Cheltenham Symphony Post Concert

Sunday May 24, 2009

Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra

Vaughan Williams- Symphony no.5

Tchaikovsky- Variations on a Rococo Theme

James Barralet, cello

Schumann- Symphony no. 2

This program isn’t an obvious one- I’m not sure many people would think to put Schumann and Vaughan Williams symphonies on the same concert. However, the more we lived with the program, the more I felt like the pairing was apt.

Both pieces are essentially about hope. Both were written in periods of extreme difficulty- the Vaughan Williams was written at the height of the war, the Schumann after the first severe attack of the illness that would eventually kill him. In spite of this, both pieces are full of optimism, often a tentative and fragile optimism, but the voice of hope is insistent and powerful.

Both pieces are also full of quotations and allusion to other works- the Vaughan Williams is full of quotes from his opera Pilgrim’s Progress and several of his earlier hymn tunes, the Schumann has quotations from Bach, Beethoven and Haydn, as well quotes from other Schumann.

And then there is the Tchaikovsky, which is in many ways a love letter to Mozart. James played the original version of the Rococo Variations, which has recently returned to the repertoire. We did have near disaster a couple of weeks ago- nobody had really realized what James meant by “original version” and the orchestra had ordered the parts to the “traditional” version we all grew up with which was assembled by Fitzenhagen, the work’s dedicatee. It cuts a few things and re-arranges the order of the variations, which means the two versions are essentially different pieces. As the original version works its way back into the repertoire conductors and librarians need to add this piece to the list of “make absolutely, positively damn sure which version we’re doing.” Other such pieces are the 1st Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, where the original and revised versions are incompatible, the Bruckner Symphonies and the Firebird, because not everyone does the 1919 Suite.

Poor James had a rough run up to the show- he was in a terrible car accident last night. He and the cello were unhurt, but the car was totaled. What a nightmare.

I spoke at some length to the audience about the two symphonies tonight, and afterward a few orchestra players mentioned that they would have liked it if I’d told them all that in the rehearsals. It’s a tough call- as I get older I feel more and more that I should let the music speak for itself, and let the musicians find their own way to the music, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes we need to facilitate the evolving relationships between players and the pieces they play. If there is something you can say that opens a door into a piece for a player, why not take moment to talk?

A few players were also mentioning they’d just discovered the blog, and I felt a bit guilty I hadn’t had time to write much of anything about this concert, so now I can at least say THANK YOU and bravo.

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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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