SOM alum Ken Woods to conduct Rachel Barton Pine & UW Symphony in Brahms Violin Concerto

(NOTE: Exclusive interview with Ken Woods: see below!)

In what promises to be the UW Symphony Orchestra’s most significant concert this fall (though “The Rite of Spring” was pretty spectacular, one must admit), School of Music alumnus and Madison native Kenneth Woods returns home from Wales this month to conduct an internationally-known violinist in an all-time-favorite violin concerto plus two other works. The concert will take place Saturday, November 2 at 8 pm in Mills Hall, at the School of Music.  Tickets range from $25 to $10 for students with valid identification.

Kenneth Woods Photo by Chris Stock
Kenneth Woods
Photo by Chris Stock

Ken Woods is a Memorial High School graduate and an alumnus of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra and also UW, having received a master’s in 1993 under cellist Parry Karp.  Now the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, his track record involves scores of conducting assignments, recordings, performances, and writings. His blog, View from the Podium, includes recent articles on comparative listening (what happens to a work when a conductor is not present? Ken has some very thought-provoking ideas) and one on women in the conducting profession (including a challenge to journalists: “Many of my brilliantly gifted female colleagues know all-too-well the frustration of trying to get a critic to come to their concert or trying to get their latest CD reviewed. Find them- pay attention to them! Get out there, dear journalists, and please get beyond the absolute top-tier of major orchestras.”)

The violinist: Chicago native Rachel Barton-Pine, whose recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003. Pine is a multi-faceted musician: While she cut her teeth on all the classical works and won competitions in her teens, she’s equally at home with rock’n roll. In a recent New York Times article, Pine told of being asked about her musical inspirations by a Juilliard student. She “gestured toward the stickers of heavy metal bands plastered on her violin case. ‘When they’re onstage, they’re getting everyone headbanging,’ she said. ‘Within classical music my goal is to do the same thing, to give 150 percent and get everyone caught up in the emotions.'”  Classically, she has performed as a soloist with orchestras of Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas, Montreal, Vienna, New Zealand and Budapest, among others. She plays on a “ex-Soldat” violin made in 1742 by Guarneri del Gesu.

Her latest album, Violin Lullabies, was inspired by her daughter’s birth, and contains some of the sweetest classical music ever written.

The concerto? The Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, a particularly poignant but muscular concerto in three movements composed in 1878 and dedicated to Brahms’ friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. It is considered a technically demanding concerto, performed professionally by top soloists. Of this work, Pine writes: “I have been fascinated with the Brahms Concerto since my earliest violin lessons. I began studying it when I was 14, and it rapidly became a mainstay of my repertoire. It was with the Brahms Concerto that I won several of my international prizes and made many of my debuts in Europe, America, and Israel. It remains one of the most fulfilling works I perform. My teacher in Berlin, Werner Scholz, was a student of Gustav Havemann, who studied with Joachim. I feel fortunate to have gained knowledge about the Brahms Concerto from one so close to the original source. My study of the Brahms was augmented also by reading Joachim’s essay in his Violinschule in which he laid out how he felt the Brahms concerto should be played.”

In this video, Pine performs the final movement of the Brahms.

Other works on the program include The Gale of Life composed by Philip Sawyers  and Symphony No. 5, op. 47 composed by Dmitri Shostakovich.

The date: November 2nd at 8 pm in Mills Hall. This concert is cosponsored by the Wisconsin Union Theater, and is ticketed. Seats are reserved–contrary to a previous post–and can be purchased through the Vilas box office.

Madison blogger Jake Stockinger, a personal friend of Ken Woods, has written extensively about him, and once even invited Ken to write for his blog. You can read all of these columns here.

Here’s an exclusive interview Ken did just this week with SOM concert office assistant Nicole Tuma. She asked some great questions!

Nicole: The opening overture is by a composer who many of the students and audience members haven’t encountered but whom you know personally. Tell us a little bit about your work with Philip Sawyers and about his music.
Ken: Philip and I became friends because he coaches the violins of a wonderful youth orchestra I conduct regularly in England. Although he was very prodigiously gifted as a composer when he was a teenager, he chose to join the orchestra at the Royal Opera in his twenties, and had a distinguished career there, playing for all the great conductors. He’s now back to full-time composing, and I just marvel at what he’s writing now. I really think he’s one of the greats of our time. It’s hard to reconcile this very down-to-earth, funny guy with this extraordinary music. I’ve just recorded a CD of his latest orchestral music for Nimbus, and it’s been such an exciting project. “Gale of Life” is a nice, short introduction to his music- the intensity, the virtuosity, and the power of the orchestral writing are all there. Hopefully, it will inspire a few folks to investigate further.

Nicole: Your “Explore the Score” piece on Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony touches on many different aspects of the symphony – its structure of themes and tempi, its use of quotation, its historical context, and its identity as a work that is simultaneously personal and political. Which aspects of the Fifth Symphony do you think are most important for enhancing an audience member’s experience of and appreciation for this music?
Ken: Like all great works of art, Shostakovich 5 is a work with many layers of meaning, all of which are worth exploring. If I was to narrow a new listener’s focus to just one piece of the puzzle, it might be to encourage them to think about the extraordinary reactions to the premiere among the listeners who where there. People didn’t just clap and cheer then hop in their cars and go home and pour a Merlot. People who heard that performance, with this huge ovation afterwards, were in tears for hours. There’s the story of a young man walking out of the concert with his wife in silence, their faces stained with tears. Neither of them said a word- they just walked around the city all night before returning to their flat after sunrise. This music literally left them speechless for hours. Why did people respond so strongly? Somehow, for someone new to the piece, I would think that question is a good place to start.

Nicole:  You write a lot in your blog about the value of comparative listening. Are there any recordings that you’d recommend looking up before this particular UW-Madison Symphony concert?
Ken: For the Brahms, Nathan Milstein is my favorite. He’s almost always my favorite.
Phil’s overture has been recorded beautifully for Nimbus Records by David Lockington and the Grand Rapids Symphony. The CD includes his Music for Brass and Strings, which is a much bigger piece, and his First Symphony, which is an absolute tour de force.

The Shostakovich is too big and too rich for any one recording to do it justice, but I think Barshai’s recording with the WDR is very good, and Mravinksy is important to hear. Stick with the Russians!

Nicole: You’ve had a wonderfully varied musical career as an instrumentalist, conductor, writer, educator, and more. Do you find that the many different activities that you’re involved in nurture each other?
Ken: All of the activities you list work rather synergistically for me. For instance, when I took part in the NEA Rural Residency Program many years ago, working to develop a chamber music audience in rural Arkansas, I found that the effort spent figuring out how to help complete novice listeners engage with Shostakovich or Brahms also helped us clarify our own ideas about the music. At the end of the day, this is all about communication, and even though different disciplines have their own specific technical challenges, I’ve always found that learning to communicate musical ideas in different mediums seems to enrich your work no matter what you happen to be doing on a given day.

Nicole: How has this affected your growth as a musician? How so? Do you find studying a score as a cellist and as a conductor to be different experiences?
Ken: I think one of the biggest challenges for any instrumentalist is to expand your musical awareness beyond the technical demands of your instrument. I think it’s really unfortunate that we all learn to play from our own little single-line parts when we’re young. If you’re playing in a quartet and you spend 98% of the time just looking at your own part, and only check the score when you’ve got a question about a wrong note, you’re understanding of your role in the music is always going to be limited. In my trio, we spend most of our rehearsal time playing and rehearsing from score. We all aspire to develop great ears, and for me, the key to hearing is understanding. Understanding how the parts fit together, understanding what the notation really means, understanding how the meter works, understanding the harmonic function of a note in a chord. So, I suppose for me, the answer to your question it that I’m trying to make my score study as cellist and conductor more similar as I get more experienced.

Nicole: In a similar vein, did your years as a music student help prepare you for this multi-faceted career? How?
Ken: It’s probably the nature of all universities to prepare students for the last generation of jobs rather than the next generation of jobs, because that’s the world that the faculty know. However, I’m a firm believer that higher education should not be mistaken for vocational training. No seminar or workshop could have prepared me for what I do, because I’ve found my own path which is unique to my skill set. What has helped at every turn is the musical foundation I got from my teachers, and the enduring confidence that their belief in my potential gave me.

Nicole: If not, what was missing?
Ken: There’s a lot of talk now about teaching music students some basic entrepreneurial skills, but my student years were so busy and so rewarding, I can’t imagine looking back on one of my chamber groups and thinking “I should have been learning how to write a press release instead of rehearsing Bartók.” You’ve got your whole life to build a career and the non-musical skills are not that hard to acquire. I’m glad my music school years were focused squarely on music and on learning everything I could from my teachers.

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