English Symphony Orchestra's new season

ENGLISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S INNOVATIVE NEW SEASON


KENNETH WOODS AND THE ENGLISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
by Christopher Morley

It is heartwarming to see our musical organisations emerging blinking, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed into the post-lockdown warmth. Let's not party-poop here by wondering how long this much-needed release is going to last, but instead concentrate on the delights currently on offer.
The English Symphony Orchestra is certainly doing its bit. Performing at Wyastone Leys in Herefordshire's beautiful Wye valley, it launched last month its "Music at Wyastone" online series of concerts, including a performance of the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, soprano April Fredrick, herself only recently recovered from the Covid-19 virus, the soloist.
Fredrick, ESO Affiliate Artist, returns on October 18 for the orchestra's next streamed concert, "Visions of Childhood", with works by Mahler, Schubert, Wagner (Siegfried Idyll) and Humperdinck (Act Two, Scene Two of his wonderful opera Hansel und Gretel).
Kenneth Woods, principal conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, tells me how this season's lively and imaginative programming came about, and hits upon a surprisingly optimistic outcome in these uncertain times.
"It was clear to us from the beginning that we couldn't look at digital content as simply a matter of moving our normal offer online," he explains.
"Although our first concern is to keep in touch with our loyal audience, we were aware from the beginning that the online arena was quickly going to become very crowded.
"Our usual ESO listeners can access a virtually limitless range of content from orchestras all over the world, while at the same time the ESO can also reach listeners in Japan or Canada just as easily as orchestras there, or as the biggest orchestras in the world.
"The world has become one musical marketplace, in which everything is free and everything is happening at once."
Ken goes on to tell me about the ESO's shrewdly pragmatic approach.
"With that in mind, we decided there was no point in us trying to further crowd the market by duplicating mainstream offerings with well-known artists. One can already see a dispiriting degree of duplication of programming just in the six weeks or so since virtual concerts in the UK really got going.
"Our first goal in this project is to contribute something meaningful to musical life. We can do so much through online distribution to make people aware of new repertoire, composers and new artists. We can try new concert formats, we can vary the lengths of concerts. We're also really keen to share the talents of our affiliate artist and composers with the world.
"I also hope that when our listeners don't have to factor in ticket costs, travel time, babysitters, dinner reservations and so on, that they might be a little braver about taking a chance on a composer or an artist they don't know. I'm hopeful that by the end of this period, we'll not only have a bigger local and international audience, but a more flexible and curious one."
What has it been like for Ken, welcoming back his players after so many months of lockdown?
"It's been very emotional. I was prepared for that the first day we came back together in July, but it remains so. The sessions for these virtual concerts are very intense, as we are combining the filmed performances with recording for future CD release, and it's all done on a very tight schedule.
"It's two or three days of total immersion, and at Wyastone, one feels like you've left the madness of the wider world behind. This all means that, even now after several projects, it's a very heightened atmosphere, with everyone very, very intent on giving their best, all day, every day."
We then go on to discuss ESO's future planning.
"We've planned for virtual concerts every month until August," Ken replies.
"Everything is in pencil and will depend on funding and our ability to work and travel safely. We hope to introduce more events with live audiences as the year goes along, but our first concern is to support our musicians by giving them the certainty of a baseline of work no matter what happens."
Does Ken ever envisage live performance going back to what it used to be? Are we going to see Mahler symphonies, Wagner operas. Beethoven Nine, for example, ever given again?
Kenneth Woods is emphatic.
"Yes. Humanity is dealing with several existential crises at once - I won't burden your readers with the whole list. But, if we're going to survive this dangerous moment, there will have to be a huge wave of international reforms and social and economic changes, much like those which followed the Great Depression and World War II.
"And that bodes very well for the arts. I'm still pretty hopeful I'll be conducting things like Mahler 2 again pretty soon. As long as the entire world doesn't go up in flames!".
*All details on eso@eso.co.uk

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