in profound way with a  few gently shared insights into a score.

There is a moving and informative tribute from Jake Stockinger at The Well-Tempered Ear here. “… he made understanding music and making music seem like completely natural and totally necessary, even inevitable, acts. “

In 2011, Marvin received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin School Music Foundation. He was only the third recipient, the first being Les Paul. The foundation asked a number of us to record little video greetings talking about the ways in which Marvin had touched our lives. I thought I would include it here as a personal testament to the affection, admiration and gratitude he continues to inspire in so many of us who were lucky enough to come into contact with him.

PS- Recent thoughts on the impact of WYSO here.

1 year ago | |
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I thought some readers might be interested in a little essay I contributed to the current edition of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ newsletter. A text version follows the scan.

Youth orchestras are incredibly important- they make a huge difference in all kinds of young people’s lives. Support the one in your community!

WYSO Newsletter

When I was still in preschool, my teacher took a few of us to hear Marvin Rabin rehearsing WYSO for an upcoming performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. My parents had an LP of the piece at home, but hearing that music live, and seeing young musicians play it so well was a transformational moment for me. It set me on the path to a lifelong engagement with orchestras, with Shostakovich, and with conducting. From that moment, I was determined to be a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Once I joined the orchestras, my years in WYSO were full of important firsts. Tom Buchhauser made every Philhramonia rehearsal exciting and enjoyable. Working with David Nelson, I remember playing the music of Mahler and Dvorák for the first time.  As a senior, I was doubly lucky to be there for the arrival of James Smith as music director, and to be promoted to principal cellist. I had never felt anything was missing from my WYSO experiences up to that point, but Jim’s wisdom, musicianship, leadership and humor totally transformed the orchestra that year. Every rehearsal with Jim was productive, inspiring and challenging. We only studied about half as much repertoire as we had in previous seasons, but under Jim, we learned it in real depth.  For a young musician who had already developed more than a passing interest in conducting, Jim was a perfect example of what a conductor should be, and what a great conductor can contribute to an organization. When that incarnation of WYSO finished its run after an East Coast tour, there were a lot of teary goodbye’s, but, happily, many of us have stayed in touch ever since. People I worked with in WYSO continue to be friends and colleagues to this day.

Jim set the bar very high in WYSO. Just how high I learned after graduation when I began my undergraduate studies in cello at Indiana University’s School of Music. On my first concert in the freshman orchestra, we played the very piece that we’d worked on with Jim for all of the previous year- Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony. I was so excited to do the piece with all these amazing music majors from all over the country, but in spite of a wealth of talent in the group, without the right kind of leadership, and an institutional commitment to excellence,  the performance fell far short of what we’d managed in WYSO just a few months before.  From WYSO I learned that the true measure of an orchestra is not how many hotshot players you can cram on stage, but getting them to work together, and making every rehearsal the best it can be.

I’ve conducted just about every kind of orchestra there is now, from the Royal Philharmonic right down to the most modest gathering of amateurs, but working with young musicians has remained a constant source of inspiration. During my years in Oregon, I founded a new youth orchestra, which has produced a number of wonderful young musicians in its first ten years, and WYSO was very much the model for that organization. Likewise, whenever I guest conduct youth orchestras, I try to remember it’s about more than putting on a concert. The lessons learned and discoveries made in WYSO shaped me as a musician, and serve as a reminder that youth orchestra is a place to open doors that can change lives forever.

1 year ago | |
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Hello everyone

Bobberdammerung approaches!

It’s less than forty-eight hours now until recording sessions begin for volume 4 of Bobby and Hans- the complete symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann. We’re all very excited that the day is nearly at hand. YOU made it happen!

Interest in the project continues to pick up. Performance Today, American Public Media’s national digest of live classical music, has just rebroadcast our performance of Schumann’s 2nd Symphony, recorded in December 2011 as part of the sessions for volume 2 in the series. They’ve also included a selection from our recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, sung by the incomparable tenor Brennen Guillory. You can listen to the program online until Thursday the 5th of December here.

Also in America, Listen Magazine has published a new essay on “The Case for Hans Gal.” It’s in the Winter 2013 issue- on newsstands now or subcribe online. You can get a sneak peak here.

Finally, this memorable graphic from Zoe was one of the iconic images of the campaign:

Well, thanks to your generosity and tenacity, we can now fill in the blank box with the cover for vol 4, which will be released in March:

Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

We look forward to seeing many of you on Tuesday. Thank you so much for your support!

–Ken

1 year ago | |
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The team at Listen Magazine (a great magazine you should subscribe to if you read this blog) gave me the chance to “make the case” for the music of Hans Gal. My response is in the Winter 2013 issue, on newsstands now.  There are also cool features on Jonas Kaufman, an article on Wagner by Jens F Laurson and a very interesting piece on the meeting of Marian Anderson and Sibelius.

Listen Mag Gal p 1

Listen Mag Gal p 2

Listen Mag Gal p 3

Listen Mag Gal cover

1 year ago | |
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Re-blogged from the Bobby and Hans Campaign Indiegogo page

Hello everyone

The countdown to our final Bobby and Hans project is underway. In one week, the orchestra will take to the stage for the first live performance of Gal’s First Symphony in over 43 years.Concert details are here.

There’s been a surge of interest in the project you made possible over the last few weeks, so we thought we might take a moment to update you.

Over at Capital Radio, music programming director Kent Teeters offers up an audio review of vol. 2.

The audiophile magazine Positive Feedback reviews vol. 3 in their most recent issue. “Woods, proves a persuasive advocate for the score, balancing an ear for detail with a sense of the music’s long line; … they produce polished, full-bodied sounds and phrase expressively.”

There’s an essay on Gal in the current issue of Listen Magazine. Ken discusses Gal’s life, music and importance, and offers a behind the scenes look into the process of learning and recording this long-lost music. “In 2009, I wrote a blog post entitled “Who is Hans Gál and why are you recording his music?” On that September morning, Gál was, in the words of one colleague, “the very best composer in the world that nobody has ever heard of.”

Fanfare Magazine has a review in their current issue for volume three in our series. “Woods’s album is a valuable addition to our understanding of the 20th-century symphony.”

Bob Shingleton, aka Pliable, cites our Indiegogo campaign in a stinging critique of classical music’s misplaced priorities. “Recordings of Hans Gal’s Symphonies by Kenneth Woods and Missy Mazolli’s opera  are just two important projects that relied on crowdfunding. $13,500 was needed to deliver the acclaimed Gal Symphonies; 0.08% of the amount reportedly paid each year to Gergiev”

Radio host Rich Samuels at WORT-FM continues to broadcast performances from our series. His most recent show included the complete recording of Gal’s 2nd Symphony, which you can listen to online until Thanksgiving this week. The Gal starts at 2 hours 8 minutes

review from Andrew Achenbach on the Classical Ear for volume 3:  ”Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan  lend this radiant and substantial score the most eloquent and affecting advocacy, and go on to give a comparably accomplished and invigorating account of Schumann’s masterly Fourth Symphony – a strikingly fresh-faced, spontaneous-sounding display, full of illuminating touches, personable warmth and genuine freshness of new discovery. Do investigate this bold, enormously rewarding coupling.”

1 year ago | |
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