You don’t always get what you deserve, nor…

…deserve what you get

As my musical life has taken me back and forth around the world, I’ve noticed that certain religious orders and sects place a special emphasis on the value of classical music, for which we can all be grateful.

Given this, one quickly finds that each of these denominations  have their musical quirks and sub-culture. This group won’t tolerate a female conductor under any circumstances, that one dislikes overtly emotional music and this one won’t play atonal music, while the same three groups might also exhibit exceptional work ethics, purity of intonation or beauty of sound respectively.

In my experience, there is one church whose members all seem to suffer the most appalling disregard for rhythm- they literally seem to have never produced a musician who can play in time with accurate subdivisions, in spite of producing instrumentalists of a very high technical standard who are generally very “musical” if you can separate “musical” from any coherent sense of rhythmic organization.

Anyway….

I was at a chamber music festival some years back and was playing the Schubert C Major String Quintet and the other cellist was a member of this denomination, and, in spite of his great sound and good hands, had no sense of rhythm at all.

It was a tough week to say the least- his attitude was also a bit snooty, which left the rest of us with less patience for breaking out the metronome for his benefit in rehearsal than we might otherwise have had. However, we worked hard, and worked him hard, and by the time we got to the concert, things were looking good.

However, on the night, when we got to the middle section of the slow movement, all hell broke loose. There’s a long, loud, passionate sturm und drang section with the 1st violin and 1st cello playing in octaves while the other three players churn out a relentless ostinato. Other cello guy totally lost the plot- he couldn’t line up his triplets with the syncopated rhythm in the inner voices. The 1st violinist and I were so exasperated we both went rather red faced with rage. The passage is so loud and the lines so long, the bow distribution is completely unforgiving. With the tempo wobbling, one of us would crack, and there was also an increasing likelihood that the whole thing would fall apart.

She and I started banging our heads like 16 year-olds at a Metalica concert to show the pulse. She glared straight into his eyes like the emissary of death and you could see her mouth moving with viper like precision– “one-two-thre-four-five-six!” and so on.

Well we didn’t stop, and the audience seemed oblivious to the close call. Needless to say, it was a little tense backstage….

A week later, I got a CD of the concert, which I waited some months to listen to. I nearly skipped the passage, but made myself sit there and listen.

Amazingly, all of that anger and intensity and drive had turned the passage into something really memorable. Yes, he wobbled a bit in the first bar, but the sheer furious power of the rest of us holding him, refusing to let it crash, made for an awesome effect. That passage sounded not only better than the rest of the performance, but also sounded the best I’ve ever heard it.

Strangey, I’ll have (and have had) many better experiences playing that piece, but it’s likely I’ll never be in a performance of that section that sounds that good again…

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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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8 comments on “You don’t always get what you deserve, nor…”

  1. composerbastard

    Maybe you discovered something about Schubert. Just because he was the penultimate tone-poet and dreamy songwriter doesn’t mean he should be played like a girlie-composer…

  2. Roni

    Amazing story, but I find that those players who can deliver a good performance again and again are the best, and deserve the corresponding title. We often hear and see one-time outstanding performances, and not only in music, but other arts as well (figure skating for example). We then expect the said performer to get better each time, only to find him or her to be really very average. The public doesn’t tolerate such disappointments, nor do the critics who prefer fresh meat.

    But, nevertheless, well done – on that night!

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Roni

    Thanks for the comment- great to hear from you, as always.

    Of course I agree with you, but there is an entire category of “tales of the unexpected,” whether great artists falling flat in concert or not-so-great ones rising to the occaision. I can think of a few truly great musicians where I either love or loathe their performances just based on how much coffee they seem to have had. The ability is always there, but the energy may wax and wane…

    So often, it comes down to something as simple as will- great performers have it, almost without exception. In this case, you had two of us who were absolutely determined not to let the thing go south. We were able to pull him up, which is not surprising. What is surprising is that by making us dig so deep, he got us to give more of ourselves than we knew we could. Would I ask him to do it again to try and acheive the same result- no!!!!! But I now know there is something attainable in that passage that I didn’t know about before, which I’ll have to try to make happen next time.

    As it is, I’ve got plenty of strange tales of concert happenings to share here- hopefully they make an interesting case study of peformance issue.

    Thanks again!

    KW

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Travis—-

    You genius….

    I, of course, have no idea whatsoever what or who you are talking about. None. Really, I mean that, sincerely. No idea…. Maybe they can only count in that meter?

    No, I didn’t say that. I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    K

  5. Roni

    Thanks for the reply, Ken.

    You are right, but you know, with the greatest performers – who are musicians in the full sense of the word – I always find myself so immersed in the music, having to mentally take myself out of it to be able to actually listen to what’s going on, technically. A few minutes later – same thing – I forget myself and the world around. That’s what leaves me literally “speechless”. Not with the average concerts – they get the critique they deserve!

  6. Roni

    And, of course, do share your other “tales of concert happenings”. You make it sound so alive, I can practically remember being there!

  7. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » From the mailbag- rhythm and sightreading

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