Experiential Orchestra to Make Premiere Recording of Dame Ethel Smyth's THE PRISON
Experiential Orchestra announces plans to create the world-premiere commercial recording of British composer Dame Ethel Smyth's final composition The Prison. The orchestra hopes that creating a top-quality recording of this recently rediscovered composition dating from the very end of her career will increase Smyth's standing as a composer world-wide.
Prominent Smyth scholars Liz Wood and Amy Zigler will contribute the liner notes. The orchestra will be the Experiential Orchestra, comprised of top-level New York freelancers (EXO players are drawn from Decoda and other top ensembles, with several players also serving as substitute players with the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Orchestra, and others), and soloists will be Sarah Brailey and Grammy-Award winning baritone Dashon Burton. The chorus will be the Clarion Choir, directed by Steven Fox; Production will be by Soundmirror and Blanton Alspaugh.
While gathering a group of "assistant producers," major donors over $10,000, the orchestra has also launched a Kickstarter campaign to encourage a broad range of support, and to help publicize the project. In addition to private donors, Liane Curtis and Women's Philharmonic Advocacy have provided multiple grants to the recording project, and have championed Smyth's work through numerous projects.
The campaign has already been selected as a "Project we love" at Kickstarter, and was the featured Music project on Monday October 8.
In order to spread the word about the recording and to tell the remarkable story of Dame Ethel Smyth more broadly, EXO has teamed up with The Outrage, a DC-based organization that has created merchandise for the Women's March, March for our lives, and other causes.
"Now is her time," music director James Blachly says about this three-year-long project. "We believe that the world is finally ready to celebrate this phenomenal composer on her own terms - as a great and accomplished composer, not only because of her role as a suffragette."
There is a particular interest in heroines of the past, women who accomplished much more than they are given credit for. (The New York Times "Overlooked" obituary series is an example of this.) Between the #MeToo movement and a record number of women running for - and winning - public office in the midterm elections, gender equality and gender discrimination have rarely been so prominent in public discussion, perhaps not since the suffrage movement following the First World War.
Indeed, Smyth wrote about the discrimination she faced as a female composer throughout her 50+ year career, with critics saying her music was "too feminine," or "too masculine," or "pretty good - for a woman." Brahms reportedly approved of her music, but did not at first believe it had been written by a woman.
Gender inequality is pervasive across all fields, but in composition, the numbers have been especially grim: according to Rob Deemer's Women Composer Database, currently 2% of the music performed in concert halls is by women. And that's more than it used to be.
Orchestral institutions across the country are finally beginning to make progress on this troubling disparity in various ways, and are emphasizing women in their programming more than ever before, with the New York Philharmonic highlighting a commission from Ashley Fure; The American Composers Orchestra is calling their opening concert "Phenomenal Women," two of the last three Pulitzer Prize winners have been women, and much more.
But even as contemporary women are being afforded more opportunities than in the past, it is important to have historical figures to turn to for inspiration. Smyth is a rare example of a woman composer who seemed able to overcome nearly all the adversity she faced to rise to true international prominence.
Many people have chosen to support the project because of Smyth's role as a barrier-breaking female composer, decades ahead of her time, and others because they are inspired personally by the additional difficulties she faced and overcame as a lesbian. Other donors find her leadership and willingness to go to jail for women's suffrage most compelling.
EXO music director James Blachly notes that he first fell for the music itself, and then got to know her historical significance. He recounts that "the first time I conducted excerpts the piece in rehearsal, in 2016, I felt goosebumps go up and down my body. This was the first time that anyone in this country had heard the piece with orchestra, and it was like a genie coming out of a bottle, this incredible piece finally coming to life again." He adds "her music is not only unique, it is masterful."
After performing excerpts of the work with the The Dream Unfinished orchestra in 2016, Mr. Blachly commissioned three composers to engrave the work from manuscript, and sent these parts to G. Schirmer, Inc./Novello & Co., becoming the official editor of their current performance edition. "Once they hear the recording, we want orchestras around the world to be able to perform this piece, and creating performance-ready parts was crucial to that," Blachly says.
As noted recently by Alex Ross in the New Yorker, Dame Ethel Smyth was the first woman to have an opera performed at the Met, (the second woman to be produced wasn't until 2016, when Kaaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin was given). Bruno Walter conducted The Wreckers at Covent Garden in 1910, and Sir Thomas Beecham conducted a retrospective of her works at Royal Albert Hall in 1934. Donald Tovey was also a champion of her music, and Hermann Levi advocated for her music for decades.
With this recording and edition, Blachly joins two prominent conductors who have championed Smyth in recent years: Leon Botstein, who presented her opera The Wreckers at Bard in 2015, and Mark Shapiro, who has been a long-time champion of her music. In April and May 2018, Mr. Blachly and Mr. Shapiro joined forces to combine their two performances of The Prison, scheduled independently, in what they called a "Co-Premiere."
Despite her success during her own lifetime, her music is rarely performed now, and her music is seldom taught in conservatories. The intention of this recording is to create a compelling case for this final composition, and to bring Dame Ethel Smyth to greater prominence.