Ken Woods interviews Ken Woods, part II

Ken- I’m speaking today with the verbose and loquacious conductor Kenneth Woods about his perforamce of Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 with the Gulf Coast Symphony. Ken, having done Elgar 1 twice now, do you feel your thinking on the piece has evolved?

Ken- Well, I feel much more comfortable with the overall large-scale form of the piece. I remember when I learned it, I had real struggles trying to understand the Finale, particularly the function of the ostinato theme- an idea like that can sound a bit like filling time unless it has a strong generational thought behind it. The structure troubled me so much, I even had to turn to David Hoose for advice! Anyway, in the end, it was the very aspects of the piece that troubled me the most- the ridiculous length of the motto theme, the thematic character of the finale, which led me to sort of crack the code of its musical DNA, and those are now what I LOVE most about the piece. The opening theme is a huge arch from a low unison A-flat to a low unison A-flat. In the end, the whole piece is like a stacking of arches on top of each other- the from A-flat back to A-flat, or from statement of the theme to statement of the theme. What happens in between is the recognition you’ve left something and the struggle to return, on bigger and bigger levels.

Ken- Any specific new discoveries in the score, or radical shifts in tempos or pulse units?

Ken- This could get boring for the reader…

Ken- Start with the 1st mvt…

Ken- Well, interestingly, although the 1st mvt is the longest and most complex in the piece, I felt like my take on it changed very little. I’ve written before about how Mahler, himself an expert conductor, was able to conductor-proof his score. This movement is as close to conductor-proof as I think Elgar gets, unless you just ignore what he’s written…

Ken- What about those nasty little “R” bars like 2 before 30. You took those in 6 last time, but Boult, who is the closest thing we have to being Elgar executor, only does a modest slow-up there, and seems to stay in 2.

Kn- Yes, I agonized again over those, and it did occur to me that Boult almost certainly knew better than me, especially when you consider that Elgar’s own conducting is generally so driven. There are two questions I’m still working on- whether those bars really mean ritenuto (a sudden shift to a slower tempo) or ritardando (a gradually slowing of the tempo), and how they relate to the music that follows them.

Ken- Did you know that if you Google “Elgar’s Notation,” the top result is Vftp?

Ken- Ken, that’s a little creepy that you would say that. It’s even more creepy that you know that. Anyway, the “in two, very slight slowing up version” works fine the first couple of times that idea appears, but in the coda, where it is followed by “piu lento,” it doesn’t seem to set up the right relationship, which is that the R bars are slower than what follows them, which, this time, is slower than the main tempo of the movement. That means that one notch below the main tempo is not slow enough.

Ken- How about the 2nd movement?

Ken- I found it scarier and funnier than last time. This is pretty evil music- I love it. Sinister, mischievous, raucous. In particular, I felt like I had a better grip on where the jokes start in the trio. I also decided the sfpin the cellos and basses 4 before 88 (which is mostly ignored on my 20-something recordings ) is about the coolest thing ever. It sets up the whole coda. The whole movement is, aside from what it means, a virtuoso showpiece for Elgar’s brain- on one level, it’s a pretty straight-forward archetype of a rather bombastic scherzo and lighter trio, but it’s music that is full of deception and suprise, and so many of touches of craft that, frankly, most audience members would never notice, but which give it this super-charged feeling of energy.

Ken- And the Adagio?

Ken- There is some music so special that it can only really be experienced live. The first two movements of this symphony are like an audiophile’s dream, turn on, turn up and rock out. Great for pissing off the neighbors. When I first heard the piece (which was on CD, because nobody in America does it, except for David Hoose and James Judd), I found the thrid movement deeply moving, and it’s lovely to work on, but performing it last year in Wrexham was shattering– it is music that has that ability to turn time inside out, to function on so many levels- desperately sad, unbelievably consoling, hopeful, melancholic but also seeming to freeze events into moments that last forever while at the same time balancing the whole in space like a single, perfectly formed crystal structure.

Ken- So, you liked it?

Ken- Hey man, I’m baring my soul here- cut me some slack. The sad thing is that, having experienced the piece live, from the best seat in the house, any other experience of it pales. You even start to think- “maybe I exaggerated how amazing that movement is,” or, worse yet, think that was just an once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s like when someone tells you “this is the greatest movie ever made,” you never think it is that good. I was worried that, remembering it as one of the most moving things I’d ever done, it would fall flat the second time.

Ken- So did it? Did you?

Ken- On a technical level, it’s very intricate music for the conductor- you have lots of different things taking place within a very slow pulse, and it seems that the pulse also needs to be flexible. I’ve lived with the piece long enough that I have a very strong sense of when I want things to happen, and I feel very comfortable with showing that technically to a group that’s really watching, like the GCSO. However, in controlling all the minutiae, you’ve got to remember where it is all going, and too much micromanagement can make it feel small or fragmentary.

Ken- Sounds like you might have blown it. A little cold, controlling and fussy this time, Mr Woods?

Ken- No, I actually felt like it really arrived. What makes movements like this challenging is that you have to find a balance between two things, which on the surface seem both essential and incompatible- A- pinpoint control of momentary events, and B- letting go of the need to control- letting the music take on this feeling of inevitability, free from self-conscious manipulation. There’s no facile answer for when to do what, or what is most important- it depends on the band, the night, how the other movements felt, and whether Big Ed is smiling down from those Malvern Hills in the sky. You can’t just be idealistic either- much as you might like to let the magic and the mojo run free, the players may need some comfortingly precise traffic cop work to get through those bars. There was definitely a moment in the movement on Saturday where I felt like I had done a bit too much of  A and not enough B in the performance and tried to loosen the reins, but in the end I felt like that worked. Maybe I got lucky, but, even though all of the movement is beautiful, it can’t by definition all be cathartic- something has to happen at the end that is more powerful than the shift in mood from the 2nd to the 3rd movement. If I was being just the tiniest bit cool for the first few minutes, I think it left us room to bring on the tears later on.

Ken- This is getting long- any quick new thoughts on the Finale? What did you spend the most time on?

Ken- Well, the hardest thing is that damn ostinato theme- its’ the same difficulty as the Coriolan Overture (which has the same rhythm in it)- getting these two dotted rhythms to interlock so that not only to the constant 8th notes fit together accurately, but that there is the right degree of tension, even antagonism, between the two parts. Again, there’s no simplistic solution- you can’t just tell the players to listen or just watch, it’s a combination.

Ken- What bowing did you use?

Ken- We tried it hooked, which is more ergonomically comfortable and is what Elgar originally wrote, but then changed it to separate, which is more tiring, but what he changed it to after the premiere. It just sounds way more bitchin’ and intense. I’m glad we did it both ways, because it validated my theory that the separate would work better, but also gave the players the chance to experience why the more tiring bowing is worth doing. 

Ken- How about beat patterns? I seem to remember you did more of that movement in 4 than most responsible persons.

Ken- By responsible persons, do you mean other conductors? This time, after the intro, I always did the ostinato in 4, and everything else in 2. Even to the extent of switching back and forth rather often from 120 (in four), through 2 before 122 (in two) 124 (in four) 125 (in two) fifth of 125 (in 4)  and 126 (in 2)

Ken- That seems possibly fussy and a little bit annoying…

Ken- It might have been, but sometimes, you have to risk people thinking you’re being annoying if you’re convinced it’s right for the music. My basic philosophy these days, which really comes out of struggling with the Beethoven symphonies for so many years, is that you should beat whatever pulse unit the music is in, that that the change of pulse unit can be a very dramatic musical too. I love the juxtaposition of that driving “4” feeling in the ostinato with the sweep of the big tunes and the march theme in “2.” Many conductors tend to change tempo when they change pulse unit- some good metronome work can make a passage like that seem much less fussy.

Ken- I noticed you spent ages rehearsing four notes in the double basses at the end of bar 5, which all told last maybe a ¼ second. What was up with that?

Ken- By ages, I assume you mean 90 seconds? Yes, well, the opening is really a study in mood and color, and I’ve always had a strong idea of how that “rrumph!” should sound. Since every color is important in that passage, it that’s something that can and should be heard, I thought it was worth it. I was so happy that I asked the bass clarinet to start crazy soft- I almost didn’t because I wasn’t sure she could do it that soft and I didn’t want to put her on the spot, but BOY OH BOY did she sound great and mega-spooky. Just barely audible. Also, I think the work on color paid off in the concert- people came up with some great new stuff- the bassoons put this great little nasty vibrato “zing” on the dashed quarter note the bar before 108, and harpist did a nice little hitchy-rubatoey thing with her triplets in the next bar, with a bit of extra twang-in-a-good-way thrown in. Too much detail work can paralyze, or worse yet, atrophy the orchestra- get them thinking that if they just do what you’ve asked them to, it’s enough. When has a conductor’s imagination ever been enough? What you really want to do is unleash their collective and individual creativity and sensitivity. In a professional orchestra, that is an awesome force.

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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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