RCICW 08 Day 3 and 4

I really like to blog about the conducting workshop, so the fact that I missed out yesterday is a good indication of this week’s feverish pace. Yesterday, Day 3, was all conducting- Stravinsky Octet in the morning with the Discover Program students, then the Dvorak Wind Serenade in the afternoon and finally Madame Butterfly in the evening.

All in all, that makes 27 different performances we saw yesterday, so it’s hard to generalize. However, I try to look for trends throughout the day- i.e., are people generally conducting the best I think they can or not. That tells me a lot about how successful we’re being as teachers. On that basis, I thought it was a really strong day- some really memorable moments, a lot of progress, a lot of people surpassing expectations on all three pieces. Brennen Guillory and Esther Mae Moses, our tenor and soprano for Butterfly, were both exceptional, inspiring and so completely professional. They sang like artists, but with a selfless devotion to craft that let the students find their sea legs in what for some of them was new territory. There were some really moments throughout the session.

It was also interesting doing the two wind pieces back to back, as they demand such different gestural language. Stravinsky seems to me to need angles, clean corners and geometry and the Dvorak is almost an etude in avoiding those- it needs circles. It’s just a little lesson I’ll remember next time I’m asked about the difference between conducting winds and strings- one should be focused on conducting the music first.

After such and exhilarating day, everyone was in high spirits and so the party was a lively if well-mannered one. After such a night, morning was destined to come all-too-soon, and it did. It was great to really talk to more of the class- lots of intelligent, curious, passionate and interested people.

In spite of the late night, we called everyone in to talk through Appalachian Spring before the session, as I think it has a set of very specific but solve-able problems. Interestingly, just about every conductor that conducted in the session that followed chose to divert from at least one of the technical suggestions we’d thrown out for them. I think on balance, in most instances the results bore out the usefulness of the original suggestion, but hopefully the work served to underline why I was suggesting what I was- I’d certainly tried (sometimes with rather deeply disappointing results) some of those same variant approaches myself.

The afternoon was another seminar class- a bit of an open forum grab bag. This one was mine to direct- something I enjoy but do find intimidating, especially the company of Chris and David. I tried this year to deal with questions and issues they wanted to talk about, as well as some specific things that had come up in the conducting sessions. First up, I wanted to talk about cultivating the skill of being changeable- the best conductors are usually the most versatile as well, and there are techniques for being able to change your conducting that can be learned. Intonation came up- something all of us on the faculty are interested in. Beyond that, we talked about the usual range of rehearsal technique, programming, context and so on. I hope it was useful, but I often worry that a session like this is least useful to the best students. Hopefully those who already know or even have strongly developed ideas about these topics were at least able to compare those with ours and see how we express things and whether it is effective. I think I played a honkin’ wrong chord while talking and demonstrating on the piano (it’s actually a pair of chords a third apart and I think I played the upper one a step higher)- David made a very polite noise, the meaning of which was instantly clear- Woods, wake up! Note to self- stay away from the piano after late nights, as you may fall asleep while playing.

Finally, tonight it was Haydn. David said earlier this week you should never teach the pieces you really love. It’s too hard to let go of what you love in them if a student can’t yet find those qualities (though many will, I think). Everyone did fine, especially considering what a foreign language Haydn was to some of them and how much harder it is than Stravinsky, but there were some rather nutty ideas about tempos. Back here at the Portland branch of Vftp International, I’m still kicking myself that neither David nor I demonstrated on the piece. I think we both felt like our versions would be so different from some of the student’s versions that it wouldn’t help them at that moment get better at what they were trying to do. On the other hand, to spend  2 ½ hours with Haydn Symphony without it ever really trying to show why were asking for things seemed, in retrospect, a mistake.

Just a couple of students wasted an opportunity too- a few EA students missed tonight’s session with the DP’s on the Haydn. I know everyone’s tired and needs to study, but to miss a chance to hear David talk about Haydn seems madness to me. It’s possibly the best piece of music we’re doing this week! You can study for the rest of your life, and you owe it to your colleagues to be there. A pity, I think. If they can watch the video of what they missed in 10 years, they’ll wish they’d been there.

So, Day 4- tough, tiring, long, grueling, occasionally frustrating, but somehow, maybe that means we’re getting somewhere. Tomorrow offers huge, huge opportunities- Copland, Dvorak and Puccini.  Rarrr!


UPDATE- David later assured me that I had not played the dreaded wrong note, but that he was confused by me stacking all of the notes of the melody as a chord…

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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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3 comments on “RCICW 08 Day 3 and 4”

  1. Erik K

    I want to stab myself in the chest. Sounds like a really great week.

  2. David

    I think Ken’s characterization of some of the workshop participants’ tempi in Haydn 86 as “nutty” is telling. By all rights, some RCICW conductors found tempi in other pieces this week that you could have thought of as equally “nutty.” Some very slow Brahms D minor Piano Concerto 1st movements, some overly resistant 2nd movements, an occasional under nourished Dvorak Wind Serenade, and stretches of Appalachian Spring that resisted the music’s easy flow. I’m not sure whether such slower tempi came from honest (if unneccesary) efforts to lend the Brahms profundity and the Dvorak seriousness, but whatever they were, they weren’t nutty.

    The Haydn tempi were a different matter, not because they always seemed so far off, but because they had considerably more profound effect. Some tempi on the fringes rendered the music nearly incoherent, the musical rhetoric vague or even impossible to grasp. And musical rhetoric is really what this music is all about. Absent clarity on this front, the music’s natural breathing and the balances of weights are thrown off enough to confuse us about where the heck we are–and I don’t mean the kind of uncertainty Haydn is certain he wants us to have. Hmmm, with a tempo that’s too far off, the Haydn intentionally generated uncertainty–from which arises the music’s wit and wisdom–is undermined by our own confusion–from which comes our mistaking Haydn for a simple or even boring composer.

    At no point in a reading of the Brahms that I thought was too slow did I think the music didn’t make sense. It missed the character, or it simply didn’t feel right, but I could always understand where we’d been, were we were, and where we were heading. Not true, though, for the Haydn. That’s why Ken, Chris and I all kept pressing some of the participants to rethink their tempi–in all four of this incredible symphony’s movements. And to find different impulses of weight. As I said too many times this week, there are far, far fewer downbeats in music than any of us would like to believe, and even those downbeats often need a performance gesture that doesn’t plant, but rather launches upward.

    I don’t think I actually mean what I said about not teaching the music you love. I do it all the time, and there’s nothing that gives more joy. It’s just that Haydn is so blasted difficult and profoundly searching, and yet some think it easy and maybe even pointless. And that’s a gap terribly difficult to traverse, even in an environment as lovely and patient as is the one that Ken has nurtured at the RCICW. But it’s worth all the effort. Every Haydn symphony, mass or oratorio I’ve ever conducted has only made me yearn for the next one.

    Thanks, Ken! What a marvelous week. Perhaps more of that later.


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

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