Live review – Emily Davis, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: A Portrait of Steven R. Gerber

Emily Davis (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Gerber (arr. Hagen) Sinfonietta No. 1 (1991)
Gerber (arr. Williams) String Sinfonia No. 1 (1995)
Gerber Two Lyric Pieces (2005)
Gerber (arr. Williams) String Sinfonia No. 2 (2011)
Gerber (arr. Williams) Sinfonietta No. 2 (2000)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded in 2020 for online broadcast, Wednesday 26 February 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s online (hopefully not too much longer!) season continued tonight with this portrait of American composer Steven R. Gerber (1948-2015). Little heard in the UK (but extensively in Russia during the immediate post-Soviet era), his output follows a not unusual trajectory for someone of his generation – that from serialism to a rapprochement with tonality, though his evident success over these nominally opposing aesthetics is far rarer and confirms a creative zeal as was underlined by the works featured in this ESO programme.

Although he essayed a sizable number of orchestral works (including two symphonies), those pieces heard here were arrangements of chamber pieces. Not that they were at all unidiomatic or lacking impact – witness that of his Piano Quintet by Daron Hagen as the First Sinfonietta, whose five movements evolve in opposition between a pungent incisiveness and an emotional plangency which finds its culmination in the powerfully sustained fourth movement. Kenneth Woods secured a trenchant response from an ESO likely at or near its socially distanced limit.

The other arrangements were all undertaken by Adrian Williams, himself a notable composer of whom the ESO will be playing more in due course. Derived from Gerber’s Fourth Quartet, the First String Sinfonietta is notable for the comparable intensity of its central movements – a Lento then a Maestoso which might have functioned as a finale had not the composer opted, effectively as it turned out, to let such emotions subside over the curse of a brief yet affecting Postlude. It was astute programming to follow this with the Two Lyric Pieces for violin and strings, the only item played in its original guise and one whose mingling of wistfulness and eloquence finds the composer at his most approachable; not least when Emily Davis rendered the solo part with such fluency and poise. These pieces could yet enjoy a widespread success.

As derived from Gerber’s Sixth Quartet, the Second String Sinfonia appears to be among his more quizzical works – the angular while not a little ambivalent opening movement making way for a quizzical Intermezzo, then a closing set of variations that does not so much reach a climax as wind down into an uncertain repose. A more elaborate and methodical take on the Variations template is pursued by the second and final movement of Gerber’s Fifth Quartet, here arranged as the Second Sinfonietta which again has recourse to a fuller instrumentation and more charged expression. Notably the opening Fantasy, whose stark contrasts of mood make for a disjunctive overall trajectory as is subsequently countered, if not wholly resolved, through a steady and always inevitable build-up of the finale towards its forceful apotheosis.

Intriguing and engaging music which, if tending to an unrelieved earnestness, could hardly be faulted for emotional immediacy. It certainly found worthy exponents in the musicians of the ESO, directed by Woods with his customary conviction, while hopefully the tendency of the sound to distort in louder or more fully scored passages – what used to be termed ‘flutter’ in recorded parlance – was a factor of the online broadcast and not of the actual session. Those coming anew to Steven R. Gerber will doubtless have responded to his unwavering sincerity.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here For more on Steven R. Gerber, visit his website

In concert – Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko: The Golden Twenties – Weill & Stravinsky

Michael Spyres (Oedipus), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Jocasta), Andrea Mastroni (Tiresias), Krystian Adam (Shepherd), Derek Welton (Creon, Messenger), Bibiana Beglau (speaker), Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko (above)

Weill Symphony no.1 in one movement (1921)
Stravinsky Oedipus Rex (1927)

Philharmonie, Berlin
Saturday 13 February (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

“This is no little hicktown. This is one helluva city!”

The words of Bertolt Brecht, writing about his home city in the song Berlin im Licht, set to music by Kurt Weill. It is a sentiment brought to the front of The Golden Twenties, an online festival from the Berliner Philharmoniker running through February, examining ‘a metropolis of contrasts…the epicentre of artistic modernism’.

The festival’s first concert, streamed from the Philharmonie via the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall, featured the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first ever performance of Weill’s single-movement Symphony no.1 from 1921. This seems like a remarkable historical oversight, even for a work as little-known, but the performance gave this student piece the best possible platform to reach a new audience.

After a thoughtful and revealing introduction from the orchestra’s concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, the Symphony’s distinctive main motive rang out like an extended peal of bells. With this arresting opening Weill laid out the ambition of his work, writing as a student of Busoni looking to impress. This bold statement was complemented by intricate and intimate solo episodes through the inner workings of the orchestra.

Kirill Petrenko conducted a cohesive and convincing account, making sense of the more congested writing and bringing out the parallels with Hindemith and Schoenberg, which he spoke about in the interval. The work’s fulsome harmonies had plenty of deep colour, and it was revealing to hear the counterpoint in such detail. The double basses made an eerie contribution through a fugal episode which wound its way up through the orchestra at several points in the work, before an impressive climax and a darkly shaded postscript. Petrenko nailed the scope of the piece but ensured there was plenty of room for the phrases to breathe individually.

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex could hardly have been a more appropriate counterpart for a concert filmed behind closed doors. With its chilling opening statement, ‘The plague is destroying us!’, sung by a socially distanced male chorus from the choirstalls, it was a stark reminder of our current, locked down predicament – and struck an inevitable parallel with the state of the performing arts currently.

This 50-minute opera / oratorio is one of the most notable achievements in Stravinsky’s so-called ‘neo-classical’ period, a dramatic response to Sophoclese‘s tragedy that is not the easiest to digest but which packs an expressive punch.

Petrenko’s incisive conducting brought its message home with a lasting power, and in the performance he was aided by a strong cast of soloists. Michael Spyres’s tenor dominated in the title role, his ringing tones promising deliverance but ultimately winding up in great anguish before the end. He was given ample support by Creon (bass-baritone Derek Welton) and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, whose fulsome contribution was made in a bright red dress bringing her into dramatic contrast with the funereal black of chorus and orchestra.

Petrenko kept things moving throughout, with virtuoso contributions from woodwind and percussion in particular. In spite of their social distancing the chorus lost none of their power, playing out the tragic story with detail but an ominous inevitability. Holding the threads together was narrator Bibiana Beglau (above), an excellent choice and with strong proejction in the empty hall.

Highlights could be found in the assertive delivery of Welton in the ‘Avenge Laius’ section, while Spyres gave an impassioned promise that he would solve the riddle of the Sphinx. The chorus alternated between a horror at the plague, a sorrowful realisation of the plight of Oedipus, which was particularly moving, and the cold, regretful end.

This was an auspicious start to what promises to be a revealing celebration of Berlin and particularly Weill in the 1920s. The next concert on 16 February will look at the composer’s better-known Second Symphony, while this and future instalments will include the music of HindemithRichard Strauss and Eisler. If the performances are as good as these then online attendance is highly recommended.

The next concert in The Golden Twenties season can be seen and heard at the Berliner Philharmoniker website

 

Live review – April Fredrick, Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Inspired by Mahler

April Fredrick (soprano, above), Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler (arr. Stein) Das irdische Leben (1892/1900)
Weinberg Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42 (1948)
Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921)
Ullmann (arr. Woods) Chamber Symphony op 46a (1943/1999)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded in 2020 for online broadcast, Wednesday 27 January 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Holocaust Memorial Day is a timely opportunity to hear music anticipatory of, inspired by or stemming from events that have defaced human history on all too many occasions, and which provided the basis for this latest online concert from the English Symphony Orchestra.

The underlying tone for this programme was set by Mahler, with one of his settings of texts from the folk collection Des knaben Wunderhorn. In pivoting between the child’s supplication and his mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of the composer’s most evocative songs – not least its portrayal of the child’s existence running out as though this were grains of sand. April Fredrick accordingly invested the vocal part with just the right combination of ominous dread and lingering pathos.

ESO leader Zoë Beyers then took centre-stage for Weinberg‘s Violin Concertino, the product of late-1940s Soviet culture when accessibility was not just desired but prescribed. Modest in expressive scope next to those chamber works that preceded it, this work is highly appealing – not least in the deftness and subtlety with which the composer unfolds his ideas across an ingratiating Allegretto, ruminative Adagio (whose cadenza-like introduction brings the most arresting music in the whole work), then a final Allegro whose thematic interplay is nothing if not resourceful. Beyers rendered it with unfailing eloquence, making it clear just why this attractive piece – which had to wait almost half a century for a first public hearing – should now have established itself among the most often performed of Weinberg’s orchestral works.

In telling contrast, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a pert reminder of the composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s earlier chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston (its soulful violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz) and Tango admit of a searching introspection to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are pointedly side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.

The final work provided the culmination in every respect. Written during internment at the transit camp of Terezin (aka Theresienstadt), the Third String Quartet is Viktor Ullmann’s likely instrumental masterpiece – in terms both of its formal unity and expressive diversity – and whose transcription onto the larger canvas has been persuasively achieved by Kenneth Woods. Chamber Symphony makes a not inappropriate title, this single span drawing the contrasted movements into a seamless and finely-balanced whole – the initial theme acting as a soulful refrain between the angular scherzo with its waltz-like undertow then, after the terse development, a fugal Largo whose accrued intensity carries over into the final Rondo with its striving towards a fervent restatement of the ultimately transfigured ‘motto’ theme’.

An imposing work, given a committed reading by this orchestra under its arranger in what was an appropriate tribute for the day. The ESO’s online series is scheduled to continue on the 26th of February, with a portrait concert of the American composer Steven R. Gerber.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 7.30pm on Wednesday 27 January 2021 here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

Live review – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The Roaring 20s: Decade of Melody & Mayhem

Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Blake (arr. Schuller) Charleston Rag (1915)
Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921)
Morton (arr. Schuller) Black Bottom Stomp (1926)
Krenek (arr. Bauer) Fantasie on ‘Jonny spielt auf’ (1927/8)
Milhaud Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58b (1920/1)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded 9-10 November, broadcast Thursday 31 December 2020 (online)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra certainly saw in the New Year with style in this attractive and enterprising programme centred on the prevalence but also the range of jazz idioms either side of the Atlantic throughout the 1920s. Its stylistic roots were acknowledged in the panache of Charleston Rag by the long-lived Eubie Blake, then the irresistible verve of Black Bottom Stomp by the lived-dangerously Jelly Roll Morton – both heard in distinctive arrangements by Gunther Schuller, whose own jazz innovations warrant revival as his centenary approaches.

Between these pieces, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a reminder of this composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s early chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston – its moody violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz – and Tango admit of an introspection and pathos to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are here side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.

It is almost 94 years since Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf took the German-speaking world by storm, and though its highly Viennese take on jazz lacks the satirical edge as achieved by Weill, the present Fantasie devised by Emil Bauer gives a fine overview of this opera in all its attendant strengths and weaknesses. Abetted by diaphanous orchestration (with its oddly hymnic role for harmonium), the slower sections conjure no mean expressive fervour, while the closing pages exude an affirmation which never feels brittle or forced in its demeanour.

Darius Milhaud had also fastened on to the exuberance of jazz, here with Brazilian overtones, in his ballet Le boeuf sur le toit – as heard in the rarely revived ‘cinéma-fantaisie’ version for violin and orchestra. Perhaps the often equivocal nature of the solo part has mitigated against wider acceptance, but Zoë Beyers took its technical demands confidently in her stride while remaining aware of its ‘first among equals’ status – notwithstanding the strategically placed cadenza (by no less than Arthur Honegger) that brings the soloist unashamedly centre-stage. Credit, too, to the members of the ESO (suitably attired throughout) for having rendered this music’s teasing rhythmic inflections with unfailing poise, and to Kenneth Woods for teasing the maximum finesse from out of Milhaud’s entertaining while not a little provocative score.

It was, indeed, a fine showing all round and would have been ideal before that ‘end of year’ party which circumstances have regrettably made impossible. This event was still a highly positive means of seeing out the old year and welcoming in a much to be anticipated 2021.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 7.30pm on Thursday 31 December 2020 here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

Live review – Jay Reise, Davood Ghadami, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The Art of Storytelling – The Warrior Violinist

Jay Reise (music), Davood Ghadami (narrator), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 18 December 2020 (online)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Following on from its uproarious version of Lubin from Chelm [*], the English Symphony Orchestra continues its series of pieces for virtual storytelling in the guise of an old Egyptian tale – here given a contemporary twist to result in the ‘morality’ fable The Warrior Violinist.

This is a parable about being careful what one wishes for. It centres on a youth who plays the violin to exclusion of all else, then finds an even greater other love – the Pharaoh’s daughter. Imagining himself inferior, he bids the Sphinx transform him into a great warrior – in which guise he vanquishes Egypt’s enemies. The princess can love only the man she heard playing the violin and when the warrior tries to reclaim his former prowess, he finds himself unable to play – the Sphinx’s warning that no-one can be changed back having proven only too true.

Davood Ghadami is a personable and thoughtful narrator; his understatement enabling one to focus on a musical score that, even more than the previous two in this series, packs a wealth of incident into a through-composed score which is effortlessly sustained over its 18 minutes. A tribute, indeed, to the initiative of Jay Reise in having elaborated a piece written almost a decade ago for this Art of Storytelling series. Not the least of its attractions is the extensive role allotted solo violin, played here by Zoë Beyers with no mean poise and resourcefulness.

The remaining ESO musicians play with skill and sensitivity, while Kenneth Woods ensures clarity of texture even in denser passages. The production should provoke children and adults alike – and, as usual with ESO, a range of sundry material enhances the overall experience.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

For information about Auricolae, visit Kenneth Woods’ website here