A hot time in Pendleton in cold weather

When it works best, the interaction between a conductor and soloist is a true collaboration, but it takes great trust and a real feeling of being on the same wavelength for both parties to work at their best together. I don’t think it’s any surprise that some of my favorite projects this year have been with soloists I’ve known the longest such as Parry Karp in October at the SMP, and Jorja Fleezanis last week at the OES.

Ideally, an orchestra should get much more out of a soloist than simply a bitchin’ rendition of the solo part. When a project really works out, the soloist leaves something of their experience and artistry behind as part of the tone-culture of the band. Over the years, the impact of the myriad guest artists on an orchestra’s playing can be almost as profound as that of the conductors.

In Jorja’s case, I was not only keen for the musicians to learn from her playing of the Elgar, but for her to have the opportunity to share some of her vast experience as an orchestral musician with the players of the OES. 


To this end, I asked her not to feel that she had to play by the normal rules of extreme deference to the conductor, but to work with the musicians in whatever way she felt would be helpful.

In the end, I don’t think she said anything I hadn’t said many, many times before, but the result of having her say it with the violin in her hands, ready to demonstrate as she explained was invaluable.  Interestingly, one instance raised the ire of one of my most valued colleagues in the orchestra- she had the strings practice timing the cutoff at the end of the second movement simply by watching her. He thought this was extremely disrespectful towards me, but what I have to email him is the fact that I asked her to do exactly that exercise in a few spots, because simply watching a conductor in a concerto is not enough.

Great orchestras, like the Minnesota, are able to synthesize aural and visual input from the conductor, soloists and other orchestra musicians in real time- I really wanted her help in developing that skill among the whole body of players. Doing this exercise in a few spots really opened up some technical possibilities for the orchestra. In another very exposed passage, Jorja had a note change to an artificial harmonic with a chord change in the bassoon and high first horn. It’s a spot where everyone has timing issues, all the instruments speak at different speeds and intensities, and anyone of the three players is at great risk of cacking or cracking or splatting. By working on it as an aural exercise- teaching the players to listen for the same subtle change in her sound that I was already listening for before her note change, the players could anticipate exactly when her harmonic was going to speak, rather than waiting for a gesture that  can only say “the note is changing now.” The effect in the concert was magical.

Anyway, there were thousands of these details that emerged during the week, including things as simple as Jorja jumping in in a tutti while I would be imploring the violins to stay in the string a bit more- suddenly they could see and hear what needed to happen.

I think more than a few people thought I was nuts to program the Elgar. After all, who does an obscure 55 minute violin concerto with an orchestra part like a Mahler symphony in a rodeo town? Most importantly, the orchestra outdid themselves, totally overcoming the enormous technical demands of the piece and effortlessly tracking her every twist and turn. To my surprise and relief, we had the best audience of the season, and more importantly, my conversations with the audience seemed to validate my belief in the piece.

Again and again, everyone talked about how coherent the piece felt, how it felt like they could sense the way everything connected from beginning to end, and how short it felt.

With good reason, I hope. Finding an arc in this piece was an obsession for both Jorja and I- we were both determined to show the audience the amazing form that Elgar has created in this piece. Throughout, we strove to not let the music stop in rubato passages, but to keep some sense of organic shape in all the moments of repose. We took Elgar at his word that the second theme of the first movement is “a tempo” NOT “meno mosso.” We made sure that poco rits were only poco. I haven’t checked the final timing yet, but I would be we came in at about 47 minutes compared to Kennedy’s 55.  

More to the point, I think we were able to let the audience get a sense of the total emotional impact of the piece as a whole, rather than to simply lull them to sleep with the many pleasures along the way. Elgar’s greatest pieces have this power of connectivity from beginning to end, and when that can be felt, the effect is overwhelming.

It’s a sad thing to end such a great project, but life moves on at its usual manic pace. I’m back in Cardiff, fighting jet lag and proofreading the parts to Mefano’s Interferances which we’re recording in a couple weeks for the BBC.

Things were getting back to normal in Pendleton, or seemed to be until I got an email from Michelle saying that the new heater in our new office caught fire today. Caught freaking fire! Fortunately, she was there to unplug it in time and the only damage is a bit of singed carpet, but it was a scary reminder of bad times not long past. Had she been at lunch….. Oh god.

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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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3 comments on “A hot time in Pendleton in cold weather”

  1. Foster

    I think Fleezanis is one of the finest concertmasters out there and her superb musicianship is reflected in the sound of the strings in the MN Orch. They have the most lush and unified sound of any major american orchestra. I have to say that I have never seen the players of that orchestra go on autopilot or look indifferent. That says alot about the leader.

  2. ComposerBastard

    Jesu! I can’t believe you pulled off that Elgar! What a beast! Since we havent heard from you in a whilse on here we were worried you were indisposed by post concert distress disorder (PCDD) in some cowboy clown hospital. Congrats on carrying the way…and sorry about the fire. Perhaps a consideration for an oil based radiator type electric, and keep everything off that socket?

  3. Reid

    It’s an electric oil-based baseboard heater. I hear the oil had a little leak. Mama Pajama! There are times when the soloist takes control, but other times where the soloist plays with time to create tension. I mean, on a quiet string ending, doesn’t the conductor take the cutoff from the concertmaster? Anyway, I hope, if you talk to her at some point, Jorja had a good time.

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