A bit strung out…

I’ve moved a few miles up the East Coast, from Newark, Delaware to Boston, and from chamber music to a bit of concerto playing: Brahms Double with Suzanne.

It’s quite a paradigm shift, especially at an early rehearsal. A wise teacher once told me that one shouldn’t follow the orchestra too much at the first rehearsal, or you never get your way. “Lead in the rehearsals, even if you risk a train wreck, but follow in the concert and don’t impose any risks on the performance.” It’s good advice, especially if you have a few rehearsals to work with.

The upshot is that you have to take an almost opposite mindset when soloing from when you play chamber music. Of course, you still want to make music and interact with the orchestral musicians, that’s what makes it fun, but you also have to make sure, more than anything, that you are communicating your point of view to the conductor and the players. If you can’t project that, their job becomes infinitely harder because there is no profile for them to latch on to. After a week of trying to blend and match and anticipate, now it is more a matter of laying down the law, in the nicest possible way.

There are people who tend to be very good about keeping track of things like bow re-hairs and instrument maintenance. I am not one of them- I tend to wait until something breaks or until the re-hair situation reaches crisis point. Okay, I don’t “tend” to wait until something breaks, I actually “wait” until something breaks. There has been one exception in the last 15 years- this summer I took the cello to Colin Irving, one of the few real geniuses I’ve ever met, his hands are blessed by holy powers, for a check up and tune up. When he restored the instrument 6 years ago, he told me to bring it in every 6 months, so right on schedule, half a decade late, I brought it in. 

A more typical case in point is the status of my strings. It would be scandalous to admit how long this last set of strings has been on my cello, because people have actually paid to hear concerts on them. I used to break strings all the time, even c-strings, so it never occurred to me just to take a string off because it was worn out. These were on there so long I had forgotten how long they were on there, if that makes any sense. When I got back from Biloxi it really hit me, especially as the A-string, which had seemed nearly indestructible was starting to sound nasty and raspy.

However, between stomach flu and family commitments, I completely failed to get new strings before coming to America, and once in Delaware, couldn’t quite make my way up to Wilmington, location of the nearest violin shop. Once here, the shops were closed until today, Tuesday, so I had to go through the first rehearsal on Monday on the old strings. Finally, today brought SUCCESS! It took calls to 5 places in town to find all the right kit (I probably would have been out of luck in Wilmington), but at 3:18 PM, I had my first new set of strings since………..

They’re on there, and, believe it or not, the damn cello sounds better. Why did it take so long, and why do I have the same issues with dry cleaning?

Anyway, I always find the first rehearsal with orchestra quite a relief (unless I play like an ass)- a lot of things one stresses about in the practice studio (especially in a piece with 2 soloists), just aren’t an issue in front of 70 other players. Usually the 2nd rehearsal is where you start to realize what is harder with the orchestra, so I’m bracing myself, but at least I’ve got my new magic strings.

There was a Facebook thread running the other day among some of my cello geek friends that was basically a survey of “what strings do you use?” I managed to stay off that one, but what I had on the cello was

Larsen A and D (strong)

Larsen G (medium)

Spirocore Tungsten C (stark)


The new set up is

Larsen A and D solo edition (strong)

Bel Canto Gold C and G (tungsten medium)

The Bel Cantos are even more insanely expensive, but have a more gut-ish sound than the Spirocores…… The Larsen G always used to lose pitch if I played loudly (which I tend to do a lot). I’ve used Spirocore G’s a lot, but they take forever to break in.

I think that makes this officially the dorkiest blog post ever.

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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

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

3 comments on “A bit strung out…”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Since you didn’t respond for one reason or another:

    Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, Fall Gala Opener
    Suzanne Casey and Kenneth Woods from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales cross the pond to perform Double Concerto in A minor for Violin and Cello Johannes Brahms plus Firebird Suite, 1919 ed. Igor Stravinsky

    Sunday November 23rd 4:00 PM Greater Boston Vineyard Church

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