Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the IP Casino

One of the big bonuses of being a conductor is that work, again and again, has taken me places or introduced me to people I would never have otherwise found. This week promises to be another such occasion as I am spending it in Gulfport-Biloxi Mississippi with the Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra.

Some Vftp readers may be surprised that I am actually quite at ease in this part of the country- both of my parents and all of my extended family are from Georgia, so I speak pretty fluent Southern, so I can always ratchet up the “thank you ma’am’s” and “yessir’s” when called for, and I know my way around Southern cuisine.

More unusual for me is the fact that this area is a huge gaming center. Now, I’m all for vices, but gambling is not one that ever appealed to me. It’s not that I’m not a risk taker- after all, I’ve taken on some crazy projects as a musician like Mefano’s  Interferences, which the composer told me was a catastrophe for both Bruno Maderna and Michael Gielen when they first did it, and I had one day to put it together when they had 2 weeks…

In fact, it’s the lack of risk that bothers me in principle about gaming- the house is never at risk, and you never have a reward commensurate with your risk. Still, I am aware that the fact that I’ve never been to Vegas (I have been to Reno, though), singles me out as one of those non-pro-American Americans we’ve been warned about. So, freed from the guilt associated with actually deciding to go to a casino, I am now living in one for the next week while I get to know the orchestra- the casino is a generous sponsor of the orchestra.

So, if one tends to feel a bit like a fish out of water in a casino, I’m not sure that Saturday night at 9 PM, when you’ve been traveling for 20 hours, is the best time to show up. When I walked in the door of this giant building there was a rock band playing in the bar ahead and to my left and a New Orleans-style drum corps marching through the Brazilian Steakhouse to my right while country music played loudly on the muzak system. Ives would have loved it!

After a good night’s rest, though, I’m ready for  the repeated shock of leaving my quiet room for the clang and bang of the casino. We’ll see what the week has to offer- everyone so far is very friendly and welcoming..

Today we start with a string sectional then a full rehearsal and have a lot of ground to cover. The program is

Vaughan Williams- Overture to “The Wasps”

Vaughan Williams- The Lark Ascending

Jenny Gregoire, violin

Elgar- Symphony no. 1

The program has an “anniversary” theme in celebration of GCSO Music Director John Strickler’s 10th anniversary here- it is the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ death and the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Elgar 1. The Elgar is huge and hugely challenging, and is quite unknown music in this country, so just to get through it and give the musicians a good sense of how it works is going to keep us busy today.

It’s a pity that one of the great symphonies in the repertoire is such rarity here in America, but, especially compared to cinema, the written word and pop music, British classical music doesn’t have a huge presence in America, and there are only a few standard repertoire pieces in circulation at American orchestras, The Planets, the Enigma Variations and, er, ah…. um….

As it happened, I ran into the pianist Piers Lane this week for the first time since we recorded the Chopin E Minor for Radio 3 last year. He was asking me about this program and we got to talking about the lack of familiarity with great English music among American musicians. “It can feel like such a foreign language to American players,” Piers said, “where for us, it is as natural as breathing.”

Of course, an actual English musicians listening to our conversation might have been amused at the fact that Piers is Australian and I’m American (except in Gulfport/Biloxi, where I’m officially English).

But, happily, one’s musical culture has nothing to do with where you’re from but what you love. I remember that everyone used to expect my old boss at the Cincinnati Symphony, Jesus Lopez-Cobos to excel in Spanish music because of where he was born, but what he really loved and did best was Brahms and Strauss, and even a bit of Wagner- a product of his training in Vienna under Swarowsky.

The classic Tokyo Quartet line-up may have been ¾ Japanese and 1/4 Candian-British, but when you heard them do their vintage Haydn-Bartok-Beethoven programs, you were sure they were as Austro-Hungarian as anyone who ever lived. I was very touched at the State of Mexico Symphony a few years ago when the Russian concertmaster and associate came backstage after Prokofiev 5 and told me I had a Russian soul, but I’ve been listening obsessively to Shostakovich since I was a toddler, while, on the other hand, in spite of my love of Copland and Piston, there’s plenty of American music that does little for me. Orchestras can learn a culture- last year, when we had a British guest conductor at the OES in for the Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto when I was playing he went so far as to say they were playing it like a British orchestra. That’s the result of doing a lot of that music over the years.

In the end, I think that the main reason we haven’t had lots of British music here is that most major American orchestras were historically very Germanic, as were many conservatories. When I was at CCM in the 90’s, the Germanic heritage was so strong that Shostakovich was still very controversial, while Berg and Schoenberg were gods. The culture of American orchestras is changing rapidly these days for lots of reasons, though, and I think today’s players are more open-minded and curious than at any time in our history.

Meanwhile, here’s the latest in the local paper about the concert.

And, for the curious, I think the BBC still has the broadcast of Piers and I doing the Chopin here on their website.Oh, by the way- we’re doing the Elgar non-vibrato sempre… Hah!

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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.

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2 comments on “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the IP Casino”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    After I wrote this
    “last year, when we had a British guest conductor at the OES in for the Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto when I was playing he went so far as to say they were playing it like a British orchestra. That’s the result of doing a lot of that music over the years.”

    I was reminded of the musicologist Michael Steinberg’s comment after his first day in Pendleton this year

    “This orchestra drinks like a German orchestra…”

    If the OES plays Elgar like a British orchestra because we’ve done so much of it, what does that say about why we drink like a German orchestra?

    Later that week, Michale asked us to look into funding for a musicologist-in-residence position so that he could, in his words, “methodically taste all these lovely local beers and wines…”

  2. ComposerBastard

    Historically, yes NYC was a magnet for Germanic musical tradition and it spread. Thinking of musical theatre history.

    But wow, what a concert program. I would have loved it. How often do you hear an all English concert and these works?

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