Had an absolutely wonderful day with my friends in the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra.

The LCO was founded as an orchestra for string teachers in the region to have an opportunity to perform string and chamber music repertoire at a very high level, and so they have a very refreshing attitude to work. By and large, they all play very well, and we’ve done a great deal of  very challenging music, such as the Mahler version of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Tchaikowsky’s Souvenir de Florence and staples like Beethoven 3. They also play regularly for choral societies in and around Manchester, Lancaster and the North of England.

Each summer we take one day to focus in depth on a piece just for the fun of it. I wish more professional orchestras could find a way to make this happen- the pressure of performance affects every aspect of the rehearsal process, and I think any group would find it hugely refreshing to take one day or one weekend a year simply to work together for the love of music on a piece of their choosing. This year, the retreat piece was Strauss’s Metamorphosen, one of my very favourite works.
 It’s always a pleasant surprise working on works by Strauss and Mahler- yes, it is challenging on every level, but each of them had an amazing understanding of the capacities of each instrument (developed, no doubt, through their work as busy conductors). As difficult as it is, Strauss’s music is always idiomatic and playable. Much as I love it, the same can’t be said for Schoenberg or Zemlinsky’s music. To the ear, Verklarte Nacht and Metamorphosen sound evenly matched for difficulty, but Metamorphosen, while challenging, is a lot more forgiving. This means that the performer can begin to get to terms with the music right away instead of having to struggle with technical challenges for a long time before it even starts to sound like music. 

Metamorphosen is in some ways a difficult piece to tackle spiritually- the profound beauty of the music is hard to reconcile with the fact that it was written in the ruins of Nazi Germany. I don’t want to be naive, but (and maybe this is simply because I love his music so much that I have to find a way to accept him), I have to believe there was a part of Strauss’s outlook we can all relate to. After all, the German culture that brought us Goethe, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Strauss himself was forever destroyed by the war- by his own culture. I want very much to believe that he understood the origin of that destruction, but I’ll never know to my satisfaction. In that sense, the loss that Strauss mourns was a loss to all humanity, not just to Germany of the 1940s.In any case, it was one of my happiest days with the orchestra. Thanks LCO.

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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.

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1 comment on “Metamorphosen”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » The Furtwangler Problem

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