It starts to get interesting

Performing a Mahler symphony is like power lifting in ice skates. The musical demands are immense- it is heavy lifting for everyone- and yet the complicated logistics of extra players, off stage instruments, soloists and so on mean that you’re constantly putting out fires as you approach the concert. I’ve covered the piece twice before, at the Cincinnati Symphony and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and also assisted on it at the University of Cincinnati, and each time I’ve seen this. Players get hurt, singers get sick, extensions aren’t big enough….     

Two weeks and three days until our performance and I receive an email from our very wonderful soprano soloist. She sang Micaela with us in Carmen two years ago and blew everyone away. The subject line looks harmless “Mahler 2,” but I have a sinking feeling right away. Sure enough, she has been offered a role in a Broadway show, Jerome Kern, no less. It’s a huge opportunity for her, and all the more important since she’s only been in New York a few months. She’s at least done some work and contacted some other singers to check their availability. I tell her to give me forty-eight hours to work on it. I want to help her- I understand the importance of the gig for her, but I need to find someone who’s not just a fine singer, but right for this piece. I also have a board to contend with! 

 Amy has given me two names, one of them has an extensive website with a number of audio samples. She’s a very fine singer and a first rate musician- there’s some very challenging music on there- but I think her voice is a little too dark for this piece. I want a real contrast between the two women’s voices in this piece. I feel that Mahler likes to contrast feminine archetypes, so I like a rich, earth-mother type of alto voice and a lighter, more agile soprano. On the other hand, you need someone who can project, although most of the orchestration is very transparent when she sings. That night I call the orchestra to let them know what’s going on and make a few calls on my own to other singers. The next morning Amy and I chat by email, and she suggests that her other colleague might have more the voice I’m looking for. There’s no easy way to listen to her, though, as she doesn’t have a website. She does give me her teacher’s number, and fortunately he is a genuinely great artist and someone who knows the work. He and I chat and I’m convinced she’s right. I call the orchestra again and ask if they’re okay with me making this switch. No one wants to lose Amy, but we know we have to let her go, so it’s approved. I confirm our new soprano (also named Amy!) is still interested and offer her the role, then email Amy number 1 to tell her she’s free. It’s been 42 hours. 

Relieved, I take the dog for a walk, then come back and make a coffee. While I’m chilling out I foolishly decide to check my US voice mail. My third trumpet, who is also leading the offstage trumpets, has a family conflict that has come up….    

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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