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Kenneth Woods- conductor
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For the second year in a row, the English Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director Kenneth Woods have received the Classical Music Magazine Premiere of the Year nod for the Midlands. Following on the 2015 selection of the premiere of Donald Fraser’s orchestration of the Elgar Piano Quintet at the Elgar Hall in the final concert of the ESO’s 2015 Elgar Pilgrimage, Christopher Morley, longtime senior music critic of the Birmingham Post, has made the ESO’s performance of John Joubert’s opera Jane eyre his 2016 Premiere of the Year.

The ESO’s Avie Records recording of last year’s Premiere of the Year went on to be a Classic FM CD of the Week and spent 8 weeks in the classical Top 20, all the more reason to look forward to the release of Jane Eyre on Somm Recordings in March 2017.

“…. Kenneth Woods conducting an on-its-toes English Symphony Orchestra and a totally committed cast of 12, among whom April Fredrick as Jane and David Stout as Rochester were simply outstanding…Joubert as a composer is unafraid to encompass the achievements of previous operatic greats…unleashing a wonderfully engaging well-structured language of his own…”




5 months ago | |
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We’re all very, very pleased and proud to see Sarah Beth Briggs’ wonderful AVIE Records recording of piano concerti by Mozart and Hans Gál get a Gramophone Magazine Critic’s Choice of 2016 from Guy Rickards in the year-end issue of the magazine. Bravos to Sarah and my wonderful colleagues in the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Congrats also to producer/engineer Simon Fox-Gal for guiding the recording process so artfully. This was a particularly wonderful project to be part of.

Available from the Downbeat Store at a special Christmas/Gramophone party price for a limited time only here:

You can read Guy Rickards’ original Gramophone review here.

“If there is a happier twentieth-century piano concerto than Hans Gál’s of 1948, I don’t know what it is…Sarah Seth Briggs gives a wonderfully balanced reading of music that seems familiar—in its Classical poise and charm—and strange (much occurs beneath the surface, especially harmonically, that confirms its modernity). Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany superbly…With crystal clear sound, this is the most enjoyable concerto disc I have heard since Krenek’s Piano Concertos (4/16) and Pritchard’s Wall of Water (5/15). Hang on, didn’t Woods conduct those, too…?”



5 months ago | |
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Members of the Metropolis Symphony Orchestra reacted with public expressions of glee upon learning that their colleague, principal trumpet player Jack Hammer, had taken delivery of a new, louder trumpet.

“I’m just so happy for Jack,” said Mabel Teargarden, a violist in the MSO. “I sit right in front of Jack at the back of the viola section, and it’s such a privilege to experience trumpet playing from a distance of just eighteen to twenty-four inches every day. I’m so pleased that Jack has done this- it’s great that he’s bought this new, louder, trumpet and I really can’t wait to station myself in my chair and hear what this new, more powerful instrument sounds like when positioned right behind my head.”

Hammer’s new, louder trumpet is a custom made, wide bore instrument with extra thick plating and nuclear-fused polonium mouthpiece coated in layers of lead and military-grade armor plating. Because of the instrument’s extraordinary weight and size, the Donnerkrieg Vector 7 rests on a steel-reinforced concrete tower which sits on a custom-made reinforced acoustically reflective weight-distributing platform. “It’s just an amazing feeling to finally be able to truly express myself as an artist on my new, louder trumpet” said Hammer. “Of course, we had to do some work with the stage team at Sorrow Hall to reinforce the floor around my chair since the trumpet and stand together weigh just over three thousand pounds, but the steel and graphite panel which sits under the trumpet stand not only spreads the weight across the stage, it’s highly acoustically reflective and helps the upper overtones which I’m looking for in the sound of my new, louder trumpet. I suppose you could say that thanks to the stand and the floor panel, it’s a new, louder, brighter trumpet. I am one lucky guy!”

Old-fashioned trumpets like this are volume limited because they don't come with a three thousand pound sound reinforcing concrete stand

Old-fashioned trumpets like this are volume limited because they don’t come with a three thousand pound sound reinforcing concrete stand

The Donnerkrieg Vector 7 also replaces the traditional tuning slide with a patented “turbo boost” key which raises the instrument’s pitch in increments of 15 cents every time Hammer presses it. “What a blessing for any trumpet player” said third hornist Will Splatt, “to be able to raise his pitch as often and as quickly as he wants just by pushing a simple button. He has complete and instant control over how sharp he plays. I’m so happy for Jack- he’s really earned this!”

Others in the orchestra shared Teargarden’s enthusiasm for Jack Hammer’s new, louder instrument. “I think I speak for everyone in the woodwind section, when I say we’re just so happy that Jack has fulfilled his long-held ambition to upgrade to a new, louder trumpet,” said Lester Reed, the MSO’s second bassoonist. “We’re all so excited to experience playing our first Mendelssohn symphony alongside Jack’s new, more potent trumpet. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like sitting next to a sound like that!”

Only a few musicians in the orchestra seemed to express concern about the implications of Jack Hammer’s purchase of his new, louder trumpet. “All of us in the brass section are really happy for Jack personally. It’s just great for him that he’s got a new, louder trumpet,” said principal trombonist Ton Tahlfart. “On the other hand, for the brass section to work as a team, we all have to be able to blend, and I’m very concerned that I may now need to purchase a new, louder trombone. This is something a trombonist like me would only consider with the greatest reluctance because new, louder trombones can often cost dozens of dollars.”

But Tahlfart seemed clearly in the minority. Concertmaster Frühund Sharp was quick to express his delight on hearing of Hammer’s purchase of this new, louder instrument. “Jack is a great colleague, and I just can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sat in the orchestra playing a piece like Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or a Haydn Mass and thought, poor Jack, he’s such a great artist, but just think what he could do with a new, louder trumpet!”

Maestro Robert van Bohyarti, recently returned from a tour as violin soloist in “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Deconstructed” for violin and an ensemble of 20 contrabass clarinets and African drumming ensemble, welcomed news of Jack Hammer’s new, louder trumpet. “The MSO’s bread and butter is Classical and early Romantic repertoire. We carry a core of 45 musicians and specialize in Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, sometimes playing Brahms with the kind of smaller string sections Brahms would have worked with in Meiningen. For us, it’s just fantastic news that Jack has finally bought a new, louder trumpet.”

7 months ago | |
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no_dollar_sign-290x290The relationship between artists and arts funders seems ever more complicated. It seems to me that most funders (trusts, public sector funders, private sponsors) lack the energy, time or knowledge to vet funding applications in the arts on the basis of merit or quality. The problem is compounded in music as few people making decisions about musical projects can read a score well enough to judge its merits. Instead, these days funders decide in advance who or what they want to fund, and artists have to somehow find a way to thread their artistic vision through the hole in someone else’s needle.

Take for instance a new and worthy scheme for supporting repeat performances of new musical work- it’s a wonderful idea, but the scheme has already decided which pieces by which composers they will fund. What if one wants to support one of the composers in the scheme, but the selected works are not programmable for that organization but others would be? What if a performing organization or artist thinks there are, dare I say it, better or more deserving composers not on the list? A project whose laudable goal is expanding the repertoire becomes self-limiting both in terms of the composers and works which could benefit from its support, but also limits which organization’s skills, talents and networks the funding organization can benefit from.

Has it always been thus? Why do some artists and composers become “fundable” and others, equally deserving, not? I fear it has far too much to do with the clique-ish and tribal nature of the arts. If you’re in the club, you’re in the club. If you’re not, you’re not, and you’re probably not going to be. There are many great, great artists in the club, but also plenty whose last ten projects were stinkers, but they’re still fundable because of something they did (or someone they knew) in 1974.

In an industry that seems to be crying out for innovation, an industry that oozes group-think on an industrial scale, why is it so hard make the case that something genuinely new is a good idea worth funding? Rather than subsidize the 1 percent of artists who have already made it, why not invest more in identifying extraordinary talents who have not yet had their time in the sun? It seems that we’ve reached the point where there is almost no mechanism by which a credible artist or organization can make the case from scratch that a given project is worth funding solely on merit. When you’ve reached the point at which one can only fund projects  and people who are already funded, or duplicate work already being done, or commission composers/authors/artists who are already being supported, the phrase “creative industries” starts to sound ever more oxymoronic. Industry is about mass production, about churning out consumer-ready content, whether it’s cars or ten minute concert openers with catchy titles. What is creative about that? It seems our funding paradigm has actually forced us into a consumerist, semi-oligarchical business model in the arts.

Where there is money, there will always be politics, but surely there ought to be some scope for more transparency and more peer review of funding applications?

Meanwhile, I know that the best way to look after my own orchestra and the artists I want to support is to focus on making me and the orchestra fit the “who we want to fund” box. We’re very lucky that some of what we want to do is what people want to fund, and some people want to fund us because of who we are. Bless everyone of our supporters for everything they do to help make the music possible. But how do we develop new ideas, how to we find new audiences, how do we support new voices if they’re not already on the who/what lists?

What do you think?

8 months ago | |
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For me, it was musical love at first sight. The first time I heard the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was on a cassette tape.  I loved it so much, I kept rewinding and replaying bits of the first movement (most often the big tutti at the end of the exposition- even then I had conductor tendencies). It must have taken me the better part of 2 hours to listen to get to the end of the first movement the first time I listened to it. I was hardly new to Tchaikovsky- I’d imprinted on the Fifth Symphony and Romeo and Juliet at a very young age. But the Violin Concerto struck me as very special from the first time I heard it.

And since then, I’ve heard it and heard it and heard it. I’ve played it in orchestra a gazillion times. I’ve conducted it many times. I’ve heard performances that ranged from astounding to atrocious.

I suppose these days, it has true warhorse status- every serious violinist has learned it. One could walk the hallways at the IU School of Music when I was a student and hear 35 people practicing it at once- and almost all of them playing it damn well.

And yet, the piece remains a curiously high risk work of art, one that somehow seems to confound many performers. How can such a well-known masterpiece still be performed regularly with cuts that Tchaikovsky abhorred and which only weaken the structure of the work?

It is the nature of a such a famous piece that it will ultimately be heard in all manner of performances, good and bad, but I can’t help but feel that it gets more than its fair share of the bad. Somehow, in spite of those many performances which fall into the obvious traps (sensationalistic, routine, competition-ish), the piece survives in the hearts of music lovers worldwide.

About the piece

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky


Violin Concerto in D major, opus 35

1877 was the year of Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage to Antonia Milyukova, a former student who made so little impression on him that he couldn’t even remember when he received her first love letter. The marriage only lasted a few months, but drove Tchaikovsky to a botched suicide attempt. Rescued from the situation by his brother Anatoly, Tchaikovsky seemed to recover his focus and inspiration rather quickly. In the early months of 1878 he completed the two works he’d been working on before his marriage: the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin. Shortly thereafter he had a visit from another former student, and likely past (and possibly current) lover, the violinist Yosif Kotek. The two played through Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol, and Tchaikovsky was struck by the work’s freshness, and Lalo’s willingness to avoid the sobriety he associated with German essays in the genre. Tchaikovsky quickly set to work on his own Concerto, working closely with Kotek, who learned the violin part as Tchaikovsky wrote it and helped advise the composer on writing for the violin. Progress on the Concerto was swift, and the work was finished within a month. In the end, however, it was not to be Kotek who would bring the work to life. Tchaikovsky dedicated the new Concerto to Leopold Auer, then the leading  violin soloist and pedagogue in Russian musical life. A premiere was planned for March 1879, but Auer pulled out, reportedly dismissing the Concerto as “unplayable” (Auer later firmly denied saying this) Tchaikovsky was devastated, humiliated, and the concert was cancelled.

It took another two years for the work to find a first performance, but this was not to be a happy occasion for Tchaikovsky, either. A young, relatively unknown violinist named Adolph Brodsky learned the piece and organized a performance with none other than the Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Hans Richter. Not only did the concert go poorly, it drew one of the most vituperative reviews in all music history from the influential critic Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick said of the piece that it was music “whose stink you can hear.” Tchaikovsky never forgot that review and could quote it word for word until the end of his life.

(The 75-year-old Leopold Auer shreds some Brahms)

Auer was eventually shamed into learning the Concerto, and became an important advocate for the piece, although his legacy remains decidedly mixed. To his credit, he performed the piece many times, and, perhaps more importantly, taught it to some of the greatest violinists of the new century, including Jascha Heifitz, Nathan Milstein, Mischa Ellman and Efrem Zimbalist. On the other hand, Auer insisted on making his own “version” of the work, which he taught to his many students, rewriting several passages and introducing many cuts in the score, and, sadly, many of these changes continue to appear in performances of leading violinists to this day. Auer’s changes are worse than unnecessary – they represent a major defacing of a great work of art, and a strangely enduring defacing at that.

Performance practice

I’ve already pointed out that Auer’s cuts and rewritings to the Violin Concerto constitute a very regrettable stain on that great violinist’s reputation. Nevertheless, we should remember one thing about Auer’s role in the genesis of the Concerto: while the piece was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s fling with Kotek, and although Brodsky would be the one who brought the piece into the world at last, while writing the work, Tchaikovsky always had Auer in mind as the soloist for the premiere, and as the planned dedicatee.

We’re very lucky that a few bits of Auer’s playing survive on recording. Although he is remembered as the godfather of the great Russian school of violin playing, Auer himself was Hungarian and studied in Vienna with Jakob Dont, Josef Hellmesberger Sr. and Josef Joachim. As the excerpt above shows, what Auer got from Joachim was a kind of super-focused intensity of contact between bow and string, and a very sustained, well-projected, even, singing sound with fantastic clarity of articulation. Auer, at least in the few clips that survive, seems to play with a more frequent and intense vibrato than Joachim.

But what did his students get from Auer, and what, if anything, does their playing tell us about how the Tchaikovsky should be played? Perhaps no instrumental pedagogue in history had so huge a legacy of astounding students as Auer. Those who come close to him in sheer numbers like Ivan Galamian and Dorothy Delay in essence gave up playing to teach full time. Auer was a formidable and prolific performer and had a long career.

Auer’s greatest students, including Oscar Shumksy, Misha Elman, Jascha Heifitz, Efram Zimbalist and Nathan Milstein were a very diverse group of distinct personalities. No fan of the violin would ever mistake Heifitz’s playing for Elman’s. Their very different takes on the Tchaikovsky, however, share a number of qualities, most importantly, in my opinion, in their fundamental approach to the use of the bow. All of them are superb lyrical players, all play with incredible focus, and an incredible sense of linear intensity. Their “voices” were fundamentally different- Heifitz with his very fast vibrato and laser-like directness, Elman with his more old-school sensibility, his elegance and aristocratic passion, and Milstein with his incredible vocal naturalness and virtuoso’s sense of courting danger- for me, his was always the perfect voice, even if Heifitz was the more perfect singer. Vibrato in their performances is generously applied, but constantly varied and colored, and often quite restrained and narrow. Somewhere in their the breadth of their interpretive differences, the vastly wide-ranging contrasts of their personalities, and the similarity and variety of their tonal vocabularies, one begins to get a sense of what the parameters of a historically grounded approach to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece might sound like, at least in instrumental terms. I’ve selected below, almost at random, recordings of three of these eminent violinists for comparison, but a curious listener will discover just as much of interest by seeing how each of these players’ approach varies throughout their career, from performance to performance, and recording to recording.

Too many traditions?

If the careful study of early recordings can help us to understand the soloist’s balance of intensity, lyricism, power, delicacy and classical clarity that Tchaikovsky seemed to have in mind when writing the piece, it’s important to strenuously point out that I can scarcely think of any piece of music which has suffered more from being learned from recordings than this one. Far too many young violinists know only their own part (we call them “top liners”), and have bypassed careful study of the full score by substituting the imitation of other artists’ (and their own teachers’) mannerisms and choices.

In fact, the rigid regurgitation of the nuances of a given recording would surely have been abhorrent to a player like Mischa Elman, whose playing is marked by such a natural, easy, in-the-moment sense of flexibility, and an uncanny ability to make one wonder if he’s improvising at times.

Rubato is the salt and vibrato the pepper of Romantic music- the essential seasonings which brings the flavor of it to life. Tchaikovsky, for all his classicism, would probably be pretty horrified to hear a strictly metronomic “the Urtext and nothing but the Urtext” reading of his Concerto, but by the time one is listening to a third or fourth generation imitation of a tempo nuance that an early 20th c. player probably only did once or twice in his career, one has blurred completely the line between engaging creatively with Tchaikovsky’s text, and not knowing, or worse yet not caring, what that text actually is. Remember, you can learn a poem in a foreign language by ear and repeat it accurately without having any idea what it means- this is not an interpretive approach an artist ought to settle for.

My advice to a violinist learning, or relearning, the piece would be to learn it from the score and to analyze it as one would a symphonic work (ask a conductor or composer how if you need to), treating the solo part as an integrated and interdependent part of the musical whole. The first movement is symphonic in both scope and character, and it’s important for the soloist to not only have all kinds of cool ideas about when to take time and all that fun stuff, but to understand the structure, to understand how each section develops, ebbs and flows. How did Tchaikovsky hear the piece unfolding its totality in his inner ear?

The second movement’s lyrical simplicity and the finale’s rustic virtuosity show Tchaikovsky deploying very different facets of his art. For all its high spirits, the Finale is just as carefully (and beautifully) constructed as the first movement. It’s lighter character puts the concerto in the same tradition as concerti for violin and piano by Brahms and Beethoven, in which the main structural weight of the work is in the first movement. However, Tchaikovsky never intended the finale to be a throwaway affair, which is why the cuts (and the rewrites to the violin part) which originated with Auer are such a travesty. By shortening the movement, they turn it into something much more empty and merely showy than the composer intended. It’s no more repetitive than the last movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto (less so, actually), and nobody would dare cut Beethoven.

Gimmicks are just gimmicks

It’s no surprise that a piece as popular and ubiquitous would invite performances which go to sometimes absurd lengths to stand out from the crowd. In 80’s and 90’s, the way to get noticed with the Tchaikovsky was to treat it like an Olympic sporting event and try to rack up as many world records as you could: the world’s widest vibrato, world’s closes-to-the-bridge contact point, world’s loudest violin, world’s fastest finale, world’s cleanest octaves… You get the picture. Even in concerts and recordings, the competition mentality seemed to dominate. As with the imitation of recordings, treating the work like a 100 yard dash or a powerlifting event tends to make one forget what the piece actually is- we play faster to show we can play faster, we play louder to show we can play louder.

More recently, we’ve seen a number of soloists chuck the baby right out with the bathwater of the competition mentality with performances that simply strive to be as bizarre and contrarian as possible. As anyone who has raised a toddler will know, being contrary does not always equate to being wise, reasonable, knowledgeable or inspired. Do we really need a ponticello Tchaikovsky, a Baroque Tchaikovksy, a flautando Tchaikovsky or or a fiddle Tchaikovsky? Or, for that matter, a brutalist Tchaikovsky or a metronome Tchaikovsky? All of these approaches can only be delivered by limiting the dynamic and expressive range of the violin, which seriously impairs the ability of the soloist to do justice to the structure of the work, particularly the first movement, with it’s long, gradually evolving melodic arches. A real re-think of the piece ought to be about a careful and detailed examination of the text, challenging oneself to find where the balance between head and heart lies. It’s about making millions of small decisions free from vanity, not about looking for one big blockbuster gimmick to get yourself noticed. It’s about finding 1000 ways to use and not vibrato, not simply turing it to stun or turning it off completely. Doing something novel with a piece like the Tchaikovsky is not hard- little kids come up with novel ideas for food all the time, but most folks wouldn’t want to eat roast beef with marshmallow sauce. Bringing such a familiar piece to life with total commitment and honesty is harder than simply playing the whole concerto with a bass bow. Moving an audience is harder, and far more meaningful, than simply surprising or shocking them.

At the end of the day, maybe the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto would actually benefit from a few more performances where the audience left talking more about Tchaikovsky’s genius and less about the approach of the soloist?


Post-script- Don’t forget to dance

Not long ago, I did the piece with my friend Tamsin Waley-Cohen, who recorded this fascinating little video with some of her thoughts about the piece. I think what she says about the stylistic commonalities between the Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores is really spot on

A final thought about the cuts

I’ve conducted the Tchaikovsky now many times both with and without the cuts. In every case, I’ve found the cuts to be unnecessary and destructive, as are Auer’s re-writings of the solo part. However, that’s not say by any means that I haven’t enjoyed working with my colleagues in those performances. At the end of the day, it’s the violinist’s piece to make or break- the conductor can encourage, advise and suggest a little bit here and there, but at the end of the day, my job is to make their decision, whether I would have made the same decision, sound like the right decision. I’ve done some thrilling performances with the cuts, and one just hopes that someday, I can repeat the piece with those same wonderful colleagues without!

8 months ago | |
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MahlerFest Debut In May, Ken made his debut as the new Artistic Director of    Colorado MahlerFest , one of only two organisations in the USA (the other being the New York Philharmonic) to be awarded the Gold Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society. For his inaugural concerts, Ken conducted Mahler’s notoriously challenging 7th Symphony and the US premiere of Viennese master Kurt Schwertsik’s homage to Mahler, Nachtmusiken. Key initiatives of Woods’ first season included an increased focus on new music, an elite new training programme for young conductors and a chamber music program for young artists. “The musicians, however, love their Mahler, and they provided a robust, committed rendition of the symphony, and Woods showed why he is revered as a Mahler interpreter. He navigated the vast, often thorny first movement with a strong sense of direction, and the “heavenly vision” toward the end was sublime. The opening tenor horn solo was also bold and confident…  The symphony’s overly exuberant, strangely disjunctive finale has divided Mahler experts and fans for much of its existence, and it takes a conductor of great understanding to pull it off. Woods certainly does force a sense of direction on a movement resistant to this, and the jubilant ending drew a huge ovation from the audience.”  Boulder Camera See an overview of MaherFest XXIX  here, including radio interviews, preview pieces and more An Elgar Pilgrimage Mahler wasn’t the only composer getting the festival treatment in Ken’s 2015-6 season. In October, the  English Symphony Orchestra and English String Orchestra offered up An Elgar Pilgrimage. With triumphant concerts in Malvern, Hereford and Birmingham exploring connections between Elgar, Brahms and Mahler it offered up three world-premieres: a new song cycle, “Songs of Loss and Regret” for soprano and strings by the ESO’s “John McCabe Composer-in-Association” Philip Sawyers, and Donald Fraser’s new versions of Sea Pictures for Chorus and Strings and Piano Quintet. The Quintet was named Premiere of the Year for 2015 by Classical Music Magazine “[One] of the most exciting events I have experienced during a reviewing career approaching half a century”   Birmingham Post “Tonight we were simply spellbound, thanks largely to the meticulous attention to detail on the part of conductor Kenneth Woods….This had been a carefully thought out programme, the concert itself once again proof that the city of Hereford is no backwater in the world of serious music.”   Hereford Times Other conducting
Ken conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ken worked with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales this season on an eclectic array of projects ranging from recording Rogers and Hammerstein for the Proms to filling in on 90 minutes notice for a recording of a new 80-minute cantata by Super Furry Animals frontman Cian Ciaran. Perhaps his most challenging assignment, however, was his multimedia concert in celebration of the Rugby World Cup, as described in this blog from producer Paul Forde (a “heroic performance”). His season-ending Sibelius/Busoni concert with the Surrey Mozart Players was a critical triumph (” a performance of magnetic wonder…“), as was his performance of Mozart’s last three symphonies on a single concert in January, a programme he is repeating in London with the ESO in 2018. January saw Ken at the Sage Gateshead for recordings with the Royal Northern Sinfonia.  Highlights of the ESO season included the UK premiere of Emily Doolittle’s green/blue and Beethoven’s Eroica, and recordings for Signum and Nimbus to be released in 2017. “Kenneth Woods drew a fine, vigorous opening from the orchestra in the Allegro con brio of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op.55 ‘Eroica’ with a crisp incisiveness and a great sense of panache and spirit, a real allegro brio… This was a performance of great life and character which brought a real freshness to Beethoven’s vision. Kenneth Woods is clearly achieving fine results with the English Symphony Orchestra.”  The Classical Reviewer   As composer Ken’s setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” has been hailed as a major addition to the repertoire of musical storytelling works ever since it was recorded by Auricolae for Avie Records in 2012. The current season saw the premiere of his new version of the work for orchestra, integrated with projected illustrations by Wanda Sobieska. The English Symphony Orchestra premiered the orchestral version under Ken’s baton in Worcester and have just repeated it in Hereford. Ken and the ESO have made rejuvenating the orchestral repertoire for young listeners a major priority, and The Ugly Duckling has been complimented in 2015-6 by premieres of new storying telling works for orchestra by Kile Smith (“The Bremen Town Musicians”) and Tom Kraines (“Hansel and Gretel”)
The Ugly Duckling- Music by Kenneth Woods, illustrations by Wanda Sobieska
The Ugly Duckling- Music by Kenneth Woods, illustrations by Wanda Sobieska
In May, Ensemble Epomeo gave the New York premiere of Ken’s 2013 Quartet for Electric Guitar and Strings on a Kyo-Shin-An Arts concert that also included new works for shakuhachi and string trio by Jay Reise and Matthew Harris. The work was originally commissioned by the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and was performed by Epomeo and guitar virtuoso Daniel Lippel, with Ken doubling up on cello and second electric guitar. Busy blogging Ken’s blog, A view from the podium, has consistently ranked as one of the 25 most popular classical blogs in the world for nearly 10 years. His gift for satire has led to huge viral popularity for several recent posts   BREAKING- LEADING PROFESSIONAL ORCHESTRA TO GIVE UP MUSIC (3,800 Facebook likes) SECOND VIOLIN SECTION CONSIDER “BREXIT” FROM LEADING ORCHESTRA (8,200 Facebook likes) ALTO CLEF UNFIT FOR PURPOSE. STUDY CONCLUDES (11,000 Facebook likes) Among more serious recent Vftp posts were: PERFORMER’S PERSPECTIVE: MAHLER 7: TO BE CONTINUED A nitty gritty look at some of Mahler’s principles of mega-scale form BLOGXIT The meaning of citizenship and the tyranny of the majority. Three New CDs in 2016 Krenek- Piano Concertos, vol. 1, English Symphony Orchestra,Mikhail Korzhev- piano One of Ken’s first ambitions on assuming the conductorship of the ESO was to help the  orchestra reengage with its distinguished history as a recording ensemble. Released in March on Toccata Classics and produced by Michael Haas (former Decca producer responsible for Decca’s influential Entartete Musik series and much of the discography of Luciano Pavarotti and Sir Georg Solti), this was the first full-length CD for the orchestra in a decade, and has been hailed by critics everywhere: ” A witty and mercurial masterpiece. Electric performances, all.”  The Sunday Time s Five stars: “On the evidence of the first three, magisterially delivered by Korzhev, they should rank at least with Prokofiev and Hindemith. The accompanying English Symphony Orchestra are somewhat out of their usual area, but seem to relish their role under the firm direction of Kenneth Woods, doing for Krenek here what he did previously for Gál”   International Piano   “Korzhev is just as clear and communicative in this concerto as he is in the easeful Op. 18 – listen to how well he articulates the central Quasi cadenza – and the ESO play with thrilling focus and trenchancy throughout.”  MusicWeb International   “…startlingly brilliant…Mikhail Korzhev is a heroic soloist, gamely accompanied by Kenneth Wood’s English Symphony Orchestra. Brass and percussion are particularly impressive.” Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk  What is probably most important, however, is that all three of the concertos on this album are easily accommodating to the inquisitive and attentive listener. Toccata Classics seems to make the case that listening to Krenek should be a journey of discovery; and, from that point of view, both Korzhev and Woods are excellent “guides” for those who commit to making that journey”   The Examiner   “I cannot imagine finer performances of Ernst Krenek’s piano concertos than these from Mikhail Korzhev with the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods”  The Classical Reviewer   “The playing can never be faulted for accuracy or balance. Ken Woods leads vibrant readings”  Classical CD Reviews Elgar arr. Donald Fraser- Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures, English Chamber Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Rodolfus Coir Expectation had been building around this project since Classical Music Magazine declared the first performance of Fraser’s orchestration of the Quintet to be 2015 Premiere of the Year. Released on Avie Records, Ken conducts the English Chamber Orchestra and theRodolfus Choir in Fraser’s choral adaptation of Sea Pictures, recorded in the same Abbey Road studio where Dame Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli made their famous recording, and where Elgar himself conducted the first recording session in 1934. For the Piano Quintet, Ken conducts his own resurgent English Symphony Orchestra in a blazing and idiomatic interpretation recorded in Elgar Concert Hall, Birmingham.
Elgar arr. Fraser- KW, English Chamber Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Rodolfus Choir
Elgar arr. Fraser- KW, English Chamber Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Rodolfus Choir
  “To my ears, Fraser’s richly upholstered orchestration works a treat yet also manages to be astutely appreciative of the simmering passion and sense of loss that permeate this wistful creation (the Adagio slow movement is especially affecting). Plaudits, too, for Woods’s characteristically lucid and fervent performance with his own English Symphony Orchestra, opulently captured by balance engineer Simon Fox-Gál.”  Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone “Even seasoned Elgar addicts, more familiar with the full panoply of Elgar’s tremendous chamber output, will welcome these interpretations which unashamedly give these two compositions a sparkling new palette of new orchestral colours…Conductor, Kenneth Woods, makes a convincing ambassador, marshalling the two polished English orchestras with skill and enthusiasm in both premieres…”   Chris Bye, British Music Society “The result is pretty remarkable. Fraser hasn’t just translated Elgar’s notes into rich and powerful orchestral terms, he as added (discreetly it must be said) the kinds of touches of colour and splashes of figuration Elgar himself might well have introduced. It really sounds like Elgar… beautifully realised, performed with warmth and understanding, and sympathetically recorded. Same too with the Sea Pictures”  Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine   “Woods makes a fine case for expanding the late Piano Quintet into something that sounds like a three movement Fourth Symphony. Fraser’s orchestration fills out Elgar’s spare writing with great pomp and circumstance, and the finale sounds exhilaratingly Elgarian.” Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times “The sound world feels so instinctively right … fascinating and ingenious”   Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Record Review     Hans Gál- Piano Concerto, Sarah Beth Briggs, Royal Northern Sinfonia   The worldwide re-evaluation of Hans Gál’s music began with Ken’s 2009 recording of theViolin Concerti and Triptych with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, so it was fitting he would return to the Sage stage for this latest disc in Avie’s acclaimed Gál series with piano virtuosoSarah Beth Briggs for Gál’s virtuosic and beguiling Piano Concerto.
Mozart and Gál from KW, Sarah Beth Briggs and the Royal Northern Sinfonia
Mozart and Gál from KW, Sarah Beth Briggs and the Royal Northern Sinfonia
“Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany superbly…With crystal clear sound, this is the most enjoyable concerto disc I have heard since Krenek’s Piano Concertos (4/16) and Pritchard’s Wall of Water (5/15). Hang on, didn’t Woods conduct those, too…?”

Guy Rickards, Gramophone

  “Long overdue..the recording the piece richly deserved”   Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Record Review “The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op 57, captivates from start to finish, its lucidly argued, agile and disarmingly witty outer movements framing a raptly songful Adagio centrepiece of conspicuous tenderness and beauty. Exemplary advocacy it receives, too, on this, its long-overdue first commercial recording: Sarah Beth Briggs revels in the tasteful refinement, brilliance and grace of Gál’s immaculately judged solo writing, and she enjoys marvellously understanding support from Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Five Stars”   Andrew Achenbach, The Classical Ear ALBUM OF THE WEEK “ “…exceptional… cannot recommend it too highly.”  David Mellor, Classic FM   “If this premiere recording persuades more pianists to take up this sweeping, lyrical concerto, then all to the good. Briggs’s playing is shapely but unassuming, which underlines the skilful transparency of Gál’s writing as well as how much of an ensemble piece this is.” Erica Jeal, The Guardian   RECORDING OF THE MONTH “What impresses me is the composer’s skilful and brilliantly imaginative scoring. Wood’s deft handling of the orchestral textures is a perfect foil to Briggs’ adroit virtuosity. In the Adagio which follows, the prevailing mood is one of peace and contentment. Gál can certainly rise to the occasion with a luscious big tune, proving himself an accomplished and inspired melodist. At one point, time almost stands still, and the pianist’s pellucid tone is raptly intense. It’s worth mentioning that the Steinway used has been expertly voiced and is richly toned. The playful and capricious finale has a touch of the burlesque about it, and both pianist and orchestra inject plenty of humour and wit. Notable is Gál’s light, diaphanous scoring, which Woods brings to life and contours with clarity and definition.”  Stephen Greenbank, MusicWeb International   DISC OF THE WEEK “…this is a Concerto of some stature, and it’s baffling that it could have been neglected for so many years. Sarah Beth Briggs’s brilliantly alert and engaging performance, expertly partnered by Woods and the RNS, will surely bring it the recognition it deserves as one of Gál’s majorworks…a release that is outstanding in every way, essential listening!”  EuropaDisc
Concert Calendar
Highlight’s of Ken’s Discography

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More Krenek with Mihail Korzhev and the ESO

The world premiere of John Joubert’s opera “Jane Eyre”

A new symphony from Philip Sawyers

Mahler 10 in Colorado

8 months ago | |
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Robert Matthew-Walker in the July-September 2016 issue of Musical Opinion

“The performances are exceptionally good, with Mikhail Korzhev proving a terrific virtuoso and highly sensitive musician. Indeed, at that level, it is hard to imagine these works ever being better recorded. The orchestral plays with formidable musicianship and commitment under Kenneth Woods.

Musical Opinion Review Krenek Piano Concertos Vol 1

9 months ago | |
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Ever wonder what  sort of concertos exist for the violin beyond the marvelous mainstays from Mozart,  Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms and Sibelius? Well- there’s a lot out there.

There are a number of tremendous 20th. C concerti that are now pretty well established in the repertoire, such as those by Shostakovich (particularly his First), Barber, Berg, Bartók (particularly his Second) and Prokofiev. Then there are those works which are still relatively rarely sighted in the concert hall, but have been recorded and discussed quite broadly- Korngold’s, Shostakovich’s Second (even greater than the First), the Khachaturian (not a fan!). More recently, there are modern classics by Lutoslawski, John Adams, John Corigliano and Alfred Schnittke. All major works, none heard as often as I’d like live, but all well known among musicians and readily available on disc. Today we’re looking  farther out, towards the uncharted frontier of the repertoire.

Of course, there’s no point in directing you towards completely obscure works- if you can’t listen to them, there’s really no point. Here then are 10 pieces you should listen to today. If you can buy the CD, you should- downloading a stream does nothing to support future recordings of unknown music. Vote with your pocketbook for a recording industry that continues to make great music widely available. There’s a lot more out there. This list, while “official” and “all time” is by no means exclusive or complete.

Which works do you think are the unknown gems of the violin repertoire? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The numbering/ordering of the 10 works on this list is completely arbitrary.

  1. Schumann Violin Concerto

Schumann wrote his final orchestral work for his very close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim expressed great early enthusiasm for the piece, but made a fool of himself during a run through of it with orchestra and then suppressed the work, stipulating it could only be published 100 years after his death. The story of how the work came to light is one of the strangest and funniest in music history. The Violin Concerto has none of the quicksilver wit or boundless fluency of rhetoric that so animates Schumann’s early piano music. Instead, it is austere, strange and often incredibly beautiful music. The slow movement may well be the most haunting few minutes of music written in the 19th C- I can scarcely think of anything so sad and fragile.

  1. McCabe- Violin Concerto no. 2

John McCabe’s death in 2015 was a devastating blow to British musical life. While by no means an unknown composer, the sheer magnitude of his accomplishment remains somewhat under recognized simply because so many of his major pieces await commercial recordings and regular performances. One such work is his Second Violin Concerto, a large-scale, bold, magnificent work which combines a sort of Bartókian intensity and strength of character with a potent lyrical impulse. It was one of the pieces that those of us who admired and loved John were scrambling to record before he died. I’m still scrambling.

  1. Gál- Violin Concerto

Yes- I am biased. This was the first piece we recorded for my first commercial CD as a conductor (for Avie). It was premiered in 1933 in the days just before Hitler’s ascension to power, when Gál was still one of the leading composers of the German-speaking world. On that occasion, it was performed by the leading German violinist of the day, Georg kulenkampff with the legendary conductor Fritz Busch conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle. The work had to wait 71 years for a second performance. The infinitely seductive, magical opening melody sets the tone for a work of sublime lyricism. It’s been compared often to the now well-established Korngold Concerto, a work I’ve also always loved. The Gál is an even deeper, greater, more important concerto.

  1. Gál- Concertino for Violin and Strings

Okay, I know the sceptics among you are starting to raise eyebrows. Two Gál concertos in a row on this list? Surely the author is just trying to sell CDs. Say what you will-Gál’s Concertino for Violin and Strings is that good of a piece. I dare say, it’s an even greater work than his magnificent Violin Concerto. And what’s wrong with selling CD’s anyway? The six years since the completion of the Violin Concerto had seen Gál’s life turned upside down. Written just after his family had fled to the UK, it is a work of serene beauty. Gál’s daughter writes of the work that “Gál did not believe in music as a sounding board for the chaos outside, but rather as a place of refuge from the chaos and an affirmation of transcendent values…” Be sure to listen to the astonishing fugue- it’s amazing music, and I was quite pleased with how it turned out in the recording.

  1. Schwertsik- Violin Concerto

One of the highlights of my 2015-6 season (and there were actually quite a few) was getting my first chance to conduct the music of Kurt Schwertsik. I heard his Nachtmusiken at the Mahler in Manchester festival in 2010 and thought it would be the perfect work with which to launch my tenure at the Colorado MahlerFest. Getting to know more of Kurt’s wise, sophisticated and ridiculously beautiful music has been a joyful by-product of that decision, and one of the most thrilling of his pieces is his Violin Concerto no. 2, “Alayzin and Sacromonte” dedicated to his wife Christa (“my personal advisor”). Schwertsik’s wonderfully enigmatic introduction to the work takes the form of a poem:

Under southern skies:

Birdcalls at the break of dawn

Olive trees in the fragrant heat

The wild colors of the dusk

The immensity of space in the night

Through the curtain of stars


I almost forgot the palms

  1. Weinberg- Violin Concerto

It’s easy to see parallels in the lives of Hans Gál and Mieczyslaw Weinberg- both victims of Nazi oppression who had to rebuild their lives in foreign lands. While Gál escaped to the UK,  Weinberg went east, settling in the Soviet Union where he became a friend and duo partner of Shostakovich and went on to compose an enormous amount of music. Like Gál, people are finally starting to rediscover and re-evaluate his vast output, and the Violin Concerto is one of his more wonderful offerings. However, where Gál’s music often comes across as a refuge from the horrors of the world, Weinberg’s Violin Concerto plunges us right into the deep end, a sound world of raw emotion and brutal contrast. It’s high stakes, high powered, very moving stuff.

  1. Hartmann- Concerto funebre

Hartmann’s Concerto may not really belong on this list. It’s been recorded several times and is something of a modern classic among connoisseurs. On the other hand, Harmann’s music seems all but un-programmable outside of the German-speaking world. I first encountered Hartmann via his magnificent First String Quartet. I heard the piece on the radio- my first reaction was that it seemed there was a Bartók String Quartet I didn’t know, but I quickly detected a distinct musical personality in the music and sat in the car till the end of the work to find out what I was hearing. Within a few days I’d tracked down both quartets, the symphonies and much of the rest of his output and have been trying to perform it, without success, ever since.  Written at almost exactly the same time as Gál’s Concertino, Hartmann explores darker places. Maybe some advocacy for this, probably his best-known piece, can help open the doors to more regular performances of his music in the rest of the world.

  1. Busoni- Violin Concerto

2016 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Busoni, one of the most influential musical thinkers of the early 20th C. There’s been a certain amount of criticism voiced over the fact that his music will go un-played at this year’s Proms, but it’s not generally easy music to programme. His best known work is his monumental Piano Concerto, a nearly 2 hour long musical behemoth for piano, huge orchestra and male voice choir. The Proms are one of the few organizations that could do it justice, but it would have been a massive commitment of resources. Busoni’s relatively early Violin Concerto is a more user-friendly, if less ambitious, work. I conducted it recently and found it to be rewarding for both the audience and the orchestra. The influence of Brahms and Bruch is easy to spot, and there are some charmingly blatant quotes from the Brahms Violin Concerto and his Third Symphony. Busoni lacks the kind of melodic genius that Bruch and Brahms had in spades, but this concerto is a superbly effective virtuoso vehicle nonetheless, and it has a certain quirky humor to it that I find irresistible. Played by someone like the ever-astonishing Frank Peter Zimmermann, it’s a true tour de force.

  1. Einojuhani Rautavaara- Violin Concerto (1976-7)

I first encountered Rautavaara’s music at Aspen in the 1990’s. We played Angels and Visitations with a ridiculously young conductor on the podium who had a gift for irritating the players like nobody I’ve ever seen. In spite of everyone’s foul mood, the Rautavaara made a huge impression on many of us, and I’ve been struck again and again by the beauty and power of his music.  When I raced out to buy Angels and Visitations, I discovered the Violin Concerto in a fantastic performance by Elmar Olivera. Find it. Buy it.

  1. Deborah Pritcard- Violin Concerto “Wall of Water”, In Response to the Paintings of Maggi Hambling

The first work we commissioned in my time at the ESO turned out to be a gem. Written for the violinist Harriet Mackenzie, Pritchard as written synaesthetically in response to the remarkable series of paintings by Maggi Habling, “Walls of Water.” Pritchard’s one movement concerto is a dark and intense work, but also a very beautiful one. I don’t think it will stay on an list of “unknown works” for very long. In fact, I think it’s not unreasonable to believe that all ten of these pieces will soon be off this list.

10 months ago | |
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The rediscovery and reevaluation of the music of  Mieczyslaw Weinberg is surely one of the more positive stories in classical music in recent years. If this blog post piques your interest in Weinberg, do check out the podcast version of BBC Radio 3’s recent “Composer of the Week” series on him (scroll down the page and click where it says “clip”). Donald Macleod’s description of Weinberg as “the best composer you’ve probably never heard of” is telling. There are now recordings available of most of his orchestral music and more comes out all the time. A major biography is urgently needed. Sadly the only major English-language book on Weinberg is a strangely disinterested and low-energy affair; hardly more than a list of dates, places and works, with fairly little to offer in terms of insightful commentary about, or even perceptible enthusiasm for, the music. It does, at least, cover the basics in a utilitarian way, and is worth reading on that basis. His String Trio is a remarkable work that seems to always have an incredible impact whenever we play it live. My program note for the Trio follows.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919, where he completed his studies as a pianist at the Conservatory in 1939. He had hardly finished his education when he had to flee the German occupation of Warsaw. He managed to escape to the Russian border, but his parents and sister were captured and burned alive. During 1942, Weinberg was a refugee in Tashkent when the composer Israel Finkelstein, a colleague of Shostakovich, took an interest in him. Finkelstein showed Shostakovich Weinberg’s First Symphony, and Shostakovich was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to move to Moscow. The two composers forged a close friendship that remained central to both of their lives until Shostakovich’s death in 1975. Weinberg never forgot the role Shostakovich had played in saving his life and was clearly grateful for the inspiration he had taken from him, writing ‘although I never had lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, as his flesh and blood’. In exchange, Weinberg fostered Shostakovich’s abiding interest in Jewish folk music, and it is around the time of their emerging friendship that Shostakovich wrote his most important Jewish-themed works: the Second Piano Trio, the Fourth String Quartet and the song-cycle ‘From Jewish Poetry’.

The influence of Jewish, gypsy and Moldavian folks themes is pervasive in Weinberg’s String Trio (1950). With his ability to seamlessly integrate folk material, fugal technique and post-tonal harmony, Weinberg in 1950 seems already quite far along in reconciling the old and new, as Penderecki, Kurtág and Schnittke would seek to do a half-generation later. The first movement opens with a gently melancholic tune in the cello and builds to a furious climax, before winding down in a more Klezmer-inflected restatement of the opening. The haunting second movement, an eerie fugue, is the one part of the Trio that is free of folk influence. The finale, on the other hand, is almost pure folk music: emerging over a long, slow-burning ostinato, it builds to a screaming climax of orchestral proportions, before dying away and ending in desolation. It is not known if the work was premiered publicly at the time it was written (it seems unlikely) – it remained unpublished until 2007. Shortly after completing the piece, Weinberg was arrested by the KGB for ‘Zionist activities’ and was only released when Shostakovich interceded on his behalf. When the authorities let him out of prison a few days after Stalin’s death in March 1953, it was Shostakovich he rang first.

c. 2012 Kenneth Woods

10 months ago | |
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A fantastic review from Eric Levi for the recent Avie Records recording of Gál and Mozart Piano Concertos with Sarah Beth Briggs and the Royal Northern Sinfonia in the August, 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

“It’s something of a mystery as to why this attractive and accessible work enjoyed only a few performances in Britain and Germany before falling into complete oblivion. Whatever the reasons, I cannot imagine it receiving a more convincing account than the one given here. Sarah Beth Briggs has the necessary breadth and depth of tone and touch to navigate both the barnstorming bravura passages in the first movement and the delicate filigree in the figuration in the introspective slow movement. Her partnership with Kenneth Woods, already a seasoned interpreter of this composer’s works, is also impressive, the conductor securing commitment and incisiveness from the Royal Northern Sinfonia.”

BBC Music August 2016 Gal review part 1

BBC Music August 2016 Gal review part 2

BBC Music August 2016 Gal review part 3

10 months ago | |
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