Schumann Cello Concerto, or Ken’s Folly?

Since Saturday’s performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto with Lancashire Chamber Orchestra, I’ve had a touching number of enquiries from friends and colleagues wanting to know how it went. Of course, since many were probably calling my decision to play this work without conductor “Woods’s folly” or “a musical suicide mission” perhaps their curiosity is more morbid than encouraging! In any case, the project was very much an experiment for me, and so it make sense to report back to Vftp readers. Most importantly, let me just state for the record that I came away from this whole project more in awe than ever of this complex, compelling and elusive masterpiece.

First, let me be clear- although this was a first for me, I’m not trying to assert that this is an original idea. In fact, a friend of mine just did the piece in Schumann’s transcription for violin and orchestra with her orchestra in Denmark last week- also without conductor. Joseph Swenson and Thomas Zehetmair are just two violinist conductors who have been performing and recording huge swaths of the concerto repertoire, up to and including Stravinsky, directing from the violin.

But on visual grounds alone, violinists have an unfair advantage- the violin can itself be used as visual tool. Just as a baton functions as an extension of the motion of the arm, a violin can serve as an extension of the bob of the head.

The Schumann Cello Concerto does have a reputation as a difficult accompaniment for conductors, mostly because of the need for flexibility and rubato in the solo part. I suppose the most urgent worry of this project was whether I would have to play the piece too straight in order to keep it together with the orchestra without the help of a beat-keeper. This turned out not to be true- having watched the footage of the concert, I can say I’m pretty happy with the balance between rhythmic poise and structure on the one hand and poetry and flexibility on the other, and in many areas, I think the orchestra was more responsive to subtle shifts of emphasis and timing than when I’ve done the piece before.

Lest readers think that I’m making myself as a conductor irrelevant, let me just make perfectly clear that not all is easy and better and perfect in the conductor-less universe. And, I was conducting- with my skull. It is a good lesson in learning how little conducting one can get away with, as less is often more.

On the one hand, the very areas in which one would think that a conductor would be most essential- navigating the ins and outs of coordinating the orchestra with a flexibly rendered solo part- turned out not to be a problem at all. On the other hand, there were areas where a conductor was probably more missed. Of course, having a confident conductor can create a layer of safety at key moments, just as a confident concertmaster can save a conductor in others. The risk factor without a conductor is certainly higher.

Also, it simply takes more time to put things together without a conductor- working this way depends on all the musicians having the piece in their ears, and on their being able to hear what they need to. That means that in rehearsals they need enough repetition to really learn the solo part- not countless hours, but more than usual. That said, I loved rehearsing the orchestra with the cello in my hand- it is so frustrating explaining a bowstroke or a kind of vibrato in words when you could show it, and for once, I could show it. It was very cathartic and liberating to get to do that.

Also, one has to allow for changes in hearing between the regular rehearsals and dress rehearsal. I sat facing the orchestra for the working rehearsal, then, in a different venue, sat facing the audience (as one does!) for the dress rehearsal and concert. That meant that in the dress the players had to get used to both the hall and to me facing away. It took time- not countless hours, but more than usual.

However, what I found the most different was the intensity of the experience. It was, to put it simply, much more tiring than just playing in every rehearsal, and completely exhausting on the day of the concert.  In a perfect world, my goal is always to get through a rehearsal, whatever happens, nailing my part all the way through. If only life were like that! However, when little things happen in a normal rehearsal, you can use the tuttis and those minutes when the conductor is working with the orchestra to relax, review what went wrong, think through a fingering or just take a few slow breaths. Doing both jobs means that for the duration of the rehearsal you are “on” for every second. It’s much harder to right yourself if something goes wrong, and much more tiring in general. I came away from this with a new respect for artists who do this all the time. I’d done Haydn without conductor a few times before, but Romantic repertoire is much more demanding in this way.

So, is this something I would do again? Absolutely! But only with the right orchestra. You need to trust your colleagues and to know they’ll learn the piece and be there for you. I also learned that one has to allow for fatigue and not overshoot when programming or planning the schedule for the week. I’m glad I didn’t program a crazy overture- we started with Telemann’s Don Quioxte Suite, which I led from the cello (on the same rostrum, but facing the orchestra). It felt much better than conducting the Coriolan Overture before doing Haydn D as I attempted last time I played a concerto without conductor.

What about other repertoire? CPE Bach and Vivaldi always await. Dvorak will always need a conductor- even if the orchestra could follow every twist and turn, I think the piece needs the tension between the personality of the soloist and the personality of the conductor. I suppose Saint-Saens 1 is possible, but is it worth the trouble? Brahms Double and Beethoven Triple can both work, but the Beethoven is best led by the pianist, who has almost nothing to do anyway! The one piece that I keep thinking about is Shostakovich 1. Pieter Wispelwey has recorded it without conductor using a great chamber orchestra with a very strong leader. I’d love to take a shot at it some day, but first, I can use a few days off!

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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.

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2 comments on “Schumann Cello Concerto, or Ken’s Folly?”

  1. Charles Noble

    We did the Brahms Double with Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth this past season, with Pinky leading from the violin, and it was very successful and enjoyable for the orchestra. I’d love to do more stuff like this in the future!

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Charles- Great to hear from you. I bet that was fun- I think in some ways it is even more beneficial every once in a while to do these things with symphony orchestras than with chamber orchestras. I remember doing Rococo Variations with with Harrell leading from the cello when I was in Columbus and it felt like such a change from what we usually did

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