RCICW 08 Day 6

Our final full day of teaching at the 2008 RCICW was a rather epic one. We began the day with the Beethoven F minor Quartet, op 95 (the “Serioso”), with which we had started the workshop on Monday. I was altogether happier with the second session, mostly for two related reasons. First, I think those who hadn’t known the piece before came away with a much better sense of what makes it special, which is something I felt we hadn’t quite expressed in our Haydn 86 sessions, for instance. Yes, one has to aim for better conducting, but that can only come when we understand the music we’re dealing with.

As we got more and more in touch with the genius of the work, we got closer to the second reason the session was a good one- discovering just why it is such a uniquely challenging piece for a conductor. On Monday, I had tried and failed to express just why the rhythm of the 3rd mvt poses such interesting challenges- on Saturday we finally all experienced it and got a good sense of how one might go about meeting the challenge.

The afternoon session gave us a change to revisit the Stravinsky Octet with the Discovery Students, and there had been some notable improvements from earlier in the week. In the second hour, everyone had a chance to conduct a short excerpt from the 2nd movement. David conducted through the excerpt once at the beginning of the break (he knows this piece better than anyone, I’m sure) just to give everyone some ideas about how to handle it. To my delight, everyone handled the exercise quite well, especially the transition, although nobody really controlled the rushing in the theme itself.

What was interesting was that nobody chose to try David’s exact version. Perhaps at a younger age, I would have also wanted to prove to myself and the faculty that I could do it my own way and make it work. On the other hand, had they succeeded in getting me to do it, I would have copied David’s version exactly, as I think even now that is a much more interesting exercise than simply conducting it like me. We all struggle to let go of our limitations (how many times did I hear “I really struggle with this”) and imitation can be a very effective way of forgetting ourselves in the best way.

Finally, we returned to Brahms for the evening. It was an inspiring session, with Rick playing beautifully. As with the Puccini the previous night, the lesson for me seemed to be that you have to dare to ask for things with your hands, no matter how scary that might be. I think we’ll all remember Edette’s pianissimo- something I had to push her towards and which she later said was “terrifying.”

It gets less terrifying in time, but only if you learn to dare to do it often (in her case, it was daring to give only the most microscopic of gestures. Not only did the band come in together, they did so with the most amazing sound). If you go to work thinking “I’ll conduct a little safe for now, then try to show more dynamics later,” you’re doomed.

Other than that, the other insight for me was David’s work in getting the students conducting the slow movement to really respond to Rick’s rubato. On paper, that looks like the easiest movement of the concerto, and one of the easiest of the week, but to really hold that luminous soft sound aloft takes tremendous skill.

Finally, let’s all remember- Brahms is a round composer, Stravinsky is a pointy composer, but Brahms is NOT a slow composer…. If you’ve got a 50 minute Brahms concerto (in D minor, no less), you needn’t worry that it won’t sound important and profound enough. I’d focus on making sure it sounds coherent enough

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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 6”

  1. David

    Thanks for your eloquent capture of each day’s work, as well as of the unfolding exploration and discovery we’ve all been through. I’ll look forward to a summary of the week, as well as the report on that final day. “The concert you’re about to hear is completely unrehearsed and promises all the excitement of disaster,” or words to that effect were ones you offered the assembled that both put everyone more at ease and were stunningly prescient.

    In your dailies, we can read, largely between the lines, a lot about the workshop participants, not one by one, but as a group. But I’d like to pull some of that up to the surface, even before your wrap-up, particularly in one area–a rather unfailing willingness to set aside fear of criticism in favor of openness and courage.

    [Insert: Our praise age seems to have made us forget that it’s the fear of criticism, not criticism itself, that can throttle our growth.]

    Anyway, the way Ken’s designed the workshop undoubtedly has much to do with the supportive and positive atmosphere that starts out high and sustains all week. I remember still too well being in a conducting workshop–years ago–in which I had the palpable and unrelenting feeling that everyone who was not conducting at that moment was muttering, with some perverse amalgam of glee and envy, “How did he get here? I could do that much better. Hey, even you could do it better!” I don’t think that nasty spirit arose from the character of the students–with a notable exception or two–but rather from the program itself whose distinctly competitive spirit was being constantly stirred up by a “you never know who’s watching, so don’t miss your opportunity” message. That threat/tease made it tough for anybody to absorb even a healthy sampling of what the collective skills had to offer.

    So RCICW has proven quite refreshing. It’s hardly been a week of unwarranted praise or making people feel good; there’s a good deal of thoughtfully expressed honesty in the room. But, the criticisms are offered–and almost always received–with discovery in mind. Good spirits abound and delight everyone, and little seems to excite everyone as much as someone else’s making some kind of breakthrough, small or large. There are shaking batons now and again, for sure (whose doesn’t from time to time?), but all those watching and listening seem intent on learning from everyone else, and not just when their own batons were the ones shaking. And that’s a testament to folks who have shown up not to put themselves on display, but to uncover new ways of thinking about the challenges of music and conducting.

    [Another insert: Isn’t it astounding that so many people–excellent musicians first among them–think this conducting thing is easy, something any fool can do?]

    One student’s comment on day six during individual coachings struck me, however: “I’ve begun to understand I don’t have to conduct in order to demonstrate that I can conduct.” As obvious as this revelation may seem to one who’s never conducted, it’s not surprising to me that someone, even someone with a fair amount of experience, might forget it. Conductors, especially when they’re conscious of being looked at, can find their best efforts sucking them down the very path that’s going to render them ineffective. How anyone stays connected to the music when a bunch of people are commenting on the physicality of communicating never ceases to amaze me. Lots of students did just that over this last week, again and again. And if the music seemed to slip out of sight for a moment, everyone wanted it to rise up again as quickly as it had evaporated. And everyone could tell when it rematerialized–usually including the conductor of the moment. Ken didn’t need to invoke his 2007 cry of, “%$#@ the technique!” since so few conductors lost track for very long of why we were there. At least, not in those exact words.

    Again, an exciting week. I learned tons every day, from my colleagues, from the unflappable and persistently responsive players and singers, and from all workshop participants. Thank you all!


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

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