In the arena with Rakmaninov and Mahler

I’m afraid I was otherwise occupied with KCYO when Tim Magnan wrote this piece on the art of conducting. Highly recommended.

He’s quite right about the importance of the DVD revolution in helping us to better understand the working habits of many historically important conductors. Interestingly, both Karajan and Bernstein were absolutely convinced that classical music on film was going to be a hugely important part of their legacy. They both put an enormous amount of time and effort, not to mention resources, into making sure that their musical legacy was captured on film. It’s taken a long time, but DVD has finally made these archives accessible and attractive.

A conductor is, by absolute definition, a student. We study for a living- that is our work. As a result, if we have any sense at all and any time whatsoever, we all try to go to concerts whenever possible. Of course, my favorite venue for music is the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, primarily because the listening atmosphere at its best is so intense. There really is nothing like the sound of 7,000 people making no sound at all, especially if over 1000 of them are standing the entire time.

There were moments of rapt silence at both the proms I went to this week, but also some moments of total chaos. It’s been a good season for chaos at the proms- the Minnesota Orchestra’s fantastic performance was nearly overshadowed by some lunatic cheering (screaming at, really) piano soloist Llyr Williams in Welsh just seconds before Osmo Vanska started the introduction to the Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto. He’s lucky he got out alive. Later that evening, in the third movement of an otherwise stunning Mahler 5, Osmo Vanska’s entier “apparatus just exploded!” to use the description of one of the members of the orchestra. Sure enough, his suspenders, cummerbund and all that came completely unglued at the end of the scherzo, and he had to employ the principal second to get everything reattaced on national TV. What a tribute to his professionalism and artistry that he turned around and did the most sublime Adagietto imaginable after that. That’s the proms- chaos and artistry side-by-side.

This Tuesday I went (promming) to see the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Tadaaki Otaka perform the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto (with Ha Na Chang) and the Rachmaninov Second Symphony. Given that it was the Rachmaninov on the program, it was no surprise to see a large contingent from the Kent County Youth Orchestra coming out just three days after we’d done it together. There was plenty of chaos in the arena that night- a woman immediately behind me had such a bad coughing fit in the slow movement of the Shostakovich that there was a near riot  of prommers shoving cough drops at her. For some reason, however, she refused the first seven or eight, and it was only when a very nurturing-looking woman offered a second time that the woman accepted, and immediately stopped coughing. The second half was also chaotic- in the slow movement of the Rachmaninov (mayhem always breaks out in slow movements) two women within about 9 feet of me fainted within 45 seconds of one another. It’s quite a thing when someone faints in a crowd of 1000 people crammed in together, standing nose-to-neckbone. You can see their eyes glaze over and their legs go soft, but they don’t fall down because their packed in so tight. People quickly realize someone has fainted, but they’re not sure who it is, so they all just shift their weight a bit to see who starts falling. Anyway, between the coughing and the fainting, we were all concerned there might be some kind of super-B.O, at work, and everyone kept sneaking little sniffs of their pits to be sure they weren’t the cause. Hope the TV cameras caught some of that.

The other concert I made it to was the following evening, with Bernard Haitink conducting Mahler 2 with the BBC Symphony, BBC Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Chorus. Given that this whole entry began with the discussion of legendary conductors on film, it’s worth mentioning that Haitink is a legend, and there are plenty of great films of him out there, and rightly so. Fortunately for him, he is not yet a “Great Conductor of the Past,” but not for lack of ability, only mortality. I think if I had to show a conducting student a film of one conductor who I thought had the most perfect and complete technique, I would show them Haitink. I’d marked this date in my calendar many months before as the one concert all summer I was determined to go to, and I wasn’t the only one. It had been sold out for months and months, and when I arrived in the promming line at 3 PM, the line was already well around the block. It’s quite a thing for me to give up a day at home to stand in line 4 ½ hours to see a concert, but I had good reason. For all the DVDs and broadcasts I’ve seen, this was, believe it or not, the first time I had gotten to see the great man in person. Stop laughing all you Bostonians and Londoners. It’s not my fault he never came to Cincinnati.

All in all, it was quite a two nights. As regular readers will notice, the repertoire was very much up my alley, and those two great 2nd symphonies have been a big part of my life this year. It’s a funny thing watching someone conduct a work you’ve just done, especially one you’ve invested a great deal of yourself in. It does sound like a complete cliché, but studying, preparing, rehearsing and performing a huge piece like Mahler 2 or Rach 2 is a bit like having a wildly passionate love affair- it is that consuming. There are, of course, those transformative moments that are blindingly obvious- I think everyone who’s heard Mahler 2 would guess that conducting the final “Auferstehen” is outrageously fun- but there are other pleasures that are more personal, such as tiny discoveries in the notation. One realizes that the composer has actually placed the crescendo on the second note of the slur, not the first as you’ve always heard it. Suddenly, heard as really written, the passage in question has an immediacy and a pathos you’d never recognized. Just as in human relationships, it is the intimate discoveries that mean the most.

How funny it feels then when, only three nights later, you see another conductor making those same discoveries. “That bastard! He stole my little crescendo-y bit! This music is easy, and I don’t mean technically easy,” one might exclaim, as it yields its innermost secrets to another conductor. Yes, if you are lucky, and you study hard, you find a connection to the work that is all your own, and that will reflect your unique relationship with the piece, but that is a human relationship, not a musical relationship. Even if you were the first performer to notice this or that, someone else will either find it themselves, or steal it from you later. When you are, to continue the silly metaphor, in the throws of passion with the work, you may begin to feel that every cue, every balance, every nuance is part of this unique connection. In fact, music is a prolific mistress, and almost all those moments are there to be shared by others, and that’s a good thing, too. Knowing a work like the Rachmaninov well can only make you love listening to it more, especially in Tadaaki’s hands, and what better way to listen to it than played by your wife and your friends and surrounded by your student colleagues who are all remembering the same “other” performance you are.

The next night I was back in Cardiff, watching the Royal Philharmonic play Shostakovich 10 on TV. I had a very kind email this morning from a musician in KCYO that somehow hit perfectly on this friction inherent in listening to music you’ve performed. She wrote “I went to the proms last night with about 10 other KCYO friends, to watch the Bruch Violin concerto and the Shostakovich symphony no.10, which were stunning to watch and listen too, the Shostakovich of course was what you conducted the last time you were at KCYO.  So it was funny to see all of us bobbing our heads and running through our own parts as the orchestra played it.” 

So we study for years, practicing thousands of hours and making countless sacrifices to play these pieces, and, for all our trouble, we end up forever unable to sit still in public.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

Hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform Rakmaninov 2nd Symph
Hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform Mahler 2
Links only available for one week from original concert!!!!!!


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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

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