A frantic final rehearsal

Concert-day rehearsals are a relatively new (and much-needed) addition to the OES schedule, but out of deference to delicate sensibilities we only rehearse for 2 hours, which feels like a painfully short period compared to the 3 hour call on Friday evening.

Perhaps I can digress for one moment as someone who played as a union-member cellist in professional orchestras for a long time. Typically in America, a service is 2 ½  hours with a 20 minute break. If you have 2 rehearsals in a day, the 2nd has to be 2 hours. Some orchestra’s contracts allow for a 3 hour dress rehearsal or a few 3 hour calls per season for extraordinary works. This all works well, especially at elite orchestras where the level of playing and preparation is so high as to guarantee that, unless the conductor is a complete moron, you should always have ample time.

However, having worked in the UK for several years now, where all rehearsals are 3 hour calls, and almost all days are doubles, I do find the insistence on avoiding fatigue at all costs a bit wet.

Anyway, this just means I would have liked to have a longer rehearsal for this evening’s OES concert, for reasons that will soon become clear.

So, when last spoke, I was dashing over from a failed meal in foul temper. Sometimes in life, one is surprised to find out that not everyone is in the same mood as you are, and this was the case as I got to the hall. All the players I ran into seemed awfully cheery, in spite of the long day ahead and the hard and humbling efforts of the night before.

Today, we start with the Bloch to give Parry as long a break as possible. In an ideal world we would just top and tail a huge and physically draining concerto to save the soloist, but that’s just not an option. We get started, and there’s one early counting error from a musician that makes them so rarely that it convinces me there really is such a thing as Chinese food syndrome. That humorous moment aside, something strange is happening- the music is unfolding in long paragraphs instead of juttering forward in single and uneven steps. Far from taking an hour, the first movement goes without a major hitch, then the 2nd goes even better. There are tiny things here and there, but even the nasty syncopations of the slow movement are settling. By the time we finish the Finale, I’ve dog-eared about 10 pages, but that’s all. We work through as many of those as we can, and (given that the piece is close to 40  minutes), we’re over an hour into our rehearsal time. Time for a quick break, but I’m feeling MUCH better about life, if still a little edgy.

By the end of the break, we’ve got about 45 minutes of rehearsal time left, and much of the brass section has never played the Dvorak. We start a run-through and have a complete tuning melt-down in the opening woodwind chorale. This is not good, but again, because of the cancellations we have a number of players playing this for the first time. We re-tune and I implore everyone to listen like crazy, as there’s no time at all to go chord by chord. God must be smiling on us today- it’s better.

(we’re all taught never to close our eyes when we conduct. photo- steve bass) 


The run-through is ragged by not hopeless. This is when I earn my stripes- I’ve got maybe 20 minutes to turn a sight-reading into a performance. There are still a few first violin licks that need help. We fix a couple of balances. Tighten the many transitions at the end of the piece.

We now have less than 15 minutes for all of Tchaik 4, which we didn’t exactly over-rehearse yesterday. Our most pressing issue is to run through the entire 3rd movement, even though much of it is pretty easy to play and musically straightforward. The reason for this is that in these crappy Kalmus parts, the players have to negotiate a complete confusing set of DS’s, “jump to’s” and to find all manner of signs and codas. On the other hand, the score is written out. This kind of false economy drives me nuts- the letters don’t agree with the score or with each other (why are there so many pieces in the literature that use J for strings and I for the winds at the same spot?!?!?!). Anyway, we run it, and do the opening oboe solo and closing bassoon solo in the 2nd movement, as it seems a little cruel to only give them one shot at it before the concert (last night being the first time we’d done it).

And that’s about it. Now, trusting a Tchaikovsky symphony to get it’s first complete bash-through on stage in a concert is something you would be happy about at the Chicago Symphony, but even 2 years ago, I would have never dared this. However, I’m secretly very confident about the Tchaik- I can tell everyone knows it and has put the work in, and I know I can get them through it. Moments like this, when you can see what all the years of hard work with the band have achieved are what it’s all about.


(what constitutes appropriate rehearsal footwear for the best damn redneck orchestra in the world? photo- april  westervelt)


Rehearsal done, everyone has a break, except for Suzanne, Adam, David and I, who feel like we want a few more minutes on the Beethoven. We set up on the stage and start sorting things, and are soon joined in the audience by about a quarter of the string section- no pressure! Still, it’s a helpful extra look at things, but by 4:30 we’re sure we need to call it a day.

This afternoon break between rehearsal and concert at OES is something I’ve come to rely on. The rest and peace are much needed, but so is a bit of quiet time to look at the scores. It’s a funny twist that I spend so much time alone with the scores, wishing I had the orchestra there, when I’m learning the piece and before I come to PDT. However, by the end of the week, I’ve had so much time with the band and so little time with the scores that I’m relieved to have that hour or two before the concert without the musicians to think through what I’ve learned in the week in peace and quiet.

Then, it’s shower, get dressed and head to the hall, in this case with wife, baby and my mom as senior baby-sitter…..

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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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1 comment on “A frantic final rehearsal”

  1. Michelle

    Just a comment on the general grumbling that accompanies day-of rehearsals with OES:
    Non-pro musicians just don’t have the chops. If I played professionally, I would reasonably already be playing 4-6 hours a day on a regular basis, and thus could handle a double service. But as it is, I think most of the non-pro OES players are lucky to pick up their instruments for an hour each day in the weeks leading to a concert, which makes double services a bit of a shock to the system.

    Not to spoil the surprise, but I have to say, I was pleasantly shocked by the level of performance at the concert given the nerve-wrackingly small amount of time we spent on the Tchaik and Dvorak. And the time rehearsing the Bloch was certainly well spent! I think even a year a half ago, we couldn’t quite pull that type of schedule off. 🙂

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