Three (four) writers to read

Conductor and Kansas City Examiner music writer Erik Klackner takes the Haydn ball and runs with it.

The most ruthless among us will stab a person in the back.  The most cold and calculated among us will stab a person in the front.  But it takes the most creative among us to stab a person in the front without them even knowing it.

This is Joseph Haydn.

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, and we still don’t know what to make of him.  This is a man who is chiefly responsible for two musical forms you may have heard of: the symphony and the string quartet.  This is a man who assembled one of the great musical ensembles of history and performed radical musical experiments on them with an inventive spirit that makes Alexander Graham Bell seem like a guy who strung a couple cans together.  This is a man who has an output as diverse and expansive as any composer in history.

And yet, this is a man who is on the outside looking in on the composer stratosphere.  If only his last name started with ‘B.’ …   

Erik is an alumnus of the 2007 RCICW. Everyone collects something. I collect brilliant musicians like Erik who have come to the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop. Only five years in, it’s already quite a list. Once such musician is violinist and director of Third Angle New Music Ensmeble, the Pacific Northwest’s leading contemporary music group, Ron Blessinger. Ron has written a witty and interesting post about his experience as a neophyte conductor on the Third Angle blog here.  

Why would I be willing to humiliate myself by giving karma a pair of nunchucks to bash my brains in after 20 years of disdain for the conductor class? I suppose that a combination of a bit of free time plus plain curiosity about whether I could do it or not led me to decide that it would be a good use of time and money. And indeed it was….

In chamber music, we are required to know the score thoroughly, to know when to lead, when to follow (or when to do both!), and to do this while playing your instrument, which is exactly the kind of multi-tasking that conductors are asked to do. In theory, waving a baton should be easier, shouldn’t it?

No, it isn’t.

My assigned piece was the Schoenberg arrangement of Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy. It’s a piece that Third Angle performed several years ago, and one that I’ve performed with the Oregon Symphony many times over the years. It’s meter isn’t complicated….3’s and 4’s, sometimes subdivided. No problem. Then I had to stand in front of my fellow players and actually start the piece. Big problem.

My mind went completely blank. My nerves kicked in, and all I could focus on was making sure my beat pattern wasn’t completely wacky… if the players, also extremely familiar with the piece, would suddenly not be able to play if my second beat wasn’t in the right place!

At some point, I remember thinking I should not stress that much about mere beat patterns, and just try to be musical. That’s when one of the teachers told me I looked like I was pointing at stars in a very unrecognizable galaxy….

I’ve also discovered another member of the 2009 RCICW class has a fine blog, Jordan Smith. You can visit “Bis Morgen” here.

Many days and many miles have been traversed since my last post.  I have no great insights to provide the world beyond the simple child-like pleasure I have derived from my travels.  Time spent in Portland was priceless. Maestros Hoose, Zimmerman, and Woods were incredible mentors to me. Southern Oregon has a beauty that I would never have suspected and an artistic sophistication beyond my wildest dreams given its relatively rural setting. Crater Lake is unlike any other place on earth. Simply stunning beauty. Pictures to follow.

Now I find myself in a veritable paradise where August brings 69º highs, virtually unheard of in Texas. The weather alone would warrant this pilgrimage to the Pacific, but it is actually the least of all good reasons, the best of which could be none other than Marin Alsop herself.

UPDATED- Only minutes after posting this, I was sent a link to another RCICW related blog post from 2 time RCICW alumn Christopher Bowen, so make that 4 writers to read.

I  just recently returned from my second Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop and am still riding the wave of musical inspiration. I love these workshops (and RCICW in particular) because every day you get to work with amazing teachers, music, and fellow conducting students. The sheer density of information thrown at you is overwhelming, and I feel like it takes my brain at least two weeks after the end of the workshop to fully process it in through subroutines clicking over in the background. During this, though, I always feel so amazingly happy to be doing music with my life.

It’s incredibly hard to describe why this feeling arises, so I’ll describe its sources in the hopes that they’ll shed some light on the outcome: delving deeply into just a few works and uncovering things you never knew were there and realizing that even with all that you’ve just barely scratched the surface. Getting up in front of an orchestra, doing your thing, having a teacher suggest something to change, changing it, and hearing the difference in the orchestra or feeling a change in the energy between you and the orchestra. Seeing colleagues do this same thing. Finding people with whom you can completely geek out about the music and have them reciprocate, sometimes for hours.



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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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1 comment on “Three (four) writers to read”

  1. A.C. Douglas

    When reading Ron Blessinger’s account of his first-time mounting the podium, it was all I could do to keep from smiling and cringing at the same time.

    I had been an “air conductor” ever since I was a kiddie instrumentalist, and so the act of translating the score into expressive physical movements an orchestra could understand was almost second nature to me by the time I entered conservatory, but I had as yet never actually mounted the podium in front of a live group. My first time came after I’d written a string orchestra arrangement of one of Bach’s violin partitas (the second), and assembled some 24 string players, all of them known to me in the most friendly way, to perform the work so that I could hear how it actually sounded.

    I mounted the podium, raised my right arm with baton in hand to give the first downbeat, and immediately froze. I simply couldn’t think of what to do next. But do something I must, and so down went the baton, and we were off. Problem was I was beating time and indicating expressive gestures in such a way that only a mind reader could have understood what I was trying to convey. I was confusing quarters with eighths, bars with phrases, etc., etc., etc. In short, it was a bloody nightmare for the first ten minutes or so, and I had to call a halt to the proceedings to get my head back on my shoulders, after which time I mounted the podium again, and things went swimmingly from that point forward.

    I shudder to think what would have happened had the performers not all been friends of mine and sympathetic to my predicament.


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