NPO OCT 21

Just a quick reminder that I’ll be performing tomorrow, October 21st, with the Nottingham Philharmonic at the Albert Hall in Nottingham. I’ve heard from quite a few of you around the Nottingham area who’ve found out about the blog from the NPO website or their press release- do come say hi after the concert. It’s always nice to have a human face to put on the email address.

It’s a program built around two of the greatest pieces of the early 20th Century- Sibelius 5 and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. Either work can warp your fragile little mind- they have mine.

When I played cello in the Taliesin Trio we did a lot of school concerts, and I always noticed that our performances improved a lot once we had gone through our informal discussions about what to talk about with the kids in each piece. Years later, I remember Allan Gilbert saying the same thing a different way during a conducting seminar at Aspen- he said he knew he was getting to know the music well when he started to have strong opinions about it. I’d even suggest that trying to articulate those opinions helps drive the process of internalizing the music. That’s one thing I like about this blog- it gives me a reason to verbalize my feelings about pieces, which I always find helpful in developing a performance.

Here are a few opinions about this program-

Sibelius 5-

Tempo molto moderato, not largo for the first movement. I bet most of you have never heard it even close to Sibelius’ metronome marking of 66 (most take it between 36 and 52). I think the composer was right- it should certainly  be in the Mr Rogers Neighborhood of moderato, not adagio.*

In the whole opening movment(s), from the down beat to the end of the scherzo-like section, the phrasing should grow out of the overall form of the movement. The whole thing, on every level, is a series of ever-expanding, ever-intensifying waves of energy. Each gesture, each phrase is part of this great effort to generate forward motion.

The second movement (the Andante con moto, quasi Allegretto) sounds like the most straightforward bit of the piece, but in many ways it’s the most elusive, the deepest, the weirdest. Anytime Sibelius writes something that sounds harmless and carefree, be sceptical.

The finale is about struggle. The opening is NOT a scherzo- it shouldn’t sound playful but alive, vibrant, driven and very caffeinated. It’s not a release of tension but a return of tension. The struggle goes through the whole movement- even when you get to the big swan tune. In that whole opening section up to the first appearance of the swan theme, and in it’s return afterwards, Sibelius keeps you constantly off balance by using very irregular phrase lengths. Then, he keeps interjecting little three bar groups, most of which go against the overall phrasing of the main melody. It is as if he is trying to will the music into a more stable shape, and finally succeeds in the swan theme, where everything falls into three.

The whole symphony is about three- each movement deals with three-ness in a different way. Can you think of another symphony that is all in meters built on threes? I’m not sure what it means, but it’s cool.

Opinion on Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto-

Best Piano Concerto written in the 20th Century (including Rachmaninov)

Hope to see you there KW


 * Everything you need to know about music you can learn from children’s literature. Tempos don’t have to be exactly at the metronome markings, but like Mr. Rogers, they need to be somewhere in the neighbourhood. Dynamics and intonation are like Goldilocks and the Three Bears- that was to sharp, that was too flat, and that was just right. Critics, audiences and performers would be wise to remember Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Old-school versus New-School performers (HIPster non-vibrato bands vs “Modern” nouveau Hollywood sounding orchestras and ensembles) would be wise to remember the Butter Battle Book, where the end of the world is brought on by two cultures who can’t agree whether to eat their toast with the butter side down or up.

 

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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