Cheesehead Intermezzo

I’m sorry for the lack of new content here this week- I’ve been in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin for a few days, and there has been a lot of sentimental favorite beers and coffees that had to be consumed, as well old friends and family to visit.

Musically, Madison was once a hidden treasure. I had grown up listening to and learning from some of the best musicians I’d ever seen, and would go out into the world and mention their names and colleagues would look at me with blank incomprehension. No more- If Madison was once a buried treasure, it is now a magnet. I’ve seen old friends and colleagues here from festivals and conservatories all over the country who are now living and working here, and long-time Madison mainstays have been making the rounds of distinguished festivals everywhere. I’m glad to see it, but I slightly feel like my secret favorite movie has just become trendy.

It was sad to say goodbye to Round Top after such a short visit. There were a lot of new faces on the faculty, and I was just getting to know my colleagues by the time we had to go. Happily, I’ll be back next year and will hopefully have some more time to socialize. There was also not much time to get to know the students individually as much as I would have liked- Round Top has always been a place where the real social action happens after 10 PM, which is tough with a new born.

Musically, it was fun and an interesting week. All four pieces were of 20th/21st century origin, and spanned quite a range of styles, from the ferocity of Varese, to the Haydn-esque perfection of technique of the Copland, to the pastoral calm and oriental wit of the Higdon to the timeless sadness of the Barber. The Copland is a piece I never listen to anymore, so it had been a few years since I’d thought about it (I think I last conducted it in November of 05, which would have been about the last time I heard it). I came away from the concert more in awe of it than ever- it is so perfectly put together, so deeply moving and so ferociously challenging. America has produced a lot of great music (and Copland produced a lot of that), but Appalachian Spring may be the great work of American music.

Tim played wonderfully on the Higdon, which I really enjoyed working on. There is one really, really tough passage for the 1sts late in the piece. High, exposed, physically awkward and in terrible keys… To their credit, the players really threw themselves into it, and practiced it at every break. However, it did take some persuading to convince them of the efficacy of practicing a passage like that VERY slowly. Just for the record and for those of you taking auditions- practicing in whole notes wins jobs.

Tomorrow it’s back on another plane (our journey from Texas was a predictable litany of horrors) and on to Oregon for the OES camp and the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop. I was reminded Wednesday when I tried to get 3 conductors in the same coffee house at the same time and totally failed that conductors, particularly young ones, do not seem to follow instructions very well. That’s good to remember before starting the workshop- I kind of have to deal with my younger colleagues as a group of young geniuses who follow instructions (particularly non-musical instructions) at more or less the first grade level. Sorry folks…… Just been my experience…. I’m guilty too…..

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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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