Never attempt to eat lunch

It was a short and restless night before CONCERT DAY ONE. Sam did well with jetlag over the summer, but it’s really hit him this week, which means he wants to go to bed most days at 3 PM and wake up at 2 AM. Still, that gives me 2 hours of peace between Rainbow and chaos….

Playing begins at 10 AM with Beethoven 18.1. With half a run-thru and an hour’s rehearsal under our belt, it’s practically old hat. Okay- pretty new hat, but at least I now know it well enough to remember which bits we’ve only sigh-tread one time. Each movement has its own little thorny problems- making the first movement sound effortless and effervescent, allowing the 2nd movement to really sink into a complete abyss of despair, balancing Adam’s virtuosic passagework in the Scherzo and keeping our fingers from locking up in the finale. All along the way, there are the unique challenges of playing in F major in a string quartet.

F major is problematic because if we tune our fifths to anything resembling actually perfect fifths the c-strings of the cello and viola will be a fourth below an f-natural that is way flat to the open A of the violins. Likewise, if the F gets tuned to the open A, any open c-string will sound painfully flat.

To compensate, we try to “squeeze” our fifths when we tune- David and I even have a running challenge  to see who can tune his c-string the highest without sounding sharp (I win about 68% of the time, but that’s mostly because the viola is an instrument that was never meant to be tuned). Even so, we have to compromise and adjust often, which meant that the tonic note, which would usually be the most stable note in the key is constantly changing between the high version, in tune with the a-string, the low version, in tune with the c-string and 20 or 30 in-between versions.

After a little more than an hour, Parry joins us for Tchaikowsky and a bit of Schubert. Again, after our lengthy exploration of these works (HAH!), it’s time to get down to brass tacks- by which I mean figuring out how to play them in tune. Tchaikowsky, with his benevolent disposition, transcribed this Andante Cantabile from this 1st String Quaret. The  original version is in the rather cozy key of D major, but the cello solo version, for some perverse reason, is written in B major. B major sucks for the exact opposite reason that F major sucks (of course, being a tri-tone apart, they are literally opposite keys). F Major sucks because there are too many open strings in the key, but B major sucks because there aren’t enough. Of course, open-e is the fourth of the key, but nobody really takes e-strings seriously- they’re more suited to slicing cheese in a deli than providing a guide to intonation…..

Then there’s Schubert. Having worked through it from beginning to end on Friday, we start with the last mvt, taking a few minutes to agree on a good, Hungarian rubato for the main theme, and to find our inner-Wiener for the second theme.

We have only an hour for lunch, so it’s off to the usually reliably fast and good Chinese place across the street- it’s cheap and cheerful, and usually fast. Someone must have told them we were in a hurry, because they’re moving awfully slow and there don’t seem to be any English speakers around (lest I sound jingoistic, my only gripe is that when nobody speaks the language AND they won’t let you point at the menu, you can’t order food). Long story short- slow service and Ken ends up eating off of everyone else’s plates while his lunch goes in a box for later. Does this sort of thing happen to Leonard Slatikin?

Finally, I race across the street, leaving my family to pay for the disastrous dinner, arriving at our final dress rehearsal with only seconds to spare in foul humor, completely stressed. All this and we’re starting with Bloch….

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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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