The 20s in the 20s – Splendid New Year’s programme with the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

The English Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods performing at Wyastone Concert Hall. © ESO

A century ago, in the previous Twenties, the contemporary music world was set in an uproar by jazz. Composers from Stravinsky to Ravel and Copland to Antheil were enchanted by the sound-world of this New World vernacular and began incorporating its elements into their own music. 

These jazz-tinged works, although often quite superficial in their allusions, gave rise to the most prominent sonic image of the whole decade, resulting in the most imaginative stylistic fusions between various Old-World traditions and the sounds of the Americas. 

Celebrating the roaring spirit of the Twenties, the English Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods, had put together an invigorating New Year’s online programme, featuring some of the most flamboyantly surreal scores from the era. 

Erwin Schulhoff’s six-movement Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1921) was first performed in Berlin in April 1922 by the musicians of the Staatsoper. Conceived in the manner of a baroque suite, Schulhoff’s score is built upon dance idioms of the era, as manifested in the matter-of-factly titles of the six movements; Ragtime, Valse Boston, Tango, Shimmy, Step and Jazz. 

Schulhoff’s suite is, quite simply, an outrageously brilliant score. Scored for a salon-type ensemble of solo strings and winds, joined by two horns, trumpet, harp and no less than four percussionists playing twelve instruments, the twenty-minute suite is a feast of delicious tunes, sparkling colours and upbeat rhythms. 

For a spoken prologue, a somewhat surreal poem is printed in the score. Its nonsense lines appear in English translation in Woods’s brief introduction, aptly setting the mood for Schulhoff’s ingenious music.     

Out of his jazz materials, Schulhoff crafts a score of astounding invention, wholeheartedly endorsed by the wonderful ESO performance with Woods. Be it the riveting drive of the opening Rag or those splendidly nocturnal, moonlit textures of Boston, let alone the gorgeous Tango, Woods and the ESO musicians are ever attuned to the surreal beauty of the score, providing their online audiences with a wondrously dreamy take of the score.

The sheer joy of music-making is tangible in the superb Shimmy, followed by a percussion tour-de-force of Step. The whole ensemble is united again in the closing movement, a spirited Jazz, performed with vigor by Woods and the ESO. 

The English Symphony Orchestra recording at Wyastone Concert Hall in November. © Jari Kallio

Like so many others of my generation, I first encountered the names of Schuhoff and Ernst Krenek in Decca’s extraordinary Entartete Musik series in the early Nineties. Devoted to composers suppressed by the nazi regime, one of the many gems of the series was the premiere recording of Krenek’s marvellous opera, the romantic comedy Jonny spielt auf (1925-26). 

Premiered in Leipzig in 1927, the opera was a huge success, with performances across 42 opera houses before being banned by the nazis. Revived by the 1993 recording, Krenek’s wonderful score has since found its way back to the repertoire, at least to some extent.

As a part of their New Year’s programme, Woods and the ESO gave a delightful outing to Krenek’s score in its Fantasie guise, adapted for chamber orchestra by Emil Bauer. Another lovely twenty-minute affair, the Fantasie revisits some of the most memorable passages of Krenek’s ravishing orchestral score, from the atmospheric opening bars to the spirited final scene.  

In the course of the Fantasie, diverse musical elements, some jazz-flavored others rooted in the Viennese operetta, are bought together into a quasi-cinematographic whole. Performed with inspiration and commitment, the Fantasie is pure joy, whetting the appetite for the complete opera.

Based on a variety of Brazilian melodies and rhythms, Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Op. 58b (1919) for violin and chamer orchestra is an absolute gem. Originally conceived as a score for a projected, Chaplinesquefilm, the music inspired Jean Cocteau to stage a surreal ballet around it. 

In addition to its stage life, the score makes a superb concertante item as well. Written in one continuous movement, the music travels through a myriad of keys and textures, resulting a fabulous cycle of musical events. With its Franco-Brazilian flavor, the score is a feast. 

The solo part is taken by the ESO Leader Zoë Beyers, whose performance is admirable on all accounts. With Woods, the ESO is the perfect partner, giving rise to top-class teamwork.  

The ESO Leader Zoë Beyers performing Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Op. 58b at Wyastone Concert Hall. © ESO

Milhaud’s dazzling orchestration is well served by the nuanced performance, providing an excellent survey of the fine detail in Milhaud’s textures. Yet the wildness of the score is never understated. Instead, Beyers, the ESO and Woods are fully committed to the goofiness of the music, yielding to a sonic riot par excellence. 

A performance making Milhaud proud, Le Boeuf sur le Toit is the perfect finale for the rollicking evening.  

In addition to the three main pieces, Eubie Blake’s Charleston Rag (1899) and Jelly Roll Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp (1926) also appear in the programme, in witty chamber orchestra transcriptions by Gunther Schuller. Joyfully performed by Woods and the ESO, both pieces are veritable treats. 

A resplendent affair altogether, The Roaring 20s provided an apt way to welcome the 2021, a year, hopefully, of rediscovering the joys of live performance. In the days of lockdowns and solitude, online programmes as splendid as this one are simply priceless.    

English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, conductor

Zoë Beyers, violin

Eubie Blake: Charleston Rag (1899) for chamber orchestra (arranged by Gunther Schuller) 

Erwin Schulhoff: Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921) 

Jelly Roll Morton: Black Bottom Stomp (1926) for chamber orchestra (transcribed by Gunther Schuller) 

Ernst Krenek: Fantasie on ’Jonny spielt auf’ (1925-26) for salon orchestra (arranged by Emil Bauer)

Darius Milhaud: Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Op. 58b (1919) – Cinéma-fantaisie for violin and chamber orchestra (cadenza by Arthur Honegger)

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 9-10 November 2020

First released on 31 December 2020, 7.30 pm (GMT) on the ESO YouTube channel

© Jari Kallio

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