English String Orchestra at Stafford

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Philip M
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Joined: Thu Aug 22, 2019 2:38 am

English String Orchestra at Stafford

Post by Philip M » Sat Nov 30, 2019 2:18 pm

There are a number of lesser known orchestras in Britain that are generally based outside of the major cities. The Orchestra of the Swan is based in Stratford on Avon and the Northern Sinfonia in Gateshead, for instance.

The English Symphony Orchestra was founded by William Boughton in 1978 and has its base in Worcester. Given that location, it is not surprising that they are also known as the “Orchestra of Elgar Country” - the Malvern Hills being in Worcestershire. The strings of the orchestra give their own concerts, as The English Strings.

Yesterday the strings made their first visit to the Gatehouse Theatre in Stafford, the county town of Staffordshire, which is about 60 miles north of Worcester. Stafford has been badly served by orchestras. The Manchester Camerata used to give an annual concert there, but their last visit was in 2014 (it included Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Benjamin Grosvenor!). Perhaps the dearth of concerts was the reason why the audience last night was rather dour and unresponsive. The hall was only about half full, giving an audience of perhaps 200+.

The orchestra’s Principal Conductor, the American Kenneth Woods, brought the strings to Stafford and did a good job introducing the works to the audience. It was a small string ensemble: 4-4-3-2-1.

The concert had two very diverse halves. Traditional English “pastoral” music constituted the first half. Not, I have to say, a style of music that particularly appeals to me! Elgar’s Serenade for strings opened the concert. There was plenty of attention to detail from Woods, but tempi were slow. Draggingly slow, in my view, in the second movement. More molto largo than larghetto.

Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending followed, beautifully played by the leader, Zoë Beyers. Zoë led the CBSO for several years before leaving following her pregnancy and house move to Shrewsbury. There was a reduced orchestration too to just 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and 1 double bass.

The first half ended with a newish orchestration by Donald Fraser of 4 songs by Elgar to form a15 minute suite “Songs for Strings”. Pleading, A Child Asleep and Queen Mary’s Lute Song were followed by The Queen’s Hall, which is not a song at all, but the improvisation that Elgar recorded on the piano - in Queen’s Hall: hence the title!

A complete change of mood after the interval with Woods’ orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s StringQuartet No.3. The quartet is dedicated to the memory of Ferdinand Laub who had been the violinist in the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s first 2 quartets and who had died aged just 43. The tragedy and passion are very prevalent in the long first movement. There is joy and desperation, tragedy and ecstasy. The 2nd movement is a complete contrast - a mercurial playful scherzo. The third movement is explicitly a funeral march, dark and very Russian. The final movement is exuberant and uplifting. Tchaikovsky saying “life goes on”? Especial mention to the 4 section leaders who had important solos in the orchestration: Zoë Beyers, Catherine Leech, Helen Roberts, Hasso Wontolla.

Interestingly, 12 of the 14 players were female.


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