The Roaring 20s – Decade of Melody and Mayhem
Music from Wyastone – Studio Concert Series
Eubie Blake Charleston Rag
Jelly Roll Morton Black Bottom Stomp
Erwin Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra Op.37
Ernst Krenek Fantasie on ‘Jonny spielt auf’ (‘Jonny Played On’)
Darius Milhaud Le boeuf sur le Toit (‘The Ox on the Roof’) Poeme Choregraphique
– Soloist: Zoë Beyers (Violin)
English Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Kenneth Woods
Violin: Zoë Beyers
About this Concert
One hundred years ago, the African-American music called Jazz exploded onto the international scene and changed the world forever.
As we get ready to celebrate the dawn of a new year, we look back 100 years to the wild musical terrain of the Jazz Age, and how a musical revolution which started with Ragtime in Arkansas took hold in Berlin, Vienna and Paris.
About the Soloist - Zoë Beyers
About the Composer - Eubie Blake
Blake was one of American music’s most enduring figures, contributing to the Ragtime revolution and the emergence of Jazz, his performing career spanned almost the entire 20th C. Credited with coining the expression shortly after his 100th birthday “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I would have taken better care of myself” his Charleston Rag remains one of the cornerstones of American music.
About the Composer - Jelly Roll Morton
The self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz’, New Orleans-born Jelly Roll Morton was a pianist of rare ability, a performer of supreme charisma, and a composer and arranger of Genius. His 1925 composition “Black Bottom Stomp” was a response to the “Black Bottom” dance craze that swept America in the roaring 20’s, given a bit of spice via Morton’s trademark “Spanish tinge.”
About the Composer - Erwin Schulhoff
Schulhoff was one of the first European composers to embrace American music, and his Suite for Chamber Orchestra is a brilliant and witty romp with movement titles including “Shimmy”, “Tango” and “Stomp”.
Schulhoff’s life story is one of the most dramatic, fascinating and tragic of the 20th C. He was introduced to Dvorak as a child prodigy at the age of 6, and later served in WWI, where he suffered what was then called ‘shell shock.’ After rising to international fame in the 1920’s with works like the Suite, he became one of the composers persecuted by the Nazi’s, both for his Jewish heritage and his left-wing views. He died in a concentration camp in Wülzburg, Bavaria in 1942. You can learn more about his life and work at the Orel Foundation website, here.
About the Composer - Ernst Krenek
Krenek had staked out a reputation as a modernist firebrand – married for a time to Mahler’s daughter and hailed by many as the heir to Schoenberg. But when he embraced Jazz in his opera Jonny spielt auf, he achieved a true succès de scandale, and the controversial opera would take Central Europe by storm, becoming the biggest hit of the 1920’s before it was banned by Hitler in 1933.
Because of the success of Jonny, Krenek was one of the few non-Jewish composers to be banned by the Nazi’s in the 1930’s and eventually made his way to America. During his long life (he lived to be 91), his music explored many styles and languages while maintaining a strong personal fingerprint. The ESO were proud to make the first complete recording of his piano concertos in two volumes for Toccata Classics in 2015-16. You can learn more and order copies of vol. 1 here and vol. 2 here.
About the Composer - Darius Milhaud
Milhaud looked further south for the inspiration for his surreal ballet, Le boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), borrowing extensively from the South American repertoire of bossa novas and tangos. He later re-worked the ballet into a stupendously virtuosic violin concerto, performed here by the ESO’s Leader, Zoë Beyers.
Arcana.fm - 31st December 2020
The English Symphony Orchestra certainly saw in the New Year with style in this attractive and enterprising programme centred on the prevalence but also the range of jazz idioms either side of the Atlantic throughout the 1920s. Its stylistic roots were acknowledged in the panache of Charleston Rag by the long-lived Eubie Blake, then the irresistible verve of Black Bottom Stomp by the lived-dangerously Jelly Roll Morton – both heard in distinctive arrangements by Gunther Schuller, whose own jazz innovations warrant revival as his centenary approaches.
Between these pieces, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a reminder of this composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s early chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston – its moody violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz – and Tango admit of an introspection and pathos to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are here side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.
It is almost 94 years since Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf took the German-speaking world by storm, and though its highly Viennese take on jazz lacks the satirical edge as achieved by Weill, the present Fantasie devised by Emil Bauer gives a fine overview of this opera in all its attendant strengths and weaknesses. Abetted by diaphanous orchestration (with its oddly hymnic role for harmonium), the slower sections conjure no mean expressive fervour, while the closing pages exude an affirmation which never feels brittle or forced in its demeanour.
Darius Milhaud had also fastened on to the exuberance of jazz, here with Brazilian overtones, in his ballet Le boeuf sur le toit – as heard in the rarely revived ‘cinéma-fantaisie’ version for violin and orchestra. Perhaps the often equivocal nature of the solo part has mitigated against wider acceptance, but Zoë Beyers took its technical demands confidently in her stride while remaining aware of its ‘first among equals’ status – notwithstanding the strategically placed cadenza (by no less than Arthur Honegger) that brings the soloist unashamedly centre-stage. Credit, too, to the members of the ESO (suitably attired throughout) for having rendered this music’s teasing rhythmic inflections with unfailing poise, and to Kenneth Woods for teasing the maximum finesse from out of Milhaud’s entertaining while not a little provocative score.
It was, indeed, a fine showing all round and would have been ideal before that ‘end of year’ party which circumstances have regrettably made impossible. This event was still a highly positive means of seeing out the old year and welcoming in a much to be anticipated 2021.
Adventures in Music - 2nd January 2021
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.
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.
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.
Planet Hugill - 3rd January 2021
As readers of this blog may have gathered, I am a bit of an unbeliever when it comes to Johann Strauss’s waltzes and always give the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year’s Day concert a miss, if I can. So it was a delight this year to be able to stream Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra’s imaginative concert (released on New Year’s Eve) which juxtaposed music from the 1920s, both jazz and ragtime alongside music inspired by jazz from Erwin Schulhoff and Darius Milhaud. The orchestra seemed as if they were having fun, and it made an engaging and thoughtful programme.
Classical Music Daily - 4th January 2021
Rather than just sitting around moaning about the serious COVID situation for orchestras everywhere, Kenneth Woods has busied himself with organising cleverly-designed concerts for smaller, socially-distanced forces. The scaled-down – well, ok, the percussion is scaled up!!! – English Symphony Orchestra absolutely scintillated in their New Year concert. Woods selected works from the irrepressibly glorious Jelly Roll Morton and Eubie Blake, as well as two neglected masterpieces – in this case Erwin Schulhoff’s sensational Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Krenek’s excellent Fantasie on his opera Jonny spielt auf. Even the – far from neglected – Le boeuf le Toit was here done in the rarely-attempted version for solo violin and orchestra, instead of its more familiar incarnation. Resurrecting neglected masterpieces is one of Woods’ trademarks, on both sides of the Atlantic – including recordings of the underrated Hans Gal, and the premiere of John Joubert’s operatic masterpiece Jane Eyre. (Strongly recommended!!)
Anyway, it was absolutely obvious that the twenty or so ESO players had a total blast from start to finish of this concert. Throughout, their clarity, balance and exuberance were remarkable. In the Schulhoff the textures can be very transparent – it is astonishingly well-orchestrated – and it was elegantly and above all characterfully dispatched by every single performer (shout out to guest leader David Juritz, but could have picked anybody!) Inspired by the dance crazes of the twenties, the first movement ranges from wistfulness to nostalgia, from the sinister to the sardonic. The slow movement has a tango-esque feel – the last is evocative, witty and, finally, gloriously bustling.
The English Symphony Orchestra playing Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra Op 37 at Wyastone
The Krenek was equally stylishly performed. (The ESO have recorded Krenek before, and Woods is a fan.) By turns cheeky, sensual, slinky, zany, unexpected, and original, it featured a deeply moving clarinet solo, some tastefully droll percussion work, an eloquent solo trombone – a heavily pompous section wittily undercut and – at times – playing from the entire group so precise as to sound improvised.
The Milhaud, by contrast, is very well-known, but this version was new to me. Woods, a conductor of understated authority, perfectly judged – throughout the entire concert, really – every nuance of mood, while never losing the irrepressible sense of dance. (His jazz was great, as well.)
As for Zoë Beyers – well, she was terrifyingly good. She squeezed every possible ounce of expression from every note; and was alert not only to Woods’ every subtlety but also to those of her fellow performers. She coloured her tone with such imagination! Her sound was always lustrous and unforced – her technique, no matter how many double-stops she was confronted with, immaculate. The rest of the orchestra (really, they had such a blast) served as her only audience at the end and burst into spontaneous applause.
Zoë Beyers playing Darius Milhaud’s Le Bœuf sur le toit at Wyastone
The whole event was a toe-tapping, heart-lifting, and admirably-judged delight – as have been all the COVID-cut-down-ESO concerts from Wyastone, to be fair – but this is the first one I’ve had time to write about yet. (Check out their intimate and wonderful Strauss’ Four Last Songs with April Fredrick – now, is my advice!!)
Bye for now – and bravo to all!!