Ensemble Epomeo

String Trio

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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?

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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)

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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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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).