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

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