The challenge

Disclaimer- It is the middle of the night, the author is extremely tired and has had a couple of post rehearsal beers…..


I want to try to capture my state of mind after this evening’s rehearsal. Sometime this weekend, prompted by Suzanne, I was trying remember the last time I heard a live performance of Das Lied von der Erde (it seems to be the least popular Mahler work these days).

As it turns out, it was at one of the biggest music festivals on earth, with the “festival” orchestra conducted by one of the music directors of a major US orchestra and two very famous soloists. What hit me only at the moment that I was digging up this bit of history was that this performance, for lack of a better word, sucked. It was sloppy, it was one-dimensional, and, most importantly, it didn’t “arrive.”

I’m not sure how helpful it is in the week of a major concert to be reminded of just how difficult the program is….. Of course, the Schoenberg orchestration we’re doing is even harder and more exposed and unforgiving than the original. Harder and more exposed than the original I heard massacred at that festival at @$&$n Festival…. The Song of the Earth is one of those pieces that haunts you- I’ve had a handful of moments this week when, even after a long period of preparation, I’ve finally grocked something in the score and felt myself welling up with tears.

You can’t help but feel Mahler’s vulnerability and mortality in this music. So- challenging music, intimidating music, and emotionally wrenching music. Oh, and, yes, there’s a lot of it. A thirty minute finale. Six movements. About five hundred tempo changes… Great….

We get four rehearsals (and there’s another piece on the program). In 2007, that’s what you can get out of the nicest, best, most committed musicians unless you have mountains of money to throw at things. We get about five minutes to rehearse each minute in the piece, but that doesn’t include breaks, or time spent tuning. We get four rehearsals- three with the singers, but they really only mark on the day (as they should!), so that’s two with them (maybe four hours allowing for breaks and the other work on the program)…

Here I am at one in the morning, dress rehearsal just hours away, going through my notes from rehearsal and I realize that, daunting as this project is, Mahler the composer and Mahler the performer knew what he was asking, knew what we needed and even seemed to understand what sort of performing world we were going to be dealing with. Maybe he dealt with the same problems. I’ve written many times about his detailed way of marking the music- when you’re trying to put together a piece like this on a short timeline, you realize, there is no other way.

It’s easy to look at the poems, and the circumstances of his life and think that it’s him we should be feeling compassion for (and we should), and yet it is the great man whose broad shoulders carry us all forward, even as we’re haunted, daunted and in awe of this music.

 Sunrise brings the day of the show, but we still have one rehearsal, 25% of all our time together, to work on this. How many minutes of rehearsal, how many minutes of Mahler…


c. 2007 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.

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2 comments on “The challenge”

  1. Zoltan

    I cannot really say that I can relate, or fully understand you, but I can say that I have a hint of what you might experience.
    As a member of a UNiversity orchestra, we live in the luxury of preparing a concert program for *months*! We even went for a long weekend out of town to a quiet place where we can rehearse all day!
    We are “bloody amateurs” of course, so we need that Kind of intense preparation, especially so if you play Bruckner (even if it’s only the 2nd and 3rd Movement of the 7th symphony beside some other works in the program). There are so Many nuances in the Bruckner alone we could work on forever!
    still, in the concert, when all is said and done, at first, it’s the exhaustion (emotional, then physical) . Then the happiness bursts out; despite all that we might have missed there in-between the notes, something great had happened that evening: we outgrew ourselves as individuals, not because of our “Tireless Work” alone, but our wonderful conductor who shared her vision with us and tried lead us there with immense patience.

    Sometimes, there’s just so much you can do.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Well said, Zoltan. I would just suggest that your last sentence might be corrected to leave out the ‘sometimes.” The more you work on and live with any piece, the more you realize that you can only ever get close to it. The rather leisurely rehearsal schedules we all get used to in college are, I assure you, not something you’ll ever see again. I’ve faced a lot of challenges as a conductor, but an excess of rehearsal time has never been one of them.
    As it is, we had a wonderful time on Saturday with the Mahler.

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