On performing the US Premiere of Dame Ethel Smyth's The Prison

For the past two years, I have been absorbed and fascinated and devoted to a single piece of music (while conducting a full schedule of diverse repertoire): Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Prison, a symphony for soloists, chorus, and large orchestra.

And on April 7, I have the privilege of conducting the first performance with orchestra in the United States. It is one of the most powerful experiences of my conducting career to bring this piece to life, and it has been an almost other-worldly act of devotion to a piece of music that I only encountered by chance. I write about the piece in depth elsewhere, but here I want to recount the 2-year journey that brought me to this place.

In just a few short weeks, I’ll have the great pleasure of working with the amazing Marlissa Hudson and Dashon Burton, the JSO Chorus and Orchestra, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Chorale, and the Cecilia Chorus of New York (about whom more later!)

Smyth is famous as much for her activism in the suffrage movement as for her music, and to describe the injustice she experienced as a trailblazing woman composer in the 19th century (reviews describing her music as "pretty good – for a woman" among many other such slights) would require a book. But what first drew me in was not just her story, but her music.  

I first was made aware of the piece in 2016, when TDU and Eun Lee asked me to select short excerpts for a performance that featured a premiere by Courtney Bryan (with the inestimable Helga Davis as soloist – Holy S**T that was powerful), and I found myself thrust into a dense, 207-page handwritten manuscript that had recently been published in Germany. Our colleague Eric Lemmon engraved the passages, and I conducted from the manuscript.

At our first rehearsal, I had a truly out of body experience. As the first sonority emerged in Cary Hall, with low strings, timpani, bass clarinet and low harp on a unison C natural and Dashon began to sing “I awoke in the middle of the night and heard the sighing of the wind…” I got chills not only up and down my spine, but throughout my body. I could almost feel the music itself jump out of the page and swirl around the room-finally free.

Ever since that moment, I found myself almost insanely devoted to the piece, and putting countless hours and time into the preparation of a professional modern engraving, with the great work of Eric Lemmon, Alex Boostrom, all coordinated by the brilliant Matthew Browne, who created the master score with my editorial oversight.

***

I have to admit that before that moment in our first rehearsal, I was skeptical. I had hardly heard of Smyth-only a handful of times had I heard of performances of her work, and I thought (before getting to know her music) that if I hadn’t heard of her and her music hadn’t been taught in conservatory and was hardly ever performed, then the Darwinian nature of music must have proven that her music wasn’t worth hearing.

How wrong I was!

Yes, I was intrigued and fascinated by the music as I studied those excerpts. But I couldn’t believe that the entire symphony was as gorgeous as I have since learned it to be, and that no one had heard it with orchestra before. What a privilege! What a responsibility, to be the first to share this piece with the world in this form.

I should mention here that my great colleague Mark Shapiro had given the US premiere of the piece with piano earlier that year, and that members of that chorus were joining us for our excerpts. Mark had also performed the premiere of Smyth’s Mass in D and was something of a Smyth expert, and I consulted with him before our performance in 2016. Having done the piano premiere, I assumed he was finished with it, and felt it was up to me to bring it to the world with orchestra. 

Fearing that the piece would once again slip away without further performances, I realized that it’s up to conductors – including Mark and me – to advocate for her music, and to bring it to wider recognition. Other conductors, including Leon Botsein, have also performed and championed her work, but she has yet to gain wider recognition.)

All the work I've put in to bring this performance to life has been a true labor of love, and I have at times resisted the many demands, only to hear the music swirl through my head, getting me out of bed and back to the editing table and to emails, to uncountable visits and meetings raising money for a recording, reading her memoirs, reading the original text of the piece by her remarkable soulmate Henry Bennet Brewster.

As soon as I decided to perform the piece with orchestra, I realized that new, computer-engraved parts had to be created, and engaged a team to do that, and raised money for them, including through the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, an amazing organization based in Boston, and with my board at the Experiential Orchestra in New York.

I wrote to the publisher in September 2016 and began a months-long correspondence about rights and plans to perform the piece, and in exchange for my providing them with performance-ready professionally engraved parts, they agreed to give me the right to be the first to perform the piece in the US, and the first to record it as well. They were careful to say that while there are no records of previous performances in the US, we could only be reasonably certain that this would be the US Premiere. But having searched for any earlier performances, I felt confident we would be the official “Premiere.”

At first we scheduled the JSO premiere for October 2017, then changed the date for personal reasons to April 2018. We announced our season in April 2017, and I started preparing for the recording. Every few weeks, I would be in touch with the publisher, who would report that no one else had inquired after the piece.

Then in August, I learned that Mark Shapiro was actually planning a performance of his own with the Cecilia Chorus of New York, at Carnegie Hall, in May 2018. I couldn’t believe it. I was so worried that someone else might do the piece, but I never thought Mark was still interested. And it was devastating, because I respect him so much, and appreciate his great work not only advocating for lesser-known composers, but contemporary ones, including my musical partners in crime Brad and Doug Balliett. He’s such a fine conductor and scholar and teacher, and I had always admired his work. And now we were in direct conflict with each other.

What happened next was really remarkable, and something that I’ve thought about a lot. We met in October, and made plans to not be in competition, but to collaborate, and to share the US Premiere. I would be giving the first performance in the US, and he the first at Carnegie Hall, but together, our organizations would be giving the historic US “co-premiere” of the piece. By grouping it together, we hoped we would attract more attention and thus advocate more effectively for Smyth and her music.

Since then, we have exchanged hundreds of emails and our PR teams have discussed how best to roll out this story. I have posted one of our combined efforts on our website, a document I’m proud of.

As conductors, we are prone to wanting recognition, and I am not immune to that. But we also know that our best friends tend to be other conductors, who understand the remarkably complex pressures we face on the podium and off, and who know what it’s like to prepare a Mahler symphony or the Rite of Spring, to hold all that music in our heads, and to work with the business side of the industry to best advocate for this incredible art that we are dedicated to. So it seemed like the right thing to do to have Mark share in this premiere as a way of recognizing his long-term devotion to Smyth, and because I could imagine would it would feel like to be planning a premiere only to discover that someone got to it first.

While I felt confident I was making the right decision, some of my friends and advisors felt I was going too far by allowing the Cecilia Chorus to call their performance a co-premiere. “Who’s really giving the first performance?” they asked. But what Mark and I wanted to show is that there is a way to be a good colleague and still responsible to one’s orchestra or chorus; that it is possible to find a way to advocate for a piece of music, rather than just our having “discovered” a piece.

And indeed I have been made aware of the humbling reality in this field of conducting, which is that in the end, we are really just here to serve the music. As much as I want to take credit for the thousands of hours I have dedicated to this piece and to this premiere we will give so very soon, I also know that what actually matters is not our performance, but Dame Ethel Smyth’s music, which has been sitting, waiting patiently for orchestras and choruses to see it for what it is, which is a total and complete masterpiece. And long after I am gone, her music will remain. As she says about her symphony, quoting Plotinus, “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and to merge it in the universally divine.”

Here’s to this superb composer getting more of the recognition she deserves.

And here is information about the remarkable collaboration with Mark and the Cecilia Chorus of New York. They perform the piece May 11 at Carnegie-and you should all go! It’s a phenomenal group, the soloists and orchestra are great, and Mark is as good as they get. I wish I could be there myself, but will be conducting Pictures at an Exhibition that night. The life of a conductor!

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