Programming thoughts after the programme

Back at Vftp International Headquarters, I’m starting to recover (slowly) from a busy concert weekend with the Surrey Mozart Players. I actually thought it was an unusually satisfying program.

Mozart- Impresario Overture

Fauré- Pelléas and Melisande Suite

Saint-Saens- Cello Concerto no. 2

Strauss- Romanze for Cello

Poulenc- Sinfonietta

There were several things about the program I enjoyed. First, it’s quite unusual to have a concert of music by all major composers without a single mainstream warhorse. I suppose the Fauré is the most standard piece we did, but even that is a bit of a rarity. No one had played or ever heard a live performance of the Saint-Saens, including the soloist, Parry Karp, and me, and the Strauss was almost totally forgotten for the better part of 100 years. The Impresario is the first real Mozart piece I ever played, but there were a lot of people who confessed to never having heard it, and the Poulenc is something of a rarity.

Really, we tend to think that if you don’t know a piece by a major composer, there must be a reason- it’s not that good! However, this is not always the case. Some are rare because of specific technical difficulties, some have been out of print, some aree hard to program. It’s so refreshing to remember that there’s always more music to explore.

The other aspect of the program that I particularly liked was the interesting relationships and contrasts between the composers. Fauré and Saint-Saens were very close friends, even though they wrote quite different music, and, to me, Saint-Saens and Richard Strauss are quite similar figures. If either of them had died at the same age as Mozart, they would have gone down in history as among the most radical composers who’d ever lived. Instead, they lived to see themselves become considered arch conservatives. I wish we could get away from this linear way of looking at music history- music is always changing, but never evolving. One generation does not improve on the next, so it’s not incumbent on any composer to keep up with the times. It was nice to have the very early Strauss just after the very late Saint-Saens- both of them found their voices early in life and then just kept writing great music. Strauss may have called himself a “first-rate second rate composer,” and the epitaph could just as easily apply to Saint-Saens, but that’s hardly an insult.

In my rap from the podium, I suggested to the audience that the Poulenc is a bit like one of those magical times as a child when you’re left in the care of a rather permissive guardian- maybe a young cousin or friend of the family.   Suddenly, you have the freedom to do things that were always out of bounds, and to behave more irreverently than you ever could in more serious company. It’s such witty music, but also so completely uninhibited- he’s perfectly happy to jump from something beautifully austere to something luxuriously schmaltzy. It’s great fun to conduct- so many fantastic tunes and colors.  I found the slow movement the most challenging, just because it doesn’t really have a form. You just kind of have to go with the flow and enjoy yourself- again, for once you can focus on enjoying the sheer decadent beauty of the music, and it’s actually very moving.

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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5 comments on “Programming thoughts after the programme”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    One of these days I need to get a chance to do the complete P&M music of Faure instead of just the Suite, which is still gorgeous.

    What’s wrong with poor old Saint-Saens? The D minor Cello Concerto is a fab piece!


  2. composerbastard

    I used to like SS (in my youth which I cant remember when that was), his PA Concerto comes to mind, along with Ravels, and Prokov’s C.

    However, listening lately, his understanding of form…especially form and transition…I find banal.

    But hey, thats just me.

    As for the other S…you already know my initial reaction.

    How about some Franco-Americans on your schedule? Say some Wally Piston 2, 4, 5, 6? Or some more Franklnsteins like: Dukas or Roussel?

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Here here on Piston. I’ve done 2 a few times and always loved it. I also did the Sinfonietta about 3 years ago and will do it again in June with SMP. I’m very fond of all the Piston symphonies, although I often feel his finales rather let him down, especially with the 2nd (following the best slow movement in an American symphony) and 8th.

    Dukas is problematic- Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a tremendous masterpiece but very, very difficult. La Peri and the Symphony get even harder by leaps. In fact, the only time I ever saw the Cincinnati Symph horn section ask for a break for their lips was in the Dukas Symph- those guys play the loudest, highest, hardest stuff all day every day. You really need a fab band a lots of rehearsal to pull off either piece.

    Roussel has some great stuff, but it’s hard to program outside of the French- speaking world. I tried to do Evocations this year, but it got bumped in the end.

    Also high on my list is Honegger- there’s a lot of his music I’m very keen to do and often propose. So far, nobody is buying. ….


  4. composerbastard

    Piston’s stuff is always good. I don’t mind his finales. Im also rather fond of his violin + orchestra works – weak or not…

    but i would love to hear Honegger live! Liturge, Pacific WOW! Can you imagine?

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