I began my third visit to the Kent County Youth Orchestra very aware of how much had changed since I last saw them. I still remember driving in for my first rehearsal at the now-defunct Bedgebury School- a huge, idyllic campus catering to the likes of Peaches Geldof. Ashford School, the ochestra’s new home, is itself a pleasant campus, but one nestled in the heart of busy Ashford. No horses and rolling hills here.
After a few reunions with sectional tutors, Geoff (the orchestra’s general manager) and the admin staff, I made my way around to each of the sectionals, for a quick listen. Starting with a sectional before the first orchestral rehearsal is smart planning- we can get much more out of a read through if a professional coach has prepared the students on the repertoire. I always learn a lot from watching sectionals- sometimes it is the ins and outs of the quirks of bassoon intonation (what a relief to hear a first rate bassoonist explain to the students that: “the bassoon is a sharp instrument. A really sharp instrument.”) to the various strengths and weaknesses of the orchestra. Change was everywhere- lots of new faces in every section, including a completely different set of string principals. One section might be working on a very basic technical issue or negotiating who is going to play a secondary instrument like bass clarinet (which can sometimes amount to drawing the short straw), while another is already doing rather sophisticated intonation work.
Orchestras really run on trust, so most conductors, myself included, like to have familiar colleagues whose skills and leadership we can rely on. There had been very minimal change over in personnel between my first two KCYO trips- virtually the same team of string principals and a largely consistent wind and brass section. Two years on, there were more new faces than I could count- including several completely new sections.
My goal for day one is pretty simple- I want to make sure the musicians have played the entire program. Given two 90 minute sessions with the full orchestra, that is a rather formidable challenge. We began with the Sibelius Fifth, a work barely more than half the length of either of our last two symphonies (Rachmaninoff 2 and Shostakovich 10). First impressions are hugely encouraging- it helps that the first sound in the work is that of the horn section and timpani, which this week is five of the strongest veteran musicians in the orchestra (although one of the horn players was playing cello last time I was here!). However, it is a sobering reminder of the challenge to come that it takes us significantly longer to read through the Sibelius than it had for either the Rachmaninoff or the Shostakovich.
It’s quickly apparent who has listened to or played the piece before- as we finish and are packing up one of the fiddle players is telling the first violin coach and I how she cried through the last page when she played the work a few months back. She knows something about Sibelius 5 that others will learn soon. Many others seem frankly baffled by much of the piece. The strings in particular seem confused- they have less lyrical playing in this symphony than almost any major symphony in the repertoire (but the lyrical playing they do in the symphony is astounding). I think their response is entirely appropriate- so much of the piece is strange and troubling. Part of my job is to help them understand why it is so- why Sibelius gives us so much difficult and abstract music leading to such a strange and uncomfortable ending.
I’d been anticipating this challenge for some time, but hearing a couple of young players saying things like “wow, that’s a very weird piece” as we left for dinner made clear the urgency of the undertaking.
But how? The received wisdom states that with a youth orchestra, one can or should take more time to explain to the players what the music is about, and in the past I might have even preceded that first reading with some words about the piece. This year, however, I’m trying something else- just get on with the job and let them experience the piece in its own terms. I’m sure that if we can play the piece well, they’ll understand it well.