Ken- We’re nearing the end of our very, very lengthy discussion with conductor Kenneth Woods about his performance last week of Elgar’s epic First Symphony with the Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra. Ken, you seemed very happy with the orchestra.
Ken- I was delighted- there is a lot of accountability there in terms of preparation and motivation, they have excellent string principals and some wonderful solo wind players, as well as a refreshing lack of passengers in the sections.
Ken- So you were satisfied with the concert?
Ken- Hmm… how to say this- one can be more than satisfied with the concert but not satisfied with the performance. I guess that means, this was a great experience, but if the next one was the same, I’d be disappointed. I thought the orchestra did amazingly well in assimilating the mountains of detail in this score- we spent the whole first rehearsal just decoding his articulations because people aren’t used to reading music so literally. Undoing all those habits takes tremendous concentration. Also, the technical standard was high. And they really make music- they watch, they respond and they initiate things. However, this was my first visit with them- I’m not sure that in a perfect world that this is a guest conducting piece. It would be lovely to do it as a music director, where you have a real rapport, where you’ve done other Elgar before, and where there is a shared Tonkultur.
Ken- Tonkultur- that sounds a bit pompous/old-fashioned. You mean a culture of sound?
Ken- I remember seeing an interview with Karajan from the last years of his life. He said something to the effect that the most difficult part of the job for him at that time was the absence of so many old friends and colleagues from the orchestra. He said he felt like he died a little every time someone left. Just this summer, my friend Philip said that when he was at Covent Garden, Solti would come back every year and the first thing he would do is look for the “old faces.” He’d squint his eyes and peer across the room “where are they- where are the old faces?”
Neither of these guys are what you’d call sentimental types. However, they were smart enough to know that, much as the fresh-from-the-factory hotshots may play cleaner, faster scales, it’s the old faces that carry with them the Tonkultur of the orchestra- its unique vocabulary of sounds, textures, articulations- the orchestra’s relationship relation to the hall they play in, their way of understanding every last little wiggle and twitch of their music director. It’s thrilling to do a piece like Elgar 1 with a great band as a guest, but the ideal is to do it with a band you’ve spent years building a rapport with.
Ken- You didn’t have huge string sections for this concert.
Ken- No. That’s kind of the curse of the non-A orchestra these days, but we didn’t have many passengers either. Earlier in the week, I heard the Alabama Symphony rehearsing an all-Bernstein concert with almost the exact same string count, except one more viola and one fewer bass player, and they sounded plenty big. The week before I saw the RPO, very much an A orchestra, do Dvorak 9 with quite small string sections, but in the Cadogan Hall, you don’t need 18 firsts- it would be deafening for one thing. If you’re going to have a smallish section, better to allow no weak players, especially in the violins, because they have nowhere to hide, and also to have a big bass section, so the sound has more fullness and resonance.
Ken- Don’t you worry more about the balance with the brass when you have fewer strings? Ken- Let’s face it, one trumpet player playing too loud can easily obliterate 20 violins. Most of the balances in Elgar are fine because he was a great conductor and knew how things would work. The only problems result from the difference in size, weight and power between modern brass instruments and the one’s he knew. Every once in a while, you need to ask the trumpets or trombones to back off a tiny bit, but that’s the same with any string section, no matter how big.
Ken- I guess I don’t have to ask you if you used vibrato?
Ken- Well, there were certainly places where I asked for less, and even none, and where I worked on more variety, and I would have gone farther in that direction if we had time. However, vibrato is really something you don’t want to get into unless you have time to, because color is so hard to talk about. Better to hire a concertmaster whose playing you love and who is expert at using the widest variety of vibrato and non-vib sounds and let them stamp their personality on the section over many years.
Ken- Well, we’d better wrap it up. Has anyone ever told you you were long-winded?
Ken- In my defense, this is way shorter than your interview with Gordon Downie, and I managed to avoid saying “The juridical tincture of such a definition is not incidental.”
Ken- Technically, you almost managed to avoid it.
Ken- Didn’t Jeremy Denk just do a self interview, with the added twist that one of his personae was Sarah Palin? Isn’t that a bit wittier than a simple self-interview? Isn’t it also a bit lame to do your own self interview so soon after that?
Ken- I don’t know- irony is so 90’s. First, we’d scheduled this session before either of us read Mr. Denk’s piece. And, so what if he is wittier- okay, he’s a clever guy, but maybe he’s TOO clever. A self-interview is ponsy enough, but a self-interview with an infinitely annoying but highly ironic pop-culture figure might be going to far.
Ken- Sounds like defensive anti-intellectualism of the worst, er, Sarah Palin variety. “Maestro Woods- President Sarkozy on the phone for you…” Can’t you admit when you’re beaten?
Ken- Enough! I ask the questions here. This interview is over!