A musical suicide mission

I seem to have acquired a reputation somewhere along the line as a conductor who often chooses very challenging programs.

(Some regular readers who I work with in various orchestras will already be laughing out loud wondering how I might begin to defend myself against this charge. I’m not going to. Not exactly)

I think I would be straining the bounds of credibility to contend that I don’t have a taste for challenges, but, in my defense, many of the most challenging programs I’ve done weren’t chosen by me. On paper, the CMEW program I did last spring would certainly qualify as close to impossible for the amount of rehearsal time we had (Paul Mefano had emailed about 10 days before the first rehearsal to ask how rehearsals were going, and I when I told him the first rehearsal was the one he was coming to in the studio the day before the concert, I think he almost passed out). That one was chosen by the BBC and CMEW’s AD, Gordon Downie. I once did Piston’s Sinfonietta, Ives 3, the Barber Adagio (which is crazy hard) and more on a concert- it was fun (and challenging) but nobody came to the concert. I was tempted to get the committee that picked the program to sign a statement that it wasn’t my idea, but I’m really glad I did it.

Then there’s the vexing question of what actually makes a concert difficult. Is it a question of a program being difficult for the individual players to execute, or is it that it is difficult to make it sound good? At many levels of the music business, I’m often surprised at the extent to which many players don’t seem to realize what they sound good on. Sad to say, but only the best musicians seem to realize that Haydn, Mozart and Schubert tend to be the hardest composers to play- not just the hardest to play in some artsy-fartsy, abstract way, but actually the hardest to play well enough that the audience is not writhing in agony throughout the performance. Beethoven’s music tends to be a little more forgiving in the hall because of the sheer energy and power of his music, but not on recording- every little blemish shows through. String players, on the other hand, tend to equate “high” with “hard” and “lots of sharps or flats” with “hard.” This would seem to mean that Mozart 41 is the easiest piece ever written. Find me a live recording of that piece without clams by any but the very best orchestras.

On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to make Richard Strauss sound bad, but Johann Strauss Jr. is much easier to mangle. When we did Brahms 1 and Death and Transfiguration on the same program last year, I think almost everyone in the band expected the Strauss to be the tougher piece, but it was the Brahms which did the ass-kicking. I did a Young Person’s Guide with a small regional orchestra a few years back and some of the players thought it was impossibly hard (I had a lot of complaints), but it sounded great in the concert and the audience loved it. The Leonore 3 also on the program sounded pretty weak by comparison, but these musicians’ impression of their performances was exactly the opposite of the audience’s.

The program I’m doing with the Wilmslow Symphony in a couple of weeks is certainly challenging by any measure, including mine-

Elgar- Cockaigne Overture

Gregson– Trombone Concerto

Arnold- Scottish Dances

Copland- Four Dance Episodes from “Rodeo”

Gershwin- An American in ParisThe Elgar is Strauss-ian in its ability to flatter the orchestra, provided you have a mighty enough virtuoso brass section, which the WSO does. Still, it is fiendishly hard to play for everyone, and very taxing for the brass- even brass monsters. Doing such a massive blow as a concert opener can either loosen up the whole group for the rest of the night, or wreck everyone’s chops and confidence.

The Gregson is a lovely piece, and very well written. Eddie (that’s Maestro Gregson to you, mate) came to our first working rehearsal on it on Friday and it was a tribute to his craftiness as an orchestrator that he went home pretty happy as far as I could tell. It’s tricky, but very playable. The only obvious extra challenge is that nobody in the band has heard it before, so we’re learning the style as well as the piece.

Then there’s the Arnold- it’s really a “pops” piece, and fortunately, it’s pretty straightforward musically, but there are a few nasty licks which will take a moment’s sorting out. Pieces like this can be dangerous, though, because you tend to under-rehearse them in favour of pieces like the Elgar, which are inescapably difficult. I like the piece, but I’m not sure the concert needed it- the  Gregson is short for a concerto at 18 minutes, but the Elgar is long for an overture. Still- they want to play it, and I’m excited to learn it.

First impressions are important in life. Buckaroo Holiday, the first movement, is orders of magnitude harder than the other 3 episodes from “Rodeo.” It’s also my favourite piece in the suite. Because it comes first, it tends to make the whole piece feel harder than it is, and you can’t afford to let up on the concentration after it’s over. By Copland’s formidable standards, it’s not that tricky, but it has an awful lot of gaping holes to fall into. You have to do it enough that everyone knows which version of the tune is coming next, or someone (usually someone loud) crashes in early. Hoe Down gets fingers flying, but it’s a standard youth orchestra piece.

I’ve enjoyed coming back to the Gershwin, having just done it at the OES fairly recently. I like bracketing the program with the two un-contestable masterpieces on offer, and somehow, I think Gershwin’s hyper-detailed orchestration seems very close to the rarified perfectionism of Elgar or even Mahler. It doesn’t sound like Mahler (at all), but the orchestral technique is pretty similar. All those lovely multi-layered dynamics and wonderful colors.…

The Gershwin sounded great at the first reading, but since then I’ve done a fair bit of work with the strings in particular, who tend to get forgotten in this piece. The first result of this is that they’re sounding much better, which gives the piece a level of depth and sophistication it often loses if you just leave it to the brass to carry the day, but the second result of thisis that I’ve convinced them that it is very hard. Now I’ve got to convince them that the difficulties are surmountable. It’s a pretty durable piece, fortunately.

I’m always surprised when I come back to the piece that the great trumpet solo in the slow section isn’t actually all that long. I think my misconception about this passage started with several performances of the Cincinnati Symphony’s legendary principal trumpet for many years, Phil Collins, who could make time stop with the sheer beauty of his sound. Phil has a great blog, by the way. Conductors can learn just as much from him as brass players, I’m sure.

I always think of this moment, with the rather salty accompaniment in the orchestra, as the grand entrance of a burleske queen in some Paris night club. In Phil’s hands, she was a sophisticated and glamorous European beauty. When James Smock played it at the OES, she was way kinkier, raunchier and racier (definitely the tougher side of Paris), in a way that was maybe a bit more startling, but kinda alluring. John’s playing her a little more upmarket than James’ down-and-dirty version, but he sounds great.

Anyway, the band’s been sounding good in rehearsals, and although I’m becoming aware of the dwindling hours of rehearsal left to us, I’ve been feeling reasonably confident about the concert- the orchestra has definitely grown in the year since my last visit.

However, I had a funny conversation after the last rehearsal with one of the string players, which got me thinking about this post. She said the programme was “so mad that I’ve had to resort to desperate measures- you know… the p-word………. practice.

She continued in a tone both humorous and ominous- “I think it’s a suicide mission, this program. These string parts are insane,” she warned. “A “Suicide Mission for Orchestra-” we should put that on the posters! I think we’re on a suicide mission this time!”

I mumbled something intended to be vaguely encouraging.

“Well, at least the wind section are happy,” she finished. “That’s the important thing!”

What was funny was that she didn’t seem upset or particularly worried- hopefully she knows it all sounds pretty good, regardless of what it feels like.

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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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5 comments on “A musical suicide mission”

  1. Michelle

    Ken, you know you have a reputation for difficult programs when upon receiving the music for the upcoming OES concert, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “Whew! It’s just Mahler 5!” 🙂

  2. Kenneth Woods

    And just to show you how totally unfair that reputation is- the powers that be wanted to add more pieces and I said no…. We could have done some crazy Dvorak tone poem on the 1st half! Or a concerto….

  3. Reid

    For me the most difficult programs have the following three characteristics:
    1. Endurance. It may not even be tricky, but at the end of a 4 hour opera, tuning a couple of quiet chords in the finale is a lot harder in concert than in rehearsal (especially for wind players). Or playing those massive fanfares. Which is why, I presume, many major orchestras split the principal assignments during a concert. Physical as well as mental, which leads me to . . .
    2. Unfamiliarity: If there are three unfamiliar pieces on the program, no matter how hard or easy they are technically, the extra concentration required to play unfamiliar music (or count unfamiliar rests or deal with unfamiliar rhythms or tonalities) makes a concert just a little more difficult. And if you are using just a little more of your brain focusing on those parts of the music, it takes a little bit away from phrasing, shaping, notes, etc. Yeah, we psych ourselves out sometimes, and if we make it through, we’re way more tired. I believe this is why people think modern music is more difficult (plus bad individual rhythm, but that’s another story).
    3. Technical difficulty: Everybody has to practice, but there’s always those licks in some pieces that are a little hairy. Especially when they’re exposed. ‘Nuff said, but there’s a reason it’s third.

    These are observations. I like to think of myself as mentally strong, at least enough to concentrate through a long, difficult rehearsal or concert, but it’s the mental stress that makes the concert seem difficult to me as a player.

    So: the most difficult programme I’ve played in recent memory, based on these criteria, was the Elgar concert with Jason. Cockaigne was long, unfamiliar (which tunez go where?), and technically tricky. The cello concerto was long, structurally and tonally unfamiliar to me, and technically tricky (and exposed). The Variations, while familiar, were a bit long, technically tricky, and very exposed, but also came after a long night and required extra concentration.

    Obviously, if I’d more performance experience and had played the tunes or listened to those more often it’d take a little bit of the edge off for that particular concert, but I think those are the main things we as players say when we say “Boy, this is a tough programme.”

  4. Reid

    PS: I’m going to add Mendelssohn to the Mozart/Haydn/Schubert list because it’s really difficult to play those symphonies in a way that sounds EASY. I mean, it’s supposed to sound easy, and it’s hard. Those light sections never sound as flippant as they should.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hey Reid!

    I quite agree with you about Mendelssohn, except that he had a much better sense of how instruments worked and what was idiomatic than someone like Schubert. I’d say early Schubert is the most unforgiving- as pristine, simple and transparent as Mozart, but much less idiomatic writing.

    As to your other comment, about the toughest programme- you’ll never know how happy it makes me that that wasn’t one I programmed or conducted!


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