Showtime

My primary impression of the first part of the concert day is fatigue- mentally and physically, I am acutely aware of the fact that I was on the podium for many, many hours yesterday. I’m not a big fan of afternoon concerts- normally I feel like showtime is on me too quickly. On this occasion, however, the morning and early afternoon grind themselves out at a dirge tempo.Suzanne and I have brunch with my parents around eleven thirty, then I’m back to get concert clothes together and head to the hall. There is, happily, no extra excitement in the hours leading up to the concert. My biggest fear has been the weather- Pendleton is particularly gloomy in the winter, so when beautiful spring days roll around, people tend to forget that they’ve bought concert tickets. T

his is a genuinely beautiful day.At the hall things are quiet and slow- people ask me how I feel and the answer is “tired.” Players and singers appear. I have a quick visit with each or our soloists. I talk to the recording engineer. I say hi to some friends who have come to the show. The vibe among players and choir members alike is much quieter and more sober than the night before- I think I’m not the only one who’s a bit exhausted. The poor brass players are all coping with tired lips from the intense schedule. Speaking of brass players, our colleague is back from his son’s surgery. I’m sure he’s exhausted, but he doesn’t let on, and he played brilliantly in the show. The surgery was successful, but it’s a long road to recovery, so he and his wife will be making the 10 hour drive many more times in the coming months to check on his son.Finally, though, the auditorium opens and slowly fills. In the end the crowd is our best of the season, which is only right, and there is a sense of relief for all of us- you can play your heart out, but if no one comes, it’s hard to call it a success.

We get the orchestra and choir onstage. Mahler famously asked for a five-minute pause after the first movement. I’m not getting out the stop watch, but I am taking the opportunity to re-tune and bring on the soloists at that moment.

There’s a welcome from our board president, who makes a spectacular entrance hauling himself onto the extension from the floor, and then Lisa, our concert master takes the stage and tunes. All day I’ve been expending the least amount of energy I can get away with, and now I take a moment to find the “on” switch and take the stage.

And the concert?

Well, maybe it’s not for the conductor to say how the concert went. I can report that the audience response was nothing short of ecstatic and the mood among listeners at the reception was hugely celebratory. I can also report that both of our soloists sang very beautifully, powerfully and sensitively. After the show I spoke with a few key players who felt that on the whole the concert was more humbling than the dress rehearsal- one said he’d never felt more human. I think one of the curses of being a performer is that once you’ve had a big breakthrough, you hear things in a more critical way, and after the breakthrough in the dress rehearsal, everybody was hearing themselves and the orchestra with even more ruthless clarity. The result is that the recording of the concert has a greater depth of sound, more color and more dynamic range over all, but that the experience is more draining for many of the musicians. The choir is by far the best they’ve ever been- the first “Auferstehen” is genuinely magical, and they find reserves of power at the end we’ve never had in the rehearsals.

Maybe it’s not for the conductor to say how the concert went, but there’s always the recording to listen to, and one can quantify things like ensemble and tuning pretty easily. At the end of the day, I’m not sure how relevant that is- after all, technical standards are always evolving and vary from orchestra to orchestra. This was the Oregon East Symphony’s first performance of a Mahler symphony, and that means that for many of the musicians onstage, it was their first encounter with Mahler technically, stylistically and musically. Clearly, it was the most technically secure and musically polished the orchestra has given, but in two or three years time the orchestra will have grown even farther, and so the lasting meaning of the event is not something that can be measured in technical terms.

What is relevant, in my opinion, is the meaning of the event- the meaning of the music, of the language and of the moment that that group of musicians and listeners came together for this experience. This is what makes live music so indispensable in creating shared transformative moments. I think this was such an experience, and I believe that we were able to bring Mahler’s message to life. There were plenty of tears onstage and in the audience, and maybe that is a better measure than applause, ticket sales, or number of splats.

I guess I think it went pretty well.

STAY TUNED FOR THE FINAL INSTALLMENT OF THE MAHLER JOURNEY, where we look back at what it took to make the concert happen, and what the implications of the project are for the future of the orchestra.

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

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