Friday Night

Just getting everyone on this stage is half the battle, it seems, and finally tonight, we have our full compliment of players for the first time, as our last few imports have arrived. Fifteen minutes before the downbeat and it is quite chaotic. Everyone is trying to find a place on stage, new players are completely confused, and I’m being asked about a question a second. While helping guide a wind player to her seat, I notice that our two soloists have arrived and are seated in the house. Run over to say hi, very quickly talk them through their solos and let them know the rehearsal schedule. The plan is to run the Finale all the way through, then back to Urlicht, then, finally, first and third movements. They’re both very charming and easy going, which is a plus in Pendleton since I have so much going on and our stage manager and personnel manager both play in the orchestra. There’s not really anyone available to look after soloists during the rehearsal.  Satisfied that we’re all more or less on the same page, I duck downstairs to see the choir.
For many of our big choral pieces in the past, I’ve done all the main preparation, except in some early rehearsals when I was away. It is a huge, huge relief to be able to entrust notes and warm up to Cyril this week. I just need to be in too many places right now. He and I have a quick look at a few things we noticed last night, and then I leave it to him and head upstairs again.
Ten minutes left to the downbeat. The stage is already full, and we still have perhaps 20 more players and a choir to get on. I’m besieged with people telling me they don’t have a stand. Is this a question Leonard Slatkin or Lorin Maazel get often? I keep hoping that one day we’ll have things running smoothly enough that I can just hide in my dressing room and study until the orchestra tunes.
Tune, they do, and we start the last movement. One of my general impressions from last night had been that, in general, the brass were a bit behind and could play out more. No wonder: we’ve got 6 trumpets onstage, only 2 of whom play with us regularly, we have 11 horns onstage, only 5 of whom have played here before. As soon as we start the Finale, I can tell that they’re starting to get used to each other, to the space and to me, and that we’ve got a the beginnings of a brass section instead of a bunch of brass players. It’s amazing how fast this happens with good musicians.
The Finale is going outrageously well, especially the middle section. The offstage stuff is still problematic, but it starts to come together. The trumpets are having trouble seeing the screen because of where the horns have to stand. That’s something we can solve in sectionals. Choir is miles better with tuning, albeit not perfect yet. It’s great to see the choir members faces light up when Amy starts singing- they thought they had figured out how lucky they were to be singing last night, but the interaction of the choir and the soloists is one of the most special aspects of the piece. Both of them are in fine voice and doing well. Amy’s done a fine job learning the thing in two weeks, but I try to make a note to give her a few extra shots at things with the orchestra since it is her fisrt Mahler 2. Onward to Urlicht, and Angela sounds great- no worries on this one except to find more variety of color in the strings and to keep more intensity in our pianissimo playing.
Break, then first movement. Again, this is new for the brass, and we’re again a little tentative compared to the last movement, but it’s pretty exciting stuff, and comes along fast. When Leonard Slatkin and I talked in March he said the best part about one’s first performance of Mahler 2 was that moment in rehearsal when you realize that it’s going to be fine and you can enjoy it. This could be that moment.
Or maybe not…. With the last fifteen minutes of the evening we have to look at the third movement, and it is very humbling for everyone. Since the first fifty bars are so soloistic, any time that someone has a technical wobble or rhythmic problem, the whole thing becomes annoyingly unstable. It’s been a fun night, but everyone is feeling a bit nervous again as we shut things down and head back to the Rainbow. It’s not a late night for me, though. Tomorrow is a long day.

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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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