Chris Morley interviews Kenneth Woods of the ESO


By Christopher Morley

The Worcester-based English Symphony Orchestra has achieved wonderful things during the two years of lockdown and pandemic, zooming concerts and maintaining team spirit, but conductor Kenneth Woods is over the moon about returning to performing in front of a live audience.

"There is just nothing like the feeling of a live concert," he enthuses. "he excitement of performing great music without a safety net generates the most incredible collaborative energy in an orchestra, and the presence of an audience, their attention, their involvement further heightens the intensity. It's been doubly nice for ESO because I think our regimen of very challenging recording work during covid has made us an even better orchestra.

"The flip side of all of this is that this remains a moment of great peril. Ticket sales for all orchestras are fluctuating wildly, whether due to covid or the cost of living crisis. Where there was a cushion of sorts from the government during lockdown, further emergency support for arts organisations looks uncertain.

How did Ken's musicians keep up their morale during this period?

"Every musician I know has had dark days during this time. I'm sure that's true of all people," he says grimly.

"I'm proud of the fact that the ESO, including our board and administration, made a firm commitment to support the players in every way possible on day one. And we were lucky to be able to return to work early in covid because of the support of our partners at Wyastone Recording Studio, who moved heaven and earth to open the space for us as early and safely as possible. Our monthly recording projects have brought everyone together in a really nice way that has helped us all feel a little less isolated, a little more financially secure and a little more like we still have a purpose.

Ken has looked on the bright side of the lockdown's effect on his personal life.

"It's been difficult on many levels, but it has meant a lot of extra time with my family. Children grow up so fast, so I'm actually very grateful for the unexpected time we've had together these last two years. Chamber music has, of course, been hit particularly hard, but it was great to play with friends and colleagues at MahlerFest (Ken is artistic director of this annual Colorado event) last autumn.

"The other thing that I'm particularly grateful for is that the ESO rose to the challenge these last two years and showed real vision in responding to the crisis. Setting up our online concert series took nerve, and they embraced and supported my idea of focusing entirely on the most distinctive portfolio of work we could make. It's a body of work I'm really proud of, and it means there's a whole lot of wonderful music that wasn't previously available that curious listeners can explore."

On April 23 Ken conducts the ESO in an all-Nordic programme in Malvern's Forum Theatre, Nielsen's Helios Overture, Grieg's Piano Concerto (Peter Donohoe the soloist), and a comparative Sibelius rarity, the lovely Symphony no.6. How did he come to choose this programe?

"Sometimes certain repertoire just clicks with an orchestra, and Sibelius has been that way for ESO. Of course, the UK has a great Sibelius tradition, which helps, and the Sibelius symphonies for me are one of the great holy texts in music. So, from the first time we did a Sibelius symphony together in 2017, we knew it was something we wanted to focus on, explore, and go into real depth.

"Most of what we record is dictated by need - world premieres, lost works, etc. But the need of musicians to feed our creative souls is also an important need. We decided last year to record all the Sibelius symphonies, and just recorded the Sixth in February. That was unforgettable. And recording is the ultimate rehearsal, so it's exciting to take the piece to our audience after all that hard work. Of course, there are a lot of Sibelius recordings out there, but we feel like we've found something special in this repertoire that we want to develop and share.

"As for the Grieg, well we were all fans before we were pros! I can vividly remember watching Peter Donohoe at the Tchaikovsky Competition as a kid. I've been living and working in the UK for quite a long time, but it's my first chance to work with him. It's always a thrill to perform with your childhood heroes!"

Among Ken's future plans is the 2022 Elgar Festival, centring on the composer's birthday on June 22, but also focussing on a much wider celebration, as he explains.

"The headline attraction this spring is the 2022 Elgar Festival, which takes place over the weekend of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. The City of Worcester have chosen to make the festival the focal point of their celebrations of the Jubilee, so there should be an extra element of excitement in the air. We've got a feast of great concerts, from a late night tango concert to a gala performance in Worcester Cathedral featuring a performance Vaughan Williams' Festival Te Deum and Elgar's Spirit of England with the newly-formed Elgar Festival Chorus. We're also looking forward to several premieres, including a thrilling new work for string orchestra and string quartet which David Matthews has written in homage to Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for the ESO.

Ken ends our conversation with a wise but hopeful look to the future.

"There's a lot of excitement and energy in the arts right now. I can't even articulate how much built-up enthusiasm and creative energy is swirling around. But it's also the most perilous moment for orchestras, and all other kinds of arts groups. Many people are hurting financially, so it's more important than ever that those of us lucky enough to be in a position to help do so. Going to concerts helps! And it brings huge rewards.

"But folks can also help by sharing their enthusiasm with others. Joining things like ESO Digital not only give one access to lots of cool music, but that very modest £5/month donation actually makes all the difference. Music education has been further decimated during covid, too. If people want the tradition of Britain as one of humanity's greatest musical cultures to survive, they need to rise to the occasion, because the danger on all fronts is immense. But we're a resilient people, and I'm hopeful and excited about the future."

*Kenneth Woods conducts the English Symphony Orchestra at the Forum Theatre, Malvern, on April 23 (7.45pm).

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