Elgar and Mahler- post rehearsal decision examining

Well…. What an interesting afternoon.

Those of you who have read the last installment here on Vftp will know that my master plan for world conquest today involved stretching out our time on two Mahler songs that use few or no strings to maximize time for sectionals. I was then planning to focus solely on the other 3 Mahler songs on Thursday. Take a little risk with Mahler, get more sectional time for Elgar….

The good news is that the sectionals, even though not very long, were hugely helpful, and I think that once the individual players take a little time to apply what we’ve worked on today  in their private practice that they will get even more out of that little bit of sectional time.

However, Um Mitternacht can’t wait until Saturday. I had long pegged it as the most difficult item on the program. In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised with how it went, but it needs more time and more continuity- it’s in music like this that the difference between an outstanding student orchestra and a professional orchestra is most apparent. In the more athletic and virtuosic bits of the Elgar, a young orchestra with chops and fire in the belly can even surpass a more mature ensemble, but in something like the Mahler, which is sparse, soloistic and severe, experience is a huge plus. I think we’ll get there, but these talented young players need to hear  Paul sing it a few more times and need to further develop their understanding of how their parts fit together.

So, does that make me half right or half wrong, or just wrong?

At least we still got more sectional time in than if I had planned just a few minutes Tuesday and a few on Thursday, and the Mahler needed the extra time. Let’s hope Elgar doesn’t  miss the time.

The Elgar is huge and hugely demanding, but it’s taking shape as we work on it. There’s a lot of detail, but much of that was helped by the sectional this afternoon. The huge technical challenges of the 1st, 2nd and 4th mvts are just the sort of red meat that young players love to devour, so the real work is on style, balance and particularly rhythm.

I could write a book about Elgar’s rhythmic language (I could, if I was more disciplined and structured), which is worrying because I don’t think I’ve ever heard it discussed. No, he’s not one for Stravniskian games of mixed pulse, but his rhythmic language is quite unique, complex and subtle. When all the twos and threes are really underlined with a secure inner subdivision, the music takes on this amazing tensile strength, but when that discipline is missing and dotted rhythms droop into conformity with the surrounding triplets, the music turns into tepid mush. We’re getting there, but there’s still ground to cover.

The third movement is a whole different set of problems- color, mood, atmosphere and getting right to the emotional core of what the piece is about- something that’s essential, and can’t really be done through words.

Happily, I haven’t felt the need for a lot of extra-musical quasi-inspirational talking so far- it feels, from a listener’s perspective, that the musicians are starting to “get” old Eddie’s style and vibe.

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

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