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Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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1 year ago | |
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KENNETH WOODS UPS TO PRINCIPAL CONDUCTOR OF

ENGLISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Kenneth Woods

Photo-Benjamin Ealovega

Kenneth Woods, who was appointed Artistic Director of the English Symphony Orchestra‘s new Malvern-based subscription series in December 2012, has been promoted by the Worcestershire-based orchestra to the post of Principal Conductor. The American-born, Cardiff-based Woods becomes the orchestra’s first principal conductor since the passing of Vernon Handley in 2008.

“We started exploring possibilities with Ken towards the end of last year, asking him to curate the Malvern concert series during 2013, at the end of which we planned to take stock,” comments the ESO’s CEO Peter Sheeran. ”In the event, his involvement with the different elements that make up the ESO has been a shot in the arm for us and we see every reason to bring forward his appointment. We are announcing our new season next month and want to have Ken at the forefront of it.”

Woods comes to the ESO following a highly successful tenure as Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan, with whom he has made an acclaimed series of recordings of the symphonies of Hans Gál and Robert Schumann, earning the orchestra its first “Gramophone Editor’s Choice.” Numerous other plaudits have brought OOTS to the attention of a new global audience, with coverage from The New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio in the United States and BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4 in the UK, among others.

Ken’s passion for taking music to all kinds of listeners and venues is very much in line with the ESO’s motto of “Music for Everyone.” He embraces the future of both the ESO’s concert and community projects with equal enthusiasm. “My colleagues in the ESO do the work they do in schools, care homes, hospices and on youth orchestra courses because they believe in it. The musicians have stayed loyal to the orchestra through the years because, as many of them have told me, it’s the orchestra they want to play in” said Woods. “What could be more exciting for a conductor than to work with colleagues who want to be there, who believe in everything the orchestra is doing?”

Ken’s admirable work in bringing classical music to rural and under-served communities began in his native America through the National Endowment for the Arts Rural Residency Program, where as cellist of the Taliesin Trio he set up a dynamic chamber music program in Mississippi County, Arkansas, part of the poorest congressional district in the United States. He previously served as Music Director of the Oregon East Symphony in the small  rodeo town of Pendleton, Oregon, an orchestra once described as “the most remotely situated full symphony orchestra on the planet.” With the OES Ken not only developed the orchestra’s concert activities through a highly-praised “Redneck” Mahler cycle, numerous premieres, commissions, regional tours and composer residencies, but also co-founded a multifaceted educational program called “Playing for Keeps,” comprising two training orchestras, a children’s chorus, a summer music camp, regular youth concerts and support for private instrumental lessons and instrument rental.

Ken’s resume includes guest conducting with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, State of Mexico Symphony and National Symphony Orchestra (Washington D.C.), and appearances at the Aspen, Scotia and Round Top music festivals. He has recorded with Northern Sinfonia and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and in August makes his first recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. An eloquent communicator, Ken has been heard frequently on the BBC, most recently taking part in the BBC Proms Literary Festival discussing A Mahler Anthology, a selection of readings about the composer, including letters, reviews and biographies. His widely read and respected blog A View from the Podium, is one of the 25 most read classical music blogs.

Details of the English Symphony Orchestra’s 2013-14 season will be announced in early September, and will include a number of exciting initiatives, including debut performances in new venues and the appointment of a composer-in-association. The English Symphony Orchestra’s autumn season opens on September 27th at Christ Church in Malvern, with Woods conducting a programme featuring the music of Mendelssohn and the Concerto for Cello and Strings by Hans Gál.

* * * * *

All media enquiries, interview and image requests: Melanne Mueller,melanne@musiccointernational.com,  +44 (0) 20 8698 6933 or +1 917 907 2785

To learn more about Kenneth Woods visit http://kennethwoods.net.

To learn more about the English Symphony Orchestra visit www.eso.co.uk

PERFORMANCE INFORMATION

September 27, 2013

Mendelssohn “Hebrides” Overture 

Gal Concertino for Cello and Strings

Matthew Sharp cello

Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3, “Scottish”  

November  22, 2013

Tchaikovsky Andante Cantabile  (arr. from String Quartet No. 1)

Shostakovich Chamber Symphony, Op. 83a (arr. from String Quartet No. 4)

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

Tamsin Waley-Cohen violin

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A new review from the August 2013 edition of Gramophone Magazine of the Orchestra of the Swan recording of Gal’s 2nd Symphony and Schumann’s D minor Symphony.

Buy your copy from Amazon here:

Bobby and Hans vol 3

Gramophone Gal Schumann vol 3 pt 1

Gramophone Gal Schumann vol 3 pt 2

Gramophone Gal Schumann vol 3 pt 3

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A review from critic Michael Jameson in the July/August 2013 issue of International Record  Review.

 

Just Released- Volume Three of the Complete Symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann

 

“It is, I dare to assert, the most important Adagio since Bruckner:”: such was the verdict of musicologist and biographer Wilhelm Waldstein on the slow movement of Hans Gál’s Symphony no. 2 in F, Op. 52,  forged during one of the darkest periods of the Second World Ward, and of its composer’s troubled life. Upon hearing the complete work today, one appreciates that its remaining three movements are of similar quality and interest, and this deeply personal and touching symphony can now be evaluated in the second new account to be released within the space of three years on the Avie label.

The world premiere recording of the work (paired with Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony) by the Northern Sinfonia under Thomas Zehetmair was made at the orchestra’s home base, Hall One, at the Age, Gateshead in September 2010. It is now joined by this newcomer from the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan conducted by Kenneth Woods, where the coupling is Schumann’s Symphony no. 4.

Though Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia play the work skilfully enough, there is about Woods’s traversal a ringing personal conviction about the merits of this score which lends a defining urgency and authority to his performance. Densely scored, yet pervaded by a conservatism strongly rooted in the pre-Second Viennese sound-worlds of Brahms and Bruckner (and shot through at times with an English pastoral quality suggestive of Vaughan Williams), this music is never difficult to enjoy.

As the composer’s own programme note states, the emotional axis of the symphony  its Adagio, placed third and lasting over 15 minutes. “It acts,” wrote Gál, “as a “drama of the world” (Weltspiel) between the two parts of a mediation which is turned completely inwards. The actual conflict and its working out is left to the last movement, which, starting out from a passacaglia-like episode, develops into an extended sonata form and, in an ever more calming coda, spins itself again in to the withdrawn mood of the introduction, turned away from the world..” The other-worldliness of the music, however, is anything but Mahlerian in character, eschewing self-regarding angst, and it is the final two movements of the work which produce an undeniably eloquent effect.

Under Woods, the Orchestra of the Swan plays with magnetic conviction and unwavering technical assurance. There’s an ardour and resolve here which leaves the listener in no doubt that these musicians and their conductor believe in the worth of every bar of this music and it would be hard not to remain gripped throughout this traversal. Plangent string textures and solo wind contributions of character and distinction show just how far the Orchestra of the Swan has progressed during the relatively short period of its existence and it plays with more involvement, commitment and individuality than some of its better known rivals. That includes the Northern Sinfonia under Zehetmair, whose more dutiful approach suggests that neither conductor nor players have much faith in the music. Beside the sharp-edged and ever-insightful conducting of Woods, who brings Gál’s music fully to life with unfailing vividness and lucidity, Avie’s premiere recording doesn’t quite live up to expectations.

 “If the Third Symphony represents Schumann’s closest approach to symphonic monumentality,” observed Gál (how many of us gained wider appreciation of Schumann’s orchestral music through the medium of Gál’s excellent little book in the sadly long-forgotten BBC Music Guides series? I still have it on my bookshelves, along with Gál’s The Golden Age of Vienna and Franz Schubert and the Essence of Melody), “the Fourth Symphony is his most ingenious experiment in form.” Certainly in the capable hands of Woods and his Stratford team, Schumann’s D minor Symphony makes a stimulating foil to the Gál work. While this account, freshly minted and invigorating as it is, doesn’t displace the likes of Karajan’s version from his famous 1972  cycle (DG) or Szell’s classic Cleveland Orchestra recording (Sony), there is still plenty to admire and enjoy here.

 With a warm and natural recording (Avie’s engineering in Gateshead tended towards upper-register shrillness) from Stratford-upon-Avon’s Civic Hall, and informative and persuasive notes by Woods himself, this adventurous release  can be unreservedly recommended.

— Michael Jameson

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A tale of two upbeats, a tale of two orchestras

A lot can be communicated non-verbally in rehearsal.

Once upon a time, at the first rehearsal for a concerto…..

Subject: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro Woods

Thank you for your upbeat.

It has been brought to our attention that the tempo of your upbeat is significantly faster than previous performances of this work given by the Philharmonia Metropolitania. Requests for tempo outside the standard deviation of plus or minus 6 beats-per-minute from past approved tempi must be submitted for review by the tempo request committee.

We are concerned that perhaps this quicker tempo was suggested in error. Could you please confirm your intentions by rebounding sharply to the second beat of the first bar? Your request for tempo has been passed along to the tempo committee for prompt consideration. Meanwhile, you may notice a slight delay in the placement of the downbeat of the first bar.

Warm regards

Philharmona Metropolitania

Cc All our friends on Facebook

Subject: Re: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro

Thank you for the prompt confirmation of your request for tempo. Your tempo remains under review, as it is sixteen beats per minute faster than our recording of the work under maestro Dieter von Schlepp, which won a Gramophone award in 1978.

Thank you for conducting the Philharmonia Metropolitania

Subject: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro

We are sorry to inform you that your request for tempo has been respectfully declined. The correct speed for this movement is half-note=144.

In order to make clear the correct tempo, we have taken the prophylactic measure of accenting every beat.

Thank you for your request for tempo. We are sorry we cannot provide you with your requested speed, but the tempo request committee must consider the artistic reputation of the orchestra, the speed at which we can play the piece without having to practice our parts and the tiring effects of playing at excessive speed.

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro

We have noted the resubmission of your request for tempo. The members of the committee feel that as a matter of professional courtesy we ought to inform you that the Philharmonia Metropolitania generally do not ever start a work over again after only four bars. Additionally, please be assured that there is no reason for you make a verbal plea such as the one you just made (“can we just try that once more a little faster?”). Please be assured that the Philharmonia Metropolitania process over six thousand requests for tempo every season, and we feel the members of the committee are eminently well-qualified to vet those requests accurately and appropriately for the benefit of the audience and the comfort of our players.

Since this is your first concert with us, we have, as a courtesy, accepted your re-submission as a formal “appeal of tempo.” Tempo appeals are usually considered only at second rehearsals and only when presented alongside compelling evidence that a peer-group orchestra has previously accepted the requested tempo under the leadership of an established maestro. In any case, we have decided to postpone consideration of your appeal until we have played the entire movement through so that you can hear what the work sounds like at the correct tempo. Again, so that you are able to clearly hear the correct tempo, we will continue to accent every beat.

Thank you again for your upbeat

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro

Thank you for allowing our run through of this movement to proceed at the correct tempo thus far. We are hopeful that you can now see the reasoning behind the committee’s decision.

As a matter of urgency, we feel we must point out to you that the soloist, Mr Morty Purina, has begun his unaccompanied statement of the Rondo theme at half-note=160. We are aware that you met with him earlier today and are very concerned that perhaps you have asked him to play too fast, and that perhaps he was not listening attentively while we played the theme at the correct tempo.

Would you be so kind as to catch his eye and make an attempt to communicate to him that he is playing in an inappropriate tempo?

With warm gratitude

Tempo management committee

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Maestro

We were deeply disappointed to receive your most recent upbeat at the end of the soloist’s 16 bar solo statement of the Rondo theme, which you have once again given in your original tempo of half-note=160.  We recognize this tempo was probably requested in error rather than malice, and we understand bad habits can be hard to break, especially among conductors of limited expertise.

Some members of the orchestra have suggested that perhaps you are not aware that we did correctly receive read your original request for tempo. To clarify to you that we are aware of the speed you wish to conduct the work, a minority of string players are now playing at half-note= 176. We hope this will give you a sense of how bad music sounds when played 16 beats-per-minute too fast.

Meanwhile, the accenting of beats will be strengthened by %20 so that you can more clearly hear the correct tempo.

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Mr Woods

Thank you for your cutoff. We do feel we should point out to you that it is extremely rare for the Philharmonia Metropolitania to stop even once, let alone twice, in a play-through of a standard repertoire work.

It was interesting if slightly concerning to learn from the soloist that your initial tempo of half-note=160 was requested originally by him, Mr Purina, based on information in a personal letter from the composer requesting a speed of half-note=160 as heard on the composer’s own recording of the work. It is possible that Mr Purina has not worked extensively with orchestras of the stature of the Philharmonia Metropolitania- we would ask that your remind him that mentioning a direct personal connection or correspondence with the composer constitutes a violation of the “no name-dropping” policy outlined in paragraph 34231 of the CBA. Also, while these points may be of interest in an abstract, theoretical sense, they are of primarily musicological and scholarly interest, and not really relevant to the rehearsal process. They are rightly the territory of academia, where we feel Mr Purina is probably more at home.

The committee feel it is important to point out to both you and Mr Purina that the composer of this work, being a pianist, could not have anticipated the technical challenges of playing this material on a violin or wind instrument. To accurately render the orchestral passagework at this speed, over 68% of the orchestra will have to practice their parts more than five minutes, and many will find playing at this speed tiring.

Nonetheless, in the interests of completing the rehearsal without further delay, we have decided to proceed with the requested tempo in spite of our grave concerns about its appropriateness. We would respectfully like to direct your attention and that of Mr Purina to our Gramphone Award-winning recording of this work with maestro Dieter von Schlepp. We hope that you and Mr Purina can appreciate how exhausting it is to continue to accent every beat at this extreme speed.

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Thank you for proceeding to the end of the movement without further interruption.

The current orchestral service now has 40 minutes remaining. The members of the player welfare committee wish to point out to you and Mr Purina that this tempo is more tiring than the standard tempo of half-note=144. Also, according to standard rehearsal procedure, tempo deviation requests that are granted are generally rewarded with a two-to-one minute-to-bpm ratio of reduced rehearsal duration. With that in mind, in order to remain eligible for re-engagement, we strongly suggest that you release the orchestra at least 32 minutes early in exchange for the 16 beat-per-minute increase in tempo. Rather than interrupt your remaining rehearsal time to notify you verbally of this expectation, selected members of the orchestra will now begin looking longingly at the clock.

Thank you for conducting the Philharmonia Metropolitania

Same piece, different orchestra, six months earlier…..

Subject: Request for tempo

Morning, Ken. Half-note=160. Got it

Subject: PS

Good pianist!

Subject: PPS

Can’t believe we finished 90 minutes early. Thanks for being so efficient, Ken.

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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.

Jimi-Hendrix-001

Philip-Sawyers-026

(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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