RCICW 08 Day Two

Day two of the RCICW- there is still so much I want to say about my week at Round Top and last week in Pendleton, but the hour is late and so I must limit myself to thoughts about today.

We began today with the Discovery Program students conducting the 1st mvt of the Stravinsky Wind Octet. In some ways it pointed to the fact that we don’t really get training in how to count. I’m not talking about counting rests so that we don’t come in wrong- I’m talking about counting the subdivision of the music in such a way that every musical event is digitized to a specific metric moment in time, and that ever digital moment is not merely an academic expression of linear time, but a vivid representation of the character of the music. It was a really fun session, and some really nice things happened, and I kept thinking that the DP students really have the best repertoire this year….

This afternoon we talked opera. Chris gave a vivid and inspiring chat about the craft of opera conducting and then Rick Rowley turned to his theatre training and gave us a director’s view of our scene from Madame Butterfly (we’re doing the final part of Act I). Rick is one of the best pianists I know, but he’s also a professional actor and director, so it is a tremendous luxury and privilege to look at a scene through the eyes of someone steeped in both music and drama. Finally, the incomparable Alex Hamilton, a wonderful mezzo who has sung for us in many past years, talked about the practicalities and intricacies of interacting with singers. I found, to my slight annoyance, that I kept jumping in more and more as the afternoon progressed because I get overexcited at these things. One day I will learn the verbal equivalent of sitting on my hands.

Finally, tonight we turned to the Brahms D minor Concerto with Rick. It was an interesting contrast to the Beethoven op 95 we started with yesterday. The Brahms is really more technically difficult and problematic for the conductor, but the overall level of confidence and command seemed higher for the Brahms and for the Beethoven. David spoke eloquently and rightly of the value of learning scores from scores and  not from recordings yesterday, but I felt like it was obvious today that the Brahms is more a part of most conductor’s body of listening knowledge than the Beethoven. Is there a way to metabolize and absorb a piece without a huge recording tradition so that it breathes as naturally as a standard repertoire piece you might have heard hundreds of times? Hmm…….

The end of the week is already looming. We’ve now seen each conductor once. The next sessions offer the richest opportunities for teaching because soon enough we have to start preparing for the final concert….

One final aside- David was stressing the value of watching the soloist tonight, but I must admit, I rarely, rarely look at soloists. I think the real question is where you are directing your energy and attention- if you look at the soloist, your attention is directed at the soloist and not the paper score or the orchestra. But can all that visual activity be counterproductive?  Sometimes when I’m soloing, I find being gazed at to be somewhat intrusive. On the other hand, I’m aware that my approach is at best unorthodox, so I should probably keep it to myself.

I feel at my most centered as an accompanist when I feel like my attention is all on the soloist, but on the aural level and, dare I say it, metaphysical level. I can hear and feel him or her breathe, I can feel the pianist’s finger descending through the key, or hear a singer transitioning from a consonant to a vowel. A great pianist like Rick can articulate a note or chord in such a way that you feel he is sinking into as a great string quartet would. That gives the conductor the chance to hear the key going down even before the note is released and ringing- at least I think it does.

Lots of excitement to look forward to tomorrow. Wish I had my cello here….  

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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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2 comments on “RCICW 08 Day Two”

  1. Bill Brice

    I was struck by your comment that we don’t get good training in how to count. I remember taking undergraduate “ear-training / sight-singing” courses many years ago. Those courses really do focus almost exclusively on problems of interval and chord recognition — which is to say, just the pitch-related part of music. I sensed the same limitation later on when I was teaching courses like that to undergraduates. Really good performers, of course, develop a refined way of hearing subtleties of rhythmic inequalities and for sorting out “rhythm vs meter” arguments in the music. But I suspect they get these skills mostly from a combination of native intelligence and very good individual teachers. How could music education programs be enhanced to make this kind of learning a little more systematic? (Or should they?)

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop- digest of journal entries

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