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.

Photo credit Discovering Leeds. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Email received:

Is there a decent discography of Maurice Miles?

Anybody who specializes in Butterworth is special in and of themselves.Here is an English composer, who, had he lived, would have eclipsed them all.


David Cavlovic

There are two Butterworths David.

There is George Butterworth who died in the First World War -

And the little known Arthur Butterworth (no relation) who is still alive, and whose music Maurice Miles performed -

Confusing isn't it?
Drew80 said…
OK, Pliable, I must ask: were the Chicago Symphony concerts in London truly that bad?

Of course, I did not hear them. I DID read the London reviews, which I would term "mixed".

The CSO received excellent notices on the continent immediately prior to the London appearances.

At the conclusion of the recent tour, the members of the CSO were practically prepared to lie down and die for Riccardo Muti, so impressed were they with him.

So, again, I ask: were the London concerts truly that bad?

Myself, I would much prefer that the CSO continue to court Chailly, whom I much prefer over Muti.

However, Muti is hardly the worst conductor in the world.

I am simply curious, as you no doubt can tell.

Pliable said…
Andrew, I didn't say Muti's performances were that bad. But I did say that they lacked the beauty of that VW5 from Ulster.

The CSO under Muti are a very slick band. But I'm afraid slick bands don't do it for me anymore.

Anthony Holden summed it up in the Observer - Even from such fine players under this suavest of maestros, the performance was immaculate rather than overwhelming and diminished by this absurd programming.,,2190660,00.html
Drew80 said…
I thank you, Pliable.

Yes, Muti is often "slick".

My personal problem with Muti is that he is unable to develop and maintain a beautiful orchestral sound, which makes him a poor candidate to be permanent conductor of an orchestra with special sound qualities.

The sound picture Muti carries in his head is not apt, I believe, for much of the orchestral repertory. Muti seeks brilliance above all else--and, often, he obtains it, at the expense of other qualities.

I thank you again for your response.

Pliable said…
I guess this post has proved its point.

We are back discussing star system conductors and orchestras.
EricS said…
A performance under the same forces as the premiere, of Holmboe's 7th; possibly the premiere, but from the same year at least - was broadcast over Swedish Radio P2 a few years ago. I was able to hear it; in my opinion a wonderful performance (not very well-preserved, but - very glad I did. Much better projected and held-together than Hughes - but Hughes' was from the beginning of a cycle that I think does get better later on, too.)

Anonymous said…
I know it is a long time since this post appeared - I have only just discovered it when checking the exact date on the internet of when my father died. It was lovely to read what you said about him (Maurice Miles).
EricS said…
He was also the dedicatee of Myaskovsky's 9th symphony, a fine work I think.
Personal opinion of course, but I do regret the relative neglect of the Myaskovsky 5th and Holmboe 7th (and 9th) symphonies, among the best of their symphonic output possibly. The Holmboe 2nd I have heard only a few times and while I seem to recall it began to make the composer's reputation- it may have helped that Egisto Tango conducted, a substantial conductor though also now mainly forgotten- I can see it being forgettable compared to much else.

Cello concertos- do you think well of that of EJ Moeran, or the cello and orchestra soliloquy of Edmund Rubbra?

Unknown said…
I was a pupil of Maurice in the 70's, in some august company. I attended a year of evening classes at Chiswick before being invitedon the RAM course. I do remember his slightly wicked sense of humour, and his rather non-PC attitude to "delightful young ladies" though always the model of rectitude. I was given to believe he studied with Richard Strauss, and his lessons in technique certainly relflect that, not least his quoting Strauss's dictum - "The left thumb must never leave the waistcoat pocket", and "never smile encouragingly at the brass!" Certainly it is a pleasant surprise to see his name come up, and, yes he has been overlooked. Some of the exercises and techniques we were taught have stood the test of time, often still visible in other students of his to this day.

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