A day in Pendleton

The day, as a professional event, almost didn’t happen.

Between rehearsal Thursday evening and lunch Friday afternoon, I went from “down” with the bug to “down, out and defeated” by the same bug. It’s amazing how debilitating something can be that, in our day of antibiotics, is really just a passing inconvenience. Dizzy, nauseous, ear pain and the sore throat of the century. Fortunately providence intervened in the form of a physician friend I ran into just after that fateful Friday lunch who arranged some antibiotics and mega-decongestants for me. Between lunch Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, I went from down, out and defeated by the bug to just plain old down. Bad can seem pretty good when you’ve gotten used to terrible!

“Down” is not “down, out and defeated,” but I still might have taken the day off had it been any other orchestra but the OES Preparatory Orchestra. This weekend meant a lot to me- I had been their primary conductor for many years, but this year, with me in Pendleton a bit less than previous years, we turned the preparatory orchestra over to my assistant, Bruce. Given that I couldn’t be here between early October and late February, there was no other fair solution, but I have missed the kids. Watching this group, which we started from scratch a few years back, grow into a vibrant ensemble of creative and attentive young musicians has been one of the highlights of my time here.

So- it was out of bed and off to work. The antibiotics had helped, but I had to bear in mind my limitations. With this bug, talking leads to coughing, and coughing is where this bug gets nasty. I would have to be a man of few words.

Our project this weekend was Haydn Symphony no. 94- the “Surprise.” I had two goals in mind- to prepare the piece to performance level over the course of one weekend, and, in doing so, to also try to give the students a sense of what makes Haydn, Haydn….

Once we started the rehearsal, I saw that in order to keep the cough at bay, it was going to be hard, if not impossible, to talk long enough to achieve my second goal. It was all I could do to prepare the piece, and if anything, to work with the students more as professionals. It was a very business-like morning.

To my pleasant surprise, things improved quickly- maybe more quickly than if I’d stuck to my original plan. I couldn’t help but think it was a nice reflection on our years of work together that we could set aside all the teacher-isms and youth-orch rehearsal gimmicks and just, with a minimum of chat, put together a sophisticated piece of music.

However, as the long day moved from morning to afternoon to early evening, I finally saw the price of my stingy way with words. As we started in with the 3rd movement, one of the fiddle players exclaimed her relief at not playing the 2nd. “The theme of that movement is so stupid,” she said.

“Aha!” I replied, “that’s exactly the point! The theme is supposed to be simple, stupid and predictable. Even pompous! He wants to create a degree of complacency- get us thinking we know what is going to happen next, and then to destroy that and to keep us off-balance and unsure of what’s coming next for the rest of the movement. That’s the humor- taking this pompous melody and dissecting it, dismantling it, and then, just when we expect him to do something else crazy, returning to it in its simple original form.”

When we got finally stuck in to the second movement I was reminded that there fundamental differences between working with pros, who (usually!) know the repertoire and understand why it’s important, funny, moving or interesting, and students, who, while able to play it well, may not realize that Haydn is not only in on the joke, he is 10 jokes ahead of them. It was better for our discussion. Just that little discussion on the nature of Haydn’s humor (which so few professional musicians get) had made a huge difference in the way the played the piece- articulations cleaned themselves out, the rhythmic profile was tighter, and, most importantly, they were smiling and enjoying it.

Hopefully, I found enough voice between coughs to put across a bit more of what makes this piece so witty, modern, sophisticated and inspiring, but we can cover more ground tomorrow.

After a run-through to see where we are, I crawled home, and tucked myself under a blanket and pulled out my Mahler score. In the end, I manage almost 3 ½ hours of study- hopefully I haven’t overdone it and set myself back. Hopefully, a good night’s sleep and another dose of my Z-pack and I’ll be well on my way to wellness.

And that was a day here in Pendleton.

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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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