What’s wrong, what’s great, and what the future looks like (hint: good if we don’t blow it)

Hello Vftp friends and fans:

First- the final installment of our top 20 of conducting is done and will go up soon. Apologies for the delay.

It has been a very, very hectic and intense couple of weeks at Vftp Intl Road Headquarters. This time last week, I was putting the finishing touches on what turned out to be a very exciting program of Dvorak and Shostakovich with the Wilmslow Symphony. Readers who spend more than their recommended daily allowance of 25 seconds exploring the blogosphere will know that topic number 1 of most music bloggers these days (or at least the great Greg Sandow) is “what’s wrong with classical music?” Well, you read it here first- I am now going to reveal what is wrong with classical music (hint- it has nothing to do with clapping or not clapping between movements, ticket prices, age groups, “the model” or serialism).

The first half of that WSO concert was dedicated to Dvorak’s great orchestral triptych- Nature, Life and Love. That is what is wrong with classical music. Dvorak wrote the 3 parts of this work as a carefully interconnected whole- together, they form a sort of manifesto of his philosophical outlook on life. Readers may recognize the 3 parts of this work as the overtures “In Nature’s Realm,” “Carnival’ and “Othello.” Or you may not. That is kind of the point.

So…. How does this piece illustrate what is “wrong” with classical music? Well, I’m a music guy. I have played and conducted in a fair number of concerts, and been to a fair number of concerts. As a cellist, I have probably played Carnival 50 times. Conducted it just twice. In concert, I’ve probably heard it another 50 times. I’ve probably heard “Nature’s Realm” in concert twice. Othello……

And how many times have I played/conducted/heard this piece as Dvorak meant it to be heard? 20? 4? 2?

ZERO.

Not only that- of the 90 or so musicians playing last Saturday, not a single person could remember ever hearing or playing a complete Nature, Life and Love.  Everyone there had played/heard/seen Carnival more times than they cared to count.

The Decca recording of the great, great Istvan Kertesz recording of these three great overtures is close to definitive, but for one flaw….

The 3 overtures are spread across 2 discs. None are next to each other. People who love Dvorak enough to buy a double disc of his symphonic poems and orchestras  (performed by one of the greatest Dvorak interpreters in history) hear this important work chopped up into feeble, pointless bleeding chunks.

Really, people- this is what is wrong with the music world!

We treat people who love music with all their heart like clueless idiots. We turn thoughtful masterpieces into trite 9 minute tambourine concertos. The three overtures together are infinitely more interesting, compelling, challenging and rewarding than hacking through Carnival for the 9 millionth time while not getting the tambourine to play softly enough that anyone else can be heard. Nobody I talked to last week had EVER played Othello. Everyone had played Carnival. Carnival is a hoot (if you tame the tambourine- he was good on Saturday), but Othello is better, and Carnival is a scherzo, a mid-point in a larger story. It isn’t meant to stand on its own.

The second half of that concert was Shostakovich’s epic and completely amazing 7th Symphony. It merits at least 10 more blog posts. What genius and humanity. How blessed are we as musicians to get to study and perform such transformative music? I am still in awe of it. The whole performance was special, but the orchestra found something for the last chord that I shan’t forget- what a final all-consuming roar! That kind of power doesn’t come from lips and arms. It comes from your guts and your soul- the WSO found both.

This week, I have been in darkest Kent, working with the incomparable Kent County Youth Orchestra. There are many reminiscences of past KCYO courses throughout this blog. Just search KCYO or Kent. This week, we are doing a rather titanic program- Elgar’s In the South, Lyadov’s Eight Russian Folksongs and Tchaik 4.

Whether anyone else has noticed, I cannot say, but I have worked my tuckus off this week. Somehow, I feel like the winds of spring are blowing in the promise of a memorable concert. It is tough, tough times for the legendary county youth orchestras of Great Britain. We lost a day of our weeklong course to budget cuts this year. That said, the passion and commitment of young people conquers all. Head honcho Geoff Dixon also hires the greatest sectional coaches on the planet. Put leading members of the Philharmonia, London Philharmonic, London Mozart Players and Royal Opera Orchestra Covent Garden in front of  talented and eager young players, and anything is possible. Tomorrow’s audience will have no idea what the musicians lost out on because of the tough fiscal times. Let’s hope next year, the students can get the same intensity of opportunity their predecessors had. They deserve it, and there must be a sponsor out there who can facilitate it. Come on people, check books out! If a young person is ready to spend their vacation playing oboe 10 hours a day (with chops swollen like you can’t imagine)  instead of robbing the local off-license, you can at least make sure they are getting as much coaching and tuition as kids five years ago got.

It’s been a funny week for me, because I’ve been just doing the final, final listens to my two new CDs (one of chamber Mahler, the other of Gal and Schumann Symphonies), before the masters go to the factory between rehearsals.  I got the Mahler edit at 11 PM last night and was up till well after 2 AM listening (it goes to the factory tomorrow), before a long, long day of rehearsal here. (Top tip, if you want a good night’s sleep, don’t listent to too much late Mahler with headphones following the score like a lasar right before bed). All along the way, there have been booklets to check (on schedule, please!) and fires to extinguish. One might wonder how it feels to go from listening to the mega-polished studio recording of a world-class professional chamber orchestra to an early rehearsal of a youth orchestra getting to grips with a piece like In the South or Tchaik 4 for the first time?

I can assure readers that it is actually a good thing.

A youth orchestra course is a bit like strapping a sleeping hippo to your shoulders then trying to run uphill as fast  as you can with great accuracy and style. You’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and quite a load to carry. It isn’t pretty, except that, without warning, you will find yourself and said hippo racing up the hill like an olympic sprinter after a makeover in the coda of In the South. The transition from drudgery to ecstasy is pretty amazing (if fragile). Eventually, you realize the hippo has woken up, grown wings and is flying you to the mountain top.

We’ve now finished our “course” and all that remains is the dress rehearsal and concert tomorrow. The final rituel of each week is something called, perhaps with a tint of irony, “Music at Night.”

Music @ Night is a sort of improvised young people’s vaudeville show. You really have to be there. Some in past years have been truly jaw dropping in their audacious insanity. This year’s was only marred by its brevity. I was looking forward to a good 2 1/2 hours of madness, and was done in 70 mins.

Here are some random thoughts on KCYO Music @ Night, 2011:

1- As a young man, barbershop singing will always win you street cred with both teachers and chicks. Only the chicks really matter.

2- If you play the violin with as much gusto as you dance to Queen, you will go far (but please don’t fade out in guitar solos- some of us spent long hours transcribing those as kids)

3- Co-educational 2-players-per-axe bass playing is probably the future of the instrument

4- It’s not the song, it’s who sings it

5- There is nothing, nothing, nothing funnier or cooler than jazz flute. Thank you Will Ferrel.

6- That was simply and certainly the greatest rendition of 3 Blind Mice by a violinist on the oboe that the world has ever heard

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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

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

16 comments on “What’s wrong, what’s great, and what the future looks like (hint: good if we don’t blow it)”

  1. Lisa Hirsch

    I haven’t gotten to the end of the above yet, but a big kiss to you for “it has nothing to do with clapping or not clapping between movements, ticket prices, age groups, “the model” or serialism.”

  2. Foster Beyers

    The cycle of three Dvorak overtures was one of Victor Yampolsky’s favorite first halves before a performance of Mahler 1. It is an apt an enjoyable pairing!

  3. Erik K

    Your sentiments about the Dvorak are echoed in one of my favorite pieces, Ma Vlast. In all my concertgoing years, I’ve seen the complete cycle offered only once. Libor Pesek did it with Cincinnati when I was in college, but it was a bit of a sour experience. They played the first two movements, everyone loved Moldau, and then did the Grieg Piano Concerto and took a break. The second half of the concert was the remaining four movements of the Smetana…everyone left. No exaggeration: the hall was 90-95% full in half 1, and maybe 15% full in half 2. It was retarded.

    Great post on a sad subject. Thank God for the excitement of kids though…a real treat.

  4. Peter

    I have been reflecting on what happens to the young and their hopes. What makes many of them go on to conform to the unimaginative ways of doing things which are the norm.

    It creeps in once they buy flash cars, take on mortgages and, in that dreaded phrase – start “making a career”. Then financial security and avoiding failure become the main motives – so that the new, the unknown and the high risk become anathema.

    Perhaps this slow loss of imagination is inevitable – reality kicks in after the youthful hopes and dreams have died away. But one can at least make occasional acts of defiance to show it doesn’t have to be like this. Yet, when politicians and business people seem to be willing scarifice everything to ambition and greed, it is not easy to tell kids that the world is full of hope.

    But the right people are out there doing the right things, just rarely getting the attention they deserve because the media is as guilty as anyone for making false assumptions, hyping up the ordinary and ignoring anything that smacks of real substance.

    That’s where Vftp comes in – a haven of common sense! Thanks Ken!

  5. Erik K

    Peter :I have been reflecting on what happens to the young and their hopes. What makes many of them go on to conform to the unimaginative ways of doing things which are the norm.

    I’m guessing it’s the fact that they see 97% of everyone else’s dreams crushed under the weight of an increasingly hyper-competitive world. I can certainly say that for myself. I may or may not have had what it takes to be a successful performer of music, but I most definitely did not and still do not have what it takes to be a successful musician. It’s a sobering reality, but I like to tell myself that it’s better that I figured it out when I’m 30 rather than 50, even if that’s just my own cowardice rearing its head.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    @Lisa Hirsch

    Thanks, Lisa! I think the real problem is that people mistake the fact that life is by its nature a struggle with the notion that this struggle is somehow caused by some underlying error. Really, life is tough, business is tough. We don’t call orchestras nonprofits for nothing.

    I think a big we have in institutions is being embarrassed to ask for money. Orchestras are charities- our mission is to provide music. We’re not “selling” entertainment, we’re enriching our culture. It’s supposed to need sponsorship and support.

  7. Kenneth Woods

    @Foster Beyers
    That’s an excellent pairing. It works for many of the same reasons it worked with Shostakovich 7. You’ve got a longer than usual 2nd half, the big orchestra are there, there are similar but personally distinct evocations of folk experience. Clever, Viktor!

  8. Kenneth Woods

    @Peter

    @Erik K

    Erik and Peter

    Speaking from personal experience, I think a great deal of the gradual loss of young artists’ ability to dream big and take chances comes from a lack of failure, rather than exposure to it. When you are falling, the terror of what will happen when you land is overpowering. When we get out of school, when we feel like a recital isn’t coming together, when we lose an audition, we feel that sense of free-falling through space, and will do anything to stop it. We cast aside dreams and ideals in hopes that the fall will stop.

    I take great comfort in knowing that professional failure does have a rock bottom, and that you can come back from a worst case scenario. That moment you realize absolutely everything that could go wrong has and there is still a lifetime stretching out in front of you, the hypercompetitive word Erik describes no longer seems so menacing. Likewise, you can see the abandonment of dreams when “financial security and avoiding failure become the main motives – so that the new, the unknown and the high risk become anathema,” as the actions of those who fear failure more than those who know it or have survived it.

    Sometimes, I think we do students a dis-service by protecting them from failure. Of course, we should support them, set them up to succeed and help them avoid traps. But we shouldn’t make it impossible for them to know what it feels like to say- shit, that really didn’t work, I’ve run out of options, I guess I better go for a long walk and decide where I can go from here. Failure really isn’t that bad, and surely the sharp and fierce failure of a public firing or failed audition is preferable to the slow and sad one of wasting your time on the planet doing things you don’t really believe in.

  9. Erik K

    OTOH, Ken…

    What do you think of the notion that colleges and universities pass out degrees too readily relative to the population of working-age young adults now? I can certainly think back on my time in college and recall dozens of music performance majors who really had little to no future in performing music, but they paid that tuition diligently, so they stayed. In a world where money doesn’t drive everything (which is not THIS world, but still), would it “better” for us to level with students and, for example, not have them pass their jury exams in the sophomore year (that I know a lot of schools use) before they bury themselves in further debt? At what point does chasing a dream lead to your emotional and financial destruction?

  10. Kenneth Woods

    Interesting, Erik

    I think the situation you describe is only a problem if you buy into the notion that the value of an education is in the job you get from it. If we started banning useless degrees, there would be no schools! If you tell them “come to IU and you’ll get a job in the Chicago Symphony” that’s obviously BS for many applicants. If you just say “come here and this is what we’ll teach you,” then I say that’s great. If you happen to end up running a shipping company, but can play the Korngold Violin Concerto, I would say that you’ve probably got a richer life than someone who just went straight through business school.

    Why reduce music school to vocational training?

    Also- most music schools are way too narrow in their definition of “success.” When I was in school, there were two kinds of success: university jobs and orchestra jobs. In real life, success is keeping a roof over your head while doing what you love, and building a “life’s work.” I recognized that for me, keeping the university job I had wasn’t going facilitate me doing what I loved or building a legacy. By trading tenure track security for freelance tensions, I’m officially less successful than I was in 2002 by the measure of the career counsellors I knew as a student. I wouldn’t go back.

    You know more about music than 95% of the music professors I know- does the fact they’re overpaid dumbasses make them successful and you the opposite, or is being knowledgeable and commanding the respect of people you respect a more legitimate measure of success? Even if you are swimming in debt, like most creative people…. Your education may not have opened a facile door to security, but you know lots of impressive stuff, and you can do lots of impressive stuff, so it’s really down to you how you use it.

  11. Erik K

    Also- most music schools are way too narrow in their definition of “success.” When I was in school, there were two kinds of success: university jobs and orchestra jobs. In real life, success is keeping a roof over your head while doing what you love, and building a “life’s work.” I recognized that for me, keeping the university job I had wasn’t going facilitate me doing what I loved or building a legacy. By trading tenure track security for freelance tensions, I’m officially less successful than I was in 2002 by the measure of the career counsellors I knew as a student. You know more about music than 95% of the music professors I know- does the fact they’re overpaid dumbasses make them successful and you the opposite, or is being knowledgeable and commanding the respect of people you respect a more legitimate measure of success? Even if you are swimming in debt, like most creative people…. Your education may not have opened a facile door to security, but you know lots of impressive stuff, and you can do lots of impressive stuff, so it’s really down to you how you use it.

    Bingo!

    I regret my time in college when it comes time to pay my student loan bills, and I regret my time pursuing conducting because I didn’t take out more student loan bills, but ultimately there is satisfaction in gaining knowledge and sharing it, no matter what the context of that sharing is. In a perfect world, perhaps I’d have Alex Ross’s job, though it’s plainly obvious that he is an infintely better writer than I’ll ever be. But having an intellectually curious mind is its own reward, and the exchange of ideas will always be the only real currency in the human experience.

    You totally fell into my rhetorical trap, escaped without harm, set a completely different trap, and ate a fabulous meal of philosophical musing!

    Actually, sometimes I wish people would tell some of these American Idol kids that they don’t have what it takes to sing professionally before embarrassing themselves on television, but that’s another discussion.

  12. Peter

    It’s a fascinating discussion and comes back to the question – what do we define as a successful creative life? Music Schools are in the business of trying to turn their students into people they can call a successful musician. No doubt, their ability to show that their alumni have made it, is how they measure their success.Iit is also how students decide whether it is a good school or not – we all would say, who went there? Oh really – it must be a goods school then! But it is true that a very high % of students never make it or end up in dead-end jobs, or perhaps they even achieve so-called success, but find it shallow. Any education system geared to the mass-market is going to end up that way.

    The ability to extract from the education system what you need without succumbing to its normative pressures is a great challenge, and well beyond the maturity of your average 20-year old. At that age, you are insecure, always comparing and competing, imagining that your life must be like the lives of your peers or there is something badly wrong with you. By about 30, you are having doubts this was a right assumption. By 40, it has usually become a mid-life crisis.

    What we need is a system to educate people to make good choices about educating themselves; one which gets away from normative pressures and helps awaken true calling. That is what really good teachers understand, because they are interested in the person, not their potential as a useful statistic in meeting some quota. Such teachers exist -often unsung – inspirational figures who parent and guide, instead of pressurising and criticising. They don’t often win the awards and prizes (nor do their contented students), and all are the better for it.

  13. Peter

    @Kenneth Woods
    Another brief thought – which relates to my comment about good teachers. I agree – letting people fail is a good learning experience, but failure is often about perception and context. Not passing an audition can be a valuable invasion of a hard truth or it may simply be an unfair outcome. Learning that the world outside is not always fair or that sometimes the experience is the prize are perspectives a teacher can give – rather than a clip about the ear. Even learning you are not cut out for this libe of work can be positive, if it maens you find out what you are truly cut out for. Then we also have to learn to fail miserably and know what it is is to let ourselves and everyone else down – but then move on. We have all had that uncomfortable feeling that the mistake we made was where the rot started. But the ability not to get a complex about such howlers most probably comes from those good parenting momenst that say – we don’t mind and we love you anyway. Learning to fail is also about having the courage to own up and say – yes, it was me – but avoiding the trap of always taking the blame. The blame-game is usually destructive in any circumstance.

  14. Brian Hughes

    Sorry for chiming in so late on this topic. Although I have visited Prague many times, only once was I there during the correct “season” (the dead of winter!) to hear the Czech Phil perform. The announced conductor was MacKarras and the program was to feature a good share of Martinu I seem to recall. However, Sir Charles had taken ill (this was only a year before his death I believe) and Macal took over in an all-Dvorak program, the first half of which was the three overtures. Suddenly the skies opened up for me and everything made sense! There is no other way that these should be performed, although I will admit to my own solo performance of “Carnival.” May I forever be ashamed.

  15. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Brian

    Great comment- thanks for chiming in. It’s never too late to talk sense about Dvorak. I hope you can atone for the Carnival performance with a complete triptych soon.

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