UPCOMING CONCERT- Lancashire Chamber Orchestra/Thoughts on B5


Lancashire Chamber Orchestra

Sunday, January 20, 2009

7:30 PM

Altrincham Grammar School for Girls

Mozart- Overture to “Die Zauberflote”

Beethoven- Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major

Ivan Hovorum, piano

Beethoven- Symphony no 5 in C minor

Thoughts from Ken-


It seems that whenever a critic wants to solve the economic problems of the classical music industry, or whenever a poor composer is at the end of their wits trying to get their music performed, the culprit is always the same- Beethoven 5. To listen to many, you would think that Beethoven 5 was like the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events- a piece so ubiquitous that it now appeared on every single concert by every single orchestra  in the world.

Of course, it is a very famous piece with a high degree of familiarity for almost every listener, but I think musicians and program planners realized about 25 years ago that it was a special occasion piece, and not one to be worn out by over-frequent performances. It was the last Beethoven symphony I played in its entirety as a cellist, and the one I’ve played and conducted the least since then. I spoke with my wife this morning, and she can only remember having played it once since joining the BBC seven years ago, and that was a truly ghastly affair with some deranged half-wit instrumentalist at the helm (funny how a 12 inch stick of wood can turn a genius instrumentalist into a derranged half-wit…. makes me glad I was never a genius instrumentalist!) who had never been taught to give an upbeat. As a point of comparison, she’s played Vaughan Williams 5 about 5 times in that same period.

Still, how does one respond to a composer or critic friend who says “I never want to hear that piece again- it’s become so boring to me.” Well, I guess I can only smile and offer my condolences. Do playwrights and theatre snobs feel the same about Shakespeare?

I certainly don’t program the piece to sell seats- I’ve learned from hard experience that ticket sales are much more a reflection of what else is going on that night, how effective your marketing is and how nice the bathrooms are in the concert hall, than what you play or how well you play it.

So why do it? I feel like it is a piece I’m drawn to because of its difficulty- for all its familiarity, I think it is as challenging as any piece I’ve ever come across.

On a purely practical level, it is more merciless in its demands for rhythmic perfection than any other piece I know (including Stravinsky) except for the Coriolan Overture. There are thousands of challenges of balance and tuning, and there is no place in the piece where the conductor or players can lose focus for even a second without unfortunate consequences. I’ve probably heard 60+ recordings of the piece, and, even with the marvels of digital editing, I have yet to hear a technically perfect CD- I’m not speaking of interpretive disagreements, I’m saying I have yet to hear a performance that is perfectly together and in tune from beginning to end.

Ah, but there are interpretive disagreements! I would say Beethoven 5 is possibly the work most likely to cause a CD to be thrown across the room in disgust (Shost 5 is another)! It is easy to sneer at some conductors who have felt the need to release their recordings of the piece with long polemics arguing why their way is better than all that came before, but I know where they come from. One becomes so passionate about the piece that simply playing it is not enough, you want to shout to the world about what you’ve discovered in your study and research. Even today, with all the accumulated scholarship on the piece, I still feel like there are relationships to be found that no performance known to be has discovered, and I’ve certainly never heard a performance that seems really true to everything I see on the page.

I have no illusions mine will be that performance either- even in a very good rehearsal you never seem to be able to capture all you’ve worked toward in a single run through. The piece defeats you, again and again. Also- because it is so difficult (particularly the first movement), it is all too easy to lose any sense of sophistication in the drama. The mood in the recap before the oboe cadenza should be completely different, with an entirely different color and atmosphere, but this rarely happens because people are mostly focusing on playing together. Then there are the performance questions- some as simple as do you come onstage and launch straight into it like a sudden shock or try to create a silence and a stillness first, into which the music explodes?

I  tend to have long drives back from many of my rehearsals, and I’ll often just listen to a bit of jazz, or maybe moan a bit about some organizational thing that didn’t go right. I rarely continue to think long about the rehearsal itself. Not so with Beethoven 5- each drive back from Lancashire has found me obsessing all the way home about an articulation or how I might better have shown a color I was after, or even just ranting about how appallingly most people play the last movement these days (there’s a subject of another blog post- people really don’t read music when it comes to Beethoven!). I can get home quite wound up….

Anyway, come Sunday, we’ll play as John Daly played golf- grip it and rip and see what happens.

For the curious- we’re using natural horns, rotary trumpets and a smallish trio of trombones (first tb on an alto for sure). We’re using modern timps, and trying to find an articulation that works in this music (Beethoven uses timpani primary for rhythmic emphasis, where as later composers like Strauss tend to use them for harmonic emphasis) while also integrating into the sound of the band. I’ve done the piece once before with C clarinets, which I thought was a cool sound, but not this time….

Also- the concerto and symphony were premiered on the same night, but were only about 1/3 of that program….  

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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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