The last friend who will ever let you down

We like a bit a of drama with our concerts here in Pendleton.Actually, that’s not true. I hate a bit of drama with our concerts here in Pendleton. It’s just that there always seems to be a disproportionate amount of drama every time I alight here.

Since a major winter storm rolled in on Sunday, we’ve been following the weather with an extreme degree of trepidation. We have musicians for this concert coming down from Seattle, but yesterday, Snoqualmie Pass was closed for avalanche work. Will it open today and tomorrow? We have musicians commuting from La Grande over the Blue Mountains. Normally that’s only a 47 minute drive and they all like to go home at night rather than staying here, but that pass had 20 inches of new snow Monday and Tuesday, with more forecast. Four invaluable string players are coming all the way from Montana, via Spokane- will their usual 16 hour drive (I told you this was a fun gig) double? What about our Boise gang- two passes to get over and about 150 miles of high desert, with potential for white out conditions… A huge percentage of the orchestra comes up the Columbia River Gorge from Portland, which has been shut several times this week. If that route goes down, the concert is certainly off.

Then there are those whose commutes should be the least problem, but who seem to have the hardest time accepting that the usual breezy drive might be worse- while others are willing to brave epic journeys, the ones who expect an easy zip up the road often can’t seem to adjust.

As I mentioned on Monday, some don’t have the stomach for it, and there are always surprises among those who bail, so every day is a tactical struggle to keep things on track.Tubist’s mom passes away, and we send condolences and spring in to action. Command and control of this operation is run out of OES International Defcom Headquarters- our new offices in the Vert Museum Room. It is a gorgeous space and easy to find- simply look for the sign across the road for “Burns Mortuary.”


(photo- Steve Bass)

Old Charlie Burns must have known what he was doing when he commissioned a giant, lime-green neon sign for his funeral home. Trade is always good in the funeral business- no need to worry about recession-era downturns for them, but Burns likes to stay ahead of the competition. He’s always advertised, but for years the local paper refused to run his preferred slogan-

“Charlie Burns- the last friend who will ever let you down.”

The only problem at OES Headquarters is that it is barely functional yet. When we moved in two weeks ago we were supposed to have phone service within 2 days. Then, the phone company decided the building didn’t exist (IT IS THE 3rd BIGGEST BUILDING IN THE CITY!), then they lost the order, so we’re on cell phones until after this thing is over. At least we had great internet service until Monday when the guy from the local computer service center came in to configure the printer network and broke the wireless setup before disappearing off the planet. If he doesn’t call this morning, Mr. Burns may be welcoming a new customer today….

However, right now, it is slightly warming with a projected high of 42 degrees. I am seeing a strange source of light outside the window of Hamley’s Coffee- could that be sun? This is good- we could have an orchestra.

And this is what is amazing about this orchestra- why, on some strange level, it is always worth the ridiculous stress. On one level, there is no “here”- here, or no “there-” there (depending on where you’re coming from), but Pendleton possesses some strange power of attraction that draws in a range of people and talents that is quite extraordinary. That power comes from the tiny but fierce group of local musicians whose blood, sweat and tears keep this crazy endeavor moving forward.

In the orchestra this week are at least five concertmasters of other Northwest orchestras. We’ve got an opera singer who’s a fab violist, a wonderful luthier who is a fantastic violinist, ¾ of a very good string quartet, and who-knows how many conductors in the orchestra now (you can see the malevolently hopeful glint in their eyes every time I cough….if they knew just how hard the Elgar is to conduct, they‘d be drinking to my good health!).

Maybe it’s just the absurdly cold weather, but I find myself thinking that this orchestra is like the Northern lights- something alien and beautiful that flashes across the deserted night sky, only to disappear like the details of a dream when the sun rises again.


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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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