Friday, May 29, 2009

Roll over Beethoven: Trio Epomeo cellist talks about his years as a rocker

These days, he’s the guy with the bow — and the baton: Kenneth Woods, who will perform with Trio Epomeo in a June 6 preseason fundraiser for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, has received the Aspen Fellowship as both a cellist and conductor. He’s toured and recorded extensively as a cellist, and bounces between England and the United States in a mad schedule of performances with the Surrey Mozart Players and the Oregon East Symphony, among others. He’s also the principal conductor of the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra in England, which he led in a performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 sandwiched between a week-long residency at Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy and a quick six-date US tour with Epomeo. After that, it’s back to Guildford and the Surrey Mozart Players and Stratford-upon-Avon and the Shakespeare Proms festival, where he will conduct Orchestra the Swans. Yes, he’s on the road a lot.
But it hasn’t always been Schumann and Shostakovich all the time for the cellist and conductor. In fact, he was a pretty serious rocker during his teens and college years. He blames it on Brian May, specifically, on Queen’s “News of the World” album - yeah, the one with “We Will Rock You.” nHe was 12 years old. He bought a guitar and played in a rock band, in addition to studying cello, through high school. It was fun stuff that he fully intended to ditch for more serious, longhair pursuits. But by the time he unpacked his bags at Indiana University in the mid-‘80s, where he would study cello performance, he ended up playing in two successful regional rock bands: The Watchmen, an acid-funk band, and the Screaming Yardvaarks, both of which imploded just as they were attracting the attention of A&R guys, both of which never lasted long enough to put out a proper album. The latter achieved “somewhat legendary status” in southern Indiana with the single “Mrs. Potatohead” - a hilarious collection of metal clichés and goofy lyrics, like the spoken ad-lib from the doctor warning the missus that her husband, Mr. Potatohead, might survive the horrific car accident he was in but could very well be a vegetable for the rest of his life.

Dumb fun? Maybe, he says, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Silly can be good,” he says. “I think the point is that music should be honest - whether that honesty comes off as anger, tenderness, sarcasm, whatever. A plastic mentality, which exists in abundance in classical music and pop, uses music for the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. “Music is supposed to heal and enlighten. When we use it just to entertain and calm the nerves, it’s as if we’re masking our symptoms. If you’re depressed and you listen to banal music because it calms you down, you’re going to stay depressed longer; if you’re ignorant and you listen to plastic music, you’re going to stay ignorant longer,” he says. “These days, all classical musicians are supposed to like pop and rock - it is a way of branding yourself as normal and safe. How boring! How sad when a great player feels the need to say, ‘I don’t even really listen to classical music.’ “I like music - all genres and eras - but I don’t like aural wallpaper."

Here’s what Wood had to say about his years as a rocker. The interview was conducted by e-mail shortly before his performance with Trio Epomeo in Newburyport.

KW: I got my first rock album when I was about 12, which I suppose was pretty late actually. It was Queen’s “News of the World,” which, if I say so myself, is a pretty damn fine first album to have. I’ve always felt drawn to playing whatever kind of music I listen to, whether it was classical or the folk music my dad played and loved, so I suppose the die was cast as soon as I took the shrink wrap off the LP.
Within a year, I had my first electric guitar, and a year after that, my first band, which I played with off and on throughout high school. I had a broader range of interests when I was in high school — writing, science, stage crew and the rock playing as well as cello in all its guises of solo work, chamber music and orchestra. When I headed off to college, I declared myself done with all that and was just going to focus on classical stuff, but in a moment of madness I packed a guitar “just to have something to relax with.” Practically the first guy I met at Indiana University was a keyboard player with a great voice and his own PA system, so I was drawn back in and kept playing all through college.

JC: There was no conflict between playing classical and rock music in your mind?
KW: No, there certainly was conflict. On the one hand, I was quickly becoming aware of how competitive the cello world was and that I really couldn’t afford too many distractions from practicing. On the other hand, I found the orchestra experience at IU very, very depressing. In spite of a seemingly unlimited number of gifted players, the conducting faculty seemed to range from ‘washed-up’ to ‘never was any good.’ Rock gave me a chance to connect to a visceral kind of music-making I used to get from orchestra but lost there.

JC: So, in your mind, it was just ‘music is music?’
KW: It was, in the sense that almost everyone I played with was a music major and brought the same training and seriousness to the band that they did to their lessons and recitals. On the other hand, particularly with the Watchmen, where I had a much bigger role as a songwriter, it was also a question of the power of rock music as protest music. I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying this, but I think the potential for true outrageousness in rock music still existed back then, more so than today. The ‘80s were such a suffocating time to be a creative young person, and the rather corporate environment at IU was no place to break out of that. We were fed up with politics, with style, with mass media, with pointless war, with vacuous pop culture, and we still thought the sheer craziness of rock ‘n’ roll could be a protest against that.

JC: Did you think or hope or dream that you would make it as a rocker?
KW: When I graduated from IU, I planned to give the band a go. I didn’t apply to grad schools or take orchestra auditions that year. We were busy making demos and had just hooked up with high-powered management when the band imploded. All the rest of the guys stayed in rock or related music, and some have been quite successful, short of stardom, and I’m full of admiration for them. But my body took a real beating in the years I played. All those late nights, moving PA systems, smoke and noise. I still have back problems. I think I would have had quite a laugh if I’d ended up as the next Pete Townsend, but I’m not sure I would have survived as working indie rocker touring 320 days a year.

JC: What do you think would have happened, if, say, Watchmen were signed?
KW: Our agent was lining them up, and he had a plan. The band was racing against time - the kind of aggressive, funky rock we were playing was huge at that moment. It was the peak of the popularity of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone. But the ‘90s would not have been kind to us. Grunge, in retrospect, is a very pop-oriented, neat and tidy style, and since then, it’s been mostly techno-pop on the radio. We might have gotten a couple of albums out there, and we had a couple of decent singles, but the moment for that music was gone within a year of our breakup.

JC: Do you listen to rock?
KW: I listen to the rock I know and love: Hendrix, P-Funk, Queen, Zepplin. Through my producer friend, I am made aware that there is a lot of nice stuff out there, but I can’t help but feel that rock has run its course. It used to be the ultimate music of protest - real outsider music. Now it is corporate, mainstream, mass-produced and market-tested. The Stones used to be controversial, even outrageous. Now they’re a nostalgia act; you’ve got to mortgage your house to afford a ticket.

JC: There are certain expectations and entrenched positions on both side of the classical-rock dividing line - that classical is “real” music, or that classical musicians are just stuffed shirts, that classical is serious and everything else is silly, that you guys, you classical musicians, are pretentious stuffed shirts minuet when you go out to clubs?
KW: I think the position has shifted 180 percent from when Hendrix was playing. Rock and pop is now the territory of huge, huge multinational corporations. No song makes it onto radio or TV until hat has been put through focus groups, marketing tie-ins have been negotiated, artists have been made over and on and on. Rock came from the poorest corner of America - the Mississippi Delta - but a young Chuck Berry or Elvis could never afford the hundreds of dollars to get into a concert today. On the other hand, classical musicians are out there now playing Bartok in coffeehouses and nightclubs, doing school concert and street performances. The concertmaster of the London Mozart Players just spent a year busking around the world to raise money for charity. Every orchestra and opera company has opened their doors to less-affluent listeners, and is making a point to get out into their communities and make a difference in children’s lives.

Don’t get me wrong - there are still plenty of stuff shirts, but my generation and the next one know that the mega institutions that sustained previous generations so nicely are gone, and we’ve got to accept risk and earn a place for ourselves in this profession. Meanwhile, you’ve got accountants at the big record companies living in castles. I try not to think in terms of an audience as a monolithic thing. One of the luckiest accidents of my professional life has been escaping the tribal mentality, which to a certain extent permeates so much of our thinking about music. In my rock days, we were consciously making music for our peers, for our generation. Being a conductor and a teacher as well as a performer, I’ve gotten to be close friends with people from wildly different backgrounds, age groups and social strata. Without the tribe there, you find they’re all incredibly different - not the masses of clones we often think.

When I play or conduct, I try to remember that - that we’re not playing to “our audience” but to individuals, each of whom needs different things from the music, each of whom will respond to different things in the music. The more you respect those differences, and leave space for them, the common ground we find as human beings. What I want new classical listeners to know is that there is room for them, for their experiences and their needs and their tastes, in this music. It’s about creating space, not dumbing down.

Trio Epomeo will perform in a pre-season fundraiser for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival June 6, at The Carriage House. The program will include music by Alan Hohvaness, Gideon Klein, Zoltan Kodaly, Alfred Schnittke, Hans Krasa and Beethoven. Tickets are $50. A cocktail reception follows the performance. Space is limited. For reservations or more information, log onto or

Friday, May 22, 2009

Musical destination: Globe-trotting Trio Epomeo plays Newburyport Chamber Music Festival opener

It’s never easy getting face time with David Yang. Artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival since its inception seven years ago, Yang is an in-demand performer, the leader of the storytelling and music troupe Auricolae, director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania and member of Poor Richard’s String Quartet — a busy guy. But this is the start of an especially busy season for Yang. He’s on a plane with a laptop, dashing off a response to questions about Trio Epomeo, which will perform June 6 in Newburyport. He’s en route to Rome via Frankfurt, then off to the beautiful isolation of Ischia, home to the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, a weeklong chamber music festival and intensive workshop where he has been a resident coach and performer for years. It’s also the place where he met first violinist Byron Wallis, concertmaster of the Orchestre de Chambre Français Albéric Magnard in Paris, and cellist Kenneth Woods, founder of the Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet — making it the birthplace of Trio Epomeo. The name comes from the non-active volcano that dominates the landscape of the small, sun-drenched island in the Bay of Naples.

The idea, at first, was for the three musicians to get together to work on just one piece, Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio — a fascinating composition, Yang says, because it combines the composer’s fascination with the medieval and the angularity of the modern to create “a passion that is so distinctly Russian … and romantic in the way a warm fireplace is comforting with a blizzard raging outside.” As the 2008 festival drew to a close, Yang sensed that, given how the rehearsals had gone, they might actually have the makings of a “real” trio and suggested that they stick it out a little longer and see what happened. The others were receptive, but cautious. “All three of us have played in a lot of groups over the years, so we all were more than aware of what the odds are of a group of three players, no matter how good and no matter how simpatico, being or becoming a ‘real’ string trio,” says Woods. “The odds of failure are pretty high. Still, if you’re lucky enough to play with good colleagues, to fail is to still be pretty good, so we all agreed to give it a shot.”

At this year’s Ischia festival, the trio performed a full program that Yang, who has a penchant for food metaphors when describing music, calls “a taster’s menu.” It’s a relatively short program (about 90 minutes without intermission) and is based on programs from the turn of the last century, where groups would play selected movements instead of full-scale pieces. In addition to the Schnittke, they performed works by Alan Hovhaness, Gideon Klein, Zoltáan Kodály, Hans Krasa and Beethoven. When the curtain closed in Ischia on May 17, the trio packed for Bath, England, having tested a portion of the program in Hereford earlier this year, and then prepared for a short tour of the United States, where it will play dates in New York and Philadelphia, before heading north for performances in Newburyport and Exeter, N.H. The Newburyport performance, a fundraiser for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, takes place June 6, at the historic Carriage House, once an outbuilding of the Lord Timothy Dexter Home that Julia Farwell Clay and Walter Clay have transformed into a listening room and, on occasion, performance space. A reception featuring hors d’oeuvres and wine will follow the performance, and members of the audience will have the opportunity to speak with the musicians.

On the road
The program, says Yang, is very much a musical slog from country to country — one that has deep roots in the folk music and traditions of the various composers’ cultures which, more than usual, gives these pieces their ethnic flavor.

The performance will open with Hans Krasa’s “Dance,” which Yang describes as a “driving work that conjures up images of some demon train hurtling toward oblivion,” he says. “It takes on added meaning when you learn that Krasa, a Czech Jew, died in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis. I’m not sure I can break down exactly what the sound of bitterness and sarcasm is but, for sure, it is in this piece from the first notes.”

In the next piece, the American-born Hovhaness looks to his Armenian heritage for his “Trio,” using ethnic scales and techniques to make standard Western instruments create sounds “utterly unlike anything one would normally hear in a classical setting,” says Yang. “The piece is strange, lonely and oddly sparse. The romantic image it conjures up in my mind is of a shepherd on some barren mountain with his charges, out for weeks at a time without seeing another human.”

The trio will then return to the former Czechoslovakia — and the central movement from Gideon Klein’s trio “Based on a Moravian Theme,” which, Yang says, “goes through a huge range of tangible emotions in just 10 minutes of variations,” from impassioned to playful, sardonic, uncertain and fearful. He, like Krasa, did not survive the camps. The performance then moves on to Hungary with “Intermezzo,” a terrific little Kodály trio based on Hungarian folk music.

After the Schnittke “sneaks in, yells for a while, and then skulks out,” the trio will check its musical bags with a with a quick and airy movement by Beethoven — the last movement, a Rondo, from his C Minor Trio, which, Yang says, “whizzes and whirls and then disappears like a puff of smoke. What better way to end a concert?”
But, perhaps the performance won’t end there after all. “Of course, “ Yang says, “if everyone keeps applauding we might just have to keep on playing. But we’ll see about that.”

Founded last year in the Mount Epomeo during the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, Trio Epomeo will perform in a pre-season fundraiser for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival June 6, at The Carriage House. The program will include music by Alan Hovhaness, Gideon Klein, Zoltán Kodály, Alfred Schnittke, Hans Krasa and Beethoven. Tickets are $50. A cocktail reception follows the performance. Space is limited. For reservations or more information, log onto