About Kenneth Woods

American conductor and cellist Kenneth Woods takes you on the road, into the concert hall and inside the recording studio. Musical opinion, thoughts about interpretation and performance, travel stories and more. Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

A future for music- talking our way to transformation

This week I will be conducting some of the incidental music composed by Edvard Grieg to accompany Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. I haven’t conducted any of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music in over ten years, and I’m very, very excited to be doing  it again.

There was a time when I didn’t know enough about music or life to know how wonderful this music is. I remember attending the Round Top Festival many, many years ago as a student, and being slightly put off to see the Second Suite from Peer Gynt on the rep list. Round Top is a conservatory-level summer program for instrumentalists who aspire to play in great orchestras. I’d played the Grieg several times as a teenager and the piece had definitely taken on the taint of being a “youth orchestra piece.” I was in a “Peer Gynt/Schmeer Gynt” mood. I wasn’t alone in this- I don’t think there were more than five players in the orchestra who were really thrilled to be playing it. It felt like an easy filler work that had been chosen to free up rehearsal time for the other, more “ambitious” pieces on the program.

All of that changed one afternoon.

We were invited to attend a talk on the Grieg given by the great musicologist Michael Steinberg, whose wife, Jorja Fleezanis (long-time concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra) was teaching violin at the festival. Attendance was voluntary, but I would guess a good thirty to forty members of our 80-piece orchestra showed up. The vibe as intentionally informal and laid back. We mostly sat on the floor, and Michael was his usual soft-spoken, gentle, brilliant self. The vibe was about as far from “educational” as you can get. For about an hour he talked about the music’s roots in Ibesn’s masterpiece. He talked about Peer’s character flaws and personal journey, and read several relevant pages from the play. Over the course of the hour,  Michael gently persuaded us all that we were blessed that week to be engaging with two great masterpieces, Ibsen’s play and Grieg’s music, that touched on the very essence of the human experience.

I think the highpoint of the session was when Michael read the scene depicted in “Aase’s Death.” Peer’s mother, Aase, is dying. Peer, neither a great man nor a particularly good son, lovingly comforts her with stories as she slips away.  That reading and that movement became the highlight of the week for me- possibly the highlight of the summer. In fact, I can’t even remember what else was on the program that we thought was so much more interesting and important. You can bet there were a lot of tears around when Michael turned off the CD player at the end of the movement. From not wanting to play Peer Gynt at all, we all suddenly wanted to play the First Suite, too.

I was telling a shortened version of this story to a colleague this morning- not just because we’re doing the piece on Saturday, but because this is the sort of thing all of us need to do more of.  So much of musical training is practical. So much of our marketing is driven by celebrity, trends and occasion. Musical education, training and outreach can be inspirational, literary, personal, creative and narrative. There was so much to learn from Michael that day- about life, about writing, about character, about how one genius inspires another. Most of all, there was the inspiration of Michael himself- his incredible love of music and depth of knowledge combined with his effortless ability to engage and communicate. He had the uncanny ability to engage his audience in such a way that our received barriers, points of resistance and arrogance simply fell away in the presence of his sincerity and wisdom. Michael became a friend and mentor and I learned so much from him about how to talk with people about music. If we want a future for music, we can’t just focus on playing in tune, balancing our budgets and marketing our concerts. When you can get a listener or a musician to understand the human essence of a great work of art, the musician plays with a totally different level of artistry, and you can bet the listener will be there for the concert. If we want a future for music, we’ve got to learn to sit on the floor with our friends, colleagues, neighbors and peers, play some tunes and talk about why we love them.

AASE This bustle
is taking my strength away.

PEER Look, there’s the castle, we’re closing,
the driving will soon be done.

AASE I’ll lie back, rest my eyes, try dozing,
depending on you, my son!

PEER Grane my strider, get going!
The castle is one great hum!
There’s a swarm at the gate to and froing.
Now here comes Peer Gynt with his Mum!

What’s that you say, Mr Saint Peter?
Ma’s not allowed to slip in?
You’ll have to look long to beat her
or to find such a decent old thing.
As for me, least said soonest mended;
I can turn at the gate again.
If you poured me one — that would be splendid;
if not, I must leave, that’s plain.

Like old Nick when he preached I’ve been telling
great fibs, more than now and then,
I’ve scolded my Ma for her yelling
and cackling like some old hen.
But you show respect now you’ve met her
and greet her with warmth and praise,
there’s no-one you’ll come across better
from hereabouts, nowadays. —

Hoho! Here’s God, now, the Father!
Saint Peter, you’ll cop it, you’ll see!
(in a deep voice)
— “You stop all this formal palaver,
and leave Mother Aase be!
(laughs aloud and turns to his mother)
Yes, wasn’t it just as I said? Things
will dance to a different tune!
(in dread)
But your eyes — why they bulge like a dead thing’s!
Have you passed away Ma, so soon — !
(goes to the head of the bed)

You mustn’t just lie there, staring! —
Speak Ma; it’s me, your son!
(feels her brow and hands cautiously; then he drops the cord
on the chair and says quietly)
Ah well! — Grane, rest from your faring;
for right now the journey’s done.

(closing her eyes and bending over her)
Thanks, Ma, for the cuddling and spanking,
for all of your life beside! —
But now it’s your turn to be thanking —
(puts his cheek to her mouth)
so there — that was thanks for the ride.

(Kari enters)

KARI What? Peer! Then we’re over the weeping,
the worst of her grief and dread!
Good Lord, how soundly she’s sleeping — —
or is she — ?

PEER Hush; she is dead.

CD Review- John Puccio/Classical Candor on Gál and Schumann First Symphonies

A review from the popular “Classical Candor” blog of volume four in the Orchestra of the Swan’s survey of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann and Hans Gál. Read the original here. 


“Gal’s First Symphony is relatively brief, about thirty minutes, and more outgoing than the other symphonies I’ve heard from him. Maestro Woods takes advantage of these characteristics to provide a lively and colorful rendering of things. The symphony is clearly Romantic in nature yet with strong hints of the coming modernism of the twentieth century. Woods emphasizes the melodic lines, keeps the Burleske playful, draws out a lovely Elegie, and ends with a rousing account of the Rondo finale. Although I had never heard the work before now, I would find it hard to imagine anyone handling it any better than Woods, nor any orchestra playing it with more accuracy and enthusiasm.”

CD Review- Words and Music on Bobby and Hans vol 4

Critic Rick Jones (longtime critic for the London Evening Standard) compares the new Orchestra of the Swan recording of Schumann 1 with that of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Yannick Nezet-Seguin on Deutsche Grammophon. Read the original here.

It’s Bobby and Hans for the win.


Disc of the Day: One hears the first cuckoo… Not one but two Schumann Spring Symphonies hove into earshot. Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan versus Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Woods wins it. One needs express no surprise when the committed outfit with its own conductor beats the prestige youngsters under the rising star jet-setter.  The Woods performance is tighter, rhythmically crisper, richer in contrasts, more characterful and always closer to the composer’s wishes. Nezet-Seguin twice decelerates where no tempo change is marked – the first movement’s second subject (where Woods marks the contrast not by speed but stark, clear-blue-water contrast between the wind legato and the string agitato) and, more deliberately, the bowed unisons after the skittish pizzicato in the finale. It ruins the momentum. Woods carries on through precipitously, which is clearly what Schumann intends. Woods is slower in the slow movement but anticipates the chords with unified crescendi. He is half a minute quicker in the Scherzo and quite Beethovenian in the string scales where the European conglomerate sounds plodding and lacks the bass throb in the same scales. The solos – the paused horn call, the flute cadenza – show the European mettle but one expects that as these are the cream of instrumentalists skimmed off, but the sense of ensembles within the ensemble in the Stratford On Avon orchestra, with Woods’ woodwind even achieving comic tone together, is more important ultimately than fine solos. Golden the daffodils in Shakespeare’s birthplace.


The Official, Definitive, Ultimate, Real Top Ten Sexiest Moments in the Music of Gustav Mahler

Julian Johnson’s excellent book  “Mahler’s Voices” has been languishing on various bookshelves at Vftp Int’l Headquarters in an embarrassingly half-read state for a few years.

As last week’s Mahler 5 performance approached, I was inspired to open the book and dip in to a random chapter while waiting for a repairman to come to the house. Almost immediately, I spied something a bit provocative on the subject of Mahler and sex.

“Nothing marks this difference more acutely than the absence of an erotic dimension in Mahler’s work. The preoccupation  of Viennese modernism with a specifically sexual content (Klimt, Gerstl, Schiele, Kokoschka… Strauss, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Schönberg) is entirely bypassed by Mahler. Despite a lifelong engagement with the music of Wagner, and memorable performances of Tristan und Isolde, Mahler’s own music displays a studied avoidance of the topic that most immediately definted a modernist viewpoint.” (pg 229)

Alma Mahler with her future lover, painter Oskar Kokoschka

Alma Mahler with her future lover, painter Oskar Kokoschka

It’s funny how differently various perceptive listeners will hear the same piece of music. The rest of this paragraph from Johnson is a tour de force of  insight, nuance and complexity, but in these two sentences, I saw before me the possibility of a blog post with a blatantly titillating title in which I could mix a bit of juvenile humor with some more thoughtful insights in the complexities of Mahler’s musical world.

Sex is often depicted in the modernist works of Mahler’s near contemporaries and immediate successors as something dark and dangerous. It is frequently associated with decay and madness, and with isolation, rage, manipulation and estrangement. Sex in Berg, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss is probably more likely to be associated with murder than with love. In Mahler, with the notable exceptions of Das Lied von der Erde and the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, sex is a redemptive, healing, creative force, closely joined to the idea of transcendent love. Which vision of sexuality is more truly modern? The darker sexual images of most early 20th c modernist art may make Mahler’s worldview seem sweetly old-fashioned, but they clearly bind sex with shame. Maybe there is something distinctly modern about Mahler’s un-embarrassed depiction of sex as something essential, even holy?

While I wouldn’t say that, as a rule, Mahler’s music gets quite as raunchy as the purple-est passages in the music of the Richard’s, Strauss and Wagner, I’m pretty confident in asserting there  are some pretty good naughty bits in Mahler’s music. So, without further ado, I present for the record, the official, definitive, ultimate, Real Top Ten Sexiest Moments in the Music of Mahler

What do you think? Are there passages in Mahler that get you seriously hot and bothered, or do you turn to Lulu and Salome for your fix of early 20th c. Austro-German sensuality?

10- Die zwei blauen Augen (“My baby’s Blue Eyes”) from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

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Explore the Score- Bach “Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals” (The Goldberg Variations)

This weekend, I’ll be playing the marvelous transcription of the Goldberg Variations made for string trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky at the Harborough Music Collective with violinist David Le Page and violist Carmen Flores. Coffee Concerts take place at 3pm on Sundays at The Congregational Church, Market Harborough LE167JD. Tickets are £11 (concessions £9, under 18s free) and can be reserved in advanced by calling07903020101 or are available at the door. Ticket price includes coffee, tea and biscuits.

I was reminded that I recently wrote an essay on the Goldberg Variations as part of a 6 CD set of live recordings by the legendary pianist Howard Karp, which will be released later this spring on Albany Records. I thought posting that essay here might well whet your appetite for both concert and CD.


Disc five begins with the earliest recorded performance in this collection, from October 1962. Although Karp had only played the Goldberg Variations once before in public, his acquaintance with the work went back to his student days. “I first studied the Goldberg Variations with Rosina Lhevinne as a graduate student at the Juilliard School of Music. She made it clear to me that she had never previously had a student study the work with her, yet she was able to assist me admirably because of her natural musicality and disciplined mind. I had the feeling that she would have played the work magnificently.”

Modern research has thrown into serious doubt the veracity of the popular story that Bach wrote the Variations to give comfort to a visiting nobleman suffering from insomnia. Unlike most of Bach’s music, the Variations were published in his lifetime, and there is no mention made in the score of a dedication to either Count Kaiserling, whose sleep difficulties were purported to have inspired the work, nor of his long-suffering keyboardist, the now-immortalized Mr. Goldberg.

Bach is known to have always maintained an interest in the evolution of new keyboard instruments throughout his life, and it seems inconceivable that he would not have been amazed and delighted by the possibilities of the modern Steinway. Nonetheless, Bach was also a composer who knew how to stretch the possibilities of the instruments he had available to him and, throughout the Variations, he makes particular use of the possibilities of the two-manual keyboard in writing parts that cross and even overlap. This means that performance of these works on a single-keyboard piano offers a number of possibilities to expand or refine the textural and coloristic possibilities of the work, but also creates some very specific and very awkward technical challenges which are not a factor when playing the work on an instrument with two keyboards. Karp is absolutely clear on which pianists he feels best handle both the possibilities and the challenges of playing Bach on the piano “The pianist whose playing of Bach I loved above all was Rosalyn Tureck, and I also loved William Kapell’s Bach”

Pianists and musicologists have long argued over how far one can go in the direction of exploiting the strengths of the modern piano, particularly its ability to sustain a singing line, without losing the clarity of texture Bach’s music demands. Karp’s approach to the use of the damper pedal is tellingly more pragmatic than puritanical: “Andras Schiff is also a favorite. I first heard Schiff play Book I of the Well Tempered Klavier, and I recall his using the pedal sparingly. Later, I heard his Bach playing at the University of Wisconsin when he used no damper pedal— I admired both performances, yet preferred the first. I also attempt to use pedal sparingly in Bach.”

Whatever the origins of the work, the  as Bach titled it is, without doubt, one of his most serious-minded and carefully structured pieces. The absolute rigor of the form is rather belied by the extent to which the rather academic-sounding structure of the piece presents the “connoisseurs” to whom it was offered, not a lesson in development and counterpoint, but, in the words of Bach, “refreshment of their spirits.”

The opening Aria is, in fact, a dance movement, a fact often forgotten by modern interpreters. “The tempo of the opening Aria of the Goldberg Variations should simply be in the tempo of an ornamented Sarabande,” says Karp, adding, “The tempi I chose for the Variations seemed to “play themselves.” Karp’s nonchalant observation points out an important fact about the structure of the piece— the thirty variations are derived not from the melody of the Aria, but from its bass line, and if that bass line isn’t played with direction and shape, the entire piece starts to feel long and aimless. Melodic self-indulgence in the Aria is likely to lead to all sorts of difficulty in making sense of the tempi of the variations to follow.

The variations themselves follow a very strict pattern— nine times in a row two variations of freely chosen character are followed by a canon, and the canons are all built at sequentially increasing intervals, starting with a “Cannone all’Unisuono” (canon at the unison) and working up to a “Cannone alla Nona” (canon at the ninth). At the halfway point of the work, there is a “Cannone alla Quinta” followed by a new beginning, in grand French Overture style. It is worth pointing out Bach’s genius in his handling of the canons, none of which sound in any way dry or studied, but are as diverse and original in character as all of the other more freely constructed variations. In place of a final “Cannone alla Decimo” Bach offers us a final “Quodlibet.” This astounding movement, less than two minutes long in Karp’s performance, manages to bring together not only many of the threads of the previous variations, but also to introduce quotations from several German folk themes. As with the cannons, a description of it sounds terribly dry and academic as described, until one realizes that the text of one of those folk songs reads “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”. Bach wore his greatness more comfortably than most composers, and part of his unique genius was the ability to make the most learned of musical forms come alive with humor and humanity.



An appreciation for your contribution

Dear Sir

As you were the 19-year-old 2nd trumpet player who last year (or the year before? Was it 2007? Let’s keep it vague, shall we?) who offered me his candid advice (“Ken? Can you, um, speed it up a little”) on one of the key tempi in a piece a piece I’ve conducted and played more than almost any other, which you were playing for the first time and had never seemingly heard before, I now wish to say: thank you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

It’s been several months, possibly even years, now, and every time I think of you, I just find the whole thing even funnier. Not just “quiet chuckle” funny, but laugh-out-loud funny. I could just hug you, you cute little guy.

Really- you didn’t know the piece, couldn’t play the part, came late to rehearsal, complained loudly about the rehearsal schedule and couldn’t count. And you didn’t seem to be able to tell when you’d mis-counted (to be fair lots of composers write passages in which the entire rest of the orchestra plays in unison for eight bars with the 2nd trumpet in canon a bar behind), because you hadn’t really listened to the piece! I love that part of it. Did you seem to be able to keep track of where we were starting from, or were you talking from the moment we stopped to the moment I gave an upbeat, leaving you scrambling to find your place every time? Aha- it was the latter!

And you still had something to say to me about that particular tempo. Outstanding, sir!

I’ve come to see that it never occurred to you that I might have actually thought about that tempo (for decades) in relation to the form of the piece, or actually consulted the printed tempo markings and metronome markings provided by the composer, or the recorded performances of those who knew the composer. And how could you know if I had discussed it with mentors and teachers, or even read books about it?

Why? Because you hadn’t thought about the piece at all, except in terms of how tired it was making you, and how much less tired it might make you if I went faster. I love it! I really do.  I realize now that you had concluded that I was probably pulling that tempo completely out of my a*s, just as you were retrieving so much of your contribution to that project from yours. I admit- I’ve been known to hunt around my a*s for the tempi to the odd bel canto overture I’ve never come across before, but that piece? Really? I find those tempos in the SCORE!

If only I could have let the composer (now sadly deceased, as so many of them seem to be these days) know your thinking, I’m sure he would have gladly rewritten his symphony to make it less taxing for you. He might also have been persuaded to include that little canon of yours in the first movement unison passage. Sigh…..If only he and you could have met, I’m sure he would have found you just as charming as I have.

Fantastic. Well done, sir! Your indelible contribution to my musical education and edification never ceases to make me smile with delight. I’m simply utterly delighted and amused to have met you. The memory of your insight shall stay with me always! Your astounding self-confidence will not soon be forgotten.


Letter from Ken: Now in Stores- Hans Gál and Robert Schumann, First Symphonies

Hi everyone

Today is the BIG day.


After a nearly-five-year journey, volume four in our series of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann and Hans Gál hits the stores today. The CD is now available to order, stream and download from fine retailers in most territories.

I don’t have to remind most of you what a big moment this is- you’ve supported the project because you understand the importance of the music and the urgency of the effort. You gave because you knew someone had to.

The good news is that your generosity, your commitment and your sense of urgency has paid off. The disc is out, the series is complete. For the first time, there is an integral set of the symphonies of Hans Gál all performed by the same orchestra and conductor. Thanks to your support, we were also able to deliver the first live cycle of these important works in history, most of which had not been played in over thirty years. We’ve also completed a Schumann cycle that we think is a really exciting addition to the discography- one that  is both grounded in the latest scholarship about Schumann’s life and music, and  fresh and full of life, thanks to the tireless efforts of my colleagues in the orchestra

This project has helped the music of Hans Gál reach the ears of countless new listeners around the world through broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, Performance Today and NPR’s All Things Considered. The music has been discussed for the first time in national newspapers in the US and UK, including the Sunday New York Times, the Washington Post, the Saturday Telegraph and the Guardian. We’ve been a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, and have been on several “best of the year” lists.

Later this spring, Hans Gál will be featured for the first time on BBC Radio 3’s “Composer of the Week”. It’s currently scheduled for May 5th-9th, but check your listings closer to the time. This is a huge breakthrough for Gál, and it wouldn’t have happened without this project or without your active support.

All of this, however, is a beginning, not an end. I hope you will continue to help us to make the most of what we’ve all invested in the project. First- not to state the obvious, but now would be a great time to sell a few CDs. Please tell your friends about the disc in person or via Facebook and Twitter. Word of mouth counts for so much today, and early momentum is vitally important for getting the media interested in spreading the word about any new CD.

We very much want to see Hans Gál’s music programmed at international festivals, particularly the Proms.

Please consider writing a nice, positive letter to:

Office of Mr. Roger Wright,
Controller BBC Radio 3
Director BBC Proms,
Broadcasting House,
Portland Place
LondonW1B 1DJ

Perhaps you can articulate to Mr Wright why you supported this project, what you admire about the music and why you think it is important that it is featured at the Proms. Perhaps you can also explain why you think this music has the potential to engage a large audience. Remember, be constructive and positive and personal- share your passion for the music and we’ll be more likely to get great results.

Please also consider writing to your local orchestras, festivals and presenters. People really do read these things and try to take them in to account when planning, especially if they can sense that there is a buzz around an idea or a composer.

And, of course, if you think there is someone that one of us at team Gál should be in touch with, please email me at ken@kennethwoods.net.

So, what’s next on the recording front? There are several important projects in the works. Cellist Matthew Sharp is putting together a very interesting project to record Gál’s Cello Concertino alongside several other concertos by composers of the same generation. Ensemble Epomeo, who recorded the complete Gál String Trios last year, are planning to record the two late Gál quintets (his Viola Quintet and Clarinet Quintet) in 2016, and also hope to record his piano quartets. On the orchestral front, there is still much to be done- there are some wonderful string orchestra pieces that we hope to record soon, as well as some lovely chamber orchestra works. More ambitious, however, is the plan to record Gál’s very important major choral/orchestral works De Profundis and Lebenskreise, and eventually the operas. These are huge pieces and massive projects, but they look a lot more achievable now than four years ago when nobody had ever managed to record a Gál symphony, let alone all four.

Thank you gifts will be in the mail over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, thank you all for believing, for acting and for making this project possible.

All best



Re-blog: Composer interview- Victoria Bond on “Rashomon”

Re-blogged from ensemble-epomeo.net

On Sunday, the 23rd of February, Ensemble Epomeo and shakuhachi virtuoso James Schlefer will give the world premiere of composer Victoria Bond‘s new work for shakuhachi and string trio, “Rashomon.” We asked Maestra Bond a few questions about her new work and her distinguished career.

composer Victoria Bond

EE Your new quartet is titled Rashomon. Most people will recognize the title from the iconic Kurosawa film. Can you tell us a little bit about your use of the title- is the piece based on the film, and if so, how?

VB: I have actually based my composition on two short stories by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa; “Rashomon,” and “In a Bamboo Grove.”  These, in turn, were taken from Konjaku Monogatarishū’s Anthology of Tales from the Past, also known as theKonjaku Monogatari, a Japanese collection of over one thousand tales written during the late Heian period  (794-1185). The volumes cover various tales from IndiaChina and Japan. The subject-matter is largely drawn from Buddhist and secular folklore. The folkloric tales mostly depict encounters between human beings and the supernatural. The typical characters are drawn from Japanese society of the time — nobility, warriors, monks, scholars, doctors, peasant farmers, fishermen, merchants, prostitutes, bandits, beggars. Their supernatural counterparts are oni and tengu. The work is anonymous. The date of the work is also uncertain. From the events depicted in some of the tales it seems likely that it was written down at some point during the early half of the 12th century, after the year 1120. Many of the tales which appear in the Konjaku are also found in other collections, such as ghost story collections; having passed into the common consciousness, they have been retold many times over the succeeding centuries. Modern writers too have adapted tales from the Konjaku Monogatarishū: a famous example is Akutagawa Ryūnosuke‘s In a Grove, well known in the West from Kurosawa‘s film Rashomon.

EE- Rashomon is structured as a theme and variations, one of the oldest Western musical forms. What is the appeal for you of this formal structure as composer working today? Is your approach to variation form in this work based on any existing formal models?

VB: theme and Variations is one of my favorite musical forms and I have written many throughout my compositional career.  It was this convergence of musical and literary forms that drew me to the story of Rashomon in the first place, and I was struck by the implications of this abstract musical form in a dramatic context. Within each of the four movements, each being a variation of the theme presented in the first movement, is another form, as follows:

I. The Gate – Theme
II. The Murder: A Crime of Violence – Variations
III. The Murder: A Cold Calculation – Passacaglia
IV. The Murder: A Crime of Passion – Rondo


EE- The Rashomon story suggests a strong Japanese influence on the piece. Did you feel like the sound of the shakuhachi almost mandated some Japanese element in either the musical language or programmatic structure of the piece?

VB: The theme itself has a Japanese character, being a descending pentatonic scale with an ambiguous chromatic element. In addition to the shakuhachi, I also wanted to imply the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments in the string parts.


EE-Does the piece have any typically Japanese melodies or stylistic traits?

VB: The melodic material is original, though influenced by traditional Japanese melodies and timbres.


EE- If so, had you ever written in a cross-cultural style before?

VB: I have been influenced by many cultures, having travelled extensively as part of my life as a conductor. Some of those cultural influences are: Chinese, Brazilian, Irish, Puerto Rican, English, French, German, and Italian.


EE-Are there different challenges working with material from a non-Western musical tradition?

VB: The challenge of working with materials from other cultures is to maintain one’s musical identity and not to simply adapt folkloric influences.  My desire is to absorb these influences and make them my own, so that they become part of the musical fabric of my creative world.


EE- You’ve managed to maintain a diverse and successful career as both a conductor and composer- that’s quite an achievement. How has composing shaped your work on and off the podium? Do feel you study scores or rehearse differently because of your experience as composer?

VB: Having a double life as composer and conductor has many advantages, the principal one being an intimate and working knowledge of the literature and of performers. I approach the study of a score looking for clues, and asking myself “why has the composer made these decisions?” These insights become an important component in shaping my interpretation of a work. Conducting instrumentalists and singers gives me valuable insight into what works technically and dramatically for each artist in the context of a given work, and especially what doesn’t work. This information becomes an essential part of my own compositions.  I often feel as though I have had the opportunity to be my own “Composer-in-Residence” during a rehearsal period with an orchestra, opera company or chamber music ensemble.  The one great challenge of maintaining a conducting and composing career is that of time, and in that regard, I have decided that composing is more important to me, and I am devoting the majority of my time to it, cutting back on all of my conducting activities.


EE- What are your conducting and compositional ambitions for the future?

VB: I am completing work on an opera about Clara Schumann, called “Clara” which will have a concert reading next season, and a Hanukkah opera called “Miracle!” which will premiere next December.  I am also completing two concertos, one for violin and string orchestra and one for trumpet and brass ensemble as part of a project for Albany Records and Roosevelt University.  This project is called “Four Presidents” and celebrates George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt with works for narrator and a variety of ensembles, the text being adapted from the writings and speeches of each of the presidents by historian Dr. Myles Lee.  In addition, each work features a solo instrument and pays homage to the music of the period as follows:

George Washington

Pater Patriae, a concerto for flute and wind ensemble, using material adapted from fife and drum tunes of the revolutionary period.

Franklin Roosevelt

The Indispensable Man, a concerto for clarinet and wind ensemble, using material from the big band era of the 1940’s

Thomas Jefferson

The Soul of a Nation, a concerto for violin and string orchestra, using material that Jefferson actually played on the violin

Theodore Roosevelt

Title TBD, a concerto for trumpet and brass ensemble, using material from the time


EE- What music excites you these days? Have there been any “wow” moments in the last year or two where you discovered a new piece, a new work or a new insight into a familiar one that really made a huge impression.

VB: I produce a new music series called Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festivaleach year in New York, and present a wide variety of composers and performers throughout the month of April at Symphony Space in Manhattan.  This allows me to be in touch with established as well as emerging composers, and I have so many positive impressions of what is being written today, that the list would be very long!


Ensemble Epomeo – Diane Pascal, violin; David Yang, viola; and Kenneth Wods, cello with James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi. And exciting combo os shakuhachi and strings featuring two new KSA premieres: Rashomon by Victoria Bond, for shakuhachi and string trio and Sidewalk Dancesby James Nyoraku Schlefer for shakuhachi and cello. Plus Beethoven, Kurtágand Weinberg.

Tenri Cultural Institute

43A West 13 Street

New York, NY

Tickets $25 and $15 for students. Advance purchase with priority seating at  brownpapertickets.com or 1-800-838-3006

Beethoven – Trio in D Major Op.9
Victoria Bond – Shakuhachi Quartet – World Premiere (a Kyo-Shin-An Arts Commission)
György Kurtág – Signs, Games and Messages (String Trio)

James Nyoraku Schlefer – Duo for Shakuhachi and Cello
Mieczyslaw Weinberg – String Trio

The worst conducting advice in the history of the universe

Several months ago I was sipping a flat white in a café with a friend and former student who was describing the teaching methods of one of America’s more eminent conducting pedagogues- a gentleman I’ve never met nor observed.

Apparently one of his favorite aphorisms these days is that, when conducting, “the camera is always on.”

Now, I need to include a whole bunch of disclaimers here- I don’t know the context or spirit in which this advice was/is given. It’s possible I completely misunderstood what I was hearing when my friend told me this (we stayed on this subject for maybe five minutes). Perhaps they meant that “the Camerata is always on.” The Manchester Camerata are a very good orchestra. So is the Salzburg Camerata. Maybe he just meant that one of these fine groups is always “on”?

Still, in the six months or so since that conversation, I’ve found myself thinking over and over again about this notion, about the possibility that a generation of young conductors is being trained to think of their conducting in terms of how they look, on camera or off. It’s become a bit like wondering if you’ve left the iron on when you left on vacation- once the idea is planted in your head, it eats away at you until you have to do something about it.

So, here I am, doing something about it.

I suppose I always needed to take on this topic. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve found it hard to believe that any teacher would actually tell a young conductor to approach conducting as if “the camera is always on.” I’m sure his point of view was more nuanced than my friend was able to describe in a few fleeting moments of a wide ranging conversation. Nevertheless, I have seen a growing obsession with the visual aspect of conducting among people who should know better, including other teachers, managers, administrators and critics. “The camera is always on,” regardless of its original context, seems like  extremely handy shorthand for a mindset about conducting I see very often these days, so that is how I propose to use it for the rest of this essay.

Having thought about it now for some months, I think that “the camera is always on” may be the worst and most potentially destructive piece of advice I’ve ever heard given to young conductors. It’s certainly right up there with “be a complete dick to everyone and wear a cape to work,” “be a real maestro and make the effing soloist follow you” and “never look a score outside rehearsal until the day of a concert.” It’s probably even worse that “you can leave out the exposition repeat if you want to.”

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Repertoire Report- CBSO Youth Orchestra, 2013

The first of our guest Repertoire Reports, submitted on behalf of the CBSO Youth Orchestra by their manager, Richard Bratby:
Dear Ken,
Hope you’re well! Since you’re just doing your repertoire reports, I thought I’d let you know what the CBSO Youth Orchestra has been up to in 2013.
As usual, they’ve only three concerts this year, but I’m keen for people to know about them, partly because of some silly things that I’ve heard said lately: about young people not having the attention span for large-scale music, about their supposed lack of interest in serious repertoire, and the idea that to interest young people, you have to stick to popular classics and film scores. I still hear these patronising (and defeatist) ideas repeated depressingly frequently.Everything we do with this orchestra is grounded in the exact opposite of these ideas – our young musicians adore this repertoire and I can testify that they played the socks off it! It was particularly thrilling to watch them fall in love, en masse, with the Revueltas, Messiaen and Korngold. Coming in 2014: “Zarathustra”, Metamorphosen, and premieres by Turnage and Charlotte Bray!

Best wishes, and Happy New Year,
Debussy: La Mer (Ilan Volkov)
Korngold: Much Ado About Nothing – suite (Michael Seal)
Messiaen: Poemes pour Mi (Ilan Volkov / Allison Bell)
Mozart: Symphony No.36 “Linz” (Michael Seal)
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Andrew Litton / Jean-Efflam Bavouzet)
Ravel: Mother Goose – ballet (Michael Seal)
Revueltas: Homenaje a F D Lorca (Michael Seal)
Sibelius: Symphony No.5
Mahler: Symphony No.5 (Andrew Litton)


Repertoire Report- KW 2012

Well, once I broke the seal yesterday and put together my 2013 Repertoire Report, I couldn’t really resist filling in my missing report from last year. So, herewith, my 2012 Repertoire Report.

Interesting points of comparison with 2013:

No Shostakovich in 2012 (compared to Cello Concerto, Chamber Symphony opus 83a, Symphonies 5 and 14 and the 8th String Quartet in 2013)

A lot more Brahms in 2012 than 2013, and (finally) one major work by Bartók.

Some very interesting new pieces and new composer- particularly my first encounters with Robert Saxton, John McCabe and Deborah Pritchard. Conducting my first Tippett was a HUGE awakening, too. A revelation, even.

What did you conduct last year? Send in your list (info@kennethwoods.net ), and we’ll publish it and add it to the archive.

Most played composer of 2012: Beethoven (7 works)

  • Brahms- 5
  • Mozart- 5
  • Gal- 4
  • Vaughan Williams- 3
  • Dvorak- 3
  • Haydn- 3
  1. Bach (arr Sitkovetsky)- Goldberg Variations
  2. Bartók- Concerto for Orchestra
  3. Beethoven: String Trio in Eb Major, Opus 3
  4. Beethoven- Overture “Egmont”
  5. Beethoven- Overture “Coriolanus”
  6. Beethoven- Violin Concerto in D Major
  7. Beethoven- Triple Concerto +
  8. Beethoven- Symphony no. 2 in D major
  9. Beethoven- Symphony no. 3 “Eroica”
  10. Brahms- Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor opus 25
  11. Brahms- Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (soloist)
  12. Brahms- Serenade in D major, opus 11 rec
  13. Brahms- Symphony no. 2  in D major
  14. Brahms – Symphony no. 3
  15. Britten- Variations on a Theme of FrankBridge +
  16. Bruckner- Symphony no. 5 in B flat Major +
  17. Chopin- Cello Sonata in G minor
  18. Melissa Dunphy: The Voyage of the Dreadnaught  *World Premiere* +
  19. Dvorak- Cello Concerto in B minor, opus 104
  20. Dvorak- The Water Goblin +
  21. Dvorak- Symphonic Variations +
  22. Elgar: Serenade for Strings
  23. Elgar- Enigma Variations
  24. Falla- Nights in the Gardens of Spain * + rec
  25. Franck- Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra + rec
  26. Gál- String Trio in F sharp Minor, opus 104
  27. Gál- Serenade in D major, opus 41 Mvt 4
  28. Gál- Triptych for Orchestra
  29. Gál- Symphony no. 2 + rec
  30. Lou Harrison – String Trio (1946) * +
  31. Haydn – Symphony no. 31 (Horn Signal) +
  32. Haydn- Symphony no. 83 “La Poule” +
  33. Haydn- Symphony no. 95 +
  34. Krása- Tanec
  35. Gyorgy Kurtag: Signs, Games, & Messages +
  36. Mahler (arr. Karp)- Adagietto for Cello and Piano + (UK Premiere)
  37. Mahler- Ruckert Lieder
  38. Mahler- Symphony no. 3 +
  39. Mahler- Symphony no. 6 in A minor
  40. John McCabe- Trumpet Concerto “La Primavera” wp * + rec
  41. Mendelssohn- Symphony no. 3 in A “Scottish”
  42. Mozart- Adagio and Fugue
  43. Mozart – Violin Concerto no. 3
  44. Mozart- Piano Concerto in A major, K488
  45. Mozart- Symphony no. 36 “Linz”
  46. Mozart- Symphony no. 38 “Prague”
  47. Deborah Pritchard- Skyspace for Piccolo Trumpet and Strings * + rec
  48. Robert Saxton- Psalm, a Song of Ascents  * + rec
  49. Sawyers- Duo Concertante for violin, piano and strings +
  50. Schubert- Symphony no. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”
  51. Schumann- Genoveva Overture
  52. Schumann- Symphony no. 4 rec
  53. Sibelius- String Quartet in B flat Major opus 4 +
  54. Sibelius- Piano Quintet in G minor +
  55. Schnittke – String Trio
  56. Tchaikovsky- Suite from “The Nutcracker”
  57. Tchaikovsky- Symphony no. 6 in B minor “Pathetique”
  58. Tippett- Little Music for Strings * +
  59. Tippett- Divertimento “Selinger’s Round” * +
  60. Turina- Rapsodica Sinfonica * + rec
  61. Vaughan Williams- Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis 2x
  62. Vaughan-Williams- The Lark Ascending 2x
  63. Vaughan Williams- Overture to “The Wasps”
  64. Michael Vincent Waller – Studiare per Zero Quartetti (2012) for string trio * +
  65. Michael Vincent Waller – Per Mia Madre* (2012) for string trio  * +
  66. Weber- Clarinet Concerto no. 1 +
  67. Weber- Oberon Overture

Repertoire Report- KW 2013

It’s that time of year again here at Vftp Int’l Headquarters…

Repertoire Report Season- that exciting time when we look back at the year that just ended and take stock of who has been conducting and playing what. I really can’t believe it’s already been a year since I filed the last one.


Actually, it’s been two years. This time last year, I was so busy preparing over 170 minutes of music for the sessions for Auricolae; The Double Album (coming out in May, we hope) that I skipped Repertoire Report Season altogether. That means that my last report was actually for 2011, rather than 2012. Sorry!

Anyway- it’s fun to do this, and remember, I’m very happy to post YOUR repertoire report here. Just email it to info@kennethwoods.net and we’ll add it to the archive, and Tweet it to the world.

Here’s a key to the symbols you’ll see in the list below:

  • “vc” = I was playing cello rather than conducting
  • “2x, 3x”= Works that I’ve done with more than one group. Multiple repeats of Epomeo and Auricolae pieces (there tend to be many) are not counted unless they involved changes of personnel
  • “*”= A composer whose music I have not done before in this capacity (conducting/playing for the first time).
  • “+”= A work new to my repertoire
  • rec” = A piece I recorded this year for CD
  • “wp” = A world premiere

Some key stats.

Composer with most pieces on the list: Mozart (8 pieces)

Other composers who did well

  • Beethoven (6)
  • Shostakovich (5)
  • Philip Sawyers (4)
  • Mendelssohn (4)
  • David Yang (4)
  • Britten (3)
  • Tchaikovsky (3)

I’m pleased to see that there are two living composers on that list, plus two composers whose life-spans overlapped with mine (Britten and Shostakovich).

 Other points of interest:

I conducted only two Beethoven symphonies this year, which is low for me, and I conducted them on consecutive days. I also conducted two Mendelssohn symphonies this year, also on consecutive days with the same two orchestras. This was completely accidental. I was very excited to conduct two symphonies by Bruckner for the first time in a calendar year (albeit not on the same weekend), although I’d known the 7th backwards for most of my life and had workshopped it before. The Second was completely new to me, and I can’t wait to do it again. It’s now on my “I really have to record” list.

On the other hand, in 2013, I didn’t conduct any Mahler symphonies at all- a first since I started doing repertoire reports. Fortunately, I’ll do at least 3 next year (No.s 7, 5 and 4). 2013 was the fifth year in a row I recorded a major orchestral work(s) of Hans Gál. Now that the symphonic cycle is in the can, can I keep that momentum going? We’re hoping to record the Cello Concertino soon, but everything is still in pencil. Once we get the recording of the First done, I’ll need to take some time to see what we can do next on that front.

The bad news this year? No Bartók, no Stravinsky, no Debussy, no Ravel, no Janacek, no Messsiaen, no Prokofiev. Did I really not conduct a Brahms or Haydn symphony all year? Crikey. The good news? Finally, a year with more than one work by a “New Viennese” school composer (Schoenberg and Berg).

Speaking of firsts- 2013 is the first year in which any of my own music has appeared on one of these lists. Thanks to the combined miracles of deadlines, shame, pressure, coffee, support-from-friends, determination, booze and fear-of-failure I managed to finally shake off 15+ years of writers block and finish and perform two decent sized pieces. I’m not sure premiering your own music is ideal, but it sure is humbling- you sit down at the instrument knowing every note, but not being able to play any of them well.

It’s a longer list than the most recent one from 2011: 84 works versus 66. 2010 was a bit longer at 90 pieces. What pleases me, however, is that I think it’s the most interesting list I’ve come up with so far in my career. There are a lot of major pieces on here that anyone would consider a rare privilege to perform, works that are difficult to play or program, particularly dark or forbidding (Berg Chamber Concerto, Sibelius 4, Shostakovich 14- all from the month of June- spring to mind), contemporary works (I count 19 living composers). Also, all those composers with *’s (10-11 new composers for me this year): it’s so important and inspiring for performers to learn new musical languages. For instance- I’d never conducted anything by John Adams- learning the Violin Concerto took a lot of work, but understanding it took way more, and was incredibly rewarding. I expect to do more of his music in the years ahead.


Here’s the full list:

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KW Messiah thoughts, 2013

It’s that time of year again, when musicians all around the world are taking another stab at Handel’s Messiah. For me, it means coming back to a piece I’ve done many times after a long-ish break.


Handel, lookin' suave- Extensive research has shown Vftp blog posts with pictures get more hits

Handel, lookin’ suave- Extensive research has shown Vftp blog posts with pictures get more hits

I didn’t always love Messiah. In fact, when I first encountered it, I really disliked it.  In my small-minded way, I couldn’t help but compare it damningly with Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, a piece I’d always loved and knew more intimately.  (For all the complexity of his music, I think Bach is one of the easiest composers to “get.” I can’t think of any Bach piece I couldn’t tell was a work of genius the first time I heard it, no matter how awful the performance or how discombobulated my thinking. I can’t think of another composer I can say that about). There are still moments in the libretto of Messiah that really bother, even upset me.

Of course, recognizing that a piece of music is not as great a work as the Saint Matthew Passion is no great act of critical discernment- the same could be said of every other piece of music ever written with the possible exception of the Schubert Cello Quintet and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Eventually, however, if one has ears to listen , one realizes that a piece you might not have loved on first sight is good- maybe even great.

Then, you start figuring out why it is great, and the more you figure out, the greater you realize it is. For a conductor, this is about the time that you seriously start itching to “do” the piece, and through study and performance, you hope to find a sort of beneficial cycle of practical experience and genuine insight.

Long time readers of this blog will recognize that I’m a big believer that as musicians, we owe the composer the benefit of the doubt. As often discussed on these pages, any idiot can see that the “invasion theme” in Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony is pretty repetitious, and rather obviously “un-symphonic.” After all, he’s replaced the development section of a symphony with something two or three times as long as a “normal” development section in which essentially no development takes place. I’m amazed that many good musicians still can’t seem to get past this- it seems obvious that Shostakovich knew he was breaking the rules. Don’t we owe him the benefit of the doubt to find out why? When a great composer frustrates us, when the music disappoints our expectations, there’s usually a very good reason.


Shostakovich after the publication of "Muddle instead of Music" by Joseph Stalin

Dmitri Shostakovich- you’d be amazed how many people come to this blog just looking for a picture of Mr.DSCH

Back when I didn’t care for Messiah, one of my gripes was that so many movements seem to cover awfully similar musical territory.  As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to understand that what at first seems like torturously pointless repetition is really an extremely sophisticated large-scale structural plan that is actually, in a way, quite symphonic (I’m talking about Messiah, not Shostakovich 7). This time around, I’ve been particularly struck by the way that the big ideas of the piece emerge from the fabric of what comes before. There’s possibly no more galvanizing-ly powerful moment in choral music than the bit in the Hallelujah chorus with the sequence “And He shall reign.” How interesting that the musical substance of that passage has long been coming into being, evolving gradually from near the very beginning of the work, with the similar descending sequence in “Let all the angels of God worship Him” and the rising fourths to the word “goodwill” in “Glory to God” marking major landmarks on the road to this moment.

Of course, 99% of the people who hear this music at all hear “Hallelujah” long before they hear any other part of Messiah (if they ever get beyond “Hallelujah” at all), and yet, to me the sort of super-charged joyful intensity that particular passage has in “Hallelujah” seems to be somehow informed by the journey that precedes it. A listener hearing the chorus for the first time won’t know this, but just about everyone seems to sense that there’s something about this music that is suffused with energy.

The opening of “Hallelujah” used to kind of mystify me, too. The first three bars seem so ordinary (and so many performances of them sound so WOODEN)- they just sort of trot along with a kind of inside-out, non-descript wordless version of what will become the “Hallelujah” theme. Why didn’t Handel come up with a more dramatic opening? And why only three bars?  Surely a four-bar intro would have been more powerful- was he just being fancy? Lazy? And why not let the violins play the real theme? I always think it’s funny that audiences traditionally stand as soon as the movement starts- surely it’s the music in the fourth bar, when the choir sings the first “Hallelujah” that should make you want to jump out of your seat. Conductors so often seem wrong footed by these three bars, as if we don’t really know what to do with them. Many go for the “just try something” approach- we might try the “amp up the pomposity” approach or the “show ‘em your Birkenstock’s” extra-HIP version. Handel doesn’t help- there’s no dynamic in the intro, nor is there one for the entrance of the chorus. There are lots of possibilities, but I’ve also heard a lot of unsuccessful stabs at “the REALLLLLLY soft opening” or “the conspicuous crescendo.” Let’s face it, whether you bulk it up with Brucknerian steroids or make it extra mincy, it’s just three bars of medium tempo trotting with the tune turned inside out.

Yet Handel, who knew a thing or two about drama having written who-knows-how-many operas (forty-two or forty-six depending on what you count) by this point in life, knew exactly what he was doing, which is obvious if we give him the benefit of the doubt.  This sort of seemingly non-descript “trotting” music has actually permeated the work up to this point. That was always one of my problems with the piece when I was young and taking in the work one movement at a time. When you’ve just heard “And he shall purify,” doesn’t “For unto us a Child is born” sound eerily similar? Medium temp, jolly, trotting eighth-note groove, a melody in moderate note values and a bit of sixteenth-notey coloratura. Then there’s “His yoke is easy.” Similar tempo, similar tune, just a slightly jazzier flourish to those sixteenth-notey runs. Fast forward a few tracks, and you’ve got “All we like sheep.” Sure it’s funnier than the others, in ways both intentional and unintentional (sheep jokes just get funnier and funnier the longer I live in Wales), but it’s still that same trotting bass line, the same mid-tempo grove, with thematic gestures similar in length and shape to those in “For unto us.”

I’ve certainly heard MANY performances that left me thinking that Handel was probably just trying to cover all this theological bases with some thinly spread recycled stock musical ideas, but experience teaches that the failing in these cases was in the performance, not the piece. Over the years, I became convinced that a lot of this was to do with tempo and put a lot of thought into making sure that I wouldn’t fall into the “universal tempo” trap, trying to highlight the differences between these admittedly similar movements, and actively seeking out the textual motivations for those differences. This time, however, I’m realizing that for all it’s important to do that (like most music lovers, I have come close to chewing my own arm off to relieve the boredom during an ill-conceived Messiah), it’s also important for me to realize that Handel, the dramatist, knew what he was doing, and that the similarities are very much part of the point. Those similarities are obvious, so it’s likely they’re both intentional and important. Why?

All of these choruses seem to be on one level about expectation, about the promise of divinity. They all sing about what humanity hopes or expects or believes divine intervention will bring to the world.

If you’ve had this idea of expectation in mind every time you’ve heard those seemingly banal trotting eighth notes over the previous 90 minutes, then surely those first three bars of “Hallelujah” can be seen as literally bursting with anticipation, with tension, with barely contained joy. After all the waiting, after all the hoping, the endless expectation, in these three bars we’re literally standing on the threshold of the vision the piece has been seeking throughout. Of course, I can now see why the choir comes in after just three bars- this close to the moment in which the biggest of all promises is fulfilled, nobody could expect them to wait one moment longer, let alone a fourth bar.

RIP- Marvin Rabin

Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, Greater Boston Youth Orchestras and Kentucky Youth Symphony has passed away at the age of 97. Marvin was one of the most universally admired and loved people I have ever encountered in the music world- a man remembered with deep affection by seemingly everyone who played under his baton, and deeply respected by every colleague he worked with.

Two beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013

Two great conductors and beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013

I last saw Marvin only a few weeks ago at my concert with the UW-Madison Symphony. It meant the world to me that he came to the concert because the main work on the program, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, had been the first piece of orchestral music I had ever heard live- played by WYSO under Marvin’s baton when I was just a very little boy. After the concert, we spoke at length about the piece, and Marvin’s intimate knowledge and love of the score was as inspiring as ever. Although he had not conducted the piece in decades, he remembered every metronome marking- something far too many conductors never bother to learn in the first place. Although Marvin’s eyesight and hearing had both been failing in recent years, it was clear to me that he had taken in every note and every nuance of that concert, and every other one he had been to in recent years, through sheer force of will and love of the art. Marvin was pleased to know I was living and working in Britain, and talked with great fondness about the year he came to this country to observe how the British youth orchestra programs worked. “My favourite program,” he told me, “was the one founded by Béla de Csilléry in Kent.” This moment, when the man who opened the door to me being a conductor talked about watching rehearsals at the Kent County Youth Orchestra, where I’ve been conducting regularly for nearly a decade, really hit home how deeply connected we all are in life.

Marvin was, by all accounts, both a great musician and a great music educator, and he also understood how to create youth orchestras that had the right organizational framework and the right outlook to give young people a chance to experience great music first hand. Having conducted WYSO through its early years with great success, Marvin was that rare founder of an organization who was able to step aside gracefully. He was always available to the board, the organization and his successors as resource, sounding board or cheerleader, but never seemed to need to remind the world of his role in establishing the program.

I never had the privilege of watching one of Marvin’s clinics or coachings, but I’ve heard a number of music educators and conductors speak with awe of his ability to transform an orchestra of young players with a few suggestions, and to open the eyes of a colleague in profound way with a  few gently shared insights into a score.

There is a moving and informative tribute from Jake Stockinger at The Well-Tempered Ear here. “… he made understanding music and making music seem like completely natural and totally necessary, even inevitable, acts. “

In 2011, Marvin received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin School Music Foundation. He was only the third recipient, the first being Les Paul. The foundation asked a number of us to record little video greetings talking about the ways in which Marvin had touched our lives. I thought I would include it here as a personal testament to the affection, admiration and gratitude he continues to inspire in so many of us who were lucky enough to come into contact with him.

PS- Recent thoughts on the impact of WYSO here.

The youth orchestra experience: a letter to, and about, WYSO

I thought some readers might be interested in a little essay I contributed to the current edition of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ newsletter. A text version follows the scan.

Youth orchestras are incredibly important- they make a huge difference in all kinds of young people’s lives. Support the one in your community!

WYSO Newsletter



When I was still in preschool, my teacher took a few of us to hear Marvin Rabin rehearsing WYSO for an upcoming performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. My parents had an LP of the piece at home, but hearing that music live, and seeing young musicians play it so well was a transformational moment for me. It set me on the path to a lifelong engagement with orchestras, with Shostakovich, and with conducting. From that moment, I was determined to be a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Once I joined the orchestras, my years in WYSO were full of important firsts. Tom Buchhauser made every Philhramonia rehearsal exciting and enjoyable. Working with David Nelson, I remember playing the music of Mahler and Dvorák for the first time.  As a senior, I was doubly lucky to be there for the arrival of James Smith as music director, and to be promoted to principal cellist. I had never felt anything was missing from my WYSO experiences up to that point, but Jim’s wisdom, musicianship, leadership and humor totally transformed the orchestra that year. Every rehearsal with Jim was productive, inspiring and challenging. We only studied about half as much repertoire as we had in previous seasons, but under Jim, we learned it in real depth.  For a young musician who had already developed more than a passing interest in conducting, Jim was a perfect example of what a conductor should be, and what a great conductor can contribute to an organization. When that incarnation of WYSO finished its run after an East Coast tour, there were a lot of teary goodbye’s, but, happily, many of us have stayed in touch ever since. People I worked with in WYSO continue to be friends and colleagues to this day.

Jim set the bar very high in WYSO. Just how high I learned after graduation when I began my undergraduate studies in cello at Indiana University’s School of Music. On my first concert in the freshman orchestra, we played the very piece that we’d worked on with Jim for all of the previous year- Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony. I was so excited to do the piece with all these amazing music majors from all over the country, but in spite of a wealth of talent in the group, without the right kind of leadership, and an institutional commitment to excellence,  the performance fell far short of what we’d managed in WYSO just a few months before.  From WYSO I learned that the true measure of an orchestra is not how many hotshot players you can cram on stage, but getting them to work together, and making every rehearsal the best it can be.

I’ve conducted just about every kind of orchestra there is now, from the Royal Philharmonic right down to the most modest gathering of amateurs, but working with young musicians has remained a constant source of inspiration. During my years in Oregon, I founded a new youth orchestra, which has produced a number of wonderful young musicians in its first ten years, and WYSO was very much the model for that organization. Likewise, whenever I guest conduct youth orchestras, I try to remember it’s about more than putting on a concert. The lessons learned and discoveries made in WYSO shaped me as a musician, and serve as a reminder that youth orchestra is a place to open doors that can change lives forever.

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