My 2010- January with Dvorak and Dragons



January 23rd was always destined to be the most important date of the first month of 2010.

It was to be the day that I once and for all liberated myself from my fear of the Dvorak Cello Concerto.

As a young cellist, the Dvorak had been my favorite piece since the first time I heard it. I nearly wore straight through the vinyl on the LPs of the Harrell and Rostropovich’s recordings which I had in high school. I went out and bought the music and started trying to teach it to myself in spite of the reluctance of my teacher to work on it with me.

However, when I arrived as a freshman to Indiana University, a little piece of my soul died when I discovered that there were about 50 other cellists floating around who could play it better than me. At 18, I was largely technically self-taught, and had a lot of work to do to catch up with others who had had a fantastic technical grounding from an early age. With many years of hard work and study came hard-won confidence, and over the years I’ve let go of most of the scars of that first realization that everyone was better at 18 than I was. Still, the Dvorak somehow remained emblematic of that feeling of being an impostor, and I avoided playing it for over 10 years after my freshman year at IU, when I crashed and burned on it in a masterclass. Other, ostensibly more challenging pieces got taken up and played with panache, but Dvorak stayed at arms length.

Big bad Tony D- creator of the one dragon I couldn’t seem to slay

Somehow, in the summer of 2000, I got mad enough to tackle the first movement for a conducting masterclass at Aspen with David Zimnan. I played, and Shizuo Kuwahara conducted, and for once, DZ had kind things to say. I had gotten away with it.

Then in 2009 I got asked to play it with an orchestra near Manchester. I dithered a bit (one never says “I’m not sure I can play it, and am concerned that trying to play it may trigger an existential crisis, so may I dither for a few weeks” but instead says “YES! I would love to,can I check my schedule and get back to you”), but decided after much soul searching it was time to kill this particular dragon. The concert was schedule for January 23rd.

It wasn’t ideal timing- the fall of 2009 was full of big projects and big changes. I left the Oregon East Symphony and joined Orchestra of the Swan. Suzanne was pregnant and Samuel, our son, was rapidly coming into his own as a real personality. Finding time and energy to work on such a big project seemed almost impossible. There were also illnesses and setbacks in our extended families. Somehow, I got to work on it, and managed to stubbornly work at the thing with a sort of grim-faced determination throughout the holiday. Suzanne was due on the 10th of January, so it took a super-human level of understanding for her to let me slip away to the studio for 90 minutes a day. Gradually, however, the piece came together. I started running it and recording it, and gradually I started to think I could finally do it justice. Insights came (Dorothy Delay was right- playing sharp helps), rants were inspired, and technical obstacles went away. I had the dragon in my sights.

January 10th came and went, and I kept practicing. I couldn’t believe the baby was keeping us waiting- second babies are supposed to be more prompt, but not this one. Sue was finally taken into hospital for induction. For several days I stayed with her all day until being booted out at the close of visiting hours, then would come home exhausted and do a last bit of practice.

One after another, induction methods failed. I got more and more nervous. Finally on the 22nd, we got the word- the doctors were going to try one last super-induction trick that evening, and failing that, it would be a C-section. I had always known January 23rd would be a big day. Now I knew the true reason- it was nothing to do with getting back my claim to a favorite piece, and everything to do with meeting my daughter. I called around and found the orchestra another cellist who was playing it the same week who could fill in (yes, see “cancellations” in the previous post).

Once I’d let go of the Dvorak, I could focus on being a husband and an expectant dad, and the ending of the story was a happy one.

Is there a sublime irony in the fact that the first time in my life I felt totally ready for the Dvorak Concerto that I didn’t actually get to play it? Yes

Did that bother me at all as I held Esther on her Day 1? No.

Esther- way cuter than Dvorak

That night, when the midwives sent me packing, I got home to a nice bottle of red wine, and a large, scary-looking dragon, lying dead next to my cello on the living room floor.


Any cellist needing a humility transplant, and I mean ANY cellist, can just watch this footage of the great Daniil Shafran playing the 1st Mvt. It’s enough to bring any inadequacy dragons back to life with a vengeance, but the pain is well worth it. Speaking of pain- look at the bandage on his 2nd finger. Talk about playing through pain!

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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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4 comments on “My 2010- January with Dvorak and Dragons”

  1. Teresa

    Timely for me to read – I’ll be conducting the 1st movt this quarter with my youth symphony since 1 of 3 (!) cellists who played it for the concerto competition won the event.

  2. Peter

    Ken, is it just me or are Esther’s tiny hands lining up as if to play an invisible cello? Some good strong fingers there and just looking for a bow and a fingerboard. Posture could easily accommodate an appropriately scaled-down instrument. She’s a natural!

    The Dvorak is your Holy Grail – but like all Holy Grail symbols, what we think it is and what it turns out to be are often surprisingly different.


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