Back from the dead

I’ve had a couple of friendly nags for a report on my last trip to Pendleton to conduct Mahler 1 with the OES.


What do you say about a 10 day trip with 16 rehearsals and 6 concerts with two different orchestras rehearsing or performing in 8 different venues? What do you say about a week when your orchestra decides to buy and build a new hall? What do you say about a week when you order a new mobile recording set up for your final concert that never shows up? What do you say about a week when you find out one of your new flautists parents own a recording studio and will bring their gear and record the concert for free? What do you say when you’ve seen your oldest possessions rotted, burned and coated with mould? What do you say when you’ve had two reporters watching your orchestra’s every move for the last five days? How do you paint a picture of some of the kindest and most dedicated people in the world? How do you describe how irritating it is dealing with flakes and weasels? How can I explain just how exciting it is to meet new friends while working on such fantastic music? How do I tell you how sad it is to watch an old friend crumble under the stress of repeated personal tragedies?

One day you’re taking a cello in for an expensive refit that makes it sound like crap. A few weeks later, you find out the new guy in the violins is a wonderful violin maker who fixes everything that’s been torturning you for just $20.  

I found a lost guitar and lost an iPod. I had my picture taken about 2,000 times. I did four long interviews for two newspapers. I discovered a new coffee house, and walked through the wreckage of my now-burned favourite coffee roaster.

I heard what happens when a great brass player conks. Not pretty- thankfully, it was just in a rehearsal. He too had been the victim of an instrument repair gone wrong and ended up swapping instruments with a colleague.

I went through the whole weekend terrified that one guest player in a prominent seat was going to completely collapse- they’d obviously been struggling with issues for ages. They held up, barely, but that is the most stressful thing of all for a conductor- when you really don’t know what’s going to happen when it is someone’s turn to play.

I helped set up mics and schlepp platforms. I drove a giant pickup truck.

I recorded a cool podcast with the youth orchestra that will come out soon.

We had someone sight-read the 6th horn part to Mahler 1 in the concert. Don’t ask why. He nailed it. The guy next to him told him he was the loudest horn player he’d ever heard. Cool. He’s the one in the middle of the top row (Erik). On his left (your right) is Ed, who is also our rehearsal conductor. Center of lower row (RED hair) is Michelle, our Exec Dir, next to her are Peter, our principal, and Rebekah, who rocks. They all rock.

schalltrichter in die goddam hohe

The orchestra took over the town. There were musicians in every bar, restaurant and shop. I told one friend it was starting to feel like a festival and he corrected me- “dude, it is a festival.” A great deal of beer was consumed. A great deal of food was eaten. Tom spent 6 days cooking for the reception after the concert.

We postponed a brass sectional for 10 minutes because it took 70 minutes for a local joint to make 5 sandwiches.

I asked the trumpets to “make it greasier,” and told the strings they had to be acidic when the music is Hassidic. We worked on the “voice of god” sound in the low brass.

I got called a bastard by one of my best friends. She got a “damn right he is” from another one of my best friends, and I’m not mad at either of them (this is because I still don’t think they really mean it).

I was told I was a miserable slave driver and way too nice within 6 minutes.

Number of times the local paper published the date and time of the concert- 3. Number of dates and times published- 3.

Number of correct combinations of date and time- 0.

5 violin players told me they either filled up or cried outright when the horns stood up in the concert. I did, too. Does this picture make you emotional? Maybe you need the sound track….


At 7:52 on Saturday night, just in the midst of a rehearsal of the 3rd mvt. (figure 10), the orchestra made the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard them make. It’s a funny feeling when you know you’ll never top something that almost nobody heard.

I was both sad yet encouraged to hear two new musicians express how they feel like most of their musical life lacks meaning and passion, which they found in Pendleton. We talk too much about economics and not enough about why we do this- our first constituency ought to be our fellow musicians. When we have a chance to do what we love, audiences can hear and feel the difference, and that’s what they want more than anything in concert- that physical, tangible tingle. Maybe it’s good to remember that much as we prize our relationship with the community, it is their privilege to listen. Our first duty is to each other.


There was a great three-hour bluegrass jam session at the party after the concert, complete with bass banjo, accordion and the world’s champion fiddler. 

A big thank you to Saul Cline at the Tacoma Symphony for helping us find some last-minute extras.

Thanks Michelle, Christina and Phyllis for weathering the storm.

Cheryl- sorry I missed city council! Just remember, wise words sometimes fall on deaf ears.

Clint- thanks for donating the music.

John- thanks for the schlepping, the setting up, the tearing down, and for coaching your colleagues in the percussion section.

I’m really glad everyone practiced.

To our last minute newbies- thanks for taking a chance on a gig that involved eight hours in a car to work with an orchestra and conductor you had never heard of for about half what you’d make at home. Hope it was worth it.

To our long-term veterans, regulars and friends- what a wild, bizarre, cool, depressing, exhilarating, crazy, stressful, relaxing, inspiring, exhausting, dramatic, pedestrian and fun trip we’ve found ourselves on.

I think it was  a pretty hot concert. By Sunday, the whole fire thing seemed like a bad dream that was quickly fading from everyone’s memory.

We’ll try to post some audio highlights next week, if possible.


Suzanne tells me I’ve gone noticeably more gray this month. Ain’t that life.

 Also, a nice comment on Rebecca’s blog here 


c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

Photos by Will Perkinson.

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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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6 comments on “Back from the dead”

  1. Rebecca

    Back from the dead indeed. I think this is what they call “living life to the fullest.” thanks for the reminder of what that means. welcome back.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi rebecca

    Thanks for reading and for the lovely comment. It’s such a relief to get back to music- anything seems possible once we’re rehearsing again.


  3. Jen

    I hear great things about OES from my friends who played in the horn section! They had a great time, and now I have a nice picture of them horning it up!

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Jen! Great to hear from you. We’ve got to get you out to play sometime soon. Your gang were great. I’m so glad they had fun.
    Hope the throat is better!

  5. Crumbled

    No one has crumbled just yet. Just beginning to put the small pieces back together! Besides, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Think of pressboard – Small fragments of unrelated matter subjected to outside stress to form a material that endures for years.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    Hey Crumbled-

    You can’t crumble- you’re my hero. More than one person I know has been under the stress of repeated personal tragedies, but you’re a survivor.

    Much love

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