This is my second visit to the Kent County Youth Orchestra. I was here in the spring of 2005 and did a huge program with them- Shostakovich Tenth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and the Liadov Eight Russian Folks Songs. I’ve been looking forward to seeing them again all summer.
I spent the night before the course at a local pub- the food there is marvelous and I got a very good night’s sleep. Geoff, the manager, had warned me before hand about sections where there had been a lot of turnover since last time, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s almost the same group as last year. That is a doubly good thing- I liked the students as people a lot last year, and, with another year of study under their belts, they all have grown as players.
For the first three days of the course, we alternate between sectionals and full orchestra rehearsals. It’s a great system, made better by the fact that Geoff assembles one of the best faculties in the universe, with musicians from the Philharmonia , London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony Orchestra, English National Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, London Mozart Players and a couple top London free-lancers working with the students on each instrument (actually you could list almost every British orchestra and many international ones, since most of them have played in several bands). Under their guidance, the young players progress amazingly quickly.
Even so, though, they could only cover a tiny bit of the super-epic Rachmaninov Second Symphony before we read it in the afternoon, and I think it was pretty obvious to everyone in the room when we got to the music that nobody had looked at- there was a drastic fall off in the second movement, and the last, very difficult, movement sounded, well, like a bunch of people playing it who’d never heard or played it before, which was exactly what it was.
It was a slightly funny feeling for me- I haven’t conducted in an unusually long time, and it’s a bit odd to lift your hands after so many weeks and get all this noise as a result. It can be a complete sensory overload.
After another sectional we spend the evening reading the other three pieces- Dvorak’s Noonday Witch, Martinu’s Memorial to Lidice and Smetana’s Die Moldau. As it happens, we arrived to find that there was a huge wasp infestation in the rehearsal hall, and by the evening, said wasps were ready for us to leave. I was stung about halfway through the Smetana, a first for me in a rehearsal, and spent the rest of the evening wondering if I had a giant welt on my neck. I’m amazed the whole thing didn’t fall completely apart when I was slapping my neck and head frantically trying to get rid of my attacker- maybe they really aren’t watching…. It turns out they also got a couple of students as well.
As day two began, Geoff postponed the morning rehearsal to the evening so that the exterminators could sort the wasps out, which means I’m completely free until two pm. I spend some of that time studying and some watching the sectionals. I love watching sectionals, especially at this level. There’s always something to learn, like what the Hunt music in the Moldau sounds like when the horns play it without using the valves. Even cooler is just to hear the separate parts of a piece like the Rachmaninov. It’s so dense from beginning to end that no conductor or recording engineer could ever make all his beautiful detail come through audibly- the only way to really appreciate every little color and special touch is to hear each part.
My work on day one was mostly a hack-fest- I feel it’s important to get through all the music the first day, as we only have a week to prepare the entire program, but it means that my main job is just to get them to the double-bar. It’s not particularly satisfying, although you do get some magical moments when the orchestra arrives for the first time at some spectacular bit of the piece. However, in our first working rehearsal I’m finally able to get my hands dirty, and it is amazing how much one can accomplish in ninety minutes with motivated, talented and serious young people. The extra sectional this morning means that we can move even faster than we might otherwise have done.
c. 2006 Kenneth Woods