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Abandoning Perfection? In Search of a Great Performance

Re-blogged from The Boston Herald-Read original post here


By Cynthia Woods, Music Director

Perfection is one of life’s great contradictions. From the time we begin to learn it’s held out in front of us as a sort of state of nirvana, the ultimate goal, the purest pursuit. Sure parents and friends say things like just do your best, we love you no matter what, but underneath, everyone knows, an A plus is better than an A, a score of 100 is better than 99.  And in our current culture where the objective, the quantifiable, dominates every learning process from standardized school tests, to audition score cards we have an almost religious belief in attaining 10 out of 10.

So we dig in, put our heads down and aim for that perfect moment and the glory that follows. And then it happens, betrayal.  After years of study, hours spent locked away in small rooms practicing till your head spins, you have it; that audition or performance where everything goes as planned; dead on intonation, flawless rhythm, exquisite phrasing, it’s the moment you dreamed of, trained for, where everyone will see and know, you’re worthy, you have it in you to be perfect. Smiling as you hit the last note, you look up, full of expectance, ready to see the gates open and welcome you to the land of special perfect people and that’s when it happens. Like a believer waking up the day after the end of the world to a breakfast of pancakes, your nightmare comes true. For instead of accolades, you’re greeted with restrained applause or worse yet, the bored judge, quietly nodding, and dismissing you with a sort of bored sniff. What?!?!  No! You’re sure there’s a mistake, indignation rises, you played by the rules, had an ace game, you deserve the prize.

And that’s when you come face to face with one of life’s great jokes, the quest to be great requires the pursuit of perfection, but in perfection one can sometimes find a sterile land, where art and expression struggle to thrive. Because music is at its most wondrous when it touches us, when it reflects the human condition; when it becomes a mirror for our human experience; an experience where we all know, perfection is noticeably absent. Does perfection keep us from connecting to our audience? Who do we cheer more, the player who plays the hardest or the player who plays the best? The answer seems obvious and yet the results can often surprise us, as we cross our fingers and joyfully bet on the underdog.

And so, for a brief moment there seems clarity, yes, that is it, that special X factor is found in abandoning perfection, sports, music, it doesn’t matter, the answer seems straight forward and clear, perfection is a false prophet and not to be trusted …until you hear your next Mozart Requiem or sit down to study a score of Beethoven’s 9 glory, and there it is again, sheer perfection, in all of its beauty and glory, beckoning you to its gates.

CSO performs Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, often described as one of the most “perfect”compositions ever written. Photography by Olivia Peterson.



Conductors Don’t Wear Pink..Or do they?

Re-blogged from the Boston Herald, read original here


Conductors don’t wear pink… or do they? What really makes a Maestro?

by Cynthia Woods, Music Director

As a member of the second generation of women coming up through the ranks of orchestra conductors, I have always counted myself lucky. I wasn’t the first and the door was definitely open. I had many wonderful, supportive teachers; I got jobs right out of school; and orchestral musicians were respectful. So why, unlike other areas such as politics and medicine, were there so few of me, and why was the “woman conductor” such a hot topic? Why are so many still asking the questions “Can they?” “Should they?” and my favorite, “But what on earth are they going to wear?”

While it looks like a rather benign topic on the surface, the clothing issue has become one of my greatest pet peeves on the Maestra front. From the very beginning, I was told by the most well-meaning mentors, yes, go for it, be a conductor, but you know, just don’t look too feminine. Then there were the national conferences and workshops where all the women were huddled off from the men to small rooms to talk about the dangers of wearing a fitted shirt, an open-toed shoe, or God help you, a primary color. We all sat around feeling awkward and baffled. What was so very wrong about dressing like a professional woman? And why, with a room full of eager young male conductors adorned with flip flops and scrappy T’s, were we being singled out with the “how to dress” chat? Some of our most revered conductors have been known for their eccentric looks—the great Leopold Stokowski routinely wore a floor length black cape with red satin lining. Where was all this fashion terror coming from?

The message was clear to me and my female colleagues: It’s OK to be a woman on the podium, as long as you don’t look like a woman on the podium. Put your hair in a bun or cut it off, invest in a wardrobe of ill-fitting navy and black, and ditch the cute shoes. Happily, things are slowly changing; women currently make up 15% percent of all conductors, up from zero. Older and wiser, I wear whatever I like, as long as I think it shows the proper respect for the music and musicians. But we still have a great deal of work to do to change the conversation from what conductors are to who we are. A conductor is not an old man with wild hair wearing a tuxedo on a podium. A conductor is a highly trained, dedicated musician, with a unique musical vision and passion they wish to share with an orchestra. If we are to entice our young women to become the next Maestro, engineer, scientist or CEO, the message has to be clear. Yes, dress professionally, but also be proud to be yourself, whomever and whatever that is, because that is where true leadership begins. And if pink happens to be one of your favorite colors, then so much the better.



Today’s Orchestra Concerts: Spark And Scandal by Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

Re-blogged from the Boston Herald. View original here.


Cambridge Symphony Orchestra investigates: Today’s orchestra concerts–where’s the spark and where’s the scandal?
By Cynthia Woods, Music Director

It’s the hot topic these days in the classical music world: Where did everybody go and why aren’t our concerts as popular as they used to be?  These are the questions that have our industry up in arms looking for answers. From the economy to the music itself, conspiracy theories abound and blame is laid at many feet.

But perhaps the answer is simpler and less sinister. We’ve all been to that party, the party where everything looks gorgeous, the house immaculate, the food perfection, the wine sublime, and yet we have no fun.  Everyone stands around awkwardly, scared to drop a crumb or spill wine on the beautiful white rug, or even risk looking unsophisticated by laughing too loud at the wrong joke. We spend the evening with a rigid smile plastered on our faces and feel relief when the evening comes to a close. I have to wonder, have we let our orchestra concerts become that party?

There are, of course, many factors in play regarding ticket sales and audiences. Easy access to recorded music, a greater variety of entertainment options and the economic downturn have all had an impact.  But I think we would be remiss not to look closely and critically at ourselves and our industry. In honoring and revering our orchestral traditions, have we accidentally put our music up on a pedestal so high that most people can’t reach it?  Has our reverence for our music and traditions created a stifling atmosphere?  In the honorable pursuit of excellence, perfection and reliability, have we sacrificed freshness, spontaneity and creativity? Where are the fun scandal and buzz that existed back in the day when Berlioz infamously tackled the conductor performing his work, wrenching the baton out of his colleague’s hand in an effort to take control, all for a fermata held perhaps a bit too long? Or Furtwangler’s curses flung at Toscanini from the audience for conducting a too-precise opening of Beethoven’s Ninth? Not since the Rite of Spring premiere in 1913 has any work been deemed truly riot-worthy.  Everyone seems so well-behaved these days.  Have we given up too much of our own personal creativity to the performance practice cops, lest we be caught performing Bach on modern instruments? Shouldn’t the arts, by definition, be a place where exploration and imagination rule, and the unexpected is the most desirable conclusion?

Our orchestras are made up of some of the finest and most dedicated musicians in the world, who work tirelessly to perform at consistently outstanding levels.  But they struggle within the box.  Performing the same works over and over, in the same way, often leaves them frustrated and wishing for a new, unexpected challenge.  Smaller, quirky ensembles seem to thrive, while our iconic institutions struggle with stagnant audiences.  We owe it to them and to all of the great composers who have graced us with their music to try new things and stop making excuses. It’s time to stop blaming the public for lack of interest or good taste and start looking forward instead of back.  As Mahler said, “tradition is the worship of fire, not ashes.” So let’s take a leap of faith, leave the box behind, and give our beloved music the chance to flourish in the here and now.