Press leftovers- Music I couldn’t live without..

A few months back, I was asked by a music writer for an e-interview on “music I couldn’t live without.” I thought it turned out pretty well, but never got published, so here it is….

What are the pieces you couldn’t do without?

It depends a lot on how you define “do without.” Some of the pieces that are most important to me are not ones I need to or want to hear all that often- the experience of interacting with them is so intense, and it’s so rare to hear a really satisfying performance of the greatest music. These are works that I need to know are out there- if I didn’t know the St Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s op 132 String Quartet  or Mahler 9, I’m not sure I could face life, but I don’t need, or want, to hear them all that often. I don’t think I’ve heard or played the Beethoven in 5 years, but just knowing that the Heiliger Dankgesang is something that I can turn to from my own experience playing it is a source of great comfort.

Which is the one you would (probably) have to keep if all the rest were consumed by fire?

I’ve been trying to give the question a lot of thought. I’m sure the answer changes depending on where I am in my own life. Sometimes, I think it must be something Beethoven 7, or Mahler 2- something really alive and hopeful and joyous. Every once in a while, I need to put on Rite of Spring really loudly and jump around the house like a madman. Schumann 2? However, I guess that if I had to pick one piece I could contemplate and return to for a long time, it might be the Mozart Requiem.

Why? Are they/is it ones you grew up with and have sentimental value, or are they meaningful for some other reason?

Of course, the pieces that have a place in your life are always going to be special. Shostakovich 5 could have been my last piece standing- it’s the first piece of music I can remember listening to as a toddler (okay, a very intense toddler). I feel like it is literally been with me at every turn throughout my life. The 2nd Bartok Quartet is special to me because it is such an extraordinary piece, but also because it is a piece my former string quartet lived with for a long time, and one of those rare pieces where I can say that on our best nights, we climbed that mountain and did it justice.

I’ve known the Mozart almost as long as the Shostakovich. It featured on an LP we had of “The great composer’s stories as told through their own music.” I had a whole set of these when I was little- Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart- I’d give anything to find them again! I just remember as a little boy that hearing Mozart’s minor key pieces- the 40thSymphony, the D minor Piano Concerto and the Requiem affected me like nothing else I’d ever heard. You’d expect that feeling to wear off after half a lifetime, but it hasn’t. The Requiem still effects me on this raw level, even more so for the fact that I’ve spent hundreds of hours analyzing every motivic and harmonic twist and turn.

If you have a recording(s) which is your favourite interpretation?

I have dozens of recordings of the Mozart, but no favourite. I know it’s lame, but the longer you live with a great piece, the more you prefer the image of it burned in your soul to the one burned on a CD. My favourite performances of any of these pieces are the ones I remember from the moments when I had transformation experiences with them. I remember my first experience of playing the St Matthew Passion with the legendary choral conductor Robert Fountain at the University of Wisconsin. I’m not sure I could enjoy or endorse the style of that performance anymore- it was very pre-HIP, even too much so for me now. A huge chorus, rather vocally plump singers, lots of vibrato in the strings. However, Fountain made the whole epic span of the piece (and it was an epic performance- by far the longest I’ve done), feel like it was all done in one breath, in one thought. I felt so blessed to be playing the continuo part that night- I had a role to play in just about every harmony change. It was magic and transformative- no recording could ever have that effect, including the recording of that concert. I’ve played it many more times since then, with some great musicians in a more “appropriate” style, but no conductor since then has ever had Fountain’s spiritual gift for making that piece live and reach into your soul.  On the one hand, that moment is gone- evaporated into the ether. On the other hand, it’s an important part of who I am as a musician.

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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 “Press leftovers- Music I couldn’t live without..”

  1. Troy Birdsong

    Great interview. Your comment about the epic performance that seems to take place in one breath reminds me of a performance that you and I did together at Roundtop so many years ago. I had played Bruckner 4 the previous year with a terrible conductor, and was literally in pain after we were done. When I heard that we were doing it at Roundtop, it gave me expectations of the same kind of pain. Fortunately, Stefan Sanderling, brought new life and spirit to that piece and when it was done, I wanted to start over and play it again.
    Troy Birdsong

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