The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music diary: UW alumnus and conductor-cellist Kenneth Woods on the road and in rehearsal — Part 2 of 3 | January 23, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

What is it like to be a busy professional musician who is in demand and has a lot of far-flung duties to perform and obligations to meet? It is a question that has always intrigued me – especially because I am an amateur pianist who once aspired to a professional performing career but just didn’t have the talent or nervous system.

Anyway, I got a good taste of what my life could have been like from a friend I have made through this blog and the University of Wisconsin School of Music: Conductor and cellist Kenneth Woods (below), who is based in Cardiff, Wales. and has his own great blog (“A View From the Podium”).

He offered me this behind-the-scenes profile of several weeks of his life last spring and summer. And it’s not all glamour and fun.

I should have posted it sooner. But things happened – or didn’t. Anyway, it seems like particularly good reading right now as I lie here tending to a killer cold or flu and look at the minus 10 winter weather outside.

I hope you agree and enjoy the three-part series. Then maybe you will let me know it you would like to read more first-person accounts from the eye of the classical music storm.

Take it away with Part 2, Maestro Ken!

By Kenneth Woods

June 2 – My first rehearsal with Oxford Sinfonia (below). I met their director on a gig the day before my wedding in 2004 and he invited me to do a concert then and there. Six years later, here we are at last. Great program: Honegger’s rarely-played Symphony No. 4, the Schumann Violin Concerto (also something of a rarity) and Beethoven 7. Good band with especially fine horns (promising for the Beethoven) and cellos. A rehearsal 3 hours from home means a shortened day for practice and study.

June 3 – More practice. Boring for you, dear reader. As it turns out, this shall be my last day of proper practice for the Schumann. See tomorrow. I run the piece 3 times — twice for the recorder and once for Suzanne.

June 4 – Oh, crap. Manchester is one long, miserable drive from Cardiff. Schumann tomorrow is in Manchester, so I didn’t want to drive up on the day of the concert and be exhausted.

With that in mind, I scheduled a meeting at the BBC in Manchester to talk about a program proposal. Then, I noticed a change from the tentative to final schedules for Oxford — I have a rehearsal tonight there.

So, instead of a leisurely drive up for an early afternoon meeting followed by some practice and an early night at a friend’s house, it’s a mad dash to Manchester for a very promising chat, followed by another mad dash across the country in Friday rush-hour traffic to Oxford.

Good rehearsal, although they tend to double dot the main theme in the Schumann — naughty, naughty!!!! Finally, rehearsal ends at 10 p.m. and it’s back to Manchester, arriving around 1 a.m., to an uninhabitable hotel room. After schlepping the cello up five flights of stairs, it’s back down to the front desk to negotiate for a room humans can sleep in. Negotiations done, I’m finally in my room about 2 a.m.

June 5 – First challenge was to find a nice coffee. This is important. After a 10-minute walk I find a Starbucks and a local place next door to each other. My heart always votes for the local place, but today is no time to take chances, and my coffee radar is sounding notes of concern about the locals. Starbucks it is.

Fortunately, there are no ill effects from the lost day of practice once I’ve done a slow, careful warm-up in my hotel. It’s off to rehearsal. I always say conducting is more tiring than playing the cello on a sheer physical level, but doing both is something else, and I am pooped from Friday’s driving. By the end of the rehearsal I feel only half alive. Great program: Telemann’s “Don Quioxte” (which I’m leading from the cello facing the orchestra), the Schumann (again, leading from the cello but facing the audience) and Beethoven 6.

I sleep on the floor of my green room for most of the short gap between rehearsal and concert. It’s a special week for Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850) – his 200th birthday is on Tuesday, and Bobby S is my main man. In my pre-performance rap, I try to encourage the audience to forget his life story, amazing as it is, and to forget all the crap they’ve read and just listen. The important thing about Schumann is that he’s a musical genius.

Somehow, it goes really, really well, as does the Beethoven. Afterwards, everyone is talking about the fantastic timpanist playing on the Beethoven. Poor violins — they play almost every bar, but it’s the timpanist, who plays about 8 notes with style, who gets the solo bow.

June 6- My birthday! Family time!

June 7 – Surrey Mozart Players (below). First rehearsal — great program. Schumann “Manfred” Overture, Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Brahms 4th Symphony. My first Brahms with them, and possibly my last Schumann – “Manfred” is the finale to a cycle of all the Schumann symphonies, concertos and short orchestral works we’ve done together.

Generally when I come back to a piece I’ve done, the changes in my approach are matters of specific details. But I feel like my thinking on the Brahms, especially the last movement, has undergone a pretty vast sea change.

June 8 – Bobby Schumann’s 200th birthday. I meant to write a blog post about it. I still mean to write a blog post about it.Radio 3 celebrates with a broadcast of the Violin Concerto, and Sir Colin Davis has the orchestra double-dotting through the whole first movement. I can only hope nobody in Oxford is listening.  I know he’s Sir Colin, but Schumann knew how to double-dot.

June 9 – Oxford Sinfonia. We’re making progress, to be sure. Very intense work on the 1st two movements of the Beethoven.

The Honegger is lovely to listen to, but a little dull to work on. There’s not a lot of detail in the score about what he wants, and there lots of long passages that are more about atmosphere than direction. I have to remember the piece from a listener’s point of view — on that level it works.

June 10 – Orchestra of the Swan (below). A long day of planning sessions in Stratford. Great stuff, but more driving!

June 11 – Oxford Sinfonia. Need to get in some more serious work on the Schumann tonight as well as cover most of the Beethoven. The 7th is not massive like a Mahler symphony, but it is one of the most tiring pieces in the repertoire. We don’t want to spend too much time on it tomorrow.

After rehearsal, I drive back to Hereford, where my family are staying at grandma’s for a few days since I’m hardly home anyway. It adds 6 hours driving in a busy week, but gives me two hours of time with the kids in a weekend I might miss them altogether.

June 12 – Oxford Sinfonia. Never been to the center of Oxford before- it looks like the all the movies set there. Rather astounding. Most UK orchestras have dress rehearsal at 2:30 and concert at 7:30. Here it is 1 and 8, which means a much longer day for me, and a few extra hours wandering the streets between rehearsal and show.

Alexandra Wood (below) is the soloist in the Schumann — we did the piece as part of the SMP cycle a year or so back, and she’s as wonderful as I remember. This time, we’re able to dig even deeper.

Afterwards, I get lots of comments from orchestra and audience about the Schumann along the lines of “but it’s one of the greatest violin concertos I’ve ever heard! Why is it never done?” I know! People always love Schumann when it’s played well, and hate it when they read snooty program notes about his orchestration.

Honegger works! Lovely —  as long as I stay patient and let the right kind of nothing happen. I love the fact I’ve done Beethoven 6 plus the Schumann Cello Concerto and the Violin Concerto and LvB 7 in consecutive weeks. Beethoven 7 is fab — for once, the horns nail it! Rarr!!

Afterwards, one of them says he’s never been so tired after a concert. Good. I’ve managed to frame Bobby’s birthday with his two great string concertos — the Violin Concerto is so visionary, the slow movement so deeply moving. To think it was lost for decades…

June 13 – Surrey Mozart Players. After the Ox Sin concert it was back to Hereford for a few more precious hours with the family. I got in about 1 a.m., then about 11 a.m. it’s off to Surrey for more Brahms, Schumann and Tchaik. “Manfred,” all 12 minutes of it, is so much harder than the whole rest of the program put together. After rehearsal, it’s straight off to Cambridge (about 2½ hours away) where tomorrow, I conduct the world’s greatest string orchestra.

June 14 – World’s Greatest String Orchestra. A day I could write a book about! I’m conducting a charity concert for Motor Neuron Disease research. The orchestra is made up entirely of soloists and chamber musicians who have had great instruments bought for them by Nigel Brown and the Stradivari trust.

The Endellion, Fitzwilliam and Doric quartets are all represented, as is the Leopold Trio, leaders of the BBC Symphony (below) and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The rest are merely soloists with recording contracts and busy schedules.

The cello section (5 players) are playing in 7 million pounds (about $11 million) worth of instruments. Generally, everyone’s heart is in the right place, but it’s an orchestra with many leaders and no followers. They make a great noise, but the rehearsal (only one, less that two hours)  is surprisingly intense. There is so much talent, wealth, power and mojo around all day that it feels like a year in a few hours. Of course, there’s pressure on all of us, and everyone shows some nerves at one time or another during the day. The concert isn’t perfect, but I’ll never forget that string sound. Wow.

June 15 – I say goodbyes to Nigel (my host and the founder of the Stradivari Trust) and everyone in Cambridge. I like the idea of conducting in Oxford and Cambridge in the same weekend. What a life! Nigel has offered me a glorious concert in November that conflicts with recording sessions for my new CD with Orchestra of the Swan. Argh! I leave hoping that my inability to do November doesn’t mean I’m done in Cambridge. Any time you say no in this business you know you might not get another chance to say yes.

June 16 – Surrey Mozart Players. I’ve got a good feeling about the Brahms. SMP understand Schumann better than almost any group of I’ve done him with after the last 4 years, but Manfred is pushing us all to the limit. It’s not a hard piece to fake, but to do justice to it?

June 18 –  Surrey Mozart Players. As with Oxford last week, there’s a need to mix doing the last proper rehearsing with doing some large chunks of things so we don’t have to play too much at the dress rehearsal tomorrow. Afterwards, it’s back to Cardiff for a morning with the family, even though I have to be at the hall again tomorrow by 2.

June 19 – Surrey Mozart Players. SMP dress rehearsals are always made more intense by the fact that it is the first and only time I get to work with the trumpets, trombones and timps. They’re generally good to very good players, but if our regulars aren’t available, things can get sketchy. This week we have the A-team.

Since they are only there for the one rehearsal, we need to cover pretty much the whole program- experience has taught me the danger of trusting too much that someone knows how things go.

Our soloist for the Tchaik is Alexander Sitkovetsky (below), a marvelous young player and supremely nice guy. Again, our only rehearsal with him. Lots to do in one 3-hour rehearsal. The concert goes marvelously well. The Tchaik is just about spot on, and Sascha nailed the whole thing. Brahms worked really well, as well. I was worried about the Schumann — the dress was not good, but somehow, it comes to life. So ends our Schumann cycle and my Schumann birthday month — in stark and bleak E-flat minor. That seems appropriate.

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1 Comment »

  1. [...] busy a month was it? Well, it is spread over 3 blog posts, which you can read here, here and here. It’s the sort of thing I envisioned writing when I started the blog, but I find [...]

    Pingback by Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Performing life- a month on the road with Ken at Well-Tempered Ear — January 24, 2011 @ 2:43 pm


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