A duty of care to the unknown…

I got a nice mention on the excellent Through These Ears in an interesting post about the job of the Music Director, one inspired in part by this article in the Washington Post

Aside from having high performance standards and a good working environment, there are other benefits for everyone when the relationship works well.  For instance, I just noticed this post by Kenneth Woods about a bit of programming he’s doing for his upcoming season with the Surrey Mozart Players.  He’s programming a much neglected piece he has always wanted to hear live, and is well aware of the pitfalls of trying to do such a thing.  This kind of enthusiasm and dedication to the art is great for the orchestra and the audience, as well as being a personal moment of musical satisfaction for the music director.  That kind of thing won’t happen very often in other business arrangements.  James Levine gets to do lots of his beloved Elliott Carter and other contemporary music because it’s his show.  Similarly, Salonen can keep doing works by his old schoolmate Magnus Lindberg with LA.  The same goes for Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra, or, as the above article metions, the NSO can now add more contemporary works from other countries after Leonard Slatkin’s departure. 

(Anyone who manages to include me in the same paragraph with Leonard Slatkin, James Levine, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Leon Botstein is my kind of writer.)

I’ve found that the shared discovery of a new piece together can be one of the great bonding moments between a conductor and an orchestra. If I had to single out the best thing about 2008 for me, it has been those moments, whether the piece was Mefano’s Interferences or Higdon’s Saxophone Concerto or the Bloch Suite for Cello and Orchestra when a colleague in the band has come up to me at the break of after a concert overjoyed at discovering a great work they didn’t know. But there are always risks, and you have an extra duty of care when pursuing your own repertoire passions to make sure that the players enjoy working on the pieces as much as you do. More often than not, pieces off the beaten path come with little hidden traps like illegible or unusable parts (publishers are often, in my experience, the biggest culprits in keeping the music they publish from being played more often). An experienced conductor can look at a score and tell more or less how difficult the piece is to play, but not how hard it is to read, or how many misprints and mistakes are in the music.

And you must keep your radar on so that you don’t push too far. Making your orchestra sick of the composer you love is not a service to the music, and sometimes you have to know when to back off from a project. I love cycles and big repertoire-driven projects, but sometimes a desperation  for completeness can undo a lot of good work. You never want to hear an audience member or musician saying “man, am I sick of Dvorak-Mahler-Gal-Schnittke-Mozart-Brahms etc…”

On the other hand, sometimes resistance to a pet piece is a symptom of something bigger- frankly, if your orchestra is rolling their eyes and muttering “what is this- where does Woods find this crap” every time you put something besides Beethoven 5 on the stand, chances are, you’re driving them mad in other ways, and it’s time to look hard at your preparation, rehearsal demeanor, personal relationships with musicians and anything else you can think of. No point in getting defensive- keeping 70 brilliant people inspired and challenged is a tough job. Go home, study harder, talk less in rehearsals and make sure you’re listening out for peoples concerns.

Finally- be careful not to speak for the orchestra when you talk about a piece, whether it’s Brahms 1 or Schnittke 7. I remember a colleague getting in some trouble for an interview a few years back for saying of a new piece “the orchestra fell in love with it instantly,” when the opinion was maybe more nuanced or divided. Perhaps better to say “a number of the musicians came to me after the first rehearsal full of enthusiasm” (assuming that it is true). Part of your job as an MD is to be an advocate for the orchestra, championing their work to the community and the industry at every opportunity, but NOT to presume to speak for the musicians unless they ask you to. An orchestra is a group highly-accomplished professional artists- they have earned the right to speak for themselves.

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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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