Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
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It’s exactly 30 years today since the death of Hans Gál.

In his early career, he was one of the compositional stars of his generation, his music heard in leading concert halls and opera houses across Europe.

First banned by the Nazi’s in 1933, he escaped to the UK and went on to a distinguished second career teaching at Edinburgh University. Fortunately, his inner light as a composer never faded, and he continued composing works brimming with originality, lyricism and feeling well into his 90’s.

Gál had the temerity to outlive his “historical moment,” and in the last 20-30 years of his creative life, he was treated as something of an anachronism. At the time of his death, there wasn’t a single compete recording of his orchestral music available- a disgraceful state of affairs which carried on until 2009. Thanks in large part to the efforts of visionary recording companies, particularly AVIE Records, an ever-widening selection of his music is not being heard and discussed world wide. Important recent books on 20th Century music, including Forbidden Music by Michael Haas have discussed Gál’s achievement and legacy in great depth.

But his music remains a rarity. It is long past time for the BBC Proms to feature Gál, and it seems crazy that more orchestras aren’t racing to programme his compelling symphonies or his beguiling concertos for Violin, Cello or Piano. There is still much to be done.

18 days ago |
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Some very exciting news!

I’m very pleased to report that I have signed with Andrew Strange for general management.

Andrew has extensive experience in both artist management and orchestral touring, having spent ten years with IMG Artists Europe and subsequently working with Harrison/Parrott, Rayfield Allied, and International Classical Artists. He currently represents a select group of international conductors, soloists and ensembles, as well as providing consultancy for a range of orchestras and festivals.

I’m really looking forward to working with Andrew to develop conducting links with new orchestras and opera companies, but also very excited to partner with him to find ways of building on some of the commissions and recordings I’ve been involved in putting together with my own orchestras over the last several years through new tours, festivals and residencies. It’s really important to me to that the work we’ve done to raise awareness of wonderful music by the likes of Hans Gál, Philip Sawyers, John Joubert – Composer and Deborah Pritchard translates into ongoing performances and wider audiences.

Says Andy: “I’ve followed Kenneth’s burgeoning career for several years now, and I’m delighted that I finally have the opportunity to collaborate with such a talented and progressive artist. I am looking forward greatly to working with Ken on a range of innovative and cutting-edge projects.”

I’m also delighted that media and press relations will continue to be handled by Melanne Mueller at MusicCo International. MusicCo have done transformational work on my behalf for the last several years, and I’m very excited now to see how we can all work together to create new kinds of musical opportunities.

Contact information for both Andrew and Melanne is on my webpage
http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/contact/

19 days ago |
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You can hear my colleagues in the English Symphony Orchestra and me perform this fantastic work on Hereford Shirehall on Sunday, the 1st October.

Booking info here

Haydn listening to the radio, thinking Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Symphony no.60 in C major “II Distratto” (The Distracted Gentleman)

The symphonies Haydn wrote during the middle period of his creative life are often referred to as his Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) symphonies. Sturm und Drang was firstly a literary movement, and, as the title of the movement would suggest, it was a movement rooted in high-stakes melodrama. Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period produced many of his most passionate and fiery works, but also many of his most innovative and radical. However, Haydn was, if nothing else, the most unpredictable composer who ever lived- whether note-by-note, bar-by-bar or piece-by-piece, one never knows what to expect next from him. So it was that in the midst of all of these intense and dramatic works, Haydn would pen the funniest piece of symphonic music ever written, his Symphony no. 60 “Il Distratto” (“The Distracted,” or the “Absent-Minded” or even “The Addle-Minded”).

This piece actually started life as incidental music for a comic play by Jean François Regnard which was being performed at the summer castle in Eszterháza where Haydn worked. Following the successful run of the play, Haydn adapted the music into a symphony in six movements. The play is a farce depicting the travails of Leandre, a man so absent minded that he very nearly misses his own wedding. Haydn managed to mine Regnard’s farce for every possible ounce of comedy, and the symphony includes at least one great coup de theatre.

Although the mood of Il Distratto is miles away from the existential struggles and fiery declamations of works like No. 44 (Trauer) or No. 49 (La passione), it shares with those works a wealth of invention, innovation and experimentation. For the layman, it might be easiest to simply summarise this is a seriously crazy piece of music.

Leandre’s daydreaming and bumbling creates all sorts of opportunities for interesting musical moments. In the first movement, we hear the orchestra grinding repeatedly to a halt as the protagonist loses his train of thought completely before awakening with a start. Midway through, they orchestra starts playing music from a completely different Haydn symphony (a quote from The Farewell). In the second movement, the rehearsal for the wedding procession breaks down when the elegant music of the procession is repeatedly disrupted by a passing marching band, and while the wedding rehearsal attempts to restore order, Leandre finds himself drinking with friends to a quote from an ancient French folksong “In the Pub, I find wisdom and advice.” The third movement starts as a traditional courtly minuet- just the sort of dance one would expect to hear at a posh wedding, but one can hear Leandre’s thoughts wandering off into a slightly melancholic bit of Bach-ian counterpoint. The middle of the movement is even stranger, built on a rustic quotation from a Balkan folk song. It would seem that the protagonist has found himself in a completely wrong part of town. There follows a wild Presto which might have made a fine Finale in a “normal” Haydn symphony (although this writer has yet to find a normal Haydn symphony), but there are still two more movements to go. There’s a clear hint Leandre is still lost in the migrant neighbourhood with another Balkan song quoted midway through.

The fifth movement is a drastic change in mood- Haydn calls it Adagio di Lamentatione. Whose lament, though? Perhaps Leandre’s beloved is getting worried she’s been abandoned on her wedding day? Music of great lyricism and pathos gives way to another of the moments of weird stasis which populate the symphony- has Il Distratto lost the plot again? A noisy brass fanfare serves as a much needed wake-up call, shattering completely the poetic atmosphere, before we return to the beloved’s lament. The movement ends with another bizarre interruption, trailing off into silence for a moment before Leandre remembers where he’s supposed to be and goes charging off, fast and loud, to the end of the movement. The final Prestissimo starts promisingly- the lovers are reunited and the wedding is about to begin when we realise that, in all the chaos, the musicians forgot to tune their instruments…. It’s not a pretty sound.

— Kenneth Woods

28 days ago |
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Respected composer Maynard Pitchworth is reported to be struggling to come up with an inspiration for his recently completed new orchestral work.

Pitchworth’s output includes such popular works as the concert suite “Strips of Bacon” retroactively inspired by the eerie similarity of the visual impacts of triptychs by painter Francis Bacon to Sunday morning comic strips, his tone poem “Darkest Peru”, composed in 1985 and named after a trip to the Andes in 1987, and “Brown Matter”, composed in 1992 and subsequently named for the late trumpet player, Clifford Brown, whose recordings Pitchworth first encountered shortly after writing the piece.

Pitchworth is reported to have struggled for months to come up with a reason for having written his latest completed work, a fourteen minute orchestral piece loosely anchored in F minor using a modified sonata allegro form which ends with a short fugal coda. He started the new piece in his studio immediately after finishing the two movement work which was later called “Pitcher Pictures” post-creatively inspired by two paintings by Picasso (Still life with apples) and Cezanne (Still life with fruit),. His programme note for the piece noted that the “seeds of this piece came from Picasso’ apples, while the formal structure was modelled on the shape of the pitcher, in which a nearly perfectly symmetrical form is disrupted by handle and spout in order to have use. ” Pitchworth first saw the paintings at the National Gallery about a month after finishing the orchestration of the piece.  “It’s a powerful metaphor for sacrifice as an expression of the human condition- we must be prepared to forego abstract perfection in the cause of utilitarian good. Agency can only exist where there is imperfection.” The two movements were subsequently found to use harmonic schemes which post-compositionally reflected the subtle difference in the fruits depicted by the two master painters. “After completing the piece and getting to know the paintings on which I later modelled it, I realised the first movement is essentially harmonically static- it stays in A “for apples” major throughout. The second movement is more harmonically wide-ranging,  post-compositionally found to have been inspired by the subtle contrasts of the peaches, limes, lemons and oranges Cezanne rendered so magnificently. When the coda lands in A major, we realise that the apples were always home fruit of the entire work.”

Cezanne and Picasso: Described by the composer as a “compelling “pear” of inspirations”

The new work was written in a calm atmosphere of steady professionalism during reasonably well-structured composing time on weekday mornings before Pitchworth left home each day for his regular afternoon teaching of A-level music. But now that it is finished, friends and colleagues say Pitchworth is desperate to come up with a reason for having been inspired to write it in a booze and pill inspired sleepless weekend around the time of the recent solar eclipse.

“Audiences today need to know what inspired a piece once you have written it,” Pitchworth is reported to have explained to a student, “and if I can’t come up with some kind of painting or natural wonder or colour that nobody else has already composed about to have inspired this new piece, I might as well bin it. All of the good inspirations have already been taken. There’s just no post-creative creative space left in our artform anymore.”

Once Pitchworth has found an inspiration for the completed work, he can then begin the hard work of writing a programme note which will explain how the already-finished piece reflects the newly-discovered post-compositional inspiration or model.

30 days ago |
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Joubert’s Jane Eyre is hauntingly intimate – review

   
April Fredrick sang the title role in John Joubert’s Jane Eyre

Christmas is coming, and choirs are getting ready to sing such perennially popular carols as Torches! and There is no rose. Their composer, John Joubert, is meanwhile anticipating his 90th birthday in the spring, and the occasion will be marked by the release (on Somm Recordings) of his opera Jane Eyre. Recorded live at this world premiere concert performance by the English Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, it is proof again of Joubert’s distinctive voice, and a reminder that there is much more to his music than those deservedly well-loved carols.

Domiciled in Britain since 1946, the Cape Town-born Joubert has played a significant role in this country’s musical life, yet the extent and originality of his output are sometimes overlooked. Composing in almost every genre, he has a work-list (currently nudging towards Op. 200) embracing chamber music, two symphonies, four concertos and eight operas, the latter reflecting his strong literary instincts and including adaptations of George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.

Completed nearly 20 years ago, his Charlotte Brontë opera has undergone revision and tightening to emerge in the two-act form heard here. Kenneth Birkin’s libretto distills the emotional essence of the novel – rather than its epic sweep and detail – taking a selective “scenes from” approach. It works hauntingly well, although amid a series of mostly intimate duets, the sudden ballooning of the cast in the wedding scene not only feels like something out of a different work but might prove an obstacle to opera houses looking to stage the piece.

While Joubert’s well-chosen operatic models are to some extent evident, his musical language is individual and he sustains the long scenes imaginatively. There is nothing obviously “English” about the atmosphere, although Joubert does sometimes suggest what a less chilly-hearted Britten might have sounded like. A natural opera composer, Joubert writes for a busy orchestra that drives the action along and illuminates it, without overwhelming the singers.

In the title role, April Fredrick sang with a lyrically gleaming soprano, soaring rapturously on Joubert’s singer-friendly lines. David Stout supplied virile tone as Rochester, and Mark Milhofer was incisive as the repressed Revd St John Rivers. Kenneth Woods conducted a well-prepared performance that ought on disc to win new admirers for the operatic Joubert. British opera companies have all too shabbily ignored his work, but American houses – often receptive to big literary adaptations – might take note.

1 month ago |
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A fantastic review from BBC Music Magazine in their August 2017 issue for volume two of the Complete Piano Concertos of Ernst Krenek

“All the soloists on this beautifully recorded disc deliver totally committed performances. Special praise, however, is due to the English Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Woods, conductor, who negotiate this totally unfamiliar music with real flair.”

1 month ago |
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This is another real YouTube treasure.

I’m conducting this mini-masterpiece tomorrow for the first time in about 20 years, but it’s a piece you hear (or least I hear) all the time, and there are many good performances out there under Bernstein’s baton (and others). The most famous, and most often seen and heard, recording is his LSO performance from late in life. It’s surprisingly deliberate and has a stonking great mistake in the cymbal part.

This is really special. It’s fasssssssst and really virtuosic. The NY Phil could be a very sloppy orchestra in those years (I re-listened to Bernstein’s famous recording of Peter and the Wolf the other day and and was pretty shocked at just how ragged and careless it is). This is tight as a drum and thrillingly played.

And what an achievement these Young People’s Concerts were. Presented by one of the world’s greatest conductors at the peak of his considerable powers, speaking and conducting without notes or score(s) on live television. I think it’s sooooooo important we give young audiences the best of our musicianship, our preparation, our insight and our love of music. It’s so upsetting when one feels that musicians are performing in “kids concert” (ie “not as good as in a “real” concert”) mode. Bernstein sets the bar so high here.

My first experience of this piece was playing it in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) as a very young cellist. To this day, it always reminds me of my many dear friends in the orchestra and the inspirational leadership of James R. Smith, who inhabited this music with such understanding, humanity, precision and warmth.

What elevates Candide is that Bernstein finds a way to turn what could just be a virtuoso romp into a piece full of love and joy. The soaring “love” theme, such a joy to play, is what life as a musician is, or at least should be, about. Bernstein’s generosity of spirit burns off the page. Pure musical joy.

1 month ago |
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More international praise for John Joubert – Composer‘s magnificent Jane Eyre- An Opera in Two Acts on SOMM Recordings, this time from Classica in France.

‘The vocal distribution of this creatiòn in Birmingham is of astounding beauty. April Fredrick assumes from end to end an overwhelming role with a palette that evolves from alto to coloratura soprano with supreme ease, with breath-taking performances by David Stout and Mark Milhofer. The orchestration of this opera is a triumphant abundance of riches, finesse and intensity, perfectly realised by the English Symphony Orchestra and the sensitive, dramatic and attentive direction of Kenneth Woods.’

Order your copy today and find out why this is one of the most talked-about and praised operas to appear in the last two decades.

1 month ago |
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A little update on the Brahms Piano Quartet orchestration project, for those of you interested….

A quick summary of how we got to where we are!

The arrangement had its genesis in 2008 in Ischia when the idea came to me. I spent a good chunk of that summer annotating my score of the original version. In spite of my great excitement for the project, that was the year my first child was born and the project kept getting pushed back and pushed back. In autumn 2014, I’d hoped to programme it with my friends in the Surrey Mozart Players, but again, it had to be pushed back (my fault) until the end of that season. Finally, in June 2015, we did it. 2014-5 was a monumentally intense year here on all fronts, and the orchestra were unbelievably helpful, patient and supportive through the whole process. A particular challenge when adapting a piece with a significant piano part for orchestra is how closely do you adhere to the original- where is the line between making it absolutely faithful to the original (not actually possible) or idiomatic (not always Brahms’ own primary concern, but an important one)? It was a memorable and exciting experience. I felt like the piece worked very well in its new orchestral clothing.

After the elation and relief of the applause, I already knew revisions were called for. Mindful of Brahms’ well-documented sense of restraint and affection for the traditional roles of the instruments, I had handled the brass in particular with a great deal of discretion. After the performance, I realised I had erred too much on the side of caution, and, looking again at the full range of Brahms’ orchestral music, there was more scope for using the brass creatively and expressively than I had allowed for. I spent some of the rest of the summer revising the score.

Fast forward to 2017. At last- a performance is secured with the English Symphony Orchestra. Time now for a final revision. Time clarifies things. In a process like this, it’s useful to capture the moments of inspiration and insight, such as the early days on Ischia or the days immediately following the SMP performance, and to try to get one’s thoughts on the page as fast as possible. On the other hand, closing the score for 18 months and coming back to it with fresh eyes is equally important, and going through it slowly again this summer has helped me to see further opportunities for improvement and to find previously elusive solutions for some technical challenges.

Who knew it could be so complicated? I’ve always rated Brahms as an absolute genius of orchestration, and to orchestrate his music, you have to understand the rhetoric of it. I thought the first version was pretty successful on the rhetorical front, but needed more pizzaz.. It’s not just about assigning notes to parts in an attractive way, but that is important. Getting close to his fluency and honesty as an orchestrator has proved a monumental challenge, especially when dealing with the piano writing. I was slightly cheered earlier this summer to hear David Matthews speak about some of the orchestrational challenges of Mahler’s 10th Symphony that he and the Cooke team spent years discussing. For whatever reason, finding the right orchestration for a master’s music seems to be inevitably harder than finding it for your own. I think (hope!) we’re just about there with this piece, and finding a way to solve problems which have stymied you for years can be sooooo satisfying.

The first part of this story in a way was about struggling to find time for a project. Thankfully, once we got into the work of that first performance in Guildford, the project asserted itself and it finally started to get the time it needed. There’s nothing like a few weeks of all-nighters to move a project forward. Hearing it and working on it with a live orchestra was invaluable. Now, taking time over the final corrections is proving equally valuable.

Remember, we’re tying the professional premiere of the piece in Cheltenham Town Hall on the 21st of November to a recording for Nimbus Records, but we need your help to make it happen.

Free CD for all donations over £40

Free download for all donations.

https://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/eso2006/brahms

2 months ago |
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We’re delighted to note a wonderful review of Philip Sawyers‘s Third Symphony and Songs of Loss and Regret as performed at St John’s Smith Square on 28 February in the new issue of Musical Opinion – Quarterly from Martin Anderson.

Both works and the Fanfare also heard on that concert feature on our upcoming Nimbus Records recording to be released in October.

“Profundity in any art can drain you, leave you with a feeling of cathartic emptiness, and Songs of Loss and Regret left me with just that sense that I had experienced a major statement about the human condition. If it’s not a masterpiece (a word one must deploy with caution), it is at least one of the best things of its kind in a very long time….

“Robert Simpson used to talk about this or that composer speaking ‘with the breath of a symphonist’, and it was very soon clear that Sawyers was thinking on the kind of scale that would have earned Simpson’s approval. The buoyant second subject made it equally clear that his natural mode of thought is contrapuntal, and the thrilling development was a feast of imaginative and engaging counterpoint.

“….Sawyers’ Third Symphony is a tremendously impressive accomplishment. If the subsequent commissions by ‘The 21st C. Symphony Project’ turn out to be only half as good, it will still be a cause for celebration. The ESO gave this opening instalment what was obviously a zinger of a performance, Woods’ detailed direction embracing both its ambitious scale and complexity of detail; the composer, certainly, seemed dizzy with pleasure when he took his bow, and we civilians in the audience knew we had heard something special…”

Full text below:

“The English Symphony Orchestra – enjoying a comet-like rise under Kenneth Woods, its Principal Conductor since 2013 – has had the wizard idea of commissioning nine new symphonies in an undertaking called, naturally enough, ‘The 21st C. Symphony Project’. The first commission went, equally naturally, to Philip Sawyers, who was appointed ‘John McCabe Composer-in-Association’ to the orchestra in 2015. The ESO concert in St John’s, Smith Square, on 28 February, duly presented the premiere of Sawyer’s Third Symphony, and a huge – though not flawless – achievement it turned out to be.

“In the event, we got more than our fair share of Sawyers premieres. The concert opened with the first performance of a new (2016) fanfare, performed with the brass in the gallery, dark and lowering before discovering a spiky energy, its central section lightening proceedings with a rather Waltonian-Arnoldian tune. It was followed by what, for me, was the high point of the evening, the London premiere of Sawyers’ Songs of Loss and Regret, for which Woods and the ESO were joined by the soprano April Fredrick. Songs of Loss and Regret was a 2014 commission to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I; initially written for voice and piano, it was recast for voice and strings the next year. It sets eight poems (by Housman, Tennyson, Gray, Owen and others) which deal with death – a timeless topic, of course, and Sawyers’ music taps into the wells of emotion that must be present in all his listeners, articulating that common feeling all the more powerfully for the English reserve with which it was expressed. The manner is predominantly lyrical and dignified – the first fast music comes only with the fourth song – but that dignity struggles to conceal the anger and anguish which broil below the surface and just occasionally break through; the use of modality, too, gives a timeless quality to much of the work. But there is variety within the restricted terms of reference Sawyers has set himself: the gentle Gondellied of the fifth song, for example, is met by a Britten-like fanfare to open the sixth; after the recitative-like seventh sinks into the cellos and basses, the eight charts a path from passion to pity. April Fredrick, soprano, performing without a score, was the moving soloist, her flawless delivery finding exactly the right balance between drama and pathos. Woods drew exquisite playing from his strings. Profundity in any art can drain you, leave you with a feeling of cathartic emptiness, and Songs of Loss and Regret left me with just that sense that I had experienced a major statement about the human condition. If it’s not a masterpiece (a word one must deploy with caution), it is at least one of the best things of its kind in a very long time.

“Between the opening Sawyers items and his symphony, Clare Hammondjoined Woods and the ESO for what turned out to be a top-drawer performance of Mozart’s Piano Concert No. 20 in D minor, K.466. In spite of a touch of orchestral hesitation in the slow movement, this reading was bold and dramatic; Hammond’s fiery finale especially allowed at least this listener to imagine the surprise that this first minor-key Mozart piano concerto (1785) must have struck in its early audiences.

“The outer dimensions of Philip Sawyers’s Third Symphony signpost its ambitious nature: 40 minutes long, it is cast in the traditional Allegro, Adagio, Intermezzo and Adagio – even before it began, one sensed it was going to make a claim for its place in that tradition. The 10-minute opening movement begins with a lissom melody with spreads through the strings, the quasi-fugal textures hinting at Hindemith before a sudden shake unleashes the full power of the orchestra. Robert Simpson used to talk about this or that composer speaking ‘with the breath of a symphonist’, and it was very soon clear that Sawyers was thinking on the kind of scale that would have earned Simpson’s approval. The buoyant second subject made it equally clear that his natural mode of thought is contrapuntal, and the thrilling development was a feast of imaginative and engaging counterpoint. The full-strings statement at the head of the Adagio was another link to the symphonic past (the allusion to Mahler 9 was difficult to ignore, even if it was accidental), but it was here that Sawyers both wrote the finest music in the piece and caused himself the most trouble: his material is pregnant with feeling, but he kept cross-cutting it with other ideas, preventing it from expanding, from generating and then resolving its inherent emotional crisis. Eventually a severe string statement leads to a paragraph of the utmost tragedy, a long-breathed (and long-denied) melody emerges and the strings put the music to sleep under strands of colour from solo horn, trumpet and oboe. The Intermezzo was even more of a contrast than these things usually are: this one’s of 1950s Ealing comedy stock, almost as cock-footed as Stravinsky’s circus elephants, skitting along over an oom-pah-pah bass. The finale leaps to life, in a powerful and vivid fugato – and like the first movement, it uses atonal melodic shapes in a tonal framework; here, too, the manner is vaguely suggestive of a fiercer, more angular Hindemith. A waltz-like episode briefly calms matters down before the brass suggest a passacaglia and there’s another fugal outburst, which the waltz again tries to pacify. What I suspected was the start of a brighter coda proves to be a feint; instead, there’s an imposing brass chorale, from which the pace quickens down the home strait.

“….Sawyers’ Third Symphony is a tremendously impressive accomplishment. If the subsequent commissions by ‘The 21st C. Symphony Project’ turn out to be only half as good, it will still be a cause for celebration. The ESO gave this opening instalment what was obviously a zinger of a performance, Woods’ detailed direction embracing both its ambitious scale and complexity of detail; the composer, certainly, seemed dizzy with pleasure when he took his bow, and we civilians in the audience knew we had heard something special…”

3 months ago |
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