Fire- the reaction so far

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It has been a very interesting study to see the range of reactions we’ve had from around the country to the recent fire at the OES offices.

It’s been depressing, but not surprising, to see how an event like this plays out in the regional news media. By the time the fire department had put out the last hot spots, the story was already old news, and for many residents of the Northwest, this event will go down in history as “Fire in Popcorn Popper Destroys Lodge,” which has been the headline for many of the wire stories that came out. Some of the earliest coverage didn’t even mention the symphony or any of the other businesses. Really, who writes these headlines? It’s no wonder there’s so much stupidity in the world when those who make the day-to-day decisions about what news reaches us have no sense of relevance or context. Who cares about the goddamn popcorn machine?!?!?!? If the American media can forget New Orleans, what hope does a tiny orchestra have?

By the time the fire was out and the enormity of the damage was known, the “news cycle” had moved on. We expect our local paper will cover the aftermath, but any broader coverage will only happen if we agitate for it.

In the early hours of this, we realized we needed to raise awareness of our plight within the classical field. I had hoped that this blog, which is pretty widely read and linked, would be a fairly powerful tool. It has been and it hasn’t. I’m delighted to thank a few other bloggers who have picked up the story and helped to raise awareness, like Robert Gable at Aworks and Mathew Guerrieri at Soho the Dog. Those links have helped, and have actually led to donations.

Email and email listserves have proved a very powerful tool, and many people contacted that way have helped or offered to help (THANK YOU!), but there have been just a few reactions that have raised my hackles. . One commetator said that orchestra only performs at full force 6 times a year, but that it is “fairly active” in education and outreach.

If by “fairly active” one means that the orchestra’s staff and board work year-round in collaboration with almost all of the music educators and private teachers in the area, then yes, we’re “fairly active.” The youth ensembles rehearse and perform 9 months of the year, and the summer music camp is a major organizational undertaking. I find the “fairly” rather distasteful because I see week-in and week-out how hard people in Pendleton work to keep those programs going. All of those programs have to not only be run, they have to be funded- we have grant writers and fundraisers working year round to do that. I have been lucky to work with and in some very large orchestras, and I can safely say that many of the Pendleton folks work as hard as anyone in the business.

Yes, the orchestra only does six concerts a year, but for non-“A” orchestras, that’s a pretty common number, and they are serious, thoughtful and challenging programs. Doing more many concerts would cost more than the community can afford, and would dilute audience interest; also, the orchestra does have a mission beyond concert presentation, which it takes very seriously.

All of our concerts since my arrival are listed in the Concert Archive page of my own website. Have a look. We’ve done all-20th Century programs, we’ve done numerous premieres and hosted a composer-in-residence, we’ve had nationally known soloists, we’ve done Mahler, we’re completing a Beethoven cycle next year. Here is a typical OES program-

McKinnon– Three Songs of the Magic Strings for Violin and Orchestra (World Premiere)
Hindemith- Der Schwanendreher (Concerto on Old German Folk Songs for Viola and Small
Hong-Mei Xiao, viola
Copland- Appalachian Spring (Version for Full Orchestra)

Here’s another-
Chris Thomas- Blue Northern (World Premiere Commission)
Barber- Cello Concerto
Kevin Hekmatpanah, cello
Borodin- Symphony No. 2


Some are more mainstream-
Wagner- Overture to Rienzi
Rachmaninoff- Piano Concerto No. 3
William Wolfram, piano
Dvorak- Symphony No. 6

But in Pendleton, every single one of those pieces was a FIRST PERFORMANCE!

I think the OES and other groups like it perform many vital services to the industry as a whole. It is musical missionary work, in the best sense of that phrase.

Music education in public schools used to be a major tool for spreading awareness of classical music in rural areas. All of the small towns along the I-84 corridor used to have string programs, now Pendleton is the ONLY TOWN in the Eastern 2/3rds of Oregon with a string program in the school district. Small-town orchestras are fighting a pitched battle to keep orchestral music a living part of the fabric of rural America.

Without powerful and effective advocacy in small communities and remote areas, the symphony orchestra could and would quickly become something that only exists in major blue-state cities. Soon, the industry would be dead, as classical music becomes such a tiny minority interest as to be totally irrelevant, or at least financially unsustainable.

We give young soloists an opportunity to build careers and gain experience, young conductors a chance to hone their craft (that’s why I went) and established soloists a chance to learn new repertoire. We offer composers opportunities to get their music heard and recorded. Young professional musicians who are busy taking auditions at major orchestras can gain invaluable onstage experience and do, and local student and part-time musicians can have the opportunity to play alongside talented and serious musicians. I’ll say right up front that the average technical standard of the OES is not as high as many other groups, but isn’t building orchestras and making them better supposed to be part of what this business is about? You can’t build what is already finished. This is a group that has made a commitment to get better, and I can enjoy working with them just as I do the BBC.

Smaller orchestras can still have a huge impact on their local economies- in Pendleton, symphony concert nights are the busiest of the year (other than during Round Up, the huge rodeo which annually swells Pendleton’s poulation to about 80,000) at all the area restaurants, and we’re always a part of civic drives to attract new businesses to the town. So, I guess it rubs me the wrong way when I read anything that comes across as “we normally wouldn’t talk about such a puny organization, but I guess they’ve had a fire so….”

There is an opportunity here, which is to use this crisis to expand awareness of what the orchestra does within the community. Even in a town as small as Pendleton, there are many who are only peripherally aware of the orchestra, and who don’t know understand all the ways in which the organization is a part of the fabric of the community. I hope that we’ll come out of this with a stronger sense of purpose and a broader community consensus on the value of the organization, not only to those who come to concerts.  Perhaps at the national level, we might have a more probing conversation about the role of regional and community orchestras within the field. Is there enough communication and collaboration between big and small orchestras? Do national service organizations offer smaller organizations enough guidance in sharing good operational practices? Do the efforts of small orchestras receive the recognition they deserve? We’re lucky to have executive and board leadership that, in my opinion, is of a quality that is unusual for such a small orchestra, but not all small orchestras are so lucky. The OES is an aspirational organization- just as much as any orchestra. We know all-too-well the limitations of the organization musically and institutionally, and were making a long-term, concerted effort to improve what we do. We don’t need to be reminded of our smallness.

I do want to say that many, many people and organizations have stepped up and offered to help, both locally and internationally. That is deeply, deeply, deeply appreciated. We were finally able to get into the building and assess our losses, and are now in the process of identifying immediate and long-term needs and developing our strategy. We’ve made it our primary goal to come out of this stronger than before- we’re not cancelling or cutting anything at this point, just working harder. If you’ve been in touch, we’ll be in touch, and thank you.



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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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