In orbit around Jupiter….

It’s often said that conducting is a lonely profession….

This week, I’m conducting the Surrey Mozart Players in (among other things), Mozart’s Symphony no. 41. Digging out a piece this well known when you’ve done it before imposes a certain extra degree of discipline on the conductor. The challenge in coming back to piece you’ve played gazillions of times and conducted  (from memory) often is to see if you can learn as much in returning to it as you did getting to know it in the first place.

Sometimes when I come back to a piece I’ve programmed it specifically because I have had a fundamental shift in how I understand it. In this case, the process of preparing for the rehearsals is much like learning the piece from scratch. You discard everything, and start over from the beginning.

That’s not the case this time- although I’ve learned a lot in the years since I last conducted the Jupiter, I still feel (at least today!) that my basic concept of and approach to the work last time around was largely valid.

This can be an even more treacherous state of being than learning a piece for the first time.

Imagine you have a special occasion- a date, a party or a wedding, and you take great care to assemble a smashing outfit. On the day, you’re happy and everyone seems impressed- it’s the perfect outfit. Months or years go by and another such occasion arises. You think, “gee, I spent so much on that outfit, and it really did look fab, I’ll wear it again!” and head for the closet.

The first signs are promising, the colors are still in fashion, and the trousers look great, but one thing lets you down. Perhaps you’ve outgrown the jacket, or perhaps the shoes are looking a little out of date? Fair enough, plug the hole, and move on, but the new shoes don’t go with the old shirt, and the new shirt doesn’t go with the old pants, and suddenly, twenty minutes before you have to leave you’re convinced the perfect outfit has turned into a humiliating nightmare. (Authors note- although I am a conductor, I do not believe I am actually quite this vain- I’m just making a point).Interpretation is an ugly word- Heinlein’s made up “grok,” which implies a simultaneous and all-encompassing “getting it” is more apt. For me an interpretation is a grok- you come to a point where everything about the piece comes together into a single unit. Change the details, though, and the portrait can lose its focus.

But, you have to risk the collapse- if you want to learn as much from the nth performance as the first, you have to let go of the comfort of a version of the piece you know and feel at home with, and let the picture refocus itself.

I’ve been trying to fill in some gaps for myself- I’m still trying to fully understand the importance, if any, of Masonic symbolism in this piece. Even if I decide that the overwhelming body of evidence establishes that Mozart really was writing and instrumental Zauberflote, I’m not sure that is really important- what am I going to do, hold up a secret hand hake sign every time there is a “three knocks at the temple” pattern?

I’ve been trying to solidify my sense of the tempi- I like my Mozart brisk, but I’ve come across some letters from Mozart that suggest that the last movement, at least, shouldn’t be too fast (musicians, don’t get your hopes up). The real question is having a deeper understanding of why one gravitates towards a certain tempo other than just “I like it.” After all, whether I like it or not is completely irrelevant.

When and once I know a piece really well, I do like to listen to recordings and see if other conductors have come to similar or different conclusions, or if they’re even asking the same questions I’ve been. If I detect a question I haven’t examined, I go back and try to come up with my own answers.

In the age of DVDs and YouTube, one can also check other people’s bowings, strings counts, stage setups, beat patterns and even what kind of instruments are being used (particularly in the winds and brass). Not surprisingly, there are a number of Jupiter’s on YouTube alone.

I’ve got all my references off the shelf- Mozart bios, reference books, and the always disappointing “The Tempo Indications of Mozart,” by Jean-Pierre Marty. Every time I start really looking at tempi I think I should get this book out, and it never seems to have much to say- “half-note =75 seems to work well” is not scholarship!.

And this is the thing- the more you know and the longer you’ve lived with a piece like this, the less helpful all of that becomes. I’ve waded through some long, long monographs on Mozart since July, and often ended up feeling like I would have been better off with the score and a coffee. So many writings are just opinions, which are so much less valuable than observations and questions.

As far as other performances go, one does come to mind. Hearing the Staatskapelle Dresden at the Proms under Haitink a few years ago was a huge “A-HA!” moment, because the two classical works they played (Mozart 41 and Haydn 86) sounded nothing like the received aural picture of a historically informed performance, and yet clearly incorporated a vast and sophisticated understanding of the historical record of classical performance. It was so inspiring to hear classical music played with warmth and depth and an infinite variety of articulation, transparency and subtly graded nuances of note length and decay without ever falling into tubbiness or portly-ness.

Of the stuff I’ve found more recently, I’m strangely fascinated by this video of Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic. Harnoncourt is a phenomenon- he’s made some of the worst recordings ever made (some of those early Concentus Musicus disks are unbearably out of tune and many of his first stabs at Beethoven and Mozart are made unbearable by the hideously out of balance trumpets and timps), but he’s also one of the most thought provoking and courageous musicians alive. This Jupiter is so unorthodox, especially the tempi (which actually tend to be quite similar in modern and hipster performances) and his rather bold (to say the least) treatment of silence. The VPO sound nothing like a period band, whatever that means, but if you watch them, you’ll see that a great deal of thought has gone into, for instance- if, when and how they use vibrato. To me, it is a much more sensitive and sophisticated approach than simply having this tired old argument of whether we play classical repertoire with or without vibrato (the answer is yes- we play it with and without vibrato, and with a huge variety of vibrato if and when we use it). Harnoncourt is one musician I would love to get to know and work with- I just hope he doesn’t hold the above against me…. I doubt very much my Jupiter will resemble his very much, but I love the degree of rigor, inquisitiveness and intellectual honesty on show in that performance.

As far as I can remember, this is my first Mozart symphony with SMP- no, I don’t know how we got through last season without one. I’m getting to know how they’ve played this music in the past, and they’re quickly assimilating my general obsessions, both technical and musical, in this repertoire. Yesterday was great fun and by the end of the rehearsal, it felt much more simpatico- the concert should be quite rewarding on Saturday.

You can find the beginning of Harnoncourt’s VPO Jupiter on YouTube here.

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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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5 comments on “In orbit around Jupiter….”

  1. Rebecca

    This is the joy of music…it is a true living art. The Mona Lisa is always the Mona Lisa (no matter how we might interpret it, the colors and brush strokes are the same). But as musicians, we get to paint with different brushes (if we choose) every time we perform a piece. Even if we fall flat on our face, or choose the wrong hue, what a fascinating endeavor! Best of luck with your performance.

  2. John

    Great post – I remember way back when I was about sixteen, working on my associate diploma in piano, I had just finished performing Bach “Italian Concerto”, and was very happy with the performance, and quite happy with my interpretation. About a month later I went to my lesson, and we had to bring it out again to prepare for the exam. I played it through, pretty much the same way I did a month earlier. My teacher chastised me for not finding anything different to do with it. I was furious – after nearly three months of hard work putting it together, getting it perfect … I had to change it? Over half of the musical suggestions were hers in the first place!

    It was the first time I had learned about interpretation, and how we need to grow each time we perform something. Now, every time I prepare a work for rehearsal – no matter how many times I’ve performed or conducted it – I start from scratch. Messiah – the classic example.

  3. composerbastard

    What a coincidence. I heard an interesting piece on the BBC last evening:

    Raitio, Väinö (1891-1945): Moonlight on Jupiter

    Do you think it’s symbolic in some way?

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi All

    Thanks for the comments- I’ve got some thoughts on how the concert turned out, which, if I can remember them, I’ll post after Messiah tomorrow!


  5. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Mozart 41 and gateway works

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