Rick Jones reviews Bobby and Hans vol. 2, Orchestra of the Swan at Cadogan Hall, and Ken’s waffling

Rick Jones, long-time chief classical music critic for the London Evening Standard, has published a review of Bobby and Hans volume 2  on his blog , Words and Music. You can read the whole thing there (CD reviews are along the right hand side of the blog). A short sample follows:


“A defiant spirit courses through this [Gal’s} Brahmsian fourth symphony, composed in 1975. The first movement’s theme has a raised ‘Lydian’ fourth, resembling the Simpsons’ signature. It’s a sinfonia concertante with solo parts for violin, cello, flute and clarinet. Played here by the excellent Orchestra of the Swan under Kenneth Woods (see left) it casts the twentieth century in a new light, one of obstinate cheerfulness and determined optimism, a refusal to be bowed by contemporary events, which may in the end be more useful to mankind than the pain of defeat. The finale, Buffoneria, plays up to this clownish refusal to be gloomy in an irrepressibly jaunty rondo. The work is not without sadness: the slow movement is a melancholy dialogue on loss between violin and cello, the flute and clarinet now silent, having been active as the tragicomic figures of Harlequin and Columbine in the wistfully capricious scherzo. Schumann’s C major symphony shares the Gal’s combative spirit, as it was written in the 1840s when the composer was battling depression. In his own words it represents the ‘power of resistance of spirit’. Woods conducts it with profound romantic feeling, the repeated statements never repetitive, the conscious striving never self-conscious. It may yet prove to be a landmark…”

Mr Jones has also shared some reactions the concert the Orchestra of the Swan gave in Cadogan Hall the other day in this blog post. He liked the concert:

“The Swan orchestra’s strings glow, the viola barking his hungry rhythm prominently, in Elgar’s Serenade as the big conductor Kenneth Woods surprises us with the agility in his movement and the lightness in his beat.”

But he didn’t like my rap from the podium:

“He disappoints by picking up a microphone at the start of the concert and adding nothing to our enjoyment. Say something perhaps at the end when we have started to enthuse, but not the start. Who goes to a concert to listen to a conductor waffling? Violinist Tamsin Whaley-Cohen was eloquent enough without a script as she freed the captive in Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending.”

Happily, the music won the day:

“The dark chords of the same composer’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis glowered out of the age of persecution and Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge showed us the subtlety of expression which this fine orchestra is capable of…”

“Waffling” is a new one for me (I actually laughed out loud), but I’m, of course, aware that many people don’t like talking in concerts- it’s not something I necessarily look forward to as a listener, believe or not. On the other hand, I’ve seen tons of audience research over the years that, on balance, if you do it with some care, which I try to, more people come to concerts and more concert-goers support their orchestras as donors. It’s also something I get mountains of feedback from- it’s something that is discussed enthusiastically by some members of the audience almost every time I conduct. I tried not talking at a concert with my regular band in Guildford last year, and I got a lot of complaints. Ultimately, we have to make sure we’re looking after the needs of newer listeners, and doing it without dumbing down our programing. Someone with the vast breadth of knowledge that someone like Mr Jones has obviously doesn’t need, or want, a guided tour to works he already knows well- hopefully what was said was useful for some of the less experienced listeners.  When I speak in a concert I try to remember that people don’t come to be educated, they come to be entertained- what I say should ultimately help them enjoy what they hear. I also hope that perhaps it can be a way to humanize the relationship between performer and audience members.  The most important thing is that he seems to have enjoyed the music and not let my chat get in the way of listening with open ears- full props to him for that. The music is the most important thing, and I take his criticism as a pertinent reminder to be vigilant that I don’t do anything on the podium that comes between the listener and the music. Next time, perhaps I’ll keep in shorter.

What do you think? Is silence golden, or do you think musicians should be making more effort to connect with listeners?

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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

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9 comments on “Rick Jones reviews Bobby and Hans vol. 2, Orchestra of the Swan at Cadogan Hall, and Ken’s waffling”

  1. Ben Knowles

    Well speaking as a player and nerd, I enjoy learning more about a work. But the best response probably comes from my family when they’ve come to concerts. They’ve always appreciated it and been fascinated by the extra information. It helped them to enjoy works like Shostakovich’s 10th and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra by knowing the socio-political context of the works, which for a first-time listener not familiar with that musical language/rhetoric may be a bit too heavy at first.

    Also while this stuff can be written in a programme, I much prefer to watch the orchestra when I’m at a concert, not read information in a programme (plus a programme costs – the speech doesn’t! Got to be worthwhile in the economic climate :P)

  2. Barney S

    You are right, in my view, Ken- don’t lecture, don’t “educate,” but DO talk, as one human does to another in any other situation, including pop concerts. I do see a trade-off: the “sacred ritual” element of the classical concert can be undermined; but in my view, it already has been undermined by shifts in the culture. That applies especially to the people we’re trying to bring in (and the regulars will keep coming regardless). So the gains far outweigh the losses.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Very good point about the danger of losing the “sacred ritual.” There are some concerts where we should be able to let the music speak for itself, or to feel free to focus only on the music. There are certainly times when talking just gets in the way. There are even some concerts where applause might not be the right thing.

  4. Andy C

    You get it about right Ken – for the Guildford band the short talk is part of the ritual which the audience enjoy (and, as you found, expect). Apart from being interesting it draws them in and helps them feel part of what is happening. Performance isn’t something we “do” to an audience, it’s something they participate in by their reaction. Barney Sherman’s point about culture shifts made me wonder about other performing arts and how attitudes have changed; why is it still perfectly OK for audiences to laugh, clap, groan, eat etc. during theatrical performance, while for music this is usually frowned on? From what I’ve read it seems that concerts in earlier times were far more interactive and lively affairs – the audience would applaud or comment when they felt like it, would even demand a replay of a movement they liked. I understand what he means about “sacred ritual” but for me music performance has become too ritualised and has lost spontaniety. Which I think your waffles help to restore – ignore the critics!

  5. Gill

    Do carry on talking – it is definitely one of SMP’s USPs, our audience love it

  6. Gavin

    Via Twitter:

    Talking from the podium? I’m in favour – as long as you stay on topic. Love J E Gardiner’s intros, but they can meander… oh, and no Bernstein-style apologies in advance. They don’t help anybody.

    Marin Alsop is another good podium-talker. Maybe it’s an American thing.

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Glad to hear you’re in favor. I think if one is brief, warm, don’t take yourself too seriously and avoid jargon, it’s, on balance, useful

  8. Louise

    Via Facebook: I do think performers, especially conductors, should speak. I don’t like it when you see someone’s back for 2 hours and they don’t even speak to you.

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