Thursday night- hard work, but not for me….

After 6 seasons with the band, I can attest that, for me, there is no time like Pendleton time. I always have so much to squeeze in that the days seem to fly by in a complete blur. This week is, if anything, moving faster than usual. I’m only here for a few days instead of a full week, it’s program planning season and I have notes to learn on the cello and a guest conductor to entertain. Thursday the day is over before I even feel completely awake, and it’s taken all my self discipline simply to make sure I’ve warmed up thoroughly and played every note I have to play in the concert at least once.

As a testament to my gradually decreasing stupidity, I figured out some years ago that if you have to learn something on a string instrument very fast, or change instruments, or both, the secret is to spend the bulk of your time in the early stages on basic technique. In this case, the early stages are just Wed and Thurs, but that’s fine: Thursday is 2 hours technique, 45 minutes of Elgar rather slowly and 15 minutes of Faure. By Saturday, I’ll be down to 15 minutes of technique.

Suddenly, Jason and I are pulling up to the hall, as is most of the orchestra. I love Thursday afternoons in Pendleton, in a space of just a few hours this small town is invaded by brilliant and lively musicians from all over the Northwest- it suddenly feels like a festival. On arrival, I try to squeeze in a quick warm up before the band starts. We save money by not renting the downstairs of the hall except on the day of the concert, so there’s no acoustically separate room to play in while the orchestra rehearses, which can be nerve wracking.

I think it’s quite an oddity for a music director to solo with his or her own orchestra, with notable exceptions like Daniel Barenboim, Thomas Zehetmair or the odd Rhapsody in Blue from Andrew Litton or Bernstein in his day. Most MDs who do it are soloists who moved into conducting. For all the obvious reasons, I find it more intimidating than playing somewhere as a guest, but I also think it is a great opportunity to create a deeper rapport and for the players to hear  your approach to playing. You just don’t want to fuck up any more than necessary…

Jason and I are both painfully aware that this is an exceptionally difficult and long program, and at the heart of our challenge is the Cockaigne Overture that the program opens with. It’s a complete rarity in America, and it’s very, very demanding music to play. He’s decided to start in with that.

Just as rare as playing with your own orchestra is watching someone else rehearse, but I love it. You can learn so much more about the individual players than you can when mired in the rehearsal process,  as well as learning about the quirks of the hall and the things to work on next time. Sczhuohm may be off the table this week, but that’s okay- I’ve decided it lives in my hands if it lives at all, not in the orchestra itself. Maybe I can generate a bit of Szchuohm in my own cello playing for the Elgar….

 Jason’s rehearsal is first rate in every way- inspiring, tenacious, intense and demanding. Nonetheless, it’s slow going, and by the break, he’s not done.  Also quite droll. The orchestra is beaming- they’re loving his intense working method.We have a chat, and he asks me if it’s okay if he keeps going on the Cockaigne. My schedule with OES this close to the show is always to touch on everything, or nearly everything, every time, but the whole point is to give them a different approach, so I’m all for it. Jason hopes to finish the overture in 30 minutes then do 20 on the concerto, but I’m not optimistic at all about playing, but that’s fine. Much as I’d like to play it in with the orchestra, I can also use another day to work on my own.

 Sure enough, Jason has just enough time to run the piece and finish on time. It’s been a very impressive evening, but everyone is shattered, and the brass players look like there will be tears in their beers later- they’ve all said it’s the hardest piece they’ve played since joining the orchestra, and they’ve gone over and over the difficult bits tonight.

To my horror, one of my co-principal horns tells me later it was the most tiring rehearsal she’s ever done with the orchestra. Bastard that I am, I make a mental note to break his record when we do Mahler 1 on the next concert….

c. 2007 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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