Why I subscribe to the New York Times

In today’s New York Times Daniel Wakin weighs in on the Elgar-vibrato “kerfuffle” (by the way, I’m not English, I’m not a traditionalist, and I don’t object to Elgar being played without vibrato, I object to the claim that Elgar should be played without vibrato on the grounds that he would have expected and wanted it played that way, a claim which is both false and not very useful for developing an interesting and exciting take on Elgar’s music because it is as simplistic as it is untrue).

To my delight, I was reminded of my own writing from two days ago (a passage which now bothers me as I had no right to try to guess or assume another musician’s motives)-

…there are problems with the approach that far transcend the use of string vibrato, and point to this being an expression of a musical aesthetic that belongs not to Elgar, but to the conductor himself, who, like Stowkowski before him, seems to have decided he knows better than the author how the the work at hand should sound, that his sound concept is so important as to allow him to diverge from the text anywhere the text would force a divergence from his sound concept.

When I read this in Wakin’s piece- it seemed that Norrington and I have found common ground.

He also acknowledged that early recordings of orchestras playing Elgar’s music under the composer’s own baton revealed a fair bit of vibrato. “In the end it’s an aesthetic question,” he said. “It’s a matter of taste. I love the sound.”

“I like it this way” is a perfectly fine reason for doing things. I would just have hoped that the conductor would have tried to not sacrifice so many wonderful details in the score in pursuit of that sound. (I just think a 52 minute symphony needs more than one sound).

After all, Bach’s harpsichord music works well on the piano, but only if it’s done well. If you can do Bach on a Steinway, and Mozart with the 1960’s Philladelphia Orchestra, why not Messiaen on a fortepiano, or Elgar with a classical orchestra (actually a classical string secion within a modern orchestra). I have a friend who playes Paganini Caprices effortlessly on the diatonic harmonica- I love hearing it, and can’t begin to understand how he does it. I’d certainly rather listen to him than many violinists,and not just for the novelty. I just wouldn’t want to see him declaring that that’s what Paganini had in mind.

Anyway, it’s not surprising the difference in an American writer’s take on this (Wakin’s piece is very pro-Norrington and rather dismissive of doubts about his approach as being rooted more in the insecurity that comes with being British than anything else), as American orchestras have, in general, erred on the side of being too change resistant when they could have bennefited earlier from coming to terms with the many interesting discoveries of performanace practice research.

Then, I found Allan Kozinn’s hilarious article on the difficulties of playing the horn.  I know at least one musician whose breakfast would have been ruined on opening the paper today…..

But surely the most catastrophic horn performance of the season — of many seasons, for that matter — was at the New York Philharmonic in March, when Alan Gilbert, conducting his first concert with the orchestra since having been appointed its next music director, opened his program with Haydn’s Symphony No. 48, a work with two prominent and perilous horn parts.

The Philharmonic has long been action central for horn troubles; its principal player, Philip Myers, is wildly inconsistent, and the rest of the section is also accident-prone. Much of the time Mr. Myers’s playing is squarely on pitch, shapely and warm, and when it is, it’s everything you want in a French horn line. But he cracks, misses or slides into pitches often enough that when the Philharmonic plays a work with a prominent horn line, you brace yourself and wonder if he’ll make it.

The Haydn symphony was a real clambake.


Interestingly, I’ve found that when I do Haydn symphonies with hand horns the accuracy rate (even with the same players!) goes way up. The balance also improves immeasurably. In this sense, the historical instrument movement has taught us a great deal- what seems like problematic or even bad orchestration on modern instruments might work fine with the original equipment. Elgar 1 would be better off with small bore brass instruments which allow players to play big without obliterating everyone else- brass technology has changed more than string technology in the last 100 years.

Still, as I read this I was reminded of a horn sectional I once watched with a gifted young horn section under the guidance of a legendary London horn principal and professor. When they had some accuracy problems, he took the passage and repeated it mercilessly, each time saying “alright, this time…. .REALLY concentrate…. REALLY CONCERTRATE on not SPLITTING…” In a cruel way, the process and the result were rather funny, but, predictably, accuracy did not improve…. ever… again…. 

Likewise, when one of the world’s most important critics basically calls upon the hornists of the world to stop missing notes in New York, well….. If I were a NY listener, I wouldn’t get my hopes up, especially if I saw that critic in the audience. Talk about exquisite pressure.


By the way, I am so doing Haydn 48 as soon as I can. At the first rehearsal, I’ll look right at the horns and tell them


By the way, Maestro Norrington- I really am a fan of much of your work and am interested in what you have to say. Why not email me at ken@kennethwoods.net   and we can do a podcast interview/discussion/debate? I bet young conductors would learn a lot and really dig it!

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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

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

7 comments on “Why I subscribe to the New York Times”

  1. ComposerBastard

    “…I object to the claim that Elgar should be played without vibrato on the grounds that he would have expected and wanted it played that way, a claim which is both false and not very useful for developing an interesting and exciting take on Elgar’s music because it is as simplistic as it is untrue)….”

    Absolutely correct. Elgar probably wouldn’t mind his music played in any way as long as it was tastefully doone…just my anachronistic opinion.

  2. Michelle

    Accuracy is overrated. 😛

    Somehow, being a horn player and an Olympic gymnast seem oddly similar at times.

  3. Robert Berger

    As a former horn player myself, I would recommend that critics and
    conductors take a few horn lessons. This will teach them to be a little
    more patient and understanding with the poor guys in the section
    The comparison between horn players and olympic gymanasts is quite apt,
    although I’m not sure that the gymnasts go through the nervous stress
    of us poor hornplayers.

  4. David Preiser

    “‘I like it this way’ is a perfectly fine reason for doing things. I would just have hoped that the conductor would have tried to not sacrifice so many wonderful details in the score in pursuit of that sound.”

    This perfectly sums up everything I’ve been trying to say. Well, that and, “It’s the equipment, stupid!”

    Thanks for these insights.

  5. Erik K

    I once played a concert where the orchestra had a shortage of horns and I ended up playing first horn on Haydn Symphony no. 59, which isn’t as perilous as the no. 48, but possesses a number of high, sometimes rather soft playing, on no rehearsals. The conductor claims I did OK, but to this very day, I still feel like I was a bloody disaster. Fortunately, when we moved on to doing Mahler 4, of which I made 1/2 of a sectional, it turned out a little better.

    All of which reminds me…Ken, I’m hoping you will consider giving me a call when you do Mahler 5…I’d love to take part…and I’ve been practicing the obbligato for an audition, just in case the literally dozens of better options you have fall through…;-)

    Erik K

  6. Kenneth Woods


    Wow, man…. You must be some horn player if the conductor said that about 59. I did the piece once and the poor first horn player just took a steaming dump all over it. A clambake of Myersian proportions… Really, a complete catastrophe….. 🙂

    We’ll try to get you in for M5, of course!

  7. Mick Nagle

    HI Ken…I always liked Barry Tuckwell’s comment on the horn; it ‘s not any more difficult to play than other orchestral instruments, just much more trecherous.


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