LvB 7

It was not a perfect performance of Beethoven 7, but it left me smiling broadly for reasons it has taken me some time to articulate.

I was pleased in spite of the odd audience reaction- several seconds of stunned silence, before a pleasantly long clap. This has happened before when I’ve thought things went well. Audience members have later told me this was a good thing- that they were simply overwhelmed, but I worry they’re being polite. Perhaps we’d just knocked them half-unconscious with the madness of the Finale?

I do so many more concerts now than I used to that I’ve noticed that sometimes I come away simply feeling like we’ve done our job as best we could, but other times really on a high. No longer do I get the high at every concert, even if it has gone well. The repertoire has a lot to do with that, but even so, I’ve done repeat performances of a piece with 2 bands of similar styles at similar levels to a similar standard and been thrilled with one and slightly cool about the other.

Yesterday it hit me. I was remembering the last Beethoven I did at the LCO- the 5th, about 18 months back. It went well, and marked a huge step forward from our previous LvB (the 3rd, about a year before that). Still, that was one of those nights that, in spite of a good show, I was left with one nagging doubt. At the very peak of the piece, I just felt that I couldn’t get enough sound out of the orchestra. At the time, I consoled myself by looking at our string counts, the size of the room and all that. I knew it had been plenty strong for those in the room. The question wasn’t whether the orchestra was loud in the loud parts- it was one of scale, of proportion. Was the climax of the piece the right amount more than every other forte and fortissimo in the work? At the time, I tried to let go of my worry- the orchestra had played brilliantly, they’re a chamber orchestra, they’re not going to be able to let rip like a 60, 80 or 100 piece band.

Then yesterday, I realized that at all the parallel places in the 7th, the power and explosiveness of the orchestra had been fantastic.

There is a real science to creating a true, climactic fortissimo in an orchestra. Ideally, you only get to do this once in a concert. You can’t just get a bunch of players in a room and tell them to go nuts- quite the opposite. If anyone is playing out of balance, you’ve ruined the effect. I think we got those climaxes not because we were striving to play big, but because of careful work on note lengths (quote of the week “the crotchet full length”), tuning, bow speed, contrasts (especially soft dynamics), rhythmic precision, balance, phrasing and color. A climax can only happen in the right character, with the right balance of voices, and at the exact right moment in time. Otherwise, it’s just a noise.

In the end, it’s not about reaching the summit of Everest, but re-creating the whole landscape in which it exists. The distant plains have to lead to just the right rolling foothills, the valleys have to climb slowly to the junior peaks, then over high passes into the great cirques. There’s not one peak, but many- each part of the ancient ridge pushed up from beneath the earth in an epochal collision of continents, each holding up the next. Everest is no lone, pointy tower, but a great mass with a series of peaks, itself distinct from each of it’s rivals and neighbors Beneath it’s feet is buried the end of another continent. It is not simply that no other peak should be as high, but re-reate the great peak, everything around it must be in exactly the right proportion, exactly the right distance away.

It’s Beethoven who has figured this all out, thank goodness. My job is not decide the height of the mountain and jump at it, but to realize his map (I like the idea of score as topographical map), then climb it step by step. I certainly didn’t go into this concert sequence with the idea to get the orchestra to play louder than ever, but, nonetheless, when it was time to unleash something awe-inspiringly powerful on Saturday, I think we could. In the end, it all came down to holding those quarter notes full value.


Now that the journey is over, I can’t tell you how into LvB 7 I am right now. I want to do it on every concert. When I get my parts back, I’m anxious to edit some markings while things are still fresh in my memory, which is not going to be easy, with lots of other work coming up, and lots of admin already waiting. More and more, I’m learning that when I budget time for a project, I need to budget time to reflect and to take notes on what I’ve learned for the next time. Rushing to the next gig wastes the learing opportunities of the current one.

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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.

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4 comments on “LvB 7”

  1. A.C. Douglas

    “In the end, [a climax is] not about reaching the summit of Everest, but re-creating the whole landscape in which it exists.”

    That’s about the most perfect description of how one achieves a proper musical climax I’ve ever read.



  2. Kenneth Woods

    Thanks ACD!

    By the way, one thing I didn’t quite make clear, except possibly, by my first sentence, is that this whole cosmic-arrival-fortissimo thing is not about perfection, though we strive for accuracy and focus at all times. An accurate performance will often leave a listener cold- that’s because in the quest for accuracy, some part of tha landscape hasn’t been looked after. The best peformances are both accurate and compelling, when the landscape and the execution are both there, but there’s always room for improvement in both areas. I’m not claiming we just did the definitve LvB7- far from it. More, I was just trying to figure out why I liked the performance more than many others I do.

  3. John Wilson

    “…but a great mass with a series of peaks, itself distinct from each of it’s rivals and neighbors Beneath it’s feet is buried the end of another continent.”

    I agree with ACD. Great picture of the whole structure of the piece defining the summit. Even tied to other works! I think I will try this description with the youth orchestra members. Also the bit about not only just making your part rythmically correct and the correct pitch at the right level…..sounds like a park! Someone needs to fill in with the fallen tree, old stump, the last landslide….all the details that complete the entire scene.

    And the third stand 2nd fiddle thought their note was never going to be really heard! They all count toward painting the scene!

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Cheers, John. Looking forward to seeing everyone next week- it may be bittersweet, but it will be fun!

    BTW- I like to consider myself an expert in the last landslide.


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