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Kenneth Woods- conductor
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22 days ago |
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I’m conducting an incredibly cool programme next week with my friends in the English Symphony Orchestra on the 10th of February in Worcester’s lovely Huntingdon Hall. We’re doing Erwin Stein’s magical chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with the magnificent soprano April Fredrick. Here are my programme notes about the works on the first half of the concert- Schoenberg’s chamber version of the Emperor Waltz and and my own orchestrations/arrangements of four songs/arias.

Booking details for the concert are here. 

This is going to be rather special- music as fairy tale for grown ups, child-like-ness as the path the wisdom, nature as both threat and salvation, food as both comfort and torment. Don’t miss it!

About Today’s Concert- Thoughts from the Conductor

The Orchestra

As a name, “The Society for Private Musical Performances” may not roll off the tongue, but it is surely easier to say for most of us than the German original “Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen”. The Society was founded by the composer Arnold Schoenberg with the intention of making carefully rehearsed and comprehensible performances of newly composed music available to genuinely interested members of the musical public. In the three years between February 1919 and 5 December 1921 (when the Verein had to cease its activities due to Austrian hyperinflation), the organisation gave 353 performances of 154 works in 117 concerts that involved a total of 79 individuals and pre-existing ensembles. Devoted to fostering new discussion of emerging works, the Society did not welcome critics, and audience members had to join the Society in order to attend.

Works performed on the Society’s concerts reflected a huge range of the best of late 19th and early 20th Century works, but nothing by Schoenberg himself. Orchestral works were played in arrangements for small ensembles like the one you will hear tonight. Schoenberg himself made many of these arrangements, including the whimsical arrangement of the Strauss Emperor Waltz which opens our concert tonight, and he oversaw the work of other composers and arrangers including Erwin Stein, who arranged the Fourth Symphony of Mahler for a Society concert in 1921.

There was no standard instrumentation for these concerts, but most of the arrangements that have come down to us from the Society are for some combination of solo strings, a few solo winds, piano and harmonium. This sort of salon orchestra was often augmented by the liberal use of percussion, which can greatly enhance the range of colour the ensemble can produce.

For much of the 20th Century, the arrangements of the Society were largely forgotten. In an affluent age, there seemed to be little need for arrangements of Mahler symphonies and songs for 10-15 players. However, in the last twenty years or so, these arrangements have seen a real resurgence, and have become recognised as being artistically interesting in their own right. From a listener’s point of view, they offer a more intimate view of the music, one that perhaps allows the creativity and artistry of the individual performances to shine through. I’ve conducted and recorded a number of the arrangements from the Society and have become thoroughly seduced by their unique sound world. I hope those of you new to this kind of ensemble leave tonight suitably enchanted.

The Songs

Having decided to programme Erwin Stein’s orchestration of Mahler’s 4th Symphony on this concert, I had to give careful thought to what else should be on the programme. Because of their sheer scale, the question of what, if anything, should be on the same concert as a Mahler symphony is not always an easy one to answer. The Fourth is the shortest and slightest of Mahler’s eleven symphonies, but it is still nearly an hour long. In past, I’ve coupled it with everything from a Haydn symphony to the Grieg Piano Concerto, but since we were doing Stein’s reduced orchestration of the Mahler, it seemed silly to programme something for vastly different forces on the first half of the concert. The choice of Schoenberg’s affectionate arrangement of the Emperor Waltz was an easy one- the Fourth is in many ways one of Mahler’s most explicitly Viennese works.

However, not that many arrangements of the Society for Private Musical Performances survive, which made my programming options limited until it occurred to me that if the arrangements didn’t exist to do the repertoire we wanted to do, we could simply make new orchestrations for the same forces as the Stein Mahler Four. Once I had steeled myself to the challenge of making the arrangements you hear tonight, anything was possible.

In the 55 minutes of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, our wonderful soprano, April Fredrick, only sings for about five minutes, so it seemed obvious that the first half of tonight’s concert should include a selection of songs whose themes resonate with those of the symphony.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is primarily a meditation on nature and childhood. It explores, in very profound and sophisticated ways, the complexity of a child’s view of the natural world, with its mixture of threat and wonder.

Humperdinck’s great children’s opera, Hansel und Gretel, a quasi-Wagnerian setting of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, tells the story of two children in peril. The opera was composed in 1891-2. Richard Strauss conducted the first production in 1893, Gustav Mahler the second production in Hamburg in 1894. The adventures of Hansel and Gretel balance moments of deprivation and hardship with wonder, moments of horror with hope. The two selections I have adapted come from Act II, Scene 2. Having become lost in the forest, Hansel tries to find the way back, but he cannot. As the forest darkens, Hansel and Gretel become scared, and think they see something coming closer. Hansel calls out, “Who’s there?” and a chorus of echoes calls back, “He’s there!” Gretel calls, “Is someone there?” and the echoes reply, “There!” Hansel tries to comfort Gretel, but as a little man walks out of the forest, she screams. In the first section you hear tonight, the Sandman (sung by a soprano), who has just walked out of the forest, tells the children that he loves them dearly, and that he has come to put them to sleep. He puts grains of sand into their eyes, and as he leaves they can barely keep their eyes open. Gretel reminds Hansel to say their evening prayer, and after they pray, they fall asleep on the forest floor. My arrangement of this scene is essentially a reduction- wherever possible, I have kept true to Humperdinck’s original, with flute parts on the flute and string parts on the strings, and the harmonium standing in heroically for absent bassoons and horns. In the Evening Blessings, April changes roles from Sandman to Gretel, and our wonderful principal clarinet, Alison Lambert, takes on the role of Hansel.

Der kleine Sandmann bin ich – st!
Und gar nichts Arges sinn ich – st!
Euch Kleinen lieb ich innig – st!
Bin euch gesinnt gar minnig – st!Aus diesem Sack zwei Körnelein
Euch Müden in die cugelein;
Die fallen dann von selber zu,
Damit ihr schlaft in sanfter Ruh.
Und seid ihr fein geschlafen ein,
Dann wachen auf die Sterne,
Und nieder steigen EngeleinAus hoher Himmelsferne
Und bringen hold Träume!
Drum träume, Kindchen, träume!
Drum traume, Kindchen, traume!(Verschwindet. Volllge Dunkelheit.) .

HANSEL” (sclilaftrunken) .
Sandmann war da !

GRETEL Sandmann war da !
Lass uns den Abendsegen beten !

Abends, will ich schlafen gehn,
vierzehn Engel um mich stehn:
zwei zu meinen Häupten,
zwei zu meinen Füßen,
zwei zu meiner Rechten,
zwei zu meiner Linken,
zwei die mich decken,
zwei, die mich wecken,
zwei, die mich weisen
zu Himmels Paradeisen!

I shut the children’s peepers, sh !
and guard the little sleepers, sh !
for dearly do I love them, sh !
and gladly watch above them, sh!
And with my little bag of sand,
By every child’s bedside I stand ;
then little tired eyelids close,
and little limbs have sweet repose.
And if they’re good and quickly go to
sleep, then from the starry sphere above
the angels come with peace and love,
and send the children happy dreams,
while watch they keep !Then slumber, children, slumber,
for happy dreams are sent you
through the hours you sleep. 

HANSEL (half asleep).
Sandman was there !

GRETEL Sandman was there
Let us first say our evening prayer.


When at night I go to sleep,
fourteen angels watch do keep :
two my head are guarding,
two my feet are guiding,
two are on my right hand,
two are on my left hand,
two who warmly cover,
two who o’er me hover,
two to whom ’tis given
to guide my steps to Heaven.

Both Mahler’s 100-minute Third symphony and his Fourth, heard tonight, grew out of the musical material in The Heavenly Life, the short, beautiful song which forms the final movement of the Fourth Symphony, “Das himmlische Leben” or “The Heavenly Life.” In the first half of this concert, we hear his song “The Earthly Life” (“Das irdische Leben”), which forms a sort of bleak mirror to the song that will end this concert. Where “The Heavenly Life” tells us of a world of eternal peace and plenty, “The Earthly LifeT speaks of a world of terror and hunger. As with the Humperdinck, I have essentially stuck as closely as possible to Mahler’s own orchestration of the song, which is a model of clarity and economy. Although he is known for his use of vast forces, Mahler’s natural textural métier is chamber music-like clarity.

Mutter, ach Mutter, es hungert mich!
Gieb mir Brot, sonst sterbe ich!“
„Warte nur! Warte nur, mein liebes Kind!
Morgen wollen wir ernten geschwind!“Und als das Korn geerntet war,
rief das Kind noch immerdar:
„Mutter, ach Mutter, es hungert mich!
Gieb mir Brot, sonst sterbe ich!“
„Warte nur! Warte nur, mein liebes Kind!
Morgen wollen wir dreschen geschwind!“Und als das Korn gedroschen war,
rief das Kind noch immerdar:
„Mutter, ach Mutter, es hungert mich!
Gieb mir Brot, sonst sterbe ich!“
„Warte nur! Warte nur, mein liebes Kind!
Morgen wollen wir backen geschwind!“Und als das Brot gebacken war,
lag das Kind auf der Totenbahr’!
‘Mother, oh mother, I’m hungry!
Give me some bread or I shall die!’
‘Just wait! Just wait, my dear child!
Tomorrow we shall hurry to harvest!’And when the grain was harvested,
the child still cried out:
‘Mother, oh mother, I’m hungry!
Give me some bread or I shall die!’
‘Just wait! Just wait, my dear child!
Tomorrow we shall hurry and go threshing!’And when the grain was threshed,
the child still cried out:
‘Mother, oh mother, I’m hungry!
Give me some bread or I shall die!’
‘Just wait! Just wait, my dear child!
Tomorrow we shall hurry and bake!’

And when the bread was baked,
the child lay on the funeral bier!

Franz Schubert was, and always will be, the greatest exponent of the art song in human history. His output in song is without match in breadth, beauty, originality and importance. His songs were to be a huge influence on the creative development of Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s first masterpiece, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, or Songs of a Wayfarer, are hugely Schubertian in both their musical language and their subject matter. “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) is one of Schubert’s simplest and most popular songs, composed in 1817, when Schubert was just 20, to words by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. The song later formed the basis of a set of variations which gave Schubert’s 1819 work for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano, its name: the Trout Quintet. The song’s three verses tell the story of a child observing a fisherman at work, and her outrage when the fisherman muddies the water, driving the trout from the safety of the rocks onto the waiting hook. The fourth stanza, which Schubert didn’t set, makes clear that the song is, in part, a parable of innocence lost and a cautionary tale for young girls:

You who tarry by the golden spring
Of secure youth,
Think still of the trout:
If you see danger, hurry by!
Most of you err only from lack
Of cleverness. Girls, see
Seducers with their tackle!
Or else, too late, you’ll bleed

Heard in its context tonight, I think the song speaks again to the child’s view of our complex relationship with food and comfort, and the cost of that food and comfort. One couldn’t blame the father of the starving child in The Earthly Life for muddying the waters in order to feed his family. The child is outraged for the trout, but only because she clearly doesn’t know the pain of hunger.

In einem Bächlein helle,
Da schoss in froher Eil’
Die launische Forelle
Vorueber wie ein Pfeil.
Ich stand an dem Gestade
Und sah in süsser Ruh’
Des muntern Fishleins Bade
Im klaren Bächlein zu.Ein Fischer mit der Rute
Wohl an dem Ufer stand,
Und sah’s mit kaltem Blute
Wie sich das Fischlein wand.
So lang dem Wasser helle
So dacht’ ich, nicht gebricht,
So fängt er die Forelle
Mit seiner Angel nicht.Doch endlich ward dem Diebe
Die Zeit zu lang.
Er macht das Bächlein tückisch trübe,
Und eh’ ich es gedacht
So zuckte seine Rute
Das Fischlein zappelt dran,
Und ich mit regem Blute
Sah die Betrog’ne an.
In a clear little brook,
There darted, about in happy haste,
The moody trout
Dashing everywhere like an arrow.
I stood on the bank
And watched, in sweet peace,
The fish’s bath
In the clear little brook.A fisherman with his gear
Came to stand on the bank
And watched with cold blood
As the little fish weaved here and there.
But as long as the water remains clear,
I thought, no worry,
He’ll never catch the trout
With his hook.But finally, for the thief,
Time seemed to pass too slowly.
He made the little brook murky,
And before I thought it could be,
So his line twitched.
There thrashed the fish,
And I, with raging blood,
Gazed on the betrayed one. 

Schubert’s setting of The Trout is a compact masterpiece, barely more than a minute long. Given the sonic possibilities of expanding the accompaniment from piano to miniature orchestra, I decided to be more interventionist in arranging and expanding Schubert’s song. I have combined the three verses of the song with several, but not all, of the variations in the Trout Quintet. I’ve chosen to alternate strophes of the song with variations from the quintet that I thought suited the mood of the lyrics. In addition to knitting together the song and the quintet, I’ve had to transpose the song from its original key (D-flat major) to the key of the variations (D major) and I’ve performed a bit of harmonic surgery on the variations to make sure the new work flows in a logical way. The most drastic change, which will probably upset the purists and go unnoticed by everyone else, is that I have changed the key of lovely cello variation from B-flat major to D major. Unlike the Humperdinck and the Mahler, there was no orchestral original to work from here, so I’ve orchestrated the piano accompaniment of the song and gently expanded the instrumentation of the Quintet as needed.

Finally we come to another combination of song and variations by Schubert, both known as “Der Tod und das Mädchen” or “Death and the Maiden.” The song is based on a poem by Matthias Claudius and was written in 1817, the same year as “The Trout.” It has only two verses- one in which the Maiden pleads with Death to pass her by, and one in which Death assures her that he is a friend.

Das Mädchen:
Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!
Geh, wilder Knochenmann!
Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,
Und rühre mich nicht an.
Und rühre mich nicht an.
Der Tod:
Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!
The Maiden:
Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.Death:
Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

In 1824, Schubert used the song (in particular, the introduction of the song), as the basis of a set of variations which would become the slow movement of his String Quartet in D minor, one of his greatest chamber music works. Mahler’s love for the Quartet was enormous- it was one of two string quartets (the other was Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet) that Mahler orchestrated for performance by the full strings of the Vienna Philharmonic. This arrangement, like the others for flute (doubling alto flute), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), percussion, harmonium, piano and solo strings, starts with an exact lifting of the beginning of the slow movement of the Death and the Maiden Quartet, but wanders pretty far from the soundworld of Schubert’s two originals.

It’s not uncommon these days for one to hear a performance of the Lied, Death and the Maiden as a prelude to a performance of the complete quintet. I’ve chosen a different approach. As I alluded to above, the entirety of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony can be viewed as a development of the ideas in the song that concludes it. Rather than weave together song and variations of Death and the Maiden as I have with The Trout, I’ve orchestrated the entire slow movement of the string quartet except for the last bar, then orchestrated the song to come at the end. Structurally, it’s not all that different than the Mahler symphony- we hear the basis of everything at the end instead of at the beginning.

Death tells the Maiden to “Be of good cheer!” Does he speak the truth? Schubert’s tender coda is a hopeful clue that consolation awaits her.

1 month ago |
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If nothing else, 2017 tested one’s ability to live by rule that one doesn’t speak about politics or religion in polite company.

I’ve struggled to come up with some New Year’s thoughts this year because, frankly, it feels a little absurd to be talking about favourite concerts and exposition repeats (you should take them) when the political situation in my country is in a state of unprecedented decay and depravity. The biggest question of 2017, for the whole world, seems obviously to be whether America’s self-inflicted wounds are going to be fatal or not. That this moment of grave historical peril is happening is doubly infuriating because the threats and challenges that threaten to destroy our society, the international rule of law, and the ecological balance of the planet are pretty well-understood and relatively easily addressed. And yet, with the world’s dominant nation run almost entirely by a kleptocratic cult led by a mentally impaired, orange-faced comb-over fascist, it has been a year in which it seems virtually every political decision has been calculated to inflict maximum harm upon humanity at home and abroad, and on the planet. It gives me no pleasure to say I saw Trump’s election coming (I was pretty roundly shouted down by my FB friends when I called it back in August of 2016), but I honestly don’t know what comes next. The fact that we managed to completely botch our responses to the last two major challenges we’ve faced, 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, doesn’t exactly bode well. If President Obama had taken even one serious action to address the systemic causes of the 2008 crash, we wouldn’t be where we are today, so this is not a one-party problem.

For all the madness, corruption, idiocy and disregard for common sense and human decency that has dominated our politics this year, one gets the sense that we are astride a knife-edge moment in human history, ready on one side, to plunge into an abyss the likes of which we haven’t seen since the last World War. And yet, there are reasons to be hopeful- this year’s orgy of evil seems to have triggered a new political awakening which could turn our politics away from the cynical consensus which has dominated both American parties and spread across much of the world for the last forty years. The fact that the widely feared and expected sweep of Europe by other neo-fascists didn’t materialise after Trump’s election ought to be a source of real encouragement. Voices on the right and left calling for real political reform are louder than in a generation. A new, more hopeful, era could be just around the corner. Or it could be totalitarianism and mushroom clouds this time next year. The stakes are terrifyingly high, make no mistake. If we don’t change course, dismantling great universities, selling off our National Monuments, and even taking away health care from millions of people will seem like quaint worries.

I am quite sure that 2018 is going to be the most important year in our lifetimes- it will be a tipping point for good or ill. Turning back the forces which have consumed our nation and which threaten all of humanity will take an act of political will the likes of which our country has never delivered before. We’ve proven pretty good at decisive wars, but pretty bad at decisive political action, but the New Deal and Trust Busting of Teddy Roosevelt offer useful models. The majority of Americans who want to live in a tolerant, healthy, productive society will, in the next eleven months, have to overcome the political power of the oligarchy, the ingrained cynicism of the corporate media, vast corruption in the management of elections nationwide by state and local governments, and a networks of courts co-opted by corrupt know-nothing judges put in place to protect the interests of those who have hijacked our nation. As 2018 begins, the most powerful political force in the world is a party which doesn’t believe in science, facts or the rule of law. And the opposition party is corrupt, cynical, ineffectual and divided. Anything could happen.

In such perilous, grim and dangerous times, what is the point of being a musician? Does music have a place in an age of apathy (I could write a book about cultural apathy in the modern age) and despair? History teaches us that in dark eras, music matters more than ever, but is our current music industry fit for purpose? Can we rise to the occasion and make a difference to the world through profound, honest, original and outward-facing music as Copland did in the Great Depression or as Shostakovich did in the Battle of Leningrad? The forty-year fight to keep the musical lights turned on in an era of ever- shrinking revenues has meant that as a sector, we seem to have long since given up the fight to make the case for art music’s inherent, intrinsic value to humanity. There was a time, not so long ago, when the notion that art and entertainment were fundamentally different things (with significant areas of overlap) was not a controversial idea. No more.Money and popularity have become the only accepted measures of importance. Nowadays, art has to fight for survival in the commercial arena on the same terms as corporately funded junk culture.  And junk culture it is. Pop music and rock, which gave us so many creators of genius in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, comes into 2018 eating its own rotting corpse, recycling decades old clichés when it can be bothered to reach beyond watered-down cover songs. When American threatened to rip itself to pieces in the 1960’s, it wasn’t the next Copland who gave the nation the right songs for the time, it was Jimi Henrix, The Doors, Richie Havens and the rest of the Woodstock crowd. I don’t think the poet of our generation is going to emerge singing Madonna covers on America’s Got Talent.

The music world at the end of 2017 feels hugely enfeebled.

Again and again this year, I have found myself thinking that the common thread running through discussions about (classical) music and audiences, music and identity politics, and music and media is that, as a sector, so many of our colleagues have completely lost faith in music itself. Many of us seem to have given up trying to create the conditions for engaged and focused listening grounded in the belief that music affects us most deeply when we listen to it with the most intensity. Instead, we’ve staked our future on projections, promo videos, audience banter, clapping between movements, sycophantic embrace of pop culture, interdisciplinary work, box ticking, celebrity culture, marketing claptrap and identity politics. The idea that one could simply hear a piece of music and be moved deeply by it without any additional stimulus seems to carry no water at all. It’s no secret that art music of all kinds (including jazz, folk, rock and world music) faces huge economic challenges, but I have yet to see any proof that our wholesale embrace of bullshit and gimmicks as balm for all our ills is helping us build the audience of the future.

The great irony of the cultural (or anti-cultural) moment we find ourselves in is that this loss of faith comes at a moment when the creative side of classical music is in a golden age. There is so much fantastic music being written these days in so many styles that it is simply staggering. Likewise, there is a tidal wave of renewal and innovation tearing through the industry that has nothing to do with bullshit, entertainment or celebrity. A whole new generation of orchestras, ensembles, festivals and presenters are finding ways to delivery sensational performances of hugely innovative programs full of honesty and originality. If we could find a way to properly reward and support real innovation across the sector, just think what we could achieve. It remains a source of grave frustration that the kind of investment that would actually make the most difference to our art form (reliable small and medium sized tranches which can support a working framework for emerging and growing organisations) remains the hardest to come by. In my experience, the best work in the industry is being done in the most challenging circumstances. It is much the same in pop and rock- there is a generation of hugely gifted players and songwriters out there who have exactly zero chance of any of their music ever making it onto corporate radio or making any sort of profit from record sales. That seems an insane state of affairs, but we live in insane times.

I’m also a staunch believer in the importance of big institutions. It just saddens me that so many of them are so paralysed by groupthink and complacency. We can take comfort from the fact that the biggest of them all, the Berlin Philharmonic, has hired a new Principal Conductor on the basis of his musicianship and is doing such interesting and innovative work to engage with new audiences worldwide. The tale of several American orchestras which have risen hugely in artistic achievement only to crash into financial crisis is deeply worrying- when society ceases to support excellence, we are all at risk. The two major international conductors whose careers have capsized recently in sexual assault and/or harassment scandals are representatives of a whole generation of maestri who came of age in an era of easy money and unchecked power. Where conductors like Barbirolli and Solti had to help re-build their orchestras from scratch in the 1940’s and 50’s, this generation now finishing up got handed the keys to the family Bentley when they came of age and never had to worry about where the next tank of petrol was coming from for the rest of their careers. They took that metaphorical car on a free-spending generation-long joyride of forgettable recordings and middle-of-the-road concerts, and we now find our industry more or less out of gas and stalled on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with a battered Bentley with a backseat full of empty beer bottles.

If my generation, and that of my students and younger colleagues, has inherited an industry weakened from poor internal leadership, and trapped in a social context in which educational and cultural tends have been charging in the wrong direction for forty years, we can at least take comfort in the fact that history gives us a chance to show our mettle by having the courage to find a way to restore and reform our art form. We need not feel sorry for ourselves when we see what previous generations of musicians have done during times of war, economic collapse and oppression since the beginning of history. It’s been worse before and will be better again, barring a mushroom cloud over North Korea. In the last generation, it was the Bentley that mattered, in ours, it’s the petrol- our creative energy, our moral force, our communicative urgency.

On the day after Trump’s election, the group I was with cancelled our rehearsal. None of us could face trying to find the energy to make music at such a horrible moment. The next day, though, we came back to work, and by the end of the first hour, we all felt quite a bit saner. That first hour was conducted in monosyllabic style, but the end of the day, we were speaking in sentences. So it has continued for the next 13 months. With so much at stake in the world, being a musician can feel like an indulgence, and yet it is music and my family which has gotten me through 2017, and I expect I am not alone. And when being a musician means you can be part of bringing a piece like Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony to life, a piece which seems to so powerfully capture the sense of dread and rage so many of us feel about the state of the world today, but offers an ending that is hugely hopeful and defiant, our work feels far less indulgent. Art helps us in ways both tangible and mysterious, conscious and subconscious, to make sense of the world and to make sense of ourselves. All humanity has really ever had going for it was science, education, art and love. If we’re going to get through 2018, it will take a lot of all of those, and we artists have a big role to play in keeping this historical moment from being humanity’s “going out of business” sale. To all my friends and colleagues: let’s go out there and find and make the music which will help save the world.

Good luck to us all.

2 months ago |
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“What an astonishing year for British symphonies on disc… Philip Sawyers‘s classically structured Third, however, out-compels its rivals in sweep, scope and and the ESO’s gripping performance”

Congrats to April Fredrick, soprano, and producer Simon Fox-Gal, but especially to Philip. We’re so proud of our affiliation with him as our John McCabe Composer-in-Association, a collaboration which has yielded the three works on this disc, his wonderful new Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani, which we premiered in October with Simon Desbruslais, his Elegiac Fantasy in Memory of John Mccabe for Trumpet and Strings, his Violin Concerto which we premiere with Alexander Sitkovetsky in February and his new tone poem inspired by paintings of Samuel Palmer, Valley of Vision, which we premiere in March. Philip also wrote a wonderful student work, A Colwall Overture, which our ESO Youth Orchestras have performed several times this year.

Huge congratulations also to John Pickard, David Hackbridge Johnson and Steve Elcock. This is a golden age for symphonic music and we’re proud to play our part in its revival. Next up in our 21st Century Symphony Series is David Matthews (composer)‘s 9th Symphony, which we premiere in St George’s Church, Brandon Hill on the 9th of May and also record for Nimbus Records.

2 months ago |
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Filmed between recording sessions for Ken’s latest Nimbus CD, Ken and producer Phil Rowlands talk about his new orchestration of Brahms’ largest chamber music work.

2 months ago |
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A nice piece in the current issue of Classical Music Magazine about the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project.

Click here to subscribe.

Click here to purchase Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony on CD

Check it out on Spotify here:

4 months ago |
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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.

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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

Andrew Strange ANDREW STRANGE MUSIC Telephone: +44 (0) 7946 372572 E-Mail: Skype: andrew.noel.strange Web: 

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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

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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.

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