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Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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As the father of a four-year-old and a six-year-old, birthday parties are suddenly a big part of my life. Scarcely a week goes by without a summons for one or both of the kids to attend two hours of fun, sugar and silliness in celebration of someone’s birthday.

So, what makes a good party? Families differ. We’ve hosted modest little parties for both our kids here at the house for their closest 6-8 friends with a bit of cake, and a round of “pass the parcel.” Other families like to paint on a larger canvass- renting the local leisure centres for more space, and I’m sure some have been known to rent the odd stadium, or even, perhaps, a small island. Likewise, people have varying ideas about what they think constitutes “fun.” As a  parent, one feels bound to cultivate an extremely broad definition of “fun” in order to help your child make and maintain friendships, and to support your fellow parents, who go to enormous effort and expense to try to make birthdays a special occasion for their kids and yours.

Scholars now believe Beethoven lost his hearing at his nephew, Karl's 6th birthday party

Scholars now believe Beethoven lost his hearing at his nephew, Karl’s 6th birthday party

Imagine, then, that for one of our kids’ next birthday party, we invite all their little friends for “an afternoon’s entertainment that will, with remorseless certainty, lead to sight loss and possible blindness.” Would you take your kids to such a party?

I doubt it.

And yet, I’m frequently shocked by how many activities “for kids-” parties, plays, djs, dances and get-togethers- take place at dangerously high decibel levels. Levels that will, with remorseless certainty, lead to hearing loss and possible deafness.  A few weeks ago, I went to an otherwise lovely party of six-year-olds, marred only by the fact it was being MC’d by a DJ who had his PA system turned up so loud I downloaded a decibel meter to my iPhone just to see what I was exposing myself, and my darlings, to. For our mandatory two hours, the needle hardly dropped below 100 db, and peaked around 120. This was in an enclosed space with a ceiling about the height of a normal living room. The level at which sustained exposure causes hearing damage is 90db.

Two days later, we rolled up at a “soft play centre” for another party. Comparatively less music was played, but in a large, open space, boxed in by acoustically reflective surfaces on floor, ceiling and all four walls. Young kids do like to shriek when they’re playing, and with all those hard surfaces everywhere, those squeals of excitement were packing the same db punch as an un-muffled Harley (again, checked on a db meter). (More restaurants and bars should think about what they can do to increase sound absorption too) The loudest events of the afternoon, however, were the announcements on the PA system. I find it amazing that in such a “health and safety” culture, that staff are not trained in how to use a PA system safely, and that there aren’t some limits on how loud it can be. It’s just as capable of hurting children as any bit of play equipment, and the damage doesn’t heel the way a scrape or a sprain does.

One persistent problem with PA systems occurs almost every time I go to a school play- that of the sudden volume spike. Speaking lines are dished out evenly to all the kids in the class, who take turns talking into a hand-held wireless microphone. It’s all very cute until after three or for mumbling kids have had their turn, one cheeky little boy will yell as loud as he can into a microphone that’s been turned up and up and up while his classmates mumbled. Painful as those moments are for old fogies like me, they’re genuinely dangerous for kids, whose ears are still maturing at that age. There should be a limiter on school PA systems to protect against sudden volume spikes.

The world of children’s entertainment generally takes place at higher sound pressures than that of their parents. My kids, who are total movie fans, have told us they don’t want to go back to two of the local cinemas because the sound hurts their ears. The last time we went to a panto (American readers will have to look up what a British panto is- it’s nothing to do with Marcel Marceau), the sound system started fine, but the technicians seemed to think it was a good idea to turn it up constantly throughout the night, as the show gets more “fun,” until the last act had us in actual pain. An actor shouting something into a microphone can, without warning, push the already-high volume level up by a good 20+ db, and this happened again and again at this show. There are gizmos and software (limiters and compressors) that would prevent those kind of spikes- it’s not expensive, but apparently, most theatres are happy to let those spikes happen at every performance of a Christmas panto that usually runs for weeks.

And few institutions are as generally inept as running PA systems as orchestras (although the sound technician at the Cincinnati Symphony was amazingly good), who generally only use them for family concerts, pops and outdoor gigs. You think Mahler 6 is loud? Come along to your local Lolipops concert: younger audience=louder gig. These days, many family concerts are a mix of short classical works, film scores and the odd new touchy-feely song or play-along with a local band. That means that for much of the night, the orchestra is playing along at normal (loud!) levels, until suddenly, a PA system is unleashed on an unsuspecting audience that creates sound pressures which could make Metallica weep. It’s not just the audience, and the musicians, who are often caught unprepared- the sound guy has probably been out in the parking lot having a smoke. When he comes in to turn on the PA for the grand finale, he’s not really well placed to judge how much louder it is that the previous 90 minutes of music have been. He’s also probably deaf by now, anyway.

I suppose all of this makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but hearing loss is serious business. Most of my rock-era budies have some tinnitus or hearing loss, as do a worrying percentage of orchestral musicians. After my last summer in Aspen, when we spent nine weeks sight reading Tchaikovsky symphonies with full brass in a space better suited to string quintets than Mozart Divertimenti, my ears rang for two months. I really worried I’d permanently damaged myself. The ringing stopped, eventually, but the bad thing about hearing loss is that I may not know until my fifties, sixties or seventies just how much damage I did that summer- in spite of the fact that many of the players begged for something to be done about the volume level in that space.

What’s particularly worrying about what I see around my children is a culture that associates high volume with fun. It’s an incredibly dangerous signal to send to kids, and yet it’s one we seem to reinforce all the time. Loud=fun. It’s your birthday- let’s make it incredibly loud! Let’s to the theatre and see a panto- it’s the perfect holiday entertainment for kids. Guess what, it’s also louder than my rock band ever played at club dates! Okay- we’ll go to the movies. Mind you don’t sit too close to the subwoofers, or the surround speakers! Actually- do sit there! It’s MORE FUN. Fine- we’ll go to the symphony. They’re doing a special concert for kids, and to make it extra fun, they’re borrowing the PA system The Who used in 1976. Well, at least they’re safe at school- until one of their classmates yells into the microphone during an otherwise delightful school play. (As an aside, I’m horrified by the rise of amplification by classroom teachers in American public schools- it just encourages kids to be noisy and normalizes extremely high volume levels even further).

Again and again, we’re telling little kids, really little kids, that having fun means making it loud. We know that as they grow up, they’ll go to rock concerts and clubs and risk their hearing, but in my generation, we knew the dangers, and realized that one needed to use earplugs and good sense. In my children’s generation, they’re so used to 110+db noise by the age of eight, that I doubt most of them will recognize the risks they’re taking when they turn 21 and go to a nightclub or a rock concert. They will have been raised to assume such levels are safe, normal and fun. Worse yet, by the age of 18, they may have already done such massive damage to their hearing that there’s nothing more to fear from a few years of college-age recklessness.

Call me old fashioned, but even as times may change, the anatomy of the ear doesn’t, and parents need to remember that your little darling is going to need those ears for the next eighty years or so, and their ears are even more vulnerable to damage than yours are.

I’ve only written two letters of complaint in my life- one to a soft play center and one to the theatre hosting the panto referenced above. In both cases, I never received a reply. I think that tells me all I need to know about how seriously they take the safety of young people’s hearing. The odd letter from a cranky old musician isn’t going to cut it. Please speak up for your child’s hearing, and tell purveyors of fun to turn it down.

1 year ago | |
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A review from critic Rainer Aschemaier for Bobby and Hans volume 4. Read the whole thing here.


“Woods’ Schumann is a revelation: transparent, graceful, melancholy, romantic

At the beginning of this month we were blessed to hear an almost vexingly mellow Schumann byYannick Nézet-Séguin. Now, the exemplary finale of another fascinating Schumann recording follows that up. The recording is by the British Orchestra of the Swan and is conducted by the thoroughly unconventional Kenneth Woods. His Schumann is a revelation: transparent, graceful, melancholy, exquisitely romantic. He’s complemented by the symphonic opus of the Viennese expressionist Hans Gál…  This album marks the finale of a four-album complete recording of Schumann‘s und Gál’s symphonies. The final result may be the most compelling reawakening of Schumann in the last decades – and simultaneously a long-overdue vindication of Hans Gál.

1 year ago | |
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A review from the June 2014 issue of Gramophone Magazine by Guy Rickards.

“This account is a joy from start to exuberant finish, perfectly paced and superbly played…Very strongly recommended”

Gramophone Gal Schumann 20114 (2)

1 year ago | |
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On Sunday 11 May, the 2014 Two Rivers Festival reaches a climax with its final concert‘UNQUIET EARTH’ ; a sequence of words and music inspired by Emily Brontë. Festival director Peter Davison describes this fascinating concert in the essay below:

Sunday 11 May at 7.30pm
The Bushell Hall, Birkenhead School

Clare Hammond (piano) Jane Wilkinson (soprano)
Suzanne Casey (violin) Kenneth Woods (cello)
Peter Davison (narrator)

“This concert offers a chance to discover more about this enigmatic free-spirit who loved the wild moors of Yorkshire where her imagination roamed freely. The concert takes place at 7.30pm in the Bushell Hall, Birkenhead School, and will be performed by the newly inaugurated TWO RIVERS ENSEMBLE whose members include Clare Hammond (piano) Jane Wilkinson (soprano) Suzanne Casey (violin) Kenneth Woods (cello). The music will be linked by a specially written narrative which will be read by its author, Peter Davison, the festival’s artistic director. Prior to the concert and during the interval there will be a display of Brontë-related artwork by the Yorkshire-based artist, Justine O’Brien. The music programme is below:

Beethoven Pathétique Sonata

Robin Walker Four Songs of Emily Brontë (world premiere)

Beethoven Cantata: Adelaide

Mendelssohn Adagio from Cello Sonata No.2

Andrew Keeling Piano Trio “Unquiet Earth” (British premiere)

Emily Bronte

The emotional heart of this concert will be a new work commissioned from composer Robin Walker who has set four of Emily Brontë’s poems for voice, violin and piano, exploring lost love and resignation. Extracts from the novel and other writings will appear alongside a stormy piano sonata by Beethoven, whose cantata of unobtainable love, Adelaide, is among the Brontës’ music collection in Haworth. Finally, the British première of Andrew Keeling’s Unquiet Earth offers a lyrical response to Wuthering Heights in music of rare pathos. (Tickets cost £15 (U21s half-price) and can be purchased on-line, by calling (0151) 651 3095 or at the door.  For more information please visit the festival’s website )

Composer Robin Walker

Composer Robin Walker

Emily Jane Brontë was born on 30 July 1818 in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was a younger sister to Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, and she had also an older brother, Branwell. Shortly after the birth of yet another girl, Anne, in 1820, the family moved to Haworth, where her father Patrick Brontë became perpetual curate – taking up residence in the now famous parsonage. When only a year had passed in their new home, Mrs. Brontë died, and the three oldest sisters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were consequently sent away to school. Emily eventually joined them, but there was a typhus outbreak, so the children were withdrawn. However, it proved too late for Maria and Elizabeth, who both died at that time.The four remaining siblings were thereafter educated at home by their father and Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister. Patrick Brontë was a strict and rather puritanical father, although he did not deny his children ordinary pleasures such as toys and books. But, during the day, while he worked in his study, the children would have to remain silent in an adjacent room. The siblings had access to a wide range of literature, including works by Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Shelley, and it was this combination of intense reading, spiritual high-mindedness and domestic confinement which probably encouraged the rich imaginative fantasies that would be the basis of their mature writings.

At seventeen, Emily attended Roe Head girls’ school, where her elder sister Charlotte was a teacher but, after only a few months, she was overwhelmed by homesickness. Returning to Haworth, her younger sister Anne took her place.The aim of the sisters at this time was to acquire sufficient education to allow them to open a small school of their own. Indeed, Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax in September 1838, but her once again her health deteriorated under the strain of the long and stressful hours. She found herself compelled to return to Haworth parsonage, where she took on many of the domestic chores, while also teaching at the local Sunday school.During this period, Emily was able to teach herself German, and she also became a proficient pianist. The children had always been encouraged to attend concerts, to play music and to sing. The family even acquired a cabinet piano in 1833, which Emily and Anne both were able to play. Emily was particularly gifted as a pianist and reached a high standard. The family possessed a range of sheet music, including William Ayrton’sfamous Musical Library; an anthology in four large double volumes which contained many instrumental pieces and songs by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but also works by Handel, Arne, Boyce, Gluck, Spohr and Mendelssohn. Among the most notable contents of these volumes were simplified arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies, as well as songs by him such as Adelaide. It is easy to imagine the whole family gathered around the piano on a winter’s evening, the hail clattering on the window panes as a wild wind blows across the moors. Emily Bronte is crouched at the piano, before throwing herself into a performance of music by Beethoven.

In 1842, Emily accompanied Charlotte to the Héger Pensionnat in Brussels where they attended the girls’ academy run by Constantin Héger. They planned to perfect their French and German before opening their own school. However, the death of their aunt meant that they were forced to return to Haworth. They tried in vain to open a school, but were unable to attract any students. The attempts of the sisters to achieve financial independence seemed to be consistently frustrated, but this perhaps served to turn their attention all the more to writing and creativity. In 1844, Emily began going through all the poems she had ever written, copying them into two notebooks. In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte discovered them and insisted that the poems should be published. Emily at first declined and was also angry that her secret life as a poet had been exposed, but she relented when her sister Anne revealed that she too had been writing poems. In 1846, the three sisters together published a single volume – Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Each adopted a male pseudonym for the purpose of publication, but preserving their initials. They feared that their work would not otherwise be taken seriously. The collection was well received, and Emily’s poems were singled out for their seriousness and musical qualities.

But this literary triumph was short-lived. Emily knew that her health had been damaged by the harsh climate at Haworth. There were also unsanitary conditions in the parsonage, where the water-supply was probably contaminated by the many diseased and rotting corpses in the neighbouring graveyard. Emily caught a severe cold during the funeral of her hapless brother Branwell, who had died in September 1848. She soon afterwards diagnosed with tuberculosis, her condition rapidly worsening. She died aged just thirty on 19 December 1848, having never experienced the success of her sole novel, Wuthering Heights, which had been published in the previous year.

We know very little about Emily Brontë as a person. Her sister Charlotte recorded that she needed to be free in order to thrive. Emily was certainly a free spirit, emotionally sensitive and physically vulnerable, yet also stubbornly individualistic, possessing a wild imagination which was stimulated by long country walks. She was a day-dreamer, often self-preoccupied, her head full of literary ideas and elaborate fantasies. It was said that she preferred the company of her faithful dog Keeper to any human companionship. Such misanthropic characteristics may well have made her less than appealing to potential suitors, and it is doubtful that she ever experienced romantic love. Perhaps at some time in her life, she had loved from afar, or perhaps she had been cruelly rebuffed but, whatever the truth, she felt a deep wound of separation formed by a childhood filled by painful grief and loss.

Robin Walker, who lives and works close to Haworth, in sight of the same Yorkshire moors which so inspired Emily Brontë’s writing has set four of her poems, which explore feelings of grief and separation against the backdrop of Nature. The absent lover is a blissful presence, but only in memory. There is a pervasive longing to restore the lost flow of life and to recover innocence. Death offers an escape; a way finally to unite with the unattainable beloved. Deep sadness suffuses these poems. There is resignation to a tragic destiny. It is true that Emily found some consolation in her Christian faith, also in the beauty of Nature and in her prodigious imagination, but throughout we feel the cold hand of mortality is beckoning her ever closer. By the end of this song-cycle, her faith in redemption seems as fragile her physical well-being.

The second half of Sunday’s concert begins with Beethoven’s setting of Adelaide; a song which can be found in the Brontë’s Musical collection at Haworth Parsonage. The poem is by Friedrich von Matthisson, and it expresses unrequited love for an idealised other, who is mirrored ultimately in the beauty of Nature. Once again, we sense that broken love may only be healed by death. Beethoven’s obsessive dedication to music led him to a life at times of extreme self-denial. At all cost, he needed to preserve his creative freedom. Rather like Emily Brontë, this made his human relationships fraught with difficulty. He was at the whim of his muse, which possessed him with grand visions and impossible lofty ideals. His ordinary human needs often collided uncomfortably with his will to greatness and high achievement. It was a tension which also haunted all the Brontë siblings in their different ways and especially Emily. One author, R.K Wallace, has gone so far as to suggest that Heathcliff, the wicked anti-hero of Wuthering Heights, was even modelled on Beethoven, whose appearance, like that of Heathcliff, was wild, dark and unkempt. Beethoven was also prone to violent outbursts of temper. Emily would have known about Beethoven‘s passionate nature from playing his music. She may also possibly have read accounts of him as an uncompromising character in published biographies. But we should not exaggerate this connection. Beethoven was, after all, no ill-educated rustic, just as Heathcliff was no musical genius. By the 1830’s, not long after Beethoven’s death in 1827, the composer was already a towering mythic figure in European culture; an archetype for the heroic Romantic artist living in defiance of convention and who harboured for humanity a vision of universal brotherhood. In this new order, social convention and true nature would no longer be at odds. Emily Brontë must have found such ideas inspiring and attractive, although they must also have increased her frustration at the state of the world around her; so full of iniquities, suppressed feelings and dashed hopes.

We find these conflicts at the heart of Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights, where the central theme is the conflict between social convention and the wildness of Nature. The privileged world of the Linton family, restricted by the mores of polite society, is contrasted with Heathcliff’s feral world on the moors, where passions rage uncontrolled and where vengeful mischief is aimed at those who have put him down. Heathcliff had been a mysterious swarthy child plucked from the streets of Liverpool. As he grew up, he was physically abused and mocked, eventually seeking revenge upon his tormentors; those who conspired to steal his beloved Cathy away from him. The intense feelings between Cathy and Heathcliff threaten diabolical consequence for the civilised world, for their desires cannot be repressed, yet nor can they find a form that would not transgress established moral laws. Tragedy must inevitably follow, for Cathy knows that the price of a virtuous and privileged life as Mrs. Edgar Linton entails an unbearable loss of soul. With pagan intensity and reckless longing, Cathy laments her predicament to her servant Nelly:

‘I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. …. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven…It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.’

We can only speculate on the inner frustrations which may have motivated Emily Bronte to pen Wuthering Heights, as she languished at home, devoted to her clergyman father and plagued by ill-health. Creative fantasy and long walks offered some consolation, but her life in many ways embodied the collective conflict of those times which women in particular endured through prejudice and prohibition. Desire and ambition were walled in by domestic duty and the call to obedience. Nature was thus pitted against the human world. Individuality was often trapped in conformity to rigid social conventions. The artist was often cast in the role of the outsider attempting to redefine moral laws and boundaries. These struggles were common themes in 19C art, music and literature, and we can hear such an opposition in the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata. A traditional Lutheran chorale, in the style of Bach, is played by the piano. It symbolises conventional faith, enduring value and moral steadfastness, but the cello plays a plangent ‘song without words’, which disrupts the purity of the chorale. Mendelssohn resolves this tension when the piano finally acknowledges the cello’s sorrow, re-integrating what had previously been excluded from the community of faith.

If Wuthering Heights expresses something of the deep psychological conflicts at the heart of Victorian society, it does not mean that Emily Brontë was always pessimistic about the human condition. At the end of her novel, there are glimmers of hope that differences in society can be overcome by patience, understanding and universal education. But, it is far from an idealistic outcome in the context of the novel’s preceding pages. In truth, Emily Brontë vacillated between peering into the abyss and a visionary sensibility that looked to the stars. Her volatile moods and profound perceptiveness are explored in her essay, The Butterfly, written in 1842, while she was living in Belgium. In a state of deep melancholy, her experience of Nature is meaningless, for one creature must devour another in order to live. Nature’s beauty, she feels, is a deception. She observes a caterpillar eating the petals of a flower and is disgusted by it, filling her with existential doubt and rage:

All creation is equally mad. Behold those flies playing above the brook; the swallows and fish diminish their number every minute. These will become, in their turn, the prey of some tyrant of the air or water; and man for his amusement or his needs will kill their murderers. Nature is an inexplicable problem; it exists on a principle of destruction…This worm lives only to injure the plant that protects it. Why was it created, and why was man created?”

But then a butterfly draws itself to her attention, reminding her to look more generously upon the transformative potential of Creation:

…like a censoring angel sent from heaven, there came fluttering through the trees a butterfly with large wings of lustrous gold and purple. It shone but a moment before my eyes; then, rising among the leaves, it vanished into the height of the azure vault…

In the metamorphosis of the caterpillar in to a butterfly, Emily Brontë could sense the symbolic promise of a release from earthly woes and the cruelties of Nature. Perhaps, she believed, there could yet be some resolution of the conflict between the high spiritual ideals of Beethoven and the low earthly passions which she would later portray driving Cathy and Heathcliff to mutual destruction.

Andrew Keeling’s piano trio Unquiet Earth (2006) was inspired by the final paragraph of Wuthering Heights. The novel ends with tantalising ambiguity. The main characters all lie dead, but the novel’s narrator returns to the scene of the tempestuous events and perverse relationships which made the story. We are compelled to reflect in these last pages upon what may follow. Where Nature has been so rigorously denied, must there always be ghostly echoes of those thwarted desires? Must cries of anger and despair resound through successive generations? Will the souls of the dead continue to haunt the living, as victim and victimiser entangle in an eternally destructive embrace? Or – do the dead rest in peace, finally free of their unhappiness and their need to strive to fulfil themselves?

….the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you’ll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen the two of them looking out of his chamber window on every rainy night since Heathcliff’s death:—

…. I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

For more information about this event click here:

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It was the most unexpected gift I received this past Christmas- both the nature of the gift and the identity of the givers.


Why the nature? Anyone who knows me well, knows how deeply immersed I was in the music of Jimi Hendrix throughout my teens and early twenties, but although I still love his music unreservedly, it’s been ages and ages since I last bought a Hendrix record or DVD. What’s more, for most of the last decade or so, “reading for fun” has been something of an aspiration rather than an avocation. It seems like it’s all I can do to keep on top of reading for work, and with so many unread novels and biographies sitting ignored on my bookshelf, friends and family have pretty well given up on giving me more books.

(A short extract of me playing a tune of mine called “One Time Lover,” recorded at an unrehearsed Blues Night jam session* at the Bluebird in Bloomington in July 1990. The influence of Jimi on the playing and the writing will be painfully obvious to anyone who knows his music)

And the identity of the givers? Well, let’s just say I don’t think that it exactly filled my parents’ hearts with joy when their cellist son’s interest in rock music began the progression from listening, to buying an electric guitar, to buying several more guitars, to joining any number of bands that seemed to gravitate towards the not-so-acoustically-insulated confines of their basement, to an undergraduate education wherein my focus was manifestly and painfully split between my cello studies and my guitar ob sessions. I’m sure it was a huge relief for them when the last band floundered and the guitar stopped showing up on visits home. I wouldn’t have expected my folks to be looking to put me back in a Hendrix state of mind.

Nonetheless, this past Christmas morning, I opened a copy of Starting at Zero, the life of Jimi Hendrix in his own words as compiled by Alan Douglas and Peter Neal.

This book is a treasure.

Hendrix was not just a great guitar player, a matchless songwriter or an iconic cultural figure. He was a genius. “Genius” is a word that is used far more often than it is understood. A real genius is not someone who can do what we all do faster and better. A genius is not defined by a photographic memory, perfect pitch and a creative spark. It’s not defined by how fast you can do the Sunday Times crossword, or whether you can analyze all the tone rows in Boulez in the time it takes your friends to make a pot of tea.

A real genius is almost a member of another species, tethered to the rest of humanity only through their vulnerability, mortality, their need for love and their personal fallibility. There is no explaining or rationalizing the connections and breakthroughs that a genius can make in their thinking. Folks who doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was actually the author of the Shakespeare canon (there are many of them), base this doubt primarily on the their scepticism that someone of his birth and education could possibility have possessed the breadth of knowledge needed to write those works. The fact is, the author of those works was a genius, and a genius like that comes from nowhere and flies under its own power. Shakespeare no more needed help from teachers and tutors than a blackbird needs flying lessons. Likewise, throughout Starting at Zero, you can see Hendrix making leaps and connections in his thinking that defy our expectations of what someone can learn or do or figure out or create in a given time.

Rock and pop is primarily a commercial entertainment business, but plenty of art, and plenty of great artists, have managed to slip past the accountants and the image makers and make enduringly compelling art. Sadly, the bean-counters have consolidated their power ruthlessly from year to year, and  the number of great artists (or even just artists) emerging from the great rotting plastic façade of pop culture has dropped geometrically from decade to decade, with more  iconic records being made in March 1968 than in all the 2000’s to date.

Of all of the giants and greats to emerge from the rock world since Elvis hit the scene, Hendrix is the greatest of them all, and the only real genius. Explaining why to someone who doesn’t see it is like explaining why Everest is higher than Pike’s Peak to someone who lives at the foot of Pike’s Peak. It’s nothing against Pike’s Peak.  It’s not just about the guitar playing- it’s about his originality of thought as expressed in his music, his world-view and his lyrics. It’s about his uncanny instincts for composition- there’s not a single unconvincing or trite chord change in any of his original songs. It’s about his incredible power of projection and connection as a soloist and singer. And, of course, it’s about stuff that’s over my head- he was a genius.

Really, though, the exact nature of genius is impossible to describe, and too big to measure.

This book, however is an important contribution to our understanding of who Jimi was and how he thought, learned and grew. Like most geniuses (and there aren’t many of them) there were many Jimi’s- he could speak in so many voices. There’s his public voice- the idealistic, dreamy flower-power prophet.

“I’d like everybody to see this type of festival, see how everybody mixes together in harmony and communication…

500,000 halos..OUTSHINED
We washed and drank in God’s tears of joy
And for once… and for everyone..
The truth was not a myster.

We came together… danced with
the pearls of rainy weather.
Riding the waves of music and space,

There’s the thoughtful man trying to make sense of and define his role in epochal political and social changes:

“One of the worst statements people are making is “No man is an island.” Every man is an island, and music is about the only way we can communicate. It’s a crusade, right.

“A lot of people in America are looking fo a leader in the music field. It’ll take somebody like us to get it together. We’ll be on a truth kick. We want to be completely honest and barefaced. We want to be respected after we’re dead. Who doesn’t want to be remembered in history? But regardless of whether it’s coing to be us, the feeling there, and that’s what counts. If I die tomorrow, the feeling is there. Forget about brand names. We put across the music. The idea is to do it as strongly as possible, to work out a certain physical change.

“The Beatles could do it. They could turn this world around or at least attempt to. The Beatls can be a positive force, and they could really get the people together. They’ve got power because they are performing for the masses. They should use their power. It might make them a little more uncomfortable in their position, but me, I don’t care about my position. I’m trying to use my power.

There’s the music geek, who had outgrown his times even at the beginning of his career:

“Freak-out, psychedelic and so on, that’s all pretty limited. I don’t want anybody to stick a psychedelic label around my neck. Sooner Bach and Beethoven. Don’t misunderstand me, I love Bach and Beethoven. I have many records by them, also by Gustav Mahler.

(I have to say, the moment I read this line was a pretty cosmic coming together of my musical interests in life)

And there’s the businessman. One of the most valuable documents in the book is a letter from Jimi to his manager, dated February 5th 1969. It’s too long to quote usefully here, but it shows a complete different side to Jimi- he comes across as shrewd, clear-headed and completely professional, with a sophisticated understanding of the business. Don’t be fooled by the purple shirts- behind the smiling public persona, there was an iron will and an incredible sense of purpose.

Throughout the book, that sense of purpose in Jimi- his sense of his musical and social destiny- is something that only seems to get clearer and stronger from page to page. Frankly, I’ve never really found it credible that someone with such focus and sense of duty could die such a pointless death as the result of his own carelessness. So many of the best of his generation were silenced before their work could be finished. It still smells to high heaven of the stinking dark hand of the deep state, but at  least they couldn’t silence the music.


* Personnel- Christopher “Chicken” Weise, drums, Tom Muller, bass, David Biller and Jon Heagle rhythm guitar (they both have solos earlier in the tune) and KW lead guitar and vocals (if vocals they be)

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Gál: Symphony No.2 in F Op.53
‘The personal experience which is always expressed in music is very deeply buried in one’s own consciousness. One doesn’t know. One never knows.’
Hans Gál
Hans Gál was born in 1890 just outside Vienna, where he studied with Richard Robert and Eusebius Mandyczewski. He rose to prominence in 1920s Germany and Austria, particularly as an operatic composer and in 1929, with the support of Richard Strauss, Gál became the director of the Conservatory in Mainz. Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 marked a major reversal of fortune for Gál and his family. Because Gál was of Jewish descent, he was immediately dismissed from his position in Mainz, his music was banned and Gál suddenly found himself without a job or a country.

Internment camp on the Isle of Man where Gal was imprisoned in the early months of WW II

Gál’s dismissal was only the beginning of over a decade of setbacks and tragedies for the
composer. In 1988, Gal’s wife Hanna spoke of the difficulty of the years following ‘the trauma of 1933 when, with Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany, he had lost simultaneously his position as head of a highly esteemed College of Music, any possibility of having his works performed or published, had become unable to protect his children from cruel abuse by their schoolmates and even some teachers.’ Gál and his family escaped to the UK in 1938, but in 1940 he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ and even found himself held alongside German prisoners of war, many of them Nazis. Finally, after his release, he settled in Edinburgh, and taught at Edinburgh University for many years.

Tante Jenny, Ilka and Edith, July, 1939

The early 1940s were particularly difficult for Gál. In March 1942 his mother died. The following month, his aunt and sister took their own lives to avoid deportation to Auschwitz. The strain of such upheaval and tragedy evidently became too much for Gál’s youngest son, Peter, who took his life in December 1942 at the age of only eighteen. Amid such protracted personal and professional struggle, it seems all the more remarkable that Gál had begun working on his Second Symphony, which he completed in 1943.

Peter Gal

Gál was so pessimistic about the chances of the symphony’s public performance that he initially submitted the Adagio as a stand-alone work, which Gál’s friend and champion Otto Schmidtgen premiered in Wiesbaden in October 1947. Schmidtgen gave the symphony’s first complete performance in the city a year later, and the sole UK performances took place under the baton of Gál’s former student Rudolf Schwarz with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in 1950 and 1951. After that, the symphony was unheard in concert until the present performers revived it in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2012.

Prior to the first performance in Wiesbaden, Gál sent Schmidtgen an uncharacteristically long and detailed programme note:

“The Symphony is structured in four movements which, in expression and thematically, stand in an organic relationship to one another. The first movement is a calm, freely formed introduction, which presents some of the motives that are important for the further course of the work.

(The iconic chorale theme which recurs at key moments in the symphony)

(The “consolation” theme)

The following lively and energetic movement stands between this introduction and the broadly laid out Adagio which forms the heart of the Symphony; it acts as a drama ‘of the world’ [Weltspiel] between the two parts of a meditation which is turned completely inwards.

(The “passacaglia-like” episode which opens the Finale of Gal’s Second Symphony)

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 into the withdrawn mood of the introduction, turned away from the world.”

(The final recurrence of the chorale theme heralds the beginning of Gal’s “ever more calming” coda, as the symphony ends “turned away from the world.”)

Although the Second Symphony was conceived in an era of global conflict and personal tragedy, it is an intimate work of deeply touching lyricism and humour, tempered with melancholy and anxiety. It is no accident that the Adagio was the one Gál thought could be performed separately. Each of the other three movements is a constituent part of a single, interconnected symphonic structure. The first movement functions not only as an introduction, but as the exposition of the entire symphony. It begins contrapuntally and quietly, not far from the sound world of a late Beethoven quartet, with fragile individual lines gently building a web of sound.

(The opening of the Symphony)

The following Allegro energico (the symphony’s main sonata-allegro according to a unitary plan) is formally a scherzo and trio, and although it is full of humour, it is also, as Gál points out, outward-facing music, full of vitality and rhythmic energy.

(Gal called this music from the second movement a “Weltspiel” or “Drama of the World“)

The movement’s Trio section is delicate and sweet natured, vintage Gal.

(The gently nostalgic atmosphere of the Symphony’s second movement is one of Gal’s most typical soundworlds)

The true heart of the Second Symphony is the great Adagio in D flat major, which he considered calling both ‘Elegy’ and ‘Dirge’ (although he was quick to point out that it was ‘really more consolation than funeral music’).

(The opening of the Adagio, the heart of the Second Symphony)

This is music of deepest feeling, tenderness and melodic invention, full of delicate reveries and lyrical outpourings, but the gentle and childlike atmosphere in which the “consolation” theme from the first movement returns, is shattered midway through by a scream in the violins and a chorale in the brass.

(The most harrowing moment in Gal’s symphonic output? The tender consolation theme is cut short by a violent scream of despair)

The outline of the Adagio must have been in place before Peter’s suicide, and the thematic material of this movement is closely linked to the first and fourth movements, but it seems likely that the extraordinary depth of feeling throughout is at least partly traceable to that tragedy.

(The end of the Adagio from Gal’s Second Symphony, in which the consolation theme, interrupted so brutally earlier in the movement, now unfolds in seemingly endless serenity.)

The finale functions as the development and resolution of the symphony as a whole and, for all its shadows, closes not with darkness and despair but with reflection and a fragile promise of the consolation Gál seemed to be seeking throughout the Adagio. With his Second Symphony Gál composed a wartime masterpiece that contemplates peace both personal and universal.

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‘This traumatic experience…was linked to his First Symphony… This symphony thus spans the years of his ripening, the summer of his life… At that time he developed a stoicism, an ability to suppress his feelings and to tame the chaos within him, just as he mastered the art of channelling into a form the tumultuous, explosive natural forces of his music.’

Hans Gál: Johannes Brahms, His Work and Personality

Hans Gál’s First Symphony, like that of Robert Schumann, was not, in fact, his first symphony, but the endpoint of a long process of personal development, self-criticism and trial-and-error.


Born in Vienna in 1890, Gál had come of age in that capital of music, where symphonies by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Bruckner had all been brought to life. As a young man, he was able to observe Gustav Mahler’s rehearsals at the Vienna State Opera and was present for the premiere of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. His principal teachers were Eusebius Mandyczewski, a close friend of Brahms, for composition and Richard Robert for piano, whose pupils included Georg Szell and Rudolf Serkin.

Gál thrived in early 20th-century Vienna, until the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914, the day Gál would later say ‘the world collapsed.’ The outbreak of war was a traumatic experience for the young composer: Austria, as he had known it, was destroyed, and cultural life was affected in countless ways. Gál, however, was already showing the same ability to maintain his focus and productivity in difficult circumstances which would serve him so well in the 1930s and 40s. In 1915, he won the Austrian State Prize with a Symphony from 1911, but replaced it before the performance with another symphonic work, also subsequently discarded. That year, he was drafted into the army, but was hardly a natural soldier: ‘With my poor eyesight I was soon out of the troop that had anything to do with weapons. My rifle had become too dangerous for our own people. Well, in short, I was assigned to the administration troop and was relatively safely housed there. My main occupation at that time was to write an opera.’

The end of the war brought a mixture of relief and new challenges, and also triggered a major self-re-evaluation of Gál’s course as a composer. Gál was 28 in 1918, and had already composed an enormous amount of music, the vast majority of which he now withdrew. It is in the course of the 1920s that the mature Gál really emerges. The classical restraint, the wit, the transparency and the contrapuntal textures are all hallmarks of the voice he would remain true to for another sixty years.

For much of the next decade it was opera that primarily occupied and defined Gál. His first opera, Der Arzt der Sobeide (‘Sobeide’s Doctor’) was written in the last months of the war and premiered in Breslau (now Wroclaw) in 1919. Gál’s second opera, Die Heilige Ente (‘The Sacred Duck’, 1920–1), was a triumph at its premiere (conducted by George Szell) in 1923, and Gál promptly set to work on its successor, Das Lied der Nacht (‘The Song of the Night’), which was premiered in 1926. Die Heilige Ente remained in the repertoire of houses across Germany until Hitler came to power, after which all performances of Gál’s music in Germany ceased and Gál was dismissed from his position at the Mainz Conservatory.

So it was in 1927, at the peak of his fame and personal success, that Gál composed the work he would feel finally deserved to be called his First Symphony. Gál may well have felt he’d finally created a symphony worthy of the title, but his publisher initially insisted on calling it a ‘Sinfonietta.’ The work was completed on 7 November 1927 and the score submitted to the ‘International Columbia Graphophone Competitition’ jointly sponsored by the Columbia Record Company and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna to mark the bicentenary of Schubert’s death. Gál’s new work was awarded second place in the Austrian section of the judging, behind Franz Schmidt’s Third (Kurt Atterberg’s Sixth eventually won the overall palm, and $10,000) and was subsequently premiered in Düsseldorf in December 1928. Since 1933, it has received just three public performances (in 1937, 1952 and 1970) prior to the one given by the current performers in 2013.

The First is the shortest of Gál’s four symphonies, the most extrovert in character and the most colourfully orchestrated. The opening Moderato fully embodies the qualities that would define his language over the next several decades: an inimitable melodic gift,

a virtuosic contrapuntal technique,

and a transparent and brilliant use of the orchestra.

The following Burleske opens with a marvellous orchestral stutter

before unfolding with mischievous rhythmic playfulness and biting, sardonic humor.

Gál’s lifelong fondness for the sound of the oboe is already evident in the beautiful and long-breathed opening solo of the following Elegie.

Gál would never comment on the inspiration for movements like this, insisting that the connection between life events and musical inspiration was an indirect and mysterious one, but he had witnessed and experienced great loss during the War years.

The final Rondo is a tour de force on many levels, a stunning orchestral showcase

and a declaration that the composer, like Brahms before him, had mastered the art of channelling the explosive, exuberant, joyful and occasionally tumultuous natural forces of his musical voice into a perfectly suited form.

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This week I will be conducting some of the incidental music composed by Edvard Grieg to accompany Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. I haven’t conducted any of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music in over ten years, and I’m very, very excited to be doing  it again.

There was a time when I didn’t know enough about music or life to know how wonderful this music is. I remember attending the Round Top Festival many, many years ago as a student, and being slightly put off to see the Second Suite from Peer Gynt on the rep list. Round Top is a conservatory-level summer program for instrumentalists who aspire to play in great orchestras. I’d played the Grieg several times as a teenager and the piece had definitely taken on the taint of being a “youth orchestra piece.” I was in a “Peer Gynt/Schmeer Gynt” mood. I wasn’t alone in this- I don’t think there were more than five players in the orchestra who were really thrilled to be playing it. It felt like an easy filler work that had been chosen to free up rehearsal time for the other, more “ambitious” pieces on the program.

All of that changed one afternoon.

We were invited to attend a talk on the Grieg given by the great musicologist Michael Steinberg, whose wife, Jorja Fleezanis (long-time concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra) was teaching violin at the festival. Attendance was voluntary, but I would guess a good thirty to forty members of our 80-piece orchestra showed up. The vibe as intentionally informal and laid back. We mostly sat on the floor, and Michael was his usual soft-spoken, gentle, brilliant self. The vibe was about as far from “educational” as you can get. For about an hour he talked about the music’s roots in Ibesn’s masterpiece. He talked about Peer’s character flaws and personal journey, and read several relevant pages from the play. Over the course of the hour,  Michael gently persuaded us all that we were blessed that week to be engaging with two great masterpieces, Ibsen’s play and Grieg’s music, that touched on the very essence of the human experience.

I think the highpoint of the session was when Michael read the scene depicted in “Aase’s Death.” Peer’s mother, Aase, is dying. Peer, neither a great man nor a particularly good son, lovingly comforts her with stories as she slips away.  That reading and that movement became the highlight of the week for me- possibly the highlight of the summer. In fact, I can’t even remember what else was on the program that we thought was so much more interesting and important. You can bet there were a lot of tears around when Michael turned off the CD player at the end of the movement. From not wanting to play Peer Gynt at all, we all suddenly wanted to play the First Suite, too.

I was telling a shortened version of this story to a colleague this morning- not just because we’re doing the piece on Saturday, but because this is the sort of thing all of us need to do more of.  So much of musical training is practical. So much of our marketing is driven by celebrity, trends and occasion. Musical education, training and outreach can be inspirational, literary, personal, creative and narrative. There was so much to learn from Michael that day- about life, about writing, about character, about how one genius inspires another. Most of all, there was the inspiration of Michael himself- his incredible love of music and depth of knowledge combined with his effortless ability to engage and communicate. He had the uncanny ability to engage his audience in such a way that our received barriers, points of resistance and arrogance simply fell away in the presence of his sincerity and wisdom. Michael became a friend and mentor and I learned so much from him about how to talk with people about music. If we want a future for music, we can’t just focus on playing in tune, balancing our budgets and marketing our concerts. When you can get a listener or a musician to understand the human essence of a great work of art, the musician plays with a totally different level of artistry, and you can bet the listener will be there for the concert. If we want a future for music, we’ve got to learn to sit on the floor with our friends, colleagues, neighbors and peers, play some tunes and talk about why we love them.

AASE This bustle
is taking my strength away.

PEER Look, there’s the castle, we’re closing,
the driving will soon be done.

AASE I’ll lie back, rest my eyes, try dozing,
depending on you, my son!

PEER Grane my strider, get going!
The castle is one great hum!
There’s a swarm at the gate to and froing.
Now here comes Peer Gynt with his Mum!

What’s that you say, Mr Saint Peter?
Ma’s not allowed to slip in?
You’ll have to look long to beat her
or to find such a decent old thing.
As for me, least said soonest mended;
I can turn at the gate again.
If you poured me one — that would be splendid;
if not, I must leave, that’s plain.

Like old Nick when he preached I’ve been telling
great fibs, more than now and then,
I’ve scolded my Ma for her yelling
and cackling like some old hen.
But you show respect now you’ve met her
and greet her with warmth and praise,
there’s no-one you’ll come across better
from hereabouts, nowadays. —

Hoho! Here’s God, now, the Father!
Saint Peter, you’ll cop it, you’ll see!
(in a deep voice)
— “You stop all this formal palaver,
and leave Mother Aase be!
(laughs aloud and turns to his mother)
Yes, wasn’t it just as I said? Things
will dance to a different tune!
(in dread)
But your eyes — why they bulge like a dead thing’s!
Have you passed away Ma, so soon — !
(goes to the head of the bed)

You mustn’t just lie there, staring! —
Speak Ma; it’s me, your son!
(feels her brow and hands cautiously; then he drops the cord
on the chair and says quietly)
Ah well! — Grane, rest from your faring;
for right now the journey’s done.

(closing her eyes and bending over her)
Thanks, Ma, for the cuddling and spanking,
for all of your life beside! —
But now it’s your turn to be thanking —
(puts his cheek to her mouth)
so there — that was thanks for the ride.

(Kari enters)

KARI What? Peer! Then we’re over the weeping,
the worst of her grief and dread!
Good Lord, how soundly she’s sleeping — —
or is she — ?

PEER Hush; she is dead.

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A review from the popular “Classical Candor” blog of volume four in the Orchestra of the Swan’s survey of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann and Hans Gál. Read the original here. 


“Gal’s First Symphony is relatively brief, about thirty minutes, and more outgoing than the other symphonies I’ve heard from him. Maestro Woods takes advantage of these characteristics to provide a lively and colorful rendering of things. The symphony is clearly Romantic in nature yet with strong hints of the coming modernism of the twentieth century. Woods emphasizes the melodic lines, keeps the Burleske playful, draws out a lovely Elegie, and ends with a rousing account of the Rondo finale. Although I had never heard the work before now, I would find it hard to imagine anyone handling it any better than Woods, nor any orchestra playing it with more accuracy and enthusiasm.”

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Critic Rick Jones (longtime critic for the London Evening Standard) compares the new Orchestra of the Swan recording of Schumann 1 with that of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Yannick Nezet-Seguin on Deutsche Grammophon. Read the original here.

It’s Bobby and Hans for the win.


Disc of the Day: One hears the first cuckoo… Not one but two Schumann Spring Symphonies hove into earshot. Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan versus Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Woods wins it. One needs express no surprise when the committed outfit with its own conductor beats the prestige youngsters under the rising star jet-setter.  The Woods performance is tighter, rhythmically crisper, richer in contrasts, more characterful and always closer to the composer’s wishes. Nezet-Seguin twice decelerates where no tempo change is marked – the first movement’s second subject (where Woods marks the contrast not by speed but stark, clear-blue-water contrast between the wind legato and the string agitato) and, more deliberately, the bowed unisons after the skittish pizzicato in the finale. It ruins the momentum. Woods carries on through precipitously, which is clearly what Schumann intends. Woods is slower in the slow movement but anticipates the chords with unified crescendi. He is half a minute quicker in the Scherzo and quite Beethovenian in the string scales where the European conglomerate sounds plodding and lacks the bass throb in the same scales. The solos – the paused horn call, the flute cadenza – show the European mettle but one expects that as these are the cream of instrumentalists skimmed off, but the sense of ensembles within the ensemble in the Stratford On Avon orchestra, with Woods’ woodwind even achieving comic tone together, is more important ultimately than fine solos. Golden the daffodils in Shakespeare’s birthplace.

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