Live blogging a concert- SMP at the Electric

I’m coming to you live from backstage at the Electric Theatre, where in a few moments time, the Surrey Mozart Players kick off their season with a celebration of Haydn and Schumann.

Our contribution to the Haydn Anniversary includes a performance of the D Major Cello Concerto with Alice Neary as our soloist, and the final symphony, no. 104. Generally speaking, even though I love 104, I think it should be saved for special occasions, such as an anniversary concert, as it gets done so much more than any of the others. I’ve studiously avoided it for some time now, even though it was (of course) the first Haydn Symphony I conducted, and one I’ve done many times.

I once had a funny experience with this most joyous and warmly funny of pieces. I was doing the 2nd in a run of concerts, and from the downbeat, it felt like the orchestra just wasn’t engaged as they had been the night before. I got more and more frustrated, then upset, then pissed off. By the end of the piece, in spite of the huge musical smile Haydn paints on the face of the world, I just about stormed back into my dressing room, where I hurled my baton at the wall in despair.

Just then, a friend in the orchestra whose opinion I trusted more than anyone else on stage knocked on the door. “Ken, sir- that was amazing. I’ve never heard the orchestra sound so good, or seen you so inspiring.”

Hmmm…. It turns out, everyone I talked to was in agreement- they all thought it was good and that I was not coming across as a miserable tyrant, but as simply engaged and inspired.

I’m reminded of this every time I watch the famous film of Carlos Kleiber conducting the Finale of Beethoven 7, which may be the greatest filmed performance of any conductor and orchestra in history. Kleiber, usually the most sunny of maestros, looks absolutely enraged by the end, nothing is loud enough, nothing is fast enough, nothing is balanced enough to please him. The effect is ELECTRIC. Sometimes, perhaps it’s more important to have a lot of fire in the belly than to be emotionally in the same place as the listener. Sad as it is, maybe the audience can be more satisfied if the conductor is less satisfied. (BTW- all Kleiber fans MUST listen to this documentary on Radio 3 this week)

Another work I have a long history with is the Schumann Overture, Scherzo and Finale, which we are playing as part of the final chapters in our exploration of Robert Schumann (all that remains of the cycle is the Spring Symphony in March and Manfred in June). Schumann originally toyed with calling this piece his Second Symphony, then Symphonette (an affectionate title he continued to use in conversation with Clara).  It’s a determinedly quirky piece- with a deeply beautiful slow introduction based on a quote from Beethoven’s late string quartets, followed by a Mendelssohn-ian Allegro, which teeters playfully on the edge of madness. In 1841, Schumann could still joke about madness! The witty mood of this movement camouflages the fact that again and again, Schumann is trying out wonderfully inventive and radical musical ideas that seem strangely unique in all musical history to this piece.

The Scherzo is again, funny and slightly odd, sometimes mischievous and sometimes heroic. The Trio, on the other hand, is only about 30 seconds long, but it is 30 seconds of the most miraculously beautiful music I know- so simple yet so moving. In the end, this movement winds down gently with tender reminiscences of the first movement joining the material of the Scherzo and Trio.

Finally, the Finale- another unbelievably audacious, original and sophisticated piece. There’s nothing before or since that sounds quite like it, or that so successfully mixes Beethovenian heroics with Mendelssohn-ian wit. The development is just crazy- weird, raucous, moody, sometimes thrilling, sometimes funny and sometimes rather scary. In the end, the recap takes us to a coda that is thrilling and majestic, but the piece is too sly to end with the predictable grand gesture, The huge chorale dissolves into a brief, tender reminiscence of the lyrical 2nd theme, then dances off again with a light hearted smile rather than a thunderous catharsis. It’s virtuoso music for the brain- can you follow Schumann’s shifts of mood, and understand his mercurial sense of fantasy?

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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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