Round Top Report- Friday afternoon

Well, my week at Round Top has been going by much too fast. This Texas Festival Orchestra is a marvelous group, one of the best they’ve ever had here, if not the best, and I’ve enjoyed rehearsals immensely.

I remember many years ago hearing Ivan Fischer, who I admire a lot, talking about the early years of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. As the orchestra was evolving into a full-time group, and one of the best orchestras in the world, people began to ask if they should chose a more permanent name. Ivan and his colleagues decided that the original name would serve as a reminder to avoid routine, and that all concerts are, in their own ways, festive.

With such a good group and such good working conditions we’ve been able to do a lot the kind of work the regular professional bands don’t have time for, and that conservatory orchestras often don’t have the patience for. I hope I haven’t tuned too many chords this week for everyone’s patience, but when you get out in the world and have to fight to make concerts happen amidst all kinds of budget restrictions, you learn to take advantage of opportunities to do the best work you can. Here we have time, talent, facilities and atmosphere- it’s not to be wasted.

It’s been lovely to revisit Appalachian Spring, which I first conducted here about 15 years ago. Over so many performances since then I’ve learned to predict with pretty high degrees of certainty where the problems will be- there’s the spot the violas might miscount or the place that rushes for everyone or the spot where the violins are way too loud.

However, if the problems become known, there are always undiscovered beauties and miracles in such a piece. I found something today- just a little color thing- in a swell in the coda that for all that it looks like nothing on the page really made a chill. It’ll be fun to teach the piece later this month with it so fresh in my mind.

One piece I don’t think we’ll be doing anytime soon at the workshop is the Barber Adagio for strings, which opens the concert. I can’t really think of a work that is more of a challenge to conduct, because in the end, conducting doesn’t serve the music very well, and yet, the piece doesn’t quite reach the same heights without a conductor as it can with. Next time I become MD of a new orchestra, it’ll be an important project to do together, alongside a lot of Haydn and Beethoven. In addition to being a wonderful piece, it is a great etude for the orchestra in playing like a chamber ensemble, breathing and listening to sound- when that happens, the most incredible things are possible.

Also on the program is Jennifer Higdon’s Soprano Saxophone Concerto, which has also been fun to put together. I have a feeling the audience will love it- there’s a lovely pastoral vibe going through the piece as well as some humor. Certainly not easy to play, though! There’s one first violin lick that would make a fiendish sight-reading excercise for a sadistic audition committee somewhere…..

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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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