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Kenneth Woods- conductor
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Thurs April 19th at 730 PM

St John’s Smith Square

CONDUCTOR Ives- Symphony No. 3 ‘The Camp Meeting’ Copland- Clarinet Concerto Jesse Jones- Smith Square Dances (world premiere, commissioned by the ESO & St John’s Smith Square) Piston- Sinfonietta


Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, William Schuman

No smart musician turns down much work, but when I first came to the UK to build a new musical life, I did my best to steer clear of doing lots of American music. I thought that if I spent my first few years in the country conducting Bernstein and Gershwin’s greatest hits, that would probably be the only repertoire I would ever get to conduct here. It also concerns me that only a handful of the most popular American works seem to make it to the UK with any regularity, just as in America, most orchestras dare not venture far beyond the Enigma Variations and the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

One of Leonard Bernstein’s greatest legacies was his lifelong advocacy for American music, spanning a huge spectrum of generations and styles. With that in mind, when David Wordsworth approached us about the ESO participating in Americana ’18, I thought that the best way we could celebrate the Bernstein Centenary would be to follow his lead and try to bring to St John’s some of the works he championed during his life and something from the new generation which I hope he would have loved.

Bernstein studied music at Harvard University, where his primary music professor was Walter Piston, whose wonderful Sinfonietta closes tonight’s concert. Piston was an influential pedagogue who also taught Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Elliott Carter, Irving Fine, John Harbison, Gail Kubik, Noël Lee, Robert Middleton, William P. Perry, Daniel Pinkham, Ann Ronell, Frederic Rzewski, Allen Sapp, Harold Shapero, and Claudio Spies, Robert Strassburg, and Yehudi Wyner. His books on counterpoint, orchestration and harmony are considered classics and sit on the desks of composers all over the world to this day. It is therefore a bit of sad irony that Piston’s extraordinary legacy as a writer and teacher has led many timid conductors and programmers to assume that his music is in some way “academic” or lacking in spark or temperament. Nothing could be further from the truth. His grandfather, Antonio Pistone, was from Genoa, Italy, and there is a definite Italianate intensity and passion in Piston’s music. He was one of a generation of American composers who worked throughout the middle decades of the 20th Century to see what the “Great American Symphony” might sound like, and his eight symphonies are a major contribution to the genre- perhaps the most substantial body of work of any American symphonist. His Sinfonietta, written in 1941, is a three movement work which explores some strongly contrasting moods. The first movement is full of tension and uncertainty, while the Adagio which follows it goes into even darker territories. However, in the final Allegro vivo, Piston blows the dark clouds from the skies with a movement brimming with rhythmic life and invention.

Charles Ives

Bernstein was a key member of the generation who brought Charles Ives’ music to the attention of the world. Ives, who had combined his work as composer with a successful career in insurance, had written an astounding body of visionary works in the years between about 1890 and 1916, before largely abandoning composition after the Fourth Symphony. It was during the 1930’s that Ives music was first discovered. Aaron Copland was one of a number of composers who championed his work in those early years, and Copland wrote an influential review of Ives’ first major musical publication, the collection of 114 Songs. In 1939, the pianist John Kirkpatrick’s New York Town Hall performance of the Concord Sonata in 1939 proved to be a watershed, and gradually, people began to take up the orchestral music. Nicolas Slonimsky led a tour of the Three Places in New England and in 1946, composer Lou Harrison conducted the first performance of Ives’ Symphony no. 3, “The Camp Meeting” and the work was subsequently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Ives developed the Third Symphony from some organ pieces he had written in 1901. The Symphony was completed in 1904, although Ives revised the work several times between 1904 and 1911, and some of the versions made during this time are lost. In fact, the final fair copy he had made in 1911 was, according to Ives, given to Gustav Mahler who had seen it and expressed an interest in programming the work at the Philharmonic. Mahler, then desperately ill, took the score with him on his final voyage back to Austria, where he died on 18 May, 1911 and the score remains lost.

The three movements of the Symphony evoke the coming together of a rural community for a typical religious revival in a country tent, the sort of event that brought back many poignant memories of childhood for Ives. Most of the thematic material in the work, as so often in Ives music, comes from vernacular sources, in this case, from a number of hymns, including “What a friend we have in Jesus, “There is a fountain filled with blood”, “The Happy Land” and “Woodworth- Just as I am”. The text of that hymn underpins the cello solo which ends the symphony: “Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou biddest me to come to thee, oh Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

Old friends- Lenny and Aaron

The relationship between Copland and Bernstein was exceptionally close and lasted through most of the two composers’ adult lives. A friend who knew them both once said to me that the only good to have come from the dementia which blighted Copland’s last years was that he was spared the news of Lenny’s premature passing about 6 weeks before his own death. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto comes from 1948, written the peak of his fame, when Copland’s music was at its most outward looking. The Concerto was commissioned by the jazz clarinettist, Benny Goodman, and one can hear Goodman’s influence in the spiky syncopations of the second movement. It is music of ecstatic good humour, written at a dark moment in American history when Copland was keenly aware of the need to lift the spirits of the nation. The first movement is simply one of the most beautiful things ever put to paper by any composer- dreamy reverie full of longing and tenderness.

Throughout his career, particularly during his prolific years with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein did an incredible amount to bring new and unknown music to the attention of the listening public. I am confident he would take absolute delight in the work of Jesse Jones, whose Smith Square Dances fills out tonight’s concert. This is also music of ecstatic humour- Jones takes a little bit of commonplace musical material, in this case the horn call, and goes on an absolute rampage with it.

— Kenneth Woods

2 months ago |
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Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is a work that ends with the beginning of a journey.

Across the first five movements, and through much of the sixth, the narrative voices we hear are passive ones.  In the third and fourth songs, the poetry of Li T’ai-po observes youth and beauty, but as if through a glass wall. In the second song, “The Lonely one in Autumn” Chang Tsi describes a describes a soul paralysed by grief and isolation. In the first and fifth songs, Li T’ai-po brings us into the nihilistic world of a heroic figure reduced to seeking consolation in endless drink. “Dark is life, is death” laments the poet, “Let me be drunk!”

The sixth song of Das Lied von der Erde, Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), is as long as the other five put together. For much of the song, the poet speaks of an atmosphere of expectant but doom-laden waiting. “I stand here and await my friend for a final farewell,” says the poet. There follows a long funeral march, after which the long awaited friend arrives. And it is here that the piece turns. The voice of the friend and that of the narrator quickly blur. “Fortune was not kind to me in this world! Where do I go? I walk, I wander in the mountains. I seek peace for my lonely heart. I go to my homeland, my abode.” For a piece which has mostly existed in the realms of observation or emotional paralysis, Das Lied von der Erde ends with a renewed sense of purpose, agency, and the beginning of a new, eternal journey.

“Fortune was not kind to me in this world,” is a line which could have been autobiographical at the time Mahler set it. As most Mahlerians will know, Mahler had just experienced his famous “three blows of fate” in the summer of 1907. He had been forced from his position at the Vienna Opera by anti-Semitic intrigues, he had lost his beloved daughter Maria to scarlet fever, and he had been diagnosed with a serious, potentially fatal heart condition.  This series of tragedies brought on a creative crisis, leaving Mahler temporarily unable to compose.

When he finally broke his silence, it was not without effort. “I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn,” he wrote to Bruno Walter. The first music he wrote after those three blows was the desolate second song of Das Lied von der Erde, Der Einsame im Herbst (“The Lonely One in Autumn”). However, much like the narrator of Der Abschied, once the new journey was begun, Mahler never looked back, and his final creative chapter, comprising Das Lied and the Ninth and Tenth symphonies was to be his greatest. Das Lied von der Erde is on one level about loss and departure, but on another, it is about recovery and renewal.

Mahler was by no means alone among great composers in reaching a point of creative crisis before a final, late burst of inspiration and energy. Beethoven went through nearly 7 years of creative stasis between his middle and late periods. In Mahler’s case, it was the discovery of Hans Bethge’s translations of ancient Chinese poetry, Die chinesische Flöte, somehow gave Mahler a much-needed source of poetic inspiration.

Of course, not all poetic inspiration comes from poetry. In 1890, Johannes Brahms wrote his String Quintet in G major, opus 111, and declared his intention to forever set down his pen. “I have worked enough; now let the young ones take over,” he said. Poetic inspiration came in the form of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms wrote the Clarinet Quintet we perform on our Chamber music Concert this year. The inspiration of Mühlfeld elicited from Brahms not only the four great works for clarinet (including the Clarinet Trio and the two Clarinet Sonatas), but a great, final flowering of autumnal masterpieces, including songs, piano works and an astonishing set of chorale preludes for organ. The composer Hans Gál wrote of the music of Brahms’ last five years that “Imperceptibly the first day of winter had arrived; the sun was low over the horizon. In 1891 the music his last period began… what it may lack in gushing fullness is replaced by an indescribably noble, spiritual concentration of technique and expression.”

Richard Strauss and Brahms were very different men, but Gál’s touching description of Brahms’ final period also provides a very apt description of the music of Strauss’s last years. At his peak, Strauss was perhaps the most public musician in the world- a composer of gargantuan works for the concert hall and the opera house which attracted huge audiences and fed longstanding pubic debates. He was a conductor of international standard. Yet, in his later years, as the culture which had nourished him throughout his life collapsed into madness and catastrophe, Strauss turned inward. His final opera, Capriccio, is a work of great wisdom and beauty, but hardly a natural piece for the theatre. It is an examination of the age old philosophical question, “which is the greater art, poetry or music?” Strauss no longer seemed to need or want his public, and his late works are touchingly introspective. It is no accident that his last opera begins not with a grand overture, but with a beautiful piece of pure chamber music, the Sextet which opens our annual Chamber Concert. Again, what Gál said of the aging Brahms could apply equally well to the elderly Strauss, “The man had calmed down and withdrawn into himself.”

Die chinesische Flöte was the last of many literary works, ranging from Goethe’s Faust to the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which helped shape not only Mahler’s vocal music but his symphonic output throughout his life. The British composer John McCabe was, like Mahler and Strauss, both a performer and a composer of genius. As a pianist he was not only a noted advocate for a huge range of 20th C. works, but also the first artist to record the complete piano sonatas of Haydn. McCabe’s 1998 work Pilgrim, given its North American premiere on our chamber concert this year, was inspired by John Bunyan’s classic novel Pilgrim’s Progress. Originally composed in the sextet version you will hear this week, McCabe later orchestrated it for double string orchestra, in the process giving us one of the very greatest works in the rich tradition of English string orchestra music, worthy of placement alongside Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The themes McCabe found most inspiring in Pilgrim bear a remarkable similarity to those which make Das Lied von der Erde so rich. “It made a great impression,” wrote McCabe, “not least because of its theme of a journey of self-discovery, and a recovery or renewal of faith. These are ideas which have a strong interest for me, not in religious terms but in their application to every aspect of human life (including great journeys), and this piece reflects my response in musical terms to this concern. One feature which, upon completion of the score, struck me with some force, which is that almost all the thematic material is essentially striving upwards – there is a constant upward movement (sometimes over a lengthy period) throughout the work.”

Richard Strauss and Mahler were both friends and rivals. Zemlinsky and Mahler were probably more rivals than friends, at least where love was concerned. The glamorous Alma Schindler had been Zemlinsky’s lover before dumping him in favor of Mahler, whom she considered clearly the greater talent. Zemlinsky was a major figure, however, and it is wonderful that we can hear his youthful Cello Sonata on this year’s Afternoon Recital. Like Mahler, Strauss and McCabe, George Enescu was a multifaceted genius as both performer and composer. Hailed recently in Musical Opinion  as “almost certainly the greatest composer to have not yet been fully embraced in the pantheon of the giants,” Enescu’s musical gifts seem almost superhuman. He was said to be able to recall and write down every note of every piece Bach ever composed, and was equally proficient as both a violinist and pianist. As a child prodigy he found early inspiration in a meeting with his idol, Brahms. Just as Brahms had often turned to Gipsy and Hungarian folk music for inspiration, much of Enescu’s music was inspired in part by the folk music of his native Romania, including his Violin Sonata no. 3, “dans le caractère populaire roumain.” Our Afternoon Recital also includes Phantasma by our 2018 visiting composer, Jesse Jones, perhaps the only composer I know of to be a virtuoso mandolin player as well as a conductor and pianist.

If Strauss and Mahler were the two dominant composer-conductors of their day, Sibelius and Mahler were certainly the dominant symphonists of their generation. The popular anecdote about their friendly debate over the nature of the symphony tells only part of the story of how their work as symphonists compares. Sibelius said of their discussion about the nature of the symphony that:

“I admired its style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. . . . Mahler’s opinion was just the opposite. “No!” he said, “The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.”

Of course, an examination of both composers output reveals that this supposedly antipodal approach was more a social misunderstanding than anything else. Although there are obvious differences in scale, language and orchestration, Mahler’s music is every bit as rigorous and logical as Sibelius’s. Das Lied von der Erde is a perfect embodiment of a “profound logic that create(s) an inner connection between all the motives.”

Likewise, Sibelius’s music could, like Mahler’s, be both simultaneously all-embracing and painfully personal. He was no stranger to the kinds of personal creative crises which gripped Mahler and Brahms before they entered their late periods. Sibelius had one of the most distinctive and instantly recognisable voices of any composer, but his refusal to repeat himself meant that most of his major works came at great personal cost. His wife, Aino, despaired at his dependence on alcohol as a compositional aid. But when inspiration came, the results were staggering. So it was when Sibelius composed his Fantasia sinfonica in 1924. That year saw both Sibelius and his marriage to Aino in crisis. “Aino… is at the end of her tether…I am on the wrong rails. Alcohol to calm my nerves and state of mind. How dreadful old age is for a composer! Things don’t go as quickly as they used to, and self-criticism grows to impossible proportions.” The texts of Mahler’s two harrowing drinking songs in Das Lied von der Erde could well have been autobiographical sketches of Sibelius’ life at the time of the composition of the Seventh Symphony.

Aino, disgusted by his drunken state during a recent trip to Gothenburg, refused to accompany Sibelius to the triumphant premiere of the Fantasia sinfonica. In the end Sibelius found the strength to conduct a triumphant concert, and Sibelius quickly realised that the Fantasia sinfonica was really meant to be his Seventh Symphony. We have here “an indescribably noble, spiritual concentration of technique and expression,” but, as with Brahms “winter had arrived; the sun was low over the horizon.”

Renewal came harder to Sibelius than to Mahler or even Brahms. In the end, he had two more masterpieces to give the world after the Seventh, his final tone poem, Tapiola and his music for The Tempest. Years of struggle on an Eighth Symphony ended when Sibelius is believed to have burned the incomplete manuscript in his dining room. Other than that, the last thirty years of Sibelius life seem to have been creatively barren. Was there somewhere an instrument of poetic inspiration that could have unleashed his genius once more as Die chinesische Flöte had for Mahler’s?

Or was the cause of Sibelius’ final silence simpler? “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh,” he told a friend, “then it shall be my last.” To better Sibelius’ last symphony is a harrowing benchmark, one I’m not convinced any composer before or since has convincingly achieved. It is to every perceptive listener’s great regret that Sibelius had “withdrawn into himself” thirty years before his death, but the legacy he left us is more than worthy to stand beside that of his colleague and sometime antipode, Gustav Mahler.

Welcome to MahlerFest XXXI.

3 months ago |
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4 months ago |
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I’m conducting an incredibly cool programme next week with my friends in the English Symphony Orchestra on the 10th of February in Worcester’s lovely Huntingdon Hall. We’re doing Erwin Stein’s magical chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with the magnificent soprano April Fredrick. Here are my programme notes about the works on the first half of the concert- Schoenberg’s chamber version of the Emperor Waltz and and my own orchestrations/arrangements of four songs/arias.

Booking details for the concert are here. 

This is going to be rather special- music as fairy tale for grown ups, child-like-ness as the path the wisdom, nature as both threat and salvation, food as both comfort and torment. Don’t miss it!

About Today’s Concert- Thoughts from the Conductor

The Orchestra

As a name, “The Society for Private Musical Performances” may not roll off the tongue, but it is surely easier to say for most of us than the German original “Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen”. The Society was founded by the composer Arnold Schoenberg with the intention of making carefully rehearsed and comprehensible performances of newly composed music available to genuinely interested members of the musical public. In the three years between February 1919 and 5 December 1921 (when the Verein had to cease its activities due to Austrian hyperinflation), the organisation gave 353 performances of 154 works in 117 concerts that involved a total of 79 individuals and pre-existing ensembles. Devoted to fostering new discussion of emerging works, the Society did not welcome critics, and audience members had to join the Society in order to attend.

Works performed on the Society’s concerts reflected a huge range of the best of late 19th and early 20th Century works, but nothing by Schoenberg himself. Orchestral works were played in arrangements for small ensembles like the one you will hear tonight. Schoenberg himself made many of these arrangements, including the whimsical arrangement of the Strauss Emperor Waltz which opens our concert tonight, and he oversaw the work of other composers and arrangers including Erwin Stein, who arranged the Fourth Symphony of Mahler for a Society concert in 1921.

There was no standard instrumentation for these concerts, but most of the arrangements that have come down to us from the Society are for some combination of solo strings, a few solo winds, piano and harmonium. This sort of salon orchestra was often augmented by the liberal use of percussion, which can greatly enhance the range of colour the ensemble can produce.

For much of the 20th Century, the arrangements of the Society were largely forgotten. In an affluent age, there seemed to be little need for arrangements of Mahler symphonies and songs for 10-15 players. However, in the last twenty years or so, these arrangements have seen a real resurgence, and have become recognised as being artistically interesting in their own right. From a listener’s point of view, they offer a more intimate view of the music, one that perhaps allows the creativity and artistry of the individual performances to shine through. I’ve conducted and recorded a number of the arrangements from the Society and have become thoroughly seduced by their unique sound world. I hope those of you new to this kind of ensemble leave tonight suitably enchanted.

The Songs

Having decided to programme Erwin Stein’s orchestration of Mahler’s 4th Symphony on this concert, I had to give careful thought to what else should be on the programme. Because of their sheer scale, the question of what, if anything, should be on the same concert as a Mahler symphony is not always an easy one to answer. The Fourth is the shortest and slightest of Mahler’s eleven symphonies, but it is still nearly an hour long. In past, I’ve coupled it with everything from a Haydn symphony to the Grieg Piano Concerto, but since we were doing Stein’s reduced orchestration of the Mahler, it seemed silly to programme something for vastly different forces on the first half of the concert. The choice of Schoenberg’s affectionate arrangement of the Emperor Waltz was an easy one- the Fourth is in many ways one of Mahler’s most explicitly Viennese works.

However, not that many arrangements of the Society for Private Musical Performances survive, which made my programming options limited until it occurred to me that if the arrangements didn’t exist to do the repertoire we wanted to do, we could simply make new orchestrations for the same forces as the Stein Mahler Four. Once I had steeled myself to the challenge of making the arrangements you hear tonight, anything was possible.

In the 55 minutes of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, our wonderful soprano, April Fredrick, only sings for about five minutes, so it seemed obvious that the first half of tonight’s concert should include a selection of songs whose themes resonate with those of the symphony.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is primarily a meditation on nature and childhood. It explores, in very profound and sophisticated ways, the complexity of a child’s view of the natural world, with its mixture of threat and wonder.

Humperdinck’s great children’s opera, Hansel und Gretel, a quasi-Wagnerian setting of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, tells the story of two children in peril. The opera was composed in 1891-2. Richard Strauss conducted the first production in 1893, Gustav Mahler the second production in Hamburg in 1894. The adventures of Hansel and Gretel balance moments of deprivation and hardship with wonder, moments of horror with hope. The two selections I have adapted come from Act II, Scene 2. Having become lost in the forest, Hansel tries to find the way back, but he cannot. As the forest darkens, Hansel and Gretel become scared, and think they see something coming closer. Hansel calls out, “Who’s there?” and a chorus of echoes calls back, “He’s there!” Gretel calls, “Is someone there?” and the echoes reply, “There!” Hansel tries to comfort Gretel, but as a little man walks out of the forest, she screams. In the first section you hear tonight, the Sandman (sung by a soprano), who has just walked out of the forest, tells the children that he loves them dearly, and that he has come to put them to sleep. He puts grains of sand into their eyes, and as he leaves they can barely keep their eyes open. Gretel reminds Hansel to say their evening prayer, and after they pray, they fall asleep on the forest floor. My arrangement of this scene is essentially a reduction- wherever possible, I have kept true to Humperdinck’s original, with flute parts on the flute and string parts on the strings, and the harmonium standing in heroically for absent bassoons and horns. In the Evening Blessings, April changes roles from Sandman to Gretel, and our wonderful principal clarinet, Alison Lambert, takes on the role of Hansel.

Der kleine Sandmann bin ich – st!
Und gar nichts Arges sinn ich – st!
Euch Kleinen lieb ich innig – st!
Bin euch gesinnt gar minnig – st!Aus diesem Sack zwei Körnelein
Euch Müden in die cugelein;
Die fallen dann von selber zu,
Damit ihr schlaft in sanfter Ruh.
Und seid ihr fein geschlafen ein,
Dann wachen auf die Sterne,
Und nieder steigen EngeleinAus hoher Himmelsferne
Und bringen hold Träume!
Drum träume, Kindchen, träume!
Drum traume, Kindchen, traume!(Verschwindet. Volllge Dunkelheit.) .

HANSEL” (sclilaftrunken) .
Sandmann war da !

GRETEL Sandmann war da !
Lass uns den Abendsegen beten !

Abends, will ich schlafen gehn,
vierzehn Engel um mich stehn:
zwei zu meinen Häupten,
zwei zu meinen Füßen,
zwei zu meiner Rechten,
zwei zu meiner Linken,
zwei die mich decken,
zwei, die mich wecken,
zwei, die mich weisen
zu Himmels Paradeisen!

I shut the children’s peepers, sh !
and guard the little sleepers, sh !
for dearly do I love them, sh !
and gladly watch above them, sh!
And with my little bag of sand,
By every child’s bedside I stand ;
then little tired eyelids close,
and little limbs have sweet repose.
And if they’re good and quickly go to
sleep, then from the starry sphere above
the angels come with peace and love,
and send the children happy dreams,
while watch they keep !Then slumber, children, slumber,
for happy dreams are sent you
through the hours you sleep. 

HANSEL (half asleep).
Sandman was there !

GRETEL Sandman was there
Let us first say our evening prayer.


When at night I go to sleep,
fourteen angels watch do keep :
two my head are guarding,
two my feet are guiding,
two are on my right hand,
two are on my left hand,
two who warmly cover,
two who o’er me hover,
two to whom ’tis given
to guide my steps to Heaven.

Both Mahler’s 100-minute Third symphony and his Fourth, heard tonight, grew out of the musical material in The Heavenly Life, the short, beautiful song which forms the final movement of the Fourth Symphony, “Das himmlische Leben” or “The Heavenly Life.” In the first half of this concert, we hear his song “The Earthly Life” (“Das irdische Leben”), which forms a sort of bleak mirror to the song that will end this concert. Where “The Heavenly Life” tells us of a world of eternal peace and plenty, “The Earthly LifeT speaks of a world of terror and hunger. As with the Humperdinck, I have essentially stuck as closely as possible to Mahler’s own orchestration of the song, which is a model of clarity and economy. Although he is known for his use of vast forces, Mahler’s natural textural métier is chamber music-like clarity.

Mutter, ach Mutter, es hungert mich!
Gieb mir Brot, sonst sterbe ich!“
„Warte nur! Warte nur, mein liebes Kind!
Morgen wollen wir ernten geschwind!“Und als das Korn geerntet war,
rief das Kind noch immerdar:
„Mutter, ach Mutter, es hungert mich!
Gieb mir Brot, sonst sterbe ich!“
„Warte nur! Warte nur, mein liebes Kind!
Morgen wollen wir dreschen geschwind!“Und als das Korn gedroschen war,
rief das Kind noch immerdar:
„Mutter, ach Mutter, es hungert mich!
Gieb mir Brot, sonst sterbe ich!“
„Warte nur! Warte nur, mein liebes Kind!
Morgen wollen wir backen geschwind!“Und als das Brot gebacken war,
lag das Kind auf der Totenbahr’!
‘Mother, oh mother, I’m hungry!
Give me some bread or I shall die!’
‘Just wait! Just wait, my dear child!
Tomorrow we shall hurry to harvest!’And when the grain was harvested,
the child still cried out:
‘Mother, oh mother, I’m hungry!
Give me some bread or I shall die!’
‘Just wait! Just wait, my dear child!
Tomorrow we shall hurry and go threshing!’And when the grain was threshed,
the child still cried out:
‘Mother, oh mother, I’m hungry!
Give me some bread or I shall die!’
‘Just wait! Just wait, my dear child!
Tomorrow we shall hurry and bake!’

And when the bread was baked,
the child lay on the funeral bier!

Franz Schubert was, and always will be, the greatest exponent of the art song in human history. His output in song is without match in breadth, beauty, originality and importance. His songs were to be a huge influence on the creative development of Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s first masterpiece, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, or Songs of a Wayfarer, are hugely Schubertian in both their musical language and their subject matter. “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) is one of Schubert’s simplest and most popular songs, composed in 1817, when Schubert was just 20, to words by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. The song later formed the basis of a set of variations which gave Schubert’s 1819 work for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano, its name: the Trout Quintet. The song’s three verses tell the story of a child observing a fisherman at work, and her outrage when the fisherman muddies the water, driving the trout from the safety of the rocks onto the waiting hook. The fourth stanza, which Schubert didn’t set, makes clear that the song is, in part, a parable of innocence lost and a cautionary tale for young girls:

You who tarry by the golden spring
Of secure youth,
Think still of the trout:
If you see danger, hurry by!
Most of you err only from lack
Of cleverness. Girls, see
Seducers with their tackle!
Or else, too late, you’ll bleed

Heard in its context tonight, I think the song speaks again to the child’s view of our complex relationship with food and comfort, and the cost of that food and comfort. One couldn’t blame the father of the starving child in The Earthly Life for muddying the waters in order to feed his family. The child is outraged for the trout, but only because she clearly doesn’t know the pain of hunger.

In einem Bächlein helle,
Da schoss in froher Eil’
Die launische Forelle
Vorueber wie ein Pfeil.
Ich stand an dem Gestade
Und sah in süsser Ruh’
Des muntern Fishleins Bade
Im klaren Bächlein zu.Ein Fischer mit der Rute
Wohl an dem Ufer stand,
Und sah’s mit kaltem Blute
Wie sich das Fischlein wand.
So lang dem Wasser helle
So dacht’ ich, nicht gebricht,
So fängt er die Forelle
Mit seiner Angel nicht.Doch endlich ward dem Diebe
Die Zeit zu lang.
Er macht das Bächlein tückisch trübe,
Und eh’ ich es gedacht
So zuckte seine Rute
Das Fischlein zappelt dran,
Und ich mit regem Blute
Sah die Betrog’ne an.
In a clear little brook,
There darted, about in happy haste,
The moody trout
Dashing everywhere like an arrow.
I stood on the bank
And watched, in sweet peace,
The fish’s bath
In the clear little brook.A fisherman with his gear
Came to stand on the bank
And watched with cold blood
As the little fish weaved here and there.
But as long as the water remains clear,
I thought, no worry,
He’ll never catch the trout
With his hook.But finally, for the thief,
Time seemed to pass too slowly.
He made the little brook murky,
And before I thought it could be,
So his line twitched.
There thrashed the fish,
And I, with raging blood,
Gazed on the betrayed one. 

Schubert’s setting of The Trout is a compact masterpiece, barely more than a minute long. Given the sonic possibilities of expanding the accompaniment from piano to miniature orchestra, I decided to be more interventionist in arranging and expanding Schubert’s song. I have combined the three verses of the song with several, but not all, of the variations in the Trout Quintet. I’ve chosen to alternate strophes of the song with variations from the quintet that I thought suited the mood of the lyrics. In addition to knitting together the song and the quintet, I’ve had to transpose the song from its original key (D-flat major) to the key of the variations (D major) and I’ve performed a bit of harmonic surgery on the variations to make sure the new work flows in a logical way. The most drastic change, which will probably upset the purists and go unnoticed by everyone else, is that I have changed the key of lovely cello variation from B-flat major to D major. Unlike the Humperdinck and the Mahler, there was no orchestral original to work from here, so I’ve orchestrated the piano accompaniment of the song and gently expanded the instrumentation of the Quintet as needed.

Finally we come to another combination of song and variations by Schubert, both known as “Der Tod und das Mädchen” or “Death and the Maiden.” The song is based on a poem by Matthias Claudius and was written in 1817, the same year as “The Trout.” It has only two verses- one in which the Maiden pleads with Death to pass her by, and one in which Death assures her that he is a friend.

Das Mädchen:
Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!
Geh, wilder Knochenmann!
Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,
Und rühre mich nicht an.
Und rühre mich nicht an.
Der Tod:
Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!
The Maiden:
Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.Death:
Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

In 1824, Schubert used the song (in particular, the introduction of the song), as the basis of a set of variations which would become the slow movement of his String Quartet in D minor, one of his greatest chamber music works. Mahler’s love for the Quartet was enormous- it was one of two string quartets (the other was Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet) that Mahler orchestrated for performance by the full strings of the Vienna Philharmonic. This arrangement, like the others for flute (doubling alto flute), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), percussion, harmonium, piano and solo strings, starts with an exact lifting of the beginning of the slow movement of the Death and the Maiden Quartet, but wanders pretty far from the soundworld of Schubert’s two originals.

It’s not uncommon these days for one to hear a performance of the Lied, Death and the Maiden as a prelude to a performance of the complete quintet. I’ve chosen a different approach. As I alluded to above, the entirety of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony can be viewed as a development of the ideas in the song that concludes it. Rather than weave together song and variations of Death and the Maiden as I have with The Trout, I’ve orchestrated the entire slow movement of the string quartet except for the last bar, then orchestrated the song to come at the end. Structurally, it’s not all that different than the Mahler symphony- we hear the basis of everything at the end instead of at the beginning.

Death tells the Maiden to “Be of good cheer!” Does he speak the truth? Schubert’s tender coda is a hopeful clue that consolation awaits her.

5 months ago |
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If nothing else, 2017 tested one’s ability to live by rule that one doesn’t speak about politics or religion in polite company.

I’ve struggled to come up with some New Year’s thoughts this year because, frankly, it feels a little absurd to be talking about favourite concerts and exposition repeats (you should take them) when the political situation in my country is in a state of unprecedented decay and depravity. The biggest question of 2017, for the whole world, seems obviously to be whether America’s self-inflicted wounds are going to be fatal or not. That this moment of grave historical peril is happening is doubly infuriating because the threats and challenges that threaten to destroy our society, the international rule of law, and the ecological balance of the planet are pretty well-understood and relatively easily addressed. And yet, with the world’s dominant nation run almost entirely by a kleptocratic cult led by a mentally impaired, orange-faced comb-over fascist, it has been a year in which it seems virtually every political decision has been calculated to inflict maximum harm upon humanity at home and abroad, and on the planet. It gives me no pleasure to say I saw Trump’s election coming (I was pretty roundly shouted down by my FB friends when I called it back in August of 2016), but I honestly don’t know what comes next. The fact that we managed to completely botch our responses to the last two major challenges we’ve faced, 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, doesn’t exactly bode well. If President Obama had taken even one serious action to address the systemic causes of the 2008 crash, we wouldn’t be where we are today, so this is not a one-party problem.

For all the madness, corruption, idiocy and disregard for common sense and human decency that has dominated our politics this year, one gets the sense that we are astride a knife-edge moment in human history, ready on one side, to plunge into an abyss the likes of which we haven’t seen since the last World War. And yet, there are reasons to be hopeful- this year’s orgy of evil seems to have triggered a new political awakening which could turn our politics away from the cynical consensus which has dominated both American parties and spread across much of the world for the last forty years. The fact that the widely feared and expected sweep of Europe by other neo-fascists didn’t materialise after Trump’s election ought to be a source of real encouragement. Voices on the right and left calling for real political reform are louder than in a generation. A new, more hopeful, era could be just around the corner. Or it could be totalitarianism and mushroom clouds this time next year. The stakes are terrifyingly high, make no mistake. If we don’t change course, dismantling great universities, selling off our National Monuments, and even taking away health care from millions of people will seem like quaint worries.

I am quite sure that 2018 is going to be the most important year in our lifetimes- it will be a tipping point for good or ill. Turning back the forces which have consumed our nation and which threaten all of humanity will take an act of political will the likes of which our country has never delivered before. We’ve proven pretty good at decisive wars, but pretty bad at decisive political action, but the New Deal and Trust Busting of Teddy Roosevelt offer useful models. The majority of Americans who want to live in a tolerant, healthy, productive society will, in the next eleven months, have to overcome the political power of the oligarchy, the ingrained cynicism of the corporate media, vast corruption in the management of elections nationwide by state and local governments, and a networks of courts co-opted by corrupt know-nothing judges put in place to protect the interests of those who have hijacked our nation. As 2018 begins, the most powerful political force in the world is a party which doesn’t believe in science, facts or the rule of law. And the opposition party is corrupt, cynical, ineffectual and divided. Anything could happen.

In such perilous, grim and dangerous times, what is the point of being a musician? Does music have a place in an age of apathy (I could write a book about cultural apathy in the modern age) and despair? History teaches us that in dark eras, music matters more than ever, but is our current music industry fit for purpose? Can we rise to the occasion and make a difference to the world through profound, honest, original and outward-facing music as Copland did in the Great Depression or as Shostakovich did in the Battle of Leningrad? The forty-year fight to keep the musical lights turned on in an era of ever- shrinking revenues has meant that as a sector, we seem to have long since given up the fight to make the case for art music’s inherent, intrinsic value to humanity. There was a time, not so long ago, when the notion that art and entertainment were fundamentally different things (with significant areas of overlap) was not a controversial idea. No more.Money and popularity have become the only accepted measures of importance. Nowadays, art has to fight for survival in the commercial arena on the same terms as corporately funded junk culture.  And junk culture it is. Pop music and rock, which gave us so many creators of genius in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, comes into 2018 eating its own rotting corpse, recycling decades old clichés when it can be bothered to reach beyond watered-down cover songs. When American threatened to rip itself to pieces in the 1960’s, it wasn’t the next Copland who gave the nation the right songs for the time, it was Jimi Henrix, The Doors, Richie Havens and the rest of the Woodstock crowd. I don’t think the poet of our generation is going to emerge singing Madonna covers on America’s Got Talent.

The music world at the end of 2017 feels hugely enfeebled.

Again and again this year, I have found myself thinking that the common thread running through discussions about (classical) music and audiences, music and identity politics, and music and media is that, as a sector, so many of our colleagues have completely lost faith in music itself. Many of us seem to have given up trying to create the conditions for engaged and focused listening grounded in the belief that music affects us most deeply when we listen to it with the most intensity. Instead, we’ve staked our future on projections, promo videos, audience banter, clapping between movements, sycophantic embrace of pop culture, interdisciplinary work, box ticking, celebrity culture, marketing claptrap and identity politics. The idea that one could simply hear a piece of music and be moved deeply by it without any additional stimulus seems to carry no water at all. It’s no secret that art music of all kinds (including jazz, folk, rock and world music) faces huge economic challenges, but I have yet to see any proof that our wholesale embrace of bullshit and gimmicks as balm for all our ills is helping us build the audience of the future.

The great irony of the cultural (or anti-cultural) moment we find ourselves in is that this loss of faith comes at a moment when the creative side of classical music is in a golden age. There is so much fantastic music being written these days in so many styles that it is simply staggering. Likewise, there is a tidal wave of renewal and innovation tearing through the industry that has nothing to do with bullshit, entertainment or celebrity. A whole new generation of orchestras, ensembles, festivals and presenters are finding ways to deliver sensational performances of hugely innovative programs full of honesty and originality. If we could find a way to properly reward and support real innovation across the sector, just think what we could achieve. It remains a source of grave frustration that the kind of investment that would actually make the most difference to our art form (reliable small and medium sized tranches which can support a working framework for emerging and growing organisations) remains the hardest to come by. In my experience, the best work in the industry is being done in the most challenging circumstances. It is much the same in pop and rock- there is a generation of hugely gifted players and songwriters out there who have exactly zero chance of any of their music ever making it onto corporate radio or making any sort of profit from record sales. That seems an insane state of affairs, but we live in insane times.

I’m also a staunch believer in the importance of big institutions. It just saddens me that so many of them are so paralysed by groupthink and complacency. We can take comfort from the fact that the biggest of them all, the Berlin Philharmonic, has hired a new Principal Conductor on the basis of his musicianship and is doing such interesting and innovative work to engage with new audiences worldwide. The tale of several American orchestras which have risen hugely in artistic achievement only to crash into financial crisis is deeply worrying- when society ceases to support excellence, we are all at risk. The two major international conductors whose careers have capsized recently in sexual assault and/or harassment scandals are representatives of a whole generation of maestri who came of age in an era of easy money and unchecked power. Where conductors like Barbirolli and Solti had to help re-build their orchestras from scratch in the 1940’s and 50’s, this generation now finishing up got handed the keys to the family Bentley when they came of age and never had to worry about where the next tank of petrol was coming from for the rest of their careers. They took that metaphorical car on a free-spending generation-long joyride of forgettable recordings and middle-of-the-road concerts, and we now find our industry more or less out of gas and stalled on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with a battered Bentley with a backseat full of empty beer bottles.

If my generation, and that of my students and younger colleagues, has inherited an industry weakened from poor internal leadership, and trapped in a social context in which educational and cultural tends have been charging in the wrong direction for forty years, we can at least take comfort in the fact that history gives us a chance to show our mettle by having the courage to find a way to restore and reform our art form. We need not feel sorry for ourselves when we see what previous generations of musicians have done during times of war, economic collapse and oppression since the beginning of history. It’s been worse before and will be better again, barring a mushroom cloud over North Korea. In the last generation, it was the Bentley that mattered, in ours, it’s the petrol- our creative energy, our moral force, our communicative urgency.

On the day after Trump’s election, the group I was with cancelled our rehearsal. None of us could face trying to find the energy to make music at such a horrible moment. The next day, though, we came back to work, and by the end of the first hour, we all felt quite a bit saner. That first hour was conducted in monosyllabic style, but the end of the day, we were speaking in sentences. So it has continued for the next 13 months. With so much at stake in the world, being a musician can feel like an indulgence, and yet it is music and my family which has gotten me through 2017, and I expect I am not alone. And when being a musician means you can be part of bringing a piece like Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony to life, a piece which seems to so powerfully capture the sense of dread and rage so many of us feel about the state of the world today, but offers an ending that is hugely hopeful and defiant, our work feels far less indulgent. Art helps us in ways both tangible and mysterious, conscious and subconscious, to make sense of the world and to make sense of ourselves. All humanity has really ever had going for it was science, education, art and love. If we’re going to get through 2018, it will take a lot of all of those, and we artists have a big role to play in keeping this historical moment from being humanity’s “going out of business” sale. To all my friends and colleagues: let’s go out there and find and make the music which will help save the world.

Good luck to us all.

6 months ago |
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“What an astonishing year for British symphonies on disc… Philip Sawyers‘s classically structured Third, however, out-compels its rivals in sweep, scope and and the ESO’s gripping performance”

Congrats to April Fredrick, soprano, and producer Simon Fox-Gal, but especially to Philip. We’re so proud of our affiliation with him as our John McCabe Composer-in-Association, a collaboration which has yielded the three works on this disc, his wonderful new Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani, which we premiered in October with Simon Desbruslais, his Elegiac Fantasy in Memory of John Mccabe for Trumpet and Strings, his Violin Concerto which we premiere with Alexander Sitkovetsky in February and his new tone poem inspired by paintings of Samuel Palmer, Valley of Vision, which we premiere in March. Philip also wrote a wonderful student work, A Colwall Overture, which our ESO Youth Orchestras have performed several times this year.

Huge congratulations also to John Pickard, David Hackbridge Johnson and Steve Elcock. This is a golden age for symphonic music and we’re proud to play our part in its revival. Next up in our 21st Century Symphony Series is David Matthews (composer)‘s 9th Symphony, which we premiere in St George’s Church, Brandon Hill on the 9th of May and also record for Nimbus Records.

6 months ago |
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Filmed between recording sessions for Ken’s latest Nimbus CD, Ken and producer Phil Rowlands talk about his new orchestration of Brahms’ largest chamber music work.

6 months ago |
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A nice piece in the current issue of Classical Music Magazine about the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project.

Click here to subscribe.

Click here to purchase Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony on CD

Check it out on Spotify here:

8 months ago |
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It’s exactly 30 years today since the death of Hans Gál.

In his early career, he was one of the compositional stars of his generation, his music heard in leading concert halls and opera houses across Europe.

First banned by the Nazi’s in 1933, he escaped to the UK and went on to a distinguished second career teaching at Edinburgh University. Fortunately, his inner light as a composer never faded, and he continued composing works brimming with originality, lyricism and feeling well into his 90’s.

Gál had the temerity to outlive his “historical moment,” and in the last 20-30 years of his creative life, he was treated as something of an anachronism. At the time of his death, there wasn’t a single compete recording of his orchestral music available- a disgraceful state of affairs which carried on until 2009. Thanks in large part to the efforts of visionary recording companies, particularly AVIE Records, an ever-widening selection of his music is not being heard and discussed world wide. Important recent books on 20th Century music, including Forbidden Music by Michael Haas have discussed Gál’s achievement and legacy in great depth.

But his music remains a rarity. It is long past time for the BBC Proms to feature Gál, and it seems crazy that more orchestras aren’t racing to programme his compelling symphonies or his beguiling concertos for Violin, Cello or Piano. There is still much to be done.

9 months ago |
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Some very exciting news!

I’m very pleased to report that I have signed with Andrew Strange for general management.

Andrew has extensive experience in both artist management and orchestral touring, having spent ten years with IMG Artists Europe and subsequently working with Harrison/Parrott, Rayfield Allied, and International Classical Artists. He currently represents a select group of international conductors, soloists and ensembles, as well as providing consultancy for a range of orchestras and festivals.

I’m really looking forward to working with Andrew to develop conducting links with new orchestras and opera companies, but also very excited to partner with him to find ways of building on some of the commissions and recordings I’ve been involved in putting together with my own orchestras over the last several years through new tours, festivals and residencies. It’s really important to me to that the work we’ve done to raise awareness of wonderful music by the likes of Hans Gál, Philip Sawyers, John Joubert – Composer and Deborah Pritchard translates into ongoing performances and wider audiences.

Says Andy: “I’ve followed Kenneth’s burgeoning career for several years now, and I’m delighted that I finally have the opportunity to collaborate with such a talented and progressive artist. I am looking forward greatly to working with Ken on a range of innovative and cutting-edge projects.”

I’m also delighted that media and press relations will continue to be handled by Melanne Mueller at MusicCo International. MusicCo have done transformational work on my behalf for the last several years, and I’m very excited now to see how we can all work together to create new kinds of musical opportunities.

Contact information for both Andrew and Melanne is on my webpage

Andrew Strange ANDREW STRANGE MUSIC Telephone: +44 (0) 7946 372572 E-Mail: Skype: andrew.noel.strange Web: 

9 months ago |
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