After-gig ruminations, rants and random connections

I’ve just returned from my Surrey Mozart Players concert, and had a few, rather random thoughts to share while I unwind.

First- a great show. Bravo orchestra.

Now, to back up a bit…. In my post 11 hours at Vftp Headquarters the other day, I quoted my colleague, Erik Klackner’s colourful review of our OES horn section’s outstanding performance of Mahler 5. His comment led me in two interesting directions. Now- I don’t want to cast any aspersions or hurt any feelings, but I don’t think anyone who knew the OES in 2001 would have thought it would be likely that we would ever have a horn section that could deliver one of the best Mahler 5 horn performances I have every heard or might ever hear. At that point, it seemed more likely that orchestras world wide would be replaced by alien minstrels from the  17th dimension. My point is- whatever the band, whatever the location, whatever the situation- given time and a focus on the music, anything is possible, and you should never settle for less than the best in the long term. Today we may have to compromise, but if you take advantage of every opportunity for change and growth that comes along, anything is possible.

Second- Erik’s comment begot a comment from Lawrence Yates, principal horn of Lancashire Chamber Orchestra, where we just played Haydn 72, which is right up there with Mahler 5 for most-insane-horn-piece-ever-written. Given that in the last three weeks, I’ve done those two pieces, then tonight topped it off with the Strauss First Horn Concerto with the astounding Pip Eastop, this might have been the, er, horniest month I’ve had in a long time. Again, I don’t want to cast any aspersions or hurt feelings, but I work with a lot of young soloists, some wonderful and finished, some just wonderful, some just very young. There’s something so refreshing about getting stuck into a piece with a real, grown up, mature artist (lest you think I’m eulogising an old guy, Pip is, at most, only a bit older than me), where, from the first note, you not only know you’re dealing with a great instrumentalist, but a real musician, someone who’s not going to do anything, er, musically stupid. Pip has a nice blog, by the way. Witness (from his most recent post)

The appliance I am sporting is an Eb tenor horn. A wonderful hooter – It seldom cracks notes and it doesn’t keep filling up with water. I love it. Sadly, it is much maligned for it’s Hoffnung-esque tendency to self-caricature …and for sounding like a bronchitic goose.

Anyway, crazy for the horn as this month has been (and I’m doing the Schumann Konzertstucke in a few weeks!), think how crazy this would have been with the same horn section for all of it? Imagine waking up the day after playing first on Haydn 72 and having to rehearse the obligato on Mahler 5, then the day after that rehearsing the Strauss. Frighteningly, people do that sort of thing. Pip just played the 2nd Strauss last week. We all know the horn is impossible- there seem to be horn players who think the only way to not let the horn destroy you emotionally is to play it as little as possible, but I think we’ve all just got to take our beatings in life.

Somehow, between Mahler 5 and the Strauss 1st Horn Concerto, I picture a Matthew Guerrieri Mahler and Strauss cartoon. Strauss throw’s all his youthful, Oedipal horn angst into a concerto for/against his dad, then Mahler ….The two pieces would make an interesting, if psycho, program

Now- SMP. It’s been a thought provoking week, but one thing this week has really hammered home is the importance of venue.

Other than the luckiest of the lucky, most bands have to work too much of the time in lousy venues. I don’t want to cast aspersions or hurt feelings, but it breaks my heart that the OES is still stuck in the Vert after all these years- I wish we could have had a performance of last week’s Mahler in a real hall.

SMP rehearse in two different small halls, and neither is good acoustically. Bother are too loud and too boomy, but in different ways. What was interesting is that this was the first concert I have done with them when all our rehearsals were in the most-bad venue. I was really struck how much the change in space, from one not so great space to another, at least seems to let the players adjust their hearing of each other. In a piece like the Beethoven, which requires such ultra-precise ensemble work, the boomy hall we worked in without respite, which seems to have a delay from what the strings play to what the winds hear, it really got problematic. We really worked very, very hard in rehearsals to tighten things up- I may have even been a wee bit cranky on Friday night. Sorry for that. I was really frustrated that this normally crack ensemble was playing farther and farther behind the beat in a piece where you have to be right on top of things. In retrospect, I can see that the time lag was looping- the string sound was late getting to the wind, so the wind waited, which meant the strings had to wait for them.The longer we were stuck in that same hall with the same lag, the more frustrated we all got. I felt like Furtwangler in all the wrong ways- giving the downbeat then waiting some time for sound to emerge. Anyway, we worked very hard- I hope everyone knows how much I appreciate their commitment to sorting it out. In any case, when we got in the acoustically perfect space of Menuhin Hall today, and everyone could hear everything with perfect ease and transparency, the Beethoven just took flight. The performance was red hot- thank you orchestra!!!!!

While I’m speaking of venues…. I don’t want to, er, cast aspersions or hurt feelings, and I have no one particular venue in mind, but I do have a few thoughts about concert venue management based on this week at the Menuhin Hall I would like to share.

First of all, a venue should be open at least an hour before rehearsal so musicians (particularly percussionists) can load in at leisure. There should be a contact number clearly posted at the stage door that clients can call if the stage manger is not there. Arriving 20 minutes before a dress rehearsal (without apology) while an orchestra waits in their cars and on the lawn is unacceptable, and profoundly unprofessional.

Secondly, a competent light technician must be available before and throughout the rehearsal. Most lighting problems can be easily fixed before an orchestra arrives- orchestras need down-lighting. Light from nearly directly overhead hits their stands and allows everyone to read their music, but does not go in their eyes. Front-lighting, that is low angle spot lights originating out over the audience and pointing at the stage, which is the mainstay of theatrical lighting, is useless for orchestras. When the musicians look up at the conductor, which sooner or later they have to, no matter how badly they don’t want to, front lights blind them and cause migraine headaches.

Light technicians for classical concerts have a very easy job, with a lot of sitting around, but it is their job. Technicians on the clock should not be on their iPods or out in the lobby drinking coffee. They should also know how to work the light board. When the conductor is looking at a 48 channel programmable lighting console and the technician is haplessly sliding the same fader up and down because it is the only one he knows how to work, it speaks poorly of the venue management. When the technician (or more likely, his mate he sent to fill in for him) cannot turn on the very side and top lights the orchestra needs because “that needs an engineer….” Ah well, I wasn’t going to hurt any feelings or cast any aspersions. Still, back in September, one orchestra I was conducting didn’t play a note until 19 minutes into our one rehearsal in the hall because the idiot light tech had pissed off for a coffee before we started and not properly adjusted the lights. That’s at a venue that hosts concerts every week!

I’m afraid this is turning into a late-night rant, which I didn’t want at all! Focus on the positive, Woods- a month of truly astounding horn playing, and more to come! Rarr!!!! A Beethoven 1 full of wit, energy and swagger! But, remember- anything is possible- but venues matter. Everthing matters. Creating situations where musicians can give their best is important. The SMP musicians really dug deep this week, and I’m so glad they had an acoustic space worthy of their efforts. Once we got free of that rehearsal space (and put in a lot of work), they could show what they’re really capable of.

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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 “After-gig ruminations, rants and random connections”

  1. Broadcaster with a Bb Clarinet

    What do you say we bring the carpet knives next time and fix up the Vert?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Yes! Let the revolution come! What are they going to do, fire me? Carpet knives after rehearsal on Thurs in April. By Friday morning, we’ll have sound.

    Fortunately, we’ve been able to take controll of the lighting ourselves and our genius stage manager John has done everything humanly possible to make the best of the conditions in the Vert, but the heating is still controlled from another building which nobody in the orchestra has access to…..

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