Q&A with Kenneth Woods: Conductor, Blogger, Raconteur

Kenneth Woods

Kenneth Woods

Ken Woods is busy. He is a conductor with two forthcoming recordings: The Symphonies no. 3 of Gal and Schumann, and the Schoenberg arrangements of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Lied von der Erde. He is in a string trio, Ensemble Epomeo, which has toured parts of the world I’ve only read about in Highlights for Children. He authors one of the best music blogs anywhere, A View From the Podium, the contents of which are infinitely more interesting than anything you’ll read here. Except this interview with Ken Woods. He doesn’t always drink beer. But when he does…………….. I ask long questions, and I get long answers. Any emphases are his. This is part 1:
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The baddest organist in the world

Virgil Fox would have been one of history’s all-time pimps no matter what, judging by what appears to be his purple velvet suit and copper lace cravat.  The fact that he can lay waste to Ives’ glorious Variations on America is like icing on the cake, or receiving a free 40 oz. bottle of Olde English 800 with your purchase of a twenty sack.

Virgil Fox is God, and God is Virgil Fox.

The next end of the world


Whoops, this is just a bad computer simulation. Well, at least we still have our jobs. Oh, wait...

OK, so the Rapture didn’t go down.  Again.  People have been saying that Jesus is going to come again since 20 years after he died the first time, and he still hasn’t shown up.  But the current band of disappointed Christians (and from the stories on NPR and the NY Times, shitty parents) need not think they’re any crazier than the rest.  From virgin births to Elephant-Gods with four arms to aliens placing hydrogen bombs at the base of volcanoes, every religion is rooted in something that requires at best a leap of faith and at worst a complete disregard for basic human reason. Continue reading

My friend, Gustav

Gustav Mahler


My friend died 100 years ago, on May 18, 1911, but we’re still friends. I don’t mean that we’re close personal friends like Lucy & Ethel, Joey & Chandler, or the Golden Girls. But I do mean that we’re at least Facebook-caliber friends, which is the standard by which friendships are now judged. He’s been there for me through good times and bad, offering support when I needed it, overwhelming me with a flood of emotion when I didn’t always expect it, and generally making life more worth living. I’ve met some great people because of him, and I’ve had some great experiences because of his work. At this point I feel like I’m writing something for a leaflet that Christians include in bills to their eye doctor because they’re supposed to spread God’s word, so I’ll cut that off right now and say that I’m talking about Gustav Mahler.
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Leonard Bernstein and the price of transcendence

Leonard Bernstein

1000 words

Depending on what day you ask me, I’m equally as fanatic about sports as I am about music. One of my favorite writers in any subject is Bill Simmons, who writes for ESPN about a variety of things, but if we are to believe his 800-page book on the subject, basketball is his area of greatest expertise. It is in said 800-page book that Simmons discusses the careers of the best players in the history of the game. There are many great observations and anecdotes throughout, but some of the best material is about the great Bill Walton.

Bill Walton was probably the 6th or 7th best center in the history of the NBA (certainly behind Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, O’Neal), but that is almost entirely due to problems with his feet that still plague him to this day. When he was healthy, though, Walton was one of the most gifted players in history, and it is Simmons’ contention that Walton would have been one of the elite players of all-time had his feet not betrayed him (the reasons for this hypothesis are essentially the point of the entire book, which I would encourage anyone who has even a passing interest in basketball to read).

In one of the discussions about Walton, Simmons debates the merits of transcendence versus stable excellence, asking if one would prefer Walton’s incredibly brief peak as an unparalleled dominant force compared to David Robinson’s long-term excellence (Robinson was a talented player, but he never won a title as the main guy on his team, and in fact got utterly crushed by Hakeem Olajuwon during his prime). This, of course, got me thinking about music, although not in quite the same way.

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The Philadelphia Orchestra, global warming, and shared sacrifice OR Can we pay down the national debt through patronage?

Philly O

Reports of our death have been...well, rumored for years.

Orchestras all across America are dying, or they’re doing fine. The current budget crises are unprecedented, or we’ve seen issues like these for 150 years. We must have a dramatic overhaul of the way arts organizations are managed, or we can sustain the current model through simple community outreach.

What is the truth? It depends on who and where you ask. The answer you would receive in Philadelphia or Syracuse is not the same as the one you would receive in San Francisco or Nashville. Every organization has its own problems, its own solutions and plenty of questions. How do we increase interest? How do we create a sustainable model? How in God’s name are we going to have the money for these pensions? But it also entails a much deeper philosophical question about whether an orchestra should be a business designed to generate profits (or non-catastrophic losses as the case may be)?
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10 Best: Symphonies no. 3

Continuing what has magically turned into a series that I didn’t intend to start, we’re counting down the 10 Best Symphonies no. 3.  The field is more crowded than ever, probably uncomfortably so.  I had a hell of a time sifting through all these amazing works, and some pieces that I really love got left off altogether.  The most interesting trend I noticed in compiling this list was the startling amount of quality Symphonies no. 3 by American composers; it is very clearly a lucky number.  Ives, Copland, Schuman, Rorem, Harris, Bernstein, Cowell, Diamond, Ward, Glass, Hanson, Hovhaness, Mennin, and Sessions all contributed strong entrants to the field (clearly I should have just made a list of Symphonies no. 3 by American dudes).  Which of these made the cut?  Here we go… Continue reading