Rather than offering a blow-by-blow account of the last 24 hours of the KCYO summer course, now that I’m happily back at home and enjoying my recovery from a busy week, I thought I would offer a few thoughts on the week and on the show.
First, because life is about more than music, a few non-musical highs and lows:
Best meal- Herb encrusted rack of lamb at the Star and Eagle. Ymmmm…..
Worst meal- It’s hard to say. Certainly, Thursday afternoon’s leathery jacket potatoes with crusty sausages would have been the clear winner, but I couldn’t eat it. Therefore, the winner has to be the bow-tie pasta and red sauce at the school. Actually, it wasn’t too bad, but serving hot dog buns as a side dish to pasta is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
Bedgebury School, home of KCYO and hot dog buns with pasta
Best learning experience for me- Watching horn tutor Timothy Jackson from the Philharmonia make the horn section play the hunt music from the Moldau without use of valves. Fascinating to watch, and really made me want to record all of Ma Vlast with a period band.
Most humbling experience- No matter how hard you prepare, going through a piece like the Rachmaninov for the first time will put any conductor in his place. By the end of the first read through on Monday I was totally exhausted, and completely in awe of what Rachmaninov had done in the piece. Nothing puts a spotlight on the blind spots in one’s studying habits like doing a first read through in the company of such world-class colleagues.
Best ego boost- Had to be hearing the whole orchestra chanting “KW!” over and over at the party. Not the sort of thing one gets with most bands (normally it is a triumph if you get a shuffle or a little clap at the end of rehearsal, or a solo bow from the orchestra at the concert)- one learns to enjoy it when one has it.
Best hang- A tie between the Tuesday night dinner with the tutors and the Thursday night curry with the students and supervisors. Other than widely different noise levels, there’s not much difference between hanging out with fun musicians in their teens and twenties, versus hanging out with fun musicians of a somewhat greater age.
Biggest personal challenge overcome- Getting past the failure of my espresso machine brought from home on day one. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked so hard for so long without a really great cup of coffee. Lance Armstrong overcame cancer, Martin Luther King Jr overcame prejudice: I overcome drowsiness.
Finally, thoughts on the concert day….
I made an effort to make Friday the real dress rehearsal, so we could keep the rehearsal on Saturday afternoon less intense and have more energy and chops for the concert that night. It almost worked, except that the whole orchestra was so emotionally wrung-out after our run-through of Martinu’s Memorial to Lidice (not to mention the entire symphony and the Smetana) that we just couldn’t muster the energy and focus to do a credible run-through of the Dvorak. Fair enough- we used Friday’s Dvorak time to fix a few problems and started the Saturday rehearsal with a proper run-through.
Otherwise, we ran a few chunks, checked a few spots, worked out a few balance problems and went over some transitions. The idea is use the time to help everyone feel mentally and musically on top of things at show time without tiring them out.
The problem with this approach is that it becomes much more difficult to play well when one divorces oneself from the overall shape of the piece or backs off emotionally from one’s normal emotional state. By the end of the rehearsal, I was wondering if it would have been less tiring to just run everything and call it a day than to keep hopping around, trying to gear ourselves up for little bits of this and that.
And the concert? Well- as I said on Friday, it’s the only thing that really matters. Lots of wonderful moments- some nicely turned corners in the Dvorak and the brass at the end of it were spectacular (normally, I would be annoyed at a brass section playing so much bigger than in any of the rehearsals, but I had budgeted for it- no brass section could resist the temptation of those last two pages of the score).
I spent all week thinking that Rachmaninov 2 was about the most tiring thing I’ve ever conducted- more physically draining than Mahler 2, Carmen, Beethoven 9, whatever. By the end of the concert, I was so knackered I thought I must be doing something wrong. Later that evening, I was on the phone with my wife, who, funnily enough, had spent the day rehearsing the very same symphony with Tadaaki Otaka and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Otaka is a model of efficiency and relaxation, and he’s recorded the piece and done it many times. Nevertheless, she told me, to my glee, that he pretended to fall over with exhaustion at the end of the last movement.
Exhausting as it is, it is fantastic music, and whatever audience members or critics might have thought about the orchestra’s playing or my conducting, the satisfaction for me was in the fact that it was a real performance- we were able to do some things that we hadn’t ever done in rehearsals, and do them together, in the moment.
Anyway, as with any good concert, as we finished, I couldn’t help feeing slightly melancholic, knowing I’d never see this group in this form again, as a generation of players graduates and moves on to new projects. Applause ends, and you say goodbye to new friends and prepare to put the scores back on the shelf, where they will wait….
c. 2006 Kenneth Woods