Kenneth Woods

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Kenneth Woods (born 1968) is an American-born, UK-resident conductor, composer and cellist. He is known for his interpretations of the works of Mahler, Haydn, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Bruckner and Hans Gál. He has conducted orchestras including the English Chamber Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Royal Northern Sinfonia and National Symphony Orchestra.

Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and English String Orchestra[edit]

In 2013, Woods was appointed as the third Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra/English String Orchestra (the orchestra performs under both names), succeeding Vernon Handley. In 2015, he became the ESO's Artistic Director.

Woods joined the ESO when the orchestra was mired in a period of financial and artistic stagnation. Early in his tenure, the orchestra commissioned their first major new work in several years, a violin concerto by Deborah Pritchard inspired by oil paintings of Maggi Hambling called "Wall of Water." That work was premiered on a concert all 21st Century music by women composers, alongside works by Kaija Saariaho, Thea Musgrave and Emily Doolittle with violinist Harriet Mackenzie in LSO St Luke's in October 2014. The critical response to that concert and the ensuing live recording on Nimbus, the orchestra's first in over a decade, quickly re-established the ESO as one of the UK's most innovative and influential orchestras.

As conductor of the ESO, Woods has since premiered, commissioned or made first recordings of new works by Robert Fokkens, David Matthews, Emily Doolittle, Tom Kraines, Kile Smith, Geoffrey Gordon, Deborah Pritchard, Stephen Gerber, Nimrod Borenstein, Toby Young, Paul Patterson, Hans Gál, Donald Fraser, James Francis Brown and Jesse Jones.

Woods has long been a champion of music by composers whose lives were disrupted or music banned by the Nazis. In 2015-6, the orchestra made the first integral recording of the Complete Piano Concertos of Ernst Krenek in two volumes for Toccata Classics. Those recordings were named one of the Best Recordings of 2016 in The Times of London,[1] and one of the 11 Best Recordings of 2017 in Forbes Magazine.

Appropriately for an orchestra based in the home town of composer Edward Elgar, that composer's music features largely in Woods' work with the ESO. In 2015, the orchestra undertook a series of concerts called an "Elgar Pilgrimage" with concerts in the cities of the Midlands where Elgar lived and worked. The series culminated in the premiere on the Birmingham University campus of a new orchestration of Elgar's Piano Quintet by composer Donald Fraser. That concert was named 2015 Classical Music Magazine Premiere of the Year.[2] In 2018, Woods' was appointed as Artistic Director of the Elgar Festival, established by the City of Worcester as the official celebration of the life and music of Edward Elgar in the city of his birth. The inaugural Elgar Festival in 2018 was Critic's Pick in both The Times and The Guardian.

Woods has also expanded the ESO's repertoire to include opera. The orchestra's first full-length opera was Jane Eyre by John Joubert, given its world premiere by the orchestra under Woods' baton in October 2016. The premiere of Joubert's opera was subsequently name Classical Music Magazine Premiere of the Year, the second year in a row the ESO received this honour, and was hailed by the Birmingham Post as the highlight of classical music in Birmingham in 2016.[3]

In 2013, Woods re-established the position of Composer-in-Association, previously held by Sir Michael Tippett and Nicholas Maw. The first composer to hold this position during Woods' tenure at the ESO was John McCabe. Following McCabe's death in 2015, Woods appointed the English composer Philip Sawyers to the position which has since been renamed in memory of McCabe ("John McCabe Composer-in-Association Chair"). Sawyers work with the ESO has included a song cycle commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I (Songs of Loss and Regret), a Fanfare, a Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, a Trumpet Concerto, an Elegiac Rhapsody for Trumpet and Strings in Memory of John McCabe and his Third Symphony. The ESO's recording of Sawyers' Songs of Loss and Regret, Fanfare and Third Symphony was 2017 Gramophone Magazine Critics' Choice "Best of the Year'.[4]

Sawyers Third Symphony also became the first work in the ESO's 21st Century Project,[5] an effort to commissions nine new symphonies by leading composers. Subsequent works in the series have included David Matthews' Ninth Symphony and the Fifth Symphony of Matthew Taylor.

Orchestra of the Swan[edit]

In 2009, Woods was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan, a professional chamber orchestra based in Stratford-upon-Avon.Perhaps the most important achievement of Woods' tenure at the Orchestra of the Swan was making the first complete recording of the symphonies of Austrian composer Hans Gál for Avie Records. His recordings with the orchestra also include the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann, Gustav Mahler's first and last song cycles for orchestra, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellan and Das Lied von der Erde as orchestrated by Schoenberg,[6] Brahms' Serenade in D Major. A key impact of Woods' time with the orchestra was an emergence of the orchestra as a presence on radio, particularly in the United States, where live recordings of Woods' cycles of Schuman and Gál symphonies became popular on the nationally syndicated Performance Today. In 2012, his recording with the Orchestra of the Swan of new works for traditional Japanese instruments and orchestra, Springs Sounds, Spring Seas, was a MusicWeb Recording of the Year.[7]

Colorado MahlerFest[edit]

In 2015, he took over the leadership of Colorado MahlerFest,[8] one of only two North American musical organisations (the other being the New York Philharmonic) to receive the Gold Medal of the International Gustav.Mahler Society. As the festival's second artistic director, Woods established a new training institute for young conductors (the Mahler Conducting Fellowship), a chair for an annual visiting composer, and an expansion of the festival's chamber music and contemporary music offerings.[9] Visiting composers during Woods' MahlerFest tenure include David Matthews, Jesse Jones and Kurt Schwertsik. In 2017, Woods led the MahlerFest Orchestra in their first performance of the Cooke Performing Version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony in a new edition using revisions and corrections from Colin and David Matthews and Peter Wadl.[10]

Guest conductor[edit]

Orchestras he has worked with include the National Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, South Bohemian Chamber Philharmonic, North Czech Philharmonic, National Orchestra of the Dominican Republic, and the State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Work at music festivals has included Aspen, Lucerne, Round Top, and Scotia. He has been involved in broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, National Public Radio, and CBC Radio 2.

Arranger and composer[edit]

Woods' orchestrations and arrangements of music by other composers includes a symphonic realisation of Brahms' Piano Quartet, recorded with the ESO for Nimbus and named one of The Arts Desk's Ten Best Classical Recordings of 2018.[11] In 2012, the English Chamber Orchestra recorded his orchestration of Viktor Ullmann's Third String Quartet. Other notable arrangements and orchestrations include works by Mahler, Schubert, Humperdinck and Tchaikovsky. Woods' own music has been recorded on Avie Records.

Entartete Musik[edit]

Woods has been a particularly notable advocate[12] for the music of composers whose music was condemned or banned by the Nazis as Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music), including composers who were imprisoned in the Theresienstadt camp and later executed in Auschwitz. Woods was the cellist in the second American performance of Vitkor Ullmann's Third String Quartet, which he studied with Henry Meyer, longtime second violinist of the LaSalle String Quartet and himself a concentration camp survivor. Inspired by Meyer's teaching and experiences, Woods has made recording and performing of music of this generation of composers a central focus of his musical life. He has made acclaimed recordings of music by Hans Krása, Ernest Krenek, Arnold Schönberg, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and particularly Hans Gál. Woods is Honorary Patron of the Hans Gál Society

Conducting Training and Early Career[edit]

Woods pursued advanced conducting studies at the University of Cincinnati – College-Conservatory of Music and studied at other summer institutes and workshops. He studied conducting with Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman, Jorma Panula and Gerhard Samuel.

In Spring, 2000, David Zinman selected Woods to be a fellow in the inaugural class of the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. In Spring, 2001, Woods was selected by Leonard Slatkin as one of four participants in the Kennedy Center National Conducting Institute. At the completion of the Institute, he led the National Symphony Orchestra in a debut concert, drawing a return invitation from the NSO.

Woods was music director of the Grande Ronde Symphony from 1999 to 2002, and the Oregon East Symphony from 2000-9. At the OES he was the founding artistic director of a new training orchestra and training institute and oversaw an expansion of educational and outreach activities. He has led the creation and programming of educational concert series, been active in community outreach and as a collaborator with music educators.

Woods has conducted productions of operas from Britten to Puccini, and ballet scores such as Giselle, The Nutcracker, The Firebird, and Konservatoriet. Woods's activities as a proponent of contemporary music include collaborations as a conductor or cellist with such figures as John Corigliano, Krzysztof Penderecki, Peter Lieberson, Oliver Knussen, and others.


Woods was invited by the Rose City Chamber Orchestra to start a new international workshop for young conductors. The Rose City International Conductor's Workshop became a successful training center for emerging conductors. At Colorado MahlerFest, Woods established the Mahler Conducting Fellowship, attracting three outstanding young conductors each year to work in the festival. Woods has also taught conducting in master classes organized by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and The Bridgewater Hall, and is a consultant and has been an adjudicator at institutions such as the Royal College of Music. From 1999-2002 he was head of conducting, strings and chamber music at Eastern Oregon University.

Working with young orchestras as been an important part of Woods' conducting career. He was Music Director of the Dayton Philharmonic in 1999, Music Director of the Grande Ronde Youth Orchestra 1999-2002, and founded the Oregon East Symphony Preparatory Orchestras in 2001 and served as their director until 2009. He has been a guest conductor and cello instructor at the University of Wisconsin School of Music Summer Music Clinic. In the UK, he was a regular conductor of the Kent County Youth Orchestra and in 2018, helped found a new advanced training orchestra through the English Symphony Orchestra youth programmes. During his tenure at the ESO, Woods has led the effort to establish the orchestra as a partner with the music hubs in Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

Cellist and Chamber Musician[edit]

As a cellist, Woods has been a recipient of the Aspen Fellowship, the Dale Gilbert Award, the Strelow Quartet Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Arts Rural Residency Grant. He has also recorded and toured as cello soloist and chamber musician. He has played chamber music with members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Tokyo, LaSalle, Borodin, Lark and Pro Arte Quartets. He was founding cellist of the Taliesin Trio and of the Masala Quartet, who have recorded for Vienna Modern Masters. In 2006 he became a founding artist of the Clocktower Chamber Music Festival in Durango, Colorado.

In 2008, he became artist in residence at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival. That year he also become the founding cellist of the string trio, Ensemble Epomeo, with whom he toured the United States and Europe in 2009. Ensemble Epomeo would go on to be ensemble-in-residence at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, the Scotia Festival of Music and the Two Rivers Festival. The trio's first CD comprised the world premiere recordings of the complete string trios of Hans Gál, coupled with those of Hans Krása, a 2012 Gramophone Editor's Choice. Their next disc included string trios by Schnittke, Penderecki, Weinberg and Kurtág. In 2014, Ensemble Epomeo released Auricolae: The Double Album, a collection of new storytelling works for violin, cello and narrator including new works by David Yang, Jay Reise, Andrew Waggoner, Kile Smith and Woods' own setting of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling." Ensemble Epomeo included the complete Beethoven String Trios in their repertoire, and premiered over 25 new works between 2009 and 2017.

In 2018, Woods made his first recording as cellist of the newly-formed Briggs Piano Trio, a disc including Shostakovich's Piano Trio in E minor and two piano trios by Hans Gál. That disc was also a Gramophone Editor's Choice[13] and was featured in Gramophone's year-end Best CD's of 2018 issue.


Woods is also the author of a blog, A View from the Podium, often cited as one of the most popular classical music blogs in the world. He has been commissioned to write essays, features and programme notes for Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, Classical Music Magazine, EMI Records, ICA Classics, Warner Classics, Avie Records, Somm Recordings, Toccata Classics, Listen Magazine[14] and others.


  1. ^ "The Times 100 Best Recordings of 2016".
  2. ^ "Classical Music Premiere of the Year". December 2015.
  3. ^ Morely, Chris (22 December 2016). "Birmingham's concert scene has been lit up by Mirga effect".
  4. ^ Guy, Rickards (December 2017). "Critics' Choice 2017 Gramophone Magazine".
  5. ^ Woods, Kenneth. "The 21st Century Symphony Project Manifesto". Musical Opinion.
  6. ^ Matthew-Walker, Robert (July 13, 2011). "International Record Review - IRR OUTSTANDING for Woods/Mahler/Swan Das Lied von der Erde".
  7. ^ "Recordings of the Year 2012". MusicWeb International. December 2012.
  8. ^ Lebrecht, Norman (May 18, 2015). "MAHLER FESTIVAL CHANGES CHIEF AFTER 28 MILE-HIGH YEARS". Slipped Disc.
  9. ^ "Review: Kenneth Woods makes shattering impact at MahlerFest". Retrieved May 4, 2018.
  10. ^ Hansen, Kelly Dean. "Kenneth Woods Makes Shattering Impact at MahlerFest". Boulder Daily Camera.
  11. ^ Rickson, Graham. "Best of 2018: Classical CDs".
  12. ^ Midgette, Anne (August 10, 2012). "Little-known composers get their due in the studio if not the concert hall". Washington Post.
  13. ^ Rickards, Guy. "Gramophone Editor's Choice".
  14. ^ Woods, Kenneth. "Listen Magazine- The Case for Hans Gál".

Other sources[edit]

  • "Meet the Maestro: Kenneth Woods" Rick Jones, Classical Music Magazine
  • "On the Downbeat- Up and Coming Conductors," Joe Banno, Washington Post, July 2, 2001
  • "Scotia Festival of Music on Home Stretch," Stephen Pedersen, Halifax Mail Star, June 7, 1997
  • "Reading the Score and So Much More," Tim Page, Washington Post, June 24, 2001
  • "Round Up the Usual Suspects," David Stabler, The Oregonian, May 27, 2007
  • "Too Few American Maestros? Try Making Them," James Oestreich, New York Times, June 24, 2001
  • "Conductors Showcase at Roundtop," Jerry Young, Austin American Statesman, June 23, 1999
  • "New Direction for NPO," Peter Palmer, Nottingham Evening Post, October 25, 2006
  • "Conductor Says Arts at Risk When Funders Call the Tune," Western Mail, June 2, 2008
  • "Student Conductors Learn Secrets of the Bataon," The Oregonian, August 2, 2008

External links[edit]