Live blogging a concert- SMP at the Electric

It was a fine evening of music with the SMP- Schumann and Haydn make for a very good pair anytime they appear on the same program together. Both criminally under-rated, both great inventors and innovators, both with supreme wit…

On top of this, they both seem masters of those moments that make you want to stop in the middle of the concert (or even just 10 seconds before the end of the concert!) and say “did you hear that!?!?!?!?! That is pure genius! Let me show you what Haydn just did! Let me show you what wonders Schumann has tucked away in the texture here.” There are so many moments of magic in these pieces that probably get missed on first, second and tenth hearing.

My mentor and friend Michael Steinberg would not have approved of this program- he cautioned me against overusing one key throughout the program (the Schumann is in E major, everything else tonight was in D major). I say that, but he did like my pairing of the Elgar fiddle concerto with Firebird, both of which are in B. In the end, I tried to make the best of the peculiar ending of Mozart’s Idomeneo Overture, which was intended to lead seamlessly into the drama of the opera, by segueing directly into the Haydn Symphony. Both are in D, but the D major ending of the Mozart possibly takes away from the carefully crafted tonal ambiguity of the Haydn, which starts without a third, then settles in D minor until the Allegro. Did the sunny Mozart take away from the tension in the Haydn introduction? I don’t know, but I did think the moment of tension between the two pieces was interesting and fresh (and full of page turns).

We’re getting close to the end of our Schumann project, which has been a deeply inspiring adventure. Most of all, it has made me want to do the whole thing over again- we worked in great detail on the opening of the Overture, a piece I’ve done before, but I still feel like we’ve only scratched the surface. Schumann says so much with so few notes in so little time, and everything is so rich with possibility and mystery.

It’s been interesting listening to the features on Gergiev and Kleiber in the same week. Both are essentially creative, almost improvisational performers, but Kleiber insisted on extensive rehearsals- more than any other conductor could get. For him, this was the only way to unleash true freedom. Gergiev almost refuses to rehearse- for him, the rehearsal could dull reactions. Gergiev’s methodology depends entirely on a fantastically disciplined orchestra, completely attuned to his inner chemistry. Kleiber, well, nobody else could ever get that time with an orchestra, but we dream- what could we do if we could really dig deeply into each work before unleashing our fantasy in concert?

In the end, most of us fall somewhere between being best on 20 rehearsals or none. What most of us have in common is this burning, elemental desire to find that situation where we have the  right balance of time, focus and freshness. Rehearsal time is not always productive- we had one moment in rehearsal that was perfect, which we paid for in the performance. It was the end of a movement where the orchestra plays 3 staccato chords, 2 eighth notes and one quarter note, all with dots. In the rehearsal we got a perfect and subtle differentiation between the note values without it sounding like we were making a point.

One good soul couldn’t resist asking “so, is the crotchet longer than the two quavers?” I could feel our little miracle evaporating in a swamp of good intentions, but the question begs an answer.

“Probably, but best to just play exactly what I show.” It’s the sort of answer that is ambivilant enough to piss off the whole orchestra, but what few realize is the ambivilance is on purpose- I need the orchestra to stay responsive and attentive, not to simply re-create something we’ve drilled in during rehearsal.

But, I answered….. With that, pencils swirled in mid-air to mark a little line over that last crotchet.

Sure enough, in the concert, the moment came- short, short, slightly-less-short. So far so good, but just as the sound disappeared, I could hear the lonely sound of a single violinist earnestly and diligently holding that crotchet “longer’ than the quaver. I’m sure nobody in the audience knew, but for us, a little bit of magic just died.

This sort of thing happens all the time- the genius of Kleiber (okay, part of the the genius) was that he seemed to be able to use the hours of rehearsal to put the musicians more in the moment, more attuned to an improvisational and organic freedom. In the Radio 3 piece today, there was an example of a CSO musician asking if the upshot of a long metaphorical description was that an entrance should be louder or softer. In this instance, Kleiber, probably in despair, answered “louder.” I bet in his soul the answer was “just right.” The answer is listen, the answer is trust, the answer is watch, the answer is to doubt and not doubt, but most of all, to just listen to what the music is telling you and to reconcile what you hear with what you see. The answer is to rehearse, but not rehearse, to prepare but wing it, to sort everything and leave all to chance and inspiration. The answer is probably not just “louder” or “longer”….

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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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