Interviews- Saving the best for too late….

I just finished a brief interview with Geoff Norcross, the host of OPB’s Morning edition which will run on Friday this week. I’ll post exact broadcast and webcast details tomorrow.

As often happens, I feel like I have more to say after the interview than during it (although there was more than enough to fill a five minute slot or whatever he’s got in mind!).

One thing we did talk about was the makeup of the orchestra itself, which is, in my experience, unique. Most orchestras are quite homogenous institutions, made up of musicians of quite similar levels, backgrounds and ambitions. The OES is an orchestra of soloists, students and slackers, community players, concertmasters and conductors, businessmen with bassoons and broadcasters with b-flat clarinets, freelancers, amateurs, music professors and everything in between. It’s a mix born of necessity, opportunism, desperation, idealism and resignation. That mix makes it about the most interesting group I know to work with, but also the most demanding and challenging. I’ve been getting a lot of emails from conductor’s applying for my job asking about the band- “what level orchestra is it?” they all ask. You can’t rank an orchestra of 60 different levels of player in the same way you can one with about 4. Still, music is supposed to be a communal activity, and I think it is great that an orchestra exists where worlds can come together and people with different backgrounds and connections to music can work together, seriously and honestly, on substantial musical projects.

We also talked a bit about why I thought an orchestra in such a remote place had been able to grow to the point of playing Mahler. I primarily attributed our good fortunes to good luck in finding people when we needed them- whether musicians, board members or administrators, but even more to the orchestra creating a sense of event with every concert. As long as the orchestra has continued to deliver the goods, our audience and community have continued to let us take risks, and they’ve taken those risks with us.

I’m sticking by that answer- musical organizations thrive when they make music their focus, and it’s the energy of our concerts that drive this organizatio. However, I should have talked a bit more about the vital role our educational programs have in not only bringing young people to music, but to creating a wider sense of investment in the orchestra among the parents and friends of all the children who are involved in our various youth projects. Nothing inspires more loyalty from people than when you offer something of educational and developmental value to their children.

The thing I should have said is that one reason we’ve been able to do some fun and crazy things in Pendleton is that we’ve been, all things considered, relatively unafraid of failure. In that sense, Pendleton’s remoteness and the relatively small size of the organization in terms of dollars make the OES a great laboratory- as musicians we can take chances, both in terms of what we choose to do (repertoire), and how we choose to do it (a relatively go-for-it style of playing). I’ve been lucky so far- I’ve enjoyed all our concerts, but if one did go off the rails, it’s not as if the New York Times critical staff are going to hack us to pieces and name names. We know and understand that a performance in Pendleton, made under difficult budgetary and working conditions on a very tight rehearsal schedule will never have the sort of cool polish of a full time band (in that sense, we start each project with the knowledge that we’re, in a relatively happy way, doomed to fail), but it still has value- maybe a special kind of value that comes from all these musicians of such diverse backgrounds and skill-sets having to dig a little deeper to make things work. Classical music is a pretty pathetically risk-averse field. Our Mahler 5 will be many things, but I can guarantee it isn’t going to feel safe, tame or predictable. If you want classical music without a safety net, the Best Damn Redneck Orchestra on Earth is the place to go. It’s like classical music for people who go to NASCAR races to see the crashes- plenty of risk to go with lots of skill. Hopefully, the audience never need know how much we risked in the concert, but those of us who lived through the rehearsals know just what is at stake in every phrase.

Don’t think for a second I’m saying that I prefer this kind of duct-tape and willpower approach to music making to working with a stable and well supported ensemble under good rehearsal conditions. The millions that it takes to create those conditions at the world’s greatest orchestras are among the best spent dollars on the planet, and those are the organizations I most love working with, and the ones I want to work more with. Still, I think all orchestras bennefit from escaping their safe zone- Berlin Phil hornist Fergus MacWilliam once said that he still can’t believe how much the orchestra risks in every concert.  

However, somehow I can’t escape the feeling when I look back at my OES years that destiny insisted that in that place at that time, we had to make something musical happen. Whether there was an audience that was clamoring for Mahler and Strauss in Eastern Oregon was beside the point. Whether it made sense to embark on a journey like that hundreds of miles from the nearest conservatory was beside the point. I just had to be- in that place, at that time.

It’s been a messy process, but when I step back and look at it, it’s amazing how organic and inexorable the process of musical growth has been there, even if the price has been high (there’s a good reason we seem to burn through personnel managers so fast- it’s an impossible job there, and it’s certainly taken a lot out of me). I sometimes drive myself and my colleagues mad wishing we could bring order to the whole thing- that the project could have a more stable structure, and that we could somehow make the whole thing a bit less rag-tag, that…..

I could end this post with a “but what would the fun in that be,” but the grown-up truth of it is, it would be more fun if it were easier, but, like I said, we didn’t get to choose this moment and this place. It chose us.

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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

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2 comments on “Interviews- Saving the best for too late….”

  1. Broadcaster with a Bb Clarinet

    The OPB segment will air at 6:51 a.m. Pacific time. If you miss it on the radio tomorrow, it will be available on our site sometime later on.

  2. ComposerBastard

    Are you kidding? Could anyone believe a remote orchestra like OES would dare try something like a Mahler monster at all? This is pretty damn terrific from any position you look at it from. What more can you say?

    I have this vision of some Capraesque scene of all these old ’40’s pickup trucks pulling up in a farm, lights on early in the morning, dust and tire tracks, and people in jean overalls, bowlers, clamering out the back with their instruments…harps, horns, you name it….rolled up sleeves, strong fore arms, heading to the glow coming from the doors of a barn for a rehearsal.

    Is that cool or what?

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