Monday 3 August 2020

The Prison: conductor James Blachly on how an American conductor & orchestra finally brought Ethel Smyth's late masterwork to disc

Ethel Smyth in 1884 (Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Ethel Smyth by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn
albumen cabinet card
(Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Whilst Dame Ethel Smyth is a definite, and recognisable presence in the cultural history first half of the 20th century, this can be as much from the force of her personality, the way she gusts in and out of many memoirs of the period, than from the presence of her own music.

It is positively embarrassing that we have had to wait so long to hear recordings of some of her works. Retrospect Opera has been rectifying this and recently issued the first recording of Smyth's Fete Galante from 1921-22 [see my review]. But Smyth's final major work has languished, until now. Chandos Records is issuing the recording of Smyth's 1930 choral symphony, The Prison, performed by Dashon Burton (baritone), Sarah Brailey (soprano), the Experiential  Orchestra and Chorus, conductor James Blachly. I caught up with the recording's conductor, James Blachly, via Zoom to find out how an American conductor and orchestra came to make the first recording of Smyth's late masterwork.

James stumbled on Smyth and The Prison by accident. He was creating a programme of music by all female composers, something that still requires some doing because historically it is harder finding works by women. He came across Smyth and started doing some research on her music. He discovered The Prison which was premiered in 1931 (Smyth conducted it in Edinburgh and Sir Adrian Boult conducted it in London), it was performed again during Smyth's lifetime, but after her death it languished, there was a performance in Germany in 2008 and the work's American premiere took place with piano accompaniment took place in 2016.

James Blachly and Experiential Orchestra recording Ethel Smyth's The Prison in 2019
James Blachly and Experiential Orchestra recording Ethel Smyth's The Prison in 2019 at SUNY Purchase
James was intrigued and got a copy of the score from the publishers, this was still the manuscript which had been produced during Smyth's lifetime, and James quickly realised that to stand a chance of performing the work, a new edition would be needed so that the rehearsal process was more efficient (musicians' sight-reading from hand-written scores, often error prone, is a time-consuming activity). James commissioned a new engraving of the work and performed excerpts in New York in 2016.

James had heard the American premiere of Smyth's opera The Wreckers, conducted by Leon Botstein at Bard Summerscape in 2015; currently available on-line from the SummerScape Upstreaming website. (The American premiere of her Mass was also quite recent when Mark Shapiro conducted the Cecilia Chorus of New York in 2013).

So what is The Prison. By the 1920s, Smyth was beginning to suffer badly with deafness and was increasingly turning to writing rather than composing. Her last major works could easily have been her operas Fete Galante (1921-22) and Entente Cordiale (1923), and in 1928 she turned 70. She was the last of a dying breed of English composers who had automatically turned to Germany for training, and her major contemporaries Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) were dead. The most senior composer of the age, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) had ceased to be a creative force, leaving only Frederick Delius (1862-1934). Yet there was something about Smyth, her sex, her combative attitude and her sense of almost belonging more to the German musical tradition, that means we hardly regard her as her experience and seniority might expect.

Henry Brewster (HB) in 1897
Henry Brewster (HB) in 1897
In 1925, in preparation for a walking tour of Greece, she had been reading up on Greek literature and had turned to a philosphical work The Prison: A Dialogue which had been published in 1891 by her dear friend Harry Brewster (HB). HB was a huge influence on Smyth, and she conceived a large scale work for soprano and baritone solos, chorus and orchestra, drawing the text from HB's book.

Henry Bennet Brewster (1850-1908) was a member of the American diaspora, born in Paris and resident in Florence (a fascinating distant echo of this can be found in the 1999 obituary for HB's grandson). When Smyth first met HB, he was married, and their relations were complex. He wrote philosophy in English and poetry in French, and he helped Smyth with the librettos for her first three operas, notably The Wreckers (which he wrote in French as Les Naufrageurs). They seem to have had a brief affair, and a long friendship and for all Smyth's later fame as a sapphist, her relationship with HB was the defining one of her life. And it is this which fed into The Prison.

In addition to premiering The Prison in 1931, Smyth also saw into print a new edition of HB's The Prison: A Dialogue which was issued by William Heinemann Ltd, 'with a memoir of the author by Ethel Smyth'.

When talking about why The Prison has been so neglected, James refers me to the 'great composer' theory of music whereby a baton is passed on from generation to generation, and the view is that those that did not receive the baton are not worth bothering with. If we have not heard of a composer, then they are not worth bothering with. But from the first note of his rehearsals for The Prison in 2016, with a choir and freelance orchestra, the electricity of the moment changed James' view of the work and of Smyth's music. He describes her writing as masterful, with something so clear about it. Through the rehearsal process he fell in love with The Prison.

He feels that Smyth is still treated as something of a footnote in 20th century history, and he wanted to present The Prison in as compelling way as possible to ensure that she and the work were treated seriously. But it is difficult to advocate for a work without a recording, if people ask 'what's it like?' the only response is, 'wonderful, you should try it!'. But now we have a recording.

James Blachly and Experiential Orchestra and Chorus recording Ethel Smyth's The Prison in 2019
James Blachly and Experiential Orchestra and Chorus recording Ethel Smyth's The Prison in 2019
James describes The Prison as a diverse piece, there are romantic portions but also a fragment of the earliest surviving Ancient Greek melody, and some of Smyth's early music for organ. You can hear flavours of other composers, but James feels that her own voices is always present, something truly individual and unique.

It was James who managed raise the funds for engraving the new copy of the score, and he did the editing of it; inevitably with such hand-produced manuscript scores, there were errors to be corrected. The engraving and editing process took two years, but he has also now the benefit of having done four performances of the work so that his edition of the score is well bedded in. The publishers Wise Music have now taken it on, and it is available on-line.

The work is written for full orchestra, with triple woodwind though the opening of Part II, 'Chorale Prelude in the Prison Chapel (The Prisoner awakes)' can work with just double woodwind, and James performed it as a stand-alone piece earlier this year, and he finds it gives a good taste of the work.  Smyth seems to have intended the piece to stand on its own (she prepared the orchestral interludes to be presented on their own), and James sees it as the potential 'hit single' from the work.

John Singer Sargent: Ethel Smyth in 1901
John Singer Sargent: Ethel Smyth in 1901
(courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)
When James first conducted the work (he gave the work's American premiere with the Johnstown Symphony in 2018) it was his first piece of Ethel Smyth, his first deep encounter with her music. As it was her last large-scale work, this meant getting to know her other music, as the work is something of a summary of her career. The CD cover deliberately includes a picture of Smyth from the 1880s, the young woman who had fallen in love with HB rather than the powerful woman in her 60s, which is the way we usually see her.

Smyth trained in Leipzig and most of her musical connections were in German-speaking countries so that until the First World War her musical career mostly took place in Europe. James finds the German elements in her music fascinating, and comments that some people stylistically consider her German. But he can still hear elements of English composers in her music too (like different notes in the bouquet of a glass of wine), such as RVW in her use of augmented chords, and her writing for grand chorus and orchestra is reminiscent of English music. But we can spin it how we wish, because the forces that she writes for are similar to those of Brahms' Requiem, and in her orchestration there is a flavour of Wagner.

James sees any performance of a work as a dialogue with the composer, and with someone like Smyth, who is not regarded as a 'major composer', it is fatally easy for a conductor to impose themselves on a work, and James was determined no to impose himself. But it is quite an intense thing, to interpret a work for the first time without any clear sense of a performing tradition, despite it being premiered nearly 90 years ago. In making the recording, James felt that he was responsible for making The Prison work on its own terms, rather than imposing his version of it. He found that every time he took Smyth at her word in the music, it worked.

James is both a composer and a conductor, currently serving as music director of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra in Pensylvania, and the New York-based Experiential Orchestra. Until ten years ago, he was mainly devoted to composing but he then discovered the joy of conducting, first his own music and then the music of others. Now the majority his time is spent conducting, and he restricts his composing to smaller works that he knows he can finish and thus have a future. It is some years since he has written anything lasting longer than 20 minutes.

James' Experiential Orchestra grew out of another ensemble which he had founded to perform his own music, and out of the New York City Summer Mahler Project where they would perform Mahler symphonies and the money raised went to an El Sistema-like programme in New Orleans. The orchestra's name, Experiential Orchestra, reflects the way the new ensemble was focused on giving people new ways of experiencing sound. They would embed audience members in the orchestra, or surround them with musicians, and in 2015, they put on a Rite of Spring Dance Party, where an 84-piece orchestra played Stravinsky's ballet, and people could dance to it. The orchestra reflects James' personal fascination with sound, and he feels that if we can imagine it then we can do it.

James Blachly (Photo Antonia Nelson)
James Blachly (Photo Antonia Nelson)
The recording of Smyth's The Prison will be James and Experiential Orchestra's first commercial CD, and he admits that the Smyth is some distance from one of their typical projects. But what both have in common is a reliance on the extraordinary quality of freelance musicians in New York, and James feels that the only other city which can compare in this regard is London. The orchestra's typical projects, and the Smyth, rely in the ability of the musicians to take music on board quickly, they got to know the Smyth in a remarkably short time.

Since lockdown, James has been doing some composing though he is aware that post-lockdown, concerts will be different, smaller scale and live streamed. But because of the bewildering changes happening, he has planned the upcoming season five times already, an exhausting process and one that is likely to continue.

Ethel Smyth: The Prison - Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, James Blachly - CHANDOS CHAN5279 [63:50]
The release of the new recording of The Prison takes place on 7 August 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States.

Ethel Smyth: The Prison - Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, James Blachly - CHANDOS CHAN5279 [63:50]

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  • 'Home

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