Side Trip

After the second rehearsal I can’t resist a trip to the local cowboy bar with some of my colleagues in the orchestra. While there, Peter, who should already be well on his way back to Portland, very kindly stops in to let me know the other horn player said yes. What a mensch. Fortunately, our personnel manger is there, too, so everyone knows what’s going on, except for whether or not our elusive friend/fifth horn shows.
Afterwards, I stay up and do a flip-through of the piece, making some notes of things discovered in the rehearsal. I turn out the light a little after 1 AM, slightly dreading the next morning, as I know it is going to be an early one.
In the 2002-3 season, we started a preparatory orchestra under the OES umbrella. It’s quite a thing to start an orchestra from scratch, especially in Eastern Oregon, where there are not huge numbers of young players who are studying intensively. Still, it’s been hugely rewarding- the group is very much a chamber orchestra, but even in the first year they were able to do a very credible Haydn 104 by the end of the year. It’s quite a thing for 40 kids, of whom 35 have never played in an orchestra before, to play that and the first movement of the Unfinished less than four months after their first rehearsal. The next year, they played a fantastic Beethoven 1, and last year ended the season with a sparkling Haydn 101. This year was supposed to be a bit of a bummer- our two very best players graduated after the Beethoven, then our next most two senior string players were taken out of the orchestra by their parents this year, I think for religious reasons (we rehearse regularly on Sundays), but I’m not really sure.
Imagine my surprise when this, our youngest group yet by a mile, managed to learn their “Symphony for the Year” (Schubert 3) by early November, and play it very well on our fall concert (and do the Beethoven 2nd Piano Concerto and a world premiere- our first commission for the prep orchestra). Our secret is simple: take the kids away to the middle of nowhere and lock them in a cabin until they learn the music.
Seriously, in each of our first three seasons, we had a retreat in April before our final concert, which gave us a huge boost towards finishing the season on good form. This year, we’ve had a weekend retreat in the fall in the beautiful Wallowa Lake region, a day retreat at the very swanky Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla in February, and now, we’re off to our spring home at the Bar-M Ranch in the Blue Mountains. We’ve been there a few times now, and it’s always heaven.
I leave Pendleton rather painfully early, quadruple latte in tow, and drive up to the ranch, listening to, of all things, Mahler 2 (funny, that…).  Rehearsal starts at 9:30 AM and, other than meals and breaks, goes until 8 PM. It’s an exhausting day, and these are not experienced or sophisticated players, but they progress like lightning. We’re doing Egmont, that youth orchestra staple, and they are playing with great rhythm and explosive dynamics, thanks in part to the great job my assistant, Travis Sipher, has done with them this last month while I was away. West Side Story is a bit more problematic- we have to do a lot of work on sound and tuning, and especially swing, but it is coming along. We’re doing Bach Double with two girls in the band, ages 10 and 12 respectively. I make the violins and violas stand up and dance, and everyone has to choke up on the bow- after an hour of this I think I should buy Birkenstocks for the kids they sound so Baroque…. 

By the end of the day, I’m shattered (always am at these things), but determined to manage a flip through of M2 before bed. It’s a struggle- I actually wake up twice propped up on my elbow looking at the last movement with no idea how long I was asleep, but finally make it to the double bar around 11. 



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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.

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