Preparatory Orchestra Retreat

Today was the annual youth orchestra school concert tour- three schools in three tiny towns to the north of Pendleton this year. This is a project we have undertaken in each of the six years since we started the orchestra, and, even more so than in past seasons, I found the day interesting, rewarding and moving.

My work with the preparatory orchestra is one of the things I most treasure about this job, but my travel schedule makes it difficult to find enough rehearsal time for us to put on the kinds of concerts we want to. The orchestra rehearses weekly throughout the school year under the leadership of my colleague Travis Sipher, who has always done a good job of preparing them for my time with them and maintained a productive and positive working environment all these years. Travis is leaving us the spring to move to Eugene after five years of outstanding service to the organization and the city. The youth orchestra typically begins and ends the year with weekend-long rehearsal retreats, which is fun on a social level for the players, and allows us to work together enough that my impact with them can be more than just on a surface level.

Sadly, this spring we got bumped at the 11th hour from the Bar M ranch, so we had to have most of our retreat in our usual rehearsal venue- less a retreat than an epic rehearsal slog. Much as we might have missed the mountain scenery, hot springs and fresh air, at least we still managed to get a lot done. I’ve written before of the fact that because of the small number of advanced students here, we’ve tended to do a lot of classical repertoire- lots of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and the student’s amazing performance of Beethoven 8 in the fall convinced me that they had really begun to develop an surprisingly strong sense of classical style. As a result, I programmed our first all-Romantic and 20th c. concert for this spring, in spite of the fact that the group is really too small to do Borodin and Sibelius. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe may have claimed Sibelius for small orchestras, but I don’t think we’ll ever see pocket-sized Borodin recordings. Never mind- we’re here to teach and learn, not to be bullied by orchestration.

In the end, I think this year’s retreat was all about learning to play romantic music. At most levels, it is the kind of music you play most, and so one tends to think of the stylistic aspects- the singing and sustaining sound, the big dynamic range, the intensity- as a given. It was actually something new for me to take a group that plays Haydn and Beethoven really well, and not like kids, and have to teach them to play Sibelius, and not even really tough Sibelius at that. Fortunately, by the end of the day Sunday, the “long line” was in sight at last.

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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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