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

Recording Bobby and Hans with Orchestra of the Swan- the final concert….

With 1 hour and 34 minutes before the concert the musicians adjourned for dinner and rest, while I prepared for the pre-concert lecture. We had to set up a way of playing audio excerpts from my iPod through the Civic Hall PA system.

The pre-Concert lecture started at 6:45 and was scheduled to last about 25 minutes. David Curtis, the orchestra’s artistic director and principal conductor was there to introduce me. That says a lot about the organization- how often do you see the Music Director of an orchestra coming to the performances of the Principal Guest Conductor? There was a lot of ground I wanted to cover- there are so many things to say about Schumann and Gál that one could go on for days and days. In the end, I opted to focus on Gál, and to take a personal path, talking about my relationship with Entartete Musik, my experience studying Ullmann with Henry Meyer, and how that started a voyage that led to Gál many years later. Hopefully for some of the listener’s there, the concert would be the beginning of their relationship with Gál’s music- discovering great music is always a personal process.  From there, I talked about Gál’s voice as a composer and played some excerpts from the Triptych CD that I thought showed some of his unique qualities as a composer. We had some interesting questions, from the audience, and I was glad to be asked about the pairing of Bobby and Hans, which gave me a chance to talk a little about Schumann.

Once I shook hands with some of the attendees  and said thank you’s to the audience, I had about 10 minutes until  the show to get into my concert black and get backstage. I had just been told about the sell-out  audience, which was great news, but I didn’t know what to expect from the concert. Had we left the last and best of our chops and mojo on the studio floor this afternoon?

First up was Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture, which we had only rehearsed briefly on Monday, and that now seemed like a distant memory. It begins with a full-blooded E-flat major chord, the key of the Schumann we had spent so much of our energy on for the last 2 days. Right away, I knew the band was on- I’m not sure how they did it, but the whole orchestra were not only maintaining their level after 15 hours of recording, they were raising it. The Mozart, which we’d barely looked at, was hot.

Next up was Gál. My colleague,  David Curtis, had suggested we introduce the symphony by having the orchestra play some excerpts from the piece. I thought this was a great idea since it would be new to everyone there. I talked a little about the history of the piece, and then introduced what I called the “dramatis personae” of the work, with the orchestra playing some of the main themes. As I wound up my talk and got ready to start the performance, the import of the moment really struck me. I suppose with such an immersion in the recording process, I’d almost forgotten that this was the historic moment- the first performance of a Gál symphony in Britain in 35 years, and the first performance of this piece in 55. Gál’s daughter, Eva, was there. Afterwards, I asked her how she had managed to not go mad with frustration and indignation waiting so long to get this music heard. Her response was marvelously stoic, and deeply telling- “well the 60’s were particularly difficult, and that’s when I learned to be more patient.”

So, we started, and, again, the orchestra found an extra gear. I’d never doubted the band would give their all the concert, but I had wondered what “their all” could possibly be after what we’d done the two previous days. Besides- being on top of your game isn’t as simple as playing your guts out, it is balancing head and heart, fire and repose, and knowing when to take the big chance and when not to. The performance of the Gál simply reinforced what I said at the beginning of this serie – that recording is the best rehearsal. The tender first section of the 1st movement had more flexibility and more poetry, and the violent music of the Allegro had more intensity, power and explosiveness. We found new colors at transitions and turned several corners with a new sense of discovery. At the end, there was one counting mistake, undetectable to anyone without a knowledge of the score, and even that pleased me in a perverse way. When everything is “covered” from the recording sessions, a concert should be about taking risks. Any mistake is proof positive that nobody was playing it safe.

After intermission, it was just Bobby to do justice to. Again we played excerpts of all the themes, but I started with a plea. “Try to forget everything you’ve ever read about this piece, or about the great Bobby Schumann. Forget the liner notes and the talking points. Let’s just imagine that this is a piece like the Gál- a newly rediscovered work by a mostly unknown composer of the past. After all, most of what you’ve read about this piece is untrue. Schumann never called it the Rhenish- that was the work of his biographer and his publishers. Instead, he explicitly asked that all programmatic and poetic descriptions be avoided in the first edition of the score. Do you know the famous story of how the 4th movement was inspired by Schumann’s observation of the crowing of a new cardinal at Cologne Cathedral? Well, after 150 years, someone finally checked his diary against the historical record, and he was home sick in Dusseldorf the day the cardinal was crowned. The story is a fairy tale that has n

othing to do with the piece. So, for tonight, let’s just pretend this piece is just what it says in the score- a Symphony in E flat major”

Then, we spent about 8 minutes finding about 8 miracles in the construction of the piece.

And then we played it. Again, there could have easily been a let-up after the Gál, but there wasn’t. For the first time, the 1st Mvt had the electricity it needed- other than patching around a cough or two, I think purchasers of the CD will be hearing mostly that concert as we played it. I do think we all benefited from having just spent those few moments looking at how the piece is put together- for instance, the piece is built around perfect fourths. That’s not the sort of detail one belabors in rehearsal, but having just demonstrated it to the audience, the players were playing all those fourths with a sense of purpose and discovery.  At the risk of sounding too smug, I’ll refrain from further description of how much I enjoyed the performance, but really, we do enough suffering as artists, so it’s good to enjoy those moments that can be enjoyed. Whatever you think of my tempi and stick waving, it was high-energy playing of the highest standard.  Amazingly, after two such exhausting days, the horns were pretty much flawless- afterwards, many subscribers and board members said it was the best the section had sounded. Chops of steel, indeed. At the end of the performance, I was completely drained, dripping with sweat. If we’d played the Schumann at that level of intensity in the morning recording session, we would have never survived the concert.

So, two great, exciting, exhausting, intense and rewarding days. Funnily enough, readers may, or may not, be surprised to learn that I almost didn’t write this summary of events. Why? Because in our field, to be positive can be perceived to be not-very-good or not-very serious. All too often, we associate excellence with grouchiness, or being up our own bottoms with having high standards. If I say the Orchestra of the Swan were incredibly “cooperative, patient, motivated and committed,” and even, god forbid, “nice,” or “easy to work with” it could be interpreted by some readers as a musical equivalent of the damning old dating cliché  “she has a great personality.”

Much as the cliché is that “great personality” means “not pretty,” so all-too-often people assume “easy to work with” means “not quite first rate.”

But it’s not just players who are suspect when on best behavior. Likewise, conductors are often afraid to say anything nice about an orchestra for two reasons- first, you don’t ever want to “miss” the mistake or seem too easily pleased, and second, you don’t want to be raving about the abilities of a player at the same time they’re stabbing you in the back. There are trust issues on all sides in the music world. And frankly, too many agents and orchestra managers mistake megalomania and irritability for musicianship and mojo in conductors.

Well, forgive me, but to heck with  those people. That attitude has half-killed the music world for too many years.

In this case, a group of world class musicians undertook a challenging project on a tight budget and got the job done with style and panache and turned in a great concert on top of it, while maintaining a warm atmosphere. And nobody was making excuses for themselves because of the schedule. If I can’t write about that, I might as well shut down the blog.

It’s early days for me at Orchestra of the Swan, but there is something exciting going on in the orchestra that I’m lucky to be part of- the vibe and the level are really special. There are a lot of reasons why things are going well- why all our Stratford concerts this year (including Bobby and Hans) have sold out, why we’re starting a recording programme while others are shutting theirs down, why we’re setting up new residencies when other orchestras are struggling.  It will be interesting to learn what those reasons are….

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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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1 comment on “Bobby and Hans- Two Days and Two Symphonies with Orchestra of the Swan, part III”

  1. Peter

    Great work Ken.

    It is wonderful that Gal has his moment in the limelight after so long. It seems crazy that his music has suffered from such neglect for so long. What is not to like? Perhaps that is the problem. As you say about the fad for grouchy conductors, so also must music be grouchy, difficult and negative, if it is to be taken seriously. That is not the same as saying that Gal has no dark side, just as you are also saying you won’t get through a nine-hour day without some tension, stress and disagreement. You have the feeling Gal wasn’t just weeping in his boots after fleeing his homeland, but was grateful that there was somewhere to flee to. He avoided self-pity, even if he knew what sadness and difficulty were. Darkness is only ever half of ther story.

    Good, enjoyable music-making is what wins over audiences. It should also be profound, but let’s not make the mkistake that profound means – yet again, dark, negative and grouchy. (A Beethgoven Adagio is rarely any of these, certainly not for long!)

    When everyone on stage feels they are as one, then the audience gets it too. It’s infectious. That’s never more convincing than when it is a relatively new ensemble with the creative wind in their sails; everything to gain and nothing to lose. Also, in any recession, it is entrepreneurs canny in their judgement and breaking the rules, who come to the fore. The dinosaurs can’t adapt and that’s why they become fossils. One economic theory says that recession is just evolution in action; a way of purging the old to make way for the new. That’s simplistic, but testing times certainly separate the men from the boys.

    I look forward hearing the disc and sampling that creative zip.

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