Thursday- The quest for sczhuohm


On my way to work, I finally had a chance to listen to the CD of last month’s Beethoven 6.

A few years back I had one of those mind-shattering “wow” moments when I heard the Statskapelle Dresden conducted by Bernard Haitink in two concerts at the Proms. Listening to them play, I realized there were sounds they were making that I hadn’t heard in a concert in a long time. It really hit me that we’re losing some essential part of the tonal palette of the orchestra.

Since then, I’ve been trying to understand and describe what quality that orchestra had that I’d been missing. In these last three years, that quest has led me to really study a lot of recordings, and to travel far and wide to find orchestras that still carry that quality I heard.

So, what is that quality that I heard? At first I tried calling it “warmth” later “depth” or “resonance,” but none of those cut it.

In fact, it’s hard to describe sound colors, which is why I think many of the classic orchestra sounds are so hard to understand and replicated. Many orchestras try to recreated the classic sounds of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Berlin Philarmonic, but end up sounding like a Hollywood session orchestra, way too syrupy, tubby, heavy and pot-bellied. Just as many rebel against those classic sounds and end up with playing that’s a bit thin, cold and wooden.

I’ve also tried to go back to my quartet training and my cello studies with sound-guru Lee Fiser, to try to figure out ways to get a more sophisticated palette of sounds. As a result, I’ve gone way past trying to recreate that elusive something the Dresdners brought to London, but that sound has haunted me- like a flavor you rarely taste.

How happy was I to finally hear that very flavor on our CD, in the midst of whatever strengths and weaknesses that performance presented. You see, I think I looked for a while for a sound that went “wah,” but that’s too nasal and doesn’t carry its focus into the note. It could have been something else, like “whom,” but I think a good sound needs a bit of grit in it to tickle your ear.

Beethoven 6, though, has moments of “Szchuohm!” Fantastic- grit from the szch, resonance from the uo, darkness from the h and focus from the m.

Bit of a terrible time to bring a guest conductor. It’s been years since I’ve watched anyone but me really work with the OES- what will happen to the szchuohm? I guess I’ll try to keep it in the cello sound, although the guys in Portland have pretty much- de-szchuohmed me…. Three hours practice time today to come to terms with the instrument and get back in shape after the long journey….

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

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