2011 in review- My musical highlights for the year

I feel a little sheepish about writing a blog post of my personal performing highlights from 2011. It could all-too-easily read like the notorious episode of Desert Island Discs when a famous diva picked all her own recordings.

But that’s not what this list is about- I’m not claiming these were the “best” concerts I did this year, or that others would have necessarily thought they were particularly good gigs. These are the concerts where I most enjoyed the contributions of my colleagues, where I felt most intensely the sense of shared purpose and mutual understanding that music-making promises but so often fails to deliver. These were the gigs were I felt most like I was part of something bigger than myself- nights when we all spoke with one voice and a shared sense of commitment and involvement. Writing this post has been an exercise in thinking about what is important about a concert.  These were not all the most “important’ or prestigious dates of the year, just the nights were something special happened.

My heartfelt thanks to all my colleagues who helped make them possible.

Were you at or in any of these performances? We’d love to hear your memories of the occasion, be they good or bad. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

10- Brahms Alto Rhapsody with Emma Curtis, Guildford Chamber Choir and Surrey Mozart Players

The men of the choir were really superb and the orchestra played admirably, but at the end of the day, this performance is on here because Emma sounded so amazing singing it that I couldn’t stop almost laughing with glee… until I realized she had me in tears. She needs to record this piece with me and a great orchestra NOW. Patrons?!?!?


9- Mahler- Symphony no. 6- Wrexham Symphony Orchestra

This was bound to be a special concert, and so it was. The idea of doing Mahler 6 in out-of-the-way Wrexham was unique enough that even Norman Lebrecht was inspired to blog about it. In the  end, the concert more than lived up to the expectations. The orchestra played with tremendous intensity and focus, and it was every bit as harrowing and shattering as I’d hoped it would be. The first half of the concert was a lecture on the piece with me and Peter Davison. I learned a lot, and I think the orchestra’s performance of the full work benefited from Peter’s insights into Mahler’s life and character and  hearing my analysis of the work, then playing and deconstructing some of the thematic material right before our complete performance.


8-Schlefer/Miyagi- Haro no Umi redux, Orchestra of the Swan

Part of a memorable evening exploring new works for traditional Japanese instruments and orchestra. It was thrilling to return to James Schlefer’s magical and virtuosic Shakuhachi Concerto (watch for the CD this spring), but in a “don’t blink” kind of way. The orchestra were fantastic on very little rehearsal time. On the other hand,  James’ gently gorgeous re-imagining of one of the essential formative works of Japanese classical music was positively magical. Time and space were reorganized so that 10 minutes of music felt like the stillness of ten winters spent watching the dark water of the sea, waiting for spring.


7- Brahms- Symphony no. 1 at Surrey Hills Festival, Surrey Mozart Players

The packed house for this concert had come out to hear two of the  most exciting young soloists in the world- cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and violinist Nicola Benedeti- play concerti by Saint-Saens and Glazunov. They were fantastic. After so much glamour and razzle-dazzle, how much excitement could one hope for from a Brahms symphony played by anyone less than the Berlin Philharmonic and Eugen Jochum? Happily, nobody left at intermission, and those that stayed got a real treat. The SMP usually have to deal with a very difficult acoustic- finally, they got a chance to play in a great room, and boy did they come to life. The strings were so expressive and, most importantly, responsive, and we had some great solo playing from the winds. Sadly, the repeat the following week in our home venue wasn’t quite as special, but trading Nicola and Leonard (amazing as they were) for Sibelius 7, the perfect foil for Brahms’ most intellectual symphony, made it all worthwhile.


6- Mendelssohn- Symphony no. 1, Lancashire Chamber Orchestra

Most of the pieces on this list are big. That stands to reason- epic works are designed to be transformative and to make a lasting, profound impact on the listener. A Mahler symphony is designed to create a sense of occasion. Mendelssohn 1 may look out of place squeezed between Shostakovich 7 and Mahler 6, but only to those who don’t know the piece well. It’s very rarely played, and most performances miss the boat completely. This a serious, fiery, inspired, clever, tragic and ambitious work. I loved every minute of our time rehearsing it, and the concert was a revelation. I’d never played it nor heard it live before, and all my recordings are disappointing. This is not juvenilia, but a real masterpiece.  I particularly loved the sound of the clarinets playing bells-up a la Mahler in the chorale-prelude section of the Finale fugue.


5-Shostakovich- Symphony no. 7, Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra

Well- it was the longest concert of the year. We started the evening with Dvorak’s three epic tone poems, Nature, Life and Love. That’s probably more hard work and intensity than one needs before this most draining of symphonies. The WSO really, really dug in- the climax of the “invasion theme” in the first movement was positively apocalyptic. After over an hour of intensity, pathos, violence and drama, I was just willing there to be something more to give on the final page. To my amazement , there was. This most “slow-burn” of Finales just built and built. When we got to the last chord, I was pretty sure I’d never heard an orchestra play so loud. Then, I raised my left hand, willing them to make one last crescendo. It was like turning the volume up to infinity. I’m surprised the building is still there. The brass must have been blowing from down in the soles of their feet. Amazing.


4- Shostakovich- Symphony no. 10, Kent County Youth Orchestra

KCYO is one of my most prized gigs- I always look forward to going to work with this fantastic ensemble of young musicians, and am constantly inspired by their shared spirit and commitment. Shostakovich 10 was the main work on my first concert with them, many years ago, and that was a performance that seemed to have great resonance for many  members of the orchestra, as well as for me. I was a little nervous about returning to the same work- the orchestra is younger and, on paper at least, not as deep as it was then. I didn’t want a demonstration of how standards have suffered due to recent budget cuts. I needn’t have worried. Of course, it wasn’t flawless, but who needs flawless when you have playing of such intensity, understanding and ferocity.  Rehearsals had been incredibly tough and draining, but the orchestra took everything on board, and the improvement in 4 days was awesome, to say the least. The concert felt truly epic. DSCH 10.1 was going to be hard to top, but DSCH 10.2 was , other than some percussion counting problems, more polished, more powerful, more purposeful, and done with one less day of rehearsal by a younger orchestra. That’s something we can all take pride in.


3- Ensemble Epomeo- Newburyport Festival Concert at Newburyport Maritime Museum.

What a sense of occasion- every single ticket sold, standing room only, in a room of $6000 dresses and $4000 handbags. What’s amazing, and encouraging, is that all the great and good of Newburyport would turn out in style for an evening not of fluff, but of Schnittke, Gal and Krasa. It was intense, it was rewarding, it was pretty darn electric.


2- Schumann- Symphony no. 2, Orchestra of the Swan

After two exhausting days of recording for our new Bobby and Hans CD, I was a little concerned that the orchestra and I might well conk out before the end of this most demanding of symphonies. Not so- rosin was flying, feet were stomping, sweat was dripping. When one organist/fuddy-duddy in the audience wrote it all off as “too exciting” I took it as a massive compliment. Or, as one of the principals said “it’s such an exciting symphony it leaves you saying “Ludwig van who?”  Rehearsing Schumann is always interesting- I always feel like players are looking skeptically at me as if to say “you want it how fast/slow/loud/soft/intense/dramatic?!?!?”  Not so with Orchestra of the Swan, but even with this most willing and virtuosic of bands, it’s amazing how much rhythmic energy and passion this music needs and can take. Too many orchestral musicians have been indoctrinated in the “overcooked veg” school of Schumann performance- they somehow think it should all be a little mushy, easy to chew and lacking freshness. In this case, the orchestra not only got it- they found something more. An extra gear.


1- Schubert- Cello Quintet with Ensemble Epomeo, Suzanne Casey (violin) and Alice Neary (cello) at Two Rivers Festival

This was my second visit to the Two Rivers festival with Ensemble Epomeo. On this occasion, we were joined by two wonderful colleagues for a performance of what might be the greatest piece of music ever written. TRF is purposefully tucked-away and low-key, but the audience was jam-packed with composers and fellow musicians (you could feel the intensity of the listening that was going on), and the atmosphere in the Bushell Hall is always inspiring. The high, high ceiling makes you feel like the sound is joined with the infinite. It was not one of those performances where everyone spends the night smiling and enjoying themselves- not everyone on stage was even sure it had gone well, so intent were we on the task at hand. Instead, our attitude was one of complete, total focus on doing justice to this most special of masterpieces. Fortunately, when I ran into friend after friend who looked like they’d been crying for the better part of an hour, I figured we must have done something right, and I felt strangely haunted by the piece for weeks afterwards. I kept remembering my last page turn- it’s a worryingly fast one. One can easily throw the part on the floor, not get the page over, or not get your hands back on the instrument in time for the next entrance. As it happens, the next entrance is the last of the many haunting duets for the two cellos. It’s music of such supreme, unearthly beauty that I can never really believe the sound I’m hearing is coming partially from me. The strange juxtaposition of something as mundane and banal as a dodgy page turn with music of spine-chilling spirituality  seems to sum up the perpetual contradictions  of the musician’s life. Get that page turned, get the first finger down and the bow on the string, and suddenly, you’re in resonance with eternity.

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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.

6 comments on “2011 in review- My musical highlights for the year”

  1. Peter

    2011 seems to have been a good year for you Ken. May be you are not conducting at the Met, but there’s a colour and personality to your projects which are very much you. Success is not always measured in big cheques and features in glossy magazines after all. Glamour is great, but substabce must always be better.

    I can only say that as a member of the audience at TRF last year, the Schubert performance to be something very special where the intensity of the playing was matched by the intensity of the listening. All of this in an acoustic environment which allowed everything was heard with the sonic ripeness Schubert intended. It happened to be a nigh on technically perfect performance where every tricky corner seemed to come off with panache, but it was also more than that, because the music-making seemed to have a life of its own that went beyond the individual players, beyond the marvellous ensemble, beyond the listeners and the performance space. We were all participating in the performance as if it were our own inner musings, so that where the music ceased and our own psychic space began had become a bit of a blur.

    That description may seem like a candidate for pseud’s corner – but it is what happens when a performance really takes off. Time, space, the boundaries of individuality disappear and we are quite literally taken out of ourselves. It was a concert that for its generosity on many levels will be long remembered.

  2. David Galvani

    The TRF Schubert concert was special for me too, for several reasons.
    Peter always says that the intimacy achieved in this smaller environment enriches the enjoyment of audience and musicians. It is not at all ‘pseud’ to say such experiences give us a glimpse of something eternal and bigger than us all – when this happens it is very special. I admit there have been several such moments at TRF – Natalie Clein’s candlelight Bach/Kodaly, flute/harp duo.
    Performers have an unusual job. They produce this magic, at the same time as juggling page turns and maitaining ensemble. I had a similar moment at the end of Barber’s Hermit Songs – technically testing last pages, but I felt the music rise into the ether and wished the moment would continue without any applause!!

    Marco has gone off to junior RNCM today to have a premiere played of a piece based on heavy metal riffs (small orchestra). TRF has enriched the lives of many. Thankyou.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    @David Galvani
    Thanks for the note, David! I particularly enjoyed the encore that night. I’m glad, and not at all surprised, that Marco is continuing to thrive as a composer.

    See you at the next one!

  4. Kenneth Woods


    Many thanks for the comment, Peter. A lot of what we achieved that night is down to your commitment to creating a space where listeners feel safe and inspired to engage with the music. Performers can’t help but be inspired by such an atmosphere!

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