About the ESO


English Symphony Orchestra/English Symphony Orchestra

The Worcestershire- based ESO, the International Orchestra of Elgar Country, is an ensemble which in recent years has become synonymous with artistic excellence, innovative and visionary programming, distinctive commissioning, ground-breaking recording, a welcoming and immersive concert experience, transformative youth programmes and service to the community. Since the appointment of Kenneth Woods as the orchestra’s new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor in 2013, the orchestra has re-emerged as a major force in British musical life, presenting and recording the orchestra’s first full-length opera (the world premiere of John Joubert’s Jane Eyre) to overwhelming critical acclaim, presenting the 2015 Classical Music Magazine “Premiere of the Year,” and releasing a triumphant series of recordings including Donald Fraser’s orchestration of the Elgar Piano Quintet (Classic FM Disc of the Week) and the Complete Piano Concertos of Ernst Krenek (Sunday Times Essential New Release).

Founded in 1980 by William Boughton, the ESO have a long and distinguished history of collaboration with legendary figures of British music making. Vernon “Tod” Handley became the orchestra’s second Principal Conductor in 2007, and led the orchestra until his death. Over the years, the ESO has worked with a distinguished list of instrumentalists, composers and conductors, including Nigel Kennedy, Stephen Isserlis, Daniel Hope, Michael Tippett, Nicholas Maw and Yehudi Menuhin, who was appointed the ESO’s Principal Guest Conductor in 1991, and led the orchestra on a number of international tours. British music has always been a central part of the orchestra’s mission. Appropriately for an orchestra based in Elgar’s home town, the ESO has made many acclaimed recordings of that composer’s music, and that of major 20th century British composers including Vaughan Williams, Britten, Butterworth and Bridge. The ESO discography also highlights a commitment to the music of our time; in addition to the notable recordings which grew out of the orchestra’s affiliation with Sir Michael Tippett, are recordings of music by John Metcalfe, John Joubert, and Michael and Lennox Berkeley. The ESO’s discography also includes Baroque masters such as Boyce and Handel, and composers as diverse as Schnittke, Strauss, Shostakovich, Sibelius and Respighi. Kenneth Woods brings to the ESO a particular grounding in the core Central European and Russian repertoire alongside a life-long interest in British music, and the composers of his home country of America. Woods is a noted advocate for the generation of composers killed or exiled during World War II, and works by composers including Hans Gál, Viktor Ullmann, Mieczyslaw Weinberg feature prominently in the orchestra’s current concert offerings and upcoming recordings.  John McCabe served as the orchestra’s Composer-in-Association from 2013 untill his death in 2015. Following McCabe’s death in 2015, the ESO appointed Philip Sawyers as “John McCabe Composer-in-Association.” Works being written as part of Sawyers’ association with the ESO include a Violin Concerto, a Trumpet Concerto a Song Cycle and a Third Symphony. Other recent recording projects include a disc of newly-commissioned works for trumpet, piano and strings with Simon Desbruslais and Clare Hammond for Signum, the Hans Gál Concertino for Cello and Orchestra with Matthew Sharp, new violin concerti by David Matthews, Paul Patterson, Rob Fokkens and Emily Doolittle with Harriet Mackenzie, and the Third Symphony of Philip Sawyers.

In 2016-7, the ESO embarked on their most ambitious commissioning and recording endeavour to date- The 21st C. Symphony Project. Through this project, which will involve commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by leading composers, the ESO aim to make a major contribution to the symphonic repertoire, to engage symphonic audiences with the music of our time and to spark a fresh conversation about the place of the symphony in modern life. The 21st C. Project will be launched with the premiere of Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony in February 2017 and continues with the premiere of David Matthews’ Ninth in 2018.

Highlights of recent seasons include triumphant debuts in LSO St. Luke’s, St John’s Smith Square and Elgar Concert Hall. In 2016-7, the orchestra will be appearing at The Bridgewater Hall, Kings Place and Cheltenham Town Hall.

One of our aims is to develop the audience and the musicians of the future. We run orchestra courses for children from grade 1 onwards, and, when it is feasible, train talented young players to perform alongside the professional orchestra for a part of a concert. ESO has recently (April 2015) been appointed “Orchestra-in-Association” by the Worcestershire Music Hub and has very close links with the Elgar School of Music in that county. In 2016-7, the ESO’ became “Orchestra in Residence” for Worcester Live. In Herefordshire, the ESO works in strategic partnership with the Herefordshire Music Hub and the Hereford Sixth form College. Each year, the ESO presents dozens of concerts in care homes and hospices across the Midlands, bringing the comfort of live music to those who need it most.

Founded 1980, the ESO soon earned an international reputation for performances of English music, made over fifty recordings and began touring regularly in Europe. Over time, the orchestra’s repertoire expanded to include the full breadth of orchestral music, and the ESO grew to become the English Symphony Orchestra. Ever since then, “ESO” has served as an acronym with a dual meaning.

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Former Principal Conductor Vernon Handley with the ESO