Ensemble Epomeo

String Trio

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JC Lockwood interviews Kenneth Woods about his years on the dark side

Reblog from Gatehouse News Service

Roll over Beethoven

By J. C. Lockwood

 

 

These days, he’s the guy with the bow — and the baton.

Kenneth Woods, who will perform with Trio Epomeo in a June 6 preseason fundraiser for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, has received the Aspen Fellowship as both a cellist and conductor. He’s toured and recorded extensively as a cellist, and bounces between England and the United States in a mad schedule of performances with the Surrey Mozart Players and the Oregon East Symphony, among others.

He’s also the principal conductor of the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra in England, which he led in a performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 sandwiched between a week-long residency at Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy and a quick six-date US tour with Epomeo. After that, it’s back to Guildford and the Surrey Mozart Players and Stratford-upon-Avon and the Shakespeare Proms festival, where he will conduct the Orchestra the Swan. Yes, he’s on the road a lot.

But it hasn’t always been Schumann and Shostakovich all the time for the cellist and conductor. In fact, he was a pretty serious rocker during his teens and college years. He blames it on Brian May, specifically, on Queen’s “News of the World” album ‑ yeah, the one with “We Will Rock You.”

He was 12 years old. He bought a guitar and played in a rock band, in addition to studying cello, through high school. It was fun stuff that he fully intended to ditch for more serious, longhair pursuits. But by the time he unpacked his bags at Indiana University in the mid-‘80s, where he would study cello performance, he ended up playing in two successful regional rock bands: The Watchmen, an acid-funk band, and the Screaming Yardvaarks, both of which imploded just as they were attracting the attention of A&R guys, both of which never lasted long enough to put out a proper album.

The latter achieved “somewhat legendary status” in southern Indiana with the single “Mr. Potatohead” ‑ a hilarious collection of metal clichés and goofy lyrics, like the spoken ad-lib from the doctor warning the missus that her husband, Mr. Potatohead, might survive the horrific car accident he was in but could very well be a vegetable for the rest of his life.Dumb fun? Maybe, he says, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Silly can be good,” he says.“I think the point is that music should be honest ‑ whether that honesty comes off as anger, tenderness, sarcasm, whatever. A plastic mentality, which exists in abundance in classical music and pop, uses music for the opposite of what it’s supposed to be.

“Music is supposed to heal and enlighten. When we use it just to entertain and calm the nerves, it’s as if we’re masking our symptoms. If you’re depressed and you listen to banal music because it calms you down, you’re going to stay depressed longer; if you’re ignorant and you listen to plastic music, you’re going to stay ignorant longer,” he says.“These days, all classical musicians are supposed to like pop and rock ‑ it is a way of branding yourself as normal and safe. How boring! How sad when a great player feels the need to say, ‘I don’t even really listen to classical music.’“I like music ‑ all genres and eras ‑ but I don’t like aural wallpaper,” he says.

Here’s what Woods had to say about his years as a rocker. The interview was conducted by e-mail shortly before his performance with Trio Epomeo inNewburyport.

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KW: I got my first rock album when I was about 12, which I suppose was pretty late actually. It was Queen’s “News of the World,” which, if I say so myself, is a pretty damn fine first album to have. I’ve always felt drawn to playing whatever kind of music I listen to, whether it was classical or the folk music my dad played and loved, so I suppose the die was cast as soon as I took the shrink wrap off the LP.Within a year, I had my first electric guitar, and a year after that, my first band, which I played with off and on throughout high school. I had a broader range of interests when I was in high school — writing, science, stage crew and the rock playing as well as cello in all its guises of solo work, chamber music and orchestra. When I headed off to college, I declared myself done with all that and was just going to focus on classical stuff, but in a moment of madness I packed a guitar “just to have something to relax with.” Practically the first guy I met at Indiana University was a keyboard player with a great voice and his own PA system, so I was drawn back in and kept playing all through college.

JC: There was no conflict between playing classical and rock music in your mind?

KW: No, there certainly was conflict. On the one hand, I was quickly becoming aware of how competitive the cello world was and that I really couldn’t afford too many distractions from practicing. On the other hand, I found the orchestra experience at IU very, very depressing. In spite of a seemingly unlimited number of gifted players, the conducting faculty seemed to range from ‘washed-up’ to ‘never was any good.’ Rock gave me a chance to connect to a visceral kind of music-making I used to get from orchestra but lost for a while at IU.

JC: So, in your mind, it was just ‘music is music?’

KW: It was, in the sense that almost everyone I played with was a music major and brought the same training and seriousness to the band that they did to their lessons and recitals. On the other hand, particularly with the Watchmen, where I had a much bigger role as a songwriter, it was also a question of the power of rock music as protest music. I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying this, but I think the potential for true outrageousness in rock music still existed back then, more so than today. The ‘80s were such a suffocating time to be a creative young person, and the rather corporate environment at IU was no place to break out of that. We were fed up with politics, with style, with mass media, with pointless war, with vacuous pop culture, and we still thought the sheer craziness of rock ‘n’ roll could be a protest against that.Actually, as I say that, I realize the biggest change is that I no longer feel much hope that music can be an effective protest against the same outrages, which have just continued to get worse for the last 20 years. How grim!

JC: Did you think or hope or dream that you would make it as a rocker?

KW: When I graduated from IU, I planned to give the band a go. I didn’t apply to grad schools or take orchestra auditions that year. We were busy making demos and had just hooked up with high-powered management when the band imploded. All the rest of the guys stayed in rock or related music, and some have been quite successful, short of stardom, and I’m full of admiration for them. But my body took a real beating in the years I played. All those late nights, moving PA systems, smoke and noise. I still have back problems. I think I would have had quite a laugh if I’d ended up as the next Pete Townsend, but I’m not sure I would have survived as working indie rocker touring 320 days a year.

JC: What do you think would have happened, if, say, Watchmen were signed?

KW: Our agent was lining them up, and he had a plan. The band was racing against time ‑ the kind of aggressive, funky rock we were playing was huge at that moment. It was the peak of the popularity of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone.   But the ‘90s would not have been kind to us. I wanted to play John Coltrane solos on Wayne Shorter chords with a Hendrix sound over a P-funk groove with Zappa-meets-Seuss-lyrics- it probably was ambitious to hope we’d sell a million records. Grunge, in retrospect, is a very pop-oriented, neat and tidy style. We were neither neat nor tidy, and not grungy in a trendy way.  Since then, it’s been mostly techno-pop on the radio. We might have gotten a couple of albums out there, and we had a couple of decent singles, but the moment for that music was gone within a year of our breakup.

JC: Do you listen to rock?

KW: I listen to the rock I know and love: Hendrix, P-Funk, Queen, Zepplin. Through my producer friend, I am made aware that there is a lot of nice stuff out there, but I can’t help but feel sometimes that rock has run its course. It used to be the ultimate music of protest ‑ real outsider music. Now it is corporate, mainstream, mass-produced and market-tested. The Stones used to be controversial, even outrageous. Now they’re a nostalgia act; you’ve got to mortgage your house to afford a ticket. There are still great musicians out there making great rock albums, but does anyone still care?

JC: There are certain expectations and entrenched positions on both side of the classical-rock dividing line ‑ that classical is “real” music, or that classical musicians are just stuffed shirts, that classical is serious and everything else is silly, that you guys, you classical musicians, are pretentious stuffed shirts minuet when you go out to clubs?

KW: I think the position has shifted 180 percent from when Hendrix was playing. Rock and pop is now the territory of huge, huge multinational corporations. It is owned completely by the establishment.  No song makes it onto radio or TV until hat has been put through focus groups, marketing tie-ins have been negotiated, artists have been made over and on and on. Rock originally came from the poorest corner of America ‑ the Mississippi Delta ‑ but a young Chuck Berry or Elvis could never afford the hundreds of dollars to get into a stadium concert today. It has become an upper-middle class  luxury industry, offering instant trendiness for the young and nostalgia for the old.

On the other hand, classical musicians are out there now playing Bartok in coffeehouses and nightclubs, doing school concert and street performances. The concertmaster of the London Mozart Players just spent a year busking around the world to raise money for charity. Every orchestra and opera company has opened their doors to less-affluent listeners, and is making a point to get out into their communities and make a difference in children’s lives.Don’t get me wrong ‑ there are still plenty of stuff shirts, but my generation and the next one know that the mega institutions that sustained previous generations so nicely are gone, and we’ve got to accept risk and earn a place for ourselves in this profession. Meanwhile, you’ve got accountants at the big record companies living in castles.I try not to think in terms of an audience as a monolithic thing, but as a specific gathering of specific people. One of the luckiest accidents of my professional life has been escaping the tribal mentality, which to a certain extent permeates so much of our thinking about music and the music industry. In my rock days, we were consciously making music for our peers, for our generation- that is fun but limiting. Being a conductor and a teacher as well as a performer, I’ve gotten to be close friends with people from wildly different backgrounds, age groups and social strata. Without the tribe there, you find they’re all incredibly different ‑ not the masses of clones we often think.

When I play or conduct, I try to remember that ‑ that we’re not playing to “our audience” but to individuals, each of whom needs different things from the music, each of whom will respond to different things in the music. The more you respect those differences, and leave space for them, the more  common ground we find as human beings.What I want new classical listeners to know is that there is room for them, for their experiences and their needs and their tastes, in this music. It’s about creating space, not dumbing down.

J. C. Lockwood is an independent freelance writer who has been covering the Newburyport arts scene for more than two decades. To see more of his work, visit newburyportarts.blogspot.com.For more about Ken’s work as a rocker, click here.

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Ischia- buildings, tempi and mixed opinions

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumI’m back in the UK after a memorable week at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival in Italy.For me and my colleagues in Ensemble Epomeo, the focal point of the week was our concert on Thursday in the Church of Mary Magdeline in Cassamicciola. It’s a stunning church, and we received a very warm welcome from the priest who has been in residence there for 42 years now.Also warm was the air. I’m used to being hot during concerts when I conduct, but I’ve never been so hot playing as I was for the first half of this concert, with the possible exception of a few dodgy outdoor pops concerts. It was certainly a fiery program, and we could have been forgiven for breaking a sweat in a Manchester church in January-Krasa- Dance for String TrioHovhanness- String TrioKodaly- Intermezzo for TrioKlein- “Variations on a Moravian Theme” for String TrioBeethoven- Trio in C minor, op 9 no. 3IntermissionMozart- Clarinet QuintetI have wonderful memories of last year’s festival, and was a bit concerned that this year’s reality couldn’t match up to that of last year. Fortunately, the scenery, weather and food was as wonderful as ever, as was the clarinet playing of my colleague Giuseppe Caranante. He has an uncanny ability to bring a sense of rapt stillness to a performance. I don’t think I’ve every played the slow movement of the Mozart so softly, but it worked, and absolutely nobody coughed! On the other hand, the chamring padre talked through most of the Beethoven trio and the Kodaly.Throughout the week, I’ve been struck again and again but how difficult it is to find a consensus about how participants were perceiving their experience at the festival. Some loved playing in the orchestra, others felt it was an intrusion on their chamber music time (and some just dislike orchestra and conductors). Likewise, some loved the acoustics of the church on Thursday while others complained bitterly about the reverberation. Many people loved the Beethoven, which I think we in the band all felt went the best for us out of the first half, but one participant HATED it! She seemed to particularly loathe our performance of the slow movement of the trio, the miraculous Adagio con espressione. Granted, I don’t think we sounded like any of the old LPs I expect she grew up with- we played the opening non-vibrato, like a sacred procession, and tried to not let the phrases die in the many silences. It may have been radical, but it was the one movement of the night that got spontaneous (and noisy) applause from the entire audience, and I think we all felt it was our most polished work of the evening. I guess some people just need to vent. That kind of reaction isn’t likely to change an interpretation born of many years of study and research, but it is likely to make you think a bit less of someone’s manners….Her comments did bring into focus the question of interpretation and venue. She felt the churchy reverb meant we should have played much more slowly (although I’m doubtful she would have approved even in a carpeted living room).  Tempi are like neighborhoods- you can move around and adjust some, but you’ve got to stay relatively close to home. If you can’t make the piece understandable in a given space, it’s probably better to pick other repertoire (in this case, none of us knew the venue and we didn’t get a sound check).In the end, none of us in the trio were looking at this concert as a summation of our work together, just a step along a road that may lead in any number of directions. Rehearsals have been pretty good this week, so I think we have a clearer than ever sense of what we would like to accomplish together. The kind of work we’ve been doing on the Beethoven, including lots of experimentation with vibrato (or the lack thereof) and bow strokes as well as tempi has us excited to put together all the Beethoven Trios, but we’re also discovering the kind of time commitment we’re going to need to make to do the kind of work we all want to do. String trio playing is damn hard work.On the other hand, we got out the Schnittke Trio last night, which we played at last year’s festival and which is replacing the Mozart on our US tour next month. Even though we were bone tired and hadn’t worked on the piece in almost a year other than a read-through, it went well and felt in every way better than it did last year when we’d been playing it day in and day out. Hopefully this means the work we did on these last few programs has been paying off and that as we take on new pieces, we’ll be able to start working on things with a stronger foundation.

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To be (a group) or not to be (a group)…. (turns out, we’re a group)

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumAs many of readers will remember, I’m working this week at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival. I’m in residence here with my colleagues from my string trio, Ensemble Epomeo.(Mount Epomeo from the Covo dei Borboni, home of Ischia Chamber Music Festival)Of course, we’re called Ensemble Epomeo because the group came together here on the slopes of Mount Epomeo, the stunning volcano at the heart of Ischia, during last year’s festival. Our original mission was just to play one piece- the Schnittke String Trio. What an unbelievable piece to start with! As last year’s festival drew to a close, David, our violist mentioned that, given how well the rehearsals for the Schnittke had gone, we might actually have the makings of a trio and suggested we try to organize a few more concerts.All three of us have played in a lot of groups over the years, so we all were more than aware of what the odds are of a group of three players, no matter how good and no matter how simpatico, being or becoming a “real” string trio. The odds of failure are pretty high. Still, if you’re lucky enough to play with good colleagues to fail is to still be pretty good, so we all agreed to give it a shot.For me, the reason I was hesitant and the reason I decided to give it a shot is one and the same- the fact that we’re dealing with string trio, which I think of as by far the most challenging genre in chamber music. It’s more exposed than a quartet, the parts are more difficult (composers mostly think in four voices, so in trio, somebody is almost always playing 2 parts at once), and the repertoire is slanted towards the most difficult corners of classical music- big Mozart, early Beethoven and Schubert. Having just done Schnittke, there is no guarantee Beethoven will also click.On the other hand, I’ve played in wonderful quartets and piano trios where we had enough time and opportunity to have a good run, find a sound and cover some repertoire. I’ve been pining for another quartet for over 10 years now since Masala finished up, and had ruefully assumed that ship had sailed, and had never really thought about string trio, but now that we’re at it, I’m excited to explore the genre.  There are some advantages to this genre over string quartet and piano trio. It’s amazing how much calmer rehearsals feel with 3 than with 4 musicians, and how much easier it is to play when all 3 instruments are string instruments, as opposed to 2 strings and a 9 foot cannon called a Steinway.We’ve been doing some concerts here and there throughout the year, but this week has been our second big immersion since last year, and we’ve got a busy month or so of concerts in the UK and USA coming up. There are two things in particular I am enjoying- first, the repertoire. We’re playing the astounding trio of Gideon Klein, the last work he finished before he was shipped to Auschwitz, and the Krasa Dance for Trio, also composed at Teresenstadt just before his deportation. More and more, I hesitate to mention the circumstances surrounding the composition of these pieces because I don’t think they need any special sympathy or consideration as pure music. These are major, major masterpieces. I’m sure that had Klein lived he would have been one of the most important figures in 20th c. music, on a par with Bartok, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.I’m also enjoying the different ground rules that come with being in a group. Often at festivals, the rehearsal dynamics are alarmingly similar to the dynamics of an orchestra rehearsal. Expect good preparation, insist on accountability, but on the other hand, work in broad contours, don’t micromanage or nitpick, and try not to pick at scabs. In a “real” group you all agree that we’re not just focusing on preparing a given work, but on creating a shared concept of sound and interpretation- investing the next concert while preparing this one.What this really means is that we do a lot, a lot, a lot of tuning work. I’m like a pig in shit doing all this intonation work. As a conductor, one has to remember you can only do so much tuning before revolt breaks out. Even then, the institutional dynamics of orchestra rehearsal mean that tuning work often feels (in spite of the best of intentions from the conductor) corrective and sometimes adversarial and punitive. The focus ends up being on the result. Also, with all but the best orchestras, there are always bound to be one or two unsolvable problems in a wind section…In chamber music rehearsals, the focus is on the process, and in particular on giving everyone a chance to understand the harmonic function of what they are playing. That means you’re not just getting things to sound “not out of tune,” but on getting to understand, at a very microscopic level, how each composer works with notes, intervals and chords. I can’t think of a better reason to call three musicians a group (other than the groupies).

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Yang on Epomeo

Hi Everyone-I’m frantically packing for Ischia (and trying to get my cello chops back after a busy few months of stick waving and not  much practice), and internet access in Ischia is unpredictable. New blog posts may be scarce for a while, we’ll see. Meanwhile, my colleague in Ensemble Epomeo, David Yang, has some wise and funny words about the program we’re touring with this spring. These were written for the paper in one of the cities we’re playing in in June. KW

Ensemble EpomeoByron Wallace, violinDavid Yang, violaKenneth Woods, violoncelloHans Krasa – Tanz (Dance)Alan Hovhaness – TrioGideon Klein – “Variations on a Moravian Theme” from his String TrioZoltan Kodaly – IntermezzoAlfred Schnittke – Moderato from his String TrioLudwig van Beethoven – Rondo from String Trio, Opus 9, No. 3I’m writing this while on the airplane en route to Roma via Frankfurt. There is a large German man to my left slumbering peacefully. I have to say there sure is a difference between a plane full of Germans from a plane full of Italians. There is always a bit of a festive atmosphere when Italians are headed home from vacation. But this flight is all business. Speaking of which, I guess I should write a little about the program my group, Trio Epomeo, is performing in June in the USA. Actually, the first performance will be in Ischia, the small volcanic island in the Bay ofNaples in Southern Italy where Mount Epomeo sleeps in the blue seas off Naples, and where the trio was formed. Then we fly off to England where we are performing in Bath (having already tested out part of the program in Hereford). In June we’ll play in New York City in a concert and on Columbia University‘s radio station before heading to Philadelphia for two concerts and then up to Newburyport and Exeter, MA. Actually, the travel seems quite relevant because this program is very much a journey from country to country. Specifically, most of the the program has deep roots in the folk music of the various composers’ cultures which, more than usual, gives these pieces their ethnic flavor.The program is short – about an hour and a half – and we go right through without pause. It is based on old-time programs from the turn of the last century where someone like Kreisler or Elman would do selected movements instead of huge pieces. I find this a nice change for the audience, a bit like a taster’s menu. We sometimes call it a “Tapas Concert.” We’ll be starting with Hans Krasa’s “Dance” which is a driving work that conjures up images of some demon train hurtling towards oblivion. It takes on added meaning when you learn that Krasa, a Czech Jew, died in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis shortly after completing it. I’m not sure I can break down exactly what the sound of bitterness and sarcasm is but, for sure, it is in this piece from the first notes.The next work heads to Armenia for a work by Alan Hovhaness. Hovhaness actually lived inAmerica but this looks to his roots using ethnic scales and techniques to make these standard Western instruments create sounds utterly unlike anything one would normally hear in a classical setting. The piece is strange, lonely and oddly sparse. The romantic image it conjures up in my mind is of a shepherd on some barren mountain with his charges, out for weeks at a time without seeing another human.After that we move into the central movement from Gideon Klein’s great string trio “Based on a Moravian Theme.” I actually have a recording of the theme which is sung in, well, I don’t know – Czech? or is there a language called Moravian? – and IDa’ll play it  before we perform. As otherworldly as the Hovhaness was, this piece goes through a huge range of tangible emotions in just 10 minutes of variations. It starts impassioned but swings to playful, sardonic, uncertain and fearful, not necessarily in that order. Klein was a great piano virtuoso and rising musical star in Weimar Germany. Alas, he, like Krasa, did not survive the camps.Continuing with the folk music angle, we jump into a terrific early little trio by the great Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly (who, happily, lived out a full life, much of it spent collecting folk tunes with his best friend, Bela Bartok.) I’m not sure how to describe it except listening to it you can practically taste the  bits of paprika and potatoes stuck in the thick white beard of the man sitting across the room slurping at his goulash.After that we go right to a hard, ice-cold bottle of vodka. Alfred Schnittke was the “other” great Russian composer of the 20th Century after Shostakovich. He had a fascination with medieval music and his works reflect that at the same time having the angularity of the mid-20th Century combined with that passion that is so distinctly Russian. Actually, you know, it’s strange how Russian music is so romantic in the way a warm fireplace is comforting with a blizzard raging outside. This is very different from, for example, the hot-blooded passion of Italian opera or the earnestness of so much early 20th Century American music (think Appalachian Spring). Of course, you have to be careful about making silly national generalizations but at the same time, there is something that makes us different from each other. And it is the joy in sharing those differences that can lead to some very interesting things, indeed.After the Schnittke sneaks in, yells for a while, and then skulks out, we finish with a quick and airy movement by the Maestro himself. Beethoven wrote his C Minor Trio when just a lad in his 20s (it is Opus 9) but this is a fully formed mature work. We’ll be playing the last movement, a Rondo, that whizzes and whirls and then disappears like a puff of smoke. What better way to end a concert? Of course, if everyone keeps applauding we might just have to keep on playing. But we’ll see about that.David Yang5 May, 2009Rome, Italy