Ischia day one

Day one of my visit to the Ischia Chamber Music Festival is nearly over. I swear, I do not seek extra adventure and uncertainty simply to keep the blog more captivating for readers, but some days it does seem as though someone in the producers’ office of the series that is my life is contriving to keep it interesting.

Today’s plotline is only mildly suspenseful at least so far. I arrived last night after a very long journey. I gripe often in these pages about airlines poor treatment of instrumentalists, but EasyJet, to my compete surprise, were completely professional and polite in dealing with me and my cello yesterday. Unfortunately, we were delayed about 45 minutes on departure from Stanstead, which meant that once I arrived in Naples I had about 40 minutes to get through customs, pick up my bag, grab a cab, cross Naples, buy a ticket and board the last ferry to Ishcia.

My bag seemed take ages to arrive, and then my heart sank when I walked out of the airport and saw a huge line for taxis. Thankfully, the line moved quickly- I was probably 70th in line, but within 10 minutes I was in a cab, which left me with about 18 minutes to catch the ferry. “Molo Beverello!” I cried to the cabby. “Presto, Presto!” When I told him how much time we had, stepped on it, and we rocked through Naples and eye-watering speed to the port.

My host had told me to negotiate a cab fare of 16 euros, but I’d completely forgotten to do so in my panic, so it was 35, at which point I also realized I’d only taken out 45 euros at Stanstead because I was getting a cash per-diem here. With 2 minutes to spare  I sprinted (there are few sights more undignified than that of a grown man “sprinting” with  a cello and a suitcase) up to the ticket booth, only to see a hand-written sign “sorry, no credit cards today.”

With only 10 euros left, I assumed I was, as they say, screwed. I asked if there was a cash machine, and he just laughed at me. “How much one-way?” I asked in broken Italian.

”9,84.” My heart exploded in joy, I was going to make it to Ishcia with 14 cents in my pocket.

Today started quietly- I met some of my colleagues and had a very tasty lunch, but then there were worrying rumblings of ill-tidings. Byron, our first violinist, is trapped in Paris by a transit strike. I’ve been a union member most of my life, but sometimes you can’t help saying “fucking unions!” especially when Brahms and Schnittke are at stake. As the day went on the news became worse and worse- from a delay of a few hours, it could now be a day to four days.

We read the Brahms and Schnittke without him. The Brahms is so empty without the first violin, it wasn’t very satisfying, but the Schnittke rehearsal was actually quite useful.

I had suggested the Schnittke because I remembered enjoying playing the 2nd movement, but I hadn’t listened to it since that performance. As I’ve been studying and practicing the whole piece this week I’ve decided it is a great, great, great piece. It seems like Schnittke has fallen out of the repertoire in the last few years since his death. I remember hearing Gidon Kremer and the Kremeratic Baltica play the Concerto Grosso the night Schnittke died- at that moment it felt like the whole world knew the greatest composer in the world had died. As I was working on the score yesterday, it hit me that I haven’t heard a performance of any Schnittke in a couple of years.

The String Trio was written to celebrate the 100th birthday of Alban Berg. Schnittke’s penchant for integrating styles from different historical epochs is perfectly appropriate for a memorial to Berg, and this trio’s mixture of baroque dances with intense dissonance is both effective and an appropriate memorial to another great composer. I’d say it is a great score for young composers to study- his string writing, apart from one annoyingly impossible doublestop, is both idiomatic and distinctive, and he really achieves a parlando vocabulary of articulations.

I just hope we get to hear it with Byron soon!

By the way, the food is impossibly good.

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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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