Hugh Bonneville, star of the beloved ‘Paddington’ films and hit series ‘Downton Abbey’, joins the English Symphony Orchestra (ESO) under the baton of Principal Conductor and Artistic Director Kenneth Woods for the first in a series of brand-new works for narrator and orchestra as part of the ESO’s Music from Wyastone Virtual Concert Series. Bonneville narrates Woods’ powerful setting of the Hans Christian Andersen classic, ‘The Ugly Duckling’, which premieres on the ESO’s digital portal, ESO Digital, on Friday, 27 November 2020, at 6.00 p.m.
In keeping with the ESO’s longstanding commitments to engaging with young people and promoting new music, the first series includes world premieres of five new works embracing classic children’s tales by Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, playful Klezmer tales and one of the oldest surviving folk stories from ancient Egypt.
“Bonneville’s involvement is key to getting the project off to a strong start”, says Woods. “I knew Hugh would be ideal for Duckling because his understanding of character is so nuanced. But also, I’ve seen through my own children watching him, repeatedly, in things like ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ and ‘Paddington’, that children really connect with him – he doesn’t condescend to them, as many do. His work for young viewers is just as sharp and deep as that for the older crowd.”
“Helping audiences to connect with new music is central to the ESO’s ethos”, says Woods. “For us, new music isn’t defined by a dissonant 7-minute concert opener with a 3,000-word programme note, and lots of expensive percussion which you only use for that piece. It means finding ways to commission new work as part of everything we do – new symphonies, new concertos, new arrangements and, in this case, new works for young people and families. Let’s face it, wonderful as it is, ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is 100 years old. There’s no reason young listeners can’t grow up to think of new classical music as just as relevant and natural as new pop. We want to do our part to build an audience for the future who embrace the new”.
Woods based his setting of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ on Hans Christian Andersen’s original novella, a moving and personal work that Andersen was reported to have called his unofficial autobiography. “I confess”, says Woods, “that I grew up only knowing the story of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ through the delightful song in the classic Danny Kaye film. When I finally read Andersen’s original, I was moved to tears and knew that the only way to set a literary masterpiece like that was to be as faithful as I could to the story.”
Woods’ nearly symphonic score is further heightened in intensity by a set of illustrations by Polish-American artist, violinist, poet and composer, Wanda Sobieska. For Sobieska, who grew up dreaming of being an illustrator for Disney before becoming a violinist, the project was also very personal. “Inspired by the brilliant storytelling of Hans Christian Andersen and the stirring score by Kenneth Woods, my hand-drawn illustrations for ‘The Ugly Duckling’ reflect the miracle of absolute and utter transformation, prefaced by the emotional progression of searching, premonitions, fear, wonderment, rejection, and complete despair,” says Sobieska. “Having taken over two years to complete, they complement the narrative with a celebration of the beauty of the four seasons, explore the boundary between the external and internal worlds, and invite the audience to participate through the unique and magical gift of each person’s imagination in a conclusion of universal, life-affirming triumph.”
Woods believes Andersen’s message is more important than ever for today’s young people. “The story isn’t about an ugly duckling who becomes a swan, it’s about a young swan finding out who he has always been, and learning to love and accept himself for who he is, rather than for what others think he is, or tell him he is. The duckling could be any child who feels a little left out, or a little different, perhaps because of the colour of their skin, or perhaps because they feel differently about their gender. Or, perhaps, just because they’re a slightly odd duck. In an era where social media and pop culture create ever more pressure to conform, young people need to be told that the best thing they can do in life is to allow themselves to grow up to be their true selves.”
‘The Art of Storytelling’ series continues on Friday, 4 December 2020, when Henry Goodman narrates David Yang’s hilarious ‘Lubin from Chelm’, a Klezmer-styled re-telling of the classic English folk tale, Lazy Jack. Goodman has distinguished himself as one of the leading actors of his generation, having starred in Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company and playing the iconic role of Tevye in Trevor Nunn’s revival of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.
The performance of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ will be available at https://www.eso.co.uk/ugly-duckling/; a trailer will be available from Friday 20 November.