The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music homecoming: Madison’s Kenneth Woods conducts free UW Symphony Orchestra concert Sunday night

December 4, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Madison’s classical music fans will have a chance to hear a hometown boy who has made good and has now returned to help others who are in the position where he used to be.

UW alumnus Kenneth Woods, who has served a two-week residency at the School of Music, will conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra this Sunday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The program is the Overture to “Rienzi” by Richard Wagner (1813-1883); the five Rueckert Lieder” by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), with UW baritone Paul Rowe; and Symphony No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

Admission is free and open to the public.

Woods (below, in a photo by Chris Stock) , 41, is a native of Madison. He graduated from Memorial High School and played in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO). He received the Master of Music degree in cello performance from UW-Madison in 1993 under the tutelage of Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp. And it was at the UW, he told me, that he became interested in conducting and studied under David Becker.

Woods has worked with many internationally distinguished orchestras, including the National Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Budapest Festival Orchestra and State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra.

He has appeared on the stages of leading music festivals, including Aspen, Lucerne, Round Top and Scotia.  His work on the concert platform and in the recording studio has led to numerous broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In January 2010, Woods will assume the position of principal guest conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan, a virtuoso ensemble based in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, with whom he will be active on stage and in recordings.

“It one of the few orchestras that are growing in Britain right now,” Woods says.

Woods also served as music director of the Oregon East Symphony from 2000 to 2009. This past September, he made his recording debut as a conductor in sessions for Avie Records with the Northern Sinfonia at the Sage Gateshead.

As a cellist, Woods played in UW graduate string quartet and in the Madison Symphony Orchestra under Roland Johnson. He has been the recipient of the Aspen fellowship (he has received the Aspen fellowship both as a cellist and conductor) and has played chamber music with members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Cincinnati, Chicago and Toronto symphonies and the Minnesota, Gewandhaus and Concertgebouw orchestras.  He was founding cellist of the Taliesin Trio and the Masala Quartet.

Woods says he is “thrilled to be back in Madison,” which he says prepared him very thoroughly for his career.

He expresses particular pleasure in the UW concert, especially Elgar’s Symphony No.1, which he says will receive its Madison premiere.

“It’s a great piece,” says Woods, noting the high praise the work received from critics and musicians at the time.

In the U.S., he adds, Elgar is known primarily for the early “Enigma” Variations and the late Cello Concerto.

“The symphony comes in between,” Woods explained. “It has some of the same lyricism and melancholy about it. Stylistically, it’s halfway between those two pieces. Those pieces are a little more sparse. The symphony is much more virtuosic and on a bigger scale, and has more intricate contrapuntal techniques.”

The five-poem Mahler song cycle, he says, is not as well known as the “Kindertotenlieder” or the “Songs of a Wayfarer.”

“But they are wonderful songs,” he said. “It is more diverse and the most personal of the three sets. It absolutely is a must-hear for Mahler fans. The last song – “I Have Become Lost to the World” — is the single greatest, most perfect song he ever did.

As for the Wagner, Woods said, the overture is “very energetic. It’s very early Wagner. You get a sense of the Wagner to come with big juicy tunes and muscular writing. It had a huge influence on Elgar and Mahler. It gets the blood pumping for the others.”

“It was very, very good preparation I got at the UW,” Woods adds. “My dad is a chemistry professor at the UW, so it’s especially nice for me to be conducting the same UW orchestra that I think was the first orchestra I ever heard.

The investment of the faculty and students here is fantastic,” he recalls of his doing his master’s degree at the UW. (He did his undergraduate work at Indiana University and doctoral work at the University of Cincinnati.)

“It’s great to be back in town doing this,” he says. “It’s something I always wanted to do, so I was thrilled when I was invited to do it. I’ve had a tremendous time. It’s great to work on the Elgar with young musicians who are open-minded and so skilled.

“It’s also great for the city. Making these concerts free is a tremendous thing. Where else can you hear a concert this good and adventurous for free?

Plus, he adds, “The level of playing is really going up, particularly in the strings, since I was here. We always had some very strong players, but now we have only strong players.”

Woods is also a devoted blogger whose blog is “A View From the Podium” talks about his return to Madison and the UW.

“There’s a lot to talk about with this particular program, so I’ll be blogging about it during the week and after it.”

That’s when he heads home to Cardiff, Wales, to join his violinist wife – who plays in the BBC Symphony Orchestra he gets to guest conduct – for the holidays.

Here’s a link to Woods’ blog:

It is a terrifically informative blog that Ear readers should bookmark or make a favorite so they can follow the distinguished international career of a native son.

If you go to the UW Symphony Orchestra concert, let me know what you thought.

Did any of you go to school with Woods?

Do you have a message or greeting to leave for him?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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