Bowings- tasting your own cooking before serving it up

After a spring and early summer in which I felt every bit as much a cellist as a conductor (which was a nice feeling), my cello has been sitting in the case for an alarming number of weeks while we finished the summer run, took a vacation and I dealt with the beginning of the season for several orchestras and prepared for the Gal CD.

I’ve been telling myself that I’d get the instrument out as soon as I was done with Gal, and in the end, I was only a week late. I don’t have a ton of playing to worry about before Christmas, but in the New Year there are Epomeo concerts, festivals and a couple of concertos. Concertos I don’t want to leave until the last minute.

One of those is Dvorak, which I’m scheduled to play 10 days after Zan is due with our next wee one. Sam was 14 days late, so this is possibly going to be a crazy project. All the more reason, then, to get an early start. I love the Dvorak- I used to love it more than just about any piece of music when I discovered it, but IU and the experience of being surrounded by an army of cellists all learning it at once almost made me go off it. Fortunately, Dvorak and I made up many years ago. A big step back to true love was getting to conduct it- I got to experience the piece from a different perspective, which totally refreshed me. The last time I played it with orchestra was just the first movement at Aspen with the conductors’ orchestra. Zinman was uncharacteristically positive, which was nice.

Anyway, I’m coming back to it now having promised myself to never look at the cello part again- I’m going to practice and prepare only from the critical edition orchestral score, and I’m going to try to forget all the traditional bowings and re-writes of the solo part, and play what he wrote as best I can. This is a far cry from my very first attempt with the piece. Having heard it and fallen in love with it, I bought the only copy of the music I could find in those pre-internet days. I worked very hard and with great enthusiasm, and played it in cello class at Summer Music Clinic for my future teacher, Parry Karp.

Parry, rather uncharacteristically, chewed me a new one for using this dodgy “Great Performers” edition, which he meticulously pointed out is full of changed notes, wrong notes, re-written passages and probably quotes from Hungarian top 40 radio hits of the 1960’s. I had no idea that editors actually might intentionally  mess up what a composer had written.  He was more diplomatic in pointing out I had no business trying to play the piece at that age. The happy ending of that story is that he played it with me conducting about 20 years later, a concert I remember very fondly. In any case, the healthy humiliation of that moment stays with me. When I gripe about the perils of showing up with Dover Haydn scores, it’s not because I harbour hostility towards those that do (unless they’ve heard the chat before), but because I remember so well the value of learning to think critically about the value and trustworthiness of what you put on your music stand. Is it a true and honest representation of the work the composer wrote? Karp did me a great favour that morning in cello class so long ago.

As I was hacking through the first movement of Dvorak, I got a crazy urge. I ran and grabbed the score of Beethoven 7, which I was conducting in that weekend. We’re using my bowings for this concert, which were in large part worked out and marked in the summer of 2002 (although they’ve been tweaked since then). At the time, I played through all the string parts myself, and made Suzanne try out a few potentially controversial things.

Bowings are like unopened mail. I may know that my phone bill is paid automatically by direct debit every month, and that I have a one-charge-covers-all rate of $40 a month for all my calls, but sooner or later, I’m bound to want to look at those bills just to make sure they haven’t upped the rate, or a payment hasn’t failed to go through. I may “know” I’m cool, but do I really, really know I’m cool? After 6 or 7 years, when someone in the band fumbles or complains about a bowing, I start to wonder—did I really try that out? Does it work? What was I thinking? Sooner or later, you’ve got to open that envelope, even if you are pretty sure you know what’s inside and are pretty confident you’ve got nothing to fear from the contents.  On the day you do a bowing, you know it works- a few years later, you’re pretty damn sure it works, and a few years after that, you hope it works. Better to open the envelope and check your balance- does it still work for the piece as you hear it today?

It was pretty therapeutic. LCO are not ones to gripe (much!) about bowings, since they’re quite used to (and tolerant of) me by now. Still, I am hypersensitive to signs that I may have come up with a bowing which is unidiomatic, clumsy, unmusical or just plain wrong. Bowings are always a work in progress, which is all the more reason to re-visit stuff. I feel much saner for that period of experimentation today.

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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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