SMP Post Concert Wrap Up

I knew it was going to be a busy summer, but having driven straight from my last trio concert to Logan and from Heathrow to my first SMP rehearsal, I guess I was expecting the day after the SMP program to offer the promise of a bit of peace and quiet, but I awoke today to the prospect of conducting three big and diverse programs between this coming Friday and Tuesday. This is my way of warning readers not to expect much blogging for the next few weeks.

That said, I do want to share a few thoughts from yesterday’s concert while they’re still fresh in my mind. Happily, while we did not end up packing the joint, we did manage to draw a respectable and enthusiastic audience.

It was my first time conducting the Ginastera Harp concerto, a wild and wonderful piece. Being a rental, I only had my first look at the score on Tuesday, but it only took about ten seconds to predict that the balance between soloist and orchestra would be a problem (I’m sure it is almost always a problem with this piece). It’s richly colored with percussion, but the percussion dynamics are consistently over-written, but beyond that, Ginastera made the fatal mistake of writing orchestral dynamics in parallel with the solo part- in other words, often when the lone harp plays forte, so to do all the strings and winds. It’s not a fair fight.

These are generic issues in this piece that every set of performers would face. Unique to this situation was the advantage of a young soloist, Victoria Davies, with a powerful and robust sound, and the disadvantage of a concert venue with a beautiful but extremely resonant acoustic that I knew would favor the percussion.  The day before the concert, Victoria faced a major disappointment when her harp fell over and cracked, rendering it un-useable. Fortunately, she still had her old instrument, and by the time of her arrival at rehearsal had completely adjusted and showed up cool as a cucumber. The replacement instrument had a somewhat smaller sound than the damaged one, but no harp can compete with a snare drum if both play forte.

In our brief tutti rehearsal we had to get everyone comfortable with their own parts and the continuity of a complex piece, while also adjusting everyone’s dynamics to allow for a good balance. That is a huge challenge for the musicians, because they have so much information to take in just playing their own parts, getting used to the reverberant space and the accompanying time delays, watching me, getting the solo part in their ears and sorting out tuning and articulation on the fly. To have to change virtually every dynamic on the page while still keeping a sense of variety and drama is no small task. In spite of the best of intentions, throughout the rehearsal our dynamics kept creeping back up to those printed again and again. The conductor’s job in such a situation is also a complex one, and it is important to balance a sensitivity to the challenges facing the musicians with a larger focus on the artistic goals. Sometimes, when time is short, one has to be a bit, well, short as well, because we have to make sure nobody is content to settle for having our soloist participate only as a silent movie star- interesting to watch, but offering nothing for the ears. Creeping up is understandable but not acceptable.

Ginastera knew of the balance problems and toyed with a revision for many years, but never got round to it. It’s a pity, because the issues could be easily resolved without any loss of color or energy. If the piece were in the public domain, I would be tempted to by a set of parts and fix the dynamics for future performances, but since it is rental, each orchestra will have to sort it out when it shows up in their library when it appears a couple of weeks before the concert.

Happily I can report that the orchestra more than rose to the occasion, both in terms of the precision with which they followed, and with their attention to balance. Victoria played very well, and didn’t fall into any of the traps typical of young soloists.

The experience of Beethoven’s Leonore 2 will stay with me as well- what a fascinating window into his genius. In many ways, the creation of Leonore 3 was driven by the spirit of compromise with the audiences of the day and with the need for the piece to serve rather than overpower the work to follow. In doing so, I think he had to let go of some beautiful and powerful ideas, and there are moments unique to Leonore 2 which are overwhelmingly powerful and dramatic.The lesson is that Beethoven could undertake a re-composition for reasons as shallow as taste and function, give up some ideas he must have loved, and still come up with a greater work. It is a lesson all artists should learn from- when we get the chance to return to something, whether to re-learn a piece or re-work a piece, we can always make it better, even if we are forced to do so for unpleasant reasons.

Schumann’s final version of the D minor symphony is also proof positive of a genius’ power to make the good better. As I’ve worked through the two versions of the symphony in preparation for this concert, I’ve been struck again and again by the fact that the most dramatic changes (and improvements) are to the transitions between sections and movements. Schumann conception of this piece is truly revolutionary- he seemed intent on taking the Beethovenian concept of a symphony unified by certain profoundly interwoven ideas, gestures and themes (perfected in Beethoven’s 5th) to a higher level. To do, he could not simply be content to create thematic cross-relations using cyclical form, he had to make profound changes to symphonic form, in particular to sonata form. In 1841 he nearly succeeded, finding ways of creating forward drama over four movements by essentially abandoning the role of the recapitulation in re-establishing order and stability. However, the transitions were more too awkward and kept the symphony from really hanging together as a unit.

When I spoke to the audience I suggested to them that this focus on unity and transition underlines how amazingly integrated the symphony is. At its heart is the ositinato- an introduction where almost all the melodic material unfolds as straight 8th notes is followed by a sonata allegro where almost all the melody material is in straight 16th notes. There is a quality of obsession that seems to run through the work.

Anyway, I was really happy with how the orchestra played, and can’t wait to do the piece again- I feel like I’ve learned so much about the work this time around, more than last time. I have also really begun to feel like our focus on Schumann is now beginning to pay dividends for the orchestra, not only in terms of how they play this music, but in terms of how we play all our repertoire.

Afterwards, I got quite a few comments from audience members who said that they had no idea Schumann’s music could be so exciting. Nothing could make me happier, but I’ve already made a few pages of notes for next time around after listening to the very good recording (I’d post it here, but there was an annoying electronic noise that makes it unusuable except for study purposes). Once you knowm and have proven that a piece can be thrilling, the interest becomes in finding out just how far you can go with that knowledge.

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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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2 comments on “SMP Post Concert Wrap Up”

  1. Victoria Davies

    Hi Kenneth, came across this while trying to track past performances for my website– I remember this concert and the huge sound of the orchestra (esp. percussion) in the church acoustic! Would be curious to know what the ‘typical traps of young soloists’ are (can’t make the link work) so that I can avoid them, even if I seemingly unwittingly managed to on this occasion! Thanks, Victoria.

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