Just whose flag are you waving, Woods

I’m back home at last after a busy concert weekend with the Wilmslow Symphony. In spite of the foul weather, we had a nearly full house and the audience seemed to enjoy the lively, if intense, evening of music

The program was a mixture of British and American music- Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, Edward Gregson’s Trombone Concerto and Malcom Arnold’s Scottish Dances made an all Brit first half, and Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo and Gershwin’s American in Paris made an all-American 2nd half.

Even as I was unpacking my suitcase for the first time when I moved to the land of hope and glory, I had made up my mind to minimize my performances of the music of America here. In particular, I felt that doing too much music that oozes “Americana” would quickly put me in the trap of being only an “American” music conductor, and not just a conductor, in the UK.

In fact, I’ve only conducted one all-American program in all my time here, and that was hardly a pops concert- Ives 3, Piston Sinfonietta, Barber Adagio and Summer Music. I did Appalachian Spring with BBC NOW a while back, which was lovely, but the rest of that program ranged from Kodaly to Berio (believe it or not, it was a concert of listener requests!). I’m much more interested in bringing some new works by living composers I really like and believe in here, than in doing tons of Bernstein, Gershwin and Copland, even though I love their music. It actually bums me out that it seems like the only living American composers known in the UK are Adams and Glass- there are so many more who should be heard in British concert halls.

In fact, it did strike me on Saturday that I really do love both American in Paris and Rodeo, and I was damn glad to be doing them. So, have I been cheating myself  by doing all that Haydn and Shostakovich here?

Well, as it happens, much as I love American in Paris, I think I love Cockaigne even more. I could live without Gershwin (it would seriously bum me out, though), but I can’t imagine life without Elgar. We’re all conditioned to speak of musicians as champions of the music their homeland, but do I feel like American music in particular speaks to me in a uniquely close way? Not really- I was listening to Shostakovich for years before I first heard a piece by Copland. I love Gershwin, but I had to come to it in my own way. Modern jazz is my first love in the jazz world- the language of early jazz which one hears in the Gershwin is something I learned to appreciate much later. Gershwin’s use of jazz was probably  more of a barrier to me than a benefit when I was young and hyper-opinionated and too angry and intense to tolerate pre-bebop jazz.

I suppose I might be more drawn to music that spoke in the same language as vernacular music of my own time and home. After all, I think it would be a stretch to say I have more in common with a Buckaroo than the narrator of Mahler’s Wayfarer songs just because I grew up on the same continent. On the other hand, if there was more great classical music that tapped into the language of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top or Tom Lehrer, to name just a few, maybe I would feel a “special” connection to it.

In the meantime, I don’t think we should feel that there is a barrier in getting to the core of music from other nations. I always smile when I remember the last time I conducted Prokofiev 5- the Russian first stand of the first violins (a rare daughter/father combination) came back to my dressing room after the run of concerts and told me I had a Russian soul. An American may tend to have a musical equivalent of an accent when performing the music of France, Russia or Germany, but if you listen widely to authentic voices, you can drop that accent.

We’re still finalizing programs for my next couple concerts up in Wilmslow, but it looks like Mahler 1 is a go, as is the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto. How’s my German?

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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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