A view from “A view from the podium-” May ’10

It’s been a funny year here at Vftp- my own professional life has gone a bit mad, in a good way, but this has really squeezed the amount of time I can give to the blog. On top of this, I committed to a large project on the Mahler anniversary in collaboration with Mahler in Manchester, so those posts have somewhat taken priority for the last several months. The upshot of this, of course, is that this is starting to look more like a blog about Mahler than a blog about Ken.

And I wouldn’t be a conductor if I didn’t put my name before Mahler’s!

So, time to catch up a bit.

To look at my calendar of events, it appears that I’m coming out of a quiet period work wise, but that list only shows concerts, and one should always remember that all the work for a concert, by definition, takes place before the show itself. With that in mind, it’s been pretty busy here, as I get set to start a month of concert madness.

There are scores to be learned, parts to be bowed, marked and shipped, rehearsal schedules to organize and much more. Right now, I’m doing a lot of cello playing, too, so I have to maintain some decent instrumental conditioning and get a lot of notes into my fingers. Practicing is so dammed time consuming! Then, there are all sorts of meetings to organize concerts and recordings for next year- as I get started with Orchestra of the Swan there are seemingly infinite possibilities, but every idea needs time for discussion, decision and follow-up.

It’s already been a nutty week- last Friday I was in Stratford for planning sessions with OOTS all day, Saturday was a day of feverish practice and admin, then Sunday I was rehearsing all day with Lancashire Chamber Orchestra. The LCO were my first regular British gig, so I’m very loyal to them and I’m very proud of how they’ve progressed over the years. What I hate about the gig is that they rehearse in Manchester (3-5 hours from my house) on Sunday mornings, so this week it was out the door at 6 AM for a 10 AM rehearsal (and home to Cardiff again at 10 PM) with me playing and leading the Schumann Cello Concerto. After that, we worked our way through the Pastoral Symphony then read Telemann’s witty Don Quioxte Suite Burleske, which I’ve been anxious to do for 15 years. I’m going to experiment with conducting that from the cello.

I love baroque repertoire, but often avoid conducting it because a group that doesn’t have a clear sense of style won’t have time to learn a new way of playing. Also, more so than just about any other repertoire, trying to describe the bow strokes and colors you want is maddeningly slow going and hugely inefficient. With the cello in my hand, we covered a lot more ground. I think I’ll conduct that piece from the cello in concert (but let Rosie, our principal, play the short solos), seated facing the orchestra, then just flip the chair around for the concerto.

It only occurred to me on the way home from rehearsal that I’m performing the Schumann Cello Concerto and Beethoven 6 in Altrincham exactly a week before I do the Schumann Violin Concerto and Beethoven 7 in Oxford. I love that pairing of programs, I just wish I could take credit for it. Would one pair the Piano Concerto with Beethoven 5 or 8 in an ideal sequence? What about the Konzerstucke or the shorter concert pieces for piano? Anyway, I just think it’s funny that it looks like I had a master plan to do Schumann and Beethoven pairing, when it was just an accident and didn’t realize those concerts were in consecutive weeks until Sunday.

I find these little things popping up more often- some years ago I programmed my very first Nielsen work, the Flute Concerto, in Surrey. Shortly after that, I was asked to conduct the same piece with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales one week later (and they had no idea about Surrey). Cue spooky music! My concert in Oxford is two days before one in Cambridge- why do all the brainy people want me in the same weekend?

Of course, just as good projects attract more of the same, the cosmic winds can blow sour with just as much sense of mischief. I’ve been very lucky through my career with cancellations- there have been very few. However, I had one month organized next season that was looking like the month of a lifetime until one group cancelled. Within a few weeks, two others had also cancelled or postponed and my month to make Simon Rattle jealous suddenly looked dreary and mundane. Likewise, I’d never had a soloist late for a rehearsal or just totally unprepared at the professional level until a couple of years ago when I had two pianists in two weeks show up late for our one and only rehearsal, and horribly unprepared- this . I was not pleased, but I’m sure the gods of coincidence thought it was very funny indeed.

Anyway, the cosmic winds have blown good tidings this month- trio concerts, my OOTS debut as Principal Guest Conductor at the Spring Sounds Festival next week, the Schumanns (two of the most beautiful concerti ever written) and two Beethoven symphonies, my first Honegger Symphony (no. 4 in Oxford with the Beethoven and Schumann) and a concert with the greatest string orchestra on earth on June 14th– more about that one in a separate post.


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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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