RCICW’s Secret Weapon- The Rose City Chamber Orchestra

One thing I really liked about yesterday’s Oregonian article on the 2008 RCICW is the masterful way David Stabler captures the complex vibe of the workshop teaching sessions- the intersection of a students abilities and limitations with the instantaneous feedback of three professional conductors. You get a good sense of both the febrile intensity and the generosity (from students, faculty and musicians) of the vibe of a typical teaching session.

I thought it would also be useful to talk a bit about the other major contributing factor to creating that vibe- the role of the orchestra. The RCICW is unique, as far as I know, among all conducting institutes in that it was the brainchild not of a famous teacher but of the musicians of the orchestra itself- Portlands player-run chamber orchestra, the Rose City Chamber Orchestra.

In January 2005, I was conducting a program of Stravinsky, Mendelssohn and Doolittle with the Rose City Chamber Orchestra. It was my second concert with this player-run orchestra, and I had assumed it would be my last because they generally only did one concert with each conductor and then moved on, and because I’d arrived a day and a half late to rehearsals after being trapped in London and Chicago by winter weather.

However, to my surprise and delight, the board approached me after the Friday evening rehearsal and said that they’d always thought it would be interesting and fun to offer a summer conducting workshop, and wondered if I would be interested in developing and running it.

Little did they know…

For some time I had been interested in developing and running a conducting workshop. As it happens, a few years earlier, I had come out of my last workshop as a student thinking that it was time to stop studying at these things and time to start teaching at them (heaven knows, I always had opinions). The only problem with that idea was that most workshop clinicians are very experienced, established and well-known conductors and pedagogues, people who not only had a strong reputation as teachers, but who also could lend a bit of glamour to a resume. I had no such reputation, was 30 years younger than most conducting teachers, and certainly was in no position to help anyone’s career at that stage, so I didn’t think there was any chance that anyone would be crazy enough to hire me.

Little did I know…

In the first few days after accepting RCCO’s offer, I began thinking about what I had liked and disliked about every workshop and masterclass I’d ever been to, and right away I could see that we had one big thing going for us- the RCCO itself.

In America, workshops and conducting institutes tend to either use student or youth orchestras, who may play well but don’t really understand what is needed of them, or pick-up freelance ensembles. These freelance groups are usually made up of very solid players, but, unfortunately, I’ve witnessed many instances in which, for some reason, many players in these situations start to revel in the inverted paradigm and take advantage of the vulnerability of student conductors. Suddenly, in the midst of someone’s precious 12 minutes, a player will offer a lengthy core-dump that was ten years in the making to some poor, inexperienced young conductor. They can be quite cruel, even nasty (not to mention long-winded), which helps no one’s growth.

From the beginning, this was a project the musicians were passionate about, and a project to which they gave of their own time and energies. We talked a lot about their role in the teaching sessions, about creating dialogue between them and the students between sessions, and about creating a welcoming and collaborative environment. Every year, we’ve worked to refine those dynamics, to create more social interaction and more understanding- we’ve discovered it is better to create a social framework where a horn player and conductor can have a 20 minute discussion over dinner than one where the same horn player might use two or three minutes of a conductor’s time trying to explain a fairly complex bit of feedback.

So, when David Stabler calls the orchestra “tireless” he is right on the money- they are so committed to this project that they happily work hours that no ordinary union band would (we had several musicians play triple-service days last week, something very rare in American professional ensembles, just as an example). I’ve written elsewhere about the power of ownership for musicians in orchestras- the more a group of musicians feel in control of their own destiny, whether it is the LSO or the RCCO, the harder they will work.

Unlike some other workshops where you feel that some players are using the occasion to say to a given conductor what they’ve been wanting to say to all conductors for 20 years, I think we’re getting close to an environment where the players are instead able to help guide the student’s growth while also gaining a much more sophisticated understanding of the relationship of a conductor and orchestra. That relationship is something we’re aware of every day, but not one we often get to analyze and understand- an orchestra may be aware that this conductor gets a great or horrible sound, but not know why. I can hardly imagine a group of musicians that understands conducting better today than the RCCO.

The strength of player governance can be seen in the range of projects the orchestra has undertaken in recent years- a composer residency with Christopher Thomas and a number  of other premieres, and a focus on underplayed and unusual repertoire like the orchestra version of the Bruckner String Quintet, the Schoenberg version of  Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Mahler’s own orchestration of the Death and the Maiden Quartet are exciting manifestations of their curiosity and creativity, of their willingness to take risks.

Self-governance is not easy- without a board of well connected patrons to lead your fundraising efforts, developing the resources to execute your projects is not easy, and the orchestra has had to narrow its focus in recent years. Still, there are more dreams in the pipeline- a composition competition, an opera festival with our resident singers from the workshop and a variety of outreach and concert projects are all under discussion.

Meanwhile, I just want to go on record as saying thanks to Rose City Chamber Orchestra for entrusting this project to me, something that has been a life-changing opportunity, and also to say thanks for all their hard work this year and every year. I’m very proud of the fact that when they made me Principal Guest Conductor in 2005, they gave me the status of “a member of the orchestra” on the board- what could be cooler?

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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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