English Symphony Orchestra responds to coronavirus crisis with innovation and energy

17 Jun 2020

Like orchestras all over the world, the English Symphony Orchestra has been dealt a devastating artistic and financial blow by the COVID-19 crisis.

Concerts and recordings that were years in the planning were all cancelled, and the orchestra has lost over 60% of its annual turnover in earned income and cancelled concert fees. It has been our musicians who have been most hard-hit by this. Like most orchestral musicians in the London orchestras and chamber orchestras around the UK, they are paid on a freelance basis, so this has been a time of real hardship for all of them.

However, with great sacrifice, inspiring musician commitment, strong board leadership and generous emergency support from Arts Council England, the ESO have weathered the first stage of this crisis and are now looking ahead to the summer with an ambitious plan of projects to keep music alive throughout Elgar Country.

Our Performances

Until the orchestra is able to welcome audiences back to the concert hall, we are going to be developing studio projects which facilitate the dissemination of new and innovative work, exploring different kinds of concert formats. Each project will be filmed for online distributionand recorded for commercial release in partnership with Wyastone Concert Hall and the Nimbus Foundation. We believe this moment gives us an opportunity to be really bold with our programming, and to encourage our audiences to engage with new repertoire and new programme formats without risk or cost.  Our goal in these concerts has been to create a series of exciting and entertaining programmes that no other orchestra could do.

Here is some of what we are working on:

·     String works of Tchaikovsky and Weinberg – the ESO was founded as the English String Orchestra, and remains one of the most long-established and extensively recorded professional string orchestras in the world. This project will focus on the new string orchestra version of Tchaikovsky’s Third String Quartet by Kenneth Woods and the lyrical and moving Concertino for Violin and Strings by Holocaust refugee, Mieczysław Weinberg, featuring the ESO’s Leader, Zoë Beyers, one of today’s most exciting violinists, who has also recently taken up a similar role with the BBC Philharmonic.

·     New storytelling works – The ESO’s commitment to broadening the classical repertoire isn’t limited to works for our formal concert audience. We’ve also introduced a series of hugely engaging and compelling new works for narrator and orchestra to the repertoire to inspire young listeners and their families. We’ll be recording and filming new settings of The Bremen Town Musicians (Kile Smith), The Warrior Violinist (Jay Reise), Lubin from Chelm (David Yang), The Ugly Duckling (Kenneth Woods) and Hansel and Gretel (Tom Kraines) with some of today’s leading actors and making this content available online free of cost to families across Elgar Country and worldwide. These pieces are not simply “children’s pieces” but are true “family entertainment”, with multiple levels of humour and meaning to amuse and inspire listeners at all stages of life.

·     A Child’s Journey – A compelling and immersive programme of works by several interconnected composers which explores the emotional pathways of a child’s journey through life, from our engagement with nature, to our need for nourishment, culminating in Gustav Mahler’s Das himmlische Leben, Mahler’s sublime vision of a child’s contentment in Heaven. The concert features one-on-a-part chamber arrangements of works by Wagner (Siegfried Idyll, Forest Murmurs), Mahler (The Earthly Life and The Heavenly Life), Schubert (The Trout, Death and the Maiden) and Humperdinck (Hansel and Gretel), featuring ESO Affiliate Artist, soprano April Fredrick.

·     Lockdown Commissions – The ESO’s “John McCabe Composer-in-Association”, Adrian Williams, is writing a series of nine solo works which can be recorded at home by ESO players, and which can then be combined into a nonet when the musicians come together in person later this summer.

These are just the first few projects. We’re also hard at work with funders and partners to develop additional studio projects which support new music, disseminate music suppressed by war or political persecution, or contribute to diversity. We’re also developing a number of commercial projects. 

The ESO is very much open for business, and if you want to suggest or support a project, please contact us.

Keeping in Touch

Until we can meet again, we’re doing everything we can to stay connected to our listeners. We’ll be offering a rich variety of online content including conversations with ESO musicians and guest artists. We’re even exploring offering virtual “meetups” where our Friends and supporters can chat online with musicians and other music lovers. And don’t worry if you don’t feel confident navigating the web. Our team will be available to guide you through using online resources like Zoom and YouTube, so you can access our work during lockdown. If you need help, email us here or ring 01905 28613 ext. 4.

Zoë and Ken in Conversation

Zoë Beyers, Leader of the ESO and recently appointed as Leader of the BBC Philharmonic (a position she will hold concurrently with her ESO duties) is engaging with audiences through an exciting new series of video conversations.

The Music Room is an exciting new digital project from Shropshire Music Trust, broadcast fortnightly from June to November, supported by Arts Council England. 

Twelve conversations about music have been curated by violinist, Zoë Beyers, and feature eminent composers, performers and conductors. 

The first conversation is with American conductor, writer and cellist Kenneth Woods, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra. 

The one-hour broadcast will be available on YouTube and Vimeo at 7.30pm on Friday 19th June and will be followed immediately by a Q&A session with Kenneth on Zoom. 

Full details here.

Our work with Young People

The ESO Youth team have been running online orchestral courses which have involved young musicians playing in home-recorded performances of “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets, Hans Zimmer’s “Earth” and Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. Participants are given learning materials, music, recording guidelines and a click track, followed by a series of pre-recorded video tutorials with ESO tutors. Finally, the young musicians join in for Zoom sectionals with their ESO mentors before recording their tracks at home. To date, over 200 young people have been involved in the 3 pieces so far, with additional projects to come throughout the summer. With families across the UK hurting financially, the ESO have made these projects free to all participants. Email the ESO Youth team to learn more. Also available on Facebook here

Our work in Care Homes

No sector of our society has been hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic than our care homes and hospices. In normal times, the ESO deliver about 50 concerts a year in care homes across Elgar Country, bringing the comfort and stimulation of live music to people living with dementia and other chronic health challenges. Since lockdown, our musicians have worked to create a series of stimulating and comforting new videos for care home residents, and this work will continue until we are able to return to in-person visits.

The Urgency of the Moment

The Urgency of the Moment

It has been incredibly inspiring to be part of the resilience shown by everyone in the ESO family during this unprecedented crisis. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to do, and really excited about what we plan to do.

But the future remains a complete unknown for us, as it is for orchestras and arts organisations everywhere. Once we have spent our existing grant income, we have absolutely no idea when new funding will be available – the Arts Council have had to close their Project Grants fund temporarily to address the crisis. Likewise, we do not know if we will be giving concerts in 6, 12 or 24 months, nor do we know what those concerts will look like. Will people come? Will funders support them? How many listeners can we welcome to any given venue? Unlike many of our peers, the ESO does not have a single permanent home – we run regular series in venues in four cities, and we play regularly in halls in London, Cheltenham and Birmingham. Each venue and festival we work with will pose its own challenges for us.

Everyone who loves music has a role to play in ensuring we save our musical heritage from oblivion. Your financial support means now more than ever. But we also need your moral support. Please, help spread the word about our forthcoming projects to friends, colleagues and family, and please, tell your politicians and decision makers that their support of the arts matters to you and your community.

Together, we can keep the music playing.

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Join us this Saturday, June 20 at 6 PM for the premiere of Hans Zimmer’s “Earth”

A magical performance by a virtual orchestra of musicians from ages 6-19 and grade 0-8+