Thoughts in the twilight of a season

I returned from Pendleton last week as always experiencing a combination of euphoria, exhaustion, frustration, gratitude and buzzing from the experience. Every concert has its strengths and weaknesses- I thought this was one of our most coherent and focused performances, good in ways that reflect a long collaboration between conductor and orchestra.

Concert weekends with the OES have become awfully fun- it does feel like a festival these days. Musically, the schedule is intense to the point of being exhausting for everyone- even some of our most industrious revelers were so tired after the Friday rehearsal that they bailed on some of the merrymaking in exchange for sleep. I think this is a very good thing- if players are giving so much of themselves in a single rehearsal or run-through of a Strauss tone poem that they feel physically and emotionally drained, something grand is bound to be happening.

Part of the end of the season ritual is finalizing the planning for the coming season. We’ve had regime change in Pendleton. Michelle Kajikawa, who has been our executive director through two insanely eventful years, (including the birth of her first child, the fire in our offices, the drama surrounding the exploration of the Rivoli Theatre as a possible home, unprecedented media attention and two Mahler symphonies), is moving with her husband (and our principal bassoonist) to Bend, which I hear tell is a horrible place full of right-wing Californians.  Michelle and Reid are dear friends and have been valuable colleagues- we’ll all miss them a lot.

Luckily, we have found a new executive director from within the organization, Christina van der Kamp, who has been running our youth programs with efficiency and passion for the last year or so. This concert was our first project together, and she did an amazing job of taking control of things mid-flight and guiding us to a successful conclusion of this year even while working with me in planning next year.

Planning is actually about my least favorite part of being a music director, because it is the moment you have to come to terms with the gaping difference between what an orchestra could be and what it will be, between what you can do and what you will do, between what you want to do and what there is the will to do. Don’t get me wrong- I know from experience that every concert any orchestra does is a miracle, and I think next year will be good fun, but only when you’ve gone through the budget and know dollar for dollar what you could have done with just another donation here or there can you really appreciate just how incredibly hard it is to build something of artistic merit in the absence of a sugar daddy. Eventually you try to find a compromise you can live with- you wish you could have one more rehearsal or a slightly more expensive soloist or three more string players for a program, but you say, okay, this is the best we can do right now, now  I have to take it on my shoulders to make it as good as it possibly can be.

Ideally, I believe that the true measure of what an orchestra can be is the ability and commitment of its best and most committed members. An orchestra ought to be the orchestra that they deserve, and the conductor ought to be the conductor that they deserve. Such and orchestra led by such a conductor will never disappoint its public. By that measure, I know in my heart what I could and would do artistically to make the OES the best band it can be, but one never gets to have that discussion- instead, we use budgets to express our musical goals in measurable terms, a method that is sloppy and maddeningly unspecific. All too often, the budget measures our will to raise money and to invest resources, but it can’t measure our will to do what is right for the music- to make sacrifices and tough choices when needed.

The old cliché that the best way to avoid socially uncomfortable situations is to avoid conversations about religion and politics- I’ve certainly had awkward moments when I’ve discovered a dear friend has freakish notions about politics.

Another great way to create tension is to talk about money, including each other’s salaries. The OES budget process changes every year- this year, we had the best possible model, which is that Christina and I sat and hashed it out, looking together at the same numbers and presenting something to the board with a unified front. We’re still friends. Hopefully it is a document that measures in tangible ways our goals, objectives and needs for the year to come. It measures what we have to do to have the orchestra and the season that we realistically think we can have next year.  What only I and Christina know is what we would have had to do to have the orchestra and the season we could have had.

How close could we have come to an orchestra worthy of its best and most commited musicians? Is there a sponsor out there I didn’t know about or a foundation we could have written to that could have made real those dreams? The only way to live with a compromise in the world of art is if you honestly believe you’ve done the best you can for the music with the resources available. Have we?

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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 “Thoughts in the twilight of a season”

  1. ComposerBastard

    “…The only way to live with a compromise in the world of art is if you honestly believe you’ve done the best you can for the music with the resources available. Have we?…”

    You’re always going to have a doubt about the white knight on the other side of the hill. And over that hill there are an infinite of other hills that follow. Take a deep breath. Maybe instead of pondering, ya’ll should be grateful for what you have accomplished? How many others wish they could take the risks of building an organization, or even having a chance to wonder if they could do more? Takes a lot of guts to stay on that trail of magic…Feel good about it. Feel good that a hall has a chance to fill with sound. In the end, nothing matters…

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