SMP- Live blogging a concert at the Electric

I’m attempting some minimal live-blogging from today’s SMP programme.  We’re on our break.

A few brief thoughts….

The acoustic here at the Electric Theatre could not be more different than that at the two rehearsal halls we’ve been rehearsing in. This, predictably, creates quite a few problems, but most annoyingly for the players is the fact that they have to make so many adjustments and play so differently from the way we’ve been rehearsing.

Of course, we’ve all worked here long enough to know what we need to do here, so the question arises as to whether we should spend our time in the rehearsal hall practicing what we will do in the concert. Unfortunately, to do so would mean we would come to the hall with a completely insane idea of what the music is supposed sound like.

Much as I wish we could rehearse in our hall, or at least in a space where we are doing and hearing more or less what we will in the hall, if we have to choose between getting used to what we have to do or what we need to hear, it’s an easy choice for me- we’ve got to build the sound concept of the piece. That may mean in our case the horns have to tip toe through all the rehearsals then belt it out in front of the soft curtain, but they’re smart enough.

The two 20th c. works on the program- Ives 3 and Shostakovich op 83a- have also posed an interesting question of rehearsal management. As readers of this blog will have noticed, there is an awful lot one can and perhaps should say about these two pieces. On the other hand, I think it is important to let the music speak for itself, and to give the musicians in particular room to find their own connection to the pieces. In conducting school we’re all taught essentially to stick to louder-softer-longer-shorter-faster-slower-sharper-flatter in rehearsal for this very reason.

However, for all the stories of boundless orchestral cynicism, I’m also often struck by even the most experienced, most potentially jaded players saying “I wish he’d tell us what this is supposed to be about,” or, hearing a conductor’s introduction to the audience at the concert, saying “why didn’t we know that at the first rehearsal.”

In many ways, Shostakovich’s music offers conductors the most opportunity to soulfully pontificate from the podium. I’ve certainly fallen into that pattern in the past, but as I get older, I’m struck by Shostakovich’s refusal to do that. I don’t think it was just a survival technique- I think he genuinely felt that if a musician couldn’t find the meaning of a piece from experiencing the music, describing the music wasn’t going to help, and was probably going to cheapen everything.

On the other hand, few composers demand such a complete commitment from the players, and sometimes we have to be reminded that this is music which deals with life and death issues. When I last played the 1st Cello Concerto, I finally broke protocol, and, with the conductor looking on, found myself really forcefully reminding the orchestra of what the piece meant and what it needed. I ended up completely in tears and with a very shakey bow arm for the next few minutes, but it was worth it at the concert.

Have I said enough in these rehearsals?

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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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