Showtime- controll versus catharsis

Given that I’ve spent almost 2 weeks and thousands of words describing my few days of rehearsals in Pendleton for our opening weekend of the season in relentless, naval-gazing detail, it may surprise readers to know that I find it very hard to write about concerts. That’s not so much because I feel any particular reluctance to be my own critic- I think I’m old enough to balance an honest assessment of the good and the bad, especially given a few days to distance myself from the rush of success or the heartbreak of a disappointment.

Instead, I think that because concerts, at their best, are less about playing notes and more about  communicating and connecting, they become, in spite of their public nature, much more personal affairs. Funnily, most non-musicians think of the rehearsal and practice process as mysterious and private, but they’re present for the bit that is most mysterious and most personal, and in a way, most private. Rehearsals are nuts and bolts, rational, practical, process-driven things, but concerts are something else entirely, and sometimes we find hard sharing what we felt or experienced.


(what is appropriate footwear for a redneck orchestra baby at a concert?) 

 For me, some concerts I give are very emotionally cathartic, all-consuming experiences in performance, while others I keep a bit more distance. One can go too far in either direction- I remember doing the Shostakovich E minor with my piano trio when we had every note memorized, completely in our fingers and had played it dozens of times in the preceding weeks at a festival. We laid our souls bare on the stage, and while it was fine, by the end, we’d all lost too much physically to control the soft ending as we wanted to. Two days later, we did it again, holding a bit of ourselves back and it was much better. On the other hand, even in the most intricate modern music, you’ve got to balance fire with intellect or it can get boring. Boulez may look cool, but his performances have heat even in the craziest works.

This concert was a mixture of catharsis and control. In her comment yesterday, Michelle already mentioned she was “pleasantly shocked” at how it all went. I often chat to the audience at the beginning of a concert, but, especially since it was the beginning of the season, I thought it was best to launch straight in with the Dvorak. Since the piece is completely unknown, part of the joy of it is the surprise. It begins slowly and softly, is mostly dramatic and intense, but has a completely over the top, joyful ending which Dvorak has masterfully constructed- one that keeps you thinking “okay, this is the climax, the big ending” but keeps getting more and more exciting. Overtures are often wasted on audiences everywhere- they’re too busy digesting their steaks to realize what they’ve heard.

Anyway, my strategy, given the lack of the rehearsal time, was pretty simple- take no prisoners. I did take the beginning of the Allegro just the tiniest bit slower than I might have otherwise, mostly just to maximize everyone’s confidence and give the piece room to build, but by the end we were in “oh shit, this is really fast” territory, and everyone managed beautifully, and for once the audience responds to an overture with a wild cheer. So was this performance as catharsis? Maybe thrill-seeking is a better description….

Bloch, on the other hand, was always going to need focus and control. It’s less than 24 hours since the train wrecks of the Friday rehearsal, but there are no disclaimers needed for orchestra or soloist. The orchestra’s concentration was amazing, but more amazing was that they played  not just like they weren’t blinking (although several did in fact tell me later they didn’t dare blink), but like they actually knew, even owned the piece. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an orchestra anywhere come so far on a piece of such ferocious difficulty in 24 hours.

Then, finally, Tchaik 4. Fair to say, we gave it our all, and I don’t think there was any evidence that we’d spent so little time on it for the audience to chew on. Yes, Tchaik 4 is definitely a “performance as catharsis” piece. Quintessential”music that makes you want to say ‘rarr.'” 

Afterwards, I ran into James who said “man, I haven’t been so tired since the last time I played here.” All my projects involve a mélange of travel, uncertainty, time pressures and stress, but OES, for a whole litany of reasons, is by far the most draining thing I do. I’m not only, like James, the most tired I’ve been since April, I’m actually feeling rather awful- maybe too tired for my own good. We’ve had crazy weeks before with recitals and who knows what, but this time I’m so tired I’m glad I don’t have to drive any time soon. Maybe it was all the non-musical energy going into resigning and long-range planning, maybe it was the up and down of the Bloch. Anyway, I’m thrilled with the concert and completely unsure how I’ll cope with the chamber music program tomorrow. There sure as hell isn’t time for enough sleep to catch up.

But that’s my problem- for now, safe to say that we’ve lived up to our moniker as the Best Damn Redneck Orchestra in the World (T-shirts are still available on our 2nd printing!), after what I think was the toughest program we’ve done. I had an email today asking what makes us a redneck orchestra. Well, that’s hard to say…

(what’s with the lipstick? vote g.o.p. and get a kiss? vote g.o.p. and get a lipstick? a little slice of main street in the rodeo city)

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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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