“Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony received one of the best performances I have heard live.” Robert Matthew-Walker – Classical Source
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 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 and 2016 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 Best Recordings of 2016).
Founded by conductor William Boughton in 1980, 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, Steven 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.
“The English Symphony Orchestra – enjoying a comet-like rise under Kenneth Woods, its Principal Conductor” Musical Opinion
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 other major 20th century British composers including Vaughan Williams, Britten, Butterworth and Bridge. The ESO discography 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. John McCabe served as the orchestra’s Composer-in-Association from 2013 until his death in 2015. Following McCabe’s passing, the ESO appointed Philip Sawyers as “John McCabe Composer-in-Association.” Sawyers, who continues his association with the ESO as Composer Laureate, has since been succeeded by David Matthews (2018-19) and Adrian Williams (2019-).
In 2017, the ESO and conductor Kenneth Woods launched the 21st Century Symphony Project, a multi-year effort to commission, premiere and record nine new symphonies by leading composers of our time. In 2017, the orchestra premiered the Third Symphony of Philip Sawyers, hailed by Classical Source at its premiere as “a masterpiece”; the subsequent recording on Nimbus was named a Gramophone Critics’ Choice as one of the Best Recordings of 2017. In 2018, The Spectator highlighted the premiere of David Matthews’ Ninth Symphony as one of the top ten “can’t miss” classical concerts of the year. And in 2019, the ESO premiere of the Fifth Symphony of Matthew Taylor was also acclaimed as “a masterpiece” by Musical Opinion editor-in-chief, Robert Matthew-Walker.
Other recent recording projects include a disc of 21st Century Violin Concertos with Harriet Mackenzie (five stars, The Sunday Times, Recording of the Year 2017, MusicbWeb), two volumes of the Complete Piano Concertos of Ernst Krenek (2016 Sunday Times Best Recordings of the Year, 2017 Forbes Magazine 10 Best Classical Recordings) the Hans Gál Concertino for Cello and Orchestra with Matthew Sharp (MusicWeb Recording of the Year 2018) and Kenneth Woods’ orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major (The Arts Desk Ten Best Classical Recordings of 2018). Highlights of recent seasons include triumphant debuts in LSO St. Luke’s, St John’s Smith Square, The Bridgewater Hall, King’s Place, Cheltenham Town Hall. and Elgar Concert Hall, and collaboration with noted soloists including Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Raphael Wallfisch, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Emma Johnson, Noriko Ogawa and Pavel Šporcl.
2019-20 sees the ESO working with some of today’s leading soloists, including Nicola Benedetti, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Tamsin Waley Cohen and Maja Bogdanović.
From its beginnings as the English String Orchestra, 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.