This week at Vftp Headquarters- two brand new works for Ken

I’ve written before about how important building a repertoire is to keeping up with a busy performance schedule, and the wisdom of that advice has been brought, once again, into clear focus by my efforts this week to learn to brand new scores from scratch- Vaughan Williams Symphony no. 5 and the Prokofiev 5th Piano Concerto. It is taking a lot of hard work and many, many hours….

Embarrassingly, this will be my first Vaughan Williams symphony. I must admit, I’ve gone back and forth on his music over the years. I’ve enjoyed doing all the pieces I’ve conducted so far, and often enjoyed performances of many of his works (and who doesn’t love the Tallis Fantasia), but sometimes, my inner German tells me all this English pastoral, modal watercoloring is a bunch of self-indulgent, long-winded, maudlin crap. Whatever happened to “stiff upper lip” and British stoicism? Doing the Lark Ascending in November was a great educational experience, but learning the 5th has been a revelation. I have to say- his music brings out the worst in some conductors. I’ve probably slept through several Vaughan Williams symphonies (I’ve considered desperate measures to escape deathly dull performances of the London and Sea symphonies) in concert. As a result, I almost turned this project down, but then, by lucky coincidence, I heard a wonderful performance by James Judd with BBC NOW last year that had sweep, drive and direction. That got me completely psyched to find out what makes a performance of this piece more than pretty. When you strip his music of all the accrued cheap sentimentality and play it with rigor, it’s a whole different world. What an incredibly crafty, beautifully conceived and executed piece, and what an extraordinarily sad slow movement…

Prokofiev’s last piano concerto must be about as far from the lyricism and modality of RVW5 as you can get in the 20th c. It’s spiky, neurotic, sarcastic and intense music. This will be my 2nd Prok piano concerto- I did the 2nd with the same soloist, Daniel de Borah, a couple of years ago. His playing of the 2nd was so staggering that I was happy to push a little bit to get us a chance to do the 5th. I think it’s an interesting coincidence that it was specific performances that got me involved with both these projects- I doubt I’d have said yes to RVW5 without James’ performance of it, and it was Daniel’s rock star job on the 2nd Prokofiev that got me interested in doing another Prokofiev with him sooner rather than later.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again- the Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto is, bar none, the greatest work for piano and orchestra written in the 20th c. It towers over all those by Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Barber, Ravel, Gershwin- you name ‘em. I find it bizarre that it has always been in the shadow of the 3rd in terms of popularity. I love the 3rd- it’s definitely one of my 5 favorite Prokofiev piano concerti, but the 5th is my new love- it is seriously dangerous music.

While working on the 5th, I’ve been trying to get to know his piano style a bit better, and it has really hit me that, like Mozart, his piano concertos show a different side of his musical nature than any of this other orchestral works. His personality as a pianist leaps off the page- if you don’t know all 5 of these concerti, you don’t know Prokofiev. In the 5th, you get the most uncanny sense of what it must be like to be inside the brain of a genius- ideas seem to move and develop at light speed. He’s constantly leaping past you, demanding that you keep up with his logic, his wit.. It’s thrilling but disconcerting, even disorienting (in a good way). The violin and cello concerti just don’t have that quality- they’re virtuosic in a slightly more conventional way.

The RVW5 is just about there, but the Prokofiev still needs more hours (I did some preliminary work on it last summer, but that feels like a different lifetime, and it is very tricy to conduct). I’ve also got a lot of cello practice to do with a trio concert on Thursday. I’ve been nagging friends and colleagues for many years to do the last Tchaikovsky quartet (no. 3 in E flat minor), which I think is one of the great unknown masterpieces of the chamber music literature, so we’ve recruited Suzanne to sit in with us on Thursday night. After so many years of advocating for a performance, I’ve now got to get in shape- conducting Mahler 5 and Beethoven 1 is  not the ideal way to prepare for chamber concerts! Note to self- bow goes in the RIGHT hand.

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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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4 comments on “This week at Vftp Headquarters- two brand new works for Ken”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Wow. You are sooo right about the 5th Mr Ken. I’m shocked to hear you come around finally. I love this work. Have the score right here. The Passacaglia is brilliant…absolutely brilliant. The Scherzo rocks. Romanza – well, I’ve played the hell out of it too much by now.

    Also next on the list is #3, and maybe #2…then #4 isn’t so bad too. I give up. They are all pretty damn good if you open the mind a bit.
    Sentimental? Firstly why so serious? and partitioned? Secondly, I’ve never heard an overly sappy performance. seems to work for me.

    Prokov – #2 – Damn, you amazes me again. This is my all time favorite concerto. Fun to play too! He does some extraordinary creative figurines in the hands…

  2. Paul H. Muller

    Well I like the Prokofiev 3d Piano Concerto a little more than the 2nd, it is a little brighter and more optimistic. In any case I think Prokofiev is, for all his acknowledged stature, under-rated. Who else combined lyricism and expressionism so well?

  3. Erik K

    I’m going to listen to the Vaughn Williams 5 tonight…that slow movement is indeed one of the most beautiful pieces ever put to paper. I’ve known several people that absolutely railed against that symphony, and I’ve never understood why. I think it’s terrific, even if I like the 8th a little more, to say nothing of ‘Antarctica.’ Dude, now that I really think about it…Vaughn Williams is rad.

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