Chamber Music in Delaware-

Tomorrow night I’m playing in a concert that is part of the Master Players chamber music series at the University of Delaware in Newark. This is the fifth year of this series, which was founded by violinist and U of D faculty member Xiang Gao, and it’s become quite a starry affair. Later this year, they’ll be hosting the Guarneri Quartet in one of their final concerts.

We’re doing an interesting program, where every piece has a different instrumentation- the Mozart Duo for Viola and Violin, the Mozart E-flat Major Piano Quartet, the Saint-Saens Duo for Harp and Violin and the Beethoven Piano Trio op 70 no 1, sometimes called the “Ghost” trio.

Given the range of instrumentations, every group is, of course, playing together for the first time, although most of us has worked together before in some capacity. I’ve worked with two of my colleagues, our host, Xiang Gao and violist Hong-Mei Xiao as soloists when I’ve conducted, so it is lovely to get to know them as chamber music colleageus instead of as soloists. Julie Nishimura, the pianist, is an artist-in-residence here- she and I played together once ten years ago. She’s a fantastic player and so easy to work with.

The story of that performance is a bit ironic- it was an audition recital for the position of professor of cello here at the University of Delaware. I didn’t get the job! I think that’s hilarious, because here I am ten years later coming in as a guest artist. Returning to the scene of my past triumph! I kept expecting some bright light in the adminstration to remember that they’d turned their noses up at me ten years ago and call Gao and tell him to find another cellist.

Last month when we played the Schubert C Major Quintet in Pendleton I joked with the audience that you could by hundreds of copies of my Chinese cello for the price of Parry’s Lupot. This week, I’m playing on my posh Italian cello, but, fancy schmancy as it is, I think you could still buy hundreds of it for the price of the most expensive instrument on stage- Gao’s Stradivarius. He’s playing the “Lady Tennant,” worth about 3 1/2 million bucks, on loan from the Stradivari Society.

My new colleague this week is Kermit Poling, who is playing violin on the Mozart Piano Quartet. Kermit is the concertmaster of the Shreveport Symphony and a very accomplished conductor. His violin is interesting in a completely different way- we were complimenting him on it at dinner and he said it was made by a chap in Cincinnati named Damon Gray.

Now, Damon is/was a cellist and we were classmates at CCM before he got the instrument building bug. He’s more known for his cellos- I almost bought one several years ago- and his violas. “I’ve only seen one of his violins before,” I told Kermit, “which he made for a friend of mine.” That one belonged to Eric Bates, who is an associate concertmaster in the Cincinnati Symphony- he came and did the Tchaikovsky concerto with us in Oregon several years ago on a violin made for him by Damon.

Kermit then told me how he came to own his Damon Gray. “I bought if off an associate concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony who studied with me before he went to college…His name is Eric Bates.”

Now that’s what I call a small world moment.

So, I’ve still only seen one of Damon’s violins- this is the very same one Eric played the Tchaik on all those years back in La Grande and BakerCity….

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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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