Conductor James Blachly's journey to resurrect Dame Ethel Smyth’s 1930 masterwork The Prison
Experiential Orchestra's world premiere recording of Dame Ethel Smyth's The Prison is set for release on August 7th on Chandos Records. Conductor James Blachly wrote about his experience with Smyth's music and how this project came about.
I first encountered Smyth in 2015, when Bard presented The Wreckers. I was fascinated and intrigued. But I didn't conduct her music until the next year, when Eun Lee and I were brainstorming with John McLaughlin Williams about what to present for TDU's Sing her Name concert in July 2016. After exploring many of her compositions, we chose to present selections from Smyth's 1930 masterwork The Prison.
Because the parts and score were only available in handwritten manuscript, we engaged Eric Lemmon to create a professional engraving of a few sections of the piece, and I set out to prepare for the first rehearsal. By the time we had our first rehearsal, I knew her incredible life story, and had read the philosophical work by Brewster. And I had studied the score extensively.
But nothing prepared me for that first encounter of the sound of the piece with orchestra, which was a full-body, physical experience.
I'll never forget how it felt when the first sonority that opens The Prison filled the room. It was like a genie being let out of a bottle. Rehearsing in the DiMenna Center before our Cooper Union performance, that rich, dark unison C natural sent shivers up and down my spine, and Dashon Burton sent the opening text resonating through the room.
I realized in that moment that I was in the presence of a masterpiece – that I was privileged to be conducting the very first performance of Smyth's final large-scale composition in its full orchestra version – and that I was also in the hands of a truly masterful composer at the height of her powers. This wasn't a composition that merely merited our curiosity. It was, and is, an exceptional piece of music by a great composer at the end of a remarkable career, in full command of the orchestra and all forces, creating a piece that both summarizes her career and breaks new ground.
I was hooked. And I spent the next two years working with Alex Boostrom and then finally with composer Matthew Browne to create the critical performing edition now available for rental through Wise Music Classical. I poured over every bar of every page many times, getting to know her distinctive handwriting, cross-checking and confirming the accuracy of each note, coming to feel very close to her music in the process. The Experiential Orchestra board and myself then spent several more years to gather the funds to put on this recording, watching all the while as dozens and then hundreds of people became committed to this project and to Smyth, and as the musicians fell in love with her music.
Sarah Brailey took to her role immediately, and she has shared how the project has resonated for her. Dashon has been with me on this journey from the very beginning, singing not only that first performance of excerpts and this recording, but also the US premiere I conducted with the Johnstown Symphony in April 2018. And so many others have been floored by this piece whenever they encounter it for the first time.
No matter when we hear Smyth for the first time, the question we all seem to be left with is "why did I not know about her earlier?"
Many would say, it has not been for lack of trying. There have been several other significant recordings and performances of Smyth in the past decade or so, including a recording of her Mass in D, also on the Chandos label, conducted by Sakari Oramo. Odaline de la Martinez has recorded and performed many of her works, both with BBC Orchestras and with her own Retrospect Opera, and is perhaps the most consistent advocate for several decades. Leon Botstein gave the afore-mentioned fully-staged performance of The Wreckers in 2015, among other works. And Mark Shapiro, after giving the US Premiere of her Mass in D, gave the US premiere of The Prison in piano version with Cantori NY, and collaborated with me on two occasions, when Cantori NY joined with TDU and Downtown Voices to sing excerpts in 2016, shortly after their own US premiere with piano; and again in 2018 when Cecilia Chorus of New York joined with the Johnstown Symphony to create a “co-premiere” out of our two performances.
So we can point to a handful of contemporary conductors who have advocated for her work, but it is truly only a handful thus far. And I had heard how she was admired by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Grieg, Dvorak, and so many other composers that we know so well.
What I only realized after some further research was how many of the most prominent conductors of her day performed her music. Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Adrian Boult, Bruno Walter, Charles W. Mann in performances and premieres at the Crystal Palace, Joseph Barnby, and many more.
What I gradually came to understand is that with this four-year project, I have found myself in the very good company of conductors who have fallen for her music and who believe in its power and importance for audiences, both in her lifetime, and in our own.
I can't wait for the world at large to finally hear this amazing piece, which I consider her career-culminating masterpiece, and I am eager for this work to be heard throughout the world's concert halls, taking its rightful place as one of the most powerful and important works in the repertoire.
Experiential Orchestra's world premiere recording of Dame Ethel Smyth's The Prison is set for release on Chandos Records on August 7. The recording is conducted by James Blachly with his Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, featuring soprano Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton as soloists.