Wagner at KCYO

As we got to terms quickly with the difficulties on the Sibelius, we also had a lot of work to do on the first half on the concert.

The opening of the Tristan Prelude is one of the hardest passages for wind intonation ever written. Many of the recordings I’ve heard don’t even come close to nailing the first 12 bars or so. It did sound quite sour the first time we read it, so I spent a few minutes in our first working rehearsal on it. I find it’s easiest for the winds to start from the end of their phrase, which is simply a dominant 7th chord (leaving out the chromatic passing tone in the melody). Simply tuning it up from the root in the second bassoon, the fifth in the melody, the third then the 7th gives everyone a sense of where they’re headed for, then I have the melody player (either first oboe or clarinet) back up one note to their passing tone and go between that and the resolution over the chord a couple of times.

The first chord (we call in the Tristan chord, but it is just a half-diminished 7th chord) poses a lot more challenges because of the way it’s spaced, with dissonant intervals (a tritone in the bassoon) on the bottom and a perfect fourth, with no room for error, on top (the D# in the Cor and the G# in the oboe). Getting all of those intervals to ring is a pain in the butt, however, once they know how their part functions in leading to the second chord, it gets better.

Anyway, after our first efforts, things were better but not confident. However, it’s amazing how much better it was once we put it back in context with the cellos. For the player or conductor working on intonation, the endless source of frustration is that there are an infinite number of ways to be out of tune, but only one way to be in tune. However, to the listener, even less-out-of-tune is far preferable to way-out-of-tune, and most people don’t bother with the difference between not-out-of-tune, which is not too hard to achieve, and really-damn-in-tune, which is really hard to achieve.  I say this only because sometimes in passages that we know are nearly impossible for tuning, there is a temptation to just say “screw it” and go on to something else, but even incremental improvements are not wasted on the audience (or your colleagues in the orchestra). Fortunately, our work on this passage is not done.

Anyway, Wagner’s music has humbled many a wind section. I remember doing the Parsifal Prelude in the Aspen Festival Orchestra, and even with all those stellar wind principals, it was pretty rancid in the concert. A few months later, I covered it at a great American orchestra in a midwstern city on the border of Kentucky, and again, the winds, who are wonderful, really, really struggled with the tuning in the concert. Most live Ring recordings are full of wind tuning problems. Someone should write a book on the tuning issues in late Wagner.

The funny thing about the Tristan Prelude is that the first 12 and last 20 bars or so are unbelievably difficult, even though very little seems to happen. The rest of the piece, however, sort of plays itself, as long as the conductor has a bit of mojo going. I take Wagner at his word  in this music, conducting with a lot of elasticity of tempo, but that makes the music hard to rehearse. Somehow, true rubato comes to life only the in the moment- what worked last time doesn’t work this time. As a result, you have to use the rehearsals to build flexibility, not to drill in a pre-determined pattern of speed ups and slow downs. It can be exhausing, as it needs more of a performance level of energy and creativity than a rehearsal one.

In any case, maybe Wagner’s conducting background had something to do with it, but there isn’t much music I can think of which is more satisfying for me to conduct than Wagner. However, I loved this quote from John Elliot Gardiner in this month’s Gramophone (conductors are always more quotable when we’re being catty)—

“I really loathe Wagner and everything he stands for—and I don’t even like his music very much…. It’s like if you have a palate that you’ve developed over the years to distinguish between the best Burgundy and Cotes-du-Rhone—then you’re suddenly given this appalling Spätlese that’s actually got a fair dose of paraffin in it as well,  and sheep drench—I think your palate would be ruined. That’s my fear.” 

To me, Wagner is more single malt scotch than Spatlese, but to each his own…..

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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 “Wagner at KCYO”

  1. Lisa Hirsch

    Oh, that quotation is priceless.

    My chorus director would agree with every word you say about tuning. We have spent a lot of time on intonation, both during warmup exercises and while rehearsing the music, this season. We’re rehearsing in a much drier and smaller environment than the last season and a half, and the extra time on intonation is making a big difference in how we sound.

  2. Pingback: The "magic" of live recordings

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