Finally getting it

We had our first rehearsal last night of Mozart 40 with the SMP. Wow.

Is it his best symphony? His best piece? Is this the greatest symphony ever written? Is it the greatest piece of music ever written? Whatever it is, it makes you feel like it must be all those things the more time you spend with it.

I used to try to do as much new repertoire as possible- for years, I would try to program whole seasons with the OES or GRSO of music I had never conducted before. I thought it was important to learn as much music as possible.

Now, though, I’m struck by the awe inspiring fact that I learn a lot more from coming back to a piece like the Mozart for the 20th time than from learning a new piece for the first time. I just did this piece a few months ago, and spent many hours with the score marking parts even more recently, and yet I continue to find more things to marvel at each time I open the score than I did the time before.

Nothing against my successful young colleagues, but I really think that this is why Paavo Jarvi is right when he says there is no such thing as a “great” young conductor, no matter how talented they are. The learning curve with great music should be, can be and often is exponential. People sometimes look at older performers, be they Schnabel or Haitink and see that their repertoire gradually contracts. This is usually attributed to people focusing on what they love most, or are most comfortable with or with a reluctance to learn new things.

What I’m starting to understand now, just a bit, is that this process of pairing back and focusing on a select repertoire seems to come from a desire, a hunger to learn new things.

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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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9 comments on “Finally getting it”

  1. Elaine Fine

    Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Mozart, particularly the G minor Symphony, is the more we mature as musicians and as people, the more we can see and hear. With Mozart, particularly the last three symphonies, we are mere mortals in awe of something that, in every musical gesture, allows us to experience something that, when all goes right, is able to help us (those performing and those listening) feel free from the bonds of mortality.

    The difficult part is that the closer we think we get to understanding what Mozart was able to notate (he, himself understanding–and in awe of– the same kind of sublime musical possibilities that we, as performing musicians, face in his music), the larger and more awesome it becomes.

    When I was young I craved musical maturity, but it just couldn’t happen. It wasn’t possible. It is possible for young people to appear to have mature musical understanding, but it is not possible for young people to actually have it. It, like all things, comes with time and with perspective.

  2. Bill in Dallas

    I have thought that one attribute of a “great” work of art (incl. music) is that you can see / hear / approach it many times and hear/see/learn new things each time. Such art is essentially inexhaustible.

    Bill in Dallas

  3. Reid K

    “Takes me back to watching Bernstein’s Norton lectures in a back viewing room in a midwestern college library.”

  4. Cary Stewart

    This is quite true, and goes hand in hand with another idea: conductors tend to take fast works faster in their younger years, then gradually slow towards moderato on the same works/movements in their later years. The impatient young turk in the back of the ensemble might quip that the rust of old age has slowed the baton. However, deeper inspection might reveal that most high-caliber conductors learn to give up speed for golden expression in their golden years.
    And probably within a more focused repertoire!

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Cary

    Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed exploring your blog.

    There are some very famous and interesting examples of interpreters slowing tempi with age- Celibidache is probably the most extreme, but there’s also Sandor Vegh, and, of course ,Klemperer. Celi’s tempi were tied up with his study of phenomenology and perception, and I’m pretty sure that Klemperer’s really had a lot to do with this health. He saw and heard the world fundamentally differently after his stroke.

    On the other hand, Gunter Wand, who stayed active into his 90’s never lost a step- be it Brahms or Bruckner, he stayed lively. Likewise, Jochum and Karajan. HvK’s often maligned late recordings certainly can’t be faulted for being to slow- his Pastoral from the end his life sounds a bit like he’s on meth.

    Lenny did tend to no push fast music as insanely later in life and some of his slows got slower, but some of them were already pretty damn slow! But he did slow with such style.

    Then there’s Solti- he wrote in his Beethoven 5 score (you can see a facsimile on his foundation’s website) that he finally achieved Beethoven’s metronome marking of the 1st mvt in, I believe, 1992. He most definitely wasn’t slowing down. When asked in his 80’s why he was re-recording Figaro for the umpteen-millionth time, he said “because I think I’m starting to understand the piece now”

  6. Theresa

    When I was teaching Introduction to Western Music to annoyed undergraduates, there were a few pieces that were always “sure fire.” One was the first movement of Mozart’s 40. Its transparent structural clarity, and its undeniable momentum always got and kept the kids’ attention.

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