The Well-Tempered Ear

In protests and peace, Western classical music has links to Egypt — but can you help me find which pieces?

January 31, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Like so many others these days, I find my thoughts turning to the turmoil in Egypt.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up to such powerful and longstanding authority.

I don’t know where all the turmoil in Egypt is going to lead, though I have my suspicions that some kind of democratic success will be achieved.

I just hope it isn’t replaced by some extremist or fundamentalist Islamist regime. But if that is what the people want, then that is probably what they will get. And we will have to deal with it from there.

So what music would I dedicate to those people trying to find a way to self-determination?

Were I to play music for all those citizens putting themselves on the line for democracy, I would probably choose something by Beethoven – that most of democratic of composers. My guess is probably the “Eroica” Symphony would be the piece.

Another work that comes to mind is Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, in which he makes the case for musicians to be treated fairly as workers at the Esterhazy court – and wins.

But I am interested to hear what other pieces readers would dedicate to the Egyptian protesters – and protesters in other countries, especially Arab countries, right now.

So, the Hot Line is open: Let me know what pieces of Western classical music would you dedicate to inspire such action and events?

Along similar lines, I got to thinking about all the times that Western classical music has turned to Egypt for inspiration.

There is the hauntingly lovely and dramatic Piano Concerto No. 5 (“The Egyption”) by Camille Saint-Saens (below) as well Verdi’s opera “Aida” (bottom).

There is Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt” and Johann Strauss’ “The Egyptian March.” Both Ottorino Respighi and John Harbison composed “The Flight Into Egypt.”

I keep thinking Debussy did something about Egypt but I can’t recall what.

So readers, please fill me on various pieces of Western classical music inspired by Egypt and provide links to YouTube performances, if you can.

Now seems the right time.

And The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Superstar tenor Placido Domingo turns 70. But who is greater — Pavarotti or Domingo?

January 30, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This past week saw a big birthday to mark.

So, who is the birthday boy?

Take a look and listen:

You can leave a birthday greeting here under Comments.

I remember a friend saying she thought Placido Domingo was better than the late Luciano Pavarotti (below).

I think I’d give Pavarotti the prize for absolute sound quality, but Domingo the prize for the range of repertoire, acting ability and overall operatic talent as well as general likability.

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Lang Lang pleads innocent of White House snub while opera booms in China and Mahler takes Korea by storm (and stress). Carnegie Hall unveils its next and Washington Opera is saved by JFK PAC

January 29, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s news clips offer a mixed bag of local and foreign, groups and individuals.


ITEM: Did superstar pianist Lang Lang (below) use a piece he played to snub the US at the White House dinner for Chinese president Hu?

ITEM: China -– where everything seems grand and large-scale and getting more so — is enjoying a boom in opera:

ITEM: South Korea -– which has its own reasons for plenty of angst these days — goes crazy for Mahler (below):

ITEM: The debt-ridden Washington Opera and Kennedy Center merge:

ITEM: Louisville musicians find a way to keep symphonic music in their city despite the bankrupt symphony (below):

ITEM: Carnegie Hall announces its new season and a new education center:

ITEM: SONY classics is partnering with the Metropolitan Opera (below):

Posted in Classical music

Classical music notes: What am I missing in pianist Simone Dinnerstein?

January 28, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

There’s no denying it: American pianist Simone Dinnerstein — who is coming to perform in with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in three weeks —  is nothing short of a phenomenon.

So, can somebody please help me out and tell me what I am missing?

I just don’t get all the superlatives and stupendous (for classical music, anyway)  sales figures that greet Dinnerstein (below).

Mind you, I admire how she pioneered and engineered her own career by by-passing the usual routes such as winning a competition and receiving a major-label recording contract. And. what a career it has turned out to be, with lots of concerts, lots of media appearances and chart-topping CDs, as you can see for yourself using this link to her home page:

And she can certainly play the piano well, as one might expect from a former student at Juilliard of Peter Serkin. Her technique is well developed and she has a good sense of programming, though her liner notes often seem a bit superficial and pretentious.

But what I really don’t get are the raves about how her playing—and her Bach in particular – is so poetic and so revelatory that it makes some seasoned listeners weep.

In many places, her playing seems perfectly fine to me — such as in the slow movement of  Bach’s Concerto No. 5, which seems matched to her sensibility. But it simply does not make me bolt upright or penetrate me the way that playing by, say, Jonathan Biss (below), Yuja Wang or Alice Sarah Ott does.

In places — especially in fast some movements of the third English Suite — I find Dinnerstein’s playing heavy-handed and ponderously slow, exaggerated and mannered. It seems overstated in a way I guess some listeners — in fact, many listeners — find poetic. But it just strikes me as overly Romantic, as if she were trying to turn the clock back on the period instrument or early music movement. And I say this as someone who really likes Martha Argerich’s Bach (below); who much prefers hearing Bach on the modern piano rather than the harpsichord; and who doesn’t mind a bit of the sustaining pedal to add richness and resonance. Still, I also like my Bach light and dance-like at at times.

But too often with Dinnerstein, something somehow goes right by me. Dinnerstein’s self-financed breakthrough recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (below) is still in the Amazon Top 100 after two years. I’ve listened to her recording but do not find it nearly as compelling as either of Glenn Gould’s recordings, Andras Schiff’s second recording (for ECM) or Murray Perahia’s recording. (And I can’t wait for Till Felner’s “Goldbergs,” as his other Bach on the piano – Inventions and Sinfonias, the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 and the French Suite No. 5 – seems to me absolutely superior.)

Now the same language and descriptions – almost mystical and reverential in their tone – greet Dinnerstein’s latest album called “Bach: A Strange Beauty” (below), which marks her first concerto recording as well as her best-selling debut on Sony. (Her other albums, including the Goldbergs, “The Berlin Concert” and Beethoven cello sonatas with Zuill Bailey, are also top sellers so she clearly has a lot of fans.)

Dinnerstein has returned to Bach because she likes Bach. And her all-Bach program has a point of view, derived from the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, that Bach’s great beauty comes from contrast, from his deviations from logic and symmetry. Well, yes and of course, I say, recalling that the word “baroque” comes from the Portuguese for “rough or irregular pearl.” Perfect symmetry in any art is boring. Where, I ask, is the deep insight in that so-called “strangeness”?

The recording features three popular modern transcriptions for solo piano (by Busoni, Kempf and Hess) of Bach chorale preludes; the English Suite No. 3; and the well-known keyboard concertos nos. 1 and 5.

Dinnerstein is consistent, I will grant. What I hear on the recording is not unlike what I heard in person during her recital last season of Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Philip Lasser at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

And very soon (Feb. 18-20) she is returning to Madison to perform Beethoven’s popular “Emperor” Piano concerto in her debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (Also on the program, under the baton of John DeMain, is Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 and a “Pomp and Circumstance” March — the fifth, not the first that we all graduated to — by Sir Edward Elgar (below).

I am very much looking forward to hearing that performance. The magnificent “Emperor” has its introspective moments – especially in the beautifully lyrical slow second movement. But the concerto is by and large a brash, extroverted and in-your-face kind of composition with martial qualities.

I will be interested to see how Dinnerstein either projects those traditional heroic qualities and forces me to revise my perceptions of her playing; or else how forces me to revise my perceptions of that popular piece by giving a new or unorthodox interpretation.

And in that case, I may end up understanding just what I have been missing in her previous recordings and interpretations.

We will see – and hear, and I am ready to be convinced.

Here is a link to information about that MSO concert along with clips of Dinnerstein on “CBS Sunday Morning” and NPR:

But in the meantime I would love to hear from both Dinnerstein’s cult-like fans and those who, like me, find that her much praised profundity of her playing often escapes them.

I find Simone Dinnerstein a very good pianist, but I’m not sure she is a great one. I hope I am wrong. I don’t know, maybe it’s a question of generational differences in taste. Or maybe she is drawing in a new audience, listeners who don’t know a lot of Bach or Bach players. In that case, I say Thank You and Congratulations.

Anyway, let me know what you think, and which album or repertoire of hers you prefer and why.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini finally names his Top 10 Classical Music Composers of All Times — Read all the installments from here

January 27, 2011

Note: Kathleen Dunn and music host Lori Skelton  (and no doubt lots of callers!) will be discussing this list on Monday, January 31, at 10 a.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Ideas Network.

By Jacob Stockinger

In case you missed it, this past Sunday veteran New York Times senior music critic Anthony Tommasini (below) announced his Top 10 Composers of All Time.

So, who’s Number One?

J.S. Bach (below). No surprise there.

But as for the rest — the other nine and the runners-up — you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Here is the link to his final installment with the results:

The project, with help and reaction from readers, has certainly generated a lot of conversation and buzz on the Internet to say nothing about private conversations among friends and families.

To be fair, Tommasini answers some of his critics for not including pre-Bach composers such as Monteverdi (below) or some women.

Yet if you read his stories not just for the final results but for his process of selection, it is a whole lot more interesting and even-handed and thoughtful than it might first appear.

It is also true that reading readers’ comments – both positive and negative – help you appreciate the project.

I also thought readers of this blog might find it useful to have links to all the various installments, as best as I could find them. So that’s what follows.

It’s a lot of reading and horse-trading back and forth, so it should keep you occupied for a while. Read one or two, then close it out and weigh what you think. Then come back and read another installment, and do the same. Eventually, you’ll see the whole picture and process.

It will be interesting to see what you have to say.

Anyway: It’s on to the TOMMASINI TEN, as I can them:

His Preface and background or genesis of the project:

The Vienna Four (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven – below — and Schubert) in two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

The 20th century candidates, including Stravinsky and Bartok (below):

The 19th century opera composers including Verdi (below) and Wagner:

The 19th century non-opera composers with a lot of piano music from Chopin (below) and Schumann:

And: Why no women?

Finally, for a different and non-professional list or ranking, with specific works, try this one art

What do you think of Tommasini’s results?

Of the process?

Of the whole project?

Who are your own personal Top 10?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: The tempo slows a bit, but the English horn and oboe are highlighted while the Middleton High School choruses raise money with a country breakfast and auction

January 26, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s kind of a slow week after a brisk start to the post-Winter Intermission.

But think of it as a way to catch your breath for what is coming next weekend, when Saturday is one of the Great Train Wrecks of the season.


The weekly free Noon Musicale, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., at the First Unitarian Society’s Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, will offer Scott Ellington, oboe, and Ted Reinke, piano. The program includes music by Paul Hindemith and Eric Ewazen.

For information, call (608) 233-9774.

Later, at 8:00 p.m. in BOTH Morphy and Eastman halls, the UW Faculty Concert Series presents Marc Fink on the English horn (below top). Fink (below bottom) will perform friends including Ina Selvelieva, piano; Eugene Purdue, violin; Sally Chisholm, viola; Karl Lavine, cello; and John Chappell Stowe, organ.

The program includes “Solo de Tristan” by Richard Wagner; “Concertino for English horn and orchestra” (with piano reduction) by Gaetano Donizetti; “English horn sonata” by Alec Wilder; “Quartet for English horn, violin, viola and cello” by Jean Françaix; “Partita for English horn and organ” by Jan Koetsier; and “Variations on ‘Amazing Grace’” by Calvin Hampton. The program begins in Morphy Hall and following intermission moves to Eastman Hall to utilize the UW School of Music’s 3-manual Austin pipe organ.

The concert is free and open to the public.


The 17th Annual Middleton High School Country Breakfast will be held Sunday, January 30 from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Middleton High School Student Center at 2100 Bristol Street.

Under the direction of Tom Mielke, the highlight of the breakfast will be individual student and group performances from the Concert Choir, Cantus, Cardinal Choir, Broadway Bound and Chamber Singers throughout the entire day.

You can enjoy all- you-can-eat pancakes plus ham, eggs, fresh oranges and beverages.  Tickets can be purchased for adults for $8 and children (under 10) for $4, and will be available at the door.

Don’t miss the silent auction featuring sports memorabilia, handcrafted items, jewelry, restaurant packages, event tickets and much, much more!

This is the Choral Music Program’s annual fundraising event sponsored by the MHS Choral Boosters and many local businesses and friends including Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub, Tom & MaryBeth Haunty, Tom & Patty Milliken, SVA Certified Public Accountants, The Stark Collection Agency, James Lord, D.D.S., Middleton Pizza Hut, Villa Dolce Italian Pizzeria & Ristorante/Sofra Family Bistro, State Bank of Cross Plains, Uniek, Inc., Willy Street Co-op, The Printing Place, Inc. and Barriques.

For information, visit:


From 1 to 3 p.m. in the lecture hall of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the Overture Center, the Madison Opera’s general director Allan Naplan (below) will offer a behind-the-scenes, multimedia introduction to upcoming production of Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” at Opera Up Close: The Threepenny Preview. Admission is $20, free with student ID.

At 4 p.m. in Mills hall, the Independent String Teachers of Madison Benefit Concert will take place with Felicia Moye (below), UW violinist, and Emilio Colón, violoncello. Students will share the stage with world-renowned artists Moye and Colón in a benefit concert.

The concert will showcase Moye and Colón performing with the IST Benefit Orchestra.  The IST orchestra is comprised of Madison area string teachers and their advanced students.  The program will include Vivaldi’s Concerto in B-flat major for Violin and Cello RV 547, Piazolla’s “La Muerte del Angel,” the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet in D, Op.11 and Praeludium and Allegro by Fritz Kreisler.

In addition to the IST orchestra, area string students of many ages and a variety of levels will perform a mosaic of pieces that showcase their individual instruments, offering works of Lully, Telemann, Rieding, Suzuki and Vivaldi.  Chamber works of Dvorak, Borodin and Smetana, will be performed by Brioso Quartet, Quartetto Scalmo and the Aeon String Quartet.

IST is a non-profit organization, formed in 2002 with the purpose of creating educational opportunities for Madison area string students.  IST is unique in its mission to offer a forum for independent string teachers in Madison to interact with one another and continue professional development. All concert proceeds will support these endeavors.

The concert is free and open to the public. Donations of $20 per family in support of local string education are encouraged and may be made at the door.

For more information, visit: :

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: WYSO founder Marvin Rabin gets award; Madison Opera adds an extra “Threepenny” performance

January 25, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post is to announce two items of important local news.


The Wisconsin Foundation for School Music has selected Marvin Rabin (below) as only the third recipient ever of its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rabin, 94, is the founding conductor of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), which has educated more than 5,000 music students from southcentral Wisconsin, and is professor emeritus of music at UW-Madison.

A recognition reception is planned for Saturday, May 21, and a commissioned work by UW tubist and composer John Stevens will be performed by WYSO at its spring concert on Sunday, May 22, at 7 p.m.  The commissioned piece to honor Rabin is for brass and percussion, and is tentatively titled “Fanfare for an Uncommon Man” – in homage to Aaron Copland’s famous “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which has a similar scoring and duration.

Rabin is also the founding conductor of the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras and is known internationally as a string development specialist. The Marvin J. Rabin Orchestra Library plus a collection of his personal audio and videotapes is housed at the Wisconsin Center for Music Education (below) in Waunakee.

Previous winners of the Lifetime Achievement Award were electric guitar pioneer Les Paul in 2004 and UW band director Michael Leckrone in 2007.

There will be more details about the awards and its events, and more about Rabin and the award both on this blog and in other media in the months to come.

In the meanwhile, The Ear sends Congratulations to the much honored Marvin Rabin (go Google Rabin and see for yourself) and to WYSO.

For more information, visit:


Due to popular demand, the Madison Opera has added a performance to its run of “The Threepenny Opera” next month. (The set design of the Opera Omaha production to be used here is below.) The added show will take place on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 2:30 p.m. in The Playhouse of the Overture Center.

Currently, seats are sold-out for the matinees on Sunday, Feb. 6, and Sunday, Feb. 13. Tickets are still available, but are selling fast for all remaining performances on Feb. 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. and Feb.12 at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets can be purchased by calling (608) 258-4141 or clicking here:

The Madison Opera’s production of the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 20th century masterpiece will be directed by Broadway’s Dorothy Danner.

James DeVita of (American Players Theatre in Spring Green), Tracy Michelle Arnold, Alicia Berneche and David Barron will star.

For more information visit:

Posted in Classical music

Classical music diary: UW alumnus conductor-cellist Kenneth Woods on the road and in rehearsal — Part 3 of 3

January 24, 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, who is based in Cardiff, Wales. and has his own great blog (“A View From the Podium”).

He offered me this 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 the third and final installment, Maestro Ken!

By Kenneth Woods

June 21 – Hereford Symphony Orchestra (below). HSO rehearse on Monday’s and I had to dep out rehearsals on the 31st and 14th for Orchestra of the Swan and Cambridge. This is our last working rehearsal before our final concert together on Saturday.

Lovely French program – Berlioz Corsaire Overture (keeps everyone’s fingers moving!), Saint-Saens 3rd Violin Concerto and the Franck D minor Symphony. Saint-Saens was no Mahler or Debussy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do his music. There are some really nice colleagues in the orchestra — I’ll miss them, but I’m no longer able to do concerts with these long weekly rehearsal runs.

June 22 – First of two more trips up to Stratford. Festivals to plan, a contract to negotiate.

June 23 – A busy day at home. We’ve got to organize the family, who are coming with me to America for a month on Sunday. Also, my conducting workshop in Portland is coming up soon. We’ve got to make final housing arrangements for the students, make sure the orchestra and music are ready to go and that all the faculty have their travel and accommodation sorted.  Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop (, which I’ve directed since 2005, is the only project I do where I take on administrative responsibilities beyond what a conductor normally does, but its’ always worth it.

June 26 – HSO. My final concert with them. We’re playing in Leominster Priory, a stunning and vast building of cathedral proportions in a beautiful corner of Herefordshire. Lighting during the day is a problem- sunlight streams in through the front window and tends to blind the players.

There is one unfortunate moment when one player in the wind-brass neighborhood who had brought rehearsal to a standstill on Monday has still not learned two mildly tricky bars in the finale. I stop to work on it and she flatly refuses to play. Not what I wanted on my last day here! I’ve never actually had this happen to me and am left kind of speechless, but I’m  probably clearly unhappy. I don’t want her ruining the day for the people sat around her, so I have friendly word to clear up the “miscommunication” and improve the atmosphere at the break and she’s as friendly and reasonable as she was rude and crazy in the rehearsal. Another of life’s mysteries.

Concert comes and goes (I LOVE the Franck) and I say many goodbyes. Then it’s back to Cardiff with a lovely bottle of Scotch from the orchestra.

June 27 – TRAVEL. I got back from HSO just before midnight. At 3 a.m. we have to leave for Heathrow  and fly to America for a month. I’m not packed! Also, Suzanne came down with a violent stomach bug Friday night, so she’s not packed either, which means the kids aren’t packed. So, 12-1 is packing time, 1-2:15 sleeping, then pile the kids in the car. About 30 minutes from home we realize we’ve forgotten our son’s most precious comfort toy. If we go back, we’ll miss the flight, but will he cope for a month without it? Will he cope for an hour? Bad news at Heathrow- they’ve changed visa procedures for Sue and the kids. I have to get on the laptop and apply online. Minutes tick away as I contemplate missing the flight and the first day of UW Music Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin.

Finally, we’ve got the codes and we’re off! Kids good as gold on the flight. Change in Detroit starts well — quickly through customs and all is on time. Just a short hop to Madison. We nip in to a Mexican joint for some lunch, but then it rains for 10 whole minutes.

By the time we’ve got our chips, our flight and all flights for the next two hours are cancelled and there are lines of hundreds of people around the block at every ironically named “help desk.”

After some pointed discussions with Delta staff about locking babies in airports overnight, they get us off to Green Bay on the last flight, where my parents come to meet us. Of course, we have no luggage, and are completely out of baby supplies. Not the most fun end to a transcontinental journey, but the kids have been heroic.

June 28 – UW Madison Summer Music Clinic. (See Mills Hall below.) I’ve washed out the shirt I flew in and am ready to go. Teaching cello class, orchestra, string master class and a listening class. Cello class is an interesting mix of those who want to learn and those that don’t.

So much of one’s teaching energies these days are spent getting a student ready to learn rather than teaching them. Teaching in groups makes the dynamic infinitely more complex. Orchestra is HUGE, and so young. Quite a change from Hereford – their longtime concertmaster once called the HSO the Hereford Geriatric Orchestra.

I decide to start with the grand and majestic Prelude to Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger.” We tune and I give a big upbeat and nothing really happens — they’ve got the music to the Prelude to Act III, which starts with very soft cellos, instead of the Prelude to the whole opera, which starts with the whole band playing nearly full out. Yikes!

So — we dispatch the library team to find the right Wagner and read our excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s a great, great string section this year — lots of very gifted and passionate players. “Montagues and Capulets” already sounds very good.

Performance Critique (the string masterclass) gets off to a good start, and after my listening class, I have time to buy some underwear, baby food and a toothbrush on my way home.

After rehearsal, it occurs to me, that at this point, in the last four weeks since May 31st, I’ve conducted 7 different orchestras in 7 cities on two continents in 7 completely different programs, done a challenging world premiere, played a concerto, conducted one of the most high-pressure gigs of my own life and managed to transport two very little children to America.

Of the 7 orchestras, two (the Clinic orchestra and the Cambridge band) had never played together before. In spite of the vast differences in experience and skill, there were some definite similarities.

There were new beginnings for me — my first concert as a member of the team at Orchestra of the Swan (below) — and endings, as I said goodbye to Hereford. Likewise, I finally got to conduct in Oxford for the first time 6 years after I met them, just days before I completed my Schumann cycle with the SMP, an orchestra with nearly identical demographics to the Ox Sinf. Earliest work performed was Telemann, the latest Joanna Lee’s premiere (which was Classical Music Mag’s Premiere of the Month!).

A good month’s work, to be sure. Of course, as I said, I can’t really afford to think in months. The story must continue: Sue, the kids and I are still without luggage. There’s a concert to prepare with the Clinic Orchestra and a whole lot of teaching work to be done, and then there’s my conducting workshop next week (always the busiest week of the year for me) to get through before vacation.

So, the run continues, but perhaps this blog post ends! For the rest …  it’s

To be continued …

And here is Woods conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra (NOT the summer clinic group) in Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in the UW-Madison’s Mills Hall.

Posted in Classical music

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

January 23, 2011
1 Comment

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.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music diary: Life on the road and in rehearsal as lived by UW alumnus and conductor-cellist Kenneth Woods — Part 1 of 3.

January 22, 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 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, Maestro Ken!

By Kenneth Woods

Jake Stockinger at The Well-Tempered Ear recently invited me to do a guest slot on his excellent blog. His suggestion was that I write a summary of my working month of June. I thought it was a great idea — I love reading my old teacher (below) Leonard Slatkin’s monthly messages on his blog, and these sort of “my month” columns were an interesting mainstay of Gramophone for a long time.

My only challenge is that I, like many musicians, don’t think in months and weeks. We think in concerts and runs of concerts. Ask a musician what they did on the weekend, and you’re likely to get an eye roll. They probably drove 600 miles and played 3 concerts. Tuesdays are more likely to be a family day for many of us (which doesn’t work so well once your kids are in school).

Likewise, I find my own work tends to organize itself into runs of several concerts that fall one after the other — such runs tend to be about 3-5 weeks long and are usually bracketed by nice breaks where I can reintroduce myself to my family.

From that perspective, this run of work most certainly began on May 19th when I flew over to Boston to meet my colleagues in Ensemble Epomeo (below) for concerts at the Newburyport festival and a radio concert in New Hampshire.

It was a fun trip, but intense – one of my colleagues has angered the gods of Vulcan and was stranded by volcanic ash, so we had to put together the premiere of Kile Smith’s marvelous new string trio on one rehearsal. Then American Airlines smashed my spare cello on the way home — nice work, guys. I had a rehearsal the night I got in to Heathrow and wasn’t in the finest mood.

However, it seems a stretch to start a “my month of June” post with discussions of May 19-23 (although I just did, didn’t I?), so I’ll start almost in June…

May 31 – Orchestra of the Swan (below). My first concert with them since being appointed Principal Guest Conductor. We’ve got one rehearsal (four-hour call) to put together Joanna Lee’s incredibly tricky new work, “The Chronicles of Archy” and “Walton’s Façade.” “Archy” is a tall order — wicked rhythms, dense and complicated textures, extended techniques and lots of wit.

It’s about 28 minutes long. Normally you’d get 3 rehearsals, but this is part of a busy festival week (Spring Sounds, the orchestra’s annual new music festival), so we have to get the job done. Our biggest challenge is the acoustic: marble floors, walls and ceiling mean the percussion and trumpet are impossibly loud in spite of the musician’s great skill and delicacy.

“Façade” is full of the same problems — the spoken text is always hard to hear, but nearly impossibly so in this space. The orchestra is virtuosic, flexible, patient and heroic — I’m really looking forward to working with them. After putting together “Archy,” we only had 50 minutes to put together 45 minutes of Walton, and they nailed it to the wall.

June 1 – No rehearsals, but lots of scores to learn and cello to practice.  I will play the Schumann Concerto with Lancashire Chamber Orchestra (below) on Saturday. I’m often asked things like “What do you do all week between rehearsals?” These days fly by — a few hours of practice, a few hours of score study (a vast amount of music this month to conduct), answer some emails and look after the kids and I’ve put in a 15-hour day.

In addition to preparing the Concerto itself, I’m still adjusting from my now-smashed spare cello to my Italian one. Lots of careful intonation work to be done.  Since I’m conducting and playing, the memorization process is a little more intense, as both cello part and score have to be memorized cold.

Posted in Classical music
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