Something old is now something new at OES

The Oregon East Symphony has hard a long, hard slog trying to recover from “the fire,” and as I expected, the worst of it came not in the weeks just after the inferno consumed our offices, but after everyone’s focus had shifted come Autumn and the real wounds revealed themselves with an exhausted board and an overworked staff. We weathered the storm, though, and I’m starting to think we can look forward to the second half of our season with a smile.

There’s a lot to smile about- our first Strauss since I joined the band (Death and Transfiguration in April), Brahms 1, La Boheme with a stunning cast, and this month, the Elgar Violin Concerto with the one and only Jorja Fleezanis.

However, the project I’m most excited about is the one I’m not involved in at all….

Last summer at our music camp one of the chamber music coaches did something a little different. Instead of drilling her charges through the first movement of a Mozart Divertimento or have them mangle a crappy arrangement of La Rejuoisance as most of us did, she sat in with the group and taught them to play a nice bit of Vivaldi like real nonnies- standing up, not vibrating too much and choking up on the bow. She almost had those kids buying Birkenstocks and knitting muesli.

I was blown away because they really excelled and the performance was a delight, so I got it in my head to ask her to do a workshop with the entire string section of the youth orchestra, and somehow, through the guile and determination of Christina, our youth programs expert, we got it funded.

Mary Rowell- my colleague from Rose City Chamber Orchestra- is a very keen baroque violinist who plays with the Portland Baroque Orchestra under Monica Huggett. Over the course of a long weekend of rehearsals she’ll prepare the kids in three pieces which they’ll then perform on Sunday night.

Biber – Battalia for 10 players

Vivaldi – Concerto in D minor for 2 violins and strings, Op. 3, no. 11

Muffat – Armonico Tributo – Sonata no. 5 for strings 

 The Biber “uses several devices that are still considered ‘modern’ in our times – hitting the strings with the wood of the bow; paper under the strings of the basses to imitate a snare drum, and, perhaps most shocking of all, the simultaneous rendering of eight folk songs in different keys and time signatures to illustrate drunken soldiers. It sounds avant garde now; how it appeared in 1673 we can only imagine.”

I’m excited about this for several reasons- first, I’m sure it will be a very high-quality experience for them. Second, young musicians don’t play or hear enough classical and baroque repertoire (although these kids have played a lot of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert under me, and played it brilliantly). Third, and most importantly, I think we wait way too long to begin to teach the value of flexibility and instead wreck them with twisted ideas of correctness- the “right” way to hold a bow, the “right” way to do this or that. There are plenty of wrong ways to do things, but that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to play the fiddle. By the time kids get to college, they can be painfully resistant to learning new approaches, and it is they who lose out. We’re entering a market where nobody can afford to specialize- in Britain, any orchestra, professional or amateur, can switch from old school to new school, from HIP to vibrato soaked thickness in a second. Not so in America, but that will change because it has to.

These kids are going to get a great chance to learn how to play baroque music with style, and therefore to hear it played with style, rather than just hack through it with no regard for what century it comes from or what vocabulary of sounds and phrasings works. How wonderful.KW


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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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1 comment on “Something old is now something new at OES”

  1. erin

    What a great chance for those players… even playing in an adult teaching orchestra over here in London we get instruction on how to play in different styles, usually within a year of starting to play.

    I saw the London Sinfonietta and the OAE (in a special joint performance) play Battalia – it is truly crazy to witness, yet strangely mesmerising. It will be a good challenge I expect!

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