English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

by Christopher Morley

The Worcestershire-based English Symphony Orchestra is launching its 2020 activities in impressive style, establishing a new residency in Bromsgrove and giving us a taster of what might become a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies in this, the 250th anniversary year of the composer's birth.

ESO's next concert venues are the newly-refurbished Routh Hall at Bromsgrove School, and the gracious Shirehall in Hereford, location in the past for the secular concerts of the Three Choirs Festival in the city.

"We're performing Beethoven's 3Third Piano Concerto with Isata Kanneh-Mason," ESO conductor Kenneth Woods tells me.

"The Bromsgrove concert (31 Jan) also includes Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (all part of our LvB 250 celebrations) and Ruth Gipps' Cringlemaire Garden. The next day in Hereford we sandwich the Concerto with Beethoven 8 and Mendelssohn's Schöne Melusine Overture.

"This will be our first concert at Routh Hall, although the ESO has been running youth orchestra courses there for two years now. It's a beautiful space with wonderful sight-lines, great acoustics and very comfortable amenities. It's also a space in which it is very easy for musicians to hear each other onstage.

"The Shirehall has been a regular ESO venue ever since the orchestra's founding under William Boughton in the 1980s.. My wife, who was born in Hereford, is a violinist in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and plays regularly with ESO. She went to her first orchestral concert in the Shirehall. It was ESO Playing Mozart 29 with William. Now she's married to the new conductor!

"It's a space I'm very fond of. The acoustics are a little challenging onstage but mostly great in the hall. The building lacks the kind of comfortable public spaces the city deserves, but it's otherwise a lovely place for a concert. The biggest challenge in switching between the two venues will be for Isata, who will have to navigate two very different pianos. That's why, as we say in America, she gets the big bucks!"

Kenneth warms to the theme of concert venues..

"Venues in general are a real challenge for us. There's nary a purpose-built concert hall between Birmingham and Bristol. The ESO is based in Worcester, the home city of this country's greatest composer, Edward Elgar. There isn't anything remotely resembling a decent concert hall in the city. Can you imagine such a state of affairs in any other place?

"If Stratford, even smaller than Worcester, can support the Royal Shakespeare Company,surely Worcester can support a concert hall worthy of its international orchestra and the legacy of the greatest musician born in this country? We're now in very constructive discussions with partners across the area to try to address this, but it will take time - people seem numb to the fact that if you're looking for a concert hall, you have to go to Birmingham."

We go on to talk about Ruth Gipps, who in the late 1940s performed as an oboist within the CBSO during the first half of a concert and who in the second half gave the premiere of her own Piano Concerto. Under Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla the CBSO performed another of her works at a Prom concert last year.

"Gipps is a fascinating figure," Kenneth enthuses.

"She was a true musicians' musician, a hugely accomplished performer on both oboe and piano and, by all accounts, an absolutely first class conductor. Like many talented women of her generation, it's clear she didn't get her fair share of professional opportunities as either performer or composer, but I think her success as composer was also hampered by the fact that her music is deeply grounded in the richest soil of the symphonic tradition, something that was perversely out of fashion for most of her life. It's so exciting that her music is now being actively re-assessed, and this performance of the lovely nature portrait, Cringlemire Garden, is an important first step for us."

How does Kenneth approach working with one of the siblings in the most gifted family of young musicians in the country? Does he godfather her, or do they collaborate as equals in experience?

"That's a very good question! I decided early on that I would always try to be the same Ken, whether working with a youth orchestra or a BBC orchestra, whether working with a young soloist or an established master.

"When accompanying any soloists, one tries to go in ready for anything, with open ears and a sympathetic outlook. We want their view of the piece to come through. But, every time, you have to bring your whole toolkit to work.

"Over the years, one works with soloists who are having a wobble in their confidence, soloists who are a little grumpy about life, or soloists who have maybe gotten into some bad habits or made questionable musical decisions. You have to be prepared for anything every time you work with someone, whether it's a new acquaintance or an old collaborator. If someone needs encouragement, you provide it, if someone needs feedback, you offer it.

"I'm excited to meet Isata. Her brother Sheku, the cellist, was great fun to work with - a very warm and easy person, comfortable in his own skin, and very engaged with the orchestra. I think Isata will find the ESO to be a team of musicians who really, really want to play their best for her and to make her feel like she can take risks and do something special in the concerts."

*The English Symphony Orchestra performs in the Routh Hall, Bromsgrove School on January 31 (7.30pm) and in the Shirehall, Hereford on February 1 (7.30pm).
Details on eso@eso.co.uk and 01905 29349

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