The Wrong Sandwich

Friday’s SMP rehearsal was quite encouraging, especially the contributions of our soloists, Oliver Heath and Gary Pomeroy from the Heath Quartet. What a treat to work on the piece with two good musicians who know each other’s playing well and understand the style intimately.

I was also pleased with our progress on the Schumann and Piston, and with the orchestra’s reactions to both pieces. By the end of the night, it seemed as if the Piston was becoming a hit with many of the musicians, which was both a relief and a delight.

After a long drive home I awoke on concert Saturday very tired already, but in a hopeful frame of mind- I was feeling confident about the soloists, confident about the orchestra’s preparation and excited about the prospect of the concert. It’s at times like this where you almost catch yourself saying “after all, what could go wrong.”

On my way to the sound check/dress rehearsal I stopped at Marks and Spencer to buy a bit of lunch, which I took with me to the car. While driving down the A 329, I dipped into my bag and discovered I’d ended up with the wrong sandwich. Instead of the chicken variety I’d intended to buy, I was confronted with a “crayfish, rocket and lemon cream cheese” wrap, or something of that ilk. “What the hell,” I thought, “I like crayfish, perhaps they’re good on sandwiches too…”

Starved, and fast approaching Guildford, I took a nice big bite and thought “ick. This is the worst sandwich I’ve ever eaten.”

Little did I know.

About ten minutes later, I felt a strange abdominal gurgle, and moments later knew with a horrible certainty that I had not only grabbed the wrong sandwich, I had grabbed “THE WRONG SANDWICH.”

I’ll spare delicate readers any hint of the horrors experienced between Bracknell and Guildford. I do remember sitting in my dressing room thinking that I had been more seriously ill before a concert (I got up from a hospital bed in La Grande to do a kiddie concert once, which, in retrospect, was stupid), but that I couldn’t remember feeling more miserable. I started downstairs at 2:28 and the orchestra was already tuning- for once everyone was better than on time and raring to go….

Rehearsing when queasy is a strange feeling- things either look very far away or very near. Sally came to give me a message just before we started and it seemed as though she was right at my nose and I needed reading glasses to make out her expression- I was struck by just how big the faces of everyone on the first desks looked, but the horns seemed like they were across a large parking lot. I just thought- if I can keep my balance, we’ll manage. Whatever you do, don’t fall over.

No matter what happens- act normal. That’s my motto…

Anyway, we made a start- Mozart worked his magic and I gradually started to feel a bit more human. By the break I felt dehydrated and wobbly, but was no longer at death’s door, and by the end of the rehearsal I had improved to just feeling lousy.

I had decided to keep this all to myself, as nobody needed any extra worries with such a challenging program. I couldn’t help wondering, however, if anyone was sitting in the rehearsal thinking “is it just me, or is Ken decidedly green today?” Perhaps my every day pasty skin tone had them fooled. By the end of the afternoon, I was mostly aware of the fact that there was absolutely nothing of any kind in any part of my digestive system, so I braved a light dinner before the concert. No crayfish, though.

The concert was rewarding- I enjoyed the Piston on several levels. I thought the orchestra really tore into it, and I felt like my take on it was much simpler, less fussy and more direct than the last time I did it. What a gem of a piece. Ollie and Gary played beautifully and earned a home-town-hero’s reception from the almost-capacity audience. I hope the crowd knew how lucky they were not to be stuck with a 90 year old Russian violist with a wobbly vibrato and a 34 year old performance practice fascist  with strange ideas about tuning/severe problems with hearing, or something like that.

By the way- here’s something for young musicians to remember (well, all musicians). You can’t get the right tempo without the right sound, and you can’t get the right sound without the right tempo. Yes, you can play with a bad sound at any speed, but when the piece fizzes along, you’ve got a much better chance of making it all work.

We tried something a little crazy with the Schumann- I augmented the usual rap from stage with a few musical examples played by the orchestra, just focusing on the use of quotation in the piece, which is something a few audience members had asked for in the past. Everyone was enthusiastic about it to my face, but we’ll wait for the unfiltered feedback to make its way to the committee before I try it again. Just because someone tells you they loved something doesn’t mean they did.

The orchestra played their hearts out on the Schumann. I’d really worked and struggled with them all week to find the right sound for the opening of the piece, which is by far the hardest part of the symphony. After possibly too much hand-wringing on my part, it was lovely, and set the stage for a fine run through. What a work!

The Electric is a mixed venue- lovely amenities, a good staff and it always seems to be full. However, yesterday was not the ideal time to brave a concert in indescribable heat on stage. I was already so dehydrated that I really felt rough at the end of the show in spite of guzzling water through the intermission.

It’s also a difficult acoustic- we had a great brass team last night, and they played with a lot of control and sensitivity, but a piece like the Schumann needs room for the sound to move around. That opening in particular needs space.

I’m off in five hours to Heathrow and then Texas. We’ll get to Round Top Tuesday morning, and I start rehearsals at 2 PM Tuesday afternoon. I hope the food is still as good as it was back in the day….

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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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2 comments on “The Wrong Sandwich”

  1. Anna Hill

    Hope you are now fully recovered…There’s nothing worse than performing whilst ill.
    Robin once did a 2 week tour of Ireland feeling dreadful, it was only when we got up the morning after the last concert, to find him covered in a horrendous rash, that we discovered he had measles….
    After a quick call to our GP his advice, “buy a big newspaper, catch your flight home, hide him behind the paper, and come straight to my office!”

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