Ensemble Epomeo

String Trio


Send’em home… baffled?

I’m wearing my cellist hat for much of the month of May, doing runs of concerts with my string trio, Ensemble Epomeo this week in Pennsylvania then in the UK later in the month.We’re learning a stack of new repertoire this week, including the second string trio of Vftp favorite Hans Gal. Last year, we did a run of performances of the first trio, the “Serenade in D major op 41,” which included what we believe were the first documented performances in the US and Canada.  That piece was written in the early 1930’s- Gal was in his early 40’s, at the peak  of his considerable fame in pre-war Germany.

Over forty years, and countless changes, traumas and upheavals separate the Serenade from the second trio,  op. 104, originally written for violin, cello and viola d’amore. Once again, we can find no record of previous American performances. * (see update below)Referring to these two works as part of an early and late style is probably misleading- Gal had already outlived Schubert by 10 years when he wrote the Serenade, so it is hardly an “early work,” but a mature masterpiece by a composer with a vast experience already behind him. A work like the 3rd Symphony, written half-way between these two pieces, is already the work of a man well into his 60’s. Then, a nearly contemporary work like the Triptych, also written in the 1970’s, seems to not be the work of a man nearing the end of life at all- it is anything but autumnal or “late” sounding. It’s more a thrilling tour-de-force of compositional technique and creative energy.But “autumnal” the op 104 trio certainly is (even though Gal continued to composer prolifically for another 10 years after it was written). It’s in the very unusual key of F# minor, with large stretches in F# major and D major (in fact, the piece ends in D).

The viola, d’amore or not, is certainly the star of the show- each movement begins with the significant viola solos.Between the austere tonality and dark melodic coloration of the soloistic viola part, it does, unlike Triptych, often sound like quintessential “late” music. As we got to work on this this week (remember, with no existing recordings, and only a tiny handful of known performances, we only got the full sense of the piece once we started rehearsing it), I was very struck by how much the mood of the outer movements reminds me of the late Brahms Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet. Some of the first movement is almost unbearably sad and deeply nostalgic.After a witty and challenging Scherzo, the third and final movement is a large Theme and Variations.  The theme has two parts, a deeply melancholy first section in F# minor (with the melody in the dusky viola), followed by a radiant but somehow even more sad second section in F# major (with the tune soaring in the stratosphere of the violin range). The strong contrasts of the two parts of the theme create a structural dynamic something like the great double-variation movements of Beethoven and Bruckner (the slow movements of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and op 132 String Quartet and Bruckner’s 7th Symphony are classic examples of double variation form).  This very particular form, which carries with it so much weight of history, reinforces the questioning and pensive character of the music. One feels like Gal is letting the listener in on something very personal.Then, one reaches the final variation. Almost as an afterthought, Gal hops back into D major, a key he has flirted with throughout the piece. If one thinks this is something like Mahler’s use of progressive tonality to create a sense of profound spiritual transformation or illumination, well…..It’s almost the opposite. After so much longing, so much dreaming, so much mourning, the final variation is quirky, goofy, awkward, funny and completely shocking.

Again, I was reminded of Brahms. I wrote back in January about his 2nd Piano Concerto. The slow movement of that work is one of the most personal things he ever wrote, but the Finale which follows it is neither cathartic nor flashy. It is a carefully and deliberately calculated anti-climax. It’s almost as if Brahms, having bared his soul, needs a whole movement to restore a sense of distance and privacy from the listener. I wonder if Gal was thinking the same thing- as if he’s slightly refusing to tell us all he knows at the end.Anyway, all week I’ve been thinking about endings like this.  What does one make of an ending that is purposefully unsatisfying? Richard Strauss is generally considered less forward looking than his contemporary Gustav Mahler, but Strauss’s endings always seem to acknowledge that life is messy and difficult, and always will be. Don Juan, one of the most exciting pieces ever, has a completely nihilistic and frustrating conclusion. Of the tone poems, only Eulenspiegel really has a wham-bam ending, but it’s a  joke of a wham-bam ending because the protagonist is already dead. Mahler always looks conflict and ambivalence in the eye within pieces, but his endings are never anything but totally conclusive. Mahler seems to need to find complete closure at the end of every work, while Strauss and gal often need to avoid it.Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet, op 95, seems similar to the Gal. The ending is just an empty bit of silliness after much anger and pathos. What other works end by pushing the listener away, rather than embracing, enthralling or overpowering them right to the last note? What do we learn from a work that hints at the answers to life’s most troubling questions, but ultimately tells us to sod off and look for them ourselves?


Update- After some investigations from the Gal archives, we have been able to slightly fill out the history of the works performing history:“The performances listed on the web-site are the only ones that we have any information about. As you can see, they were all in Britain, and we have no record of any performance anywhere else. The piece was commissioned by, and dedicated to, the London-based Viola d’Amore Society. The first performance in 1972 was a private one at the Austrian Institute in London, and the first public performance in 1973 was at the Society. These two performances were with viola d’amore rather than ‘plain old viola’; the other two were with viola. The 1985 performance (again at the Austrian Institute) was only of the first movement, so it hardly counts as a performance. So it looks as though there have actually only been two proper public performances.”


Ensemble Epomeo- inspiring and mentoring young composer

BOY COMPOSER GOES FROM METALLICA TO MOZARTBudding composer, Wirral schoolboy Marco Galvani, is writing music for a leading classical string trio.Sixteen-year-old Marco from Prenton, a guitarist in a heavy metal band, generally prefers Metallica to Mozart. But he was so impressed with a concert at last year’s Two Rivers music festival that he decided to give classical music more of a chance.The performance by the acclaimed string trio, Ensemble Epomeo, so inspired Marco that he began to write his own music for them. John Clark, Head of Oxton-based independent Birkenhead School which Marco attends, heard of his efforts and contacted Festival organisers.Now Marco has had an initial meeting with the Ensemble’s cellist, Ken Woods, and has been told that the trio may consider including some of his work during this year’s Festival, either as a workshop or even as part of their concert programme in May.“He was very helpful and made several suggestions which I’m starting to incorporate,” said Marco, who is working on two compositions – a light-hearted, three-minute piece and a more serious string trio.A Year 11 pupil at Birkenhead School, Marco is an all-round talented musician. As well as playing guitar in the heavy metal band, Serpentia, with three school mates, he also plays piano and clarinet. He sings in the school choir, plays in the school orchestra and jazz band and also does easy listening solo gigs, singing and playing the guitar.“Last year’s concert by the Ensemble really opened my mind to classical music,” added Marco. “I was sitting on the front row and the music was so intimate. It really made a big difference to me and motivated me to try writing for small groups of strings.”

  • The Two Rivers Festival is an annual event hosted by Birkenhead School and aims to bring top musical performers to Wirral. As well as Ensemble Epomeo, this year’s festival, which takes place from March to May, includes concerts from the Tallis Scholars, Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu, and Emily and Catherine Beynon. (www.tworiversfestival.co.uk)

Ends Notes for Editors

  • Birkenhead School, at Beresford Road, Oxton, is Wirral’s oldest and only selective independent school.
  • The school is now co-educational and, with a new nursery opened in 2006, educates children from three months to 18 years.
  • It has a strong musical tradition. Past students include Howard Skempton, one of the nation’s most important composers of experimental music; Graham Vick, internationally-acclaimed opera director, and Lord Tony Hall, Chief Executive of The Royal Opera House.
  • The school hosted a visit by HRH, The Earl of Wessex , earlier this year to help start its 150th year.
  • Bookings for an anniversary celebration concert in the school grounds with Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic can be made via the school’s website.

For further information contact: Denise Mullen , 07801182252, denise@owlpr.co.uk ; Kathryn Hulme, 01204 303904, or Mary Butterworth at Birkenhead School,  0151 651 3007 


Ensemble Epomeo: Composer Kile Smith on composer Alfred Schnittke

Ensemble Epomeo has been playing Kile Smith’s beautiful new string trio, Thrice Blest, a lot this year. Kile has managed to come to a couple of our performances, including our concert at the University of Pennsylvania a few days ago. He’s written a fascinating blog post, dealing in large part with his reactions to Schnittke’s extraordinary, wild and challenging String Trio from 1985, played on the same gig. Smith and Schnittke are both marvelous composers who write in their own styles with their own world-views. I’d love to have Schnittke’s take on Smith, but for now, we have to settle for Kile’s on Alfred.  Read it all at Kile’s fantastic blog. Here’s a sample:Kile Smith:“I can’t say that I really liked the Schnittke String Trio, but I worry less and less with the bother of liking something, I find. We overrate liking, an irony since it mostly concerns things over which we have no control.I was, however, entranced. Caroline’s lyricism took on urgency and magnetism. She was drawing the viola and cello and me all to her. David’s tone deepened and was beautiful and sad. Ken was inexhaustible, portraying lightness and a gorgeous strength simultaneously.Entranced? Maybe I was altered. It’s too soon to tell, but I’ll take it over liking.”


On the skis, at the top of a new run, Part V

On tour with Ensemble Epomeo, Day 7

Yesterday morning, all that remained (after the stack of emails) was the final 100 miles or so to the Manchester Airport, a quick flight to Philly and concert at Penn. Hah! As we pulled away from the house, I heard an ominous noise. “Stop the car,” I told David. I jumped out of the car and my eyes confirmed what my ears had feared- the left rear tire was completely flat. It suddenly looked all-but-certain that we would miss our flight. Fate smiled- just a block or so away, we saw a tire shop, and after some faffing (mechanics worldwide don’t really seem to know the word “urgent”), they managed to fix the flat. Our wiggle room gone, we raced off hoping to make up lost time. About half way there, our Mapquest directions led us towards oblivion- thank goodness for Google Maps on the iPhone, which got us back on the right road.

Finally, we got back to Manchester airport. I left David to sort the car and raced to the check-in counter, as I knew that checking in with the cello can take extra time, and extra time we didn’t really have. The agent was nice, but quickly got “that look.” She called over two more agents, who also got “that same look.” David came and checked in, as did Caroline, and strolled up to the gate, while my agent stood holding a phone, face still frozen in that look. I felt myself slowly sinking into a mire of irritation and despair.  And so it remained, while Southwest Airlines spent over an hour trying to print my boarding pass and that for my cello. An entire football team (UNH) came and went. Seasons changed. Children were born and old men died. Finally, in despair, the agent gave me “a security pass” so I could go to the gate, hopefully to pick up my boarding pass there. This “security pass” had an interesting effect on the TSA- it was a bit like printing up a sheet of paper that said “I bomb planes” and handing it to them. TSA agents circled like vultures, held back only by curiosity about what the supervisor’s supervisor would do when he arrived. The head of Southwest was summoned (who didn’t seem to be the least bit surprised that I’d been waiting to check in for well over an hour). Grudgingly, they let me pass. When I got to the gate, Caroline was waiting with a turkey sandwich- my first food of the day (and destined to be my only food until after the concert).

At the gate, the new agent was waiting for me- she’d been briefed on my approach. “We’ll just print that up for you now!” she chirped. Then she got” that look.” Then she got back on the phone. “The look” now frozen on her face- a mixture of perplexity and contempt, as if daring me to roll my eyes, she cupped the mouthpiece and told me “this happens all the time with extra seats, especially with our “larger customers.””In the end, I never did get a boarding pass- the other gate agent just shrugged, waved me on, and said “we’ll print it tonight.”When we arrived in Philadelphia, there were other things to worry about- notably the bow situation, which would take priority over lunch or dinner. I took the Hill back to the shop where it had been done- they were pretty apologetic and offered to loan me another bow for the concert. I also showed them my newly-hexed J W Lee bow. The shop owner said something snooty about me tightening the bow too much and playing on the stick- who do these guys think they are? Fortunately, the “bow guy” was super cool. He was mortified that the Hill had given out after being played only 20 minutes, and offered to do an instant re-hair on mine, rather than loaning me a foreign stick. 1 hour later, I had my bow back, playing like a dream, even if it was tightened too tight and I was playing on the stick.That was 5 PM on Friday- time to get to the concert hall. We fought our way across Philly in rush hour traffic. I hadn’t played a note since our concert in Halifax on Wednesday. I also had to rosin in the bow- a newly re-haired bow is bound to have slippery spots. We touched a few spots in Schnittke, Smith and Beethoven, with me re-rosining every few moments. The bow felt great, the cello sounded totally transformed, and it was a nice hall. In what seemed like five minutes, the audience was there, and we were playing. Not a huge crowd, but a nice one, and I think we played pretty well- it was great to have Kile Smith there to hear Thrice Blest, which we’ve enjoyed immensely- we’re looking forward to premiering the expanded version of the work in May at the Two Rivers Festival. I was particularly happy with Schnittke and Beethoven, and we played the alla Marcia from Gál as an encore. After all day’s dramas, starting with the flat tire, it was just a huge relief to have gotten to, and through, the gig.Tonight is the final concert of our run in Princeton- tomorrow we teach all day at a chamber music retreat and I fly back that evening to London.

The pace starts to pick up from here- two piano rehearsals with Mahler soloists on Monday when I arrive, string sectional on Schumann and Gal symphonies with OOTS in Stratford on Tuesday, more coachings in London on Wed, then Friday, we’re recording Das Lied von der Erde and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in Shipston. I feel like I’ve been on the skis going full-tilt for a long time, but I just realized I’m only at the top of the hill, and the big moguls are still ahead.


PS- you can follow Ensemble Epomeo on our Facebook Page here.


On the skis, at the top of a new run, Part IV

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podium

On tour with Ensemble Epomeo– day 5 and 6

Wednesday morning I awoke with a sense of gleeful expectation, in spite of another raft of emails. Why? If you think I was looking forward to the concert, you guessed wrong. Longtime Vftp readers may have twigged that for me, coffee is close to a religion. We’d had a wonderful, wonderful visit to Fredericton, but, from what I could tell, it is not a coffee city. I hadn’t had a decent cup-o-joe, even a Starbucks-ee level one since Sunday. However, I know Halifax, and on Wednesday morning, I knew my first stop was Coburg Coffee, where I used to re-fuel during Scotia Festival in years long past. Heaven. Relief!

On arrival at The Music Room, we decided to carry forth the vibe from the night before- today was to be a day of calm, un-hurried but intensely-focused rehearsal, just cleaning house as if there was no concert to play. The Music Room acoustic is idea for this kind of work- it’s more of a recording studio acoustic than a concert hall one, so you can hear everything with tremendous clarity and precision. It was a tiring day, but cleansing, and after a nice late-afternoon break, we were ready to play.

The concert that night was to be memorable. We started with the Gál Serenade, a piece we’ve now performed many times, but never at the beginning of a concert. It’s as virtuosic and unforgiving as any piece I’ve ever played, so we always thought a warm-up was a good idea, but in this case, it felt good starting the programme with it while we were still fresh and at the top of our concentration.Next up was Schnittke. After the bow-hair massacre the day before, I was trying to be extra cautious, and the destruction this time was nowhere nearly as memorable. Still, after intermission, I decided it was safer to play the Beethoven on a newly-rehaired Hill that came with the cello.

The first movement of the Beethoven was great fun, although the Hill lacks the depth and focus of the Lee, but not long after starting the 2nd movement, I became aware of impending disaster. The dry climate had caused the plug holding the bow hair to shrink and the knot came loose. This meant that in the midst of this serene slow movement, I suddenly had no tension on the bow at all. After struggling as best I could for a while, I finally  stopped in mid-phrase and said “ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry, this has never happened before, but I’m afraid I have to get another bow.” David and Caroline looked completely stunned!I went up and got my beautiful Jin Wu Lee bow, with its 10 or so remaining hairs, and tip-toed through the rest of the concert. In spite of this, it was great fun, as was our final visit to the Chebucto Room, which in my mind will always be the Rainbow of Halifax (OES members will know what I’m talking about).

With the ferry from Nova Scotia to Maine now out of business, we had no choice but to re-trace our steps on Thursday. At least we had no concerts! And, I could start the day with one last trip to Coburg Coffee. Over 600 miles later, but still speaking to each other, we pulled into Maine to stay with some friends of David. I’m always a bit nervous about home-stays with people I don’t know, but they couldn’t have been nicer. A husband and wife cello/violin couple with a big Suzuki practice, they took us to a fantastic brew pub for a great night out. We’ve me so many brilliant and kind people on this tour.


PS- you can follow Ensemble Epomeo on our Facebook Page here.


On the skis, at the top of a new run, Part III

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podium

On the road with Ensemble Epomeo

Tuesday morning- our final, main concert at St Thomas was to be a noon recital, so there was just time for coffee, lots of stressy emails, scales, packing and the drive in to St Thomas before we met Wesley and Nadja at 10:30. As with the previous two days, the weather was absolutely grim and foul! We touched up the quintet and looked briefly at bits of Beethoven. In the end, we had decided to replace Gál with Schnittke for this concert as well- we knew the collegiate audience would dig it, and it gave us a run at it before the Halifax concert on Wed. It was a fun concert, in spite of the fact that it felt like a sprint since we had to keep it by definition a “lunch hour” concert and get the students out and on to their classes on time.

The only drama had to do with my bow- a few nights earlier, in Newburyport, a cellist colleague who had come to the concert had unwittingly jinxed it by suggesting it needed a re-hair. At that point, the bow was playing well, but in the Schnittke Tuesday, I broke about 30 bow hairs, suddenly reducing a well-functioning bow to one that just barely played. Just as you never want to talk about the reliability of your car while driving it, so to, one should never mention the state of bow hair while concerts are being played.We’d already packed the car that morning, so there was just time for a quick bite at the school cafeteria (brought back many memories) before we headed for Halifax- another 300 mile drive through pouring rain and fog. Visibility was horrible for the entire journey, although we could certainly see the countless “WARNING- MOOSE CROSSING- HAZARD!” signs along the way. Do the Emerson’s have any memories of dodging hoards of rutting moose while fighting an Atlantic gale on their way to play Schnittke? I think not!

We got to Halifax around 7 PM, exhausted, starved and relieved. Somehow, we managed to pull ourselves together for a 2 hour rehearsal on Gál before dinner. It was the best rehearsal so far on Gal’s trio, and the most centered of the tour up to that point. Our shared exhaustion (for the first few days, it was just me that was knackered) led us to take a calm, measured approach and to just review the whole trio, re-tuning some of the many tricky passages and just generally refreshing the whole piece. Chris Wilcox, my old friend and director of Scotia Festival of Music, who was hosting our concert, took us to a charming little hole-in-the-wall diner called the Chebucto Room next door for a bite. This was the kind of honest, no BS place we’d hoped to find on our drive up on Sunday when we’d stopped in that nasty little place in Maine.


PS- you can follow Ensemble Epomeo on our Facebook Page here.


On the skis, at the top of a new run, Part II

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podium

On tour with Ensemble Epomeo, Day 2 and 3

We set off early for New Brunswick, with over 300 miles to cover. We’d never done such a big trip as a trio before (the previous record was more like 2 or 3 hours), but it was a pleasant drive in good company. Somewhere along the way, we stopped for lunch for a rather disappointingly ordinary meal at what had looked like a cute old-timey diner. While David and Caroline paid their checks, I made a few frantic business calls before we crossed the border.What a border crossing it was- we were in line for a long, long time going up, and when we returned we actually had to park the car and go in for extra questioning, even though we’re all US citizens. Why the drama? It’s Canada- we’re all brothers and sisters!

The weather in New Brunswick was rather foul- we got to our hosts around 5 then had a “sound check” at 6. The university hadn’t quite explained what it was a sound check for- it turns out they wanted to film and record our children’s concert the next day. It was a good thing we did have a sound check- the hall had HUGE acoustic problems and we decided we need to mic the speakers, something we almost never do. We hadn’t had a minute to look at the children’s music this time, but we muddled through before adjourning for dinner with Ron, our host. After dinner, I think we were all too tired to rehearse productively.

The next morning, Monday, we had a lot of work to do, starting with a stack of emails about schedules and contracts and other nitty-gritty details. The kiddie concert was at 12, so we had about 2 hours once we’d driven to the college to put together Ferdinand the Bull, Kile Smith’s “Bremen Town Musicians,” David Yang’s “Lubin from Chelm” (in which I have a great speaking role as Lubin’s nagging mother) and Martin Kutnowski’s “How Toad got his Spots.” Martin’s piece was the newest for us, and we wanted to get it extra right, since he was our connection for the visit to Fredericton, where he teaches composition at St Thomas University.

All too soon, the kids started filing in, as they do. We always start with Ferdinand, which is great- all the rest of our pieces are for violin, cello and narrator, but I’m not involved with Ferdinand, so I can go in the audience to marvel at Caroline’s jaw-dropping virtuosity and get a sense of how the audience is responding to David’s shtick. This was a once-in-a-long-while audience, and they were almost immediately howling with laughter to almost everything David said, which brought out David’s sharpest comedic instincts. After a roaring ovation, I joined my colleagues for the rest of the performance- great fun, and a great bunch of kids.

After lunch, we had more music to learn. We had two more new pieces to look at- one was Martin’s marvelous new clarinet quintet. David had commissioned it for his festival, so he knew it, but Caroline and I had just managed to print our parts out before leaving our homes last week. I was relieved after lunch to find that it was quite playable- don’t ask what I would have done if it had been extraordinarily difficult. Our originally planned tour program was to have been the one we played in Newburyport- Kile Smith’s Thrice Blest, Gal Serenade op 41, Strauss “das Deandl is harb auf mi” and Beethoven op 9 no. 1. Things got slightly more complicated when our presenter for Wednesday asked for the Schnittke Trio. The Schittke is one of the greatest masterpieces of modern chamber music, and it was the first thing David and I did in the trio with our original violinist, but we’d never played it with Caroline, and it is a big piece to dust off after a 2 year break. We were thrilled to have an excuse to work it up, but more repertoire means more do do in less time.

So, Monday afternoon, we had a trio sectional on Martin’s quintet and a first look at Schnittke. After dinner, we met our 2nd violinist, Nadja, and Wesley Ferreira, who had to take on Martin’s formidable clarinet writing. The quintet,  ”En la Mar Hay un Torre,” is a sweet, tender and very beautiful piece with hints  of tango and a final coda that Ernest Bloch would have loved in its Hebraic defiance. After quintet, we wanted to rehearse, since there’d been no time to look at the trio rep since Saturday, but instead we all adjourned to a wonderful meal. A better choice, in the end- it’s nice to get to know who you’re playing with and the composer whose music you play! It was a nice day- wonderful kiddie concert with an audience to die for, a new work to discover and an old favorite to re-discover, and lots of nice new colleagues to meet.


PS- you can follow Ensemble Epomeo on our Facebook Page here.


Cello Switcheroo, Part Two!

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podium

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a little bit about the challenges of getting to grips with an instrument other than one’s own.I’m now back in Philadelphia, playing again on that same “other” cello, and it’s fascinating how one development has changed my perspective on the events of my last visit.

I really struggled to get a sound out this cello last time I was here- it literally would not speak on short notes on the lower strings without a great deal of strategizing and coaxing.  I partly ascribed that to it not being played for several months, as well as to the differences in setup between it and my home axe. I don’t think the blog post I wrote at the time quite gets across just how frustrated I was at the time. In the end, just as I was figuring things out, I noticed a buzz starting on the day of our final concert. I reported this to the instrument’s owner and advised him that this probably meant that a seam (the glue join between the ribs and either back or top of the cello) had come unglued.When I returned this week, I got a report on the repair- it turns out that there wasn’t just a seam open. To hear my friend’s description, so many seams were open it was a miracle the back of the cello hadn’t just fallen off completely.

This, of course, would completely explain why I struggled so hard to get the instrument to speak. Without a solid connection between the ribs and the two vibrating plates, the mechanical action of the instrument couldn’t work. Now repaired, the cello is as smooth as butter to play.What I find a bit amusing is that while it did occur to me that there was something not quite right with the cello, I diagnosed it as stiffness from a lack of use. Rather than thinking it needed to go to the shop, I thought that I had perhaps better arrange some time with it farther in advance of a first rehearsal in future- in other words, I was guilty of cello neglect. It never occurred to me that it was actually broken.

I think this is an outgrowth of my traditional upper-Midwestern stoicism, which I find is getting worse every year. I can feel myself turning into one of Garrison Keillor’s semi-silent old men of the Great Lakes region who can never ascribe the cause of any failing to anything but themselves. This experience was an almost comical example of me refusing to make an excuse for myself. I think I was quite close to not noticing the back of the cello falling because I was so focused on finding a sounding point that would get that damn pianissimo staccato low F# to speak.Of course, I’ve also had a lot of exposure to folks for whom the instrument is always the problem. You can read about them here. Apparently there are woodwind players out there (a minority, I hasten to add!!!!) who’ve never actually made a mistake without it somehow being the fault of a broken instrument.

This time around, I keep interrupting rehearsal to tell David and Caroline how much better everything is working and what a lovely cello this actually is. I fear they’re getting a little fed up with the new, happy Ken.All this doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll sound better this time than last time- sometimes the struggle to overcome a problem pushes us to play better. I did a performance of the Debussy Sonata once during which I broke a string. Not only did I lose the string, the three remaining strings when completely haywire. Not a single note would have been anywhere close to where it had been for all the weeks I’d been practicing. I had to re-finger tons of things on the fly. Of course, when I listened to the recording, my playing got WAY better after this mishap- I was concentrating so hard that I played at a completely different level.I don’t know if others have this experience, but more often than not, the more miserable I am, the more it feels like every note is a complete battle, the better the recording sounds.Great life, eh?


Kile Smith- Thrice Blest with Ensemble Epomeo

From kilesmith.com. Read the original here.Ensemble Epomeo has performedThrice blest a few times since last Spring, and is bringing it to Philadelphia this Friday, October 1st. They’re playing at the First Friday Concert Series at Christ Church in Old City, on 2nd Street just above Market. The free concert starts at 8 pm.Read about the work here.Ensemble Epomeo is violinistCaroline Chin, violist David Yang, and cellist Kenneth Woods. Click on the names to read about the vast experience each brings to the group. Ken is also an excellent blogger.Here’s a recent post of his about playing on a borrowed cello. I love reading inside-baseball stuff from musicians. Things I’d never consider play such a big part in the lives of those who make the music for us.Caroline, David, and Ken play with many different people and ensembles, and they each run groups of their own. They are busy as can be, so I’m delighted that they’ve taken on this little work. I’m writing a companion to it, but it’ll have to wait until after Friday.In David’s kitchen a week ago I heard part of a recording of Thrice blestfrom a recent performance, and David was telling me how much the piece has come together and how much they’re enjoying it. I think I nodded but I really wasn’t listening; the lentils and sausage he was cooking grabbed all my attention. Sure enough, “cooking” is in his bio, but you can take my word for it: he’s the real deal.Hans Gál, SerenadeKile Smith, Thrice blestRichard Strauss, Variations on “’s Deandl is harb auf mi”Ludwig van Beethoven, Trio in D Major, Op. 9, No. 2


The Old Cello Switcheroo

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumI am in Philadelphia this week for some work with my string trio, Ensemble Epomeo.I have to say, Philadelphia has become one of my favorite cities- I love the neighborhood feel in the part of town where I’m staying, with some lovely shops and restaurants as well as the incredibly characterful Italian Market, where you find the most astounding array of produce, meats, fish, cheeses, oils and just about anything else to cook and eat you can imagine.It’s our first concert together since May- we’re heading into our busy part of the year, with small projects this month and next followed by a pretty substantial tour of New England and the Canadian Atlantic Provinces in November. We’ve got new repertoire to learn and old repertoire to refresh.  (This week we’re playing Kile Smith’s Thrice Blest, a short trio by Richard Strauss, the Gal Serenade op 41 and Beethoven’s Op 9 No. 1 n G major).In a capitulation to the ever increasing costs, risks and hassles of traveling with a cello, I’m playing this week on a borrowed instrument. I don’t expect much sympathy from pianists out there (other than Krystian Zimerman), who have to cope with different instruments all the time. However, I played on one cello for every single concert I did between 1991 and 2001. The relationship between most string players and their instruments is incredibly close. I’d say that string players are, in general, only slightly less reluctant to change their instruments from gig to gig than singers, who are stuck with one for their whole lives.Musicians will go to great lengths to have their instrument with them for a gig- including buying seats where possible, and investing in incredibly expensive and bulky flight cases. Unfortunately, as I found out in 2001, the best flight case is no match for a fork lift, which ripped off the top of my case and cello.(That’s not Ken’s “real” cello)Switching cellos on a short rehearsal schedule can pose a number of challenges. In this case, the cello (a pretty nice one) hadn’t been played at all in many months, and at the first rehearsal it felt incredibly stiff and unresponsive. I couldn’t get anything to speak on the lower two strings that first night. I can hardly think of a piece that depends more on effortless precision of attach than the Beethoven Trio we’re playing this week- trying to rehearse that music when I had to play with elephantine effort amidst a panorama of squwks and whistles to get anything out is  not fun. String instruments can be temperamental creatures- if they are feeling neglected and unloved, they’re certainly let you know.(A promo photo of  the trio, with Ken holding someone else’s cello)There are other challenges- pitch is the most obvious, and string trio is the most demanding medium for tuning. Far easy to switch cellos for solo playing or orchestra work than for small chamber ensembles.However, the most challenging thing is to find ones own sound and voice on an instrument that may have very different properties to your regular axe. After a couple of days of near-constant playing, this instrument is opening up, and I’m finally starting to feel like I can hear my “self” when I play it. Really, I should be encouraged by how fast it all goes- from day one where no sound comes out at all, to day two where I’m just focusing on getting the notes to speak reliably, by day three, I’m actually beginning to get some colors and tone.Anyway, I try to accept the challenge for what it is, to take it on the chin in those early rehearsals when I can’t stand the sound I’m making and to have confidence that we’ll get there by concert time. I’ve dealt with these challenges many times before- see here or here.Still, I  feel like more and more we’re expected to produce under ever more difficult working conditions as musicians. The squeeze is on from all sides- as orchestra budgets collapse, musicians have to put on concerts with fewer rehearsals, while taking on more teaching and freelance work to make up for lost income. That means less time for everyone to prepare for concerts with less time to rehearse. Not good.Last night, we ran the program and recorded it. There are many things I’m pleased about (both in my own playing and that of the group), and there are “other” things there too that we’ll fix today. I think the cello will sound fine in the concert, but I can hear how much of my mind is going into thinking about the mechanics of what I’m doing. Not in the obvious sense of things sounding mechanical- it’s more that I can hear myself overlooking little details I would normally catch because 40% more of my brain is going into getting that low F# to speak than it normally would. I don’t have any spare brain these days- I need that 40% back! At this point, I can just about get the right sounds- now I have a few more rehearsals to get to the point where I can get that result with a level of effort similar to what I’d expend on my own cello.Maybe the trick isn’t to rehearse or practice at all- I’ve occasionally managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat in concert when I’ve had to do a quick switch, and there was the incredible situation a few years back in Cardiff when Alban Gerhardt had his Guadanigni stolen just before a recording session. He switched instruments on no notice and nailed the concertos in the sessions. A good, if tragic, reminder that we shouldn’t make excuses for ourselves.(Why so serious- because Ken never gets to play on this cello)