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Kenneth Woods- conductor
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As many of you know, all of us at the English Symphony Orchestra are busy gearing up for our 2015 Elgar Pilgrimage from the 7th-10th of October, with concerts in some of Elgar’s favourite haunts: Hereford, Malvern and Birmingham (on October 9th and 10th)

Elgar and his moustache in 1917

Elgar and his moustache in 1917

One of the highlights of the festival promises to be world premieres of two new arrangements of major Elgar works by composer Donald Fraser. On the 7th of October, we premiere his arrangement of Sea Pictures for chorus (no solo voice at all) and string orchestra, then on the 10th, we premiere his version of the Piano Quintet, now recast for full Elgarian symphony orchestra.

It’s been really gratifying to see the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the entire program of the festival, but one or two people (including someone I respect enormously) have expressed scepticism about the relevance of new arrangements of the music of Elgar. I was even a little surprised to find that the Elgar Society won’t fund performances of arrangements of Elgar’s music. I thought the subject of arrangements is interesting enough that it merited discussion here.

(Elgar didn’t write this piece, but I can’t tell- can you?)

Of course, Elgar was no puritan when it came to arrangements. He was very happy to see some of his highly profitable salon pieces arranged for all sorts of ensembles and instruments, and pieces like the Pomp and Circumstance marches have been adapted for brass bands almost since the ink on the originals was dry. Elgar was also happy to put on his orchestrator’s hat and work with the music of other composers, and he was not shy about putting his own strong stamp on other composers’ music. The stirring version of “Jerusalem” which ends the Last Night of the Proms every year sounds far more like vintage Elgar than anything else in the catalogue of its composer, Hubert Parry. In the twilight of his career, when his compositional inspiration waned, Elgar made a fantastically over-the-top arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, which we’ll play on the same concert as the Piano Quintet.

(Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony in Elgar’s radical orchestration of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor)

Elgar was also extremely pragmatic about the orchestration of his own music, especially in the recording studio, as one can see from the pervasive use of the tuba to double the bassline in his early recording of Sea Pictures.

(Dig the tuba, and the unsentimental tempo!)

In fact, Elgar lived and worked in a golden age of arrangements and adaptations. His musical cousin and almost-exact contemporary Gustav Mahler was vigorously engaged in adapting and tweaking the works of his heroes for the realities of the modern audience. In an age when audiences for chamber music were dwindling, he adapted Beethoven’s great F minor String Quartet, the Serioso, and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet for large string orchestra.

(Kenneth Woods and the Rose City Chamber Orchestra play Mahler’s orchestration of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet)

He was also unapologetic about adapting the orchestration of earlier composers, particularly Beethoven and Schumann, for larger halls, new instruments and larger orchestras. In doing so, he was carrying on a tradition manifest in Mozart’s re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s cut and re-orchestrated St Matthew Passion of Bach. It’s important to note that there was no criticism of these earlier masters implicit in Mahler’s re-working of their scores for radically different acoustic realities, and that modern research has shown that Beethoven and his contemporaries were also more than comfortable with adapting to varying orchestral forces and performing spaces. We now know that in Beethoven’s time, performances of his symphonies with large orchestra almost always involved the selective doubling of woodwinds and even tutti vs reduced string sections to maximize dynamic range and transparency.

(Beethoven 9 as re-imagined by Mahler, masterfully conducted by Gerhard Samuel)

In and around Beethoven’s own lifetime, arrangements of his works by those close to him were commonplace. Thus we have a version of his Second Symphony (among his most popular works during his lifetime) for piano trio- a version attributed to Beethoven himself, although there is doubt as to its authenticity. Also believed to be by Beethoven is a chamber version of the Fourth Piano Concerto (quintet versions of the other concertos by other arrangers also exist).  Beethoven arranged his Piano Sonata in F major, opus 14 no. 1, for string quartet, but this arrangement is still often omitted from many distinguished ensembles Beethoven Quartet “cycles.” Beethoven’s pupil and friend Czerny arranged the Kreutzer Sonata (originally for Violin and Piano) for Cello and Piano, and there are also arrangements of the Horn Sonata for Cello and Piano and another adaption of the Kreutzer Sonata for string quintet.

(Why don’t all string quartets play this piece?)

In most cases, as with Mahler and Mozart, the reasons for these arrangements had to do with a mixture of audience building, artistic advocacy and economics. Brahms’s most commercially successful works were his Hungarian Dances, which we know today  primarily as orchestral pieces, but they were originally piano works, and Brahms himself only orchestrated three of them, no’s 1, 3 and 10. Even the ubiquitous no. 5 was arranged by the otherwise forgotten Martin Schmeling. However, more eminent artists than Schmeling (whose work on no’s 5-7 is pretty impeccable) contributed to project of orchestrating these seminal works, notably  Antonín Dvorák and Hans Gál (of course, until a few years ago, nobody knew what a great composer Gál was. Will we find forgotten masterworks by Erwin Stein or Max Schmelling someday?). More recently, conductor and composer Ivan Fischer has prepared his own, very colourful but considerably more interventionist, version of the entire cycle of dances.

(Ivan Fischer conducting one of his tamer Hungarian Dance transcriptions. Visit the Digital Concert Hall to see what happens when he unleashes the cimbalom)

An interventionist approach to orchestrating another composer’s work can yield fascinating results, as in Mahler’s wonderful re-orchestration of Beethoven 9, Webern’s orchestration of the Bach Ricercar from the Musical Offering, and Schoenberg’s whimsical take on Johann Strauss Jr’s Emperor Waltz. Where Schmeling, Gál and Dvorák chose to try to keep their orchestrations of Brahms sounding as much like the master as possible, Schönberg threw caution to the wind in his semi-halucinogenic and totally over-the-top orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor: a work of musical marmite if ever there was one. I can’t stand it (as written about here), but Brahmsians as wise and perceptive as Malcolm MacDonald love it. To me, Schönberg fails to see the point at which his instrumental interventions begin to seriously detract from Brahms’s musical choices. This is a miscalculation he shares with another of my heroes, Shostakovich, whose re-orchestration of the Schumann Cello Concerto stands as one of music history’s all time top 5 own goals. When I set out to make my own orchestration of the G minor’s twin brother in A major, I vowed to stay on the Gál/ Dvorák path, but in the end, what comes across is unavoidably imbued with my own musical personality.

(Listen to it in all its vulgar, twerking glory- Schoenberg’s unique, we hope, take on Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor)

Mahler’s efforts on behalf of Beethoven’s Opus 95 don’t seem to have done much to make the piece a hit- it remains once of LvB’s most severe and intense pieces, and will never be a choice for those classical music fans who like their music toothless and tame. Note that I chose to arrange Brahms’s A Major Piano Quartet, one the Cinderellas of his chamber music output, and not the far better known Piano Quintet in F minor, which needs neither further advocacy nor another version. Brahms began the work as a cello quintet, then transcribed it as a Sonata for Two Pianos. When he reworked the piece as a Piano Quintet, he destroyed the cello quintet version (he kept the version as as Sonata for Two Pianos), but that has since been re-constructed, as has the nonet version of his Serenade in D major, which he also discarded after re-orchestrating the piece for symphony orchestra.

(A lovingly-done reconstruction of the nonet version of Brahms’ Serenade in D major by Alan Boustead, played the Orchestra of the Swan and KW. Echt Brahms? Maybe not, but a fascinating window into how the final version came to be, and a joy to play in this form, buy it here)

On the other hand, if you were any composer, living or dead, with a forgotten work to bring to fame, who would you ask to orchestrate it but Maurice Ravel. In addition to his sterling work on behalf of Debussy, he made Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition into one of the most famous pieces ever written. Without his efforts, the original piano work would likely have sat in obscurity for many more years. Now, it is not only a mainstay of pianists everywhere, we have a surfeit of other orchestrations of Pictures to choose from. Leonard Slatkin does a fantastic version of the piece in which each movement is by a different arranger (none of them Ravel), culminating in Henry Wood’s absolutely bonkers finale (I believe he continues to vary the selection even now).

(Leonard Slatkin’s  pick-and-mix Pictures, or is the Pick-and-mixtures at an Exhibtion)

Economics have played a huge role in the kind of arrangements we see of great works. In the relatively rich times of fin de siècle Vienna, Mahler was fond of bigging up the works of  previous generations. A generation later, in a Europe ravaged by war and depression, Mahler’s disciples, including Schönberg, found themselves shrinking Mahler’s orchestra down to ensembles of less than twenty players with hugely successful results. In our own,  worryingly similar times, conductors and composers have again begun coming up with reductions of works by Mahler and other late-Romantics. It’s all  part of the ebb and flow of music history- a facet of history that many writers seem quick to forget.

(Mahler for lean times- one on a part songs orchestrated by Schoenberg)

When Trevor Pinnock recorded Anthony Payne’s reduction of Bruckner 2, one of the major music magazines (I honestly can’t remember which one) said this was the first time such a project had been done, completely overlooking the arrangement of Bruckner 7 done for Schönberg’s Society for Private Performances by  Erwin Stein, Hanns Eisler, and Karl Rankl in 1921. It’s been well recorded a few times, but when I programmed it with the Rose City Chamber Orchestra in 2006, the idiots at the publishers sent the full Bruckner 7 parts instead, so we had to cancel.

(These guys managed to get the publishers to send them the right parts. Jealous!)

String quartets make a particularly appealing target for those with an itch to orchestrate. Rudolf Barshai followed Mahler’s example in arranging Shostakovich’s Eighth and Tenth string quartets for string orchestra (although Barshai always envisioned a chamber ensemble, where Mahler intended something far more massive). Encouraged by Shostakovich’s positive response, he went on to make more interventionist arrangements of the Third and Fourth quartets which would eventually include woodwinds, brass and percussion. Inspired in part by both Mahler and Barhsai, I made an arrangement in 1999 of Viktor Ullmann’s then almost completely unknown Third String Quartet which I’ve been thrilled to see some of my colleagues take up.

(The English Chamber Orchestra recording my orchestration of Ullmann’s Third String Quartet. Damn those cats can play. ( CD available here, score and parts here))

I hope that all this history shows us that as a moral proposition, orchestrations and arrangements are completely neutral. An arrangement or orchestration is as worthwhile as it is effective, engaging and illuminating. An arrangement that respects the original is always welcome, whether it be as self-effacing as Gál’s treatments of Brahms or as wacky as Elgar’s treatment of Bach. In the case of our Elgar Pilgrimage premieres, my choice in programming these versions was easy. Don did me the great, great honour of inviting me to record Sea Pictures after seeing me do Elgar 1 in Wisconsin (in spite of the fact he thought I took the introduction too slowly).

(Slow, but not too slow…)

Recording his sensational new version of this great song cycle in Abbey Road, in the very studio that Elgar opened and in which Janet Baker and Barbirolli made their famous recording thirty years later, was a career highlight. As the Jerusalem setting shows us, Elgar’s orchestral fingerprints are as distinctive as any composer in music history- he’s a gift to every music student ever to have to survive “drop the needle” tests in music history class.

(The making of Sea Pictures as re-imagined by Donald Fraser)

Don’s Sea Pictures sounds like vintage Elgar (he’s modelled the string writing on Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro), while bringing to the fore musical details, especially relationships between the original vocal part and countermelodies in the orchestra, that are not as apparent in the original. With that experience under my belt, there was no doubt in my mind that we had to find a way to do the Piano Quintet arrangement when Don told me about it. He’d been inspired by Alice Elgar’s description of the early material of the Quintet as the basis of a “War Symphony.”   I suggest you join us on October 9th for a performance of the original version of the Elgar Quintet alongside the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor which Schönberg so famously mauled, then come back the next day to hear the piece in an entirely different way, as the symphony it might well have been.

(Former ESO composer-in-association, John McCabe discusses the transformation of his String Sextet, Pilgrim, into a work for double string orchestra)

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It was with real sadness that I learned today of the passing of this pianist Ivan Moravec, a man who was widely recognised as one of the greatest pianists of his generation, but who never quite earned the fame or fortune his artistry merited.


The many recordings he made are really treasures and well worth seeking out. I played with him once, as an orchestral cellist, in the Schumann Concerto. I’d never heard of him before and had no idea what to expect. He was the greatest and most compelling artist at the piano I’ve ever been on stage with, at least that week. His playing was infinitely colorful, but never flashy or for effect. He played with incredible freedom, yet was absolutely easy to follow. There was something so centered and focused about what he did, and this gave the playing a sense of fluidity and clarity that was simply amazing. One wasn’t aware of him having a big sound, but with a large symphony orchestra, you could still hear every note, and every note had beauty, every note had a beginning a middle and an end. We barely rehearsed with him- one run-through and that was all it took to produce a performance I still remember as a career highlight nearly 20 years on. Here is what I wrote about it on the blog in 2008:

One reason this Schumann gets done so often is that it is quite technically accessible for any orchestra. How sad, then, that I have hardly ever heard or played in a really satisfying orchestral performance of the piece. It is so rare for the first movement to really have the infinite range of subtle earth tones to really capture Schumann’s dreamy, rhapsodic world, rarer still for the Intermezzo to be played with anywhere near enough charm, or to be done with the cellos singing, but not bellowing the second theme. And the finale- the poor hemiola theme….. Did Schumann know how badly conductors and orchestras would massacre that elegant and sublime music? What should sound like Fred Astaire dancing on a cloud of perfume too often gets played like drunken soldiers stumbling back to barracks after one too many. Any beast with a metronome can learn Rite of Spring, but the Schumann concerti (piano, violin and cello) are really hard.

One exception was a performance I played in with Ivan Moravec many years ago. I’d never heard of Ivan Moravec, which is quite sad considering I should have known who he was, but I don’t think anyone in the band knew who he was.

The rehearsal began and this older, professor-ly gentleman (several musicians had mistaken him for the piano technician) gave the maestro a gentle smile and we began. Schumann’s bracing opening, which is usually played as violent outburst, without shape or direction, already revealed un-dreamt-of layers of color and texture, and by the second piano entrance after the little woodwind chorale, we were all starting to recognize that we were in the presence of a very special musician. A musician who had that rare power to take other musicians, very good ones, beyond their usual limits and habits.

That afternoon with Moravec was something altogether different- not only did he play beautifully, but maestro and we in the orchestra absolutely outdid ourselves. We played from beginning to end  as if weightless, as if Hiro Nakamura himself had stopped time and given us a frozen moment to hear this music as if played in a totally silent world. One felt incapable of playing out of tune or out of time. One felt as if the music was in touch with something beyond what was happening in that room on that day.

Twenty-three minutes later, we played the last note, and maestro looked at Moravec and asked him if there was anything he’d like to do. Moravec smiled, well, half-smiled, again and got up, shook the leader’s hand and left.

Now that’s what I call a rehearsal.

Here is a short documentary on Ivan Moravec on YouTube

The music world is a poorer place without his musicianship and that matchless sound.

More from Jake Stockinger at The Well Tempered Ear here

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The music industry reacted with wide-eyed amazement this month as the world’s leading orchestra announced they were appointing someone to the prestigious position of Principal Conductor based on his ability to conduct. Across Europe, North America and the Far East, orchestral managers, agents, musicians and music lovers expressed genuine shock at the news that a conductor, Kirill Petrenko, had been hired solely on merit, for possibly the first time in recent memory, to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, considered by many to be the world’s greatest orchestra.

News of Petrenko’s appointment sent journalists scrambling to uncover suspected affiliations with the Illuminati, the Masons or Goldman Sachs, but initial inquries left journalists baffled. “I don’t get it,” said New York Herald senior critic Havergal Thomson. “All anyone seems to know about this guy is that he’s really good at conducting.”

Kirill Petrenko: Reputed to be very good at at conducting

Kirill Petrenko: Reputed to be very good at conducting

“It’s not that good conductors never get jobs” said New York-based mega agent Donald Wontford. “It’s just that I can’t think of another instance of a conductor getting a really important job because they were good. Being good has historically been further down the list of desirable qualities in a conductor, just below “legible handwriting” and above “never been convicted of a violent crime”.”

Historically, experts report, conductors have been hired on the basis of fundraising acumen or access to secret private sponsorship. In later years, conductors were often appointed because of their ability to negotiate recording contracts, but as the recording industry has become less profitable, there has been with a shift towards basing hiring decisions on “media imprint” or “potential.” Orchestras are also reported to seek conductors who are perceived as “metrosexual gods.”

“Frankly, this seems like a wildly naïve decision on the part of the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic,” said Simon Standin, long-time general manager of the Southwest Sinfonia. “It calls into question the entire viability of player-run orchestras, as the musicians seem to lack the business acumen needed to understand the importance of a conductor’s number of Twitter followers, achievements as an oboe soloist, or connections to Austrian royalty.”

In fact, Standin’s Southwest Sinfonia has been a part of a recent industry trend towards hiring people for important conducting positions who have never conducted anything. “We’ve found that hiring washed up soloists is cost effective, media savvy and politically expedient,” reports Standin. “A washed up soloist probably recognizes his or her earnings are trending downwards, which gives us incredible leverage in contract negotiations. We are able to cash in on what’s left of their fading reputation as a performer while they can buy time to adapt to their new income level. The weeks they spend conducting us spares them from public scrutiny of their fast-eroding technical accuracy and sound quality, which slows the withering of the value of their brand. The fact that they’ve never conducted before is also extremely helpful in dealing with the musicians, as they have no track record to criticise.”

Petrenko, who rose to prominence as a conductor at the Komische Oper Berlin, the Bayreuth Festival and the Munich Staatsoper where he actually conducted in public regularly, is a marked departure from the recent trend towards the “blank slate” approach to conductor recruitment favoured by many orchestral managers. Where Standin and the Soutwest Sinfonia have gravitated towards soloists past the peak of their careers, William Wortlebothelm, Czar of Artistic Planning at the Eastern Celtic Radio Symphony recently appointed a new principal conductor to lead the orchestra who had literally never held a baton or opened a score. “I plucked him out of a touring youth orchestra because he had good hair and a fantastic Snapchat profile,” bragged Wortehothelm. “After hearing some top London players moan about Haitink last year, I realised there is literally no conductor that professional orchestral players can’t gripe about. My solution bypasses objections of the players’ committee entirely because they can’t criticise what nobody has seen. This new guy is going to be great once he learns to read tenor clef and can remember that you go right on the second beat of a 3/4 bar.” It is hoped that Wortelbothelm’s discovery will prove as successful as the recent appointment of 21-year-old Armando Chernyenko as Music Director of the Chicago Philharmonic in 2013. “We have every confidence” wrote Chicago Guardian music critic Mick Smartie “that in 15 to 20 years, Chernyenko will mature into a fine professional conductor” Chernyenko is currently in the 3rd year of a five-year contract with the orchestra.

Neither most famous Kirill, nor the most famous Petrenko (via Sinfoni)

Neither the most famous Kirill, nor the most famous Petrenko (via Sinfoni)

Wortlebothelm, appointed in 1992 by his ex-wife who was then director of the Celtic Arts Council, said of Petrenko’s appointment “I keep looking at this situation and thinking I must be missing something. In the absence of an ingratiating social media profile, I can only conclude there must be an element of bribery or blackmail here that we’ve not yet heard about.”

Shock was also expressed in the USA by the president of the board of the New Gotham Philharmonic, Dr. Peter Petersnack. “My understanding is that they hired this guy entirely on the basis of how well he conducted three concerts. Surely they should have flown him in for a reception to test his mingling, schmoozing and flirting skills? Even in Berlin, they must have great ladies of a certain age who like to lunch with, or on, conductors. Donors have to be serviced by someone, and they want to know that the artist they’re dealing with at least has their own YouTube channel.” Dr. Petersnack recently made history as the first American brain surgeon with over 100,000 “Likes” for his “Dr. Peter Petersnack- Brain Surgeon” Facebook page, an achievement which led to his appointment as Head of Brain Surgery at Gotham Medical Centre in 2011.

Petersnack’s  own orchestra made history in 2000 when they paid their incoming music director, Maestro Nevile James, with three suitcases of cash without a signed contract at the time of his appointment to “simplify his taxes.” Although the new maestro only conducted 4 concerts over the next nine years, Petersnack defended James’ appointment on the basis that the ensuing controversy did “much to raise awareness of the orchestra in the wider community.” Among James’s noteworthy predecessors at the orchestra was Derich von Kursdorf, who won the position in 1964 after his wife, a window-sealant heiress from Luxembourg, donated $10,000,000 to the orchestra.

Other conductors also seemed caught off guard by news of Petrenko’s appointment. “It just seems kind of weird,” said Walliam Davis, principal artistic director of the East Lubbock Community Symphonic Band. “I sent the Berlin Philharmonic a resume and a really good cover letter when I read Rattle was going, and they didn’t even write back, even though I clearly explained why my Brahms cycle would be better than Rattle’s, which I think is too slow. This guy- I don’t even think he has a Twitter feed? I’m up to like 790 followers, and I didn’t even get asked to send a video. It smacks of favoritism.”

When asked about the orchestra’s strategy for audience development, the Berlin Philharmonic media affairs office issued a statement saying that “we are hoping that if we give really kick ass concerts, lots of people will come to them”

Reached for comment, Berlin Philharmonic musicians’ representative and sub-principal ophecleide player Otto Hasenpfeffer said phlegmatically of Petrenko, “Ja, he’s not zo bat at conducting. Vee looked at a couple of violists in South American youth orchestras mit a scheisse load of Tvitter followers, but I’m 37.  Zee sharks start circling in this orchestra at 45. Zis guy might be zee last  principal conductor I play for. I couldn’t face the prospect of vaysting my entire remaining professional life vaiting for somevone to grow into zee job.”

Kirill Petrenko was unavailable for comment on this article. It is believed he is spending the summer studying scores in his underground lair.

Kirill Petrenko's summer score study retreat on SPECTRE Island

Kirill Petrenko’s summer score study retreat on SPECTRE Island

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popA study on the life arcs of 1980’s-era heavy metal fans has been making the news this week, and its main conclusion is no surprise to me:

In fact, researchers find that former metal fans “were significantly happier in their youth, and better adjusted currently” compared to their peers who preferred other musical genres, and to a parallel group of current college students.”

More self-described metal-heads* went on to become “ “middle-class, gainfully employed, relatively well-educated”  adults than their peers who listened to or identified with other music at the time. Metal fans come across in the study as happier in their teen years than their contemporaries and happier and more well adjusted than today’s young people:

“Despite the challenges of adverse childhood events, and other stressful and risky events in their youth,” the researchers write, former metal aficionados “reported higher levels of youthful happiness” than peers with other musical tastes as well as today’s college students. “They were also less likely to have any regrets about things they had done in their youth.”

So far, so good, but I can’t help but feel that the study largely draws the wrong conclusions from this data- at the very least, I suspect they’re missing the majority of the point:

“Social support is a crucial protective factor for troubled youth,” they point out. “Fans and musicians alike felt a kinship in the metal community, and a way to experience heightened emotions with like-minded people.” This sense of belonging ultimately helped propel their positive transition to maturity.

Social support? Really?

Almost all young people seek a place in a group of friends and supporters they can strongly identify with. For some, it’s the cheerleading squad or the football team. For others, it might be youth orchestra, the debating society or a church group. Finding kinship in community is certainly not unique to metal fans.

My strong instinct is that the researchers should be looking at the importance of the music itself. The articles I came across here and here mention only two groups- Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe. I think they’ve chosen poorly- those groups, whatever their merits and popularity, are basically loud pop bands anyway. Real 1980’s metalheads would have had much more sophisticated tastes: Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, early Metalica and so on.

(Iron Maiden. In the words of Bruce Dickinson: “A very long song. This ain’t the usual 3 minute shit. This is about 13 minutes long”)

The heavy metal of the 80’s was different from the mainstream pop of that era and our current time in profound ways. Where pop relies on simple formulas and electronica and a very simplistic lyrical content, metal is often musically ambitious and dramatic, it is played by musicians (many of them real virtulosos), not sequencers, and the music is put across with relatively little technical trickery and lighter post-production. Also, the lyrics can express complex emotions or tell more involved stories. The lyrics of top-40 radio are designed to do two things- indoctrinate and sell. Listening to top 40 songs will tell you what is “normal” and will help you know what to buy to feel more normal when you realise you are not. The lyrics of metal are often about alienation, about isolation, and the anger of metal is there to criticise the shallowness and hypocrisy of popular culture.

But I really think there is fantastic research to be done on how real music (metal, jazz, classical, acoustic folk and bluegrass) affects brain development when compared with junk music (most commercial genres, especially those which rely primarily on electronica). Set aside the lyrics completely and I think challenging music played by humans does a lot more good for the brain than something that’s sequence, sampled, compressed and auto-tuned to death. Just as children of the 80’s who lived on a diet of junk food have grown up to suffer diabetes, heart disease and a whole raft of auto-immune disorders, those who were raise on junk music are now suffering with anxiety, depression, paranoia, anti-intellectualism and neurosis far more than those who got a good, balanced diet of guitar, bass and drums.

(KW’s Open Your Eyes- not exactly orthodox metal, but musically ambitious with a socially critical lyric)

On the other hand, it could all just be that those metal fans were smarter, nicer more well-adjusted people to begin with. Looking back at my memories of high school in the 1980’s such a hypothesis seems anything but far fetched…..

pop sucks


* I would not have identified myself in the 1980’s as a metalhead, although I liked a lot of the music (and still do). My tastes were always too broad to ally myself to a single genre.

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I gave up a long time ago on trying to find much meaning or substance in music for patriotic occasions. We live an age of such small-minded, parochial jingoism that thinking of any music in terms of nationalist celebrations seems only to cheapen the music.

This year I got thinking that maybe it’s gotten so bad that it’s time to fight back. Leaving music out of the discussion seems to only encourage the triumphalist nitwits. A day like the Fourth of July ought to be a moment for reflection as well as celebration. We ought to take at least a moment to think about the nation’s failings and crimes, as well as it’s triumphs.

Here are highlights from four great American works of art that I think are worth listening to as we think about how the reality of America compares to the idea of America. Fortunately, what they tell us about the nation is as hopeful as it is harrowing.

William Grant Still- Afro-American Symphony

Still’s First Symphony is a wonderful work- I’m long overdue to conduct it again. It’s his most celebrated work, but there are many fine pieces in this catalogue which deserve to be played more regularly.  Each movement is inspired by a different poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar and the piece ranges across a wide swath of moods from longing to humor to aspiration. The Finale is simply stunning and almost unbearably moving. Listen to it today in hopes that we will never, ever celebrate another Independence Day in the USA with the Confederate battle flag hung or displayed in any public building in the country.

Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.

High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,
They banner’s blazoned folds now fly,
And truth shall lift them higher.

Walter Piston- Symphony no. 2

Copland’s Third Symphony has long be the de facto “Great American Symphony” in much the way The Great Gatsby is, for many, the obvious “Great American Novel.” In Piston’s 2nd it has a worthy rival. If Piston’s Finale doesn’t quite scale the same height’s of inspiration and ambition as Copland’s, his slow movement surpasses that of his more famous colleague by miles. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the greatest slow movement in an American symphony. Written in 1943, it’s part of a true war symphony- the first movement turbulent and troubled, the Finale dramatic and urgent. At the heart of the Symphony, though is this great, pensive, heartfelt song of love and loss.

Charles Ives- Symphony no. 3 “The Camp Meeting”

No reflection on the nature of America would be complete without an examination of the role of organised religion and the evangelical movement in American life. For those in my generation who don’t participate in the traditions of faith, it’s easy to point to the American evangelical religious tradition’s dark history of anti-intellectualism, its attempts to blur or erase the line which differentiates belief and knowledge, fact and parable, its frequent rationalization of racism and sexism, and its penchant for corruption, hypocrisy and charlatanry amongst the clergy, as reasons to hope that religion’s place in American life will one day be diminished. On the other hand, Ives’s Third Symphony, which tells the story of one evening’s traditional evangelical gathering, shows us  the best of American religion in all its nobility, honesty, compassion and complexity. Prior to the economic disasters of the last decade, America had become an almost absurdly prosperous place- a land of easy money and decadent creature comforts. In harder times, people had to seek comfort in ideas and community. Ives’s music, some of the most intellectually probing and radical written in the last 150 years, reminds us of the kind of solace shared experience and powerful ideas can bring in troubled times.  More on the piece here.

John Corigliano

Symphony no. 1

This, of all years, seems the perfect time to include Corigliano’s powerful work on the list. A cris de coeur from the apex of the AIDS epidemic, it was written at at time when many, many of our leaders- mainstream, powerful figures, not marginal nut jobs- seemed to think that AIDS really was some kind of holy curse on moral deviancy. Remember who was saying “let them die” and “they deserve it” in the 1980’s? History teaches us that anytime we create an “other” – whether it be an “other” based on race, religion, sexuality or beliefs, it’s all too easy for society let the lives of the “other” cease to have any value.  Corigilano’s ability to channel grief, rage and hope into a piece of music so powerful and of-its-time was one of thousands of acts of protest and education that have helped bring us to the first Independence Day in America’s history on which every citizen can marry the person they love in any state. And, thank goodness, AIDS is no longer quite the death sentence, nor the stigma, it once was. Now that is what I call cause for celebration. Bring on the hot dogs and beer. God bless America.

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Rehearsals have been going well for this weekend’s performance of my arrangement of the Brahms A major Piano Quartet for orchestra in Guildford. For some reason, the A major has always been the least played of the Brahms Piano Quartets. I’m sure it’s absolutely epic scale puts some groups off, but I know many of my chamber music colleagues seem to feel it’s a weaker piece than either the G minor or C minor, or, for that matter, the much more famous Piano Quintet.

I’ve always loved the piece, and spending so much one-on-one time with it lately has really made me admire it all the more. Fortunately, I’m not alone in my affection for the piece, and, predictably, I was able to find a few wise words about it in the much-missed Malcolm MacDonald’s invaluable book on Brahms. He really was one of the most perceptive writers on music I’ve ever come across.*

MacBrahms0001 MacBrahms0002


* Even though he really loved the Schoenberg orchestration of opus 25, which I did finally re-listen to over the weekend with much alarm. Hearing Brahms’s infinitely honest music dressed up in Hollywood regalia feels a little like I would imagine it would feel seeing one’s mother dressed up as a lady of the night. It sounds like opus 25 has been given a roofie. I hope I’ve allowed opus 26 to keep its dignity.

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I met Gunther at his wonderful festival at Sandpoint in the 1990’s. On the second night of the festival, I ran into him in the bar and in spite of our vast difference in age, achievement and knowledge, had one of the all-time great bar hangs of my life. Gunther’s public persona could be quite imperious, but one-on-one, one quickly realised that everything he did and said was motivated by an incredibly deep love of music. The man lived music- he only slept about 3-4 hours a day, and while everyone else was talking, resting, eating or chatting, he was always busy composing, writing, organizing or producing.


Sandpoint was a great encapsulation of everything he loved, with courses in chamber music (which I was there for), conducting, composition and modern jazz. I wish I could have done them all, but Gunther being Gunther, every program was an all-day, every-day project.

He quickly picked up on my interest in conducting and we had some inspiring talks about his ethos of score study. One thing you can say about Gunther- he knew exactly what he believed when it came to music.

To my delight, he also invited me to play as cellist and later guitarist and banjo-player on what I think were the last few tours of the New England Ragtime Ensemble. Those concerts were thrilling. If you only know Gunther through his rather Old Testament writings on conducting, it’s quite a different thing to see him beaming away smiling rehearsing and conducting Joplin (always from memory) with such joy and ease.

He leaves behind an incredible body of work. I pity his archivist!

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The idea for this orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major, opus 26 came to me spontaneously in a real flash of inspiration while I was coaching chamber music at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival in the Bay of Naples in 2008. I vividly remember the bright blue sea and cloudless sky over  Mount Epomeo that morning as I listened to a  group play though the first movement of the piece in its original form. As I began to work with them on the piece, I found myself speaking to the pianist, as I often do, in orchestral terms. “Can you try playing the opening phrase like…. a quartet of horns?” I asked. He certainly sounded more convincing with that in mind, but that sound had planted itself firmly in my inner ear. After the coaching I had a bit of free time, and found myself listening to an imaginary orchestral version of the entire first movement emerging out of that horn quartet. I thought it sounded great. By the end of that morning, I’d decided to try to undertake a realization of the orchestration I’d heard.


Mount Epomeo and the campus of the Ischia Festival on the day it all began.

After my initial euphoria, I had a few more sober thoughts. First, there was the question of Schoenberg’s orchestration of opus 26’s evil twin, the Piano Quartet in G minor, opus 25. Should I be deterred by the possibility (certainty) of comparisons, or should I in some way try to look to Schoenberg’s example as a model for my own work? This was actually the easiest of decisions to make- I didn’t feel any need to worry one way or another about Schoenberg’s arrangement. It hadn’t been in any way on my mind when I first thought of the project, so I could answer questions about whether I’d stolen his idea with a clear conscience and an even clearer answer. Also, much as I revere his arrangements of many other composer’s works, including the Monn Cello Concerto and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, I actually have never warmed to his eccentric, and, to me, often vulgar and un-idiomatic take on Brahms’s opus 25. In the end, I decided not to listen to or look at the score of Schoenberg’s orchestration until I’d finished my work on opus 26.

A more serious deterrent was figuring how to translate Brahms’s specifically pianistic writing into an orchestral sound world. Short of deploying an army of harps, which would have sounded almost as silly as Schoenberg’s xylophone in opus 25, it would have been absurd and impossible to try to recreate some of the sweeping piano arpeggios in the second movement of the Piano Quartet in an orchestra. On the other hand, purely decorative writing is very rare in Brahms, and often what first seems like a mere figuration turns into a motive that he works with and develops- one replaces something like that with an easier pattern at your moral peril. In the end, those sweeping arpeggios were a fairly easy question to resolve- their very impossibility mandated a more radical approach. Other, less obvious, spots took more soul searching and the careful balancing between staying true to the original with making things playable and satisfying for the orchestral musicians. Questions of playability and risk also figured into whether and how to realise my idea of the opening being played by horn quartet. A Major is a very high key for the horn, and to transcribe the first few bars of the piano part for horns would mean asking them to play higher in the first phrase of the piece than they do in any of Brahms’s orchestral canon. In the end, I employed a little bit of orchestral sleight of hand to avoid notes that I thought were really unrealistic to ask for, but otherwise, I decided that Brahms would have known and appreciated the sound of high horns in A from the symphonies of Haydn and notably from Beethoven’s 7th, and I hope he would have approved of me modelling my use of the horns not only on his orchestral work but that of his esteemed forbears.

It’s hard to believe that it took nearly seven years from that morning on Ishcia to complete the orchestration of the piece, but it is a massive score. After my initial work on it in 2008, which consisted of annotating my Quartet score with ideas for instrumental colors, the piece was set to one side while I attended to other projects with firmer deadlines. Again in 2012, I made a push, but it wasn’t until my colleagues in the Surrey Mozart Players agreed to perform the work in their 2014-15 season that I had the deadline and the opportunity I needed to justify the massive amount of time it would take to bring the project to completion. I thank them for their patience and support.

Schoenberg famously joked that in orchestrating opus 25, he’d given the world a fifth Brahms Symphony. Many years ago, a more senior conductor posed me a seemingly unsolvable riddle. “What key would Brahms have written his Fifth Symphony in?” he said. I looked at him blankly so he offered a hint: “Try making a melody out of the keys of the four Brahms symphonies,” he suggested. Okay- C minor, D major, F major and E minor. Hmmm, I thought, C, D, F E. Those for notes begin the main theme of the Finale of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony.  I instantly knew the answer.

Brahms’s opus 26 is certainly more than symphonic in scope- depending on tempi, it’s potentially longer than any of the symphonies and the first movement is one of the grandest movements he ever wrote, but much of the piece also has elements of a more Serenade-like character, and, in fact, I found myself consulting not only the scores of the Four Symphonies repeatedly during this process, but also that of Brahms’s D Major Serenade, opus 11.

On the other hand, the fifth note of the Jupiter Symphony melody is A.

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It all started here. Easy to imagine, but difficult to play! NB- this is in concert pitch.


The orchestration will be recorded next year, and I’ll be keeping it for my exclusive use for another season after that, but looking ahead, the materials will be available for purchase or hire, and I’m happy to send exam scores to interested people at any time.

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I was not aware of what had just happened, but sometimes, it’s better not to know.

Today my colleagues (Matthew Sharp, David LePage, Suzanne Casey and Catherine Leech) and I played a noontime recital as part of the English Symphony Orchestra’s Magna Carta 800 celebrations at Worcester Cathedral .

The entire festival has been a musical exploration of the on-going struggle for freedom, liberty and human dignity. Our program was called America’s March Toward Freedom, and focused particularly on America’s troubled history of slavery, race relations and the fight for equality.

magna carta

Blissfully unaware- rehearsing music for Magna Carta in the unseen shadow of an emerging atrocity.

Yesterday was a busy work day and this morning was a taken up with travel and rehearsal before the concert at noon. The upshot of which is that none of us on stage had any idea we were playing this program in the shadow of one of the most shocking acts of violence motivated by racial hatred in my lifetime. I only found out about the horrific events in South Carolina when I got back to my hotel room after the concert. Part of me wishes we’d known. Maybe we could have said something meaningful, or brought something special to the performance, but on reflection, maybe it’s best we didn’t.

To be honest, I’m not sure I could have managed the right balance of emotion and focus in this repertoire if I was going on stage trying to process this news. Music, and the human body, can actually only take so much emotion and sometimes the music suffers when we’re beside ourselves with anger, grief and outrage. Part of you needs to count the rests and put your fingers in the right places, as well as open your soul. Yes, perhaps, for the music’s sake, it is better we didn’t know. Perhaps it’s also better because we shouldn’t wait for an international outrage to play these kinds of programs with all the commitment and care we can summon.

“In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
–Antonin Dvorak

I chose Dvorak’s great F major String Quartet for the Magna Carta festival because of what its reception says about the unfinished nature of racial reconciliation in America. Dvorak was inspired during its composition by the melodic riches of African American spirituals and the blues, so much so that in the years after he wrote it in 1893, the piece took on a nickname now considered a hateful racial epitaph. It’s later re-naming as the American Quartet did away with an ugly word, but also effectively, literally whitewashed the piece. Its black inspiration has been largely forgotten- most people in my generation assume that the Americans in the piece are of the decidedly Caucasian variety. I’ve always said that the piece should really be called the “African American Quartet” but today tells me that’s not quite right. Re-naming the piece “African American” would be too facile a shortcut for the real work of education and contextualization that needs to be attached to performances of the piece for us to really understand its musical roots and its modern relevance. As long as we rely on the use of the hyphen to call attention to the involvement of anyone not white in something “American” we’re perpetuating the legacy of exclusion and appropriation we actually mean to fight.

Today’s crime is just one particularly grotesque symptom of a sickening rise in racial hatred among a large segment of the US population, including a disturbing cross section of American law enforcement and political leaders. For these people, the word “American” must always continue to evoke white America. In a horrific cultural moment like this, as we all absorb the shock of an event that seemed calculated to be as evil as possible, we should remember that this is no lone gunman unleashed on society, no aberration. He is and was, a foot soldier- one of the millions in the USA committed to reserving the full promise of the nation for its fair-skinned residents.


No lone gunman here, but a foot soldier in a pretty vast army.

The last 20 years have seen miraculous progress towards equality for LGBT people in the USA, but civil rights, economic opportunities and social perceptions of people of color in the US have not, that I can see, moved forward in millimeter in my lifetime. Rather the opposite- even the Supreme Court has take the step of gutting much of the Voting Rights Act. The Charleston shooter’s manifesto is one shared with millions and millions of people: “you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

So, no- I don’t think I could have done justice to Dvorak’s elegant and gently sorrowful masterpiece today. The anguish of thinking just how little progress we’ve made in the last 100+ years might have been too much. What the horrible synchronicity of this concert and the Charleston crime does point out is that these concerts do, or should, matter. We shouldn’t be waiting for a tragedy to ask art to speak through our art to the need for social justice. Celebrations like Magna Carta 800 can too easily feel like self-congratulatory commemorations of a battle won. They should be a call to action, a reminder of unfinished business. A commemoration of a struggle, not a celebration of victory. Perhaps, it’s a time to remember that our Beethoven needs to be fiercer, our Mozart more subversive, our Dvorak, more tragic because in the last 800 years, we still haven’t finished the project.

At the heart of the concert was the first public UK performance of Kile Smith’s wonderful song cycle, Plain Truths, which begins and ends with the writings of the abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison, taken from his newspaper The Liberator. Kile writes that “I quote from the very first and last issues: his 1831 shot across the bow proclaiming his rejection of moderation in the fight against our national tragedy, to his 1865 valedictory, which followed the Thirteenth Amendment’s official eradication of slavery. “I am aware” is an angry recitative; “Spirit of Freedom,” a marching hymn.” Thirty-four years is a long time to fight for any cause, and I can appreciate Garrison’s wish to see his life’s work validated, to declare victory and move on to happier things, but in 2015, it’s his words from 1831 that seem like they could have been written today. History tells us he should have kept the paper running.

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I do not wish to think, or to speak, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her baby from the fire—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am aware, and I will be heard.
—Wm. Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), from The Liberator (1831) 

As artists, we don’t need some racist monster with a gun to motivate us to play music that speaks to fundamental issues of right and wrong. Quite the opposite: we all ought to heed Garrison’s rallying cry. I am aware that each time we take the stage, we should do so without too much undue moderation lest we are still fighting the same sad, pointless battles in another 800 years.

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This is a Reblog: Read the original official press release from MusicCo International

UPDATE- A new interview as Ken speaks to Peter Alexander at Sharps and Flatirons here. 

Coverage from Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc here: “The Colorado MahlerFest in and around the city of Boulder is one of the boldest musical initiatives of modern times. ”

News feature from ClassicalSource here

Story from Colorado Public Radio here

News from Boulder’s “Sharps and Flatirons” blog here

Boulder Daily Camera story with coverage of final concert of MahlerFest XXVIII and announcement

Luxembourg’s Pizzicato Magazine here



Kenneth Woods

Kenneth Woods has been appointed Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest. He is only the second Artistic Director in the festival’s 28-year history and succeeds Founding Artistic Director Robert Olson. Woods will oversee his first festival, MahlerFest XXIX, in May 2016.

Of his appointment, Woods remarks, “I’m thrilled and humbled to be invited to steer the festival’s ongoing exploration of one of the greatest composers of all time. I’ve always been impressed by the sophistication of MahlerFest’s programming and presentation, not to mention the musical standards attained by its participants. I must extend enormous congratulations to Bob Olson for everything he has achieved. The complexity and scale of some tasks can only be fully appreciated once you’ve done them yourself, and as someone who has put together a few crazy Mahler projects of my own over the years, I know something about the kind of heroic effort Bob has made to build and sustain this festival. I take very seriously my responsibility to keep the torch he has lit blazing brightly for many years to come.”

Founded by conductor Robert Olson in 1988, the Boulder-based Colorado MahlerFest is an annual celebration of the life and music of Gustav Mahler. Throughout one week every May, the festival explores Mahler through symposia, exhibits, films and the performance of a major symphonic work by the composer. MahlerFest is currently in the midst of its third cycle of Mahler’s symphonic compositions. In 2005, MahlerFest received the Gold Medal of the Vienna-based International Gustav Mahler Society, an honor so far bestowed on only one other American organization, the New York Philharmonic.

Gustav Mahler’s music has been a lifelong source of inspiration for Kenneth Woods, and has played an important part in his career. He has conducted acclaimed performances of the symphonies and songs across the Americas and Europe. His first recording of Mahler’s music, Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble versions of Das Lied von der Erde and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Somm Records, 2011), received an IRR Outstanding rosette from International Record Review. Off the podium, Woods is in demand as an essayist and speaker on Mahler’s life and music. He has given talks and participated in panel discussions on Mahler for the BBC and NPR, and was the official blogger of The Bridgewater Hall’s Mahler in Manchester series in 2010-11. In his native US, Woods achieved national media recognition as conductor of the Pendleton-based Oregon East Symphony for staging Redneck Mahler, an event that galvanized the community of a small, western Rodeo town.

With its combination of conducting, symposia, pre-concert lectures, films, community engagement and blog posts, MahlerFest’s format plays perfectly into Woods’ multifarious hands. “For me,” he says, “Mahler has a singular creative voice. His music should be experienced as an immersive, transformative experience.”


“This is a most important issue, and all Mahlerians should make its acquisition an urgent necessity.” International Record Review

“a richly balanced performance that easily stands out” Gramophone Magazine

“gives Mahler the ride of his life.” The Oregonian

“something that every lover of Mahler should hear.” MusicWeb International
* * * * *

For any media enquiries, interview and image requests, please contact Melanne Mueller,, +44 (0) 20 8698 6933 or +1 917 907 2785

For more information about Kenneth Woods please visit

For more information about the Colorado MahlerFest please visit

About Kenneth Woods

Kenneth Woods is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, a post he assumed in 2013, succeeding Vernon Handley.

Hailed by the Washington Post as a “true star” of the podium, Woods has worked with many orchestras of international distinction, and has appeared on the stages of some of the world’s leading music festivals. His work on the concert platform and in the recording studio has led to numerous broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, National Public Radio, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

As Principal Guest Conductor of Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan (2010-2014), Woods made numerous acclaimed recordings, including the first-ever cycle of the Symphonies of Hans Gál (AVIE).

Woods’ unique gifts have been widely acknowledged by some of today’s leading conductors. In 2001, he was selected by Leonard Slatkin to be one of four participants in the National Conducting Institute at the Kennedy Center, where he made his National Symphony debut. Toronto Symphony Music Director Peter Oundjian has praised Woods as “a conductor with true vision and purpose. He has a most fluid and clear style and an excellent command on the podium… a most complete musician.”

A widely read writer and frequent broadcaster, Woods’ blog, A View from the Podium, is one of the 25 most popular classical music blogs in the world. He has provided commentary for the BBC Proms, and has spoken on Mahler on NPR’s All Things Considered and BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

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