A new kind of Gal, and a discussion about discussions on discussion

Where has the week gone at Vftp Int’ Headquarters?

Well, to be honest, the first half of it was given over to recovering from last week, which turned out to be pretty damn draining, and getting out in the sunshine with the kids. Beyond that, there still seemed to be an endless, relentless stream of deadlines. Tonight, I just finished auditioning the final edit/master of the next Orchestra of the Swan CD, Spring Sounds-Spring Seas, out in June on MSR records. Three world-premieres on that one!

But, tomorrow, it’s back on the road (assuming there is any petrol to be had), for a busy weekend in Manchester. Then, next week, I’m off to Kent for a week with the Kent County Youth Orchestra, who are going to play Tchaik Six so intensely that audience members’ hair may spontaneously turn white in the Finale.

Before I head north, two quick thoughts-


1-     A new kind of Gál for Ken. I’m conducting Gál’s fantastic and witty Divertimento for Winds on Saturday with the winds of the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra. It’s the earliest Gál work I’ve done as a cellist or conductor. Because he had such a long life, it’s easy to think of the works I’ve done from the 1930s like the Violin Concerto or the Serenade for String Trio as “early” works, but these are the work of a mature master in his 40’s.  In fact, the most important sea-change in Gál’s development as a composer occurred in the late1920’s, when he began to distil his harmonic language from something rather lush, ripe and post-Romantic towards the ever-more subtle and sophisticated vocabularly that he continued to refine until his retirement in the 1980’s. To put it simply, early in his career Gál probably used more adventurous sounding chords than one finds in his later music, but the later music is more harmonically complex, sophisticated and nuanced. Still, the language of the early music is quite seductive, and it’s still obviously the same composer, with the same unique wit. The LCO winds are a very, very good team these days, so I’m sure it will sound wonderfu on Saturday. Also on the program is Haydn’s Symphony no. 83 in G minor, a work of jaw dropping genius and audacity, Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue for Strings and the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major with soloist James Dick. Jimmy, who I know from many summers at the Round Top Festival, is a great artist and a former protégé of Clifford Curzon. There’s hardly a pianist alive with a more direct connection to Schnabel, so you can bet it will be Mozart of high intellect and refined elegance.


2-     A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about critic Rick Jones’ less-than-enthusiastic response to my talk (waffling) from the podium a the Cadogan Hall on February 29th. The story has been picked up by writer Gavin Dixon on the Gramophone website. Dixon points out:

“One the whole, the reactions have been positive, so it is unlikely that the episode is going to shut Ken up any time soon. But the fact remains that he is one of only a few orchestral conductors working in this country who does talk to his audience. So are we missing out? Could other conductors be providing us with musical insights we might otherwise miss?”

Indeed, although I may tone it down from time to time, I don’t see myself shutting up in the foreseeable future. Fortunately,Dixon comes out in favour of the podium rap:

“But if it’s done right, the podium introduction can enrich the concert experience, offering information on the music and increasing the sense of communication between the stage and the stalls. Kenneth Woods seems to have got the balance right. His advice to aspiring podium talkers: be brief, warm, avoid jargon, and most importantly of all, don’t take yourself too seriously.”

But when to rap? The received wisdom is exactly as Gavin Dixon suggests:

“So perhaps the podium talk is the right thing for some events, new music performances and premieres say, but not for others.”

However, I made a conscious decision to talk at the Cadogan Hall before the Elgar String Serenade. Why? Surely such a well known and often-heard piece needs no introduction?

Well, it certainly needs no introduction, but I often think familiar works need a re-introduction from time to time. I often like to pick a piece like the Elgar or even Beethoven 5 and take the time to draw the audience in to what we hope to bring to life in the upcoming performance.  Conversely, maybe sometimes a premiere can benefit from being heard with completely open ears, and save the talk for a post concert talk.

At the end of the day, some of my best raps have come before chestnuts like the Elgar (although I would only give that  particular rap a 5.2/10). Some of the worst raps have come before pieces I love dearly- it’s easy to lay it on too thick when you’re madly in love with a score. My way of working with an audience depends on the kind of ease and informality that comes from speaking off-the-cuff, so there are bound to be off nights. When you’re on, however, it’s amazing how far you can take an audience. I did a talk from the podium before a Schumann 3 not long ago that was all about the use of the perfect fourth in the piece, with live demos from the orchestra- pretty technical stuff, but somehow, I managed to draw the audience in and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Other nights, you see the first yawn and cut your losses!


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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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3 comments on “A new kind of Gal, and a discussion about discussions on discussion”

  1. Brett Vanliew

    Mister Woods, as a mobile electronics technician I would like some suggestions for extremely powerful and moving pieces as I have customers with very high end vehicles such as ferraris, bently, jaguars, rolls royce and some lamborghinis, my mobile listening environments top the 10,000 dollar mark for a basic system and frequently hit the 20 to 30,000 dollar system my clientele are rich and well to do… They like the soft classical that build to awsome powerful ripping deluges and jazzy styles of music. I am not acquainted with that type of music so if you would be so kind to email me some selections of your favorites that would perform very well on high end systems. thank you very much, brett vanliew

  2. Peter

    This helpfully raises a further dichotomy: to just talk or to talk with excepts? I think I prefer the latter. I recently saw a conductor talk about Glazunov 5 before a local band gave a good perform of it. It was clear that he was passionate about the piece and I felt that it really engaged us, the audience. The best aspect was using excerpts to show how the piece was constructed and the orchestra had clearly prepared for this. It elevated the performance from competent and spirited to something much greater.

    I haven’t yet dared to patter before a performance but it has certainly crossed my mind. Practically speaking, though, I guess that this would eat into the rehearsal time. Ours is at a premium! I would love to do a talk on Brahms and his aural ‘illusions’ with the barlines, but then perhaps, like magicians, we shouldn’t reveal his tricks!!

  3. Peter

    When I say ‘excepts’ I mean ‘excerpts’ of course. Stupid PlayBook!

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