Ensemble Epomeo

String Trio

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Thursday on Tour

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumWell, I’m on my way back to Philly after a busy two days in New York with Ensemble Epomeo. We enjoyed our chat with Carl at WKCR- it was fun but challenging in the studio. They have a larger space for recording ensembles, but had we been in there, it would have been just about impossible to carry on a conversation with Carl between the pieces. Instead, we were in the booth with him, sort of tucked around the edges of the console. Byron and David were both more or less behind me, and we had to use the same mics for talking and playing, which felt odd, but I’m told sounded fine on air. If we can get permission, we’ll make the show available as a podcast on the E2 website.WKCR has a wonderfully daring programming philosophy, a refreshing change from the mild-mannered banalities that most public radio stations feel overwhelming market pressure to stick to. After our two hours of live, mostly contemporary chamber music they were doing an hour of avante jazz. This meant we could present a pretty intense and thoughtful program with confidence, focusing on the most radical and experimental parts of our repertoire. We were also able to curate the morning with some recordings of related pieces on CD- bits of Bartok (the final Mesto from the 6th quartet as a cousin to the twilight world of the Schnittke) and the Beethoven op 95 Quartet in comparison with the Op 9 no 3 String Trio.Our private concert in the evening was fun- I always enjoy house concerts where the audience is there for the music, and this house is one where that is always the case. Of course, we’re learning a lot from doing this program over and over. It really makes me painfully aware of what a pity it is that most concerts only get done once.Of all the pieces we’re doing on the tour, it is the Schnittke that we’ve lived with the longest, but I’m still making discoveries in every rehearsal, and my thoughts about the meaning of the piece continue to evolve. Schnittke seems to have become almost completely unfashionable among critics and most composers since his death, but fashion is the word. Fashions and trends are amusing phenomena, but whether a piece is in or out with the taste-setters of the day has nothing to do with its status as a work of art. When you can live with a piece like this and continue find new layers of meaning, new relationships between musical ideas, new intersections of process and content there’s no room to be snooty. It’s genius.Just one example- there is a peculiarly iconic chord progression that occurs several times in the piece. It goes from a major triad up a half step to a minor triad, which means the two chords share the same third. Schnittke has a way of setting this progression as though it is a moment when we step back from the line of the drama and contemplate what has happened. What is interesting now is that we’re finding more and more ways in which this progression doesn’t just stand apart as a sort of incantation, but is knitted into the piece in countless other ways which aren’t immediately perceptible. Sometimes it is presented horizontally, other times he layers the two chords on top of each other. It also turns out that the progression itself shares it’s musical DNA with the main theme of the work, something that’s a bit hard to hear, but clear on the page if you look for it.We’ve got another concert tonight, doing a slightly shortened and lightened version of our tour program, and we have to finish preparing our children’s program- the first kids concert is tomorrow and I still have some notes to learn in Hansel and Gretel.

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Cello 2.0

Re-Blog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the PodiumSo, this week, I’m in New England for concerts with Ensemble Epomeo– our first show is at theNewburyport Chamber Music Festival on Friday. This concert has an extra challenge for me- I have had to switch cellos. It wasn’t practical to travel this time with my Mariani, so I’ve brought my backup instrument. So, I’ve been very immersed with the Schumann on one cello, only now to switch to this very tricky trio program (Bach, Beethoven and a new work by Kile Smith) since the LCO rehearsal on Sunday. Monday wasn’t much help- I had a meeting with the record company about my upcoming Mahler CD with Orchestra of the Swan on Monday morning in London, then had a short meeting in Cardiff Monday afternoon and a rehearsal in Hereford  Monday night. That left Tuesday to recalibrate my fingers before flying here yesterday.Lynn Harrell has a great piece on his blog about instruments and the insanity of letting families be bullied into trying to buy insanely expensive fine Italian instruments for student players.What I take issue with is the implied necessity of one of these priceless masterpieces in making a career. So a young player before he/she is near full potential musically or technically or earning power is led to believe that without that Stradivari or Guarneri they will not be able to compete and their very career will be in jeopardy. Throughout the entirety of my more than 50 year playing career I have yet to encounter a string player under the age of 20 with enough knowledge, musicality, and technique to bring everything out of a master instrument…The best new instruments are in many playing points superior to all but the most exceptional old instruments. Moreover, the cost is often laughably less expensive. The price range of $5,000- $50,000 will yield superb instruments. The renaissance of great new makers in the last 20 years proves this. It is therefore folly to assume at the onset of a career that one must have an old instrument to succeed. What succeeds is musical and technical brilliance.There really is no snobbery like instrument snobbery (even wine snobs can’t compare)- of course the best Cremonese instruments have very special properties, but I think only the best players can really make the most of those. On the other hand, a great player can still do great things on a more modest axe, and where budget is an issue, there are ways of maximizing what a more modest instrument can do.There is a new generation of budget instruments out there that are a far cry from the unplayable student monstrosities of the past. On one hand, dealers are happy to sell those (in volume), but they are not so happy to help you get the best out of them. I bought my second cello (Cello 2.0) when I was working in Oregon- I needed something that could live in the orchestra’s office when I was away, but that was good enough for concerts.I bought a simple Strad copy Chinese-made instrument (I shouldn’t be telling you this!), but had it set up but a first rate luthier who made some simple modifications which improved the sound enormously- he also replaced the factory bridge and soundpost. I replaced the cheap strings with top-of-the line ones.  Most importantly, I use my good bow with it, which is worth more than the cello. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes!This is something a dealer doesn’t want you to know- that a $2k-$6k cello with a bow of similar value might sound far better than a $28k cello with a $1k bow. More tellingly, buying a $50k or $500K instrument isn’t going to make you sound like Lynn Harrell. Young cellists and their parents should be well advised about how to get the most from their budget when shopping.Sadly, many, but by no means all, teachers are not to be trusted in this task. For years, many top dealers offered kick-backs to teachers who persuaded their students to buy an instrument from them. They say it is a “thank you” for the time involved in helping the student choose an axe- it sounds more like a bribe, to me. If everyone in your studio is playing a Berlusconi from El Pomposo Violins, chances are, someone is getting a commission you don’t know about.  The fact that so many  people don’t know about this practice is pretty indicative about how well some of these teachers can separate out their financial interests from the needs of their students.Anyway, I’ve used Cello 2.0 for high powered chamber concerts, several solo recitals and the Elgar, Herbert, Shostakovich and Chen Yi concertos with orchestra, and it’s held up quite well. There is a sweet comment about my sound on the website from Chen Yi– she’s talking about Cello 2.0, not the Italian one.However, some people can’t trust their ears and others just won’t take such an instrument seriously. When I did the Elgar, I wanted some work done on it- a new bridge, in particular. I took it to the “top place” in Portland, and they mistook me for an amateur/beginner based on the instrument.  They then did a completely half-assed job, left the instrument sounding and playing like crap and told me it was un-realistic to expect any more from that instrument. When they saw a piece about me in the paper, they got a little more helpful, but the cello left their shop sounding like a student instrument. I had to find another luthier to fix what they’d screwed up.When people used to compliment me on my sound with that instrument I’d gleefully tell them what it was, until I saw that most reacted with horror, as if I’d hoodwinked them into thinking they were listening to something they weren’t. How sad that they couldn’t trust their ears.My teacher at IU, Fritz Magg, had a beautiful Strad which he had to give up at the end of his career. He had a fine copy made by a good but not famous luthier, and went on playing. Everywhere he went, people talked about the unmistakable glory of that legendary Strad, and Fritz just nodded and smiled. What they were hearing was the unmistakable glory of Fritz Magg, but if they knew he was playing on an in-expensive modern instrument their ears would have instantly closed. Fritz was wise enough to just nod and smile as folks talked on and on about the miracle of the Strad they handn’t just listened to.Post script- In aiming for brevity, I don’t want to leave readers with the mistaken impression that all instruments are the same. Far from it! However1- There  are decent instruments to be found in every price range2- Many things affect price besides sound, such as pedigree, previous owners and the shop you are in3- If the person selling the violin tells you it is  a Berlusoni from the Ambrosian period, take the instrument for a second opinion from a dealer who has no financial interest in the transaction and who, preferably, isn’t trying to sell you something from their own stock.4- If someone tells you that you have to up your budget by 10k to get anything decent, remember, they would probably say the same thing no matter what you told them your original budget was.5- If someone tells you a good bow is wasted on a good but not great instrument, they are lying.6- Keep looking- the best place to shop for an instrument is on your friend’s instruments. If somebody has something you like, try it and find out what it is.

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Newburyport Arts Journal- Caroline Chin, the”new guy”in Epomeo

By JC Lockwood, Newburyport Arts JourntalRead the original here.Got so wrapped up in the Ensemble Epomeo’s program for “Music and the Manse” and our new appreciation for the Italian language, that we forgot to talk abut the new guy. And the old guy. But it turns out that the last time we saw Byron Wallis — during Ensemble Epomeo’s Port debut last year, when the trio rolled out, among other things, a magical performance of Schnitke’s String Trio, the piece that brought the group together in the first place — will likely be the last time we ever see him. The Paris-based violinist is no longer performing with Epomeo. He’s been replaced by Carolyn Chin, a rising classical star who with a packed resume that includes leading the conductorless String Orchestra of New York City, performing as concertmaster with the Paragon Orchestra and touring the United States and Japan with the tap dancer Savion Glover.No, there’s nothing particularly nasty going on. Just the usual “creative differences,” which often, just below the surface, are about personalities, plus the fact that working with someone who lives and performs thousands of miles away from the Center of the Universe — that would be New York — makes the whole trio thing just a little too complicated. Wallis, who frequently performs with the Orchestre Nationale d’lle de France, “is a terrific guy, one of the sweetest and gentlest guys I know,” says Epomeo violist David Yang. “We just had different approaches. We are still good friends so I think I can say the parting was mostly mutual”Yang, who is also artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, performed with Chin a couple of years ago at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, always liked her and her playing. “In addition to being a truly impressive musician with outrageous chops she is also an unusually honest person, and that is important,” says Yang. “She has a core of steel, too. By this I mean she is a real leader — a strong personality in the group. A trio is so small that everyone needs to hold their weight, but even in the more democratic form of a trio (versus string quartets, in general) you need a violin who likes to lead. So personality is really important. I mean, look, we just spent two weeks together rehearsing, I kid you not, eight hours a day. You think that is going to work for very long if we don’t know how to get along? You don’t have to like one another, but you have to respect one another. We have had disagreements, but the amazing thing is how non-personal it is.“The stakes, while they may seem small outside, can feel enormous in a group,” says Yang. “Differences in interpretation, in pitch, timing. A small disagreement can feel very personal – can you play that note a little higher? No, why would you want that? It sounds terrible? Well I think your way sounds terrible? Who are you calling terrible? How dare you? And so on. It is important to me to play with people I admire as players and also as people.”Epomeo, which also includes Kenneth Woods, founder of the Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet as well as principal guest conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, takes its name from the non-active volcano that dominates the landscape of the small, sun-drenched Italian island of Ischia, where the trio is currently holed up. The group is the resident ensemble of the island’s Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia‚ a 10-day chamber music festival and intensive study retreat. They’ll have little time, just four days, between Ischia and the Port performance, which, itself, is part of the Newburyport Preservation Trust’s weeklong festival. The program will include “Thrice blest,” a world premiere by Kile Smith that is based on music by 17th-century Newbury composer John Tufts that came from a hymnbook discovered by NCMF executive director Jane Niebling. Also on the program will be the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string quartet and Beethoven’s String Trio in D major, which Yang says is the “core” of the program for the trio.JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform at “Music and the Manse,” a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust, May 21 at the 18th-century Henry C. Learned House, 190 High St., Newburyport. The program includes the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s String Trio in D Major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by West Newbury composer John Tufts. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also includes a tour of the historic home and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $75. Reservations are required. For more information, call 978.463.9776.

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Newburyport Arts Journal: Epomeo: Now, that’s Italian

Reblog from Newburyport Arts JournalBy J C LockwoodOur Italian vocabulary word of the day is “aliscafo,” as in “Oggi David Yang e a cavallo di un aliscafo.” And, you may well ask, just what is David Yang, the artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and a fellow comfortable enough with Italiano to order, properly, insalata, fusilli con formaggio e piselli and prosciutto crudo e mozzarella di bufala, doing in a hovercraft? Answer: Barely touching the surface of the Mediterranean in a mad dash to the island of Ischia, home of the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, a weeklong chamber music festival where he has been a resident coach for years and where Ensemble Epomeo will be settling in for its second year as the festival’s ensemble-in-residence. That’s what he’s doing. And he’s getting a just a little sick to his stomach (solo un po ‘malato al suo stomaco) from the choppy seas as he blasts across the Sea of Napoli, taking questions about Epomeo’s May 21 show at the historic Henry C. Learned House, a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust. We see the sea sickness as a kind of penance for totally blowing off a certain arts writer a couple of days earlier. No, no, no. E solo uno scherzo. Just joking.No, Yang’s a tough guy to get ahold of under the best of circumstances. In addition to playing with Epomeo, he’s a member of Auricolae, a Philadelphia-based storytelling troupe, as well as a performer with Poor Richard’s String Quintet. He’s also director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania and coach at Swarthmore and, well, you get the idea. And this time of year, with Epomeo doing its usual globetrotting spring schedule, with tours on the East Coast, including a live radio broadcast, as well as shows in England and Wales, before retuning to Ischia, its home-base — and, four days after they put the lid on the intense Italian music festival, parachuting into Newburyport for “Music and the Manse,” as the program is being called.The ensemble will also have a new look, with Caroline Chin, leader of the String Orchestra of New York City and artistic director of Musica Reginae, replacing Byron Wallis on violin. Cellist Kenneth Woods, another guy with a resume — Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet, principal guest conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, and author of the entertaining and informative View from the Podium blog — returns on cello.They’ll will be taking a comparatively lighter program around the block: Instead of piling on, emotionally, with Krasa’s “Tanz,” which opens with a waltz and ends with oblivion; or Hovhaness’ mournful, ethereal Trio, they’ll be playing Sitkovetsky’s transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string trio, Beethoven’s String Trio in D major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by Newbury composer John Tufts.The Variations, of course, were written for keyboard by Bach and forever seared into the collective musical imagination by the admittedly idiosyncratic performances by Glenn Gould, much to the dismay of purists. Yang confesses to sacrilege, saying the piano version is, well “a little, um, boring” … and is immediately rewarded with the crash of a huge wave against the aliscafo, raising a collective moan from passengers.) “I think what is so interesting about this piece is its hybrid nature. It is a period work but played on modern instruments Also, since we can sustain with string instruments vs. a harpsichord (no sustaining) or a piano you can get a very different effect so that harmony, instead of having to be implied can really be just, well, played,” Yang says. Because of time restraints, the trio will be doing only two-thirds of the variations.The Beethoven is “the core of the repertory for us,” says Yang. “What is neat about this is the slow movement which is written in an Italian feeling style (Yes, of course, affettuoso). By that I mean it is less contrapunctual, with parts playing off one another and more… like an opera, with arias and accompaniment. But since it is Beethoven it is incredibly beautiful but also complex, although I hope you don’t hear the complexity as much as just feel it deep down in the animal part of your brain.”The final piece will be a world premiere by Kile Smith, who is a bit of a classical star in Philly. He has his own radio show and runs the legendary Fleisher Collection of Music. He’s also been resident composer for the Jupiter Symphony in New York. Yang asked him to do something based on a local hymnbook that Newburyport Chamber Music Festival founder Jane Niebling found. He used a melody from Tufts who was from 17th-century Newbury. The composition has three sections — the hymn, then an agitated quick and rhythmic middle section and then back to the hymn. “The piece, I am sure, will be very popular with the audience,” Yang says. “It is lovely, the kind of stuff people will ask for again.”Road warriorsFrom Newburyport, Epomeo will pack up and head north to Portland before calling it a wrap — a hectic time that has the favor of a rock tour. “Well, it has felt a little like that recently,” Yang says. “But I stay in one place usually for a few days. I like traveling but am torn, as I really miss my little daughters. When I am home I spend as much time with them as I can. I also really like my home. Philadelphia has been good to me, and I live on a leafy little city street where all the neighbors know each other and have dinner together and stuff like that. It is a treat to be home. (And now we are rolling side to side – oooh nooooo! I really have to stop now.)”JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform at “Music and the Manse,” a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust, May 21 at the 18th-century Henry C. Learned House, 190 High St., Newburyport. The program includes the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s String Trio in D major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by West Newbury composer John Tufts. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also includes a tour of the historic home and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $75. Reservations are required. For more information, call 978.463.9776.

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Newburyport Arts Journal: Review

By JC Lockwood (Original Here)It may not have been exactly what organizers had envisioned. Okay, it definitely wasn’t: A fundraiser that doesn’t rake in the dough wasn’t what all the meetings and all the strategy sessions were about. But it’s hard to believe anyone felt less than sigh-and-snuggle-before-rolling-over-and-lighting-up-a-smoke satisfied after the Trio Epomeo’s June 6 performance for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. Except, perhaps, for the Schnittke fans, who, once they got a taste of the Moderato section of the Russian composer’s String started growling for the Adagio — a kind of musical blood lust. But it was not to be. A last-minute adjustment of the program had the trio — violinist Byron Wallis, cellist Kenneth Woods and violist David Yang, who is also NCMF artistic director— jettisoned the Adagio to make room for Beethoven’s Trio in C minor, Opus 9, in its entirety. The program had originally called for closing with just a taste of the Maestro, playing the Rondo and calling it a night.Was it a good trade-off? Opinions vary, even among Schnittke fans. The Newburyport performance, the penultimate stop of Trio Epomeo’s three-country, two-continent tour, had been conceived as musical tapas, of sorts, giving the audience a taster’s menu, a variety of works to sample, a selection of moods and colors, rather than complete works. But, even within this context, the emphasis was on the modern, and the mood tilted toward darker hues: Hans Krasa’s chilling “Tanz,” which opens with a waltz and ends with oblivion; Alan Hovhaness’ ethereal, otherworldly Trio, the musical manifestation of a deep, mournful sadness that seems to exist on a cellular level; Gideon Klein’s “Based on a Moravian Theme,” a concise and unforgettable emotional musical rollercoaster; and, finally, closing the first half of the performance with Schnittke’s alternately lulling and jolting crash-bang String Trio.Within this context, the Beethoven seems a little out of place historically, musically and even geographically, given that the work presented had an eastern Europe perspective — even the encore, a Kodaly Intermezzo. At the same time, it was comforting, steadying, closing with Beethoven, a lovely piece — lyrical, expressive, an incredible vehicle for exploring possibilities of the instruments. And, again, when you encounter such inspired playing —wonderfully executed and, at times, absolutely breathtaking performances by players at the top of their game, up close and personal— all this talk about the what’s what of the program becomes mere sport. So, again, within this context, the decision to go Ludwig becomes a fielder’s choice.It was a magical evening — seriously under attended, but magical. The trio, which came together last year at the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy to explore the possibilities of just one piece (the Schnittke Trio, natch) and discovered that they clicked musically, sounded like they had been playing together forever. The performance space (the Carriage House, a marvelous listening room fashioned out of an 19th-century out-building on the Lord Timothy Dexter Estate by NCMF patrons Julia Farwell Clay and Walter Clay) is a delight, as was the after-party — the social aspect, the schmooze, has been an important part of festival since its inception. There was plenty of food and wine and a chance to chat up musicians. We heard stories about Wallis’ recent tour of North Korea, of all places. Or the time when he and Wood, who worked together during a musical interlude in Arkansas, wandered into a rock and roll club. Wallis kind of hung back, but Woods, who performed in a rock band back in his Indiana University days, jammed with the band, playing guitar behind his head, a la Jimi Hendrix. But the best news we got, before the last of the wine had been poured, was that trio plans to record the Schnitkke. Stay tuned!

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Engaging the Audience

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumIt is a fact of life that most organizations think of programming largely in terms of marketing. While almost all musical organizations have some desire to do interesting things, there is always a certain amount of pressure to focus on “getting an audience,” which usually equates to conservative programming.After many years as a music director, who knows that if you don’t have an audience you don’t have an orchestra, I’ve had to face the simple mathematical truth that, more often than not, Beethoven sells more tickets than Schumann, and Schumann sells more tickets than Haydn, and Haydn sells more tickets than Bartok. With most of my groups, we can predict with some accuracy what percentage our audience will tail off from 100% by having one, two or three relatively unfamiliar pieces on a concert.However, the problem with this outlook is that it only focuses on the experience and reactions of the audience up to the moment they enter the hall. Conservative programming is programming designed to get the public to come, but is it programming that gets them to come back?Of course, there is a false dichotomy, which everyone is aware of- it is very, very possible to construct a creative, interesting and unique program that the audience will enjoy. The problem is getting them in the door to experience it.Fair enough, but I think one of the fundamental weaknesses of modern classical institutions is that we have settled for a passive and passionless relationship with our audiences.Several times this year, I’ve been deeply struck that when you are able to do something that really challenges the audience, they come away from the experience more engaged and MORE PASSIONATE about the orchestra or the ensemble then they would have been for just another predictably bland concert.Along these lines, it was very encouraging to get to meet so many audience members after the Ensemble Epomeo concert at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. Our program was certainly challengingKrasa- Tanec for TrioHovhanness- String Trio (1963)Klein- Variations on a Moravian Theme (from Trio 1944)Schnittke- String TrioBeethoven- Trio in C minor op 9 no 3(Encore- Kodaly- Intermezzo)We’d been warned it was a conservative crowd, but from the level of energy in the room at the recession, you’d have thought we were playing for a new music festival audience. People were engaged, fired up, talking about what the pieces meant, about what they had experienced. As often happens, we had people literally jump out of their chairs in spots of the Schnittke. After a first half that mostly dealt with dire questions of life and death, the Beethoven could also be heard as the ferocious, imposing and revelatory work it is, not as something safe and mild-mannered.The same thing happened with the SMP recently did Ives 3 and Shostakovich Chamber Symphony alongside Schumann and Mozart for our usually conservative Guildford audience, or, for that matter, when we did the Fifth Prokofiev concerto. In both instances, attendance was off a bit from our usual sell-outs, but I think more people talked to their friends about those concerts than would have if we had had just done Mozart. It’s another form of math- if 75% of your public show up for the wacky program, but 90% of them tell their friends about the experience isn’t that going to be better in the long run than if the hall is 100% full, but only 20% of the audience remembers the evening as anything other than nice, or mention it to anyone else?Of course, we’ve got to get people in the door- sometimes that means working harder, sometimes it means making conservative programs and just doing a great job. When I started at OES, the idea of the orchestra doing one new piece a season was anathema. It took some time and a few well-chose bits of more accessible 20th c faire before we could begin to consider a commission, but by the time I left, we were doing them regularly, and patrons were FUNDING them. How cool is that?I had one of those memorable 20 second conversations today after our Exeter performance on the Aliento Chamber Music series. Before the Schnittke, I had mentioned to the audience that the piece was written around the time of his first stroke, and that  the first movement does seem like a terrifying struggle for survival. After the concert a woman greeted me and said she had cried through the whole piece. Her daughter had a stroke last year, and when she began to get well enough to communicate, she told he mother in some detail about what it felt like and how terrifying it was. The woman said that throughout the piece, she kept thinking of her daughter’s stroke and couldn’t escape the parallels. “It sounded just like what she went throug.” She said it was terrifying from beginning to end, that she cried through the whole thing, and at the end, she felt somehow better, even a bit healed.Wouldn’t you rather that than an under-rehearsed hack-through of the Trout?

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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