School’s out for summer

I find May to be the strangest time of year for me professionally, as it hangs in this netherworld between the concert-season/school-year and the summer-festival season. In fact, one often experiences the cognitive dissonance of doing a summer festival in early May, then returning home to do a subscription concert afterwards. It can be a bit like having to go back to school after a few days of vacation.

This May’s residency at the Ischia Festival was certainly summer work, but I spent the same week last year doing Mahler 1 in Pendleton, very much part of the regular season. The issue is further complicated here in Britain, where many orchestras tend to schedule a spring concert at the end of June, but I just have to think of those as summer concerts, regardless of the fact that they’re part of a subscription series.

The end of one season always seems to call for a moment of reflection and a thorough cleaning off of the desk. I keep all of my active scores on one shelf of my desk, so now is the time to swap out my Winter/Spring scores with the summer ones. As far as reflection… Hmmm. It seemed more of a year to survive than to enjoy in some ways- lots of challenging programs under difficult circumstances. I was particularly happy with the musical progress we made in Pendleton this year, from a deeply moving Mahler 4, to a rather smoking Beethoven 8, to a transcendent Elgar Vn Concerto culminating in a cosmic Death and Transfiguration. Even as we still have much work to do, I felt the Elgar and Strauss were both performances that could only happen when there was a long collaboration between a conductor and orchestra.

I know exactly where I am going to put the laser musically next year (but I’m not telling!) to address what I feel is the glaring bit of unfinished business. Sadly, though, this was the year that, as I predicted, the true cost of the fire showed itself as the cumulative strain on our resources and time took its toll on our ability to do business, and we lost a few valuable board members to burn out (no pun intended). The summer break comes at a good time, and our new ED has all the tools to right the ship (and is, in fact, on her vacation righting ships in the Pacific with a sailing crew as I write this).

In other venues, highlights included the CMEW concert in March (particularly Akrata by Xenakis, who seems to have officially arrived as a “great composer” this year)- what a delight to work with such committed and virtuosic musicians, Haydn 101 with the SMP (I told them afterwards they should change their name to the Surrey Haydn and Mozart Players),  a hot (both musically and on stage) Pictures at an Exhibition with the WSO, and wonderful collaborations with Suzanne on the Mendelssohn Vn Con in November with the HSO and Parry Karp on Saint-Saens and Strauss.

Of course, every year has its disappointments, and not every collaboration is a success. As the years go by, you learn that each concert is a precious culmination of hundreds of hours of work. When all the efforts of committees, managements, volunteers and performers are wasted, it is a serious matter. Such experiences are rare, but I did have one experience this year where I felt a principal player so badly let the side down as the really torpedo the entire concert. I hope she understands the damage she did to a wonderful but vulnerable organization with her behavior. I also had the unfortunate experience of having a young soloist or two show up not ready for the gig. Just as a great soloist can lift an orchestra to a new level, an unprepared one can leave everyone feeling deflated and defeated. I work a lot with young soloists who are coming up through dedicated foundations and schemes, and I’ve really tightened the rules for them next year, as much for their benefit as to protect the orchestras. As long is someone is “young” or “up and coming,” I think they’re going to have to be prepared for a bit of coaching when called for and an extra rehearsal with the band, even if they do come from a famous school/teacher/trust.

In fact, I told one famous school this year that wanted us to use a student as a soloist when we perform there that the student would have to audition for me, and they got quite  huffy “we believe the _________ School has an established reputation in this regard,” was their rather indignant response. Well, their last student did let the side down, and auditioning builds character, so they’ll just have to play the game…. If they are teaching their students to puff their chests out to act as if they are to-the-manor-born, they are not helping them get work or make music.

On the other hand, one young soloist who I coached a lot was Barbara Misiewicz, who played Schelmo with me in Februray. I can’t recall a young soloist so able to apply every comment and suggestion so quickly and willingly. I was slightly dreading doing a piece I love so much with someone learning it for the first time, but it ended up being a good example of how working with a gifted young player can work.

However, the moment for reflection is already past. Since returning from Ischia I’ve mostly been busy doing some long-delayed home improvement work and catching up on RCICW admin. Already, it is time to not only put the new scores on the shelf, but to start reading them. First up is the Soprano Saxophone Concerto of Jennifer Higdon, a new piece for me to be played with the Texas Festival Orchestra in about a month. I’ve been wanting to do one of her pieces for a long time.

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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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