Clock Tower Final Concert

Once the music got started on night one, it was a fun and celebratory evening. It’s always more fun playing in a full house, and the Dvorak Piano Quintet is such a blast to play and hear.
Afterwards we all adjourned to a very nice restaurant called Ken and Sue’s- nice name and nice food.
The final day proved to be slightly less dramatic in some ways, but was more musically challenging in every way. The dress rehearsal was, perhaps, not the best playing we did all week. Everyone was tired, and we still had the Shostakovich Quintet to get through. As I mentioned the other day, it’s not only challenging to play, but extremely difficult to pull off emotionally. The finale is about as enigmatic as his music gets.
                            
Sure enough, I think we were all a little grouchier in our last rehearsal than at any time during the week, but at least we got done what we needed. Still, I don’t think anyone was feeling entirely relaxed, especially about the Shostakovich, as we adjourned. The afternoon was quieter for everyone than the day before, which allowed for some relaxed practice time and a chance to mark a few more cues in the Shostakovich parts.

Suddenly it was 4:30 and time to decide about the weather. There were a few clouds in the sky, but no immediate sign of rain. There’s no canopy at the amphitheatre, so if we set up the piano and a storm rolled in, the piano could be damaged. Still, it was always supposed to be an open-air event, so, after one last, brief discussion, Lisa made the final decision to have the piano movers take the piano to the stage area.

She’d been nervous about this moment for weeks, as had the college’s piano technician. The reason was that the piano would have to be moved across some grass on a slight slope. Footing for the movers could be a problem, and the uneven terrain could cause the piano to get stuck. Since we were rained out on Saturday, we had still not determined that this move was going to be possible. Even worse, the piano tech had a long-standing playing commitment on Sunday, which meant his assistant was going to be in charge. Had we been outside on Saturday, Paul (the senior piano tech) could have overseen the move and given his assistant clear instructions for what needed to be done on Sunday. As it is, Dan, the assistant, is in charge and making it up as he goes along.
Dan’s piano moving crew looked like it consisted of him, his roommate and his girlfriend, so we were all a little nervous. As it happened, I ended up helping just a little when it became clear the three of them couldn’t do it alone, which I was a little nervous about on the day of a concert. Dan’s youthful appearance and slightly improvisational approach certainly made me a little nervous, but he seemed very sure of how he was approaching the job, and the actual move did not take long.

And the concert? Good crowd and much more laid-back atmosphere than inside the recital hall. The college president, who’s office funded the festival, made a welcome speech and the we were into the music. It was a bit scarey not rehearsing in the space or trying the piano (especially after it had been moved so recently). The first work was the Faure Piano Quartet in C minor, a piece I have many happy memories of from earlier performances. I think it came off fine, but we were very much fighting the wind and the bugs- every page turn was a complete adventure and Mara twice had to knock spiders off of her viola. Still, the audience seemed happy, and we at least knew by the end of the piece that we could make music in that space.

Next were three rags for piano trio by William Bolcom. There is another, much larger, music festival in Durango later in the summer, and apparently the local critic recently took them to task for having never done a 20th century work in their history (I’m a little skeptical that they could actually avoid Strauss, Mahler and Elgar well enough to stay clear of the whole century, but they’ve certainly avoided “modern” music in all its guises). Lisa and Mikaylah, the two directors of Clocktower came up with wonderfully fresh programs that were fully half music written since 1940, and one-third written by living, American composers. The Bolcom rags are beautiful, fresh and witty, and the audience loved them.
Finally, after the intermission, the great Shostakovich Piano Quintet. It was a deeply humbling work to prepare. Much as Shostakovich has always been one of the two or three composers closest to my heart, I’ve sometimes found it not as strong a piece as the Piano Trio or the best of the string quartets. I’m now convinced that the tradition of playing the whole work so much slower than he intended is a disastrous approach that takes the depth, vitality and pathos out of the heart of one of the great chamber works of the 20th Century. It was an absolute joy to play, and, like so much of his music, almost unbearably emotionally wrenching, particularly in the Fugue and the Intermezzo. Taken at his tempi, the cumulative effect of these movements is almost unbearable, but taken as dirges, they lines collapse under their own weight.

Although the ending of the quintet is soft, enigmatic and problematic, the audience response was more than encouraging. The festival directors were truly brave to end the weekend with so challenging a piece, but a lengthy standing ovation vindicated their approach. As well it should be- this music is a message for us today as well as a remembrance of an earlier lost generation.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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