The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music is a gift that brings people together in beauty

December 25, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day.

Although this posting refers to an event that is now a month old, I have held it until today because I thought it was a wonderful and inspirational Christmas essay in how gifts are not always what we find under the tree or in the stocking or mailbox.

In this case, classical music is the gift, and the teaching and learning involved in it – which is to say friendship – are gifts as well.

So I hope you will enjoy this posting like one of those fascinating Letters from Paris in The New Yorker.

It is about a teacher and his student who are now old friends and performing partners.

It is about the University of Wisc0nsin-Madison School of Music.

And it is about, of course, classical music.

Specifically, it about the UW alumnus, cellist and conductor Kenneth Woods (below), who is based in Cardiff, Wales, and who has gone on to an international career, and about UW faculty member and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp who was his teacher and now collaborator. (You can research both men with this blog’s search engine.)

I hope you enjoy Woods’ letter or essay:

Hello Madison music lovers:

While Jake Stockinger was introducing many of you to my work on the music of Hans Gál there recently, I brought a little bit of Madison musical life to Wales.

My former cello teacher and dear friend Parry Karp came over for a week to perform the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Abergavenny Symphony Orchestra on a program that also included Dvorak’s 7th Symphony (my favorite work by Dvorak, which is saying a lot) and Wagner’s “Meistersinger” Overture.

To say that Parry and I go way back is to slightly understate the case. We met at UW Summer Music Clinic many, many years ago when Parry (below) was teaching the cello and string master classes and I was an ambitious young WYSO student heading for music school.

Parry’s teaching and playing made a huge impression on me then — so much so, that when I finished my undergrad work at Indiana University, I knew the time was right to come back to Madison to do a master’s degree with Parry.

Those two years were truly life changing. I learned so much about music and cello, but also about teaching from him.

Since leaving Madison, conducting has taken up more and more of my time, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to do a number of concertos with Parry as my soloist.

Our first project was fairly obvious: the Cello Concerto by Dvorak (below). But since then, we’ve done some huge projects that tiptoed around the more esoteric corners of the cello repertoire.

First up was Prokofiev’s massive and thrilling Symphony-Concerto. Then came Saint-Saens’ rarely heard Second Cello Concerto (not the one you all know, but the insanely virtuosic later one, written on two staves, like piano music — it’s no wonder almost nobody plays it, even though it is gorgeous).

Most recently, we played Ernst Bloch’s massive Suite for Viola (or Cello) and Orchestra. Originally for Viola and Piano, we think our performance might have been the first time the cello version had been performed with orchestra. What shocking neglect of a major work by a major composer!

The concerto by Elgar (below) is hardly so obscure. It’s practically the national concerto of Great Britain, and is right up there with the Dvorak for most often heard cello concerto in the repertoire.

I’ve played it a number of times as a cellist. In some ways, it’s my favorite concerto to play. It has everything a soloist could want, but it’s really the coda of the last movement — where Elgar seems to be saying goodbye to everything in life he loved and understood — that I love playing the most. It’s some of the most moving music ever written.

I’ve also conducted it, most recently with one of my own cello students playing it, which was great fun.

So, why do it again with Parry? Well, because I found out a few years back that he’d never played it. He’s played everything else (seriously, everything else — if there is a cellist on earth with a bigger rep than Parry, I don’t know who it is). But somehow, the occasion never arose to play the Elgar. I thought this was crazy. Parry has many gifts as a player, but it’s his lyricism that is unique, and the Elgar is about the ultimate lyrical piece.

So, when the Abergavenny asked me for the Elgar, I asked Parry for the Elgar, and to my delight, he said yes.

I’d had a look-through of the orchestra music before his arrival, and our first rehearsal was the day after his arrival. The concerto has some unique and surprising challenges for the orchestra.

It’s not hard to play the notes, but it’s what we call “bitty.” There are lots of spots where you have to wait and wait, then jump on board with something rather exposed with little warning. There are some treacherous tempo changes too. Fortunately, Parry’s interpretation was refreshingly sane, and the orchestra follows well.

Between rehearsals, Parry and I got involved in a musical mystery. After 100 years of everyone using the fine Novello edition, some bright light at Barenreiter got the idea to commission a new critical edition. If you shell out about $100, you can find out there’s one note changed from the old edition — a B-flat in the slow second movement is changed to a B natural.

It’s not even that new; the old orchestral score is also B natural. The B-flat sounds funny and seems like and obvious mistake because it breaks a long chain of descending chromatic chords.

Still, out of curiosity, Parry and I listened to the recording of Elgar himself conducting it with cellist Beatrice Harrison (below) and the old recording wan amazing document! And there it was — B natural. Against all our habits and analytical instincts, we agreed that the composer must be right, so B natural it was on Sunday.

Quite a shock to the cellists in the orchestra who know it well, I’m sure, but I think we’re both convinced.

Our second and final rehearsal was the dress. Things move fast, and there’s lots to do, getting used to the hall, breaking in the brass and tympani and making a few adjustments based on our chats during the week.

In spite of bitter cold weather, we managed a sell-out. Parry played wonderfully and his encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s C minor Suite, was a marvel), and we got a nice review that appeared on this blog Dec. 4.

After so many projects, what’s next? More Elgar?

Maybe Parry can conduct, and I’ll play.

I think he’d be a natural on the podium.

–Kenneth Woods

Merry Christmas to all! And may we all find more friends and partners through music in the coming year!

The Ear

Posted in Classical music

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