Kenneth Woods, Artistic Director of the English Symphony Orchestra (ESO), has made an indelible mark with his bold and boundless innovations. His latest conception is the 21st Century Symphony Project which will commission nine composers to write nine symphonies to be premiered by the ESO. The project will launch with the premiere of the ESO’s "John McCabe Composer-in-Association" Philip Sawyers’ Symphony No. 3 on 28 February 2017 at St. John’s Smith Square in London.
Ken’s concept took root when he was appointed Principal Conductor of the ESO in 2013-14. “This big moment for both me and the orchestra begged for a bold statement,” he explains, “and I decided to commission a symphony from my friend and colleague Philip Sawyers to celebrate this new partnership.”
The ESO has consistently supported the creation and dissemination of new and unknown British music. Commissioning, performing and recording new orchestral works remains a key aspect of the orchestra’s mission. The ESO aspires to present symphonic music – from Haydn to Tippett and beyond – that engages, challenges and rewards audiences. The ESO further aims to introduce audiences to new works that are by turns substantial, original, challenging and beautiful, works which will open up new ways of hearing music over time.
Whilst devising the 21st Century Symphony Project, Ken pondered the genre’s relationship with the past and what it has to offer in the future. “These are among the questions I hope the project will encourage all of us to consider,” he comments.
Kicking off the 21st Century Symphony Project is Philip Sawyers’ Symphony No. 3. Soon after Ken met Philip, when both were mentors to the Kent County Youth Orchestra, a plan swiftly developed to record the composer’s Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings, Cello Concerto and Second Symphony for the Nimbus label, which was described by Gramophone as “three recent works of strong personality, genuine substance and warm-hearted integrity … performed here with thrilling conviction and formidable assurance by the Orchestra of the Swan under its excellent [then] Principal Guest Conductor Kenneth Woods.” Ken’s and the ESO’s commission for Philip’s Third Symphony soon followed.
The 21st Century Symphony Project will continue in 2018 with the world-premiere of David Matthews’ Symphony No. 9. “Kenneth Woods is a visionary conductor and a champion of new music," said Matthews of his choice to write his Ninth for Ken and the ESO. Matthews looks forward to the premiere of Sawyers’ Third, saying “Sawyers is a natural symphonist. His first two symphonies show those qualities of dynamism, drama, contrast, lyricism; they are works that renew the tradition in a vital way.”
Asked about the future of the 21st Century Symphony Project, Ken remarks, “I have a pretty clear sense of what the next steps in the cycle will be, and I have a long wish list of possible composers, more than enough to fill out the cycle. Who’s to say we need to stop at nine, which after all is a perhaps not-so-discreet nod to Beethoven’s legendary symphonic output.”
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As the 21st Century Symphony Project promises an auspicious opening to 2017, Ken and the ESO are basking in a banner year that has included no fewer than four acclaimed premieres. The March release of first recordings of Piano Concertos Nos. 1 – 3 by Ernst Krenek, with Mikhail Korzhev (Toccata Classics), received “electric performances” and was chosen as one of the Top Recordings of 2016 by The Sunday Times. May saw the release of the world-premiere recording of Hans Gal’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with Sarah Beth Briggs (AVIE Records), which earned a Gramophone Critic’s Choice of 2016 accolade for its “beautifully poised, enchanting account.” Also in May, AVIE released the premiere recordings of Donald Fraser’s orchestrations of Elgar’s Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures which reached the Top 10 of the UK Specialist Classical Chart. In October, Ken and the ESO gave the world-premiere performance of John Joubert’s opera Jane Eyre, a “Premiere of the Year” for Classical Music Magazine. The performance was captured live by Somm Recordings and is scheduled to be released in March 2017 to coincide with the composer’s 90th birthday. For the performance, Ken enlisted the support of Michael Young whose recent appointment to the ESO’s newly established position of Assistant Conductor “tops a remarkable year for the English Symphony Orchestra” (Classical Music Magazine).
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Tuesday, 28 February, 2016 - 7:30 PM
Philip Sawyers (b. 1947) Fanfare for Brass
Sawyers Songs of Loss and Regret (London premiere)
April Fredrick soprano
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 91) Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Clare Hammond piano
Sawyers Symphony No. 3 (world premiere)
English Symphony Orchestra
St. John’s Smith Square
London SW1P 3HA