Kenneth Woods and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Photo above taken in the Capitol Theater in Overture Center for the Arts, at the first rehearsal for “The Miracle” concerts that take place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 6-8.
Kenneth Woods, our guest conductor for our “The Miracle” concerts this Friday, Saturday and Sunday was recently interviewed by journalist Jacob Stockinger. You can read the interview and view photos on The Well-Tempered Ear: http://bit.ly/mar2020woods_stockinger. You’ll discover insights about Kenneth’s history here in Madison, and his career in this thoughtful and insightful story. Learn more about the March 6, 7 & 8 concerts: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/
Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career.
March 2, 2020
By Jacob Stockinger
This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).
Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England.
Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.
For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/
Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.
How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?
Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.
There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.
We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser. The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social — it was a great immersion with one’s peers.
Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.
Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.
How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?
I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.
I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp.
Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).
I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.
And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.
What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?
It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain, the MSO has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin — it’s practically a different orchestra.
I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.
But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.
What are your major current and upcoming projects?
The English Symphony Orchestra represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.
The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.
I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.
Is the MSO program special to you?
I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.
What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?
Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.
His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.
The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.
I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot.
The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.
# # #
A special thanks to Jacob Stockinger for allowing us to share this story!