An Interview with Kenneth Woods on his new recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony
by Lee Denham
Kenneth Woods has been the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra since 2013, the Artistic Director of Colorado MahlerFest since 2016 as well as the author of the longest running blog by a practising conductor. He took time out from his busy schedule to speak to MusicWeb International about his new recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and his plans for Colorado MahlerFest.
After registering my disappointment that he had joined the interview via Zoom, not from a hut on top of Mount Mahler in Colorado (one does exist), but instead from his family home in Wales…
Lee Denham: Thank you for joining us today, Ken. For the benefit of some of our readers, could you give a quick overview of your life and career to date?
KW: Well, briefly, my conducting career really started at High School in the US. Although I was a cellist in the school orchestra, the school didn’t have enough substitute conductors so it fell to me to take some of the rehearsals and so that is how it all started really. Thereafter, I studied conducting at the University of Cincinnati before becoming the Music Director of the Dayton Philharmonic and then the Oregon East Symphony. A fortuitous meeting around that time meant needing to live in the UK as well from 2002 onwards, so I could spend more time with my new wife and family and which meant that I had to look for work closer to home, first with the Orchestra of the Swan and then from 2012, as Artistic Director of the English Symphony Orchestra with whom I established the Elgar Festival in Worcester in 2017. And of course, from 2015, I have been Artistic Director of the MahlerFest in Colorado.
LD: So you are a cellist-conductor like Arturo Toscanini?
KW: Um, yes – although I prefer to reference John Barbirolli and Iván Fischer. I don’t have Toscanini’s memory, nor his temper. For me it seems to be a good “fit” (with being a conductor), as violinists tend to be only interested in the ‘top line” most of the time, but we cellists are listening and looking around, carrying some of the weight of responsibility in the orchestra and, unlike the wind and the brass where there may be only one or two players per part, an orchestral cellist also has the challenge of having to play in a unified way with their colleagues. Of course, many pianists have gone on to make careers as fine conductors too, but a string player has that insider’s view of the orchestra. At some point, I had a realisation that being in an orchestra can either be the most miserable place on earth, or the most brilliant, and that both of those situations largely down to ability and attitude of the conductor. It was that which inspired me to pursue my youthful fascination conducting with more seriousness
LD: It is interesting what you say about good string players making good conductors, but of course the conductor who is most famous for his “string sound” was Leopold Stokowski – and he was an organist.
KW: Yes – nobody has ever gotten a better string sound than Stokowski. Of course, he obtained much of his sound by “free bowing”, which meant that in order to get that incredible sustained sound, he would insist that all his players would stagger their bow changes. What is interesting about that, given that you mention his background as an organist, is that I don’t think a string player would have come up with that idea, as it goes against the grain of most string players’ psychology who are trained, literally from the first rehearsal that they attend, to match the bowing of their colleagues – and then suddenly they are being told to “don’t match and do you own thing”. Somehow, he made it work, but I know many people who had played under him who found it very difficult, especially if he was guest conducting. What many people don’t realise about Stokowski is that he was an incredible technician and understood the psychology of conducting an orchestra probably better than anyone. He’s very much underappreciated these days, in my opinion.
LD: Otto Klemperer regarded him as one of the finest Beethoven conductors of his time – even if you couldn’t have got two more different results on the podium.
KW: Indeed, but maybe that comes down to admiring what we cannot do ourselves.
LD: What can you tell me about Colorado MahlerFest – it’s now in its thirty-fifth year?
KW: That’s right. Well, it was founded by Robert Olson who was at the time was Head of the conducting faculty at the University of Colorado. He noticed in the 1980’s that, in spite of the nascent boom in Mahler performances in the wider world, no-one was doing them in the Rocky Mountains area at all. So he decided to set up this festival so people could actually get the chance to hear Mahler’s music live, as well as for musicians to actually perform it. It seems strange to be saying that, for the 1980’s don’t seem that long ago to me. Since then, the festival has evolved, especially to include a scholarly and extra-musical dimension, which quickly attracted the attention and attendance of many major Mahler scholars such as Donald Mitchell and Henry-Louis de la Grange, who came and presented papers and talks, the legacy of which can now be found in contemporary ideas of Mahler performance practice. Many of these new ideas and thoughts – you know, scherzo/andante or andante/scherzo etc – have their origins from those discussions after concerts at the MahlerFest where performers, fans and scholars all gathered together after performances and, along with many bottles of wine, debated the latest thinking and ideas. It has been Grand Central for all of that and it has laid the groundwork for a really great institution.
I was appointed here in 2015 and for me it is like the “dream job” as someone who has always had an interest in new ideas and writing about them, not least through my blog, which when started (I think) I was the only working conductor who had one – and it is still going.
LD: What gave you the idea for the blog?
KW: It was started when I persuaded my board of directors to let me perform Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, a project so ambitious that quite a few board members were concerned we would bankrupt the orchestra. Our harpist, Joyce Rice, suggested that I start a blog to try and explain to the world about the process of staging a piece with such huge demands, including the number of musicians involved, as a form of audience engagement. I remember my personal manager saying to me that conductors should really be quiet about such things – seen and not heard etc. “Do you really want to start a blog and start telling people what you are doing and why?” were the words he used. However, I found it very enjoyable and helped me to process and clarify my own ideas, so it is still going. Today, the world has moved on, and this kind of openness is something that is almost obligated these days, with an expectation that musicians should share their own creative thoughts. The upshot of that is that I have written an awful lot on the blog over the years, especially about Mahler, so when MahlerFest were looking for someone to take over from Bob [Robert Olson] and they came across my activities of conducting as well as writing about scholarly ideas, it almost seemed like a perfect fit.
LD: May I say how useful I found your writings in the blog when I was putting together my Conspectus for MWI of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, in particularly with regards to the final movement that many people have found problematic? Would you mind telling us all your current thoughts are on that movement?
KW: Yes, for me it challenges our assumptions of how musical journeys need to end, that Romantic era idea – which probably started with Beethoven – of ‘closure’. In my view, with Mahler, if you take the Second Symphony, you have just about the ultimate expression of ‘closure’ that you can get – by the end of that piece all of your problems (and probably the rest of the world’s!) are solved. That said, the Fourth Symphony probably marked Mahler’s first attempt to end a symphony with at least a partial question still hanging in the air, and that tendency towards ambiguity is further explored in a number of his later works, although it’s hard to imagine a symphony ending with a more emphatic “NO!” than the Sixth or a more emphatic “YES!” than the Eighth. Anyway, this ambiguity is definitely there, for me, with the Seventh Symphony. It is not the ‘ultimate closure’ like Brünnhilde’s Immolation for example; it is merely saying “and now it’s another day, you’ve got to get through the traffic to go to the office once more, and embrace life”. I absolutely adore Mahler’s Seventh, since it does not seem to be beholden to the Beethovenian ideal of what a symphony is. In this regard, I feel that in this work his approach is more similar to Schumann in not having the need to conform to this ideal of absolute closure. I actually think that Schumann influenced Mahler a lot – the form of Mahler’s Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Symphonies are very much the same form of Schumann’s Third, the Rhenish, where if you look at its last movement, it isn’t about solving the problems of the world, it is more of a kind of party, where he’s far more relaxed about the so-called finale problem with the symphony needing to reach its unmistakable destination. And yet the flip-side of that is the ending of Schumann’s Second Symphony, which is the most affirmative and definitive an ending of a symphony that I can think of. So Mahler was looking at the repertoire, including piano sonatas and string quartets, and questioning: does it always have to end like the Beethoven Fifth, as clearly and definitively as possible? In this regard, he paved the way for the generation after him, challenging the Romantic archetype that the whole goal of the piece is to end as definitively as possible. Anyway, I am glad that my blog was of some assistance.
LD: It was, although my own ideas on the ending of the Seventh were very much challenged by Klaus Tennstedt’s final (live) recording of the work. I could not but notice the parallels between Mahler’s and Tennstedt’s lives, of how when the composer had finished the symphony in 1905 he was a composer at the top of his game, head of the Vienna State Opera and with a happy marriage and family life and yet by the time the symphony was premiered some three years later, after many tinkerings and revisions by the composer, one of his daughters had died, he himself had been diagnosed with the incurable heart condition that would eventually kill him too, plus he had been driven out of Vienna by hostile critics mainly due to his religious heritage. With Tennstedt, all his previous recordings of the Seventh had been ‘traditional’ and yet this final live performance sees the premature end of a glorious career that had also started late through no fault of his own and was now being curtailed by his own ill health, with results of a final movement that is colossal in its weight and impact, but is hardly a triumph and certainly not an ending of ‘ultimate closure’…
KW: Klaus Tennstedt was indeed a ‘force of nature’. I have spoken to many people who had worked with him who tell me that his doctors were warning him that his chosen profession was going to kill him many years before he did actually give up and, indeed, would go and see him during the intervals of his concerts to request that he perhaps didn’t give a hundred percent in the second half, to tone it down a little, only to watch on aghast as Tennstedt would then smoke two or three more cigarettes and go back on and give a hundred and fifty percent, apparently not caring whether he lived to the end of the concert or not. But that is the point for, as an interpreter, you have to have the courage of your convictions and conduct the music in a way that you truly believe in. This is why, with Mahler, you can listen to those conductors who knew the composer during his lifetime, specifically Otto Klemperer, Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter and get three very different variances of the same music – music is created through your own convictions, the people you are performing with and the grace of the moment.
LD: That’s an interesting point. When I did my Conspectus on Mahler’s First Symphony, I couldn’t help but notice how Bruno Walter’s interpretation had changed over the years. Most people are familiar with his last recording, set down with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, that glows with warmth and bonhomie, even if it lacks a certain fire in its belly, whereas the earliest of his live recordings, from 1939 with Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra is perhaps one of the most volatile readings of all, extremely slow one moment, astonishingly fast the next. It presents a problem for the listener and reviewer in trying to decide which one is the more ‘authentic’.
KW: Ahh, yes – but that is a good thing. You see, we need to get away from the idea of a “centrist interpretation” whereby others are measured by being slower or faster that this central model. I have had some experience with this in my industry, whereby orchestral players are all being taught the same way, and are then expected to perform the same way with the result of a rather homogenous sound-world. I’m not sure we will see the time again when you can listen blind to an orchestra and recognise which ensemble it is, as you once could with the great East German ensembles in Dresden or Leipzig, or with Stokowski’s and Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra. For me this is a great pity and so I applaud variety, albeit providing they are rooted in musical ideals. For example, playing a whole Mahler symphony without vibrato is not, in my view, variety, I feel it is a gimmick. I applaud those interpretations where the conductor has gone through each bar of the score and has decided that there should be minimal vibrato here, perhaps none further on, but to go through a whole symphony with none at all anywhere …
LD: It has been done, Ken…
KW: I know – no names mentioned! However, you have to admire those conductors such as Norrington, Harnoncourt and Gardiner, because they had the nerve to challenge well-established ideas of performance practice. For example, I grew up with Herbert von Karajan’s recordings of the Schumann symphonies, which I love dearly, but that doesn’t mean to say that I shouldn’t be challenging what I absorbed in my youthful listening after studying the score myself, or when a lost manuscript surfaces that perhaps throws a different light on our current thinking.
LD: Could I bring you back to the MahlerFest at this point? It is interesting to note how the festival is still continuing to this day – there have been many Mahler festivals over the years, mainly with the idea with promoting the music, but now Mahler has become more mainstream and no longer needs such advocacy, how do you explain the enduring longevity of Colorado MahlerFest?
KW: Yes – remember that part of the festival’s mission was to give musicians in the Colorado area a chance to perform Mahler’s music and when Bob [Robert Olson] first founded the festival, nobody had, I’m told, given a performance of any Mahler work for at least two years in around 300 miles from Boulder and now there’s three or four a month from within twenty miles. So at the beginning, it was down to Bob to marshal his local contacts for support; friends, teachers and pupils from the university, local freelancers and amateurs, along with some very established players who had come because they loved Mahler and what was remarkable was how consistent this personnel was. However, when I arrived it had evolved into quite an “old” orchestra and so the writing was on the wall that many of these players would want to retire soon. In fact, many retired with Bob. So now the orchestral make up is much more national and international, a few very adept amateur players still, but mostly either young professionals, students or established artists. What I am aiming for is a mixture of inspirational as well as aspirational musicians. The ‘inspirational players’ are what we call Festival Artists and are musicians who may well be part of major string quartets, full-time orchestras or teach at a conservatory, and they form the core of the festival. Then there are the other players who aspire to be professional musicians and so our aim is to develop their musicianship, to benefit from being around these core players and being part of a semi-professional orchestra in a major festival. It also gives us an opportunity to help people from diverse and under-privileged backgrounds to get experience in the music business too. We also have players who may have, for example, studied the clarinet to degree level, but then decided upon a different career. Music is like any other field, inasmuch that sometimes people who deserve an opportunity don’t get that opportunity for some reason and so I hope to be able to both attract and help those kinds of people with this festival too. Our ultimate aim though is to give our audiences, both in the concert hall and on record, the sense that we are giving the very best that we can offer them. So every Spring we come together, and it’s gratifying for me to report that out of around a hundred players over eighty percent of them have performed with me at least a couple of times before, so even though it is a festival orchestra, it is really a group of friends gathering together each year to make music with each other, which means they are familiar with my working style and allows me to really get into the nitty-gritty of the score in a way that is not usually possible with just a standard appearance with another orchestra.
LD: One of the more notable things about Colorado MahlerFest is the “satellite performances”, of other concerts during the festival celebrations. For example, I seem to remember one year, you programmed Mahler’s edition of Beethoven Leonore III Overture. What is the idea behind these?
KW: Well, MahlerFest is no longer a festival which needs to make people aware that Mahler exists, so what we try to do is use the pull of Mahler to try and create a new awareness other composers, as well as music history and the literature and architecture of his time, the composers he was influenced by and the composers he influenced. In the case of the Leonore III, what is fascinating is that Mahler the conductor approached his own music in exactly the same way as he approached other composers, such as Beethoven and Schumann. So, for example, although he put eight horns in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, his intention was to ensure that everything was heard and for the sound to become more transparent. It is therefore fascinating to look at the annotations in his scores – and this is a subject that we talk about often at MahlerFest – as when Mahler changes from being the composer of his works, to one of being the conductor of his and other composers’ works.
So at MahlerFest, we may spend some time looking at and discussing the editings Mahler made of his own symphonies after he had performed them, with the conclusion that often the changes were a reaction to a particularly reverberant concert hall, or an especially dry acoustic, or possibly because he had an orchestra with more strings in New York than he did in Vienna. The conclusion is that often the last editions of his scores are sometimes not the only ones we should be taking as the “last will and testament”. Indeed, he did actually say that if you get into a situation where it is not working, that you should change it. For example, in his Fifth Symphony there is a phrase for the oboes in the first movement which in the first edition of the score is played by all four of the oboes, but in his final score is only for one oboe, with the consequence that in certain halls you won’t hear that phrase at all. So for me, as a conductor, I am sure that Mahler would prefer me to revert back to his original version in certain concert halls, so that the phrase can be heard, rather than not at all.
It is also interesting for us to look at Mahler’s revisions of Beethoven’s scores as well. Now we know that Beethoven loved big string sections – it is one of the fallacies or misconceptions of the historically informed movement that Beethoven’s ideal was a chamber orchestra – and we know definitely that in performances of Beethoven’s symphonies during his lifetime which had big string choirs, the wind sections were doubled. What we can see in Mahler’s own performing scores of Beethoven’s works which would have been done with large string choirs, are his markings where only some of the strings should play and where all of them should – but all Mahler was doing is being the first conductor to actually write down into the published what someone like Beethoven himself may well have done when rehearsing his own works. For example, in the first big crescendo in the Allegro of the Leonore III Overture, we see Mahler adding an additional desk of the violins every couple of bars – and that is not “messing” with Beethoven, it is just Mahler trying to envisage what Beethoven might have done had he been the conductor of that particular performance, for we know for a fact historically, these sorts of things were done in Beethoven’s time and after.
LD: The performances of Mahler’s Fifth symphony at the festival in 2021 was shared by another composer’s Fifth, specifically the one by Philip Sawyers.
KW: Yes, that’s right; Philip is a true symphonist. His Fifth Symphony is perhaps a more hopeful and optimistic work than some of his earlier ones, more tonal even than previously. The first movement is very typical of him, and has a kind of slow-burn intensity which builds up to an apocalyptic climax. For me as well, his slow movements are usually quite glorious, and the one in the Fifth is really moving. However, even though he was born in London, his musical roots are from Bruckner, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Berg, Schoenberg as well as, perhaps unsurprisingly since he spent much of his early career in the pit at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden, Wagner. However, the way he works with musical ideas are – in the best sense of the word – ‘Germanic’, following the examples of Beethoven and Brahms, with a sense that especially in the symphonies that everything needs to be integrated and unified. His Fifth symphony is also similar to the Mahler Fifth in the sense that it does not all lead up to an ultimate arrival. For me, he inhabits a wonderful musical universe, aware of the symphonic lineage and his role within it and I feel genuinely proud of being able to present it as part of MahlerFest, for doing so I am paying homage to Mahler himself, who conducted so much contemporary music by other composers during his lifetime.
LD: Herbert von Karajan famously said of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that once you have got to the end of it, you have forgotten how it all started – is that a view you share, Ken?
KW: Not quite. For me, Mahler is the first symphonist that I know of who breaks down his symphonies not just into movements, but also into parts. With the Fifth Symphony, the first two movements are Part One, the central scherzo is Part Two, and the final two Part Three. That structure is exactly the same as Schumann’s Rhenish, which we talked about earlier, in the sense that the first two, as well as last two, movements overlap with similar melodies and thematic material, with a fourth movement that is slow and serious which is followed by a final movement that is somewhat light and frivolous. If there is a criticism of Mahler’s Fifth, it is that the final two movements are not quite as ‘happy’ as the first two are ‘tragic’ and I think this is perhaps why some people struggle with the work a little.
LD: You are on record as saying that the Scherzo of this symphony is one of the ultimate challenges in conducting.
KW: It is – and not just because it is technically very difficult to conduct, but also because it is a bit of a head-scratcher. I mean, it is in three-four time, which of course indicates it could be either a waltz or a Ländler, although Mahler does not mark it as either. However, since he does indicate that it should be taken “nicht zu schnell” (not too fast), tells me that it is more of a (slower) Ländler – except most of my colleagues tend to take it faster.
LD: That’s true, but could it be a reference to the fact a Viennese waltz is faster than a conventional waltz?
KW: Indeed – that’s all part of the head-scratching. However, for me, learning in Donald Mitchell’s book that Bruno Walter said that Mahler based this movement on the Goethe’s poem An Schwager Kronos (‘To Brother Time the Coachman’) was a real game-changer [it is reproduced at the end of this article], as it tells of a young man living life too fast, who is determined to burn the candle as brightly as possible. At the time he was writing the Fifth, Mahler himself nearly died from over-working and stress. My job as an interpreter is to take the audience along with the music and for them to experience this ambiguity while still retaining their interest, before really giving them the big pay-off at the end. For me, the end of the Scherzo really sounds like the end of the world, where you can quite clearly match the music with the words of the poem:
Blow your horn, brother, clatter on at a noisy trot.
Let Orcus know we are coming,
so that mine host will be there at the door to welcome us
For me, this is Mahler sharing a vision of a life and a world that is spinning out of control, with all the poise and elegance that has preceded it, but is now breaking apart as the music hurtles forward without restraint.
LD: Yet you once compared this movement with the scherzo of Beethoven’s Eroica…
KW: Only to a point. Following the tragedy which proceed them, they both offer the first sense of ‘green shoots’ emerging from scorched earth, although I wouldn’t want to go much further than that inasmuch that the Beethoven is a much more jolly and hopeful movement than Mahler’s.
LD: Of course, the Scherzo is then followed by one of Mahler’s most famous pieces of music of all, the Adagietto. The history of this piece on record is hugely interesting, with early interpreters taking it at a flowing tempo, until Dimitri Mitropoulos started to conduct it more slowly and with a greater sense of sadness, an idea that was adopted by Leonard Bernstein in his own performances, not least when he performed it live at the funeral mass of Robert F Kennedy in 1968 and its subsequent use in the 1971 film Death in Venice. What are your views on this movement?
KW: Well, that is another challenge for the interpreter with this work. It is true that as a result of writings by Gilbert Kaplan and Roger Norrington in the 1990’s that we have almost come full circle with this movement, which is more often than not taken at a more flowing tempo once more. However, I think it is all too simplistic to state that something should be ‘slow’ or ‘fast’, or, as we discussed earlier, played entirely with or with no vibrato, or that it is about death or about love because, of course, with Mahler you cannot have love without death, or death without love. To me, the Adagietto is not just a simple love song, for it is following-on from three pretty dark movements anyway. Indeed, Mahler’s instructions in the score indicates a movement that starts slowly and only then increases in tempo bit by bit as it progresses towards the climax, until you get to the recapitulation when it winds down again. As so often with Mahler, he was in two minds about the very end of the movement, whether he wanted it to get faster and faster, or slower and slower. So when people wonder whether the movement should take seven minutes or nine minutes, well that interpretive decision of the final bars alone can alter the overall timing quite significantly. Originally he said it should get slower, but then he said it should get faster, so that is what is Indicated in the first critical edition in the 1960’s, even if the timings of his last performances would indicate he was slowing down again! With the most recent edition published in 2002, the editor reverted to the slow ending.
For me, Leonard Bernstein, who’s performance has been often criticized, does many things in this movement especially well, because he varies the tempo a lot and doesn’t get stuck in a middle-of-the-road position, plus also finds some amazing colours along the journey. Part of the reason his timing overall is so long, is because he has this gift of teasing out those “magic moments” that he loves to dwell on, whereas with some conductors who just merely take it slowly run the risk of making the music sound boring. Mahler writes at the head of the movement “sehr langsam” (very slowly) and then as early as the third bar “molto adagio” (very slow) with the molto actually underlined. I know of the Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg recordings, which are the more fluid readings referenced by Kaplan in justification for faster tempos, but in my view, in taking Bruno Walter, for example, you have bear in mind that he also takes the preceding scherzo some two minutes faster than anyone else I know of as well, so in that context his Adagietto would also have to be somewhat faster than the norm. Across his body of work, I do find that Walter often struggled to conduct music with a slow pulse.
However, for me, I am aiming for an arc, starting and ending slowly, but with variation of tempos in the middle used to produce both shape and contrast, so if there is a moment where I want to stop and “smell the flowers”, then the orchestra and I can do that too without the whole thing collapsing under its own weight. Our 2021 MahlerFest performance ran to about nine minutes. Mahler’s first performance was ten minutes, his fastest was seven and three of them were about nine, to nine and a half minutes.
LD: Let’s talk about the last movement. You once said it had a “realistic” rather than a “happy” ending – could you expand on that?
KW: Indeed. So often, statements like those reflect my thoughts about the piece at the time, and every performance has the possibility of highlighting different emotional qualities, especially in a work as complex as this. At the MahlerFest performances of this symphony we had just emerged from a really dark and desperate time for many musicians [the Covid pandemic], so I hope the listener can feel the sheer joy we experienced during the performance, from beginning to end, of merely just being able to get together again and play great music with each other.
LD: Many of the orchestral members still had to wear face masks, though.
KW: Absolutely, we were still not completely out of the woods at that point, but in spite of that by the time we got to the final movement, we were able to express this elation without reservation and on that particular occasion with this symphony, it was as if we were working through what we had all experienced in life ourselves over the previous two years or so, with it ending up being a really joyful occasion and almost a celebration. Going back to Beethoven’s Eroica, its final movement is also a celebration, but don’t forget just before the coda there is that slow episode, which for me might be saying that “it’s great that we are having this party, but we should also remember the funeral march….” I think when I wrote that the finale was more ‘realistic’ than ‘happy’, I was addressing those criticisms of Mahler’s Fifth that we discussed earlier, that the last movement is not as triumphant as the first part of the symphony is tragic and making the point that it wasn’t a criticism of the work, but more its message that it is not an attempt to correct everything that is wrong in both its world and ours – it’s embracing the joy of now. I believe those kinds of things manifest themselves in different ways and in different performances. I remember a performance of the work given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Tadaaki Otaka many years back, where the previous week a member of the orchestra had died very suddenly under tragic circumstances and the concert had been very specifically dedicated to their colleague. It was an amazing performance, but because of the state everyone on that stage was in, it was so obvious that the final movement was nowhere near as joyful as the first two movements were tragic and therefore the cataclysm of the first part never got properly resolved. If one didn’t know the back-story and was looking only for clear-cut affirmation, you may have concluded that there was a ‘problem’ with the piece, but I think it was expressing very beautifully the grace of the moment and is an example of how, sometimes, musical performances are often more than just pleasing the audience, as important though that undoubtedly is.
LD: That reminds me of a famous performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony which was scheduled to take place and be recorded on September 12th 2001 in San Francisco, with its orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Of course, due to the awful events of the previous day, it had to be cancelled and rescheduled to the following week, when there was even some talk of replacing the symphony, which of course ends in tragic devastation, with another piece. In the end, they went ahead with the original programme thinking that if they didn’t, then somehow the terrorists would have achieved another victory. However, the subsequent recording taken from the concert reveals not a performance of great catastrophe and cataclysm – which you may have expected – but more one where every bar had been infused by a certain wistful sadness.
KW: Indeed. I have conducted a lot of music by the Austrian composer Hans Gál, who himself had faced much tragedy in his life, fleeing from his homelands not just once, but twice because of the Nazis, who said: “The rain that falls from your life experiences seeps down into the ground first, before it comes up as a spring of a new work at a time of its own choosing”. For him, in spite of the tragedy in his life, losing family and friends in the Holocaust, he didn’t want to compose only sad or angry music. Unlike Adorno, who felt there could be no beautiful or happy music after Auschwitz, Gál did not want Hitler’s legacy to be the end of beauty and the joy of life itself. So with performers, you may be going through a terribly dark period in your life, but then unexpectedly find an astonishing emotional connection with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, for example, as you are being reminded of what joy feels like. In summary, as a performer you can never really tell how you are going to react once you get up on to the stage and start making music.
LD: That sounds like a very nice way to end our discussion on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I’d like to finish our chat by asking a couple of “quick-fire questions”. So firstly, which conductors, past or present do you admire the most and why?
KW: (Big sigh) It would be hard to pick just one. Eugen Jochum would definitely be on my list though. With his recordings of Brahms in particular, but also of Beethoven and Bruckner, for me he attains a remarkable level of subtle, intuitive understanding of the balance of head and heart, instinct and intelligence. He was very much influenced by Wilhelm Furtwängler, but with a bit more stable balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of performance. Furtwängler was also very analytical and rigorous in his score study, but at the concert just threw himself totally into the music-making, which is thrilling in a different way, but certainly harder and more dangerous to imitate. If you take Jochum’s two recordings of the Brahms symphony cycles, yes there are things that changed from one to the other, but more interesting are the things that evolved or developed from one to the other, with some of the tempi fluctuations becoming more and more artful in the later recordings, to the extent that you no longer notice that he’s doing it anymore. For example, in most of his recorded performances, he starts the opening of the Brahms Fourth much slower than he intends to go for the bulk of the movement, letting the music gradually awaken over the first forty bars or so. In the earlier Berlin recording you can, perhaps, still hear him almost going through the gears, but with the later London one it is almost imperceptible, and so elegantly done. It is as if he has taken an analytical eye to the kind of flexibility someone like Furtwängler might have brought to it and patiently developed the execution of it to another, more subtle and elegant level. It is art which disguises art and I admire it very much.
Another would be Hans Rosbaud. He did so much different repertoire to an astonishingly high standard, not just of German music, but also French music and Sibelius. To me, he was also the embodiment of a an ‘ideal’ leader of a post-war radio orchestra. As a society we need to create a system for sharing new ideas and fostering a culture of open-mindedness and discovery and, in my opinion, this is something that we need desperately these days, and for me Rosbaud represents an historical example of a conductor who made sure audiences had the chance to hear a huge range of music they might not otherwise have known performed with great skill and commitment [aside: Pierre Boulez also considered Rosbaud his ‘ideal’ of what a conductor should be too].
And I would also say Mahler too, for much the same reasons. To study his programming is fascinating, because he was much more a Boulez than a Karajan, in that he conducted an enormous amount of music by composers who lived within one generation of him. So of course he did Beethoven and Mozart, but he also did music that you would not necessarily associate with him, such as Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Rachmaninov when their music was New Music – I mean, imagine being in New York where Rachmaninov is going to play one of his piano concertos with Mahler conducting! He also was a huge champion of Tchaikovsky, in spite of their very different ideas about composing and the two were on friendly terms following on from Mahler’s conducting of Eugene Onegin in Hamburg, and even corresponded between each other.
LD: The second question is to do with programming. You are guaranteed a full house and there is no pressure from the management, but you are allowed to programme any piece of music, short, long, orchestral, even an opera; which would you choose?
KW: Ah, I definitely would like to conduct the Ring Cycle, but that would probably fill the concert hall anyway. So possibly one of Hans Gál’s choral works, probably De Profundis (Op. 50 cantata to German baroque poems, for four soloists (SATB), mixed choir and orchestra [1936–7]). It lasts around seventy-five minutes and for me, it’s a masterpiece that has only been performed once in the last eighty-five years and it is worthy enough to be placed before an audience to allow them to discover it. As a first half I would be programming the Messiaen Turangalila-Symphonie, a very difficult piece that is expensive to perform because I’ve wanted to conduct it since I was 19. Or perhaps, just for the sheer impossibility of it coming across my desk, I might ask for the Havergal Brian Gothic Symphony, which I did get to see at the Proms a few years ago.
LD: You were very fortunate Ken – tickets sold out for that in record time, as I found out to my cost.
KW: Ah yes, well, you see, you need to have a wife in the orchestra involved, Lee. I’m not convinced that it is a musical masterpiece. I’m not even sure it is a successful piece, but the experience of being at that performance was astonishing. Of course, it was performed at the Proms, probably the only professional festival in the world that has the resources to mount such a venture and is a sobering reminder to us all what an important, essential institution the BBC is at a time when it seems to be disintegrating. We cannot keep on doing only things that we already know that audiences enjoy – we also have to programme music that we think they might enjoy too if audiences were exposed to it. And this is often what we do at the English Symphony Orchestra and at MahlerFest – programming something that we already know you love, alongside something we think you are going to love: Mahler’s Symphony No 5 along with Philip Sawyers’ Symphony No 5, for example. The whole market-driven mentality has taken over classical music, and so it is not always easy to persuade an organisation to support a suggestion of a programme that balances the familiar with the new. Mahler’s example as a conductor shows us that it’s very possible to programme new work that will be embraced by the audiences of the day and admired by the musicians of the future.
LD: And finally, if you weren’t involved in classical music, how would you be earning a living instead?
KW: Maybe a film maker. Or rock guitar player…
LD: Ken, thank you very much for your time and all the very best with your performances of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at this year’s festival.
You can read Ken’s blog here.
You can follow this year’s MahlerFest here.
An Schwager Kronos (“To Brother Time the Coachman”)
translation by Norma Deane and Celia Larner
“Hurry on, Time, at a rattling trot!
The road runs downhill,
Your dawdling makes things swim before my eyes.
On at a brisk pace, over stick and stone,
Stumbling headlong into life!
Now once more toiling uphill, out of breath—
Up then, no slacking, upward striving and hoping …….
High, wide and glorious the prospect of life rings us round.
The eternal spirit soars from peak to peak,
Full of intimations of eternal life.
A shadowy doorway beckons you aside
Across the threshold of the girl’s house,
And her eyes promise refreshment.
Take comfort! For me too, lass, that sparkling draught
That fresh and healthy look.
Down then, faster down!
See, the sun sinks. Before it sets,
before the marsh-mist envelopes me in my old age,
with toothless gnashing jaws and tottering limbs
Snatch me, drunk with the sun’s last ray,
a sea of fire boiling up before my eyes,
blind and reeling through the dark gates of Hell.
Blow your horn, brother, clatter on at a noisy trot.
Let Orcus know we are coming,
so that mine host will be there at the door to welcome us.”