In concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: New Notes

3choirs festival

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Doolittle Woodwings (2018, arr. 2020) [Version premiere]
Elcock
Symphony no.8 Op.37 (2019-20) [World premiere]
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Town Hall, Kidderminster
Wednesday 28 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have taken over 15 months, but the English Symphony Orchestra this afternoon gave its first concert with audience, as part of the Three Choirs Festival, in what was essentially an event rescheduled from last year that continued its estimable 21st Century Symphony Project.

The premiere was that of the Eighth Symphony by Steve Elcock (above), born in Chesterfield in 1957 and resident in central France, whose music has only recently come to prominence via releases on the Toccata Classics label fronted by the redoubtable Martin Anderson. Symphonic writing has dominated Elcock’s output this past quarter-century, and if his latest piece has antecedents in a string quartet composed back in the early 1980s, there can be no doubt it continues those processes of organic evolution and integration central to the seven works that came before it.

The present piece reflects the impact of having heard the Sixth Symphony of Allan Pettersson (awaiting its UK premiere after 55 years), but whereas that hour-long epic centres on fateful arrival, Elcock’s 20-minute entity is more about striving towards a destination which remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Various pithy motifs are sounded in the opening pages, the earlier stages pursuing a productive interplay between relative stasis and dynamism as is thrown into relief by the emergence (10 minutes in) of a trumpet melody which crystallizes the course of this piece as it builds inexorably to a powerful climax then subsides into a searching postlude that recedes beyond earshot. Overt resolution may be avoided, yet the sense of cohesion and inevitability audible throughout its course makes for an engrossing and rewarding experience.

That was certainly the impression left by this well prepared and finely realized performance, notable for the way in which Elcock’s idiomatic while demanding string writing was realized with manifest conviction. A 10-strong wind ensemble (along with cello and double-bass) had opened the concert with Emily Doolittle’s Woodwings, the songs and calls of nine Canadian birds rendered over five characterful movements somewhere between Poulenc and Messiaen, with a finale whose relatively freeform structure made for an intriguing and enticing payoff.

After the interval, Beethoven‘s Seventh Symphony received a performance as uninhibited and exhilarating as the piece itself. That all repeats in the first, third and fourth movements is no longer the surprise it might once have been: more startling was Kenneth Woods’s decision – entirely justified – to proceed without a pause into the second movement, so underlining the A-A minor pivot which uncannily anticipates that of Mahler’s Sixth almost a century later. Other highlights were the bracing cross-rhythms of the transition into the first movement’s reprise, the flexible pacing of the scherzo’s trio melody– poised ideally between hymn and dance, then a finale whose coda threatened to breach the confines of Kidderminster’s Town Hall but whose ultimate elation clearly left its mark on the audience’s enthusiastic response.

An impressive return to live performance from the ESO (above) and a harbinger of just what can be expected in its 2021/22 season. Before that comes another in this orchestra’s series of online concerts with a fascinating chamber realization of Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

You can find information on the ESO’s next concert at their website, and more on their latest recording, ‘Fables’, here. For more on the composer Steve Elcock, head to his website – and for the recordings on Toccata Classics, click here

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