Bobby and Hans- Two Days and Two Symphonies with Orchestra of the Swan, part I

I’ve been enjoying my first couple of relatively quiet days at Vftp International Headquarters in some time. So much has happened in the last several weeks that I’ve been torn between wanting to do a whole bunch of blogging to take stock of all that experience and wanting to do a whole lot of sleeping to recover from it.

So far it has been a stalemate- I haven’t really had the focus to write anything and have been too busy catching up with the kids to sleep much.

With no Messiah’s in this year’s calendar (rather a pity- I love Messiah and hope someone will book me for one next year), and not a Nutcracker in sight, I am finally winding down for the holidays. My last major project of this run was two days of recordings for Avie Records and a concert with Orchestra of the Swan in Stratford. We were recording the 3rd Symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann (and performing the Magic Flute Overture of Mozart on the concert).

After musicianship, time management is about as important a skill as any conductor can have, but especially so when recording. Unlike rock, when you can keep working until in the studio until you get  everything just right, with an orchestra, time is 100% finite. If you can’t get everything recorded in the time alloted, the disc doesn’t come out.

However, time is not the only thing that is finite in a recording session- energy, focus, and especially what we call “chops” are too. If a wind player gives too much too early in a session (brass players and double-reed players are particularly at risk), it may not matter that you have another hour of recording time left.  If a principal wind player conks, there may not be much you can get down on tape to a reasonable standard in a session.

For this disc we had five sessions for rehearsal/recording and a final concert. That’s fairly tight, but not impossible nor particularly unheard of. By comparison, the last Gal CD I recorded had 9 sessions, which is generous by industry standards but turned out to be very much needed. However, all the sessions for this disc were packed into only two days, which meant 3 three-hour rehearse/record sessions on Monday, 10AM-1PM, 2PM-5PM and 6PM-9PM, and two more on Tuesday, from 11AM-2PM and 3PM to 6PM. Finally, we had a concert a 7:30 PM.

It goes without saying that one would never see such a grueling schedule in America, but this is the legacy of the famously tireless London recording scene (even though we were many miles from London, in frigid Stratford-upon-Avon), where “triples” are hardly unheard of. It’s far from ideal, but in this day and age, if you want to record, and to be an important contributor to the international scene, I think one has to accept that we have to work in difficult conditions some times.

The Orchestra of the Swan musicians, who all have a wide range of studio experience, know very well how to pace themselves for such a long day. Still, 9 hours recording is about the limit of what anyone can physically do, and we were recording two very strenuous and intense pieces, Gál and Schumann 3rd Symphonies. Both Bobby and Hans make great demands on everyone’s technique and stamina.

One way in which good instrumentalists, especially wind and brass players, pace themselves is by trying to save and focus their energy for really good takes, and to lay back when one is just rehearsing. Because of this, there is an incentive for the conductor to rehearse before “recording,” although Simon Fox, our producer, always has the tape running (see here for why, and for why it is a good idea). There’s no point in a horn player using up their best take of a big solo if the strings can’t play the passage-work going on at the same time, or if the mic settings are wrong.

On the other hand, recording is the ultimate rehearsal- if you are after technical perfection in a concert, just start recording and stopping every time anything is out of tune or not together. However, if it isn’t likely or possible to get a use-able take, wind players will get very concerned about using up their reserves too quickly- you may make a lot of progress early on, but none late in the day. Recording straight away may be the fastest path to perfection, but it can also be the riskiest.

Knowing how technically demanding the Gál is, and how physically draining the Schumann is, I was keen not to wear the players out too soon given the relentless schedule, so we started with rehearsing. We needed the time- only one member of the orchestra had played any Gal before (the principal bassist played on the Triptych CD with Northern Sinfonia), and Gal has is own language we all had to learn. My way with Schumann is also pretty personal- why else would I want to record it, after all?  We pretty much spent the first two sessions “rehearsing,” which put us a little behind where I wanted to be in terms of accumulating material (although we did get some good stuff), but hopefully meant that actual recording would go more quickly because the wind will have saved their best. It was a calculated risk, and for the next two days, I would again and again be asking myself if we had rehearsed too long or not long enough.

Finally, on Monday evening we started in earnest on the Gál. Since the most recent movement we’d rehearsed in the afternoon was the Finale, we started there. All things considered, we made very good and fast progress. After the break, we moved on to the first movement. Again, things went remarkably smoothly- the most difficult passage to record was the re-transition to the recap, where Gál’s very Viennese language seems to be completely suspended for a time in a static bi-tonal haze. With very transparent textures, fiddly chord structures and a long theme for two solo instruments in unison (oboe and solo viola- quite a color), it’s a huge technical challenge (although it is reflective and low-key in nature). With that passage on disc, we could call it a night with a sense of real relief.

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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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