The halftime show

Normally half-time means you get a break, but the looming renewal of my work visa in the UK (fun, fun) completely killed off my modest three free days last week, and now I am back in the maelstrom after a slightly-more-tiring-than-usual flight over to the US. Nevertheless, I’ve been planning for a while to take a deep breath between the October and November sides of the fall season to gather, and try to express, my thoughts about what I’ve been up to so far, and what I have to look forward to between now and the holiday break. If I have any time later this week, I’ll try to talk about repertoire, and November but today, it’s orchestras since September.

Since coming back from the summer I’ve had concerts with the Kent County Youth Orchestra, the Surrey Mozart Players, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Oregon East Symphony and the Nottingham Philharmonic.

It is both difficult and potentially risky for a conductor to try and comment publicly on the character of an orchestra, or to describe his or her working relationship with them. Much of what goes on in rehearsals should rightly remain private. Don’t look here for a summary of which band has the worst sarrusophone player, or the most miserable principal tambourine specialist. The more experience I get, and the more I understand what it takes to put on a concert and keep an orchestra running, the more I realize that any orchestra that makes it onto the platform must have some pretty unique survival skills and traits that allow it to keep going. Today, I’ll try to describe some of the galvanizing characteristics of these bands.

I’ve written extensively elsewhere on this blog about the sheer exuberance and spirit of the Kent County Youth Orchestra- I don’t think I’ve ever come across a group with more esprit de corps or one that brought more sheer energy to rehearsals and to life between rehearsals. It’s such a treat to work in an environment where we can completely hold the real world a bay until the concert is over.

On the other hand, the majority of the Surrey Mozart Players come from a different generation, and just getting this diverse and very busy group together for four rehearsals is a huge logistical challenge for their organizers. They struggle with two rehearsal venues that are almost painfully loud to play in, which tends to drain us all. However, between last spring’s Beethoven 7 and this fall’s Sibelius 3, I’ve come to recognize that beneath their low-key, mild-mannered and good natured exterior, in concert they can be a fiery bunch who are more than happy to follow you off the edge of the cliff. They took huge risks in the most difficult parts of Sibelius 3 at my behest, and it paid off- not all groups would go to the edge like that.

BBC NOW- well, it’s just a delight to work with a group at that elite level, where you are surrounded by so many great musicians with so much experience. I know them well as conductor, but also as a friend and listener and I never cease to marvel at their ability to not let anything distract them from their work. This time, everyone knew we didn’t have as much rehearsal as the concert needed, but more than once I’ve seen them work through performing situations that no similarly top-flight American orchestra would tolerate to give their very best in concert. They manage to act idealistically without ever talking so- like many major British orchestras their mask of stoic resignation and general pessimism hides a tremendous musical integrity which comes out when they play.

Professionalism is not unique to professional orchestras, and of all the many non-professional orchestras I’ve worked with, none has been as professional as the Nottingham Philharmonic. Knowing very well how hard it is to create and maintain a culture of trust and responsibility in a volunteer organization, I’m just in awe of how incredibly smoothly run they are, and of their uniformly high musical standards. There are a lot of professional orchestras out there in the world that would be more than humbled to hear the NPO play Sibelius.

And then my old traveling companions, the Oregon East Symphony. When I first came to the orchestra, they had worked with only one conductor for 14 years without seeing even a different face for a rehearsal in all that time. They’d never had a rehearsal not on a Thursday night except for dress rehearsals. From my arrival through last year’s Mahler 2, the orchestra has gone through some huge changes, changes which have challenged everyone.

I think we could have all been forgiven for thinking the super-success of the Mahler heralded a new, easier age for the orchestra, and hopes were even higher after we hired a very gifted executive director after a long, difficult search.

Well, it has proven to be a new age, but not, by any means, and easier age. Still, as one critic called us over 25 years ago, the “most remotely situated full symphony orchestra on the planet,” the OES looks more and more to me like one of those tiny scrub trees that sits incongruously just above the proper tree line in the high mountains, clinging to rocky soil and living on dangerously thin air. At the end of the day, there just aren’t that many resources in Eastern Oregon, human or financial, for it to seem possible to support this orchestra. Our October program got hit from all sides, including personnel management, publicity and schedule conflicts.

Perhaps it is impolitic to say it, but I sometimes wonder if all our cyclical discussions about orchestra management, audience building, player relations, the future of classical music, how to rebuild the industry and the like are just bullshit.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a process or a practice that could make an organization thrive. If we think there is some magic formula for running or remaking or marketing an orchestra, we’re living in fantasy land. If you want to save or build or improve your orchestra, look for people- look for players, leaders, supporters, listeners. Make relationships. If you say “we should be doing this: then orchestra will thrive,” make damn sure you have the “we” part right, because the “this” part is worthless without it.

OES does some things according to the best of best practices and insists on doing others in a long-ingrained loony, flaky way that never fails to give me ulcers.  

The fact is, our realities change every day. A tsunami hits and half our regular foundations stop giving money to cultural organizations for a year. The stock market drops and endowment funds dry up. A local business is sold to a national company and stops sponsoring concerts. Likewise, new opportunities open up every day, but to grab them you have to be quick and decisive. Opportunity no longer knocks, he drives by your office at sixty miles-per-hour, and you’ve got to run out in the street and stop him. Either way, it’s people that help you weather the storm and people who help you break through to the next level. Each new person who can contribute at that level to your organization is priceless.

After Mahler, this month’s OES concert preparation felt like a sharp kick in the stomach- everything was a problem and everything went wrong. People had to cancel on us. People didn’t have to cancel on us but did anyway because they’re not very nice people (and won’t be invited back again). People were sick, players were hurt, press releases got cut from papers, radio interviews got bumped to make way for politicians, the billboard didn’t go up. Timelines and deadlines clashed with horrific consequences. Michelle, our new executive director, had to weather this shit storm while learning a complex job from scratch and while eight months pregnant, and she still played principal horn (wonderfully) on the concert. That’s a warrior for you. 

In past years when we’ve had problems come up, I’ve spent hours on the phone and email putting out fires, but this time with a funny travel schedule, there was not much I could do but give my all in rehearsals. A whole bunch of people just sort of stepped up beyond what they’d done in the past, some musically, some professionally and some both. We were seriously faced with the prospect of following the most successful event in the orchestra’s history with the biggest flop in a long time, and yet people, not practices, got us through it. Somehow, we did an American in Paris that I would put up next to any recording for energy, precision, dynamics and feel.  Somehow our little scrub tree on the mountain side held on through another winter and another mudslide. In the old age everything finally comes together after 20 years and you get the best concert the orchestra has ever done. In the new age, everything falls appart and you get a concert that was just as good as the best concert you’d ever done.

In the film Gattacca, two brothers, one genetically gifted as an athlete and the other not so, develop a fierce rivalry to see who can swim farther out to sea before turning back. Eventually it is the ungifted brother who completely surpasses the other. Years later, after a long estrangement, his brother asks him how he was able to win, and the character (played by Ethan Hawke) says “I never saved anything for the swim back.”  We try to run a responsible, fiscally conservative, and sustainable organization here, but sometimes you have to decide whether to turn back or keep swimming. It felt pretty great to know that I wasn’t alone in those waters this month, scary as it was. It really hit me just how many comrades-in-arms I’d found here in six years. We’re still, as our principal bassoonist often reminds me, “the best goddamn redneck orchestra in the world.”

BTW- We’ve got one new person in the ‘hood at the OES as of Monday. Michelle gave birth to Miranda Kimie 15 days after the concert. Mother and daughter are both doing great.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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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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1 comment on “The halftime show”

  1. Lisa Hirsch

    What a great posting (I must link to you, obviously!). You are so right when you say “Either way, it’s people that help you weather the storm and people who help you break through to the next level.” I will add the corollary that how organizations and the individuals in the organization treat people play a huge part in how willing people are to help.

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