And one summer, at band camp

My apologies to readers who have been patiently waiting for some new posts here. I’m in the midst of the Oregon East Symphony’s annual summer music camp, which has proved particularly all-consuming this year.

The camp draws students from all over the Northwest, but the vast majority of students are local. We have two bands, two choirs and two orchestras, and the senior orchestra, which is the one I’m conducting, is made up largely of students who play in the OES Preparatory Orchestra.

Interestingly, this year we’ve had a huge influx of new string players, which has been great. They get the chance to come into a situation where there is a fairly cohesive group of young players in place who are used to working together, and the long-time players get the chance to play in a proper symphony orchestra as opposed to a chamber orchestra (the prep orchestra’s bread-and-butter repertoire has been Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert.).

We’ve got them doing a nice, short program of the Marriage of Figaro Overture, Glinka’s  Kamarinskya and the overture to Barber of Seville. Of course, Barber and Figaro are closely related pieces (imagine the confidence of Rossini to do Barber after Mozart’s Figaro!), and the Glinka is a wedding dance.

I do like to program for young musicians with a pedagogical agenda in mind, and this week we’re aiming for precision. Precision of articulation, precision of rhythm, precision of intonation. Some pieces live or die by how much poetry and pathos you can bring to them, but these works are more dependent on simply being brought to life with lots of energy and accuracy. I’ve asked for “barnyard articulation” from the strings may dozens of times this week. I hope that makes sense….

It’s hard to imagine a broader cross-section of students than we have here. We have a few students who are really working at the highest level and would excel in big programs, and there are also plenty of little kids for whom this is their first intense musical experience. They’re  all about as tired as I am at this point in the week. OES camp is unlike any other regular gig I do- I get to answer some amazingly basic questions here, but this is also the place I often get to see the great cosmic light go off in a lot of young musician’s heads, and where I’m also asked some amazingly deep and thoughtful musical questions. Predictably, there have been some great surprises this summer- one girl who plays in the preparatory orchestra during the year and was always most conspicuous for her quiet and forgettable nature has been kicking some rather serious instrumental butt this week. That’s one of the joys of teaching- seeing a young person become a young artist.

Tonight was the faculty recital. One of my colleagues pointed out that it was an evening of almost entirely 20th and 21st century music, and that even the older works were very much off the beaten path. It’s too easy to underestimate the curiosity and resourcefulness of most performers. The truth is that we love to play new works and discover new musical personalities, and audiences love coming along for the ride. I played the Prokofiev Cello Sonata- one of the closer approaches to the mainstream of the evening.  It was written for Rostropovich, and coming back to it more than 15 years after I last played it (well, maybe more like 20), I was deeply struck by how much his uniquely amazing sound and musicianship seems to have shaped the piece. I can’t speak to how it sounded, but it’s music that feels great to play- those wonderful, leaping tunes with those wide intervals seem to get the whole instrument throbbing like no other composer. I do hope I can play it again soon- fifteen years is too long! (twenty is way too long……)  

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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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