English Symphony Orchestra

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English Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Orchestra

• Founded 1978


The English Symphony Orchestra is named not for its national reach, but for the concept of Englishness. Its reputation, however, is international. Based in the city of Worcester, the orchestra bills itself as "The International Orchestra of Elgar Country."

The ESO was founded in the city of Malvern in 1974 as the English String Orchestra. Its founding conductor, William Boughton, remained on the podium for many years and developed the orchestra's repertoire in the direction of large orchestral works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, the works of such composers as Bax, Bridge, and Lennox Berkeley were not so often heard, and the orchestra aroused strong interest among English music enthusiasts for its recordings on the Nimbus label. After the orchestra began to program music of full symphonic scale, its name was changed in 1984 to the English Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra has also recorded for Signum, Avie, Somm, Toccata, and Naxos.

In the role of principal guest conductor in the 1990s, Yehudi Menuhin raised the orchestra's profile by leading a sequence of international tours. Veteran conductor Vernon Handley became the ESO's second principal conductor in 2006, remaining in the post until his death in 2008. Kenneth Woods assumed the baton in 2013 and was later named artistic director.

A large part of the orchestra's performance energies have been devoted to contemporary music. The group launched its 21st Century Symphony Project in 2017, planning to premiere and record nine symphonies by nine contemporary composers as a way of revitalizing the orchestral tradition. The project began that year with the Symphony No. 3 of Philip Sawyers, who has held the title of John McCabe Composer-in-Association with the group. Woods has also led the ESO in explorations of music suppressed in Nazi Germany just before and during World War II, featuring performances of music by Viktor Ullmann and Hans Gál, among others.