Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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The new recording on Avie Records of Schnittke’s String Trio by Ensemble Epomeo is released on October 27th in the UK, November 10th in the USA, but available direct from the Downbeat Store via the link above. The disc also includes string trios by Penderecki, Kurtág and Weinberg


Alfred Schnittke

Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio, composed in 1985, was commissioned in celebration of Alban Berg’s centenary. Schnittke later arranged the work as a Piano Trio, and his friend, Gidon Kremer, transcribed it for string orchestra.  1985 was to be the busiest year of Schnittke’s prolific creative life, the culmination of a period of development, distillation and maturation that had begun with the Piano Quintet of 1978. Schnittke’s biographer, Alexander Ivashkin says of this period in the composer’s life that “For many people, the Quintet seemed to be almost a betrayal of his principles…From the polystylistic surface of his earlier compositions, Schnittke goes deeper into the sphere of a musical language in which all the stylistic elements  are combined in a single homogeneous whole.” From the late 1970’s through early 1985, Schnittke was possible the busiest composer alive, and was constantly interrupted by friends, colleagues and scholars. His health, never robust, began to show signs of deterioration. His recurring migraines, which had begun in his early thirties, became more severe and frequent.

Theodor Adorno wrote of the String Trio’s dedicatee, Alban Berg, that “his entire oeuvre was directed toward…reshaping music as a metaphor of vanishing… music to say adieu to life.” Schnittke, who had spent his entire adult life in the Soviet Union, was of Jewish and Volga German descent and had spent a formative part of his childhood in Vienna. He shared with Berg a sense of fascination with decay: “I set down a beautiful chord on paper—and suddenly it rusts,” he said of his own music.  The String Trio shows the searing influence of late Shostakovich, but also Schnittke’s deep absorption with the Viennese masters, particularly Mahler and late Schubert, an affinity shared with Berg, who according to Adorno “assumes a position in extreme antithesis to that which the musical tradition calls healthy, to the will to live… as had Schubert before him, as had Schumann, and perhaps also Mahler.”

The Trio is in many ways a strikingly Classical work. The first movement (Moderato) is in Sonata form, and the work has a strong tonal centre of G minor. Schnittke is extremely economical in his material, developing a few key ideas with striking facility and originality. A great deal of the work’s rhythmic and thematic material is derived from the gentle melancholic dance theme which opens the trio.

The second thematic group (Meno mosso) is based on a lamenting theme first heard in the viola alternating wide dissonant intervals:

And a mournful melody heard first in the violin and cello:

This would later become one of the main themes of his First Cello Concerto

However, the most important and pervasive musical idea in the String Trio is a harmonic relationship Schnittke refers to as “common mediants,” or chords which share their third, such as C minor and B major. In the String Trio, Schnittke seems to put this relationship to every possible use, including using it as a chord progression, as in the massive fortissimo outbursts that occur twice in the first movement and once in the concluding Adagio:

He also uses it as a sonority, stacking the two chords on top of each other as he does in the dissonant choral that returns several times.

He also will re-harmonize a melody, for instance playing the same tune once in G minor then again in G-flat major.

Finally, the common mediant relationship replaces the normal tonic-dominant relationship as the main tonal constructive device—the exposition of the first movement ends not in D major (the dominant of G minor), but in the common median key of G-flat major. Likewise, the first movement ends in F-sharp major (the common mediant of G minor) before moving without pause into the Adagio which begins with four bars in the dominant before settling back in the tonic of G minor.

For all its structural clarity, the opening Moderato is one of the most dramatic (and physical) movements in the chamber music literature—for this performer, it always feels like a life-and-death struggle.

As in the Penderecki Trio (also on this CD), the second movement (Adagio) of the Schnittke is essentially an extension of, and in this case, a meditation on, the ideas of the first. If the first movement is life-and-death, this movement seems to be only the latter- the lilting opening dance theme of the Moderato now inverted and transformed into a bleak funeral march. In the final pages, Schnittke begins to pull together the themes of the work for a final summation. After a final titanic outburst, and a return of the dissonant chorale (both versions of his “common mediant theme), and a volcanic final statement of the theme from the Cello Concerto the viola sounds the elegiac trumpet call for the last time:

Finally, the opening dance melody returns for one final, complete statement in the home key of G minor.

After one final cadence on a pristine C major chord, the work collapses into the abyss- the cello and viola sound a death-knell, and the violin seems to depart the corporeal world.

Schnittke’s String Trio was premiered on 2 June, 1985 at the Moscow Conservatory. The musicians involved, Oleh Krysa, Fyodor Druzhinin and Valentin Feigin, described the work as possessing “unusual, grim, almost alarming notes—perhaps premonitions…” Only a few weeks later, on a very hot 21 July, Schnittke collapsed while socializing with friends. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced clinically dead three times before recovering consciousness.

More on the Schnittke at Vftp

Composer Kile Smith on the Schnittke String Trio

Review- Epomeo Play Scnittke at Scotia Festival of Music

Early thoughts on Schnittke from Vftp

1 year ago | |
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1 year ago | |
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Critic Andrew Achenbach writes in the current issue of Gramophone Magazine about the new Nimbus CD of orchestral music by Philip Sawyers. Buy your copy today, or better yet, subscribe.

Buy your copy of the CD in the Downbeat Store.

“Here are three recent works of strong personality, genuine substance and warm-hearted integrity…uncommon skill in handling instrumental forces…performed here with thrilling conviction and formidable assurance by soloist Maja Bogdanovic… and the Orchestra of the Swan under its excellent Principal Guest Conductor Kenneth Woods…Sawyers’s excitingly integrated music marries a generous lyrical impulse to a genuine thematic substance and marvellously invigorating contrapuntal flair… dashingly eloquent advocacy by the Steinberg Duo… Boasting admirable sound and judicious balance, this rewarding collection earns the strongest recommendation”

Sawyers Gramophone Oct 2014 1

Sawyers Gramophone Oct 2014 2

1 year ago | |
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Req Mike Brown

Via the Saint Louis Dispatch

Mike Brown

“Michael Brown protesters interrupted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Saturday night, causing a brief delay in the performance at Powell Symphony Hall.

The orchestra and chorus were preparing to perform Johannes Brahms’ Requiem just after intermission when two audience members in the middle aisle on the main floor began singing an old civil rights tune,  “Which Side are You on?” They soon were joined, in harmony, by other protesters, who stood at seats in various locations on the main floor and in the balcony.

The protesters then unfurled three hand-painted banners and hung them from the Dress Circle boxes. One banner listed the birth and death date of Brown, who was shot by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

The five-minute interruption was met with a smattering of applause from some audience members, as well as members of the orchestra and chorus. Others simply watched as the orchestra remained silent.”

I wasn’t there, obviously, but I’m inclined to say the protesters did the right thing- certainly that their actions, to me, seem both justified and appropriate.

There have been many political protests at the Proms over the years, some poignant and effective, some simply disgraceful. It all has to do with motivation for the protest, respect for the audience, appropriateness of context and respect for the music. Interrupting the piece would have been disrespectful to music, musicians and audience. Protesting before a Requiem seems poignant and appropriate- someone ought to be singing in memory of any and all people killed by violence. Maybe the protest helped people hear the work with more open ears and raw nerves- probably upsetting, but eye opening. One friend of mine questioned whether staging a protest on private property was fair to the hall, the orchestra and the audience. I’m not sure I agree. If the concert hall can’t be the center of civic life, a hub for intellectual discussion, a place to share ideas, a place we can mourn, cry, scream, love and heal together, we may as well burn every concert hall to the ground. When we value genteel niceties and professional convenience over the existential questions of right and wrong, life and death, we, as artists, have probably   made ourselves completely  irrelevant.

Classical music was once the most political of art forms. Beethoven wrote the Eroica in support of Napoleon’s struggles for liberty and freedom from an oppressive monarchy. When Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, Beethoven famously scratched out the dedication to the fallen hero. Wagner may have been a toxic soul, but he was deeply engaged in political ideas and clearly saw his music as, among other things, an instrument of social and political change. Sibelius’s music helped fuel the Finnish struggle for liberation from Russian occupation, and Verdi’s helped bring together Italy into a modern and united country. Mozart’s three great operas based on libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte were provocative and highly controversial political statements questioning the birthright of the ruling class, the inherent nobility of the noble, and the wisdom and decency of those who rule. Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, the War Requiem, is a pacifist cris de coeur, that not only reminds us of the utter futility of industrial scale mass murder, but also of the fundamental humanity of those on both sides of any conflict. Shostakovich described much of his music as a gallery of tombstones- memorials to victims of Stalinist terrors and Nazi atrocities. Rostropovich’s performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto during the 1968 Russian crushing of the Prague Spring remains one of the musical and social high-points of Proms history.  I could go on.

It has been a widely accepted truism in my lifetime that music and politics ought to be kept separate. There is a kernel of wisdom in this idea. Music ought to bring us together, not drive us apart, and I know that by keeping my political ideals out of the discussion to the best of my ability in the workplace, I’ve been able to form countless friendships and vital collaborations with people who have very different political outlooks and world-views from me. The social act of making and sharing music has provided a framework and a forum for me, and them I hope, to find common ground. It’s important we nurture that fragile shared public space.

On the other hand, if we can’t agree on the rightness and wrongness of certain things, what is the point of that public space? If we can’t find some common ground in our understanding of massive historical events and social problems, what hope to we have of improving the human condition? How perfect is it that the protesters sang  “Which Side are You on?”  I read that as referring to the side of life or the side of death, the side of love or the side of hate, the side of peace or the side of murder. Too many people seem to be seeing it terms of the side of white people or the side of black people, the side of the cops or the side of Mike Brown.  Simply agreeing on the pleasant sound made by a fine orchestra and chorus performing Brahms is not enough.  Classical music, worried about alienating funders and scaring off audience, has completely neutered itself in my lifetime. Politics is a combative business- a rough and imprecise way of working through the problems society faces. All too often, in order to appear reasonable and unbiased, our social discourse offers equal time to both right and wrong. Art can help us to illuminate and clarify what is right and what is wrong by engaging and awakening our sense of empathy.  Which Side are You on? We hope you’re on the side of empathy.

We call a Requiem a “Mass for the Dead” but that’s a misleading bit of shorthand. It’s better thought of as a “Mass of Remembrance for the Survivors” (my teacher, Gerhard Samuel, wrote an important work called “Requiem for Survivors” that explores this very idea).  A Requiem exists to give voice to the pain of loss and to help us find reason and comfort in our darkest hours. The media belittles and trivializes human life at every turn. If this week’s protest helped anyone to listen to Brahms’s music with more empathy, to think about the value of Mike Brown’s life and the loss being endured by  his family, I think that’s a positive thing.  If the performance that followed the protest could have given some solace to Mr Brown’s family or the survivors of any of the many violent deaths plaguing our society, that would have been a wonderful thing. If we can’t agree that killing is wrong, that violent deaths are always a tragedy, what hope do we have? If the words of Brahms’ Requiem are simply a framework for some beautiful music that let’s the performers show how accomplished they are and let the audience relax after a busy week, I don’t know why we’d bother struggling on to raise money to put on concerts. This is supposed to be life or death stuff- infinitely raw and relevant.

“You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.

Behold me:
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.

I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother”

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UPDATED- Monday, 6 October

It’s been wonderful to see the very strong and overwhelmingly positive response to this post. It’s particularly nice to be able to engage with new readers. Welcome to everyone visiting for the first time.

Almost all the comments I’ve received here have been very positive. One area of discussion that has emerged is the effect the protest had on some of those in the building. One commenter was particularly concerned that  elderly patrons and the ushers, who often tend to be older, might have felt threatened or feared for their safety in the early moments of the protest. Thomas J, playing principal horn in the concert, commented below ” I can only say that while the protest ultimately proved beautifully sung and peaceful, to those of us about to commit ourselves to this profound work and it’s attendant need for focus, more than a few of us felt unsettled,” going on to say “We simply didn’t know what else was up the protesters’ sleeves, and saw no one to allay our fears.” I have every confidence that the musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony rose above the disruption and delivered the kind of performance that everyone there needed to hear- they’re one of the greatest orchestras in North America and their musical shoulders are very broad.

I think these are perfectly legitimate issues to raise, and I hope the protest organizers will take them to heart. If the goal of this movement is justice and healing a divided society, empathy and respect for others has to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Hopefully, the peaceful and respectful nature of this protest will help allay fears of members of the general public present going forward. It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful protest than one which consists of singing and dropping folded hearts, but protest of any kind in these strange and violent times has the potential to make perfectly well-intentioned people very uncomfortable. While the sentiment of “black lives matter” is obviously one that needs to be articulated as part of the movement, I found the switch from singing to shouting surprisingly jarring and wish only that those words could have been set to music as well. I would implore anyone involved in or considering future protests to think of the state-of-mind and well-being of those people you are asking to be your witnesses. Make sure they know your intentions are respectful and peaceful. Build empathy by modelling empathy.

Update 7 October

Thanks again to everyone for reading and commenting.

As this moment begins to run its course, I think a word of praise is due to everyone at the Saint Louis Symphony who have, as far as I can see, handled the entire event and its aftermath with total class and professionalism, from the musicians to the broadcast team. Well done, everyone- a perfect example of how a great orchestra is more than just great performances.

Update- 9 October

A podcast follow-up from WQXR in New York. I talk about the relationship between classical music, politics and protest with host Naomi Lewin and author and Washington Post culture writer, Philip Kennicott . Naomi also interviews Sarah Bryan Miller, music critic of the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

There’s also this article from the Riverfront Times which is a nice summary and discussion of what you’ve just read here.

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This Friday I’m conducting the winds of the English Symphony Orchestra in a program of wind ensemble masterpieces by Hans Gál, Mozart and Dvorák. You should come- it’s going to be fantastic!

It’s no secret I’m a cellist, so I have grown up outside the wind ensemble tradition (although the wonderful Dvorák Wind Serenade actually has a significant cello part, which I’ve played many times). In spite of this, I absolutely LOVE (love!!!!!) conducting wind ensembles.

I still remember the first time I conducted an all-wind group. It was the Stravinsky Octet for Winds. WOW! The differences between conducting winds and strings are very striking to someone who has grown up playing in and conducting groups that always include string players. Wind players are fundamentally different to string players. Wind players learn their music. They make very few counting mistakes and almost never play a wrong note. They play together- AT THE SAME TIME!!!!!  It’s as if they really care that chords start and finish in an organized manner, and, in spite of the ridiculous and seemingly irreconcilable differences in sound characteristics between the different instruments, they seem to be able to come to agreement not only on when to begin notes, but how to begin them. This kind of clarity, precision and professionalism is not something one encounters often in the presence of string players.

I love conducting winds and I love the repertoire. Granted, there are not as many A-list masterpieces for winds as there are for string ensembles or orchestras (you know you have a serious repertoire shortage when you hear people describe any work by Percy Grainger as a masterpiece), but the twenty or so greatest wind ensemble works are among the most rewarding pieces to study and perform I can think of. Mozart’s Gran Partita? Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments? Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum? Hartmann Symphony no. 5? These are GREAT pieces.

Messiaen’s Et exspecto. I will conduct it for beer with any group good enough to play it.

So, every time I conduct a wind concert, I have an absolute blast and I find myself thinking that I wish I could do it more often. There should be more wind concerts. So many more people have experience of playing wind instruments- surely you would think this would all translate into a huge audience for professional wind ensembles. An audience as big and enthusiastic as that for orchestras?

Well, no. How many wind ensembles played at the Proms this year? You guessed it! Why?

Well, depth of repertoire is an issue, but the body of good music for winds has expanded hugely over the last 50 years as wind conductors have made heroic efforts to commission new works from all kinds of leading composers. Someday, we’ll have enough wonderful music for winds that we’ll never have to pretend that some of “those” pieces by Grainger and Holst are actually any good.

The answer came to me today as I was making lunch for the kids. I thought it might be a good time to listen to a recording the Dvorák Wind Serenade- one can always learn from listening. I found a live performance directed from the sarrusophone by one of the nation’s leading wind virtuosos (I’m not saying which nation!). I figured a wind virtuoso’s expertise was just the thing I, as a cellist, needed to take in as I get ready to do the piece again (I’ve conducted it four or five times and played it a good 15).

Now, I love the Dvorák Serenade the way bankers love money. The mere thought of the piece makes me smile. There’s not a bar, not a chord that I don’t adore, that isn’t infused with happy memories of playing this warm-hearted, beautifully-crafted and richly-inspired music with friends and colleagues.

And yet, but the midpoint of the first movement today, I found myself fantasizing about chewing my own left arm off. There may even be teeth marks just below the shoulder where I made a start before hitting the mute button. Here I was listening to one of my favourite pieces, flawlessly played, and I was DYING of boredom.

Wondering why there is no wind version of the Berlin Philharmonic? Well, other than a perfectly understandable fear among the public that going to a wind concert will expose them to the risk of hearing Percy Grainger’s music, the likelihood of being bored to tears has got to be a prime concern for the average ticket-buyer.

Why was I so bored? Well, I suppose the title of this blog post gives a hint. Like too many (but by no means all!) wind performances, the whole thing was one big shapeless mass of mezzo-forte. The sound was about as varied as a bowl of old oatmeal. I found myself waiting for the next printed subito forte just so I could groan in outrage when they continued prancing along with their smug, self-satisfied reduction of Dvorak’s affectionate masterpiece to high-class aural wallpaper. Something inside me snapped. Coming after two mind-numbingly bland and precious recordings of the Harmoniemusik from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (I mean really- how can anyone make Don Giovanni, DON GIOFREEKINGVANNI, boring in any medium?!?!?!), I decided something had to be said.

How does this happen? How is it that a group of professional musicians can give a televised performance of a great work that is all basically one dynamic? Surely, an ensemble that has players using double and single reads, horns and (in the case of the Dvorak) bows to make their sound can’t actually achieve a completely one-dimensional, characterless sound? Well, the sad fact is that a clarinet playing mezzo forte doesn’t sound all that different from an oboe or a horn playing mezzo forte. And all those cello pianissimi? Mezzo forte.

Of course, wind instruments do offer some amusing acoustic challenges in terms of dynamics. The flutes and oboes sit next to each other in orchestra. Of course they do- the two instruments are totally incompatible. The flutes can’t play loud in their low register, the oboes can’t play soft in theirs. Clarinets, who sit behind the flutes and oboes (so that they can smirk judgmentally at their colleagues’ lack of dynamic control) can play infinitely soft and terrifyingly loud (which reminds me- when did the bass clarinet surpass the trombones as the loudest instrument ever invented?), so I can only assume that playing an entire Dvorák Serenade mf is their way of mocking their less flexible colleagues. Bassoons really don’t seem to do dynamics at all, but one is so pleased any time they’re not a whole-tone sharp that we don’t dare get greedy. They’re trying, that’s the important thing. Horns can achieve a breath-taking range of dynamics, colours and articulations—so much so that they’re able to play in both woodwind and brass ensembles, an astounding feat of versatility. Unfortunately, most  horn players seem unable to remember what constitutes “brass mode” and “woodwind mood” and often seem to end up blasting away in Mozart woodwind pieces and tooting delicately in Bruckner symphonies.

In orchestra, players often have to project over huge string sections, so an expert flutist will learn to belt out a solo marked piano with a lot of power but with a very sweet sound. It’s loud in terms of decibels, but soft in terms of character. This is exactly right. On the other hand, there are plenty of times in orchestral repertoire when the winds don’t all have the melody, the strings aren’t messing everything up, and piano or pianissimo really means piano or pianissimo. There are even times when composers clearly want players to achieve something dynamically against the grain of their instrument’s acoustical properties. Dvorak often writes low, soft, sustained, exposed parts for the 2nd oboe. The most famous example is the second movement of his cello concerto, where the poor second oboist is left hung out to dry while the first clarinet gets to astound the audience with his/her effortless artistry in dispatching one of the most beautiful melodies ever written (to make it worse, Dvorak has the principal oboist, who could have offered his/her colleague a bit of cover, and the second clarinettist, who could have played the same part effortlessly, sitting idle, smirking in judgment). Professional second oboists spend years agonizing over this short passage. I’m told there is great and mysterious reed maker living 20 days hike into the remotest mountains of Tibet who only makes reeds for this passage. Ask any good second oboist- a 20 day hike for a reed that can make this passage manageable is time well spent.

A conductor has to accept that there are some situations in which one has to be realistic about how big a dynamic range you can ask for, but, by and large, I’ve found that wind sections of all levels of ability can do far more with dynamics than most people think, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you ask nicely, listen to their concerns, and respect that they do have to deliver under pressure, one finds that almost anything is possible. Trust is key. Your colleagues have to trust that you really have valid and well considered reasons for wanting the piano‘s softer than the forte’s (can you think of any?), and you have to trust that when the musicians say they’re really, really giving it their all and can’t physically play any softer, that they’re telling the truth and not just being lazy.

Of course, there can be push back (especially once your colleagues figure out if you’re a pianist or a string player). I once had the principal flutist of a fine professional orchestra in the USA say to his music director after my first rehearsal “Wow, this guy sure does want our piano‘s soft. Does he know what he’s doing?” Thank heavens, my colleague said “yes,” and the next rehearsal was better. There are, sadly, wind players whose (non-)dynamic approach seems to be carved in granite, but with patience and charm, even they sometimes can be persuaded to try new things. I once cajoled a flutist into dropping below fortissimo for the first time in many decades. The trumpets came up to me after rehearsal to say how lovely it was to be able to hear themselves at last. The secret to my success in that scenario? Honest answer- I don’t know. Some days you eat the bear, and some days…

After all, what bigger musical crime can there be than to bore our audience to death? It’s far better to risk the occasional sqwawk or cack, than to have your public conclude that listening to the Dvorak Wind Serenade is the most boring way to spend 25 minutes ever created. Achieving a truly enormous dynamic range in all kinds of styles and registers on the sarrusophone may be difficult, but overcoming difficulty is supposed to be what we do. If I taught sarrusophone, I’d damn well make sure my students had the softest low C of any sarrusophone players in the country, not tell them throughout their formative years “don’t try to play too soft, you might squeak.” At the end of the day, if human beings can learn to play the cello in thumb position (I still remember the pain the first time I tried it in in a lesson), get through airports without committing violent crimes and unravel the mysteries of sub-atomic particles, surely we can offer the universe a realization of Dvorak’s lovely Serenade that would enable the interested listener to guess where the great man wrote “p” and where he wrote “f.”

Next time I have to get my left-arm sowed back on, I’m comin’ for you and namin’ names, Mr. fancy-pants sarrusophone virtuoso.


PS- Apologies to any Grainger fans out there. Please don’t take my humorously-intended remarks to heart. I’ll spare you all the half page of spanking jokes I was going to make at his expense.That would really whip up a lot of bad feeling.

1 year ago | |
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Ken will be conducting this work with the musicians of the English String Orchestra on Saturday, the 13th of September, 2014 in Christ Church, Malvern.

The ESO will be repeating this work on their concert at Elgar Concert Hall in May 2015, and will be recording the complete Shostakovich Chamber Symphonies for Avie Records for release in 2016.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony opus 110a, an arrangement for string orchestra of his String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, opus 110, was the first of five orchestral transcriptions of his string quartets by his friend, the violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai. Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet stands at the centre point of his fifteen works in the genre. Shostakovich’s contribution to the string quartet repertoire stands alongside that of Béla Bartók as the most important addition since Beethoven’s mighty sixteen quartets. Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Quartet in the astonishing span of just three days between the 12th and 14th of July, 1960 while in Dresden working on the soundtrack for the film Five Days, Five Nights—a film about the Allied firebombing of that levelled that city in the closing months of WW II. When the work was published, its roots in Dresden were underlined by its dedication “To the victims of war and fascism.” Many early listeners detected all sorts of musical evocations of the city’s destruction. (I even know of one American conductor who, in an act of chutzpah and genius, persuaded the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut to read selections of his own tribute to Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five, at a performance of the Chamber Symphony version of the quartet. Any excuse to hear Vonnegut read his own prose!).

Leningrad as seen by photographer Alexey Titarenko. His images, inspired in part by the music of Shostakovich, will be included in our upcoming Avie recording

Leningrad as seen by photographer Alexey Titarenko. His images, inspired in part by the music of Shostakovich, will be included in our upcoming Avie recording

However, the true meaning and origins of this unique work gradually rose to the surface. Shostakovich was notoriously grudging in revealing anything about his music’s inner symbolism to even his closest friends, but in the case of the Eighth Quartet, he confessed early on that “I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself.” To his son, Maxim, he said, simply “it’s in my honour, dedicated to me.”

Shostakovich after the publication of

The confessional nature of the quartet is made explicit in its first four notes—Shostakovich’s musical motto DSCH, or D, E-flat, C, B. This motive first began to appear in disguised form in his Jewish-inflected Fourth String Quartet in 1948, later becoming the triumphant theme of his Tenth Symphony, premiered and published just after the death of Stalin in 1953. Never before, however, had Shostakovich opened a work with this motto, nor treated it with such intensity. The hushed, forlorn and fugal atmosphere of the opening evokes that of the opening of Beethoven’s greatest string quartet, his Opus 131 in C-sharp minor (the two works also have many structural similarities).

Beethoven’s model shows him at his most intimate and confessional, and so, too, it is Shostakovich’s response.

Beethoven's last string quartets are referenced extensively in Shostakovich's Eighth

Beethoven’s last string quartets are referenced extensively in Shostakovich’s Eighth

It is not, however, only the DSCH motto which underlines how personal this work was. Early in the first movement, Shostakovich quotes the opening of his First Symphony, the work that had launched then 19-year-old composer to international superstardom.

What had been cheeky and mercurial in 1926 has become deeply tragic and resigned by 1960.

A page later, he quotes his own Fifth Symphony, the work that had marked the central turning point of his career, and the most tumultuous point in his fraught relationship with Stalin and the Communist Party.

This musical quote points to a key biographical detail of Shostakovich’s life in 1960. After standing outside of the Party’s ruthless apparatus for his entire career, Shostakovich was finally forced to join the Communist Party that year, a step that caused him great personal shame and emotional distress. In fact, such was Shostakovich’s anguish that his friend, the musicologist Lev Lebedinsky, reports that “he thought it would be his last work—hence the self-quotations and the inclusion of a funeral march… A few of the composer’s friends knew that after finishing the work, Shostakovich had intended to kill himself; luckily they managed to persuade him not to do it.” Shostakovich went so far as to not attend the Party ceremony at which he was to be inducted- an act which could have been suicidal in and of itself.

After the meditative opening Largo, the second movement is a study in violence and madness, culminating in a screaming quotation of Shostakovich’s famous “Jewish Theme” from his Second Piano Trio.  Jewish music held a special place in the composer’s heart, and he is quoted as having said that “Jewish folk music is close to my idea of what music should be… Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair.  They express their despair in dance music.”

There is more madness in the third movement, with the DSCH motive now twisted into a macabre waltz- it is as if the composer is mocking himself.

This movement also includes a quote from the opening of Shostakovich’s recently-completed First Cello Concerto.

[Only many years later did Shostakovich reveal that that piece includes a demonic-sounding reference to Stalin’s favourite folk-song, Suliko.]

The fourth-movement is another Largo, but has elements of both fast and slow music. It begins with three short, savage chords in the strings, “And the knocks on the door by the KGB,” said the composer’s son Maxim, “you can also hear them here.”

This gesture has a second meaning, as it is also a reference to the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet (his last completed work). Beethoven underscored these three chords in his work with the words “Muss es sein?” or “Must it be?”

Lebedinsky tells us that Shostakovich intended this to be his last work, too, and this gives this quotation particular existential power. Beethoven answered his own quetsion “Es muss sein!”(“It must be!”).

Again, Shostakovich quotes the theme of his First Cello Concerto, those four now-famous short notes now presented slowly and with terrible intensity. In fact, this theme was first used by the composer in a scene called “The Death of the Heroes” from his score to the movie The Young Guard in 1947-8.

Here is how it sounded in The Young Guard:

There follow two more devastating quotations- first of the revolutionary song “Tormented by the Horrors of Prison.”

Then, in the solo cello, a quote from the Act 4 of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This scene in the opera is the one in which Katarina realizes the depth of her betrayal by her beloved Sergei. Already condemned for the murder of her husband, she now realizes the man for whom she sacrificed everything has forsaken her, and she throws herself into the icy waters of a Siberian river. Katarina, of course, took Sergei’s lover Sonetka, to her grave with her.

(aria begins at 40:09)

Here, this music is transformed to announce Shostakovich’s planned suicide- he intended to go to his death alone.

The fifth movement is another Largo, returning full circle to the soundworld of the opening, with a complete fugue on the DSCH motive. The final quote, again of his First Symphony, brings a life’s journey heartbreakingly full circle:

The work was premiered by the Beethoven String Quartet, but it was Shostakovich’s habit to organize a private reading of his quartets with his young colleagues in the Borodin Quartet. When the Borodin’s played the Eighth Quartet through for the first time at the composer’s house, their first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky reported that “We finished the quartet and looked at Shostakovich. His head was hanging low, his face hidden in his hands. We waited. He didn’t stir. We got up, quietly put our instruments away, and stole out of the room.”


Copyrighted recordings are excerpted here under Fair Use provisions of international copyright law.

Beethoven- String Quartet in F major, opus 135 performed by Masala String Quartet (Kio Seiler, Eva Rosenberg, Sheridan Kamberger, Kenneth Woods. Produced by Andrew Hasenpflug

Shostakovich 8th Quartet performed by the Borodin String Quartet

1 year ago | |
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I’m sorry- there’s simply no way that Leonard Slatkin is 70 years old. Leonard-Slatkin-001

Shhh…. don’t tell them I’m not still 45.

For many, many American conductors and orchestral musicians of my generation, Leonard was the first superstar conductor who seemed of our time and of our culture. Before Leonard, conductors were mostly mute, brooding, enigmatic figures with accents and capes. Even that other famous Leonard seemed more a product of an already distant golden age.  I first encountered Leonard Slatkin via the Saint Louis Symphony’s syndicated weekly radio broadcasts. In those halcyon days, one could hear a live broadcast of one of the great American orchestras every night of the week, and Saint Louis, at that time the kid brother alongside the giants in New York, Cleveland and Chicago, stood out under Leonard’s leadership not only for their virtuosity but for the astonishing breadth of their repertoire. Even then, I had the conducting bug, and I was fascinated to hear Leonard speak about music from Adams to Bruckner with genuine musical insight, wit and heart. To the extent I ever heard any of my other favourite conductors speak back then, they all seemed to sound either like one of Tolkien’s wizards or a Bond villain. Leonard was refreshingly American- direct, funny and wise. He was the first one that seemed be living in the world I was growing up in. It simply can’t be that he’s now 70. That I would one day get to study with the man whose radio broadcasts had already taught me so much is one of life’s little delights. In 2001, I had the great privilege to participate in the National Conducting Institute at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Leonard set up the NCI to give conductors with the talent and aspiration to lead major orchestras a chance to cut their teeth with the National Symphony Orchestra. To have a musician with Leonard’s vast experience at your side discreetly advising you on matters both musical and psychological is surely the best possible way to find your confidence working with 100 musicians of vast experience. However, Leonard is never one to hog the limelight- he made sure we all had mentors from within the orchestra also giving us feedback our work after each session. After the NCI, when I would occasionally return to Washington as a cover conductor, Leonard was also generous in sharing his time and experience. I particularly treasure my memory of a short session we had on Mahler’s Second Symphony that Leonard squeezed in between an NSO rehearsal and a session on Corigliano’s Second Symphony with the President’s Own across town. Leonard’s teaching is short of philosophical gobbledegook and long on plain-spoken insight. Every single thing he said in those few minutes proved to be pricelessly useful when I conducted the piece for the first time the following week. The sheer mathematic’s of Leonard’s accomplishment defies understanding, starting with the number three. To have led the three orchestras in Saint Louis, Washington and now Detroit puts him in a most elite club- only Lorin Maazel has led three American orchestras of similar standing. The ultimate achievement for any conductor must be to build a great orchestra- something Leonard did early in his career in Saint Louis. Today we see him re-building a great orchestra in Detroit that has come through difficult times in his own image- savvy, visionary and virtuosic. And then there is the breadth of Leonard’s repertoire.  For many years, we’ve gathered yearly “repertoire reports” on favourite colleagues and friends at my blog- an annual summary of every piece someone has conducted that year. Every year, it is Leonard whose repertoire list dwarf’s everyone else, and it’s a list that always includes many premieres, oddities, tricky accompaniments and mega-works. Put simply, Leonard seems to effortlessly conduct about twice as many pieces as anyone else in the business every year, and he does an astounding range of repertoire so well. His contributions to American music are well known and rightly celebrated, but he’s also great Anglophile, having made great recordings of works by Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Not long ago, I was in a friend’s car- he was playing a CD of the Brahms D Major Serenade, and it immediately struck me as one of the best performances I’d heard of the piece. It’s a personal favourite, but few conductors bother with it, and fewer still do it well. Of course, when I asked, I discovered it was not some glowering Teutonic maestro conducting, but Leonard. Having gone on so long, I must mention one more aspect of Leonard’s musicianship. Conductors are here to be argued over- people may love or hate your way with Brahms or Mahler- but there’s one aspect of Leonard’s conducting that is, in my opinion, beyond debate. He’s simply one of the most phenomenal accompanists who have ever stood upon the podium. Accompanying is the most demanding part of any conductor’s job. To do it well takes real technique, a gift for anticipation, flexibility, empathy, and a sense of when to lead and when to follow. It’s a job I don’t think anyone in the business does better than Leonard. I’ve heard innumerable soloists say the same thing, and veteran soloists tend to be even tougher on conductors than orchestral musicians. Leonard has one of the most remarkable skill-sets of any conductor I’ve come across- an astounding ear, an ability to grasp almost any style, a consummate stick technique and an ability to find simple and pragmatic solutions to complex musical problems. In a field not generally associated with humility, Leonard is always ready to deploy that skill set in support of a soloist or a world preimere with the same youthful zeal he brings to the great symphonic works. 70 is young for a conductor, but forget 70. Leonard remains a conductor for our time and for tomorrow. Happy forty-fifth birthday, Leonard!

1 year ago | |
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A new review from Music and Vision Daily for Philip Sawyers’ Cello Concerto, Second Symphony and Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings on Nimbus Records. Click here to read the whole thing (subscription required). A short sample follows:

“….And now here is Philip Sawyers with an effortless demonstration that the history of music can proceed in an unbroken line and that music of yesterday can easily accommodate the best products of today. As an ex-cellist myself, I know the lyrical strength of the instrument, its readiness for sardonic humour, and its almost desperate need for sensitive orchestrationif the movements of a concerto are to work. If only I still had the technique to master this fine piece, I should start learning it tonight. The opening gives a good idea of the work’s calibre.

“It is somehow satisfying to know that both the Concerto and Symphony No 2 were commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival. It is as if the noble spirit of the ancient Crystal Palace still spread its benign influenceover local music, stipulating at the same time that the Symphony should be scored for the same forces as Beethoven 7. It is a powerful one-movement work, evolving and recapitulating with a sureness of touch that makes a very cogent argument.

“There is much pleasure in observing with what freedom and resource Sawyers shows passing but fleeting respect for 12-note techniques in both the Symphony and Concertante. That is as it should be. To have piano and violin  as soloists in a concerted work is unusual. Haydn  and  Mendelssohn  had  shown that it could be done successfully, and Sawyers has also managed a work of great accomplishment. The start could hardly be more compelling.

This CD reflects great credit on all the performers, but most on a composer previously unknown to me.

Copyright © 17 August 2014 Robert Anderson,

2 years ago | |
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[Click here to Explore the Score of the companion work on this CD, Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht]

The Brahms-Wagner rivalry was largely an affair of the press, whipped up by critics like the Brahmsian Eduard Hanslick and his pro-Wagnerian rivals. Brahms actually professed great admiration for Wagner’s music on many occasions. Nonetheless, there was a time when the two men were perceived as embodying irreconcilable aesthetic approaches. In the end, it was Arnold Schönberg who succeeded in Verklärte Nacht and the works which followed it, in marrying the joint influences of Wagner and Brahms as no one had before.

Brahms’s music- its density, richness and rigour- had a profound influence on Arnold Schönberg’s development, and his engagement with Brahms’s music continued throughout his career. Schönberg’s writings about the music of Brahms, particularly his essay “Brahms the Progressive,” are among the most illuminating analyses of the older composer’s work, and his arrangement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor for full orchestra has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire. From Brahms, Schönberg learned the creative possibilities of the perpetual manipulation and development of tiny motivic cells, an approach that would eventually form the underpinning of the 12-tone technique. This kind of rigorously detailed approach to composition is already fully developed in Verklärte Nacht.  Brahms’s favourite technique of “developing variation” (a term coined by Schönberg which refers to the constant development of small musical ideas throughout a piece) is also essential in Schönberg’s music. Brahms’s approach to most classical forms differs from that of his forerunners in that Brahms’s music is almost never simply expository nor recapitulatory:  the musical material starts to develop and evolve almost as soon as the piece starts, and the process of constant change carries right through to the end.

Brahms’s Serenade in D major, opus 11, written when the composer was 25, is a symphony in all but name, and was the composers’ first major orchestral work.  It embodies the full range of his mature compositional voice.  Brahms originally conceived the piece as a four-movement work for nonet (the two Scherzi were added when the piece was re-orchestrated). before expanding on the advice of his friend Joseph Joachim who conducted the successful premiere of the nonet version in 1958. Joachim also encouraged Brahms to consider designating the work as his first symphony, and for much of the work’s evolution the two friends referred to the piece as Brahms’s “Symphony-Sereade.” However, once the two scherzo’s were added, Brahms felt the piece was definitely not “symphonic,” and stuck with the designation of “Serenade,” a decision which has no doubt contributed to the relative neglect of this glorious work. Brahms destroyed his nonet version, but in the 1980’s Alan Boustead reconstructed the lost original version of this work for solo strings, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn. One hopes Brahms would approve- he did later sanction publication of variant versions of the Haydn Variations for both orchestra and piano duo, and of the F minor Piano Quintet, which also exists in a version two pianos.

Brahms’s music is full of references to the music of his forbearers, something that is easy to miss because his own stylistic imprint is so strong. Brahms’s D major Serenade begins in folksy style:

This is  an almost-direct quote from Haydn’s final symphony, no. 104 (also in D major)

And the opening Allegro molto contains several references to the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony:

The connection to Haydn’s rustic finale and Beethoven’s evocation of rural nature is no accident- D major is Brahms’s “outdoor” key, and his later D major Symphony no. 2 and the Violin Concerto would also be full of the sounds of the countryside, from hunting horns to folk dance.

(It is also no accident that the sunny D Major morning of the Serenade is immediately preceded on this disc by Schönberg’s radiant depiction of dawn in the same key).

The first scherzo is shadowy and dark:

Relieved briefly by a warm-hearted and rustic trio:

The heart of the Serenade is the wonderful and deeply spiritual Adagio. It is the longest and most ambitious slow movement in Brahms’s orchestral music- grander than the slow movements of any of the symphonies. The great musicologist Michael Steinberg asked of this movement “what is such transcendence doing in a serenade?”  before pointing us to Mozart’s own transcendent serenades by way of an answer.

Could one hear echoes in this movement of the slow movement of Beethoven’s last symphony?

The two Menuetti are gentle, inward-facing intermezzi:

The wistful mood will be familiar to anyone who knows the third movements of the first three Brahms symphonies. Here’s the Allegretto from the Second Symphony

The tune of the second minuet is described by Steinberg as “one of the most tenderly expressive of Brahms’s whole life.”

The second Scherzo, however, is extrovert and virtuosic:

With a gregarious quote from Handel’s Messiah thrown in for good measure.

The Serenade’s Finale, like those in so many of Brahms’s D major works, hints at gypsy music and evokes a decidedly rustic atmosphere with its driving dotted rhythms.

The final pages are ecstatically joyful and exuberant. Symphonic? Maybe not, but echt-Brahmsian in every way.

— c. 2014 Kenneth Woods

2 years ago | |
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A new review from Robert Matthew-Walker at Classical Source. Read the whole thing here

A short sample follows

with regard to Sawyers’s compositions: they speak naturally, seriously, but by no means doggedly; his music is emotionally direct and always involving the intelligent listener. This is the kind of music for which many people have been secretly hoping for years. The First Symphony (commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony for its 75th-anniversary) is a superb work, in four movements, wonderfully orchestrated, sensitive, powerful and memorable. We’ll come to the Second Symphony in a moment, but on this current disc I began with the Concertante (2006), the shortest work here at eleven minutes and calling for the fewest number of players. It is a magnificent composition, in the line of a single-movement three-sectioned combination of emotional power and relaxation, drama and contemplation, superbly expressed within an underlying and unifying pulse. The music is immediately intriguing and concerned entirely with development. The preparation for the central slower section is wonderfully achieved, growing quietly (and wholly organically) from the previous concluding bars, it builds to a genuine and powerful climax before morphing into the faster third section – a true ‘coming together’ of the material.

Not the least important aspect of this release is the excellent booklet note by Kenneth Woods, who writes apropos of this work: “[it is]a wonderful example of a work written somewhat ‘to order’ which still manages to encapsulate all that is so compelling and rewarding about his music … I love the way in which a work that could have ended up ‘modest’ in all the wrong ways packs such a powerful emotional punch.” Having been deeply impressed with Sawyers’s First Symphony, I ought not to have been surprised by the sheer fearlessness and directness of expression of the Second (2008), the work of a musician who is communicative, intelligent and unfailingly musical at all times within a very wide expressive range. There are no miscalculations in this work: it is a genuine Symphony, such as Sibelius, Nielsen, Schoenberg and Shostakovich would instantly have recognised, and in no sense is it ‘old-fashioned’ – the concept of ‘fashion’ in music is as unacceptable to Sawyers as it was to those earlier masters. Power, strength and expressive range are here a-plenty, and the continuous flow of the music is gripping, travelling this way and that, but at all times utterly well-paced. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that it is written for exactly the same-sized orchestra that Beethoven calls for in his Seventh Symphony, eminently playable, lying under the fingers and totally rewarding.

Sawyers’s Cello Concerto (2010) was written for Maja Bogdanovic, and is also eminently serious and immensely impressive. From the first bars, the listener’s attention is gripped as one follows the argument, growing from the beautiful initial theme; the second movement is further proof of this composer’s quality – it is contemplative, but possessing a genuine sense of inner momentum: this is not one idea following another, but revealing a flow such as one finds in the slow movements of Brahms’s larger structures. It leads to a central faster section full of “anger and tension” (as Woods well says) but handled with complete assurance as the music returns to the mood of the opening, subsumed and at peace. The somewhat unpredictable finale sheds fresh light on this composer’s outlook: “I’ve come to absolutely love it”, says Woods – and one hopes that many more will share the experience.

The performances are totally committed and the recording quality is really fine. This is the kind of music that gives one hope for the future of our art.

2 years ago | |
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