Early 20th C. Heavyweights Battle it Out in Sunny Glasgow

I’m spending the first of three weekends this month in one of my favorite cities, Glasgow.

I fell in love with the town last year when I was here conducting the Kelvin Ensemble, and I probably would have come back just to see the city again even if I loathed the band and was conducting the worst repertoire on earth, but fortunately, I did not have to contend with either possibility.

On the docket for this program is (among other things) Sibelius 2 and Bloch’s masterpiece, Schelomo. The two works may seem like rather strange bedfellows. After all, Sibelius was at heart a bit of a musical puritan- his prescription was that composers ought to serve their audiences cold, clear water, while Bloch mixes exotic, aromatic and rather decadent cocktails. After combining Firebird and Elgar’s Violin Concerto last week– marvelously dis-similar works finished with five weeks of each other– I think I’m onto a new theme this month: pieces that don’t go together at all except that they do.

However, as one wades into the deep end with both pieces and tries to make sense of them, there are some notable parallels. In particular, both works reveal their creator’s fascination with the possibilities of the superimposition of multiple types of subdivision. In both pieces, you might well hear two over three over four over six at any given time. Bloch eventually takes things much farther than even Sibelius, layering complex rhythms (for instance a cannon built of three rhythmic cells, one based on a triplet subdivision, one based on a quintuple subdivision and one based on duple subdivision) in three four over one in duple meter (that itself combines duple and triple subdivisions). While these sorts of textures and layers may create some rather formidable logistical challenges for conductor and players (two bars are actually bordering on unconductable as written), sorting them out is strangely and addictively satisfying. There’s nothing better (other than the obvious) than getting those pulling “fours” to stretch with equal tension and intensity over the prevailing “threes,” while someone else is wailing away on a “five.”

Schelomo might be the only piece I’ve ever been tempted to bring a Bible to rehearsal for, and not because I want to pray we get through the piece without a train wreck. Bloch originally conceived the piece as a vocal setting of the text of the Book of Ecclesiastes as written by King Solomon (“Schelomo” in Hebrew), but his conception eventually outstripped  possibilities of any human voice, and by giving the narrative voice to the cello he was able to create a purely musical structure that is not confined to one interpretation. Still, I can’t ever escape the magisterial tones of my old teacher Fritz Magg, as he would speak every time he prepared to play the long “a” that begins the piece— (to be said in the voice of an old man) “vanity of vanities, all is vanity….” I was talking to our soloist, a very promising student from the RSAMD, and suggesting she spend some time with Solomon’s writings and come up with her own ideas about what bits of text might have gone with which bits of the music. Bloch left us free to make our own decisions, but it’s well worth trying to create a plausible picture of the story he wanted to tell- not to tell the audience but to find our own voice in the piece. I’ve certainly got points in the piece that I can barely separate from the text, but I think reading aloud from the Old Testament in rehearsal would be a sure form of career suicide.

“As will be seen, I had no descriptive intentions. I was saturated with the Biblical text and, above all, with the misery of the world, for which I have always had so much compassion.”

Bloch writing about his setting of Ecclesiastes in Schelomo

Schelomo is right up there with the Elgar and Shostakovich 1st concerti for pieces that I’ve played so many times (and taught so many times) that I have to struggle not to boss the poor soloist around…. Cellists who’ve done those with me: I apologize for being a bossy pain in the ass. I’m really, really trying, but trust me, that bow-stroke just won’t be heard in a hall, and he never accents the downbeat in that theme, and  (shit, I did it again)….

My hotel is tucked away on one of Glasgow’s less attractive side streets, but I’ve discovered a little piano bar across the street with a chef who has a real command of French classics- I had a stupendous lapin a la moutard (thumper in mustard) last night, and the moules are also first rate, and amazingly fresh. I also found one of the best coffee joints I’ve found in Britain- coffee bars are everywhere here, but the standard of baristas tends to be abysmal. Today— yum, yum, yum…. My breakfast latte beckons already.

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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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6 comments on “Early 20th C. Heavyweights Battle it Out in Sunny Glasgow”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    While I’m being a “bossy pain in the ass…..”

    Cellists: You know those “ad lib”octaves after fig. 29 in Schelomo. Those are, ahem, crap. Total crap (although I will totally support you if you really feel you have to do them). Okay, I’ll phrase that in a manner less likely to incite argumentative defensiveness…. Bloch wrote a 22 minute tone poem for cello and orchestra in which the cello doesn’t have a single chord, double-stop or pizzicato. Those octaves are very much not in the character of the piece. How much clearer can he make it- you’re a singer, a cantor, a story teller- not an instrumentalist. Besides, physics tells us that the single line he wrote is louder than the ad lib octaves he didn’t write….

    Just a thought…..


  2. John

    Sounds like an interesting program. I’d love to be in Glasgow to hear it. My chamber choir was there last August – great city! And great access to other GREAT cities, like Edinburgh.

    Sure beats living in Northern Canada where it is currently -40.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    “Schelomo and Sibelius 2. My jealousy knows no bounds, sir”

    And in Glasgow……

    Glad to hear from a fellow Bloch fan! Spread the word.


  4. Ed Carwithen

    I’ve wondered why you didn’t program more Bloch in Oregon. After all he did live here. Seems like the locals might like to take him to their hearts.

    My Ph.D. prof. David Kushner was a Bloch enthusiast, and wrote the Bloch article in the latest Groves, as well as a book on him. He made sure we all were familiar with Ernest.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Ed-

    Well- the only reason is that his music tends to be very budget and rehearsal time intensive. Lots of harps and celestes and things that have to be sorted.

    That said, I can now officially start the rumor that my first piece on the schedule for next year is the Bloch Suite for Viola and Orchestra as arranged for Cello and Orchestra. You heard it here first, but that’s only a rumor…..


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