A much-anticipated evening of music

The expressions “long-awaited” and “much-anticipated” are clichés that have long since left their real meanings and original usage behind. In classical music-speak, “long awaited” or “much anticipated” are usually used to refer to routine weekly debut performances by young soloists. One usually encounters these expressions in reviews and press releases in contexts like this:

“This performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the 793rd performance of this work the the orchestra has given this year, marked the long-awaited and much-anticipated _SO debut of 19-year old violinist…..”

It does beg the question of how long people could have been awaiting the debut of someone who only finished at Curtis two weeks ago, and how much audience members could really have anticipated an appearance by a violinist they’d never heard of until reading said press release.

“Long-awaited” can also mean, in certain rare instances, that Hell has finally frozen over, as in:

“This concert marked the long-awaited return of the orchestra’s former music director, Maestro Burnedbridge, who has not been invited back to conduct the orchestra since calling the organization’s executive director a “miserable scumbag” and lighting the board president’s mailbox on fire when he left the group in 1977.”

However, last Friday, I think I can honestly say I participated in a concert that was genuinely long-awaited and much-anticipated, not least by those of us involved in it.

It was a grey and dreary day that began with misting rain, which evolved through the evening into a fairly serious snow storm. In a lovely church in central Malvern, a group of musicians gathered to rehearse and perform a concert for local music lovers. Nothing unusual there….

But this group of musicians was the English Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra returning to their historic hometown of Malvern after a long absence, offering the first concert of their new self-promoted subscription series. On the podium was their new conductor, making his long-awaited and much-anticipated debut with the ensemble.

I’d been aware of the ESO since I moved to the UK, but it was really last summer that the winds of fate started blowing the orchestra and I towards each other in earnest. Some informal discussions with musicians from the orchestra intrigued me, and they encouraged me to strike up a dialogue with the ESO management. Further discussions with the ESO brain trust were even more encouraging- I think we all felt like we were in broad agreement about what a truly modern orchestra ought to look like and how it can make itself matter to people. They saw me work, listened to my recordings and asked around. I checked them out. Musicians who had worked with me elsewhere offered support, feedback and encouragement to both sides. What the heck, we thought- let’s put some concerts in the diary and see if we can make this thing work. No guarantees, no high-powered agents, no elaborate contracts. Just goodwill, high hopes, trust and instinct.

And so the months went by as we waited for Friday’s concert. Programs were planned, soloists engaged, announcements sent out, orchestra branding was refreshed, the website redesigned, posters and fliers printed, music ordered, and so on. All of this before a note of music could be played. Of course, I’d worked with many members of the ESO in other great orchestras in Cardiff and Stratford, but working with individual members of an orchestra, especially in other orchestras with their own traditions and characters, is not the same as working with the actual orchestra itself. What was the ESO going to be like? Would we get on? Could they still play? Did they want to play?

Well, one thing I was sure of before we’d played a note together was that this was an orchestra that, by and large, really, really wanted to play. The orchestra had been through a lot of ups and downs since 2006 or so- from moments of great financial peril, to moments of great artistic expectation when Tod Handley, in their darkest hour, took up the role of Principal Conductor and led them in a series of concerts that people in and around the band are still talking about with a sense of genuine awe, to heartbreak when Tod’s health finally gave out. What’s remarkable is that, through it all, the core of this orchestra, all busy, high-powered professional musicians with lives to get on with and mortgages to pay, has remained remarkably stable. Players have been incredibly loyal and patient. Again and again over the last 8 months, I’ve heard members of the orchestra say “this is the orchestra we really love to play in,” or words to that effect.

It is not always thus in the music world- it’s all too easy for orchestral colleagues to take each other for granted, or for management and players alike to casually assume that life would be perfect if only the other party were doing as good a job as they were. It’s easy for conductors to forget which orchestra they’re conducting. Orchestras can be cesspools of envy, jealousy and frustration, where everyone finds themselves consumed with ennui. If only the union would let us do something different, muse management. If only I could get out of this concert, thinks the player.

And there we were on Friday. A management team that had stuck it out, battled through financial catastrophe, sorted the finances and built a visionary outreach and education project. A group of musicians who had continued to make the orchestra a priority through all the lean years because it was the orchestra they wanted to be playing in. And an American conductor, making his long-awaited, and much-anticipated debut with the orchestra in a program of Ullmann, Mozart and Beethoven. Nobody wanted to be there more than he did.

More to the point- when was the last time you went to a concert where you honestly felt that everyone involved really, really wanted to be there, doing exactly what they were doing?

So, how’d it go?

We started rehearsal with the Ullmann, and knowing the difficulties of the piece inside out, I began with the Finale. The first section of the movement is challenging in a manageable way, but the middle section is extremely, extremely difficult. I remember watching the recording session in the booth last year when the English Chamber Orchestra (no relation) recorded it. When they got to that middle section, it crashed and burned so badly that all of us in the booth were reduced to sympathetic howls of laughter. Of course, working with the speed and focus of all great British orchestral musicians, the difficulties were soon surmounted. So, would the ESO have all sussed out the traps and prepared so meticulously that we could just read it through at concert level? What would happen when we read the piece for the first time?

Well, I gave my first-ever ESO upbeat and the orchestra ripped into the Finale with genuine ferocity. I could tell immediately that this is still a string section proud of its history as a string orchestra. The sound was big and powerful, the articulation already remarkably coherent and the phrasing already mostly there. Then we got to “the” passage. Hilarity ensued. Then we sorted it out

The rest of the rehearsal felt, dare I say, rather normal. Soloist Chris Richards sounded great on the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. There were balance issues to sort and articulations to agree on, but it came together without drama or frustration. Regular Vftp readers will know I’ve not always had happy experiences with the piece. After the break, it was on to Beethoven 2- a tricky and unforgiving piece even by Beethoven’s standards. Lots to do in not very much time, but it all came along quickly in spite of the fact that it was becoming obvious to me that all of us were getting tired. By the end of the afternoon, I was really struck by the individual and collective musicianship and intelligence of the orchestra.

We finished at 5:30 with the rain falling outside in huge, grim sheets- it was that uniquely British rain that feels like it’s made of one part water and two parts misery. By 7:30, the rain had changed to snow- a substance I’m told many people in this country believe to be toxic, flammable, acidic, explosive and carcinogenic. In most cases, the mere forecast of snow leads to the national closure of all airports and schools for weeks. Apparently, growing up in the shadow of the majestic Malvern Hills has made the citizens of this beautiful town in the heart of Elgar country more resilient in the face of the white death, especially when good music is on offer, than most of their countrymen. We had an audience.

ESO 22 March 2013

Ken and the ESO’s maiden voyage in Malvern
Picture by Benjamin Ealovega

And they had a concert- by a gathering of musicians who all seemed to want to be there. And the concert?

It was a good gig.

A very good gig.

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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 much-anticipated evening of music”

  1. elrond

    Kenneth,
    Thanks so much for a beautiful description of the rehearsal and concert. Your blog is a pleasure to read.
    I am a classical music lover, no longer even an amateur musician. I stumbled upon your blog via a Google search several months ago, and have been returning ever since. You provide wonderful insights. I especially love your lists (“the best,” “the most”) – please keep them coming.
    There is one thing I’d like to follow-up on. You said, “Orchestras can be cesspools of envy, jealousy and frustration, where everyone finds themselves consumed with ennui.” Could you elaborate? Not in a gossipy way, and obviously no need to name names. But I would love to hear about the more personal side of dealing with musicians, and how you as a conductor navigate the various conflicts.
    Thanks again!

  2. Pingback: Reaction: ESO at Christchurch Malvern- Ullmann, Mozart and Beethoven » ESO

  3. Sebastian

    Musicians are people, creative and passionate, skilled and have mastered something, become accomplished. But they are people and people in groups… they are sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes afraid, sometimes brave. Sometimes all those things and more all at once all in one moment. The stage is an interesting place: it is exposed, it is real, there is nowhere to hide. Great things can happen, great tests are taken. Sometimes, when it seems the test was passed, there isn’t a better feeling on Earth. It’s magic. That’s all that matters. Real magic.

    Thanks Ken.

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