Halftime show part II

In part two of my halftime show, I want to have a quick look at some of the repertoire I’ve been working on since the season got started.
Popular as a few of his works are, I can scarcely think of a composer (other than Mendelssohn) who is more under-rated than Dvorak. Unlike Mendelssohn, Dvorak had a longer career and had the opportunity to develop his voice in more ways, and to explore other genres. While they both excelled in symphonies, chamber music, concerti, overtures and choral music, Dvorak was also one of the very greatest opera composers of all time. If you want to be amazed, check out Dmitrj, which you’ve probably never heard of, let alone heard. Hard to believe that there can be so many huge, amazing works by a repertoire composer that are never produced. Anyway, late in his life, after the last symphony and the cello concerto, Dvorak turned to a new kind of symphonic poem, one inspired by Czech myth and folk poetry. These are among his most forward looking works, and in many ways anticipate many of the innovations of Janacek. Of all of them, the Noon Witch, which we did in KCYO, is the most modern, the darkest and the most rewarding- after all, what other composer could make infanticide fun?

I’ve been thinking a lot about skeletons this fall, and I don’t mean the many skeletons in the many closets of the music world. We hear the skin of music- colors, tunes, and dynamics- most readily, but there is more to music than that. Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony got me thinking, because the skin and the skeleton are so different, at least at first glance. When one encounters this piece for the first time, it is hard not to just drown in the melodies, and like the man who fell in the vat at the Guinness factory, who wants to be rescued when you’re drowning in something so good? Once one gets past the luxurious, heartbreaking tunes, you quickly discover that it is one of the most contrapuntally rich and intricate works in the repertoire- I’m always reminded of my friend’s description of the score looking like “thousands of inky spiders” were crawling over it. Perhaps this is because the piece was written for Taneyev, who was the most contrapuntal of all Russian composers?

Yet, beneath this constantly shifting, interlocking and overlapping surface, there is a skeleton, and what a beautiful set of bones it is. The scale of the work is massive, but what makes it work (and what makes any cut in it an act of musical murder) is that everything is grounded to a design. Like Bruckner, there are bass lines in this piece which extend for several minutes- giant cantus firmi that hold these massive spans together. Like Bruckner, there is an inner austerity, a relentless structural intensity and lack of sentimentality that makes the piece deeply, deeply satisfying to study and perform.

It’s a rare treat to get to do the same piece twice in close succession, especially to do a thorny work like the Nielsen Flute concerto twice in three days with different orchestras and soloists. As I’ve written elsewhere, Nielsen didn’t seem to care if the piece entertained or annoyed, so bringing it to life in a compelling way (it will never be satisfying in the way Rachmaninoff is) is a huge challenge. Working toward a solution with two such different yet equally marvelous soloists was fascinating, and both succeeded in getting this subversive piece to reach our audiences.

Coming back to the same piece is great. Immersing yourself in a single composer, especially if it is Sibelius, is heaven. Doing four quite substantial Sibelius pieces (Spring Song, Finlandia and the 3rd and 5th Symphonies) in quick succession was great, especially sitting at my desk going back and forth between the 5th symphony and the 3rd .  For those of you who know and love the 5th, but don’t know the original version, I can’t tell you how interesting it is to hear how the piece evolved with the revision. Revisions are messy work- Bruckner sometimes would have been well-advised to leave his original scores alone, and Stravinsky’s revisions were mainly intended to keep this works under copyright. Mahler only revised orchestration, never (with few exceptions) changing the music. To improve a work is not easy, and often performers return to original versions as being more natural and daring, but the revision of the 5th is a huge advance over the original.

Having studied the Rachmaninoff at the same time, it was doubly interesting to see what different solutions Sibelius was finding for building a symphony at almost the same moment in history. When one finally gets a window into how he finally reached the final form of his pieces by studying the different versions of the 5th, you can see that the process was not easy- he didn’t know the structure of the piece when he started working with the ideas. When you listen to the piece, you get the opposite impression, which is that, from the first note, the ideas grow and develop organically in the only way they possibly could. Where Rachmaninoff seems to have built the entire inner structure of a building and then covered that inner frame with a beautiful and fascinating surface, Sibelius gives you the sense that he’s planted a seed and let it grow, or set in motion a series of events and let them unfold. Perhaps he’s taken you to some remote spot and said- here, there will be a storm, wait and see what happens. The music unfolds as a long string of cause and effect, and only at the very end do you see that he always knew where he wanted to take, or, in the case of the 5th, that, after incredible struggle over 5 years, he figured out where the music wanted to take him.

I’ve also written elsewhere about Gershwin’s American in Paris. Also on that concert was what I can now admit is one of my least favorite pieces- Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s more that I don’t really respect it, because there’s not a whole lot of music in it. On the other hand, I had a blast doing it- are we allowed just to do a piece and have fun without it touching us deeply as human beings?  

As the conductor who brought Hindemith to the rodeo capital of America, I think some people might thing I have exceptionally serious tastes, but both this year and last, I’ve tried to start the year off a the OES with a lighter concert, and it has been fun. Light music is not easy to play well- Strauss waltzes or Suppe overtures can show an orchestra’s limitations in a very unforgiving way. Likewise, accompanying a piece like Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen can be a huge challenge- the orchestra has to be incredibly flexible and stylish, and, unlike Hindemith, everyone knows when the tiniest thing goes awry. If I have choice between doing a silly concerto like Paganini or a Sarasate showpiece or doing a silly orchestra piece like the Rimsky, the concerto will always win out because the challenge of coping with the soloist is such a blast.

It was no challenge to cope with Daniel de Borah in the Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto, challenging as that piece is on every level. It never ceases to amaze me that there can be pieces like that which even few musicians know. What a juggernaught of a piece, and pianist.

It’s been a great run, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it, but while rehearsing Finlandia the other day with the loudest (but very good) tuba player I’ve ever heard, I thought, wow, I might be getting noise fatigue. I’ve hardly done anything this year that wasn’t on a huge scale.

Fortunately, recalling my friend Michael Steinberg’s words on Sibelius, I’ve been called to a leaner life. In November, I conduct two Mozart concerti (the fourth violin concerto and the great A Major piano concerto), two of Mendelssohn’s best works (the 5th Symphony and the Melusina Overture), and two Haydn symphonies (the 99th and 103rd). Am I expecting a flood, programming two-by-two? In any case, I’ve loved the rich sauces of Rachmaninov and the intense flavors of Sibelius and the spice of Gershwin, but now I’m up for musical steamed fish and broccoli for a few weeks.

Plus, there’s nothing more modern than Haydn….

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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