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:

1) If you aren’t already there, you are precipitously close to being the go-to source for all things Hans Gal. Gal is rarely mentioned when discussing the composers whose careers were interrupted or destroyed by the events in Europe in the 1930’s. Chronologically and historically he fits right in there, but stylistically Gal seems to be all on his own. Can you see a day coming where’s Gal’s music develops a contemporary audience on a par with some of the other “lost” composers of World War II like Goldschmidt, Schreker, Krenek, etc.?

Actually, I can see Gal’s popularity significantly surpassing that of some of the greats you mention. His music is both more accessible and in many ways richer than many of the composers he’s often compared to. That’s the tragic paradox of Gal- one of the main reasons his music was “off the table” for a good 50 years was that it was considered a bit decadent to be writing anything so beautiful, so attractive and so entertaining in the 2nd half of the 20th c. Even when I first heard it, I must admit I thought it was somehow suspicious that someone was writing music like that in the 70’s.

In terms of his relationship to the war, I think writers have struggled to explain the complex relationship between his life and music. Gal endured some terrible things in the war, and was deeply affected by the larger tragedies of the Holocaust, but his post-war music is, if anything, more lyrical, more beautiful and more serene than his works from, say, the 1920s. Gal seemed to see the healing role of music as of the highest importance. His need to vent what must have been considerable rage at what had happened to the world he grew up in simply couldn’t compete with his need to be true to his inner voice. Music for him was a refuge, not an outlet.

Krenek, who I really admire (my trio are planning to record all his string trios next year), was reportedly asked after the war if he missed writing tonal music. He, according to this story, bravely, said he really wished he could write more romantic, more tonal music, but that if he didn’t conform to the 12-tone imperative, he would be essentially blacklisted as a composer and academic. Gal had the strength of will to write just what he wanted to, but he did seem to pay a price for it.

2) You just finished conducting Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, will be conducting it again in the spring, and will also be conducting Bruckner’s Fifth in March 2012. This is a two-part question: 1) I’m jealous. That’s actually not a question. 2) When there are questions surrounding a score (like the infamous Scherzo-Andante situation in the Mahler, or the Haas vs. Nowak debate in the Bruckner), what is your decision-making process like when it comes to making sense of everything? How much does personal taste enter in?

Well, these are big questions. One could (and may) write whole books on them. Maybe not question 1, but no. 2 for sure…

Let’s keep it narrow- On AS-SA (Andate/Scherzo or Scherzo/Andante): In my opinion, here is an instance where the usual rules break down. 99 times out of 100, or more like 999,999 times out of a million, the last word of the genius is always right. The current research from Bruck/Kubik/Kaplan makes a pretty compelling case for Andante-Scherzo on historical grounds: Mahler changed the order from S-A to A-S at the first performance and never looked back nor did it any other way. Gilbert Kaplan also told me something interesting- apparently Mahler had also written the 2nd Symphony with the Scherzo and Andante movements in reverse order from what we know now. With that in mind, the change in Mahler 6 looks less like an aberration. He thinks that had it not been for the malfeasance of Erwin Ratz, nobody would even be debating the question. He may well be right.

I’ve tried in every symphony of Mahler’s I’ve done to track all the changes between the first version and where he’d left off when he died. It’s very time consuming, but very, very interesting. Of course, he didn’t believe in “final versions.” All of his works were one performance away from revision at any time. What is really striking is that in all these tweaks and edits, one can almost always see what he was after with the changes, and the changes are just about always clear and obvious practical improvements. Even in situations where the record is contradictory, like his indecision over whether to slow down, speed up or slow down at the end of the Adagietto of the 5th, one can see what he was after: that music is so passionate that it does want to push and pull at the same time.

However, I still have yet to see a compelling musical rationale for the change of movement order in the 6th. Not so in the 2nd– the anticipations of the Finale in the Scherzo are much stronger when placed as they are, rather than just after the first movement. In fact, that relationship makes the change of order in the 6th look more suspect. Just as the Scherzo of the 2nd Symphony is closely linked with the Finale, the Scherzo of the 6th is most closely linked with the 1st movement. In the end, Mahler decided the links in the 2nd Symphony made the most sense if those two movements were close to each other. Surely the same is true in the 6th?

Most rationales I’ve heard have to do with perception and accessibility- that somehow the original order makes for an overly monotonous or depressing first part of the symphony, that the listener needs the variety of the Andante after the first movement. To me, this rationale borders on pandering to the worst instincts of the audience- it’s the same reason people start cutting great works by Schubert, Bruckner and Rachmaninoff. When someone says the Schubert E-flat Piano Trio is too long I want to kill them- don’t they think he knew how long it was and knew what he was asking of his audience? Likewise Rachmaninoff in his 2nd Symphony- surely the scale is part of the point, so why cut it? It’s not that one can’t find reasons that people think Mahler was right to change from S-A to A-S, it’s that I think the answers are pretty superficial.

Still- who am I to doubt Mahler’s final word? This brings me back to the well-travelled ground of intrinsic versus extrinsic aspects of score study. Yes, all the historical evidence gathered at this moment would seem to point to A-S, but what if tomorrow we found a letter from Mahler to Kahnt written in 1911 saying that he wanted to revert to his original plan? Would we be surprised? I’m as much an Alma skeptic as the next guy, but she did tell Mengelberg that Mahler’s final wish was S-A, and Mengelberg knew the Mahler’s well enough to have a sense of when Alma could and couldn’t be trusted. He was the closest thing Mahler had to a peer among conductors, and was completely dedicated to Mahler’s music. Surely he wouldn’t have written to Alma and asked if he didn’t have doubts about A-S.

Intrinsically there are a whole lot of signs that’ S-A is the true shape of the symphony. The key relationships between the first mvt and the Scherzo and the Andante and Finale ought to be like a big neon sign saying S-A! The whole symphony is based on the idea of the collapse from A major to A minor. The most dramatic example in the whole work is the collapse from the triumphant ending of the 1st mvt in A major to the violent and desolate opening of the 2nd mvt in A minor. It seems like his whole original concept of the symphony hinged on that moment- on the failed triumph of the first movement. He then reinforces the conflict between the two movements by making them from the same stuff- the Scherzo is almost like a second development of the 1st mvt. The “altvaterisch” trio section of the Scherzo is essentially the opening theme of the first movement turned upside down, with the repeated low A’s flipped up to the top of the orchestra. The motivic connections between the first movement and Scherzo really only make sense if the two movements are paired.

Still, I would probably ignore my instincts and go with Mahler’s stated wishes (Andante-Scherzo) on the theory that it is my shortcoming in not being able YET to understand why he made the change, but for one other thing- we know that he was not his usual self when he made the changes, and was under tremendous pressure to make them. Bruno Walter, who never got nor performed the 6th, told Mahler he thought having the Scherzo next to the first movement was too much. Of course it was too much!!! I think that’s kind of the point of the music. In this instance, I think Mahler lost his nerve- he was human. Barely human, from a musical perspective, but human nonetheless. He knew he’d just composed the end of the symphonic tradition that Haydn invented and Beethoven perfected. That’s quite a burden to carry. Did he lose his nerve? Did he conclude the original movement order was too technically challenging or physically draining for the orchestra or too demanding for the audience? All I know is that, it’s just about the only change in the Mahler symphonies that doesn’t seem to make musical sense. It makes a mess of the tonal relationships and the motivic relationships. I’m sure he would have gone back to S-A as performing standards improved. That is why I conduct it in the original order – Scherzo/Andante.

Bruckner 8 is kind of a similar case. His confidence had taken an unprecedented beating, and he ended up plunging into a deeply conflicted revision process. On the one hand, he made some very sensible and sound refinements to the orchestration. On the other hand, he was pressured into accepting some very strange cuts that cause huge structural problems in the Finale. Haas’s hybrid edition is audacious and not to be imitated, but probably makes the best of a tragic situation- it keeps Bruckner’s improvements to the orchestration while opening up the cuts which mess up the form. I know there are people who argue, not unreasonably, that Haas was wrong to do this, but I think even though the methodology may be wrong, the result is right. If one has to choose between doing what is morally right or musically right, I think you’ve got to chose musically right.

What I really disagree with is the validation of versions of works that the composers themselves had clearly disavowed. Schumann knew exactly what he was doing when he revised his Fourth Symphony- the final version is an improvement in every way, and people who say otherwise don’t understand Schumann or the forces he was writing for. Likewise, the re-emergence of the dodgy Bruckner 4 edition that has been making the rounds seems sad and sick. It’s obviously not echt-Bruckner, but the result of a lot of outside tampering, and it was not included in his selection of “final” versions he bequeathed when he died. There are several legitimate versions of Bruckner 4 that all embody his aesthetics in interesting ways- a bastardized neo-Wagnerian pastiche version has no place in the concert hall.

3) We’ve both been big winners recently in the sports fanhood department with my beloved Giants winning the World Series and your beloved Packers taking the Lombardi Trophy back to its hometown. Did you ever think that someone would not only eclipse Brett Favre’s legacy in Green Bay, but do it in a season in which Favre was still an active player? What was your reaction when the Pack won? I cried a little bit when the Giants won, but I also don’t have children who look up to me. Any tears?

No- I could tell several years ago that McCarthy was a Super Bowl caliber coach, and they almost made it in Favre’s last year in Green Bay. I think history will be kind to late Favre- he lost in the NFC championships to the eventual Super Bowl winner in 2 of his final four seasons. Not bad- he could easily have won 2 or 3 more rings.

What I wish is that the offense of the early 1980’s Packers could make a run paired with a halfway decent defense. Favre and Rogers are great players, but poor old Lynn Dickey was a great quarterback who never got his day. James Lofton and James Jefferson? One of the greatest pairs of wideouts in NFL history, and Eddie Lee Ivory in the backfield with Gerry Ellis blocking. Look at the numbers from those years- it was a great offense. The sad thing is that the organization wasn’t committed to winning, so those players wasted their careers paired with a liquid defense. There’s some kind a metaphor in this for the nature of building an orchestra, but I’ll leave it to readers to think about.

Part 2. Soon.


5 thoughts on “Q&A with Kenneth Woods: Conductor, Blogger, Raconteur

  1. Frankly, the 6th just hangs together much better with the Scherzo as the 2nd movement.

  2. Why do individuals feel that there has to be a definitive method of performing the two movements? It’s just as easy to listen to/perform the format you prefer, with many people finding great qualities in both formats. It’s silly to feel passionate about it one way or the other, because there is no definitive, final word on the matter (and that’s assuming Mahler even had one in mind). Ultimately, personal preference trumps everything, and it’s not even really worth it to feel negative about the version you don’t prefer, because either way, it’s a masterpiece.

  3. Hi Mark

    I actually agree with almost everything you say. Yes, either way it’s a masterpiece. Yes, I agree there are strong arguments for either version.

    On the other hand, for someone in my position, I have to make a decision, and so the thoughts above are a guide a curious reader to understand why I made the decision I did. Nothing more. Of course, it’s Mahler, so one is bound to feel passionately about it, and more so the more time you spend with the piece.

    Where I actually disagree with you is on the question of whether personal preference trumps everything. For a performer, that definitely shouldn’t be the case. We are there to serve the music, not to entertain ourselves. My preference might be for S-A, but under normal circumstances, I would ignore that instinct in favor of the best historical evidence and go with A-S, the order Mahler conducted the piece in.

    In this unique case, I feel like there is a pretty clear conflict between Mahler the composer and Mahler the conductor. Having spent a lot of time on the score, I can’t imagine that Mahler the composer would have let the change stand forever, and there is some evidence that he may have expressed his intention to change back to S-A to Alma. In any case, the point for a conductor is not to do the version you like best, but to do what you think is most true to the work.

    I often make interpretive choices that go against the grain of my own musical instincts. What I’ve learned from experience is that by letting go of my own prejudices and preferences and trying instead to just render the composer’s work as honestly as I can, I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot. Otherwise, I’d be stunted in my own musical growth, just serving my tastes as they might have been 10 or 15 years ago.

    In this case, it is quite true that one need not feel negative about either version, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make clear-eyed evaluations of the musical implications for either version.

    I hope that makes sense. Thanks for your comment


  4. Pingback: Q&A with Kenneth Woods: Round 2 « Everything But The Music

  5. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Mahler 6: Some of the reasons why I conduct Scherzo-Andante (and why I could be wrong)

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