Saturday night’s alright for….




I think all our readers will know there is nothing more maddening than knowing that you’re very, very tired and that you have a very short time to sleep, because you never really sleep, but lie half awake all night checking to see if you’ve already overslept. When the alarm finally went of at 7:30, I think I felt more tired than when I got home from Friday’s WSO rehearsal.

One thing I hadn’t done is organize myself for both concerts, so it’s a frantic dash around the house trying to find a couple of clean and ironed concert shirts, then a careful check that I have all the scores I’ll need for the two concerts today and the rehearsal tomorrow, as we’ve decided not to come back to Cardiff tonight.

Dump the coffee in a travel mug and scarf down a bit of yoghurt, then it’s off to Newport for the BBC NOW shows. There’s concern about parking- the artist parking slots are gone for now while they undertake a large construction project, so the best the orchestra can do is block off a bit of real estate by the stage door, so I need to find a corner there where I can get out quickly after the second concert.

It’s a funny gig for me. The idea of the day is to get young players and amateurs who’ve not taken their playing very far excited about playing and excited about orchestras. The first part of the session is basically a showcase of the orchestra, conducted by me, then the clinician/presenter takes over and teaches the participants an improvised piece based on the themes in the showcase piece, which they play in a super-sized orchestra with BBC NOW. See, sounds easy. What, you’re already lost? Wait, did I mention there’s a choir led by the BBC Singers? An a giant percussion section?

We get started a little late for the first concert as the registration process has a few kinks, but the first performance and demos go really well. However, we’re a little nervous when I’m done, as the process of getting started and through that part of the workshop took about twice as long as it was supposed to. No worries, though, the BBC NOW’s education expert and I have a quick pow-wow and figure out what needs to be done to keep the afternoon on schedule.

Once the thing gets going without me, I have a bit of time to look at Elgar and Khatchaturian (at last!), and to see some of the lovely, human side of the orchestra. As the session proceeds, there is a steady stream of members of the orchestra taking the time to offer a little one-on-one coaching backstage to a participant who might be feeling a little out of their depth. It might be an exaggeration to say orchestras look forward to days like this- it’s not playing Mahler 6 at the Proms, but a keen observer can always see how incredibly generous the players are in these sessions. Everyone is happy to show a fingering or explain a technique, or just to offer a word of encouragement.

Finding lunch in Newport on a Saturday proves to be something of a challenge, made worse by a power outage downtown, but we finally find an Italian place with a gas stove. Back at the hall, my colleague and I have a quick chat about the timing for the afternoon session. As I have a sound check and concert on the far side of Wales, I need to leave as soon as my part of the performance is done, so it’s important not just to me, but to the 86 musicians in Wrexham that the musical trains run on time. The registration kinks are sorted, and the presentation problems are resolved, so all is looking good. I get packed and ready to go before the concert starts.

Moments before show time, Suzanne from the orchestra (not my wife, Suzanne), comes over with a worried look. Bad news- there’s been a huge accident on the M4 and few of our participants have arrived. People have been calling in and it looks like most will be 20 minutes late. Holding the concert that long will make things very tough for WSO- really too tough, as we only have 45 minutes of sound check time scheduled with me- we could lose half our time, and there are some players who are only coming for that session (harps!). As it turns out, the BBC NOW players can’t wait that long either- it’s already a long day, and pushing it back that far would put them into overtime. We agree to hold off for five minutes and hope for the best. I walk off just twigging that I have to drive off along that same M4 that everyone is stuck on. Argh….

Miracle! Just at the last moment, everyone pours into the building, and we’re off. I go on, we play, we demonstrate, we crack a few jokes, I exit. I feel like the third trumpet who gets to leave after the overture abandoning the band for the rest of the session, but I’ve got to fly. Suzanne (orchestra Suzanne again) and I race for the exit (me still in concert clothes, no time to change), picking Mark, one of the stage managers on our way out. Mark kindly moves the barriers to the parking area and I shoot off for Wrexham, hoping I can bypass the traffic jam.

I did miss most of the traffic jam, and make good time all the way up to Hereford, before getting stuck in a long queue behind a caravan (camper trailer for US readers) for over 30 miles. I really, really think Britain would be a saner place if there were minimum speeds as well as maximum speeds on highways. When someone is tootling along at 30 in a 60 zone on a two lane road where it is all but impossible to pass, tempers (not only mine!) fray quickly.

Still, but the time I get to the hall, I’m only five minutes later than expected (here’s hoping no tickets show up in the mail)! We check a few spots, then adjourn as they open the house. I have time for a quick bottle of water and a black banana before the downbeat.

If I got off a bit easy with BBC NOW, I’m doing both endurance work and heavy lifting with WSO. The Khatchaturian is such a long hall, although I enjoy performing it much more than listening to it. It’s not a piece to experience on paper- there’s not much to discover in studying it, but it’s great fun and the audience love it, and Bethan’s playing. As we’re going on stage for Elgar I feel like I’ve not sat still since I conducted it the previous night—wait, I haven’t sat still since….

I’ve always loved the piece, but in developing a performance of it, I’ve spent long hours trying to solve some of the tricky corners of it- to find a path through the entire work where the performance can have a sense of wholeness and completeness. What I’ve finally realized is that the shape of the entire symphony is the shape of the long theme that opens it- if you can build and sustain that first arch, you can build the longer arch from there to the last statement of the theme in the finale. I suggest to the audience that they might find echoes of The Odyssey in it- the Elgar gives us that first statement of the theme as the poet tells us that this is a story about trying to get home, and that from the D minor Allegro of the first movement to the end of the symphony, it is a voyage back to that theme, and to the A flat that began it.

The orchestra had played very well on the concerto, but the Elgar felt special to me from the downbeat. It’s a huge piece, and difficult in every bar, but in the rehearsals it’s always been the slow movement that posed the most problems for us. Not so tonight. It had already started to settle on Friday. Tonight, it’s not just settled, it has reached that point where we’re really in the moment and the orchestra plays with incredible flexibility and imagination. It’s the heart of the symphony, and, forgive the cliché, it’s a broken heart. After the show, I kept hearing the word “longing” over and over. I can’t think of a better word to describe that movement, or a better movement to describe that word.

Elgar 1 is one of those pieces like the Mahler and Sibelius symphonies- if the conductor has any energy left at the end, they’ve cheated the audience and the music, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been much more tired at the end of a work. Still, it’s sad to finish a piece like that- maybe that’s why we like applause, it softens the blow of saying goodbye to a great project.

We’re all headed to the pub for a quick beer afterwards, but for the first time in my career between the fatigue, dehydration and lack of anything more than old bananas since noon, I nearly threw up in the car driving over. A Guinness and a big glass of water is the perfect cure.

Finally, it’s off to Hereford to spend the night at my in-laws’. It’s closer to Wrexham and Guildford than Cardiff, so it saves me about 3 hours of driving time over the weekend. The two-hour-plus drive there, however, is still hell, but I’ve never been happier to eat a microwave dinner at 2 AM and have a cold, quiet beer with my wife.
 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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3 comments on “Saturday night’s alright for….”

  1. Zoltan

    Wow, just wow! I have only a slight idea how it might felt, but it’s great to hear it all went so well!

  2. Mark

    Glad you got back to Hereford Ok-ish! It’s MArk here, leader of the WSO. Just to say a big public thank you to you, Ken, for all the efforts you have put in this year and especially for Saturday’s concert. You seemed to have more energy than any of us in the orchestra and we’d just driven 5 minutes down the road! Feedback has been incredible and the orchestra was still on a high last night when we started rehearsals for our July 14th concert. It was great to work with you and entertaining to read about the rest of your day!
    All the best and look forward to playing alongside you in the future. Cheers, Mark Lansom

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Mark! Thanks for reading and for writing. Good luck with the next concert up there. They’re very lucky to have you there. I’ll be looking forward to next time- say hi to everyone (and make _all_the strings vibrate where required!)


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