A week to remember or forget?

What a week it has been. It’s Friday afternoon here at Vftp Headquarters, the first moment of relative peace and quiet I’ve had in what seems like a long time. This little respite is squeezed between the Ensemble Epomeo concert last night and the HSO concert tomorrow.

Concerts always bring their fair share of drama and uncertainty, especially if you’re involved in the planning side of things enough to know how precariously your fortunes are balanced on the razor blade of life. That said, I don’t think I’ve had many more insane concert weeks than this one and the one to come next week. I think I’ll wait for my memoirs to narrate the events in any detail, but I can say that between travel problems and stomach bugs tearing through the group, I’ve rarely played a more edge-of-the-seat concert than the one last night. Miraculously, it went very well. There’s nothing more dangerous than being a little bit comfortable for a concert- better to be completely without a safety net, not daring to blink for a split second.

We had a nice crowd last night, no thanks to the local rag and cultural affairs radio show, which completely blanked us in spite of strong efforts to get some coverage of the concert (and the HSO concert tomorrow). These local papers are often rather lame when it comes to covering culture, which is incredibly stupid on their part. Most educated people in a place like Hereford only take the local paper to keep informed of what’s going on culturally- they don’t consider it a serious source of real news and would rather read one of the national papers for news of the prime minister’s latest proclamations. When the local rag can’t spare a few column inches to support the local orchestra or an effort to bring some first-class chamber music to a wonderful but painfully underutilized venue in the heart of the city, people start cutting their subscriptions and keeping up with things through the internet.

The Beethoven C minor Trio, op 9 no. 3, was the last of the 5 (three numbered trios and the two Serenades) that I hadn’t previously performed. I’m pretty sure now it is the best of the bunch, much as I’ve always loved the G major. The first movement is vintage C minor Beethoven- much more developed and taut than the first movement of , say, his op 18 no. 4 String Quartet, which is much more square and less contrapuntally compelling. The slow movement is really extraordinary- like the slow movement of the 2nd Piano Trio, op 1 no. 2, it really reaches the spiritual world of his late slow movements. The contrast of the serene, hymn-like opening with the radiant energy of the jaunty second theme already strongly hints at the power of the double variation slow movements like the Heiliger Dankesang of op 132 and the 9th Symphony. Amazing stuff. Schubert must have known and loved this trio- it’s full of his beloved third relationships, my favorite of which is this glorious shift from B-flat to G-flat major in the finale.

I’m a very pro-early Beethoven guy, and seem to have wasted many words on my friends in Portland trying to convince them that Beethoven didn’t get better, he just wrote more stuff. Just this year, to do the trio we did last night and op 18 no. 1, which has the most astounding slow movement, is more than enough to make me feel all the more strongly that the pathos and spirituality of the late music was not a response to his personal suffering, but a manifestation of his natural talent and temperament. Here’s an older post about Shostakovich, who I also think mostly wrote what he wrote because of who he was, not because Stalin was mean to him.  Other early Beethoven in the calendar includes Beethoven 1 again next week with the SMP- it went so well in the Menuhin Hall last week that it might have been a little tempting to want to leave it in peace, but there’s always so much more work to be done on his music. After that, there’s Beethoven 2 in a couple of weeks with the OES- the conclusion of our Beethoven Cycle project (one we BEGAN with the 9th!). After that, Ensemble Epomeo are playing op 9 no. 3 again in Ischia, and I’m doing Beethoven  4 in the summer with the excellent Helix Ensemble.

Alongside that repeat of Beethoven 1 in Guildford we replace the Strauss 1st Horn Concerto with the ferocious, frenetic and fantastic 5th Piano Concerto by Prokofiev. After many challenges and hurdles (almost as many as the EE concert last night, and again, I’ll save them for the book), we finally got our first shot at the piece on Wednesday night. It has a well-deserved reputation for being not only difficult to play, but a bit of a conductor killer, and I did hear a wonderful broadcasting orchestra not far from here struggle a bit with it a couple of years ago. The omens were not promising when I left for rehearsal Wednesday afternoon- two solid days of chamber music rehearsal with a stomach bug had left me completely wiped out and with little or no time to do a final flip-though of the score. Ah well, what was I said about comfort versus concentration? We had an hour with just the orchestra, then were joined by Daniel, our soloist. With a bit of slow work, we were able to get things sorted enough in that first hour that the second hour with Daniel could be productive, and with a bit of time in our last rehearsal, I predict it will be rather spectacular. Sometimes it’s good if everyone knows a piece is not to be trifled with- they all put in a bit more prep work, which makes all the difference.

Anyway- it’s on to rehearsal tonight and concert tomorrow with the HSO. Since the local paper isn’t going to do so, I’ll let you all know that the programme is:

Schumann- Overture “The Bride of Messina”

Mozart- Sinfonia Concertante

Byron Wallis- violin, David Yang- viola

Dvorak- Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”)

Great programme, and the Schumann is really an extraordinary piece, about as harmonically bold as anything he ever wrote.

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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

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

4 comments on “A week to remember or forget?”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Scary…sorry im a late beethoven freak out and love op 131 more than my fricken family dog…so i dont get off quite much about hearing the yadayada about all his early stuff coming from you – this just making the bread to pay the rent kinda composition…disposable really. In other words, its the other way around. He wrote the best works last and all the early works are there for the bemoaning cd collectors who cry “MORE oh Pleeze Beetle-hoffen…give us more”…the truth is it’s all in 131 and the fugue.

    Long live the quartet. Down with organized musical corporations.

  2. Erik K

    I’m actually with you, Ken. First of all, Eroica is possibly the best thing ever written on paper, be it music, literature, sketches, whatever. Secondly, the 3rd piano concerto is the best of his concerti (that’s right, I said it). Thirdly, the piano sonatas from his early period (like #12!!!!!!!) are money. Fourthly, the op. 18 quartets. Fifthly, the septet. Sixthly, the Kreutzer. Seventhly, the other two symphonies. I’ll stop.

    My only reservation with this is that Wellington’s Victory gives a strong advantage to the middle period…but the early period overcomes that by a whisker.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hey guys- let me be clear…… Nobody loves late Beethoven more than me, but this idea that somehow the early works are less than “Beethoven” is just bullshit. LvB knew who and what he was, and from opus 1 you already can tell that you’re dealing with one of the absolute greatest musical minds of all time…..


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