It’s that time of year again here at Vftp Int’l Headquarters…
Repertoire Report Season- that exciting time when we look back at the year that just ended and take stock of who has been conducting and playing what. I really can’t believe it’s already been a year since I filed the last one.
Actually, it’s been two years. This time last year, I was so busy preparing over 170 minutes of music for the sessions for Auricolae; The Double Album (coming out in May, we hope) that I skipped Repertoire Report Season altogether. That means that my last report was actually for 2011, rather than 2012. Sorry!
Anyway- it’s fun to do this, and remember, I’m very happy to post YOUR repertoire report here. Just email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add it to the archive, and Tweet it to the world.
Here’s a key to the symbols you’ll see in the list below:
Composer with most pieces on the list: Mozart (8 pieces)
Other composers who did well
I’m pleased to see that there are two living composers on that list, plus two composers whose life-spans overlapped with mine (Britten and Shostakovich).
Other points of interest:
I conducted only two Beethoven symphonies this year, which is low for me, and I conducted them on consecutive days. I also conducted two Mendelssohn symphonies this year, also on consecutive days with the same two orchestras. This was completely accidental. I was very excited to conduct two symphonies by Bruckner for the first time in a calendar year (albeit not on the same weekend), although I’d known the 7th backwards for most of my life and had workshopped it before. The Second was completely new to me, and I can’t wait to do it again. It’s now on my “I really have to record” list.
On the other hand, in 2013, I didn’t conduct any Mahler symphonies at all- a first since I started doing repertoire reports. Fortunately, I’ll do at least 3 next year (No.s 7, 5 and 4). 2013 was the fifth year in a row I recorded a major orchestral work(s) of Hans Gál. Now that the symphonic cycle is in the can, can I keep that momentum going? We’re hoping to record the Cello Concertino soon, but everything is still in pencil. Once we get the recording of the First done, I’ll need to take some time to see what we can do next on that front.
The bad news this year? No Bartók, no Stravinsky, no Debussy, no Ravel, no Janacek, no Messsiaen, no Prokofiev. Did I really not conduct a Brahms or Haydn symphony all year? Crikey. The good news? Finally, a year with more than one work by a “New Viennese” school composer (Schoenberg and Berg).
Speaking of firsts- 2013 is the first year in which any of my own music has appeared on one of these lists. Thanks to the combined miracles of deadlines, shame, pressure, coffee, support-from-friends, determination, booze and fear-of-failure I managed to finally shake off 15+ years of writers block and finish and perform two decent sized pieces. I’m not sure premiering your own music is ideal, but it sure is humbling- you sit down at the instrument knowing every note, but not being able to play any of them well.
It’s a longer list than the most recent one from 2011: 84 works versus 66. 2010 was a bit longer at 90 pieces. What pleases me, however, is that I think it’s the most interesting list I’ve come up with so far in my career. There are a lot of major pieces on here that anyone would consider a rare privilege to perform, works that are difficult to play or program, particularly dark or forbidding (Berg Chamber Concerto, Sibelius 4, Shostakovich 14- all from the month of June- spring to mind), contemporary works (I count 19 living composers). Also, all those composers with *’s (10-11 new composers for me this year): it’s so important and inspiring for performers to learn new musical languages. For instance- I’d never conducted anything by John Adams- learning the Violin Concerto took a lot of work, but understanding it took way more, and was incredibly rewarding. I expect to do more of his music in the years ahead.
Here’s the full list:
It’s that time of year again, when musicians all around the world are taking another stab at Handel’s Messiah. For me, it means coming back to a piece I’ve done many times after a long-ish break.
Handel, lookin’ suave- Extensive research has shown Vftp blog posts with pictures get more hits
I didn’t always love Messiah. In fact, when I first encountered it, I really disliked it. In my small-minded way, I couldn’t help but compare it damningly with Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, a piece I’d always loved and knew more intimately. (For all the complexity of his music, I think Bach is one of the easiest composers to “get.” I can’t think of any Bach piece I couldn’t tell was a work of genius the first time I heard it, no matter how awful the performance or how discombobulated my thinking. I can’t think of another composer I can say that about). There are still moments in the libretto of Messiah that really bother, even upset me.
Of course, recognizing that a piece of music is not as great a work as the Saint Matthew Passion is no great act of critical discernment- the same could be said of every other piece of music ever written with the possible exception of the Schubert Cello Quintet and Bohemian Rhapsody.
Eventually, however, if one has ears to listen , one realizes that a piece you might not have loved on first sight is good- maybe even great.
Then, you start figuring out why it is great, and the more you figure out, the greater you realize it is. For a conductor, this is about the time that you seriously start itching to “do” the piece, and through study and performance, you hope to find a sort of beneficial cycle of practical experience and genuine insight.
Long time readers of this blog will recognize that I’m a big believer that as musicians, we owe the composer the benefit of the doubt. As often discussed on these pages, any idiot can see that the “invasion theme” in Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony is pretty repetitious, and rather obviously “un-symphonic.” After all, he’s replaced the development section of a symphony with something two or three times as long as a “normal” development section in which essentially no development takes place. I’m amazed that many good musicians still can’t seem to get past this- it seems obvious that Shostakovich knew he was breaking the rules. Don’t we owe him the benefit of the doubt to find out why? When a great composer frustrates us, when the music disappoints our expectations, there’s usually a very good reason.
Dmitri Shostakovich- you’d be amazed how many people come to this blog just looking for a picture of Mr.DSCH
Back when I didn’t care for Messiah, one of my gripes was that so many movements seem to cover awfully similar musical territory. As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to understand that what at first seems like torturously pointless repetition is really an extremely sophisticated large-scale structural plan that is actually, in a way, quite symphonic (I’m talking about Messiah, not Shostakovich 7). This time around, I’ve been particularly struck by the way that the big ideas of the piece emerge from the fabric of what comes before. There’s possibly no more galvanizing-ly powerful moment in choral music than the bit in the Hallelujah chorus with the sequence “And He shall reign.” How interesting that the musical substance of that passage has long been coming into being, evolving gradually from near the very beginning of the work, with the similar descending sequence in “Let all the angels of God worship Him” and the rising fourths to the word “goodwill” in “Glory to God” marking major landmarks on the road to this moment.
Of course, 99% of the people who hear this music at all hear “Hallelujah” long before they hear any other part of Messiah (if they ever get beyond “Hallelujah” at all), and yet, to me the sort of super-charged joyful intensity that particular passage has in “Hallelujah” seems to be somehow informed by the journey that precedes it. A listener hearing the chorus for the first time won’t know this, but just about everyone seems to sense that there’s something about this music that is suffused with energy.
The opening of “Hallelujah” used to kind of mystify me, too. The first three bars seem so ordinary (and so many performances of them sound so WOODEN)- they just sort of trot along with a kind of inside-out, non-descript wordless version of what will become the “Hallelujah” theme. Why didn’t Handel come up with a more dramatic opening? And why only three bars? Surely a four-bar intro would have been more powerful- was he just being fancy? Lazy? And why not let the violins play the real theme? I always think it’s funny that audiences traditionally stand as soon as the movement starts- surely it’s the music in the fourth bar, when the choir sings the first “Hallelujah” that should make you want to jump out of your seat. Conductors so often seem wrong footed by these three bars, as if we don’t really know what to do with them. Many go for the “just try something” approach- we might try the “amp up the pomposity” approach or the “show ‘em your Birkenstock’s” extra-HIP version. Handel doesn’t help- there’s no dynamic in the intro, nor is there one for the entrance of the chorus. There are lots of possibilities, but I’ve also heard a lot of unsuccessful stabs at “the REALLLLLLY soft opening” or “the conspicuous crescendo.” Let’s face it, whether you bulk it up with Brucknerian steroids or make it extra mincy, it’s just three bars of medium tempo trotting with the tune turned inside out.
Yet Handel, who knew a thing or two about drama having written who-knows-how-many operas (forty-two or forty-six depending on what you count) by this point in life, knew exactly what he was doing, which is obvious if we give him the benefit of the doubt. This sort of seemingly non-descript “trotting” music has actually permeated the work up to this point. That was always one of my problems with the piece when I was young and taking in the work one movement at a time. When you’ve just heard “And he shall purify,” doesn’t “For unto us a Child is born” sound eerily similar? Medium temp, jolly, trotting eighth-note groove, a melody in moderate note values and a bit of sixteenth-notey coloratura. Then there’s “His yoke is easy.” Similar tempo, similar tune, just a slightly jazzier flourish to those sixteenth-notey runs. Fast forward a few tracks, and you’ve got “All we like sheep.” Sure it’s funnier than the others, in ways both intentional and unintentional (sheep jokes just get funnier and funnier the longer I live in Wales), but it’s still that same trotting bass line, the same mid-tempo grove, with thematic gestures similar in length and shape to those in “For unto us.”
I’ve certainly heard MANY performances that left me thinking that Handel was probably just trying to cover all this theological bases with some thinly spread recycled stock musical ideas, but experience teaches that the failing in these cases was in the performance, not the piece. Over the years, I became convinced that a lot of this was to do with tempo and put a lot of thought into making sure that I wouldn’t fall into the “universal tempo” trap, trying to highlight the differences between these admittedly similar movements, and actively seeking out the textual motivations for those differences. This time, however, I’m realizing that for all it’s important to do that (like most music lovers, I have come close to chewing my own arm off to relieve the boredom during an ill-conceived Messiah), it’s also important for me to realize that Handel, the dramatist, knew what he was doing, and that the similarities are very much part of the point. Those similarities are obvious, so it’s likely they’re both intentional and important. Why?
All of these choruses seem to be on one level about expectation, about the promise of divinity. They all sing about what humanity hopes or expects or believes divine intervention will bring to the world.
If you’ve had this idea of expectation in mind every time you’ve heard those seemingly banal trotting eighth notes over the previous 90 minutes, then surely those first three bars of “Hallelujah” can be seen as literally bursting with anticipation, with tension, with barely contained joy. After all the waiting, after all the hoping, the endless expectation, in these three bars we’re literally standing on the threshold of the vision the piece has been seeking throughout. Of course, I can now see why the choir comes in after just three bars- this close to the moment in which the biggest of all promises is fulfilled, nobody could expect them to wait one moment longer, let alone a fourth bar.
Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, Greater Boston Youth Orchestras and Kentucky Youth Symphony has passed away at the age of 97. Marvin was one of the most universally admired and loved people I have ever encountered in the music world- a man remembered with deep affection by seemingly everyone who played under his baton, and deeply respected by every colleague he worked with.
Two great conductors and beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013
I last saw Marvin only a few weeks ago at my concert with the UW-Madison Symphony. It meant the world to me that he came to the concert because the main work on the program, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, had been the first piece of orchestral music I had ever heard live- played by WYSO under Marvin’s baton when I was just a very little boy. After the concert, we spoke at length about the piece, and Marvin’s intimate knowledge and love of the score was as inspiring as ever. Although he had not conducted the piece in decades, he remembered every metronome marking- something far too many conductors never bother to learn in the first place. Although Marvin’s eyesight and hearing had both been failing in recent years, it was clear to me that he had taken in every note and every nuance of that concert, and every other one he had been to in recent years, through sheer force of will and love of the art. Marvin was pleased to know I was living and working in Britain, and talked with great fondness about the year he came to this country to observe how the British youth orchestra programs worked. “My favourite program,” he told me, “was the one founded by Béla de Csilléry in Kent.” This moment, when the man who opened the door to me being a conductor talked about watching rehearsals at the Kent County Youth Orchestra, where I’ve been conducting regularly for nearly a decade, really hit home how deeply connected we all are in life.
Marvin was, by all accounts, both a great musician and a great music educator, and he also understood how to create youth orchestras that had the right organizational framework and the right outlook to give young people a chance to experience great music first hand. Having conducted WYSO through its early years with great success, Marvin was that rare founder of an organization who was able to step aside gracefully. He was always available to the board, the organization and his successors as resource, sounding board or cheerleader, but never seemed to need to remind the world of his role in establishing the program.
I never had the privilege of watching one of Marvin’s clinics or coachings, but I’ve heard a number of music educators and conductors speak with awe of his ability to transform an orchestra of young players with a few suggestions, and to open the eyes of a colleague in profound way with a few gently shared insights into a score.
There is a moving and informative tribute from Jake Stockinger at The Well-Tempered Ear here. “… he made understanding music and making music seem like completely natural and totally necessary, even inevitable, acts. “
In 2011, Marvin received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin School Music Foundation. He was only the third recipient, the first being Les Paul. The foundation asked a number of us to record little video greetings talking about the ways in which Marvin had touched our lives. I thought I would include it here as a personal testament to the affection, admiration and gratitude he continues to inspire in so many of us who were lucky enough to come into contact with him.
PS- Recent thoughts on the impact of WYSO here.
I thought some readers might be interested in a little essay I contributed to the current edition of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ newsletter. A text version follows the scan.
Youth orchestras are incredibly important- they make a huge difference in all kinds of young people’s lives. Support the one in your community!
When I was still in preschool, my teacher took a few of us to hear Marvin Rabin rehearsing WYSO for an upcoming performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. My parents had an LP of the piece at home, but hearing that music live, and seeing young musicians play it so well was a transformational moment for me. It set me on the path to a lifelong engagement with orchestras, with Shostakovich, and with conducting. From that moment, I was determined to be a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Once I joined the orchestras, my years in WYSO were full of important firsts. Tom Buchhauser made every Philhramonia rehearsal exciting and enjoyable. Working with David Nelson, I remember playing the music of Mahler and Dvorák for the first time. As a senior, I was doubly lucky to be there for the arrival of James Smith as music director, and to be promoted to principal cellist. I had never felt anything was missing from my WYSO experiences up to that point, but Jim’s wisdom, musicianship, leadership and humor totally transformed the orchestra that year. Every rehearsal with Jim was productive, inspiring and challenging. We only studied about half as much repertoire as we had in previous seasons, but under Jim, we learned it in real depth. For a young musician who had already developed more than a passing interest in conducting, Jim was a perfect example of what a conductor should be, and what a great conductor can contribute to an organization. When that incarnation of WYSO finished its run after an East Coast tour, there were a lot of teary goodbye’s, but, happily, many of us have stayed in touch ever since. People I worked with in WYSO continue to be friends and colleagues to this day.
Jim set the bar very high in WYSO. Just how high I learned after graduation when I began my undergraduate studies in cello at Indiana University’s School of Music. On my first concert in the freshman orchestra, we played the very piece that we’d worked on with Jim for all of the previous year- Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony. I was so excited to do the piece with all these amazing music majors from all over the country, but in spite of a wealth of talent in the group, without the right kind of leadership, and an institutional commitment to excellence, the performance fell far short of what we’d managed in WYSO just a few months before. From WYSO I learned that the true measure of an orchestra is not how many hotshot players you can cram on stage, but getting them to work together, and making every rehearsal the best it can be.
I’ve conducted just about every kind of orchestra there is now, from the Royal Philharmonic right down to the most modest gathering of amateurs, but working with young musicians has remained a constant source of inspiration. During my years in Oregon, I founded a new youth orchestra, which has produced a number of wonderful young musicians in its first ten years, and WYSO was very much the model for that organization. Likewise, whenever I guest conduct youth orchestras, I try to remember it’s about more than putting on a concert. The lessons learned and discoveries made in WYSO shaped me as a musician, and serve as a reminder that youth orchestra is a place to open doors that can change lives forever.
It’s less than forty-eight hours now until recording sessions begin for volume 4 of Bobby and Hans- the complete symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann. We’re all very excited that the day is nearly at hand. YOU made it happen!
Interest in the project continues to pick up. Performance Today, American Public Media’s national digest of live classical music, has just rebroadcast our performance of Schumann’s 2nd Symphony, recorded in December 2011 as part of the sessions for volume 2 in the series. They’ve also included a selection from our recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, sung by the incomparable tenor Brennen Guillory. You can listen to the program online until Thursday the 5th of December here.
Also in America, Listen Magazine has published a new essay on “The Case for Hans Gal.” It’s in the Winter 2013 issue- on newsstands now or subcribe online. You can get a sneak peak here.
Finally, this memorable graphic from Zoe was one of the iconic images of the campaign:
Well, thanks to your generosity and tenacity, we can now fill in the blank box with the cover for vol 4, which will be released in March:
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
We look forward to seeing many of you on Tuesday. Thank you so much for your support!
The team at Listen Magazine (a great magazine you should subscribe to if you read this blog) gave me the chance to “make the case” for the music of Hans Gal. My response is in the Winter 2013 issue, on newsstands now. There are also cool features on Jonas Kaufman, an article on Wagner by Jens F Laurson and a very interesting piece on the meeting of Marian Anderson and Sibelius.
Re-blogged from the Bobby and Hans Campaign Indiegogo page
The countdown to our final Bobby and Hans project is underway. In one week, the orchestra will take to the stage for the first live performance of Gal’s First Symphony in over 43 years.Concert details are here.
There’s been a surge of interest in the project you made possible over the last few weeks, so we thought we might take a moment to update you.
Over at Capital Radio, music programming director Kent Teeters offers up an audio review of vol. 2.
The audiophile magazine Positive Feedback reviews vol. 3 in their most recent issue. “Woods, proves a persuasive advocate for the score, balancing an ear for detail with a sense of the music’s long line; … they produce polished, full-bodied sounds and phrase expressively.”
There’s an essay on Gal in the current issue of Listen Magazine. Ken discusses Gal’s life, music and importance, and offers a behind the scenes look into the process of learning and recording this long-lost music. “In 2009, I wrote a blog post entitled “Who is Hans Gál and why are you recording his music?” On that September morning, Gál was, in the words of one colleague, “the very best composer in the world that nobody has ever heard of.”
Fanfare Magazine has a review in their current issue for volume three in our series. “Woods’s album is a valuable addition to our understanding of the 20th-century symphony.”
Bob Shingleton, aka Pliable, cites our Indiegogo campaign in a stinging critique of classical music’s misplaced priorities. “Recordings of Hans Gal’s Symphonies by Kenneth Woods and Missy Mazolli’s opera are just two important projects that relied on crowdfunding. $13,500 was needed to deliver the acclaimed Gal Symphonies; 0.08% of the amount reportedly paid each year to Gergiev”
Radio host Rich Samuels at WORT-FM continues to broadcast performances from our series. His most recent show included the complete recording of Gal’s 2nd Symphony, which you can listen to online until Thanksgiving this week. The Gal starts at 2 hours 8 minutes
A review from Andrew Achenbach on the Classical Ear for volume 3: ”Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan lend this radiant and substantial score the most eloquent and affecting advocacy, and go on to give a comparably accomplished and invigorating account of Schumann’s masterly Fourth Symphony – a strikingly fresh-faced, spontaneous-sounding display, full of illuminating touches, personable warmth and genuine freshness of new discovery. Do investigate this bold, enormously rewarding coupling.”
Where possible, once I’ve learned and digested a score and forgotten everything I’ve ever heard other conductors and orchestras do in concert and on recordings, I like to do some serious comparative listening. It’s always interesting and often incredibly helpful see what conclusions other performers have come to about the piece at hand.
Video is often even more instructive. One can see what the conductor was actually doing: this is usually very helpful and interesting, and occasionally rather terrifying. Video also gives one a chance to see what bowings the orchestra is using, and how the players communicate with each other. It’s not at all unusual to listen to an entire performance I find wrong-headed, disappointing or sloppy, only to stumble on one idea, one bowing or one moment that makes the whole process worthwhile.
As I look ahead to recording the last installment in my Schumann cycle with the Orchestra of the Swan on December 2nd and 3rd, I came across two videos which I thought made for an interesting comparison, so I’ve decided to share them here. One is a performance (alongside a bit of rehearsal footage) of the group Spria Mirabilis, who play (very well) without a conductor.The other is by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin.
The reason the comparison is interesting is because the two groups are of similar size and share a number of the same players (most importantly Lorenza Borrani, who leads both groups) and the two performances were recorded only a couple years appart.
I’d welcome your reactions and comments- especially if we can get beyond “I liked the ________ one better.”
For me, the two performances raise some very interesting questions about what a conductor does or does not bring to a performance, how players listen and watch with and without a conductor, how an orchestra’s sense of line and meter changes with or without a conductor, and so on.
I normally avoid any discussion of living colleagues here, but in this case, it’s clear that these are both very good performances at a high professional level- what really struck me is that not only are the two performances quite different, the relative strengths and not-strengths are so different.
I think if you take in both performances attentively, you’ll find that it’s not possible to say “it’s better with/without a conductor” but you’ll certainly realize it’s different. For the conductor, it’s a chance to see what the players do when you’re not there than you can encourage the to bring to your rehearsals and concerts, and for the musicians, it’s a chance to see and hear what a conductor can bring to a performance and to think about how you can keep those qualities when you work without one.
Spira Mirabilis (performance starts about 10 mins in)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
It’s not so much a “I told you so” situation as an “I am still telling you now” one.
Back in September, controversy erupted when a well-known conductor was quoted as saying some bizarre and outdated things on the subject of women conductors.
I wrote a blog post at the time saying that however unfortunate his remarks (and I have no idea if he meant them as reported- my instinct is always to give people the benefit of the doubt), if writers and journalists wanted to improve the balance of opportunities for women conductors, they should spend more of their energy and column inches writing about women conductors:
So, dear music journalists, here is your challenge: write a feature article profiling at least 20 to 30 women conductors working today.
Many of my brilliantly gifted female colleagues know all-too-well the frustration of trying to get a critic to come to their concert or trying to get their latest CD reviewed. Find them- pay attention to them! Get out there, dear journalists, and please get beyond the absolute top-tier of major orchestras. If you want to know who is really up and coming, you’ve got to look at youth orchestras, community orchestras, university groups, new music ensembles, collectives and people in minor staff positions. Of course, there are a lot of important and well-established women conductors in the field making major professional careers other than the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony. Don’t forget them. Your list should include conductors at all stages of career and life.
Some thought I was being unfair to journalists, while others had already taken up the challenge. Jessica Duchen compiled a list of about 100 names of women conductors worth getting to know. Wonderfully, her list has had more hits than any other post in the history of her blog.
However, a month on from the initial controversy, and the conversation has moved on from what one guy may or may not think of women conductors to…. Wait for it….
What several more guys think of women conductors?!?!?!?!?!?!
(For a summary of this month’s news, click here)
So much more coverage in so many important places now means that we know a whole lot more about some men, and very little more about any specific women working today in the field.
So, I’m still telling you…. By all means, name and shame. It’s great linkbait. There are plenty more sexists in the business waiting to be outed. The business will be fairer and less creepy when we’ve seen the last of teachers whose profiles might be summarized as “the ass grabber,” “the man who brought domestic violence into the teaching studio” and the “no chicks in my class” guy. I guarantee you, there are plenty of people out there who know which three guys I just described. I won’t even miss the “breasts get in the way of conducting” guy.
However, if you want to create opportunities for specific, talented and deserving women in the industry, you have to make those women your focus, not men. You’ve got to find women conductors, observe them and write about them in detail and at length. Simply embedding a link to Jessica’s admirable list will not do, nor will adding the two other most obvious names to the now-automatic mention of the current Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony in your blog post about the latest foot-in-mouth moment.
I know- it’s way harder work than simply cutting and pasting something somebody said in an interview with another journalist. But there are so many great stories waiting to be told in the industry that nobody is telling. There are not just remarkable talents out there- there are proper, full-fledged artists who are working in near-obscurity. If you don’t have the resources to take up my challenge of doing detailed profiles of large numbers of women conductors, how about a feature piece on one deserving artist? It’s a job only music journalists can do.
See also this post from 2007 on the subject
A review from critic Jessica Duchen in the November 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine for Somm’s new recording of music for piano and orchestra by Franck, Falla and Turina with pianist Valerie Tryon
“..loving and attentive performances…atmosphere that could be cut with a butter knife. Woods draws the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra into a rapt stillness…”
"InstantEncore made launching a mobile app seem effortless."