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Rather than just sitting around moaning about the serious COVID situation for orchestras everywhere, Kenneth Woods has busied himself with organising cleverly-designed concerts for smaller, socially-distanced forces. The scaled-down - well, ok, the percussion is scaled up!!! - English Symphony Orchestra absolutely scintillated in their New Year concert. Woods selected works from the irrepressibly glorious Jelly Roll Morton and Eubie Blake, as well as two neglected masterpieces - in this case Erwin Schulhoff's sensational Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Krenek's excellent Fantasie on his opera Jonny spielt auf. Even the - far from neglected - Le boeuf le Toit was here done in the rarely-attempted version for solo violin and orchestra, instead of its more familiar incarnation. Resurrecting neglected masterpieces is one of Woods' trademarks, on both sides of the Atlantic - including recordings of the underrated Hans Gal, and the premiere of John Joubert's operatic masterpiece Jane Eyre. (Strongly recommended!!)
Anyway, it was absolutely obvious that the twenty or so ESO players had a total blast from start to finish of this concert. Throughout, their clarity, balance and exuberance were remarkable. In the Schulhoff the textures can be very transparent - it is astonishingly well-orchestrated - and it was elegantly and above all characterfully dispatched by every single performer (shout out to guest leader David Juritz, but could have picked anybody!) Inspired by the dance crazes of the twenties, the first movement ranges from wistfulness to nostalgia, from the sinister to the sardonic. The slow movement has a tango-esque feel - the last is evocative, witty and, finally, gloriously bustling.
The Krenek was equally stylishly performed. (The ESO have recorded Krenek before, and Woods is a fan.) By turns cheeky, sensual, slinky, zany, unexpected, and original, it featured a deeply moving clarinet solo, some tastefully droll percussion work, an eloquent solo trombone - a heavily pompous section wittily undercut and - at times - playing from the entire group so precise as to sound improvised.
The Milhaud, by contrast, is very well-known, but this version was new to me. Woods, a conductor of understated authority, perfectly judged - throughout the entire concert, really - every nuance of mood, while never losing the irrepressible sense of dance. (His jazz was great, as well.)
As for Zoë Beyers - well, she was terrifyingly good. She squeezed every possible ounce of expression from every note; and was alert not only to Woods' every subtlety but also to those of her fellow performers. She coloured her tone with such imagination! Her sound was always lustrous and unforced - her technique, no matter how many double-stops she was confronted with, immaculate. The rest of the orchestra (really, they had such a blast) served as her only audience at the end and burst into spontaneous applause.
The whole event was a toe-tapping, heart-lifting, and admirably-judged delight - as have been all the COVID-cut-down-ESO concerts from Wyastone, to be fair - but this is the first one I've had time to write about yet. (Check out their intimate and wonderful Strauss' Four Last Songs with April Fredrick - now, is my advice!!)
Bye for now - and bravo to all!!
Copyright © 4 January 2021