Performing life- a month on the road with Ken at Well-Tempered Ear

A while back, Jacob Stockinger, author of the excellent blog “The Well-Tempered Ear” suggested I write a diary of one month in my professional life. I chose last June because it was a busy and interesting time, but it took me some time to get around to writing my part of it and took Jake some time to edit it, so here we are: the series has just been run over the last 3 days.

How busy a month was it? Well, it is spread over 3 blog posts, which you can read here, here and here. It’s the sort of thing I envisioned writing when I started the blog, but I find writing about music more fun than reminding myself of the joys of airline travel, so I seem to need outside prodding. Since it has been a little while since I wrote it, it was actually rather interesting to read it all on the blog- I found myself wondering how the whole month would turn out. I’m very glad Jake suggested it and even more glad he ran the piece.

But how busy was it, really? Seven orchestras, ranging from the world’s greatest string orchestra to a youth orchestra having its first rehearsal. Each orchestra in a different city with a different program. Well over 3000 miles in the car. A concerto played. A pair of world premieres and a pair of trans-Atlantic flights. Trust me, it was busy.

So, you’ll want to read up and find out all about the glamorous world of the professional conductor. From morning, when Jeeves brings me my cappuccino and slippers, through the short limousine ride to rehearsal, while I read the Financial Times,  to my afternoon champagne cocktail, it is a life of glamour and privilege. Or is it something else? Imagine going to rehearsal on 3 hours sleep after driving 12 hours to meetings and rehearsals in three cities the day before:

“Fortunately, there are no ill effects from the lost day of practice once I’ve done a slow, careful warm-up in my hotel. It’s off to dress rehearsal. I always say conducting is more tiring than playing the cello on a sheer physical level, but doing both is something else, and I am pooped from Friday’s driving. By the end of the rehearsal I feel only half alive. Great program: Telemann’s “Don Quioxte” (which I’m leading from the cello facing the orchestra), the Schumann Cello Concerto (again, leading from the cello but facing the audience) and Beethoven 6. I sleep on the floor of my green room for most of the short gap between rehearsal and concert”

The story begins with American Airlines smashing my cello in Heathrow Airport and ends with Delta losing all my family’s luggage, including all our baby kit, on our way to America a month later. Whatever negative things you may read about musicians and airlines, I can only assure you, they are way too kind to the airlines in question.

The last concert of the month featured Franck’s D minor Symphony, a work whose fall into obscurity lead me to write this blog post. I mention this because I as I sat down to write this , I came across this from Edward Seckerson in the Independent.

E.S: “Fashion is a strange thing. There was a time when the César Franck Symphony was popular core repertoire.

All the greats performed and recorded it – Monteux, Bernstein, Karajan. Suddenly it was out of vogue – obsolete, neglected. Why? Hearing it again after so long an absence (I really cannot remember when I last heard a live performance) this big benevolent piece seemed to have left its portentousness in the past.”

It all sounds vaguely familiar:

KW: “It’s almost ten years to the day since I last conducted the Franck (that time around it was paired with the Ravel Pavanne pour une infante defunte and the Chausson Poeme for Violin and Orchestra).

The Franck is hardly obscure or unknown, but it was once a repertoire staple and these days is much more rarely heard. In fact, the vast majority of the orchestra this week are playing the piece for the first time. I think it’s a pity such a marvelous and effective piece isn’t done more often, but what is more worrying is that its disappearance from the repertoire seems to be part of a larger trend.”

Well, great minds and all that….

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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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3 comments on “Performing life- a month on the road with Ken at Well-Tempered Ear”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    Yet again, the same song sung by Tim Ashley at the Guardian

    “This was a hugely important concert in that it rescued César Franck’s remarkable Symphony in D Minor from near oblivion. Once central to the repertory, the work has fallen foul of the vagaries of fashion of late. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s performance with the London Philharmonic reminded us just how shameful its neglect has been.

    We were conscious throughout of its pivotal if unclassifiable nature, and its striking originality. Franck is usually dubbed a Wagnerian, and the symphony’s structure, subjecting its thematic material to continuous development over three movements, owes much to Liszt. But there’s also a tautness of musical gesture that embraces the anti-Wagnerian methodology of Brahms and a sense of organic, evolutionary progression that pre-empts Sibelius.”

    I couldn’t be happier that the critical establishment is giving Franck his props, but some of us never forgot him.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Classicalsource also looks at the Franck as a work of the past:

    “There are essentially two ways of dealing with (Belgian-born) César Franck’s only Symphony, once omnipresent if nowadays a comparative rarity, perhaps because so many performers get bogged down in its organ-like textures. Where the likes of Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch fairly hurtled through it, crisply objective, Giulini preferred to take his time.”

    I’m a Munch guy in this repertoire. My as I admire Giulini, I find his Franck recording a bit dull.

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