Discovering the possible

Hi everyone

I’m sorry that I’ve been away from blogging of late- I’ve just been too insanely busy to cope. I’m having a very rewarding summer with some really fun projects, but I’m just barely keeping up with the essentials and managing to make it to my flights on time.

Of course, there have been many posts I have wanted to write. Two weeks ago, I was at the wonderful International Festival Institute at Round Top in Texas. I conducted a program that generated a lot of conversation among the faculty and students- two wonderful works of Haydn (the Sinfonia Concertante for oboe, bassoon, violin and cello and the 86th Symphony) in celebration of his anniversary year, and the Concerto for Shakuhachi and Orchestra by shakuhachi virtuoso James Schlefer. The question I was asked over and over was, why the mixture of the Haydn celebration and the shakuhachi premiere?

The true answer was that we’d originally planned to commission a  piece specifically in celebration of the Haydn anniversary by a composer with a deep connection to and love of Haydn. In the end, the festival was committed to James’ concerto and this was the only program it could go on, so, even though there is not particular connection to Haydn in the piece, we went ahead with it, and it is a fine piece and a wonderful showcase for James and the instrument.

Still, I had hoped to find some more compelling connection between the two composers, and in the end, I found one on stage in the concert. The 2nd movement of the concerto begins with a long cadenza, which we had always skipped in rehearsal because of time restraints. It was during this beautiful and impressive passage that I finally stumbled upon the lesson of putting this piece along side the two Haydn works.

The standard of playing at Round Top is very, very high- technically, the students can play anything. What we found challenging in our limited rehearsal time was changing the players’ sound vocabulary to something more appropriate and interesting for Haydn. Ideally, this should be  rather nuanced process of discovering new kinds of attacks, note lengths, colors, degrees of release and so on. What seems to be challenging for top-flight young players is to let go of the sort of rich, round, sustained, beautiful sound that we use in most Romantic repertoire. That compulsion to keep it “beautiful” ends up often making things only “pretty.” Players shy away from playing a note really short  because they’re trained to always give a bit of vibrato and after-ring to a short note- a practice that is essential in Brahms, but not always in Haydn. In most later rep, we equate a louder sound with a darker, richer one, but that’s not always what we want in Haydn- sometimes the sound should be bright and sharp-edged, not sweetened and rounded out.

When we stop trying to make Haydn’s sound world resemble that of later composers, or of clichéd and out-dated notions of his own (it is always distressing how polite many players make Haydn sound. Ick), we find that by using a broader range of sounds, the music becomes more alive and more beautiful.

This is what I was reminded in the Shakuhachi concerto- in that cadenza, James draws out an astounding range of colors, sometimes on a single note. The sound gets brighter or darker, even whistles or cracks, but it is all done with imagination and intent. To hear what can be done with the overtones of a single pitch is amazing.

The fact is, too often our instrumental training is focused on eliminating the wrong. There’s nothing bad about this impulse (think of it as a beginning of excellence, but not the end), as there is nothing to be gained from playing out of tune and there are an infinite variety of sounds, attacks, styles and inflections that are simply inappropriate and ineffective for any given passage of music. On the other hand, a great musician knows that there is always more to be done with color, with articulation, with shape. I suppose that is really difference between good and great- crossing over from merely avoiding the wrong to fully discovering and realizing the possible. I really hope some of the players were inspired to try to recreate some of what James does with color on their violins- I know I have and I know the fiddle soloist on the Haydn Concertante, Greg Fulkerson was. There’s always a new way to practice, a new sound to be found, but sometimes you have to dare to break out of your safe zone, and forget that teacher who told you that if you don’t vibrate on a short note it is ugly.

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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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