Performer’s Perspective- Let’s Dance

Mahler in Manchester

Tomorrow I am conducting a Viennafest concert with the Surrey Mozart Players. It’s been several years since I did a proper Viennafest show- the last time was in 2005. I programmed that event partly as a warm up for our first Mahler symphony (the 2nd) which we did at the end of that season with my former orchestra, the Oregon East Symphony.

It was interesting that almost nobody in the orchestra or the audience twigged to my hidden purpose- of course, these concerts can and should always be wonderful musical occasions in their own right, but I also think that understanding the language of Viennese music- not just the Strauss family, but Suppé, Niccolai and Kalman, is essential for understanding the performing language of Mahler.

For all that Mahler was incredibly precise in his notation, we know from the surviving piano rolls of his playing that his approach to rhythm was far from literal. In the piano roll of the 1st Mvt. of his 5th symphony he seems to play the dotted rhythms differently every time. I mentioned the other day how he asks for some rhythms, like the waltz rhythm in the 3rd mvt the same work, to be stylized, but I’m sure there are many other places in his music where a really stylistically sensitive performance would go far beyond a mathematical rendering of the rhythms on the page.

The surviving traditions of Viennese light classical music, as embodied in the Vienna Philharmonic, are essential for musicians to study and absorb- not so that we can turn Mahler symphonies into schmaltz fests, but so that we are speaking his language in his dialect, with his accent, and not ours.

This all sounds so simple and obvious as I write it that I almost wonder why I am bothering, but then I remember that I was 27 or 28 before I first played in a good performance of a Strauss waltz- The Emperor, which I’m conducting tomorrow. It was quite a revelation- it is such glorious, moving, enriching and rejuvenating music, musically and emotionally sophisticated and full of the mixing of happy and sad that is so common in the best Viennese music, and in Mahler. By that point, I’d already played a ton of Mahler and conducted a few things, and had played the Richard Strauss tone poems, Brahms symphonies, five of  Bruckner symphonies and any number of other works that would have benefited by understanding better the musical culture that they were all steeped in there in Vienna. How many players do Rosenkavalier without knowing much of the art of playing the other Strausses well? Even Brahms got into the waltz act with the Liebeslieder Waltzes. They’re wonderful, but not as good as the best Strauss waltzes (Brahms all but admitted as much when he said his only complaint about the Blue Danube is that it didn’t have his name on the title page)…. We’re doing several of his Hungarian Dances, which are superb, wonderful pieces- miraculous miniature tone poems. My only regret is that I’m doing too many of the famous ones and not enough of the lesser known gems.

Of course, it is wrong to treat this music simply as a primer for Mahler- it is magnificent on its own merits, and so hard to pull off. If nothing else, struggling to play Strauss Jr well makes us realize how much easier it is to play music where we read rhythms literally. No so in Strauss- it’s not just a question of playing something not on the page, but of playing something that would be impossible to put on the page.

Again and again, one says “play the quaver a little later and faster, more like a semi quaver,” and it gets repeated in the orchestra as “play a semiquaver,” which doesn’t work at all. One says “compress the first two beats of the bar” and one gets the 2nd beat on the and of 1. If could be notated that way, it would have been- in those rare years when one can hear the VPO play Strauss under a real master, it is awe inspiring to really listen and try to understand how things are happening when they do. I’m not sure any other group under any conductor could speak that language with that kind of fluency.

Of course, the wrong conductor can make even the VPO dance in lead boots. I watch the New Year’s concert on TV every year in much the same spirit I watch my favourite sports teams in the playoffs- most years, you want to hope for something good to happen, but deep down you know you are bound to be disappointed. Other years, you know better than to hope and can only try to enjoy your outraged ranting. Some years, you think you might have a chance, which makes the inevitable loss all the more painful. Then some years, the team clicks magically- Carlos Kleiber’s concerts in 89 and 92 were like that. They were the 72 Dolphins and the 85 Bears of Viennese music.

Happily, in 2008 and 2010, there have been more cheers than groans at my house on New Year’s morning, and not just because having kids has limited my champagne intake the night before. It’s truly thrilling to see Georges Pretre leading the orchestra to historic form at the age of 85. If you heard my interview with Gianandrea Noseda last week, you’ll know that he got his Mahlerian start as Pretre’s assistant- see it all connects. I’d love to hear Pretre do Mahler- I’ll have to go hunting. Meanwhile, I’m hoping he’d do the 2012 show.

There’s lots more I could say about programming and conducting a good Viennafest- try to work closely with your orchestra librarian as some of the pieces are still only available in dodgy editions where a lot of corrections are needed and some pieces you have choices of editions that can make a big difference to everyone’s sanity. It is worth the extra money to get good materials! Don’t do waltzes back to back- it kills the 2nd violins and violas. Don’t get too fancy- always end with Danube and Radetzky. Have a theme (I’m doing Hungary and Gypsies this year). Don’t make the audience sit though anything that isn’t fun. Take it seriously as great music. Don’t make the home audience sit the embarrassingly hokey dance numbers and horse marching film sequences.

Our programme is

Strauss Jr- Overture to “Die Zigeunerbaron”

Strauss Jr- Eljen a Magyar, Polka Schnell

Sarasate- Zigeunerweisen

Victoria Sayles, violin

Brahms- Hungarian Dances (selected)

Strauss- Slovianka Quadrille


Niccolai- Overture to “Merry Wives of Windsor”

Strauss- Artist’s Life Waltz

Strauss- Tritsch-Tratsch Polka

Beethoven- Romance in G for Violin and Orchestra

Victoria Sayles, violin

Strauss- Thunder and Lightening Polka

Strauss- Emperor Waltz

Suppé- Poet and Peasant Overture

Strauss- Blue Danube Waltz

Strauss Sr.- Radetzky March

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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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2 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Let’s Dance”

  1. Erik K

    Great post, but if Kleiber’s performances were the best, the 1994 49ers would have to be the comparison. Steve Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Ricky Watters, Neon Deion…come on now.

    Kleiber’s is magic, though. Haven’t seen or heard Pretre’s, but I’m familiar with some of his other stuff and enjoyed it.

  2. Greg A.

    I wish at some point a conductor would have taught us some of this style when I was in school. Instead, I get to sit in lots of groups that play Strauss waltzes, and some random violist/2nd violinist will ask the conductor if we’re going to play the off-beats with a real Viennese style, which the conductor didn’t ask for initially, which results in wasted rehearsal time debate, often with the group trying it but only the one or two players who might have actually gotten proper exposure to the style doing it right and nobody explaining to the rest of us how to do it “right”. So painful.

    Your comment on notation also reminds me about jazz–how to explain to someone that swing eighths are almost but not quite like triplet eighths.

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