A ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ says Kenneth Woods appointed principal conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, artistic director and new principal conductor of the ESO

Kenneth Woods (pictured above) has just added principal conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra to his business card along with artistic directorship of the same group, cellist and broadcaster (to name a few).

His announcement in Gramophone magazine last week, prompted an opportunity for me to look back on some personal memories of working with band and to get a cheeky first interview with the man who describes his new role as ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’.

First, the bit about me. Predictably.

My first job in arts administration was with the English String Orchestra back in 1995. Fresh out of University, I’d sent a letter and CV on spec to 100 different bands sourced from the British Music Yearbook. The ESO was one of four orchestras which replied (the BBC Symphony Orchestra was one of the others). I was invited to spend a day in their offices in Malvern in the summer. By the time I returned to West Suffolk the day after, I’d received the offer of a job from them. All the terms and conditions, the pay and the counter-signature fitted on one page of A4. Duly signed, I returned the contract and started as Assistant Orchestral Manager a month later.

William Boughton, founder and conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra 1979 – 2006

The ESO was a blissful treat coming hot on the heels of a successful final year at University studying Music when anything seemed possible. Six months later I was standing up close to professional musicians in rehearsal and marvelling at the magic they created on stage. I would pinch myself every time I had to go and retrieve then principal guest conductor Yehudi Menuhin from his dressing room and push him on to stage. And I took unexpected pride in setting up the tea urn and serving refreshments in breaks between rehearsals. Assistant Orchestral Management: a glamorous job with little real pressure.

The management forgave me for scraping one entire side of the big orchestra van against a freshly painted pillar box. The orchestra forgave me my pre-concert front of house pedantry and did eventually see the value of congregating behind stage to tune rather than at the side of it in full view of the audience. And although most were surprised (in some cases, bordering on the hurt) when I deserted the band after 6 months to take up a job Aldeburgh, their goodbye gift was heartfelt thing: a cartoon of the orchestra playing in Malvern Gardens, signed by every member of the band. The framed print still hangs on my wall nearly twenty years on.


When I joined, the orchestra was conducted by its founder William Boughton who had already committed the group to a selection of recordings that followed a pragmatic strategy of mixing with works by contemporary English composers like Nicholas Maw with popular string classics, in turn gave the air-time on the fledgling commercial radio station, Classic FM.

A hugely effective tour manager from IMG (now Chief Exec at the Royal Albert Hall) secured gigs in Lithuania, Germany and Switzerland giving the band an almost split personality with its concerts in Malvern, nearby Pershore and Ledbury.

Looking back on it now, the orchestra had something rare: a genuinely inspiring location to call its home (you’d have to be a cold-hearted bastard not to feel moved by Malvern and its Hills beyond – ‘Elgar Country’); a band made up of (pretty much) local professional players; an intimate yet international feel; and a not-too-big administration promoting an altogether family feel.

I’d far rather have a short time and fond memories about it than a long time and remember how the bitterness eventually crept in. So it is with the ESO and particularly William Boughton. Naiive, green and utterly, utterly desperate I eagerly responded to William’s booming voice from the other side of the office one morning when he asked me, “Jon, can you see whether we’ve got the parts for L’Histoire du Soldat?” A few minutes later: “No, I can’t find them,” I replied, “But, I have found the Soldier’s Tale.” Musically however, the most potent of experiences must have been travelling with the orchestra to Dresden (and then later to Coventry Cathedral) to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of both cities. At the time they felt like big deals to me. Looking back now, I remind myself just how much.

Members of the ESO smartly dressed atop the Malvern Hills

Things are a little different now. Boughton left the orchestra after its 25th anniversary in 2006 (he became artistic director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in Conneticut. Vernon Handley stepped in shortly after until his death in 2008. Since then, as Kenneth Woods explains in his first interview as artistic conductor and principal conductor of the ESO, the orchestra invested time and effort in developing its education work, continuing Boughton’s founding work with the ESO Youth Orchestra.

The message now from Woods seems pretty clear: ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-establish the ESO’. As someone who has been surprised by the many fond memories I retain of a brief period of time spent working with the band, I’m surprised by how energised I feel about the prospect of the ESO regaining its previous reputation, not least because Woods and his team are embarking on a journey at an incredibly challenging time for regional orchestras – particularly those devoid of public funding. If it works, then it will be a shining example of why professional music-making does more than merely entertain.

Kenneth Woods’ ‘Thoroughly Good’ interview is included here un-edited, not least because he writes so terribly well. .


Why the ESO? Why now?

I’d been aware of the ESO ever since I moved to the UK, but in the years after Tod Handley’s death, I’d heard less and less about them and sort of assumed from a distance that they were more or less wound up.

It was Siva Oke from Somm Recordings about 18 months ago who first mentioned to me that there might be more going on with the orchestra than I realized. Then, in the first half of 2012, several player colleagues started talking to me about the orchestra. A number of musicians from other orchestras who also play in ESO sat me down, and talked to me about the orchestra, and I found what they told me intriguing. Again and again I heard musicians telling me that for them, the ESO was special- that of all the groups they played in, it was the one that felt like home. It was the group they loved to play in and the group they wanted to play in. As I learned more about the history of the last ten years, I realized that this was a group of musicians who had stayed true to each other through a number of financial and artistic upheavals. Suddenly instead of seeing the ESO as a former orchestra, I was seeing a future orchestra- a real hidden gem, full of artists who were deeply invested in making it a success. What more could a conductor want?

The death of Handley in 2008, just when things seemed to be turning a corner for the ESO, was a real blow. I think that there was a real sense then that they didn’t want to rush into appointing a successor. I believe they needed time to mull the question of whether or not they even wanted a conductor, and what kind of conductor they would want if they had one. In the four years since Tod died, the orchestra has had a chance to develop this incredible range of educational work they do, and the impact they’ve had in the region has been astounding. When we started discussions last year, there was a sense that for both conductor and orchestra, the time was finally right.

Why now? I suppose in the last few years, I’ve had chances to show what I can do in the recording studio and in some major venues that I hadn’t yet had in 2008. For a partnership between conductor and orchestra to work as a business proposition, each party needs to be in a position to enhance the street cred of the other.

I’ve always believed the most important and relevant auditions are the ones you don’t know you are taking. I think the fact that some of the members of the ESO had a chance to see not just how I conduct and rehearse, but how I work with people was probably key in giving them the confidence to feel like I can bring something to the table as a leader without lessening their sense of ownership of the orchestra.

Members of the ESO today.


What are the challenges for regional orchestras like the ESO?

In a geographically small country like the UK, “regional” orchestras have to be good enough to compete directly with national orchestras. You forget that at your peril. These days, orchestras from the major metropolitan centres are queuing up to play in small and medium sized venues. This means that any professional orchestra has to play like a national orchestra in order to survive, but that’s one of the reasons that this orchestra is called the English Symphony Orchestra and not the Worcestershire Philharmonic. Artistically, we believe the orchestra has been and must again become an institution of national significance.

However, there are also compelling reasons for orchestras not to forget where we come from. When it comes to doing educational and outreach work that has a meaningful and lasting impact on people in our communities, being a regional orchestra is a strength. The recordings we make and the works we commission should have lasting international impact, but our work with children, the elderly and other under-served groups enriches the communities where we work in a way that a concert from an orchestra bussed in from London, however great the concert, never can.

What’s on the to-do list for the next 12 months, strategically and creatively?

We have a once-in-a-generation chance to put the orchestra back on the national stage as an important artistic force, and we’ve got to deliver on that. That means giving powerful performances of well-rehearsed, thoughtful programmes that show we can engage audiences with unfamiliar repertoire and present core repertoire in thought-provoking contexts. On our next concert, we’re playing two works by Mendelssohn alongside one of Hans Gál. All three works are tuneful and fun to listen to, but there are interesting underlying connections- Mendelssohn was the first Jewish composer to breakthrough into the German mainstream, Gál was one of the last generation of Jews to rise to the top of the musical world in Austria and Germany who were then pushed out or worse by the Nazi’s. There are other, less intense connections, too- both Mendelssohn pieces were inspired by his travels to Scotland, where Gál lived for the last 45 years of his life.

So, first up is doing distinctive programmes really well, but we also have to make sure that the ESO is not just the tree that falls in the forest. You can expect the ESO to start performing again in London and other metropolitan centres. We’re looking to have a media presence that includes traditional radio, audio and video streaming and podcasting. We’ve named a composer-in-association for 2014 and we’ve commissioned a new symphony. We’re also anxious to get a first CD or two under our belts.

Strategically, this means finding new friends, developing partnerships and engaging with a whole new generation of ESO listeners, funders and supporters. We can’t do this alone, and that means we’ve got to make the orchestra a cause that lots of people believe in.


What is the ESO’s USP? Does it need to change?

Historically, the artistic USP’s of the orchestra have been a commitment to English music and a unique identity as a leading string orchestra. A quick scan of the orchestra’s discography shows a preponderance of English repertoire, and the orchestra has a glorious history of working with eminent leading composers of our era like Sir Michael Tippett, Nicholas Maw, Michael Berkeley and John Joubert. The ESO started life as the English String Orchestra, and that incarnation of the organization remains an essential part of the ESO’s identity. The orchestra has always been able to recruit and retain a very special class of string players who value the string orchestra experience over the possibly more remunerative life of a player in a full-time symphony orchestra. Since the death of Tod Handley, the orchestra’s core focus has been on education and engagement- reaching our to a broader range of audiences, involving young people and being a force for social good in our community, especially with the series of concerts in care homes and hospices.

As the orchestra begins this new chapter, I’d prefer to think of the next stage as being about evolution and healing rather than change- it’s essential we reconnect to, rather than abandon, our existing and historical roots. The ESO has a great legacy which the players have every right to take a great deal of pride in, but we mustn’t let past strengths be walls that hem in our capacity for growth. They have to be doors that lead to new possibilities. I’d like to see us thinking of the “E” in ESO (and remember, the orchestra also has a long and rich history in Wales in spite of our name) implying an identity as a national orchestra, rather than limiting us to a narrow specialization in one corner of the repertoire. We need to build on the history of past ties with people like Tippett, and going forward, we’ve appointed a new composer in association, and commissioned our first major work. I also want the ESO to be a leader in bringing exciting new compositional voices from the USA, Canada, Europe and Asia to British audiences.

String orchestra repertoire will always be a big part of what we do, and there’s at least one string piece on all our Malvern concerts in 2013, but we also have a fantastic wind team, many of whom have been with the orchestra over 20 years, and have stayed loyal to the orchestra through all its past struggles. You can bet there will be some wonderful wind ensemble concerts ahead. We’re also developing other smaller combinations, like the new English Salon Orchestra, which debuted at Stanbrook Abbey in June. Being able to field a diverse array of smaller ensembles which compliment our identity as a symphony orchestra is a major strength we need to build on.

Even if the orchestra’s discography has always favoured English music, its concert repertoire has been more diverse- one of William Boughton’s last projects with the band was a Beethoven cycle. I think it’s important to get the orchestra making great records again soon, but also to make sure that our evolving discography includes a more representative sampling of what we play, across all nationalities and eras, and I’m sure my own passions for certain composers and works will help shape that.

What was the last concert you attended and what did you have to drink in the interval?

I stuck around to hear the Bamberg Symphony at the Proms after my Radio 3 talk on Mahler that afternoon. The first half was Lachenmann’s wacky Tanzsuite mit Deutsheslandlied, which I quite enjoyed. I got cornered by someone at the interval, and missed my chance to get a drink, which I urgently needed after the dual exertions of talking about Mahler for 50 minutes and listening to Lachenmann for 35. Fortunately, when I returned to my seat, actor Nick Boulton, who had been the voice of Mahler for the earlier session, intuited my distress and gave me half his pint of bitter. A true gent.


The English Symphony Orchestra will be making more announcements about their 2013/14 season in September.

Find out more about the ESO on their website. They’ve also got a Facebook Page and are @EnglishSymphon on Twitter.



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