Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival 2022

Elgar arr. Fraser Nursery Suite (1931 arr. 2022) World premiere of this arrangement
David Matthews Shiva Dances Op.161 (2021) World premiere

English String Orchestra (soloists Zoë Beyers, Suzanne Casey (violins), Carl Hill (viola) and Joely Koos (cello) / Kenneth Woods

Filmed at the Guildhall, Worcester, Friday 3 June 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

Welcome listening for the new year provided by the English String Orchestra, as taken from a programme at this year’s Elgar Festival and which featured the premiere of that composer’s last notable work in what is an idiomatic and often perceptive arrangement by Donald Fraser.

His previous Elgar arrangements ranging from miniatures to the Piano Quintet, Fraser duly captured the wistful charm of the initial Aubade then discreet pathos of The Serious Doll. The ESO steered a secure course through the headlong intricacy of Busy-ness, with the deft profundity of The Sad Doll afforded full rein. Solo strings against an implacable rhythmic ostinato offset any lack of visceral impact in The Waggon (sic) Passes, then the high spirits of The Merry Doll were jauntily in evidence. The extended finale, Dreaming is a threnody of tangible emotional import and a resume of earlier themes on its way to a forthright if not a little regretful coda. Kenneth Woods ensured this had gravitas without losing focus, while a bravura showing from Zoë Beyers was but the last in a sequence of solos all admirably taken.

Solos are by no means absent from Shiva Dances by David Matthews. The combination of string quartet and string orchestra has potent Elgarian connotations, of which the composer avails himself in this continuous sequence inspired as much by Aldous Huxley’s description of the Hindu god Shiva as by Indian classical music. Moving from a slow introduction given piquancy by its modal intonations, the work comprises four dances that between them outline the four elements: an impetuous workout representing ‘earth’, a quixotic interplay for soloists and ensemble that of ‘water’, the scherzo-like agility of ‘air’, and an animated waltz for ‘fire’. This latter builds to a forceful restatement of the opening theme, before a coda intensifies the overall expression such that what came before is rendered from a more ethereal perspective.

It says much for the prowess of the ESO that this first hearing betrayed few signs of caution or uncertainty, Woods directing a confident account with which Matthews must have been well pleased. Those listening to this online programme can also hear an encore in the guise of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, taken from a performance during last year’s Elgar Festival and which exudes a searching eloquence as seems to look beyond forthcoming celebrations to that overtly commemorative atmosphere from only a matter of weeks later.

This concert could be accessed free until 1 January 2023 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, but remains available through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, or on composer David Matthews

In concert – Zoë Beyers, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Journeys of Creation and Renewal: Vaughan Williams, Pritchard, David Matthews and Elgar

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Pritchard Violin Concerto ‘Wall of Water’ (2014)
David Matthews Shiva Dances Op.160 (2021)
Elgar Introduction and Allegro Op.47 (1905)

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

Holy Trinity Church, Hereford
Thursday 24 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Just a day after The Journey Home, the ESO reverted to its ‘String’ guise for this judiciously sequenced programme with two contrasted commissions framed by classics of the repertoire for string orchestra – these latter written not so far away from where this concert took place.

Acclaimed at its premiere in Gloucester Cathedral some 112 years ago, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis has never been so popular as it has become this past decade. This performance did it justice – the placing of the ‘echo’ orchestra, behind the altar-screen in the imposing Victorian confines of Holy Trinity Church, abetting those antiphonal exchanges in the central section. Solo string quartet building steadily toward an impassioned culmination, from where Tallis’s theme is movingly recalled prior to the final evanescence.

Next came the welcome revival of an earlier ESO commission by Deborah Pritchard. Inspired by an eponymous series of paintings by Maggi Hambling, Wall of Water is a violin concerto which makes tangible reference to these 13 canvases as it unfolds. Their projection to the rear of the orchestra underlying a visceral as well as imagistic allure, even though the work itself is fully intelligible on its own terms – not least with a three-movement trajectory coalescing out of continuous 13 sections. Elements of Penderecki and Lutosławski can be discerned over its course, but a distinct and engaging personality is also in evidence along with a technical finesse with regard both to the solo writing and that for the strings. Zoë Beyers gave a superb account of a piece which seems sure to enter the repertoire of 21st-century violin concertos.

As too does Shiva Dances by David Matthews. The combination of string quartet and string orchestra is a potent one (see below), of which the composer has availed himself fully in this continuous sequence likely inspired as much in a description of Hindu god Shiva by Aldous Huxley as by Indian classical music. Proceeding from a slow introduction given piquancy by its modal intonations, the work comprises four dances which between them outline the four elements: an impetuous workout that represents ‘earth’, a quixotic interplay for soloists and ensemble that of ‘water’, the scherzo-like agility of ‘air’, then a lively waltz for ‘fire’ – this latter building to a forceful restatement of the opening theme, before the coda opens-out the overall expression such that what went before is rendered from a more ethereal perspective.

Kenneth Woods secured an engaging account of this appealing work, as he did of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro that concluded the evening. As he pointed out, its main melody is a rare instance of this composer using an actual folksong, yet that never entails a lessening of formal intricacy in what becomes a latter-day recasting of the concerto grosso – reaching its emotional apex in a developmental fugue that bristles with technical challenges. A tough test for the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom Elgar enjoyed a productive association.

Suffice to add the ESO was equal to this task as in the sustained fervency of the final pages. It rounded off another worthwhile evening from this always enterprising ensemble. December brings the seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah, with further concerts in the new year.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Zoë Beyers, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on the composers, click on the names Deborah Pritchard and David Matthews

In concert – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Beethoven Egmont, Op. 84 – Overture (1809-10)
Elcock Violin Concerto, Op. 13 (1996-2006) [UK premiere]
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914/20); Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)

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

Routh Hall, Bromsgrove School
Friday 27 May 2022

There will be many concerts over the next fortnight celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, but few (if any) of more substance than that given tonight by the English Symphony Orchestra with its principal conductor Kenneth Woods, taking place on the attractive campus of Bromsgrove School some miles from Birmingham.

It might not have been written for this occasion, but the Violin Concerto by the ESO’s current composer-in-association Steve Elcock (above) was no less impressive for that. This marks something of a transition from those less ambitious pieces written for local musicians and the symphonic works now being recorded to great acclaim. It opens with an Allegro vivo whose rhythmic energy is maintained throughout, yet with enough expressive contrast for its second theme to assume greater expressive emphasis in the reprise. The highlight is a Molto tranquillo whose haunting main theme, initially unfolded by the soloist over undulating upper strings in a texture inspired by change-ringing techniques, is a memorable inspiration. A pavane-like idea later comes into focus and the closing stage, opening onto an eloquent plateau before evanescing into silence, lingers in the memory. The finale is a Passacaglia whose theme accelerates in five variations from Andante to Presto, culminating in a ‘cadenza’ for violin and timpani then a decisive pay-off.

A tough challenge, indeed, for any soloist and one which Zoë Beyers met with assurance over its 30-minute course. Aside from its sheer velocity the first movement is notable for a close-knit interplay between soloist and orchestra that was brought off with admirable precision, while the modal subtleties of the slow movement were rendered as enhancements to its overall tonal trajectory. Aside from a slight falling away of tension toward its centre, the finale saw the piece to a forceful close. Good to hear these performers recorded it prior to this performance, as a coupling to the Eighth Symphony that the ESO premiered last year, and which should be released over the coming months.

Beyers returned after the interval to launch a Vaughan Williams second-half (this year being the 150th anniversary of his birth) with The Lark Ascending. Easy to take for granted now that it is so frequently performed, the piece can still work its magic in an attentive rendering such as this. The underlying tempo might have been on the slow side, but the elegance and poise invested into the solo line were not to be gainsaid, nor was the translucency of orchestral textures which Kenneth Woods shaped with due restraint through the folk-like central section then into the easeful closing pages. Suffice to add that the unaccompanied final bars held those present spellbound with their artlessness.

There was at least as much to admire in the reading of VW’s Fifth Symphony which here followed on inevitably. A steady overall tempo for the Preludio did not exclude a palpable accumulation of energy in its development, nor a build-up of real fervency with the thrilling re-entry of its second theme. Understated it may be, but the Scherzo is replete with rhythmic quirks and while these were not always ideally negotiated, the music’s sardonic humour and ultimate evaporation were tellingly rendered. Doubtless this work’s emotional heart, the Romanza was admirably realized in its gradual coalescing of hymnal and folk-inflected elements towards a nobly wrought apex, but Woods kept enough in reserve so the final Passacaglia never risked becoming an anti-climax. It earlier stages conveyed  an emotional release as is countered by the ensuing anxiety then fateful reappearance of the work’s opening theme, subsiding into a coda which feels as much a benediction now as when it was first heard almost eight decades ago.

Beethoven‘s overture to Goethe’s Egmont might have seemed anomalous in this context but, as Woods pointed out in his opening remarks, the heroes and villains of 16th-century ‘Spanish Netherlands’ were not so far removed from those of today and, as the heady closing pages reminded us, triumph over adversity can never be taken for granted.

For further information on Steve Elcock, click here to visit his dedicated site, and for more on Vaughan Williams click here. To find out more about the artists, click on the names for more on Zoë Beyers, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

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

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