WSO- Rach 1

Well, I’m finding myself a bit surprised that I can finally say that the first half of my 2008-9 concert year is over, and that my musical 2008 (barring any last-minute calls) is done. I’ll miss doing the Messiah this year, but I’m glad to be finished. It’s been a tough, rewarding and draining few months.

Last night the Wrexham Symphony and I performed a rather daunting and intense Russian program which opened with Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov’s A Night on Bald Mountain. Once you’ve learned or experienced Mussorgsky’s original (which I conducted a few years back), it becomes impossible to think of this much-better-known piece as being by Mussorgsky. It’s really Rimsky’s creation- call it “Concert Fantasia on Themes of Mussorgsky.” Still, I’ve loved it since my Fantasia days. I’d avoided it for a few years since burning out on it after spending a little too much time on it, but it is a brilliant piece, and it conducting it feels like a visit with a very old friend.

After Prokofiev’s Lt Kije, which must be the funniest piece of music I’ve ever conducted, we finished up with Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony. Like a great Russian novel, this piece does everything it can to scare the casual reader away, but draws in the devoted, revealing layer upon layer of meaning, and more than a generous helping of pain. Learning this piece has certainly been one of the eye-openers of 2008- it wasn’t what I expected at all, but a work that is multi-layered, radical and heart-breaking. I’ll be excited to do it again soon somewhere else. For being a piece that has always been controversial and has never made it into the mainstream repertoire, it was lovely to see the audience respond so positively to it. It’s overtly tragic character bodes against it ever being a crowd-pleaser, but it at least ends loud. Okay…. It ends, er, very, very loud….


It was lovely to see the WSO again this Fall, most of all because of the progress they’ve made since we last worked together. They’ve come a long way since our first encounter when I did a BBC clinic for them in 2005. In the year and a half since my last visit, there have been a lot of changes, all for the better. Every orchestra is a work in progress, and I’ve had a lot of chats with the committee members about their goals for the near future. As an orchestra grows, each step forward brings its own rewards, but also reveals how much more can be accomplished. If they can continue to improve at the rate they have for the next three years, they’re going to be a smashing orchestra.

I mentioned Nigel, the WSO’s blind trombonist in a recent post. It is more appropriate to call him the WSO’s principal trombonist with the incredible memory and listening skills, because his accomplishments and gifts completely overshadow the magnitude of his handicap. I’ve got as good a memory as the next guy, but I almost think it is easier to conduct a major symphony from memory than to play a trombone part, as the conductor never has to get back into the flow after a rest, and you can always hear your colleagues onstage, since you don’t have a trombone attached to your face. However well he did in the rehearsals, I must confess to a certain voice asking me if it was crazy to go onstage with someone I couldn’t cue or help if he miscounted. How he caught some of the tempo fluctuations and beginnings of things so perfectly is rather baffling to me. I’ve always thought there was something in the relationship of conductor and orchestra that had nothing to do with the eye, and more to do with a sort of telepathy, and this experience has vastly strengthened that belief.  Anyway, it’s pretty inspiring to look up at the brass section and see someone playing without a stand in front of him. The trombones did sound quite awesome over all, especially in the apocalyptic conclusion of the Rach.

(rehearsing on the set of the Nutrcracker…)

I suppose I mention all of this just to make the point that sometimes we may all be a bit too casual in accepting our limitations, rather than recognizing them and figuring out how to surpass them. The toughest moments for me onstage are never when one of us screws up, but when someone gives up. Fortunately, it’s a pretty rare thing, but it does drive me mental. Not so last night- the concert ended with the un-mistakable roar of an evolving orchestra giving everything they had and more.


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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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3 comments on “WSO- Rach 1”

  1. Mark Lansom

    Cheers Ken, we had a great time on Saturday night, and all due to yourself. The energy and passion you showed to the orchestra was amazing to be part of, and hopefully came back at you, with interest! To me, as an occasional conductor, playing under you is always a fabulous education.

    Here’s to the near future and look forward to you coming back really soon. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    Mark L

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Thanks for the kind words- what a treat it was to work with the orchestra. Good luck with your two programs coming up, I’m sure the rest of the 40th Anniversary season will be smashing. Good luck with the punctuality reforms 🙂

    All best


  3. Pete J

    I greatly enjoyed rehearsing with you. Your punctuality-themed telling off was awesome, but we will all remember the way you helped us see our potential.

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