An icy Russian wind blows accoss the sunny Ischian hillside

I am now home from a memorable week at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival. What a joy it was to set aside the baton and pretty much any and all responsibility for decision making and organization and just be a cellist for a week!

Our final concert on Thursday consisted of two works- the String Trio of Alfred Schnittke, and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.

Aldo was wise to pair the two pieces in spite of the fact that it made for a very emotionally demanding and draining concert- as he explained in his welcoming remarks to the audience, one doesn’t have to strain find certain common threads between the two pieces. Both are late works, and both seem to reflect each composer’s thoughts on mortality. Both are ultimately inward looking pieces, but somehow very intense and direct.

The Schnittke was written to celebrate the 100th birthday of Alban Berg, and shows Schnittke, the Russian heir to Shostakovich, at his most Germanic, with a care for counterpoint and integration of modern techniques and antique idioms (think of the Bach chorale in the Berg Violin Concerto) that does seem to echo Berg. The main thematic ideas of the piece are all inter-related (all are based on dotted rhythms and very simple harmonic patters)- they seem to be echoes of a Sarabande, perhaps a Minuet and a March.

In Baroque and Classical music the character of a theme tends to tell you the character of the movement. Not so in the Schnittke, where these simple materials are transformed from something quite innocent into something rather monstrous before being reassembled to something like their original form… only with scars.

There had been a certain amount of concern about how the various workshop participants and the general public would respond to the piece, and I was not encouraged when one spouse of a participant compared listening to me practice it to torture. In the end, I’m sure there are still those for whom the piece goes to far (interestingly, our violinist, Byron, struggled to love the piece in spite of the fact he played it very beautifully and convincingly), but I was really excited to hear a lot of the comments about the piece that I did.

One violinist said it was “completely overwhelming and devastating- shattering,” another participant (a fine pianist) said “it seems to carry all the sadness of the world in it,” and a flutist said “this is music that speaks to our time, this is relevant.” I think a lot of listeners simply couldn’t believe that a trio of string players could produce such a huge range of dynamics and colors- the string writing is worthy of Bartok and Shostakovich’s best quartets on a purely technical level.

However, I thought the most important thing was the fact that for many, many in the audience it had an emotional impact that was even greater than the Brahms, and that the piece communicated something new, something they’d never heard before. To me, this is what contemporary music should and can do better than old music (much as I love my Brahms and Beethoven)- it can speak to us about our time and our world, but it has to speak to us.

I get a little down when I see again and again the same old false paradox played out- we’re forced to take sides in a battle of fools between musics that refuse to communicate and musics which seek only to entertain. The “who cares if you listen” mentality of modernism (Boulez, by the way, does care if you listen) is juxtaposed against a “who cares if you have anything to say, as long as it is pretty” market-driven, classical-Gap mentality of some of today’s more popular composers. Communicating with the audience is IMPORTANT, and so is HAVING SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO SAY. Yes, of course there are many composers today with lots to say, but the classical press doesn’t seem as interested in what they have to say, but in how audience friendly, attractive and marketable their music is.

To me, the best of Schnittke’s music lives up to his ideal of music as a “moral endeavor.” Are today’s artists really doing enough to shine a spotlight on the troubles of our own times? Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies were tombstones and memorials- reminders of the human costs of political stupidity. Where in today’s music are those artists courageous enough to really bring us face to face with the human costs of today’s terrors? Today, it seems that the highest praise a composer can receive is to have written melodic, attractive, entertaining music. I have nothing against those qualities, but what is that music saying? Who is speaking for victims, who is sounding the alarms, who is bearing witness? Schnittke was- and that’s why so many people were saying “I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move.”

The Brahms also deserves mention, particularly for the heavenly clarinet playing of my colleague Giuseppe Caranante. What a joy it is to play with a wind player who listens so carefully to the strings, who tunes (!) and who makes such remarkable colors. It is a perfect piece, one of the reasons we play chamber music. As an encore, we played the recap of the 2nd movement again- a heartbreakingly serene and tender way to end a festival.

The Brahms certainly led to the QUOTE OF THE WEEK from a violinist I was coaching in a the Brahms A Major Piano Quartet just before the participant concert the next day.

“Last night you guys brought Brahms back to life……. And today, we’re gonna burry him back in the ground again!” 


I miss the food, the incredible welcome from the resort staff (boy does the English speaking world have a lot to learn about friendly and meticulous service), the sunshine and the view from the side of the volcano already, and am looking forward to returning next year. I met some remarkable new friends among both the faculty and the participants.

On my way home, I picked up the Herald Tribune, the first English language news I had read in 10 days, and found this article on Ischia in the T Magazine. I link it here for information and to encourage those of you who toyed with applying this year to do so next year (we’ll have a bigger class next year as we’re moving to a bigger building within the resort). I mean, a week of chamber music in a beautiful thermal resort hotel on the coast of one of the most beautiful Italian islands, surrounded by great food and natural beauty. Why wouldn’t you come?


Covo dei Borboni- home of the Ischia Chamber Music Festival

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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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1 comment on “An icy Russian wind blows accoss the sunny Ischian hillside”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » 2009 KW Repertoire Report- discussion and analysis

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