Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
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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 delivery 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.

21 days 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.

21 days 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.

21 days 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:

2 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.

3 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
http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/contact/

Andrew Strange ANDREW STRANGE MUSIC Telephone: +44 (0) 7946 372572 E-Mail: andy@andrewstrange.com Skype: andrew.noel.strange Web: www.andrewstrangemusic.com 

3 months ago |
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You can hear my colleagues in the English Symphony Orchestra and me perform this fantastic work on Hereford Shirehall on Sunday, the 1st October.

Booking info here

Haydn listening to the radio, thinking Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Symphony no.60 in C major “II Distratto” (The Distracted Gentleman)

The symphonies Haydn wrote during the middle period of his creative life are often referred to as his Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) symphonies. Sturm und Drang was firstly a literary movement, and, as the title of the movement would suggest, it was a movement rooted in high-stakes melodrama. Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period produced many of his most passionate and fiery works, but also many of his most innovative and radical. However, Haydn was, if nothing else, the most unpredictable composer who ever lived- whether note-by-note, bar-by-bar or piece-by-piece, one never knows what to expect next from him. So it was that in the midst of all of these intense and dramatic works, Haydn would pen the funniest piece of symphonic music ever written, his Symphony no. 60 “Il Distratto” (“The Distracted,” or the “Absent-Minded” or even “The Addle-Minded”).

This piece actually started life as incidental music for a comic play by Jean François Regnard which was being performed at the summer castle in Eszterháza where Haydn worked. Following the successful run of the play, Haydn adapted the music into a symphony in six movements. The play is a farce depicting the travails of Leandre, a man so absent minded that he very nearly misses his own wedding. Haydn managed to mine Regnard’s farce for every possible ounce of comedy, and the symphony includes at least one great coup de theatre.

Although the mood of Il Distratto is miles away from the existential struggles and fiery declamations of works like No. 44 (Trauer) or No. 49 (La passione), it shares with those works a wealth of invention, innovation and experimentation. For the layman, it might be easiest to simply summarise this is a seriously crazy piece of music.

Leandre’s daydreaming and bumbling creates all sorts of opportunities for interesting musical moments. In the first movement, we hear the orchestra grinding repeatedly to a halt as the protagonist loses his train of thought completely before awakening with a start. Midway through, they orchestra starts playing music from a completely different Haydn symphony (a quote from The Farewell). In the second movement, the rehearsal for the wedding procession breaks down when the elegant music of the procession is repeatedly disrupted by a passing marching band, and while the wedding rehearsal attempts to restore order, Leandre finds himself drinking with friends to a quote from an ancient French folksong “In the Pub, I find wisdom and advice.” The third movement starts as a traditional courtly minuet- just the sort of dance one would expect to hear at a posh wedding, but one can hear Leandre’s thoughts wandering off into a slightly melancholic bit of Bach-ian counterpoint. The middle of the movement is even stranger, built on a rustic quotation from a Balkan folk song. It would seem that the protagonist has found himself in a completely wrong part of town. There follows a wild Presto which might have made a fine Finale in a “normal” Haydn symphony (although this writer has yet to find a normal Haydn symphony), but there are still two more movements to go. There’s a clear hint Leandre is still lost in the migrant neighbourhood with another Balkan song quoted midway through.

The fifth movement is a drastic change in mood- Haydn calls it Adagio di Lamentatione. Whose lament, though? Perhaps Leandre’s beloved is getting worried she’s been abandoned on her wedding day? Music of great lyricism and pathos gives way to another of the moments of weird stasis which populate the symphony- has Il Distratto lost the plot again? A noisy brass fanfare serves as a much needed wake-up call, shattering completely the poetic atmosphere, before we return to the beloved’s lament. The movement ends with another bizarre interruption, trailing off into silence for a moment before Leandre remembers where he’s supposed to be and goes charging off, fast and loud, to the end of the movement. The final Prestissimo starts promisingly- the lovers are reunited and the wedding is about to begin when we realise that, in all the chaos, the musicians forgot to tune their instruments…. It’s not a pretty sound.

— Kenneth Woods

3 months ago |
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Respected composer Maynard Pitchworth is reported to be struggling to come up with an inspiration for his recently completed new orchestral work.

Pitchworth’s output includes such popular works as the concert suite “Strips of Bacon” retroactively inspired by the eerie similarity of the visual impacts of triptychs by painter Francis Bacon to Sunday morning comic strips, his tone poem “Darkest Peru”, composed in 1985 and named after a trip to the Andes in 1987, and “Brown Matter”, composed in 1992 and subsequently named for the late trumpet player, Clifford Brown, whose recordings Pitchworth first encountered shortly after writing the piece.

Pitchworth is reported to have struggled for months to come up with a reason for having written his latest completed work, a fourteen minute orchestral piece loosely anchored in F minor using a modified sonata allegro form which ends with a short fugal coda. He started the new piece in his studio immediately after finishing the two movement work which was later called “Pitcher Pictures” post-creatively inspired by two paintings by Picasso (Still life with apples) and Cezanne (Still life with fruit),. His programme note for the piece noted that the “seeds of this piece came from Picasso’ apples, while the formal structure was modelled on the shape of the pitcher, in which a nearly perfectly symmetrical form is disrupted by handle and spout in order to have use. ” Pitchworth first saw the paintings at the National Gallery about a month after finishing the orchestration of the piece.  “It’s a powerful metaphor for sacrifice as an expression of the human condition- we must be prepared to forego abstract perfection in the cause of utilitarian good. Agency can only exist where there is imperfection.” The two movements were subsequently found to use harmonic schemes which post-compositionally reflected the subtle difference in the fruits depicted by the two master painters. “After completing the piece and getting to know the paintings on which I later modelled it, I realised the first movement is essentially harmonically static- it stays in A “for apples” major throughout. The second movement is more harmonically wide-ranging,  post-compositionally found to have been inspired by the subtle contrasts of the peaches, limes, lemons and oranges Cezanne rendered so magnificently. When the coda lands in A major, we realise that the apples were always home fruit of the entire work.”

Cezanne and Picasso: Described by the composer as a “compelling “pear” of inspirations”

The new work was written in a calm atmosphere of steady professionalism during reasonably well-structured composing time on weekday mornings before Pitchworth left home each day for his regular afternoon teaching of A-level music. But now that it is finished, friends and colleagues say Pitchworth is desperate to come up with a reason for having been inspired to write it in a booze and pill inspired sleepless weekend around the time of the recent solar eclipse.

“Audiences today need to know what inspired a piece once you have written it,” Pitchworth is reported to have explained to a student, “and if I can’t come up with some kind of painting or natural wonder or colour that nobody else has already composed about to have inspired this new piece, I might as well bin it. All of the good inspirations have already been taken. There’s just no post-creative creative space left in our artform anymore.”

Once Pitchworth has found an inspiration for the completed work, he can then begin the hard work of writing a programme note which will explain how the already-finished piece reflects the newly-discovered post-compositional inspiration or model.

4 months ago |
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Joubert’s Jane Eyre is hauntingly intimate – review

   
April Fredrick sang the title role in John Joubert’s Jane Eyre

Christmas is coming, and choirs are getting ready to sing such perennially popular carols as Torches! and There is no rose. Their composer, John Joubert, is meanwhile anticipating his 90th birthday in the spring, and the occasion will be marked by the release (on Somm Recordings) of his opera Jane Eyre. Recorded live at this world premiere concert performance by the English Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, it is proof again of Joubert’s distinctive voice, and a reminder that there is much more to his music than those deservedly well-loved carols.

Domiciled in Britain since 1946, the Cape Town-born Joubert has played a significant role in this country’s musical life, yet the extent and originality of his output are sometimes overlooked. Composing in almost every genre, he has a work-list (currently nudging towards Op. 200) embracing chamber music, two symphonies, four concertos and eight operas, the latter reflecting his strong literary instincts and including adaptations of George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.

Completed nearly 20 years ago, his Charlotte Brontë opera has undergone revision and tightening to emerge in the two-act form heard here. Kenneth Birkin’s libretto distills the emotional essence of the novel – rather than its epic sweep and detail – taking a selective “scenes from” approach. It works hauntingly well, although amid a series of mostly intimate duets, the sudden ballooning of the cast in the wedding scene not only feels like something out of a different work but might prove an obstacle to opera houses looking to stage the piece.

While Joubert’s well-chosen operatic models are to some extent evident, his musical language is individual and he sustains the long scenes imaginatively. There is nothing obviously “English” about the atmosphere, although Joubert does sometimes suggest what a less chilly-hearted Britten might have sounded like. A natural opera composer, Joubert writes for a busy orchestra that drives the action along and illuminates it, without overwhelming the singers.

In the title role, April Fredrick sang with a lyrically gleaming soprano, soaring rapturously on Joubert’s singer-friendly lines. David Stout supplied virile tone as Rochester, and Mark Milhofer was incisive as the repressed Revd St John Rivers. Kenneth Woods conducted a well-prepared performance that ought on disc to win new admirers for the operatic Joubert. British opera companies have all too shabbily ignored his work, but American houses – often receptive to big literary adaptations – might take note.

4 months ago |
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A fantastic review from BBC Music Magazine in their August 2017 issue for volume two of the Complete Piano Concertos of Ernst Krenek

“All the soloists on this beautifully recorded disc deliver totally committed performances. Special praise, however, is due to the English Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Woods, conductor, who negotiate this totally unfamiliar music with real flair.”

4 months ago |
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