Orchestra retreat wrap up

It’s happy hour on Sunday afternoon (in this case, it’s a caffeine oriented happy hour), and, although I could hardly be more tired, I’m in really high spirits, thanks to the efforts of the OES preparatory orchestra.

This youth orchestra is only in its fifth season, and has always been a young group. When the group was started, almost none of the musicians had ever played in an orchestra (other than their school string group). Even now, some of our three and four year veterans are actually only freshmen and sophomores. It has always been a chamber orchestra as we rebuild a string infrastructure in the region from scratch and there just isn’t that much here for young brass players other than those few who are incredibly motivated.

The upshot is that we’ve got some quite young musicians here who have already played Haydn 101, Haydn 104, Beethoven 1, Schubert 3, Schubert 8, mvts of Mozart 40 and 41, Beethoven 5, Mendelssohn 5, Marriage of Figaro Overture, Don Pasquale Overture, Barber of Seville Overture, Egmont and Beethoven 5 (we’ve even done a couple of commissions).

I think this is a great, and nice (if necessary) switch from the typical trends in training orchestras of quickly getting young kids playing big, Romantic works like Tchaikovsky or loud things like Bernstein’s Candide in order to give lots of brass players and percussionist opportunities.

This really made itself apparent immediately upon my arrival. They’ve had a few weeks rehearsal on Beethoven 8 with our rehearsal conductor, Travis, who does a great job, but I was completely unprepared for the level they were at, even considering that I conducted most of them at the OES camp in July. We read through the entire symphony with one stop at good tempos, with all the dynamics being observed, excellent ensemble and lots of confidence. Even two years ago, it would have been a serviceable concert by them. It was certainly much better than the first rehearsal with the non-youth orchestra on the same piece two nights earlier…. It had seemed lately as though ”my head” was coming into frequent and repeated violent contact with a “brick wall” at work. How great to be pleasantly surprised and impressed.

What was wonderful was that this was where we began the weekend. Starting from a level where everyone can play through the piece, playing their parts accurately and playing together, we had two long days of rehearsals on just the Beethoven, and I don’t think anyone in the orchestra thought we were anywhere near having run out of things to work on- I certainly felt like we could have used a few more days. It’s a paradox- the better you play, the harder you can work on a piece….

Even though on the surface it seems like one of the more user-friendly and harmless Beethovens, it’s incredibly intricate, challenging and complex- after all, he’d already written 7 other pretty good symphonies. For once we had the rare chance to take apart the contrapuntal writing in real detail, to work on playing properly in tune (instead of the usual working trying to not play out of tune), work on matching strokes, articulation, note lengths…. We even had the chance to just look at some of the cool things about the piece itself instead of just figuring out how to play it.

During the weekend, I got asked lots of perceptive and interesting questions. How refreshing to get a chance to really talk with young players about what makes a piece of music work, instead of just “is that long or short.”

Speaking of perceptive, probably the nicest comment after the recital on Friday was from two girls in the youth orchestra who came. Neither had heard any of the pieces before, and at the intermission, the movement they were both most excited about was the bleak and draining slow movement of the Shostakovich. “I couldn’t breathe at the end of that movement,” one of the young women said. That’s what it’s all about- knowing the message has gotten through to even one person….

[I had a couple of musicians on Thursday inform me that my tempo for the last mvt (not as fast as Beethoven’s actual metronome mark) was “impossible.” Funny, it wasn’t impossible this morning…. Be warned- how embarrassing would it on a side-by-side concert for the students to have to demonstrate for the teachers?] 

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

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