Delaware Master Players Concert

My busy and brief visit to the University of Delaware is nearly over. Showtime arrived last night after two days of rehearsals, and, in spite of foul fall weather, we drew a very nearly full house. Mitchell Hall is a marvelous venue for chamber music- nice acoustics, beautiful Georgian architectural features and a cozy feel for a hall that seats 650. We were also lucky to have an exceptional piano for the show.

First up was the Saint-Saens Duo for Violin and Harp, a piece I’d never heard before. It’s quite a showcase for the performers and shows Saint-Saens at his French-iest, which is how I like him.

Next up was the Mozart E-flat Piano Quartet. Xiang Gao had asked Kermit Poling and me to introduce some of the evening’s pieces- he drew the two Mozarts and I got the Beethoven. Kermit is one of these guys who just oozes natural musicality- he’s a wonderful fiddle player but also and accomplished conductor who is now mostly composing, and is playing piano on his orchestra’s chamber music series when he gets home. However, his intro showcased his other talent, public speaking, honed as the classical music host at Red River Radio in Shreveport. On a good day, I’ll put my concert-rap skills up against anyone after Lenny, but Kermit spoke with such ease and that effortlessly smooth radio voice that I was definitely feeling I needed to step up my game.

I’m not a big fan of down time in a concert, especially if I’m feeling good about things. When I conduct, I’m usually glad for an intermission so I can drink some water and catch my breath, but when I’m playing I’d much prefer just to play straight through and go home, but then the audience would miss out on their interval wine…. Tonight, my break was made longer because I didn’t play the next piece- the Mozart Duo for Viola and Violin. I’ve always had mixed feelings about this piece, mostly because I’m someone who likes to hear a bit more bass clef in my music, but they played it with tons of panache. Fortunately, I had a sound proof dressing room, so could play a few notes to keep fingers and mind limber before returning to the stage.

Finally, Xiang, Julie and I took the stage for the Beethoven “Ghost” Trio. I’ve written before about the frustration of playing trios with a pianist who is unable to tame the 9 foot beast, but that was not a problem this week, with Julie Nishimura’s deft and subtle touch (google alert for JN!). If anything, I had to work a bit to make as much sound as that damn 3 1/2 million dollar Strad Gao was using. Inspired and challenged by Kermit’s rap on the Mozart I spoke for a few minutes about the Beethove, taking care to make the audience laugh a few times. There’s certainly a wealth of things you can talk about in the piece. Beethoven in his middle period seemed to fascinated with changing our perceptions of musical time, writing some works that deliberately strive toward a meditative, almost trance-like suspension of time- an invocation of the eternal. The Violin Concerto is the most perfect example of these kinds of pieces. However, even as he was perfecting these huge movements in which our perception of time is stretched and ultimately lifted, he was also writing things like the first movement of the Fifth Symphony which are so compact that they feel much shorter than they are. The first movement of this trio is like that- relentless, focused, driven, but all in the spirit of effervescent celebration, rather than the rage of the C minor symphony.

I think it was a stroke of programming genius for Gao to program the Ghost and the Mozart E-flat on the same program as they are relatively rare examples of large-scale chamber works in three movements. In both cases, the slow movements are so powerful and the Finale’s so funny that a Scherzo would have been completely pointless. The Beethoven is striking because all three movements share the same tonic note (D), while the use of the subdominant key for the slow movement of the Mozart is much more typical. The slow movement of the Beethoven is in D minor, which is not only, as Nigel Tufnel so articulately postulated, the saddest of all keys, it was a very special key for Beethoven. Andras Schif calls D minor Beethoven’s key of “existential crisis,” as heard in the 9th Symphony, for instance, while others have pointed out that almost all of his works which refer to the writings of Shakespeare are in D minor.

This slow movement, which has nothing to do with ghosts, is closest in spirit to me to the slow movement of the op. 18 no. 1 String Quartet, which Beethoven said was a depiction of the graveyard scene from Romeo and Juliet. This movement has that same balance of pathos, dread and high tragedy. It’s one of those movements that is so emotionally intense that it is quite tricky to pull off- you can’t just wallow in all that pathos, neither can you just play the notes and hope for the best. As performers, we all need our own emotional space for a movement that is so personal, so you can’t force the issue and try to make it happen, the piece just has to have space to happen.

Finally, Beethoven makes a wonderful joke out of the fact that the whole trio, rather naughtily, is all built on the same tonic. Throughout the Finale, again and again he’ll suddenly leap off of D major to a rather distant key like F#, as if we know we should have spent an entire movement in another key long ago. Then, just as quickly, he’ll work right back to the tonic, as if to say “no- there’s no escaping home in this piece.” It’s a damn witty way to end one of my favorite chamber works.

All in all, a wonderful night of music with great colleagues- it’s nice when you can come off stage thinking how cool it is to be doing what you love for a living…

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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

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