Janaceking on the East Coast

I’m spending my week in Philadelphia and New York to prepare and perform a very special piece of music I’ve been wanting to learn for many years, Janacek’s 2nd String Quartet.

My colleagues in this endeavor are violinists David Ehrlich and Yonah Zur, and violist David Yang. Also on the program are two short string trio selections- the Trio Satz in B-flat of Schubert and a rather perplexing work of Mozart’s a Prelude and Fugue in D minor, K 404.

Our week began with the two trios, programmed because Yonah’s schedule didn’t allow him to be present for the whole week. We read the Schubert first, an early but startlingly mature and original piece. I’m intrigued by David Ehrlich’s way with this music- he has tremendous control of timing and rhetoric, and the piece already feels like something, in spite of its surface simplicity, on first encounter.

The Mozart is more elusive. I’m literally sight-reading, having only gotten the music on my arrival. The prelude is a very Mozartian thing, in a gracefully lilting 6/8, but the fugue is something else entirely- it’s Bach! It’s from the Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1 No. 8, transcribed and transposed (from the original E-flat minor to the more user-friendly D-minor) by Mozart. We read both movements and set to work first on the Fugue. I know the piece to listen to, but what a thrill it is to play, especially as I’d never expected to play it. We quickly dispensed with the vaguaries of a lousy edition- a mixture of Mozart’s transcriptions with lots of very Romanticized markings of a long-deceased editor.

The political-correcticization of early music has made us all a bit careful about when and with whom we perform Baroque music. My inclination in this music is to play it with little or no vibrato, lots of mezza di voci and to feel it in “2,” (Roger Norrington would love my Bach) but I’ve just met one of my colleagues and don’t want to start an argument. To my delight, though, we find ourselves quickly finding common ground and agreement. In some ways it gets more challenging when we return from Mozart’s transcription of Bach’s Fugue to Mozart’s own Prelude, an attractive piece, but one that feels rather slight next to Bach at his deepest and most mature.

Central Philly is mostly new to me- about 10 years ago I had gone into town to catch a Philadelphia Orchestra concert, but didn’t get any sense of the city. What a town! David Yang takes us around to the amazing Italian market- blocks and blocks of butchers, green grocers and cheese merchants. There are dozens of lovely restaurants and a fab coffee house (Charterhouse Coffee). Even better, there’s a true neighborhood feel- David’s neighbors all seem to know, like and look out for each other.

Yonah’s arrival meant we could finally get cracking on the Janacek. After a short read through on Wednesday night, we take all day Thursday to get to grips with the piece. It is nothing short of ferocious and all of us are learning it for the first time. There are near constant changes of either meter or tempo, and it’s incredibly hard for intonation because of the way Janecek voices chords, emphasizing perfect intervals and wide spacings. Janecek also pushes us all to our technical limits with us extremes of range and fondness for lightning fast ostinati.

We ended our marathon day on Thursday by running the quartet- it was both humbling and encouraging. For a group that had only been together 24 hours, it was starting to sound like something, but there were huge challenges ahead. After the long hours on Thursday, Friday offered a different problem- how to squeeze everything we needed to do into less than two hours in the morning before boarding the trains for New York.

Having finished the previous day with a run-through, each of us comes in prepared with a list of spots we felt had been problematic. Our work to date having been tested in a run-through, we’re able to make rapid progress just focusing on the things that have gone wrong the night before. However, the clock soon runs out on us, and it’s time to pile everyone into a tiny vehicle and make for the train station and New York City.

How funny that the previous week I should be on the island of Procida, setting of the movie Il Postino and a place almost completely untouched by time and trends and this week I should be working in the Big Apple, land of the 10 second trend and the 5 second fad….

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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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