Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Remembering a forgotten maestro
Last Friday's BBC Radio 3 broadcast of Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony, played by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by John Lubbock, contained more beauty in one bar than was to be found in the whole of Riccardo Muti's recent London concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Why do we focus so much on a few 'star' conductors and orchestras? And why do we consign to oblivion the forgotten maestros and musicians who work away from the limelight, and who contribute so much?
The Ulster Orchestra was created as a full time professional orchestra in 1966, and its first principal conductor Maurice Miles (above) is one of those forgotten maestros. He was born in 1908, and was principal conductor of the Yorkshire Symphony from 1947 until 1954. The orchestra played many twentieth century works, including more than thirty by British composers in his first season alone. His repertoire was eclectic, and he gave a rare performance of Arthur Honegger's oratorio King David at the 1950 Leeds Triennial Musical Festival.
But the star system was setting the musical agenda more than fifty years ago, just as it does today. In 1954 Maurice Miles was replaced as conductor in Leeds 1954 by the mucher higher profile Russian Nikolai Malko, who had given the first performances of Shostakovich's First and Second Symphonies.
Maurice Miles' specialities were never likely to become fashionable. Arnold Bax, and Arthur Butterworth were among the composers he championed. He gave the first performance of Gerald Finzi's beautiful Dies Natalis in the Wigmore Hall in 1940, and conducted Geoffrey Bush's Symphony No. 1 at the Proms in 1958. As well as his work in Northern Ireland Maurice Miles was a frequent conductor of the BBC Welsh and Scottish Symphony Orchestras. He spent decades advocating unfashionable composers with unglamorous orchestras, before, finally, turning to teaching conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
In the early 1980s my wife and I bought our first house outside Dorking, in the shadow of Ralph Vaughan Williams' beloved Leith Hill, and we were living there when our first child was born. The house was modest but nice, and it was on the kind of housing development that young people with families lived on. But a charming old gentleman moved into the house opposite, and lived there on his own. He travelled on the train to London several times a week, and kept himself to himself much of the time. But my brief conversations with him told me that he knew a lot more about my musical heroes than I ever would.
Our son was young, and we were preoccupied with those transient things that preoccupy young parents. To my eternal regret I did not spend more time with our neighbour Maurice Miles before he died in 1985, aged 77. Today he is just one of many forgotten maestros. But the wonderful music that the Ulster Orchestra continues to make means I will not forget him.
* This Sunday (Oct 28) I will play Gerald Finzi's forgotten Cello Concerto from 1955 on my Future Radio programme at 5.00pm UK time, together with another forgotten cello concerto from an earlier time by Leonardo Leo.
* He may have hit the spot with Shostakovich, but not all of Nikolai Malko's repertoire became fashionable. He also conducted the first performances of Nikolai Myaskovsky's Symphony No. 5 and Vagn Holmboe's Symphony No. 7 - where are they now? In fact Owain Arwel Hughes, of all people, recorded a cycle of the Vagn Holmboe symphonies for BIS some fifteen years ago, and I have the Symphony No. 2 playing as I write. It was what my late, and lamented, EMI colleague Douglas Pudney would probably have described as 'a justly neglected masterpiece'.
* But do listen to the Finzi Cello Concerto via the audio stream here on Sunday Oct 28 at 5.00pm UK time. Convert Overgrown Path radio on-air times to your local time zone using this link. Windows Media Player doesn't like the audio stream very much and takes ages to buffer. WinAmp or iTunes handle it best. Unfortunately the royalty license doesn't permit on-demand replay, so you have to listen in real time. If you are in the Norwich, UK area tune to 96.9FM.
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