Rhinegold Photo credit: © Benjamin Ealovega
Balancing act: Kenneth Woods

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Q&A: Kenneth Woods

8:00, 21st November 2017

Katy Wright speaks to the artistic director of the English Symphony Orchestra about the 21st-century symphony project

Tell me about the project.
We’d already agreed that Philip Sawyers would write a symphony for us when I joined the ESO, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get a cycle going here?’ The mission of the ESO has always been to connect worthwhile music with a general orchestral audience, so it seemed the right thing for us, and we decided the most logical thing to commission was new symphonies which would interest our audience, as well as challenging and rewarding them. We’ll hopefully provide a bit of inspiration and opportunity for deserving composers too.
We live in a time when I think composers need to make big statements, and they need a canvas to paint on when they need to make big ideas.

How is it funded?
It will be a patchwork; there’s no single formula. We look at each symphony as part of a collaboration with the composer: we work out if there are other things they feel would suit the ESO which haven’t been recorded before and try to find opportunities to play those works. We work out how – over the course of a season, six months or a year – we can build a relationship with the composer, so the symphony itself isn’t just a one-off. In the process of doing that we start to identify venue and funding partners.

How do you choose the composers?
It’s a relatively informal process, and we’ll look carefully at anyone who approaches us. The first consideration is what we feel will be the artistic impact of the symphony itself, and whether this person is going to write a symphony that will change the world. If we do, there’s a high level of confidence that others will too, and that we’ll find the right venue partners and opportunities. In the end, as artistic director, I make the final decision, and I’ve got to try and make the best decision for the music.

Over what timescale will it unfold?
I think it would be nice to have it done by 2022, so over the next five or six years – possibly a little less. There’s no reason we have to stop at nine; we’ve already got more good ideas than we can fit in. We hope we’re creating a new body of works which will resonate with modern listeners, but how the project progresses depends a great deal on how successful we are at finding and engaging that audience.

The project raises questions about what a symphony is. Is this something you wanted to explore?
Very much so. We still refer to all sorts of ensembles as symphony orchestras, but there was a pretty widely accepted consensus for a good chunk of the last 30-40 years that the symphony was a dead genre, or a 19th-century genre. I don’t think it can be, any more than the play or the novel. It’s the space in instrumental music where you can make a big statement, and that’s what we’re hoping the composers in the project will do. It’s a broad canvas to work on. It’s important to find pieces which complement and contrast with each other; I’m sure there’ll be at least one programmatic symphony, one which ends with a slow movement.

Will you be incorporating the pieces into your repertoire and giving repeat performances?
I sure hope so! If you learn a piece of that scope, you desperately want to do it again – especially if the audience and musicians loved it, as they did with Philip’s. It’s always a delicate balancing act as a programmer; there is always a finite number of slots and you have to think about everything from the local audience to the size of the stage. Repeats are hard – they’ve been a problem for everyone for hundreds of years. That’s why the recording side is particularly important, because that’s the key to disseminating it to a much wider audience.

Kenneth Woods will conduct the English Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of David Matthews’ ninth symphony on 9 May 2018 at St George’s, Bristol

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