Kenneth Woods, conductor: Highlights of the 2015-6 Season

 

MahlerFest Debut
In May, Ken made his debut as the new Artistic Director of    Colorado MahlerFest , one of only two organisations in the USA (the other being the New York Philharmonic) to be awarded the Gold Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society. For his inaugural concerts, Ken conducted Mahler’s notoriously challenging 7th Symphony and the US premiere of Viennese master Kurt Schwertsik’s homage to Mahler, Nachtmusiken. Key initiatives of Woods’ first season included an increased focus on new music, an elite new training programme for young conductors and a chamber music program for young artists.
“The musicians, however, love their Mahler, and they provided a robust, committed rendition of the symphony, and Woods showed why he is revered as a Mahler interpreter. He navigated the vast, often thorny first movement with a strong sense of direction, and the “heavenly vision” toward the end was sublime. The opening tenor horn solo was also bold and confident…  The symphony’s overly exuberant, strangely disjunctive finale has divided Mahler experts and fans for much of its existence, and it takes a conductor of great understanding to pull it off. Woods certainly does force a sense of direction on a movement resistant to this, and the jubilant ending drew a huge ovation from the audience.”  Boulder Camera
See an overview of MaherFest XXIX  here, including radio interviews, preview pieces and more
An Elgar Pilgrimage
Mahler wasn’t the only composer getting the festival treatment in Ken’s 2015-6 season. In October, the  English Symphony Orchestra and English String Orchestra offered up An Elgar Pilgrimage. With triumphant concerts in Malvern, Hereford and Birmingham exploring connections between Elgar, Brahms and Mahler it offered up three world-premieres: a new song cycle, “Songs of Loss and Regret” for soprano and strings by the ESO’s “John McCabe Composer-in-Association” Philip Sawyers, and Donald Fraser’s new versions of Sea Pictures for Chorus and Strings and Piano Quintet. The Quintet was named Premiere of the Year for 2015 by Classical Music Magazine
“[One] of the most exciting events I have experienced during a reviewing career approaching half a century”   Birmingham Post
“Tonight we were simply spellbound, thanks largely to the meticulous attention to detail on the part of conductor Kenneth Woods….This had been a carefully thought out programme, the concert itself once again proof that the city of Hereford is no backwater in the world of serious music.”   Hereford Times
Other conducting
Ken conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ken worked with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales this season on an eclectic array of projects ranging from recording Rogers and Hammerstein for the Proms to filling in on 90 minutes notice for a recording of a new 80-minute cantata by Super Furry Animals frontman Cian Ciaran. Perhaps his most challenging assignment, however, was his multimedia concert in celebration of the Rugby World Cup, as described in this blog from producer Paul Forde (a “heroic performance”). His season-ending Sibelius/Busoni concert with the Surrey Mozart Players was a critical triumph (” a performance of magnetic wonder…“), as was his performance of Mozart’s last three symphonies on a single concert in January, a programme he is repeating in London with the ESO in 2018. January saw Ken at the Sage Gateshead for recordings with the Royal Northern Sinfonia.  Highlights of the ESO season included the UK premiere of Emily Doolittle’s green/blue and Beethoven’s Eroica, and recordings for Signum and Nimbus to be released in 2017.
“Kenneth Woods drew a fine, vigorous opening from the orchestra in the Allegro con brio of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op.55 ‘Eroica’ with a crisp incisiveness and a great sense of panache and spirit, a real allegro brio… This was a performance of great life and character which brought a real freshness to Beethoven’s vision. Kenneth Woods is clearly achieving fine results with the English Symphony Orchestra.”  The Classical Reviewer
As composer
Ken’s setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” has been hailed as a major addition to the repertoire of musical storytelling works ever since it was recorded by Auricolae for Avie Records in 2012. The current season saw the premiere of his new version of the work for orchestra, integrated with projected illustrations by Wanda Sobieska. The English Symphony Orchestra premiered the orchestral version under Ken’s baton in Worcester and have just repeated it in Hereford. Ken and the ESO have made rejuvenating the orchestral repertoire for young listeners a major priority, and The Ugly Duckling has been complimented in 2015-6 by premieres of new storying telling works for orchestra by Kile Smith (“The Bremen Town Musicians”) and Tom Kraines (“Hansel and Gretel”)
The Ugly Duckling- Music by Kenneth Woods, illustrations by Wanda Sobieska
The Ugly Duckling- Music by Kenneth Woods, illustrations by Wanda Sobieska
In May, Ensemble Epomeo gave the New York premiere of Ken’s 2013 Quartet for Electric Guitar and Strings on a Kyo-Shin-An Arts concert that also included new works for shakuhachi and string trio by Jay Reise and Matthew Harris. The work was originally commissioned by the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and was performed by Epomeo and guitar virtuoso Daniel Lippel, with Ken doubling up on cello and second electric guitar.
Busy blogging
Ken’s blog, A view from the podium, has consistently ranked as one of the 25 most popular classical blogs in the world for nearly 10 years. His gift for satire has led to huge viral popularity for several recent posts
Among more serious recent Vftp posts were:
PERFORMER’S PERSPECTIVE: MAHLER 7: TO BE CONTINUED A nitty gritty look at some of Mahler’s principles of mega-scale form
BLOGXIT The meaning of citizenship and the tyranny of the majority.
Three New CDs in 2016
Krenek- Piano Concertos, vol. 1, English Symphony Orchestra,Mikhail Korzhev- piano
One of Ken’s first ambitions on assuming the conductorship of the ESO was to help the  orchestra reengage with its distinguished history as a recording ensemble. Released in March on Toccata Classics and produced by Michael Haas (former Decca producer responsible for Decca’s influential Entartete Musik series and much of the discography of Luciano Pavarotti and Sir Georg Solti), this was the first full-length CD for the orchestra in a decade, and has been hailed by critics everywhere:
A witty and mercurial masterpiece. Electric performances, all.”  The Sunday Time s
Five stars: “On the evidence of the first three, magisterially delivered by Korzhev, they should rank at least with Prokofiev and Hindemith. The accompanying English Symphony Orchestra are somewhat out of their usual area, but seem to relish their role under the firm direction of Kenneth Woods, doing for Krenek here what he did previously for Gál”   International Piano
“Korzhev is just as clear and communicative in this concerto as he is in the easeful Op. 18 – listen to how well he articulates the central Quasi cadenza – and the ESO play with thrilling focus and trenchancy throughout.”  MusicWeb International
“…startlingly brilliant…Mikhail Korzhev is a heroic soloist, gamely accompanied by Kenneth Wood’s English Symphony Orchestra. Brass and percussion are particularly impressive.” Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk
What is probably most important, however, is that all three of the concertos on this album are easily accommodating to the inquisitive and attentive listener. Toccata Classics seems to make the case that listening to Krenek should be a journey of discovery; and, from that point of view, both Korzhev and Woods are excellent “guides” for those who commit to making that journey”   The Examiner
“I cannot imagine finer performances of Ernst Krenek’s piano concertos than these from Mikhail Korzhev with the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods”  The Classical Reviewer
“The playing can never be faulted for accuracy or balance. Ken Woods leads vibrant readings”  Classical CD Reviews
Elgar arr. Donald Fraser- Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures, English Chamber Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Rodolfus Coir
Expectation had been building around this project since Classical Music Magazine declared the first performance of Fraser’s orchestration of the Quintet to be 2015 Premiere of the Year. Released on Avie Records, Ken conducts the English Chamber Orchestra and theRodolfus Choir in Fraser’s choral adaptation of Sea Pictures, recorded in the same Abbey Road studio where Dame Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli made their famous recording, and where Elgar himself conducted the first recording session in 1934. For the Piano Quintet, Ken conducts his own resurgent English Symphony Orchestra in a blazing and idiomatic interpretation recorded in Elgar Concert Hall, Birmingham.
Elgar arr. Fraser- KW, English Chamber Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Rodolfus Choir
Elgar arr. Fraser- KW, English Chamber Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Rodolfus Choir
 
“To my ears, Fraser’s richly upholstered orchestration works a treat yet also manages to be astutely appreciative of the simmering passion and sense of loss that permeate this wistful creation (the Adagio slow movement is especially affecting). Plaudits, too, for Woods’s characteristically lucid and fervent performance with his own English Symphony Orchestra, opulently captured by balance engineer Simon Fox-Gál.”  Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone
“Even seasoned Elgar addicts, more familiar with the full panoply of Elgar’s tremendous chamber output, will welcome these interpretations which unashamedly give these two compositions a sparkling new palette of new orchestral colours…Conductor, Kenneth Woods, makes a convincing ambassador, marshalling the two polished English orchestras with skill and enthusiasm in both premieres…”   Chris Bye, British Music Society
“The result is pretty remarkable. Fraser hasn’t just translated Elgar’s notes into rich and powerful orchestral terms, he as added (discreetly it must be said) the kinds of touches of colour and splashes of figuration Elgar himself might well have introduced. It really sounds like Elgar… beautifully realised, performed with warmth and understanding, and sympathetically recorded. Same too with the Sea Pictures”  Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine
“Woods makes a fine case for expanding the late Piano Quintet into something that sounds like a three movement Fourth Symphony. Fraser’s orchestration fills out Elgar’s spare writing with great pomp and circumstance, and the finale sounds exhilaratingly Elgarian.” Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times
“The sound world feels so instinctively right … fascinating and ingenious”   Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Record Review
Hans Gál- Piano Concerto, Sarah Beth Briggs, Royal Northern Sinfonia
 
The worldwide re-evaluation of Hans Gál’s music began with Ken’s 2009 recording of theViolin Concerti and Triptych with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, so it was fitting he would return to the Sage stage for this latest disc in Avie’s acclaimed Gál series with piano virtuosoSarah Beth Briggs for Gál’s virtuosic and beguiling Piano Concerto.
Mozart and Gál from KW, Sarah Beth Briggs and the Royal Northern Sinfonia
Mozart and Gál from KW, Sarah Beth Briggs and the Royal Northern Sinfonia
“Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany superbly…With crystal clear sound, this is the most enjoyable concerto disc I have heard since Krenek’s Piano Concertos (4/16) and Pritchard’s Wall of Water (5/15). Hang on, didn’t Woods conduct those, too…?”

Guy Rickards, Gramophone

 
“Long overdue..the recording the piece richly deserved”   Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Record Review
“The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op 57, captivates from start to finish, its lucidly argued, agile and disarmingly witty outer movements framing a raptly songful Adagio centrepiece of conspicuous tenderness and beauty. Exemplary advocacy it receives, too, on this, its long-overdue first commercial recording: Sarah Beth Briggs revels in the tasteful refinement, brilliance and grace of Gál’s immaculately judged solo writing, and she enjoys marvellously understanding support from Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Five Stars”   Andrew Achenbach, The Classical Ear
ALBUM OF THE WEEK “ “…exceptional… cannot recommend it too highly.”  David Mellor, Classic FM
“If this premiere recording persuades more pianists to take up this sweeping, lyrical concerto, then all to the good. Briggs’s playing is shapely but unassuming, which underlines the skilful transparency of Gál’s writing as well as how much of an ensemble piece this is.” Erica Jeal, The Guardian
RECORDING OF THE MONTH “What impresses me is the composer’s skilful and brilliantly imaginative scoring. Wood’s deft handling of the orchestral textures is a perfect foil to Briggs’ adroit virtuosity. In the Adagio which follows, the prevailing mood is one of peace and contentment. Gál can certainly rise to the occasion with a luscious big tune, proving himself an accomplished and inspired melodist. At one point, time almost stands still, and the pianist’s pellucid tone is raptly intense. It’s worth mentioning that the Steinway used has been expertly voiced and is richly toned. The playful and capricious finale has a touch of the burlesque about it, and both pianist and orchestra inject plenty of humour and wit. Notable is Gál’s light, diaphanous scoring, which Woods brings to life and contours with clarity and definition.”  Stephen Greenbank, MusicWeb International
DISC OF THE WEEK “…this is a Concerto of some stature, and it’s baffling that it could have been neglected for so many years. Sarah Beth Briggs’s brilliantly alert and engaging performance, expertly partnered by Woods and the RNS, will surely bring it the recognition it deserves as one of Gál’s majorworks…a release that is outstanding in every way, essential listening!”  EuropaDisc
Highlight’s of Ken’s Discography

Join Ken in 2016-17 for

More Krenek with Mihail Korzhev and the ESO

The world premiere of John Joubert’s opera “Jane Eyre”

A new symphony from Philip Sawyers

Mahler 10 in Colorado

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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