Post-concert: You’re really going to suffer

I was reminded during the concert tonight of one of the luckier days in my life as a neophyte conductor.

I was at the Round Top festival as a cellist, but had put together a group to play the 13 instrument version of Appalachian Spring. It was the second piece I’d ever conducted in concert.

One week Stefan Sanderling was the main conductor and I asked him to come to one of my Copland rehearsals. Afterwards, he went through the video with me and lots of helpful insights- actually one of the more specific and useful conducting critiques I ever got.

Anyway, the morning of the dress rehearsal, Stefan pulled aside me and the other young conductor there, Edwin Outwater. With a smile on his face, he asked if either or both of us would like to conduct a movement of Bruckner Four that morning. Edwin, predictably, was first to leap in- “I’ll do the first!”

”Fine” answered Stefan, “Ken- what do you want to do?”

”Well, I’ll do the last movement.”

Stefan looked at me and gently reminded me that the Finale is orders of magnitude harder to conduct than all the rest of the piece. I looked him in the eye and said I was up for it.

After this brief chat we launched ourselves into the first part of the rehearsal, which was the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto. At the break, Stefan pulled me aside and went through the entire last movement of the Bruckner in 5 minutes, just reminding me what was in 2, in 3 and in 4. Then he said something funny

”When you get to the coda, you’re really going to suffer.”

Anyway, Edwin ran the first movement, Stefan the 2nd and 3rd then I did the last. Considering I’d conducted full orchestras for about 2 hours in my life, doing an entire movement of Bruckner was with a killin’ band, to say the least, a LOT of fun.

Afterwards, Stefan was pleased. “Did you suffer in the coda?” he asked.

”Not really- it’s so wonderful.”

“Well, it was good, but if it had been slow enough, you would have really been in pain by the end. The tension of that coda should make you hurt to your core.”

Anyway, we had worked very hard to find the right groove, the right degree of weight, resistance and friction in the last movement of the Shostakovich all week, and, as I wrote earlier, I never felt like we quite got there. The orchestra kept getting to the front of the beat. Tonight I wasn’t going to let that happen, and somehow, I think we held it in place with the kind of slow-burn intensity it needs.

And I did suffer. In the years since that Bruckner, I’ve learned that sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do with your hands, you just have to sort of stand there and pay the price. About twenty bars into the march, I remembered Stefan’s smiled when he told me about the power of suffering, and would have smiled had the music not been ripping a small hole in my soul. It was sufferin’ time….

But in a good way. Sometimes, there’s no other way.

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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.

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4 comments on “Post-concert: You’re really going to suffer”

  1. Troy Birdsong

    Great story. I remember it well. You guys did a nice job conducting. The concert was awesome too. I had performed the Bruckner earlier that year with the West Virginia Symphony and a not so good conductor. It was painful, and not in a good way. After doing it with Stefan, I wanted to do it again. It was great to be a part of that concert and to be an ever so small part in the development of two conductors like you and Edwin.
    Troy Birdsong

  2. Joanna Messer

    I played Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony under Stefan’s direction while I was a first-year in Civic. To this day, it is a performance that shakes me to my core to recall its intensity and depth. I listen to the recording when I really need that touchstone, that contact with the reason I do this thing. Thank you for reminding me of this moment in my own musical life.

  3. Zoltan

    Ken, I’ve read a couple of your last posts here in one reading session, and they seemed a bit more personal, more giving away what you feel while thinking and making music. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve read them at once? In any case, reading them is a great enjoyment, the knowledge, insight thoughts but also questions that you share are making me think about music, but life as well. I see that I’m not alone with this opinion.

    Keep on writing, it’s always great to read more!

    (who thinks he could listen to Bruckner’s coda’s a whole day)

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Cheers, Zoltan. What a kind note– much appreciated. It’s funny- writing is a very anti-conscious process for me. If I try to decide what to write, I always talk my self out of it (you’d be amazed how many posts are begun and never finished and how many more are contemplated and never begun). Anyway, I hope the writing here is evolving- certainly it’s a very difficult question of what one shares and what one keeps private in a blog, especially as I know that future possible employers come here first!

    You’ve got me thinking of editing together a selection of the last 5 minutes of Bruckner 4-9 as a sort of chain of cosmic revelatory experiences. …..


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