31 October 2009 - Southwark Cathedral, London
- David Bedford: White Winds, Golden Fields, for Chorus and Orchestra (World Premiere)
- Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
- with Guests - The London Oratory School Schola
- Saint-Saens: Organ Symphony - with organist Charles Andrews
- Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
It is extremely doubtful whether the well-worn sporting cliche 'You're only as good as your last match' could ever be applied to musical performances and it probably isn't true anyway. But if it were, then the latest outstanding performance by the English Schools' Orchestra and Choir in their annual concert on 31st October in Southwark Cathedral, would guarantee this magnificent team of singers and orchestral musicians a secure position close to the top of the premier league of youth orchestras.
A capacity audience enjoyed a programme that consisted of music from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries - the latter represented by a specially commissioned piece by the distinguished composer David Bedford, with funds made available by PRS for Music.
The Orchestra (close on a hundred players and the largest in the English Schools' 15 year existence) opened proceedings with a thrilling performance of Brahms's 'Academic Festival Overture.' Anthony Burton's excellent programme notes referred amongst other things to 'shining trumpets', 'radiant violins', and 'frisky bassoons', all culminating in a full orchestral coda based on a famous 18th century student song 'Gaudeamus igitur' ('So let us rejoice while we are young'). The performance did indeed produce the shining trumpets, radiant violins and frisky bassoons, and the closing bars transmitted the spirit of youthful rejoicing with impressive conviction.
From Brahms to Stravinsky and the 'Symphony of Psalms' with its strange scoring for four-part chorus, 14 wind instruments, 13 brass, cellos and double basses, two pianos, harp and percussion. The Orchestra, now joined by the voices of the excellent London Oratory Schola, seamlessly effected the change from Brahms to the very different 20th century style required for the Stravinsky. The varied moods of the three movements (sometimes prayerful, sometimes exultant,) were compellingly realised by both singers and players in a persuasive performance.
Following the interval, orchestra and choir re-assembled for the exciting first performance of the piece specially commissioned by the English Schools' Orchestra and Choir (including the London Oratory Schola). Written by composer David Bedford in celebration of the Orchestra's 15th birthday, 'White Winds, Golden Fields for Chorus and Orchestra' is a short festive piece with brass fanfares, rich harmonies and mellifluous melodies. Quiet passages lead to big climaxes and the piece ends triumphantly as the choir sings 'And there is beautiful work for us to do, and we shall at last wake into the sun'. The performance was totally compelling and the ensuing ovation from players, singers and audience accorded to David Bedford was richly deserved. This is surely a work that will have many more performances, and deserves to be widely known.
The final work in this splendid concert was the mighty Symphony No. 3 in C minor (Organ Symphony) by Saint-Saens. This is a really challenging work for any youth orchestra, especially the opening movement, but undaunted, the young players set about their task with great aplomb and skill. Technical security and impressive musical assurance were evident from the very first phrase. The expertise of the talented organist Charles Andrews, who unleashed the full power of the Southwark Cathedral organ in the final movement, added to the excitement, and the full spectrum of musical colours in this piece was brilliantly caught in an exhilarating and meticulously moulded performance under the direction of conductor Robert Pepper.
For all the young musicians who took part, this auspicious concert will live long in the memory. Many will look forward with anticipation to next year when the concert moves from London to Symphony Hall Birmingham. As always it is an exciting prospect to savour.
Course Director, English Schools' Orchestra and Choir
01 November 2008 - Cadogan Hall, London
Following the highly successful concert in October 2007, the English Schools' Orchestra and Choir returned to the Cadogan Hall in London on Saturday November 1st 2008 for their annual concert.
This year something approaching 90 young players from schools all over the country assembled at Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, Elstree, Hertfordshire for the orchestral course that began on Tuesday 28th October, to begin rehearsals on a challenging but very popular programme. The first play-through of the major work in this year's programme, the Planets Suite (opus 32) by Gustav Holst, caused a few first-timers' jaws to drop somewhat, as they were confronted by some testing passages, especially when the string section met Mercury for the first time, but soon composure was restored and in time, under the expert tuition of the well-established team of experienced professional section tutors, everything began to take shape, with apprehension quickly giving way to increasing confidence as notes fell more easily into place. As the week progressed, all seven movements of the suite were tackled with more and more assurance and the technical difficulties eventually began to be of little consequence. Eventually the character, mood and colour of each movement was gradually drawn out, so much so that in the concert every player was able to give a thoroughly mature and exciting musical interpretation of this hugely imaginative music.
The popular but substantial overture to Rossini's opera, William Tell, opened the concert and here again the orchestra excelled in capturing the musical images of the four separate but continuous sections. The five solo cellos that Rossini demanded for the opening pastoral scene were played with the utmost security, as were the Cor Anglais and Flute solos later in the piece. The final Galop, (AllegroVivace), was despatched with considerable panache. The virtuoso orchestral writing and thrilling up-beat tempo held no fears for any player and there was a considerable amount of youthful joi de vivre in the playing.
The girls' choirs chosen this year to join the orchestra in the final movement of the Planets Suite (Neptune) were from the Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls and St. Margaret's School, Bushey, both from Hertfordshire. The design of the Cadogan Hall prohibited the choirs being hidden away unseen as is usually the custom, but nevertheless the high sustained vocal lines were admirably controlled and the choirs' fine contribution, though visible, enabled the movement to end as Anthony Burton wrote in his excellent programme notes, `in mystical contemplation of infinite time and space'.
In addition to their part in the Planets, the Haberdashers Girls' Choir, who in 2003 won the title of BBC Radio3 Choir of the Year, sang Holst's Third Group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. This fascinating set of four pieces, often with unusual time signatures (e.g. 7/4 and 5/4) and forward-looking harmonic content, proved a perfect small-scale companion to contrast with the large-scale Planets Suite, and was sung with assured intonation and fine tonal quality.
Of the many highlights in this splendid concert, one that everyone will remember for a long time to come, was the brilliant trumpet playing of the virtuoso soloist Alison Balsom in Hummel's Trumpet Concerto in Eb. Her visit to Elstree, prior to concert day, to meet the orchestra and to rehearse the concerto was eagerly awaited and no one was disappointed. On hearing her play the very first notes, everyone in the orchestra was aware of what a privilege and honour it was to be accompanying and working with such an outstanding instrumentalist. The trumpet section especially, listened with incredulity to the way the phrases were shaped and the technical brilliance that she exhibited in the more florid passages. At the concert, her expertise again inspired the accompanying instrumentalists to further heights of sensitive musicianship and technical accomplishment, which produced an unforgettable performance from all involved and a prolonged ovation from the audience.
All present in Cadogan Hall fully appreciated the excellent performances of all the pieces in this challenging programme, and next year's concert in Southwark Cathedral is already being looked forward to with great anticipation, especially as many younger players in the orchestra can look forward to several more years of membership and exciting music making. On the evidence of this concert, the English Schools' Orchestra and Choir, year by year, go from strength to strength, and their courses and concerts are fast becoming events not to be missed by young instrumentalists and concert-goers alike.
Course Director, English Schools' Orchestra and Choir
27 October 2007 - Cadogan Hall, London
One year on from the highly successful 2006 concert in Cambridge, the English Schools’ Orchestra and Choir moved back to London for this year’s concert in the beautifully restored Cadogan Hall. This fine hall, with its excellent acoustics, proved to be an ideal venue in which all the performers were able to display their considerable musical skills to a large and appreciative audience.
The programme was, as usual, adventurous and challenging for both choristers and instrumentalists, and began with an excellent performance of Constant Lambert’s ‘Rio Grande’. The 70 singers from schools in London and Hertfordshire were in excellent form and negotiated the tricky technical demands of the piece with professional assurance and real skill, and the essential spirit and colour of the music was interpreted with considerable confidence and panache. The virtuoso piano part was played by Ellena Hale, a student at the Royal Academy of Music, who is already forging a highly successful career as a concert pianist of immense promise.
Since its creation in 1995 the English Schools’ Orchestra, whilst always playing music from the treasured canons of the 18th and 19th century composers, has often ambitiously ventured into 20th and 21st century music, and the concert this year, included the London premier of a work by Sir John Tavener. Written for string orchestra and soprano soloist, ‘The World’, is a setting of an elliptically enigmatic poem by Kathleen Raine, to whom it is dedicated ‘with great affection’ for her 90th birthday. For this piece the orchestra was joined by the distinguished soprano soloist Patricia Rozario and together they created a riveting performance of this intriguing music.
Three songs with orchestral accompaniment from ‘Knaben Wunderhorn’ by Gustav Mahler came next. Encouraged by the beauty of Paticia Rozario’s singing and interpretation of these beautiful songs, the orchestra excelled in providing an intense and sensitive accompaniment for these evocative songs.
After the interval the orchestra really came into its own with a stirring performance of the Triumphal March from Elgar’s cantata ‘Caractacus’. The ESO’s splendid brass section enjoyed the chance to conjure up the grandeur and excitement within the music (let alone the tales of brutality and noble suffering of the captured Britons).
Of all Sibelius’s seven symphonies, the 5th in Eb is one of the most original in structure. It contains some extremely testing passages for all sections of the orchestra, especially the strings and woodwind, and the ESO surpassed all expectations in producing a very fine performance indeed which perhaps ranks amongst its finest achievements to date. The playing in all sections was impressively confident and under the direction of conductor Robert Pepper, the interpretation of the musical content was thoroughly colourful and convincing. Huge credit must go to these young players for producing such a mature and professional performance of a major orchestral work. They well deserved the prolonged and vociferous applause accorded at the close.
As always,the members of the orchestra enjoyed the marvellous facilities of the Music Centre at Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Elstree, Herts for the week’s course leading up to the concert, and the expertise of the dedicated team of professional instrumental tutors, who year by year ensure their young players are well-prepared technically and musically and able to give such impressive performances. The orchestral players came from schools all over the country (and one from Madrid!). Long may such inspiring enthusiasm for making such fine music continue.
Course Director, English Schools' Orchestra and Choir
29 October 2006 - Corn Exchange, Cambridge
The 76 members of the English Schools’ Orchestra travelled this year to Cambridge to give their annual concert in the Corn Exchange with a challenging programme of music by Tchaikovsky, Gershwin and Jonathan Dove.
As in previous years, the orchestra, drawn from schools all over the country (and one from Spain) rehearsed at the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School at Elstree in Hertfordshire to prepare the notes and to interpret the colourful musical content of the pieces chosen for this year’s programme, Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F and Jonathan Dove’s Overture In Praise of London. In addition, the orchestra paid tribute to one its most distinguished patrons, Sir Malcolm Arnold who died earlier in the year, by playing two movements from his Little Orchestral Suite No. 2.
The customary structure of the five-day course with a plentiful number of sectional rehearsals under specialist instrumental tutors, interspersed with full rehearsals under musical director Robert Pepper, ensured that by concert day all was soundly prepared. Technical difficulties that had seemed rather daunting at the first rehearsal had been overcome and players were able to give confident and convincing expressive performances of all the music.
Twenty four hours before the concert, news came through that caused considerable unease in that Martin Roscoe was unwell and unable to perform as soloist in the Gershwin Piano Concerto. This fine concerto is not in every concert pianist’s repertoire and a very uncomfortable two hours were endured before eventually the 26 year-old pianist, Chiao-Ying Chang, was contacted and at very short notice and to much relief agreed to play. In spite of having played the concerto only once before she travelled to Elstree to rehearse with the orchestra and immediately all concerns were allayed as she soon showed everyone just why she is steadily building a fine reputation as a concert pianist of the highest calibre and why she was a prize-winner at the Leeds Piano Competition three years ago.
On concert day the orchestra travelled to Cambridge, arriving in some style with a police escort to negotiate the increasingly pedestrianised streets of the city and quickly settled into the concert venue. The players soon adjusted to the larger dimensions and different acoustics of the Corn Exchange and the afternoon concert was a huge success, probably one of the best yet, and fully justified the prolonged applause and warm reception accorded to players and conductor by the large audience. During the interval a presentation by the orchestra’s President, Sir Robert Balchin DL was made to percussion player Oliver Lowe in recognition of his long service to the orchestra and his success in reaching the final of the BBC Young Musician Competition.
The 2006 course, as always, was a happy course with a great deal of hard work and plenty of fun enjoyed by players and staff and we look forward with optimism to next year when in all probability the orchestra will return to London to display its considerable musical talents and take a further step towards confirming its reputation as one of the most accomplished of youth orchestras in the country.
Course Director, English Scohols Orchestra and Choir
29 October 2005 - St John's Smith Square, London
In 2004, the English Schools’ Orchestra and Choir celebrated ten years of fine music-making with a gala birthday concert in the Barbican concert hall. This year in October, in the smaller but beautiful venue of St John’s, Smith Square, the orchestra and choir of 2005 gave the first concert of the second decade, performing music by Butterworth, Rutter and Brahms.
As in previous years the orchestra, drawn from schools all over the country, rehearsed in the splendid Music School of the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School at Elstree in Hertfordshire and gradually came to terms with an appropriately taxing programme. For five days prior to the concert, section rehearsals with experienced professional tutors and full rehearsals under musical director Robert Pepper gradually bore fruit and the initial extremely challenging technicaldifficulties posed especially by Brahms in his first Symphony, but also by Butterworth in the rhapsody for orchestra “A Shropshire Lad”, and John Rutter in his popular “Gloria” for choir and orchestra, gradually began to seem less daunting. Soon the music was being played with ever increasing confidence by all sections of the 70-strong orchestra. With technical difficulties well and truly conquered, musical interpretation blossomed and continued to develop at a fast pace, so that by concert day confident and mature musical performances were achieved which belied the youthful ages of the players and singers. It is worth stressing that players and singers on English Schools’courses are selected on proven achievement and teacher recommendation - but without individual audition. Without compromising the expected high performance standards, this policy has always proved popular and has given many young people great opportunities to exercise their impressive musical abilities.
Of necessity, the choir this year was smaller than in 2004 due to the confines of the stage dimensions at St John’s. Nevertheless something approaching a hundred singers from five school choirs coped well with the exuberantly syncopated rhythms and strong climaxes of John Rutter’s setting of the Gloria and more than held their own against some powerful playing provided by the brass, percussion and organ accompaniment.
The report of last year’s tenth birthday concert concluded with the words, “The members of this year’s course, like their predecessors, will have worked very hard to prepare today’s music under their instrumental tutors, choir directors and of course their conductor and musical director, Robert Pepper. We look to the future with considerable optimism”. Those sentiments apply equally this year. The 2005 course was again a happy one and the concert fulfilled all expectations with fine performances of all the works. There is no doubt that the 170 young people, who this year gave up a large part of their autumn half-term holiday to prepare and perform music to such a high standard, showed that the musical excellence of the English Schools’ Orchestra and Choir continues undiminished. The appreciative audience at St John’s on Saturday 29th October was well aware that optimism for the future is fully justified.
Course Director, English Schools Orchestra and Choir
31 October 2004 - Barbican, London
Tenth birthdays normally come and go without too much in the way of extravagant celebration but the English Schools’ Orchestra and Choir duly celebrated their tenth anniversary with a fine concert in the London Barbican on Sunday October 31st 2004. The orchestra of 89 players from 46 schools represented one of the largest yet assembled (including two young violinists who travelled from Madrid and who had “discovered” our existence through the internet) and the choir of 180 singers from eight schools, not only promised exciting music making but more prosaically presented quite a challenge for those responsible for the organisation of the venture and particularly the seating on the stage. With the splendid help of the Barbican management and ESOC staff, all were eventually allocated their proper place and were able to concentrate on the job in hand without undue discomfort, though the final route to the podium by conductor Robert Pepper was necessarily a little more circuitous than usual.
The orchestra began proceedings with four of Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances and immediately showed that the week of rehearsals at the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, Elstree, where for the tenth year the splendid facilities of the Music School there were much enjoyed and appreciated, had been well focused and directed. There was a confident professionalism in the playing which was quite remarkable (though not unexpected) considering that this year there were several players no more than twelve years old and no one who had yet attained the landmark of eighteen.
Following the English Dances, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms brought the choir into action and in fine voice. The first movement, a setting of Psalm 100 in a jaunty 7/4 time, (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”), was despatched with gusto and certainly interpreted the text in the most convincing of ways.
The more gentle second movement introduced the 12-year-old soloist Harry Sever (BBC Choirboy of the Year in 2003) who captured everyone’s heart with his pure tone and musical interpretation of Psalm 23. The Tenors and Basses managed to get their tongues around the notoriously tricky middle section (Psalm 2, Lamah rag’shu goyim) whilst at the same time maintaining respectably presentable Hebrew, and the concluding movement, the beautiful setting of Psalms 131 and 133, was sung with great warmth of tone by a choir, which throughout displayed fine technical control and considerable musicality.
The final work was Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, the so-called “English Symphony” and therefore very appropriate for the occasion. Here the orchestra again excelled and there was some energetic and exciting playing with all sections displaying confident mastery of the many technical and musical demands. The full audience, including some distinguished guests, were vociferous in their appreciation of everyone’s efforts and there was a cogent feeling that the tenth anniversary of the English Schools’ Orchestra and Choir had been well and truly celebrated. We look forward with considerable optimism to many more years of exciting concerts in this country and abroad.
Course Director, English Schools Orchestra and Choir
31 October 2003 - Royal College of Music, London
Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, ending up in a matter of weeks in London. That is an itinerary that one might be forgiven for assuming to be the schedule of a well-established professional touring orchestra. But of course it represents the latest chapter in the activities of the English Schools' Orchestra.
In 2003, London was the venue for yet another exciting and highly accomplished end-of-course concert on November 1st at the Royal College of Music, which is the alma mater of so many of this country's fine musicians and indeed not unknown to a few members of the orchestra who study there in the Junior Department on Saturdays throughout the year.
A mere four days previously, the seventy members of this year's orchestra met in the superb music centre of the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School at Elstree in Hertfordshire and set about the task of tackling a challenging programme. It was interesting to note that about half of the players had been on the August Australian tour, a further 25% had been on previous ESO courses and the remainder were newcomers. If the latter were slightly apprehensive, they were soon reassured, as all were new to the music.
The first full rehearsal was, as always, totally exploratory and players' reactions seemed to vary between quiet confidence and humorous desperation but nevertheless the hard graft of learning the notes slowly began.
In the ESO we are privileged to have the expertise of an inspiring team of highly professional instrumental tutors that has hardly changed in personnel since the first course some nine years ago. It is quite extraordinary how after one or two intense section rehearsals the trickiest technical corners in the music seem to have been turned or at least to hold fewer terrors, and in the full rehearsals that are strategically slipped in between, real progress can be seen and heard.
This year's music (Brahms: Haydn Variations, Bliss: Dances from Checkmate, and Schumann: Symphony No. 4) was all pulled apart and put back together again and by the close of day three, when we said farewell to the instrumental tutors, the time was ripe for a concerted effort on the musical interpretation. Satisfying as it is to conquer technical demands that at the outset seem impossible, unearthing the real colour and musical interpretation behind the notes is the really exciting part for many performers and ESO members are no exception.
The final day of the course is always very tiring as last details are attended to but also very rewarding as all the performances takes shape musically and are finely honed ready for the concert the following day.
The 2003 course was another happy one. The members who were residential enjoyed the extra camaraderie engendered at the SPEC Centre in St. Albans under the guidance of Alan Storer. All enjoyed the splendid meals and facilities provided at Haberdashers but above all there was a real feeling of a team working towards (and achieving) the common goal of excellent performances of fine music in a stimulating concert much enjoyed by an appreciative audience.
In 2004, the English Schools' Orchestra celebrates its 10th birthday. Exciting plans are being discussed. Young musicians are taught to keep ears and eyes open, it might be worthwhile doing just that!
Course Director, English Schools Orchestra and Choir