Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
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A fantastic review from BBC Music Magazine in their August 2017 issue for volume two of the Complete Piano Concertos of Ernst Krenek

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

5 months ago |
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This is another real YouTube treasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free CD for all donations over £40

Free download for all donations.

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

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

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

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

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

Full text below:

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

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

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

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

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

7 months ago |
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In the spirit of fairness and balance and for the good of music in general, we’ve established a list of “top tips” for conductors offered by each section in the orchestra. Take them to heart and you’ll go far.

Or maybe you won’t ??

Flute- I picked this flute because this is the kind of flute I like and make the sound I want to make, and telling me how great the wooden/platinum/graphite/foam-rubber flutes sound in your other orchestra just makes me want to gnaw my own legs off

Oboe- This reed sucks, this reed sucks, this reed sucks.

Clarinet- I’m not conducting the flutes, I’m conducting you.

Bassoon- Please don’t program Beethoven 4 this year. Or next year.

Horn- We’re really the reason people come to the concerts, but we can also be the reason they stay away

Trumpet- Your beat needs to be as precise as our embouchure and tongue or you are going to cause us problems. And when we have problems, you have problems.

Trombone- I have more recordings of this symphony than you do. Just sayin’….

Tuba- I know everything there is to know about coffee and wine. Ask me and learn.

Timpani- It would be better if you were less aware of what stick I was using and more aware of what pitches I’m playing (some of which may be different than in the score)

Tambourine- Wouldn’t it be easier to just tell the rest of the orchestra to play louder?

Harp- The fact I could be making three times as much playing a wedding means I’m really here out of pity.

Violin 1- We’re going with the concertmaster. You work it out with her/him

Violin 2- Learning our names would go a long way towards establishing your credibility.

Viola- The bowings are not fine, they can never be fine.

Cellos- At least half of us are conductors, too, and half of those are more experienced conductors than you. Toscanini, Barbirolli, Ivan Fischer, Harnoncourt- they were all sat in the cello section for conductors just like you, silently making up their minds and waiting for their chance.

Basses- We would rather not be required to gaze at your backside while you lavish your attention on the first violins.

Everyone in the orchestra- Let us go home 20 minutes early and we’ll love you

Your CEO- Let them go home 20 minutes early and I may fire you

7 months ago |
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Photo by Keith Bobo

I recently attended a very enjoyable concert by a fine local student orchestra. When you think of many musical, technical and social skills one must acquire to play in orchestra, it seems implausible that it is actually possible that such a intricate and uncertain enterprise could ever come off successfully.

As I listened, it occurred to me that the environment is so complex and the skills needed so wide-ranging that it might be helpful if each section of the orchestra had one “top tip” to keep in mind to help make the orchestral experience more successful and pleasant and even, I hope, a little simpler. As far as I know, these apply to all kinds of orchestras everywhere in the world at all times and in all circumstances. But maybe they don’t in yours. Advice for conductors can be found everywhere else on this site.

Flute-  The clarinet is never going to adjust to you. All they can hear is the horns and trumpets right behind their head, while all you can hear is….  the clarinet right behind your head that you so far haven’t adjusted to. And- the sound of the flute’s lower register is one of the glories of the orchestra– work it.

Piccolo- If you are playing Beethoven 5, play louder. In all other circumstances, it’s probably already too loud

Oboe- Keep your tuner handy. We are going to tune again today.

Cor anglais- The principal oboist is not retiring or leaving any time soon.

Clarinet- Conducting from the clarinet will not help the flutes and oboes to be with you. They cannot see you.

Bass clarinet- Yes, we know you can play louder than the trombones, but we find it more off-putting than impressive

Bassoon- It is a given that you are sharp and early- that’s just how your instrument is made. The question is how sharp and how early. The good news is that you’re everybody’s favorite section.

Horn- The trombones still don’t understand why you miss so many notes, but they love you anyway and would be happy to take some of those tunes off your hands.

Trumpet– Get a softer/smaller/lighter instrument and play it with more balls rather than getting a cannon and having to tickle it for your whole life.

Trombone- Not being in your chair when we finally get to the last movement does not endear you to the violins who have been playing the whole time without a break. And…. The horns think your instrument is easy, but they love you anyway

Tuba- You probably should have brought the other tuba for this piece.

Timpani- 72% of the time 90% of the people involved, including the rest of the orchestra, the composer, the conductor, the producer and the audience, wish you were using a harder stick and are all too nice and/or scared to tell you

Xylophone- See timpani above

Snare/side drum- If you’re there thinking “everyone in the orchestra has bad rhythm except for me,” reverse that thought.

Keyboard/continuo– Everyone involved managed fine without your advice for the other 20 concerts this year. You can focus on playing and not worry about coaching the celli or the conductor.

Harp- You probably should have started tuning that thing a little sooner.

Violin 1- If your section leader is not with the conductor, you’re screwed (we all are). If your section leader is with the conductor, be nice to them- it’s not easy nor is it a given. And yes, you should get paid more to learn all those notes- oh wait, you’re sight reading…

Violin 2- You need the most active eyes in the orchestra, constantly scanning from first violins cellos and occasionally checking in with the conductor, too.

Viola- The bowings are fine. Leave them as they are. Put the pencil down and stop talking.

Cello- Only use harmonics when the composer asks for them. Not all melodies need be played with the kind of intensity, or volume, one brings to the first page of the Dvorak Concerto.

Basses- It matters a lot if you play in tune. A lot. You may get called out less often for intonation issues than treble instruments, but your intonation (and rhythmic precision) is what makes or breaks the orchestra as a whole. That’s why we love you.

What do you think the true secrets of orchestral greatness are? Share your thoughts in the comments!

7 months ago |
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I find myself thinking of Bartók today. For me, he seemed to rise to the musical challenges of the early 20th C with more vision and creativity than anyone else. In his music, we find blood and mathematics, folks songs and atonal cells, head and heart, earth and dreams. Who is to say who the greatest composer “in” the 20th C was, but I think he was the greatest composer “of” and “for” the 20th C. He answered all the big musical questions of his time.

It is one of the great regrets of my conducting career that I don’t get to do his music more often, and some of my absolute favorite works I have yet to perform (I’d sell a kidney to do a good Bluebeard’s Castle). It’s a sad commentary on the economics of music.

One piece I used to play a lot, and which I miss terribly, is his Second String Quartet. To me, the little red volume which holds the scores of his six string quartets is just about the ultimate “how to compose” textbook.

Here is a live performance of the 2nd with my old quartet from my years in Cincinnati. There are so many wonderful memories of working with my dear friends in this group- Kio Seiler, Eva Richey and Sheridan Kamberger Currie. Fun times!

8 months ago |
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Wonderful new FIVE STAR review in The Times for An Eventful Morning in East London: 21st C. Violin Concertos with Harriet Mackenzie;

Get your copy:…/an-eventful-morning-in-east-london-21st…/

“Mackenzie’s playing is rivetingly incisive throughout, and Kenneth Woods, conductor obtains exemplary accompaniments from the English String Orchestra and English Symphony Orchestra.”

Classical review: Harriet Mackenzie: An Eventful Morning in East London

The violinist’s playing is rivetingly incisive throughout this recording of five 21st-century concertos
Richard Morrison
June 9 2017, 12:01am, The Times

Harriet Mackenzie shows her zest for adventure in this ambitious album

The recording’s title is a tease. An Eventful Morning in East London is the name (almost) of Rob Fokkens’s violin concerto, one of five 21st-century concertos played by the indefatigably adventurous violinist Harriet Mackenzie on this superb release. However, although Mackenzie is a Londoner, Fokkens is South African. So his East London,in the Eastern Cape, is 6,000 miles south of Shoreditch.

His concerto reflects it too. Fokkens has Charles Ives’s ability to enrich his own imaginatively orchestrated style with “found” music — in this case an outdoor African soundscape that seems to incorporate a passing funeral procession replete with snatches of Dies Irae as well as a jazz band.

That makes for a fascinating 13 minutes. Yet it’s just one highlight on an album mixing the work of two older composers — Paul Patterson and David Matthews (composer) — working in a generally tonal idiom with the quirky new generation, represented by Fokkens, Emily Doolittle and Deborah Pritchard.

What unites them is an ability to create something fresh out of existing material. Pritchard’s Wall of Water, for instance, is a response to a series of Maggi Hambling paintings. I’m glad they aren’t reproduced in the accompanying brochure, because Pritchard’s music — growing out of a tiny, semitonal twist cloaked in otherworldly harmonics — paints its own pictures in the imagination. It is profusely atmospheric and virtuosically challenging, and it rises to an intense cadenza (a bit too arpeggio-dependent, perhaps) before imploding to where it started.

Doolittle’s falling still has a similar atmospheric quality. The violin, representing a bird in flight, hovers over slow, lush string-clusters representing more inanimate sounds of nature. That suggests a latter-day Lark Ascending, but Doolittle’s style is far more astringent than Vaughan Williams and has a more elegiac hue.

So does Matthews’s Romanza, which, despite its name, is a curiously unsettling piece in which the soloist moves from moodily impressionistic rhapsody to enigmatic Viennese waltz, where the balance between pastiche and irony is never quite fixed. To me it spoke of youthful joys recollected into ruefulness, if not despair.

By contrast, Patterson’s Allusions for two solo violins and strings (Philippa Mo is the other excellent protagonist) is pure pleasure, three movements each riffing on a different operatic character. The first, brilliantly energetic and manically contrapuntal, alludes to Falstaff and his tangled love life. The second, called Mindscape, refers to Don Giovanni’s encounter with the Commendatore, with the music rising from dark rumination to nightmarish crisis. And the third is a glorious postmodern riff on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture, full of dizzy syncopations.

Mackenzie’s playing is rivetingly incisive throughout, and Kenneth Woods, conductor obtains exemplary accompaniments from the English String Orchestra and English Symphony Orchestra.

8 months ago |
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This past Sunday afternoon, I conducted the ESO in a performance of Tchaikovksy’s String Serenade which marked the end of our main 2016-7 season. Between now and our return from the summer holidays, my colleagues are doing some fascinating chamber music concerts, the Bach B minor Mass with the wonderful Sarah MacDonald guest conducting, and a few engagements, but for me, the end of our main season is always an important milestone.

What to say about a year like this? I fear most of the really good (outrageous) stories will have to wait for my memoirs. Have no fear, I will write them if I have time and good health, and they’ll be pretty damn funny, occasionally shocking and hopefully interesting when they’re done.

Well, what I can say is that it has been one hell of a year. Depending on how you measure it (I joined the ESO mid-season and my title and duties have changed two or three times since then), this is about my fourth year give or take a year or two minus the odd hiatus. The orchestra has been through a huge amount of change in that time. Almost all of it is change for the better, much of it long overdue, but it’s all happened against a backdrop of austerity, economic upheaval and political instability that has made everything that little bit more of an uphill battle.

Every arts organisation I know these days is frighteningly under-resourced. Because the ESO was going through a difficult patch before the 2008 financial crisis, they were already under-resourced even before the cuts started coming in. I don’t think most people are prepared for what they would see if they look behind the curtain at most performing arts organisations- a gaunt and bleary-eyed skeleton crew soldiering on through untold hours of thankless grunt work to keep the music playing, only be regularly let down by complacent contractors or flaky partners.

So, why do it when we  must spend so much time up to our noses in frustration and worry? I suppose one does it because every once in a while, you get one of “those” concerts or events which refreshes, revives and sustains you for the next year or so. It’s the concert that lights the world (maybe just your world) on fire, the new piece that changes your life, or the guest artist who makes you remember why you perform that keeps you going.

What was amazing about this year is that, after three years of hard work, change and investment, we found ourselves having a year of LOTS of those kind of breakthrough projects, one after another. I hope I can look forward to years in which I’ll make more money, get more sleep and perform for more people, but I’d have to be one luck SOB to have a year with so many incredible projects with the same band.

September: Krenek- Piano Concertos vol 2. Recordings at Wyastone Concert Hall

Recording volume one of the Krenek concerti with Mikhail Korzhev and the ESO was about as much fun as recording/music-making gets. Misha is an incredible pianist, but also a funny, sweet, kind guy with an incredible work ethic. The sessions were a joy and it was also great to work with Michael Haas producing- I have so many of his Decca CDs on my shelves, from the Entartete Musik series to things with Chicago and Pavarotti. To my great surprise (I had thought I was one of about ten people in the world who liked Krenek), the first disc was a huge success. One couldn’t help but worry that the magic would be harder to capture the second time around. Fortunately, this year’s repertoire was, if anything, even stronger, the orchestra has come on even more, we were able to make better use of the hall’s vaunted acoustic by extending the stage, and we were joined by three more wonderful co-soloists. NY Phil pianist Eric Heubner joined Misha for the Concerto for Two Pianos, which is a funny (it’s a series of atonal variations on O Sole Mio) and thrilling piece. Violinist Nurit Pacht played with infinitely refined tone, elegant style and uncanny intonation in the Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, a work I completely fell in love with, and organist Adrian Partington was class personified in the Little Concerto for Organ, String Quartet, Flute and Clarinet, a marvellous, quirky and moving little work. Three wonderful days that I didn’t want to end.

Classical Source
Sunday Times

September: Robert Saxton- Resurrection of the Soldiers, Mozart Piano Concerto in D minor with Clare Hammond, and Mozart 40, Hereford Shire Hall

Having conducted Robert’s mega-super-ultravirtuosic trumpet concerto “Psalm” a few years ago, I knew not to expect anything too easy from him. This new work certainly challenged us, but for once, we had a decent amount of rehearsal time, and, to my mild surprise, we were able to tame the beast in half an afternoon. Part of the reason we were able sort it out so quickly was the arrival on the scene of a new guest leader Zoë Beyers, who immediately stood out for her gorgeous playing, flawless musicianship and calm, focused presence. When Robert came to the dress rehearsal on the day of the concert, he was gobsmacked and we were all pretty proud of the noise we were making. I think it’s a really powerful and profound piece. It’s got an absolute beast of a multi-metric fugue in the middle, but the coda is just shivers-down-the-spine moving. At one point, I was worried that the piece was a little harmonically ambitious for Hereford, but the audience response made clear that they knew they’d heard something special

The Classical Reviewer

October: John Joubert- Jane Eyre: An Opera in Two Acts. Ruddock Performing Arts Centre, Birmingham

It may be that this project took the longest from concept to delivery in my career to date. Siva Oke originally came to me with the idea just as I was doing my first concert with the ESO in 2013. Back then we naively thought that such an obviously worthwhile project involving such an important piece of music with such strong literary connections would be easy to put together. Given John’s lifetime of service to the cultural life of Birmingham, we assumed all the major local arts sponsors, the University and the key members of the music scene would line up to fund it. Hah! Boy did we learn! But, after a few false starts, we found the right fundraiser, got a little lucky with the Arts Council and when all looked hopeless, found a guardian angel to see us over the finish line.

One of the first pieces I learned really, really well as a conducting student was Brahms 1. I completely immersed myself in that score for months and I can remember one afternoon in my Cincinnati flat thinking what it must have been like to be there on the day it was premiered (conducted by the composer’s friend Felix Otto Dessoff, on 4 November 1876, in Karlsruhe). Brahms spent 21 years on it, but people throughout the musical world had been wondering what a Brahms symphony would be like since he was 20. Before that, people had been waiting for the next great symphonist after Beethoven since 1827 (sadly, they slept through Schumann, who may have been an even greater symphonist than Brahms, but that’s a story for a different day). Imagine the years of worry, expectation, frustration and anticipation from all concerned. And then, one night, an orchestra goes onstage and plays Brahms 1 for the first time, and the world changes forever. Humanity’s collective inheritance is forever enriched. When that sort of thing happens, can those there even begin to understand the magnitude of what they’re witnessing?

Well, Jane Eyre was the first time I ever got to experience what it might have been like to be there in Karlsruhe in 1876. No, Jane Eyre is not Brahms 1, but it is, I’m quietly confident, the finest English-language opera written since the death of Britten. So did people notice? Did they get it? Of course, there are always those whose perceptive powers are sadly dulled by arrogance and routine. We can only pity them (him?). For all the others, it was an unforgettable night. To be part of something like the ovation John received at the end, with everyone in the orchestra and the audience standing for him, well, it is a moment to treasure forever. A great example of how music can bring people together. I’m very glad the recording we made that week is available, and I’m very proud of how it sounds, but I would have been perfectly happy to tuck the premiere of Jane Eyre into the most secure vault of my most precious memories and never listen to it again. It was that special.

Summary of reviews of premiere
Premiere of the Year, Classical Music Magazine (2nd year in a row)
Birmingham Post- Classical Highlight of 2016

October: Premieres and recordings of new works by Deborah Pritchard and Nimrod Borenstein with Simon Desbruslais-trumpet and Clare Hammond-piano

British orchestral musicians are about as resilient a group of people as I’ve ever seen. They’re known world-wide for their speed of learning and their flexibility. This was a particularly challenging project on many levels, and in the end, we found ourselves working under incredible pressure on very difficult repertoire. It probably didn’t help that we were all so drained from Jane Eyre just three days earlier. When we started having issues with the piano in the middle of the recording session it looked entirely possible that the project simply wasn’t going to work. Somehow, it did. And, in the end, it was a happy, if draining, couple of days. All props to Clare and Simon for staying so calm through it all, but even more so to my colleagues in the band who stayed so cheerful and focused through the whole thing. It’s going to be a great disc (comes out Augst 26)

December: Haydn and Mozart at Kings Place and Cheltenham Town Hall

After the torrid pace of the early part of the ESO season, I was away for almost all of November. It was a VERY intense time- a mix of challenging string trio programmes, a solo turn in the Sawyers Cello Concerto in my hometown, and a wonderful trip to the Dominican Republic. When next I saw the ESO, it was a bit like stepping into a time warp with two concerts that repeated the Mozart and Haydn symphonies we’d begun the season with in September. We’d tied these three dates (tied dates mean the musicians must accept/play all the dates or none)- something that is unusual to do when concerts are months apart, and it did create some scheduling challenges, but artistically, it was a great thing for us. Thanks to our Arts Council support for our work in Hereford, we’d actually had quite generous (for us!) time to work on these two great symphonies (especially the Mozart) in September, and now we had the chance to build on that investment with important concerts in two new venues. Mozart 40 and Haydn 44 are about as good as music gets, and somewhere in this project, the orchestra just got into some kind of crazy zone. Both concerts were so fun- incredibly intense, very fiery playing, and wonderful snap and precision. It was clear by this point that Zoë was probably the concertmaster the orchestra had needed for a long time and we started having some conversations about her joining the ESO around this time. Goodness, do I want to record some Haydn with this orchestra now!

On top of all this joyful immersion in the best of minor-key Classicism, we played James Francis Brown’s wonderful clarinet concerto Lost Lands, Shadow Groves at Kings place with Emma Johnson. My goodness, this is a golden age for new music. It’s such a beautiful work. James writes for the strings with profound understanding and the piece has a real arc to it- it’s perfectly suited the poetic character of the clarinet.


January: Recording Concertante works for Violin with Harriet Mackenzie by David Matthews, Emily Doolittle, Paul Patterson and Robert Fokkens, with Philippa Mo, violin (Retorica Duo). Wyastone Concert Hall

In 2014, the ESO had it’s first recent breakthrough success with the premiere of Deborah Pritchard’s Violin Concerto “Wall of Water.” We’d managed to coble together a fine live recording of WoW from the premiere and Nimbus released it as a CD single that year. Ever since, plans have been afoot to record a full program of other works to compliment it. It took nearly 3 years, but it was worth the wait! Paul Patterson’s Allusions is a stonking double concerto for two violins. The other movements brim with wit and craft and the middle movement is both haunting and harrowing. Philippa and Harriet played it brilliantly. David Matthews’ “Romanza” is a rich and sophisticated piece- the kind of work one would ideally like to live with for a long time. The musicians took about 45 minutes to crack David’s language, then suddenly, it all clicked. What a beautiful piece it is, as is Emily’s “falling still,” which I’ve done so many times over the years. It was particularly nice to record something by a friend I’ve known since my student days. The next day, we recorded a work by a friend of Harriet’s from her student days, Robert Fokkens. Day One had been an echt English String Orchestra project. Day two and Rob’s piece for string quintet, piano, huge percussion section, brass and winds brought us to a totally different sound world. It’s one of those pieces that looks so difficult on the page you almost reflexively think it must suck (most super difficult pieces do, in fact, suck).

However, it is AMAZING. Full of color, wit, panache, imagination. It was such a happy day recording it. Once again, a project that could have felt like a real grind turned into something quite joyful. Throughout the two days, we were delighted to work with another supremely gifted guest leader, Hayley Wolfe. When you’ve got the right person in that chair, a conductor’s job doesn’t feel like a job (and yes, the reverse is also true. All too true!).

Composition Today

February: Sawyers Third Symphony Recording and Premiere, Wyastone and St John’s Smith Square

Remember all that stuff about what it must have been like to be at the premiere of Brahms 1 and how it felt quite a lot like that at the premiere of Jane Eyre. Well… Yes- that, again. Just a few months later.

Somehow in a haze of caffeine and sleep deprivation, I dreamed up the idea of commissioning 9 new symphonies for the ESO and convinced myself we could do it. This was the first work in this series. Philip Sawyers is a dear friend, and I think is music is really special and important. What a gift it is for a conductor to be able to present music you believe in so strongly. One can never know what it must have been like for Boult to conduct Vaughan Williams or Bulow to conduct Brahms (let alone what it must have been like for Mahler to conduct Mahler!), but this is as close as I expect I’ll get. Coming into a project like this with a long acquaintance with a composer’s work is priceless. I’d already recorded a CD of Philips music, premiered his song cycle (Songs of Loss and Regret, also included on this concert and the forthcoming CD) and had played his Cello Concerto in November. The Third Symphony is a bold, slightly frightening, hugely important work. Sometimes listeners say the wisest things about music. One listener I’ve known for many years remarked “I remember reading the backstory of the premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony” she said, “and how that piece seemed to encapsulate all the difficulty of the time and offers some kind of possible answer to the challenges of the moment. This piece is the first thing I’ve heard in ages that seems to speak to the state of the world right now with all it’s uncertainty and anger, and finds a way out.” It’s not a programmatic piece, but it looks straight into the abyss and says an emphatic “no” to despair and apathy. It couldn’t feel more urgently or profoundly of our time, yet it’s so deeply connected to the great symphonic tradition.

Both the concert and the recording session offered more memorable moments than I could summarise in a 10,000 word blog post. Conducting recording sessions (or playing them) offers a unique challenge of endurance. You’ve got to give everything on every take. By the end of the sessions, we were all absolutely wrecked. We seemed to be done- I was dripping with sweat (even by conductor standards), and panting. But somehow, for some reason, we needed one more take of the end. I couldn’t really imagine how anyone in the room had another take in them. Surely the brass players must have felt liked they’d just dragged their chops down the length of Interstate 90 out the back of an old pickup truck. Simon Fox, our producer, implored us to make it worth the pain. “Make it superhuman” he said.  What’s louder than loud, bigger than bigger, huger than huge? That take was it. I literally staggered back to the recording booth and collapsed in a chair. Simon gave his typical half-smile and said “well…. I’ve never gotten an ending like that before.” Me neither. I just hope nobody left their effing mobile phone on to wreck the take (something that happened earlier in the year with a particularly nice take in Jane Eyre). We’ll find out later this month when the first edit arrives. All this, and as a bonus, we offered Zoë the position of Leader (one of two such open positions in the orchestra) and she accepted. Happy times ahead.

When I’m dead and gone, I’m sure there will be all the usual “poor old Ken, he never did quite figure out, did he” talk, but then, perhaps someone will say “maybe not, but in 2016-7, he premiered Jane Eyre and Sawyers 3 within a few months of each other. Dude had one badass year!” I can live with that.


April: Wall of Water at The Bridgewater Hall

I have already mentioned the importance of the premiere of Deborah Pritchard’s Violin Concerto “Wall of Water” in 2014 to the orchestra. In addition to finally finding the piece a worthy home on CD, this year also saw us return to the original programme on which it was premiered (at LSO St Lukes in October 2014) for a performance (the orchestra’s debut) at The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.

The Bridgewater might be the best acoustic in the country, but it’s one that demands artists be at their very best. It’s astoundingly transparent, accurate and precise. Yes, it gives the sound a lovely bloom, but it hides no sins. You can hear everything. We had only one rehearsal in the space, and the first 10 minutes, as we worked through the very delicate and exposed opening of Thea Musgrave’s “Green” were telling. But, as so often happens these days, after a few minutes, the musicians make all the right adjustments and then it all just took off. I hadn’t quite felt I’d done “Green” justice three years ago- I thought we played it fairly technically well, but somehow didn’t put across the message of the piece clearly. This time, I was much more convinced by both piece and performance. Returning to Wall of Water was wonderful- having done it a few times now, I feel like both Harriet and I are finding much more space and line in the score, and the orchestra responded with oodles of colour. And, having done “falling still” for the CD in January also meant we were playing a great piece that we knew well and understood.

The last piece on the programme was Saariaho’s Terra Memoria. What a work. Staggering. It’s the first work of hers I’ve done (this was our second performance). I REALLY want to record it. It’s seriously hard, but the orchestra played it so well. All but the Musgrave end in long pianissimos and magical silences. In this case, magical silences accompanied by some pretty amazingly obnoxious mobile phones going off (really, who uses “Celebration” as a ring tone?!?!?!FFS!).


May: Hans Gál: Concertino for Cello and Strings, Grieg Holberg Suite, Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, Hereford Shirehall

2851 words into this blog post and you must feel like I’ve practically told you what I had for breakfast every day this year, but actually, we’ve skipped over many wonderful, more normal concerts. By the time we got the aforementioned season-ending Tchaikovsky, we’d already played the piece a few times this year, and at least two more times (I lose track) in the previous couple of years. It’s a very standard piece, but I think it needs special care and shouldn’t be hacked at or done routinely. I turned down all chances to conduct it with groups of more mixed standard in my early career. Doing it with ESO has always been fun, but this year, it got a whole lot better. Having Tijmen Huisingh guest leading these concerts must have helped. Tchaikovsky poses two very particular problems- making the right sound (Russian!) and playing with the right amount of flexibility and rubato. Sunday felt about as close as I’ve gotten with this piece on those two counts. Thinking back on where we’d started with the piece in 2014, it felt like a good marker with which to end this year.

Vftp readers will probably know of my involvement with and affection for the music of Hans Gál. It’s a source of some disappointment in humanity (more on that in a later blog post, perhaps) that my phone doesn’t simply ring off the hook with orchestras around the world begging me to come conduct his magnificent symphonies or his incredibly beautiful and engaging concertos for violin, piano or cello. Audiences would LOVE it, and everyone knows we’re wearing out the old chestnuts which don’t sell like they used to. This was my first time conducting Gál in over a year. Again, it was a project long in the planning. We’d almost recorded it with Matthew in 2013 when we did the piece in Malvern, but somehow at that time, the administrative infrastructure wasn’t ready to organise recordings. I’m glad we waited- the orchestra is so much more cohesive and virtuosic these days, and this music needs all the skill you can give it. Matthew Sharp played damn near perfectly right thought the both recording sessions, the dress rehearsal and the concert. Even by Gál’s high standards, the slow movement is thing of heart-wrending beauty. How lucky we are to get to discover and explore works like this.


Well, that’s it. We made it. At least most of us did!

For those of you who held on for the whole journey, and those who help us here and there along the way, thanks. Have a good summer.

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