Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Permission denied in Boston


'The Boston Symphony Orchestra has signed a five-year recording contract with the German label Deutsche Grammophon... under the terms of the deal, the BSO and its music director Andris Nelsons will record five albums of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 5 through 10... the recording contract was announced in conjunction with the orchestra's 2015-16 season... plans include... a strong emphasis on Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Bruckner and other late Romantics' - source WQXR.
It seems Andris Nelsons and his Boston colleagues have forgotten that audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music. Khachaturian, Kabalevsky and Myaskovsky have been suggested elsewhere as alternatives to the ubiquitous Shostakovich and Mahler symphonies. But a composer with stronger American connections might go down better, so I suggest Richard Arnell. Born in London in 1917, Arnell followed Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Sir Arthur Bliss to the States in the late 1930s, and, like Bliss, found himself marooned on the wrong side of the Atlantic when war was declared. He settled in New York for the duration, and became a member of the Greenwich Village circle that included Virgil Thomson and Mark Rothko. Among the works that Arnell composed in New York before he returned to England in 1947 were his first three symphonies (plus much of his Fourth) and a film score for the US Departure of Agriculture documentary The Land. Paths auspiciously converge here as the suite from The Land was given its premiered by African American conductor Dean Dixon and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942.

Among others who championed Arnell's music in America were Léon Barzin, who gave the first performance of the Fourth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in 1948, Leopold Stokowski, who gave the premiere of the Black Mountain Prelude with the New York Philharmonic in 1949, and Bernard Hermann. In the UK Arnell's advocates included Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Thomas Beecham. Despite advocacy by these musical luminaries, concert performances of Arnell's symphonies are today as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth, and none of his symphonies have been played at the BBC Proms. But we are very fortunate to have a magnificently played and recorded cycle of the symphonies by Martin Yates - a stalwart permission granter - and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on the independent Dutton label. Richard Arnell's monumental wartime Third Symphony is an ideal candidate for a Boston performance: it is late-Romantic in tone, Mahlerian in scope and duration and has a fifteen minute long slow movement that Visconti would have adored, while hints of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, David Diamond and William Schuman betray its Stateside genesis.

It is one of many overlooked ironies in classical music today that much of the click baiting convention challenging is being done by Max Hole, the ceo of Universal Music whose Deutsche Grammophon label dogmatically adheres to the most restrictive repertoire conventions. Unfamiliar music does not feature at all in DG's announced recording plans in Boston, yet Andris Nelsons is no stranger to the more arcane repertoire. A Boston Symphony press release reveals that in the 2015 season Nelsons will be conducting new music by Brett Dean, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Michael Gandolfi, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Harbison, and Gunther Schuller - my interview with Ēriks Ešenvalds can be heard here. The press release also reports that the orchestra's summer tour of Europe includes London, which almost certainly means an appearance at the BBC Proms. No details are given of the tour repertoire, but it is fair to assume that the keystone of the concerts will be one of the Shostakovich symphonies that is being recorded. Classical concert conventions are being challenged ad nauseam. But it is the same old conventions that are challenged - venue, dress, lighting etc. Which means that other restrictive convention that have only been established in recent years remain unchallenged. One of these conventions dictates that the music in a concert should be thematically linked - cycles of symphonies from anniversary composers, works that are linked stylistically or by composition date etc. This convention is coupled with several subsidiary conventions; these include that a concert must be built around a single monumental 'masterwork' - all too often a late-Romantic symphony - and that the works proceeding it should be subordinate in length and content. Another convention that needs questioning is that unfamiliar music and contemporary music are synonomous, while the emergence of the masterwork themed concert has brought with it the questionable convention that short concerts are the way forward.

As noted earlier, there has never been a performance of a Richard Arnell symphony at the Promenade Concerts in London. But studying the programmes for the two Proms that have included his music is enlightening. In September 1957 his Concerto for Piano was in a programme that included Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and an excerpt from his opera Mazeppa, plus an excerpt from Berlioz's Les Troyens. Two years later Arnell's ballet score Harlequin in April was programmed with excerpts from Délibes Sylvia, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Walton's Façade, and Franck's Symphonic Variations and Ravel's Boléro. (It is worth noting that both these concerts had two conductors, an arrangement that would give today's greedy agents apoplexy). These programmes contrast strongly with today's standard format of a five minute contemporary work, concerto and late-Romantic symphony. Music education must take place in the concert hall as well as the classroom, and those diverse concert programmes of the past opened the ears of concert goers to unfamiliar music. Remember that classical music's biggest opportunity is its current audience.

So why not a convention challenging and permission giving Boston programme of Arnell's Third Symphony in the first half and Shostakovich's wartime Seventh in the second? There are no claims that Arnell's Third Symphony is an overlooked masterwork that should take its place alongside the symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovish. But there is a very strong case for the Boston Symphony Orchestra giving it an airing in place of yet another Shostakovich Fifth or Mahler First. Listen to the complete symphony here.

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