Disco Post Mortem

I’ve had a few email requests for a post-mortem on my concert/recording project for Discovering Music with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales last week. It’s nice to know readers are paying attention, and it was a project that left me with a lot to think about.

It’s always special to work with a really great orchestra, and BBC NOW is a great orchestra. This project was made even more interesting since I did have the opportunity to do the same piece with two very different orchestras and two very different soloists back-to-back. However, this program involved a very unusual bit of repertoire, which made the whole thing both more interesting and yet maybe a bit less satisfying.

I’ve often had the experience when doing a very challenging piece of being pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to put together in the end, but that was not an experience I had with the Nielsen Flute Concerto. Stravinsky and Mahler both look ferociously hard on the page, but I’ve always found performance preparation for them to be a very simple, organic process. Part of this can be attributed to their understanding of instrumentation and of orchestration- they understood what was playable for each player and anticipated how timbres would work together.

However, I think an important part of what makes their music manageable to perform is, frankly, its wholeness and its quality.  Whether it’s Strauss or Shostakovich, I think part of what helps us to read it and play is that we do develop a sense of the flow of the music that helps us to internalize its inner workings. Consciously or not, we’re able to anticipate what is coming up even when the piece is unfamiliar, and so it quickly becomes more familiar.

As I confessed the other day, I came to this project as a Nielsen novice, although I had listened to a lot of his music over the years, so readers who have recorded his complete works may want to correct me on my impressions. Nevertheless, this was a piece I wanted to learn and wanted to do well, even before the BBC gig came along, and I threw myself into it. It’s not an easy piece to love or to learn (although it’s neither long nor complex, it was hell to memorize). As I said above, I don’t think it is a piece that feels natural and organic to learn, and it is not a piece where performers feel like they know what’s coming next.

As I think about it now, I find myself thinking of the film Adaptation. The movie is essentially about how sometimes the artistic imperative drives an artist to create something that is not satisfying to himself or his audience, but is true. In the movie, the screenwriter sets out to make a movie that embodies certain admirable aesthetic qualities while avoiding a number of Hollywood clichés, but in the end the movie he makes is the move we see, which is full of clichés- the very ones he wanted to avoid…. But is a cliché in a movie about clichés really a cliché? Of course not- the cliche would have been to make the earnest, literate, well-behaved, independent art film he set out to make.

I watched the film a while back with a friend (watching films can be an interesting test of friendship!), and it struck me as funny that what annoyed her about the movie was that it didn’t behave in the way the screenwriter in the film had wanted it to. Of course, the whole point of the film seemed to be that being truthful is more important than being satisfying, but she couldn’t accept how un-satisfying the whole thing was for her.

Somehow, unsatisfying-ness seems to be at the center of what Nielsen is getting at in the Flute Concerto. When you know the original and final versions of the piece’s conclusion you have to allow that he obviously didn’t care if the piece was popular with audiences or soloists. He replaced an ending that may have been derivative, but was also, at least, exciting and energetic, and was certainly an ending, with one that is enigmatic, quirky and strangely unfulfilling- it just feels like the piece sort of runs out of gas in a perfunctory way. Why?

The work is also strangely disjointed- it feels as though it is almost free of form. Episodes are begun then abandoned, ideas put forth then discarded. Throughout the work he seems to be avoiding satisfying any of our expectations of what should be happening in a concerto. It doesn’t build to anything, no mood really dominates, and there is no clearly recognizeable line of emotional or technical development that joins the downbeat to the double bar. The end is not in the beginning as it is with most art music, except the end and the beginning both seem to be about dislocation.

One might well think that the piece would be much easier to put together with a full-time, international recording orchestra than with a small, self-governing group like the Surrey Mozart Players. What you’d be forgetting is that expectations are higher at a major orchestra because they do have more resources to work with, and that if the orchestra is not playing at its best, it is not fulfilling its mission. Strauss gets easier with a major orchestra because everyone knows the notes, but Nielsen gets harder because the notes don’t seem to make much sense. The wealth of natural instinct for the flow of musical lines that allows top musicians to play Brahms with naturalness gets in the way when confronted with music that seems intent on chopping up lines and trading organic growth for jump-cut agitation.

Nielsen has written a piece that is determinedly, intentionally unsatisfying, and, predictably, this makes it that much more difficult to perform. In fact, although it is a shorter and slighter work than a number of things I’ve done with the BBC, nothing we’ve worked on together has taken so much hard, hard work in rehearsal. Yes the notes are hard, but what is really hard is that the music doesn’t stick, and it doesn’t lie under the fingers or in the ear. Normally that would be a sign that it isn’t wonderful music, but Nielsen seemed to write it this way on purpose. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the qualities that the Nielsen flute concerto possesses would be indicative of a less-than-fantastic piece of music. Surely he could have written a more likeable piece, a more logical piece, a more convincing piece. Hell, I probably could have! Instead, at every turn the piece seems to do just what you don’t want it to do, but it does it knowingly.

So, after pouring my heart and soul into this work for weeks, and performing it with two absolutely world-class flautists (who both had completely different approaches to the piece in every bar), I’m still not at all sure what I really think about the piece (Somewhat to my surprise, both audiences seemed to genuinely enjoy the piece, which I think speaks well of the two soloists. Perhaps Nielsen uses the attraction of a virtuoso soloist as the spoonful-of-sugar to help the piece go down with the audience). Sometimes I feel like my friend after Adaptation, thinking that this thing just doesn’t work, other times I feel like myself listening to my friend complain about the film and thinking “dude, you don’t get this- the point is that art doesn’t have to please us. It doesn’t even have to please its creator. We’re all just part of the conduit of these ideas, movies, books and pieces that have to come to life according to their own logic. The music is out there, waiting for someone to write it down. Sibelius said as much, so did Mahler and Schoenberg. Our job is not to mold those ideas into something likeable and understandable, but to mould ourselves into listeners, readers and viewers who like and understand those ideas.”  


Post script- Stephen Johnson, the presenter of Discovering Music, did have some fascinating ideas on the piece which I haven’t really touched on. I’ll let readers know when the program is going to be broadcast (there is generally a little delay for post-production). In addition to going out over BBC Radio 3, it will be archived on their website. My last program with Stephen and the BBC NOW can be heard here- it was a Saturday Telegraph “Critics Pick of the Week,” if a dare say so myself…..

 UPDATE- The broadcast is archived at the BBC here

c. 2006 Kenneth woods

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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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3 comments on “Disco Post Mortem”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Halftime show part II

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » UPCOMING BROADCAST- BBC National Orchestra of Wales

  3. Sharon

    Dear Ken,

    It was an immense pleasure to make music together with you, both on the professional and on the personal level!

    It would be fantastic to collaborate again, (preferably without the excerpts, unless you really insist…). There is loads of interesting repertoire, (I have to date 7 dedicated concertos by i.a. Aho, Gubaidulina, Beamish) And there is of course the standard repertoire.

    Warmest regards from rainy Sweden .

    PS- Do you know Christopher Rouse’s stunning flute concerto?

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