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The Prison

The first recording of Ethel Smyth's 1930 work
'The Prison' is to be released on Chandos Records


Chandos Records will release the first recording of English composer Dame Ethel Smyth's 1930 masterwork The Prison on 7 August 2020. The recording is conducted by James Blachly with his Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, featuring soprano Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton as soloists. Appropriately given Smyth's role in the Suffragette movement in England, the August release date coincides with the one hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States. The recording, by Grammy-Award winning producers Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror, took place in February 2019. The album is recorded in Surround Sound and available as a Hybrid CD.

The Prison is a sixty-four-minute symphony in two parts, 'Close on Freedom' and 'The Deliverance'. Sometimes called an oratorio or a cantata, it is similar in scale and scope to the vocal symphonies of Mahler. On the title page, Smyth quotes the last words of Greek philosopher Plotinus: 'I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and merge it in the universally divine'. The text for the work, drawn from a philosophical work by Henry Bennet Brewster, describes the writing of a man in a solitary cell and his reflections on his past life and his preparations for death. But the text is poetic and reflective, with layers of meaning and metaphor. Thus the 'prison' is both an actual jail, and a philosophical representation of the 'shackles of self', as Brewster describes them. This was Smyth's last work and her only symphony - she was seventy-two when she completed it in 1930. She stopped composing shortly after, due to advancing deafness.

From top left, clockwise: Ethel Symth's 'The Prison' on Chandos; soprano Sarah Brailey, conductor James Blachly and bass-baritone Dashon Burton
From top left, clockwise: Ethel Symth's 'The Prison' on Chandos; soprano Sarah Brailey, conductor James Blachly and bass-baritone Dashon Burton

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) struggled her entire career to have her music judged on its merits, rather than on the basis of her gender. She left home at age seventeen (against the wishes of her military father) in order to compose music in Leipzig. In the company of Clara Schumann and her teacher Heinrich von Herzogenberg, she met and won the admiration of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvořák and Grieg. She became the first woman to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1903. (The second was not until Kaaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin in 2016.)

Conductor James Blachly's work on The Prison began in 2016 when he conducted excerpts of the piece. He is the editor for the new critical Schirmer/MusicSales edition of The Prison that not only made this recording possible, but paves the way for a resurrection of the work. Blachly says: 'There are so many reasons to be inspired by Ethel Smyth - the way she lived, all of her 'firsts' as a woman composer, the way she held strong against the powerful pressures of society that would not accept her work, her strength of identity and her openness of her sexuality, her political activism and more. But for me, it was the experience of conducting this piece for the first time that led me to understand - in a flash at the downbeat of the first rehearsal - that I was conducting the work of a true master, and that I was in the process of encountering a nearly completely neglected masterpiece. The moment I heard that first note in the rehearsal hall, I got shivers up and down my spine, and my life has not been the same since.'

Soprano Sarah Brailey, who has been hailed by The New York Times for her 'radiant, liquid tone', 'exquisitely phrased' and 'sweetly dazzling singing' sings the role of 'The Soul' on this recording. She says, 'Smyth is an inspiration as a composer, an activist and a woman. It has been such an honor to help bring this incredible piece to the world. I hope listeners enjoy discovering it as much as we have.' Brailey enjoys a career filled with projects as diverse as soloing in Handel's Messiah with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, performing with Kanye West and Roomful of Teeth at the Hollywood Bowl, and recording cello and vocal soundscapes for the 2018 Fog x FLO Fujiko Nakaya public art installation in Boston's Emerald Necklace park system.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who sings the role of 'The Prisoner', says, 'This piece is an immortal dedication to those who fight for freedom. Working with James, Sarah and all the amazing musicians on this album has been a dream and I hope it awakens all our spirits as much as it has awakened mine'. Burton is a frequent guest with the major orchestras of the United States, Europe and Japan. He sings recitals throughout the USA, including a program based on works from his album Songs and Struggles of Redemption; We Shall Overcome, singled out by The New York Times as 'profoundly moving ... a beautiful and lovable disc'. He is an original member of the Grammy-winning groundbreaking vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

Ralph Couzens, Managing Director Chandos Records, says: 'Championing the works of lesser known or neglected British composers and bringing their music to a wider public is an intrinsic part of the ethos of Chandos Records. We are delighted to be releasing this extraordinary recording, and very grateful to James Blachly and his team for resurrecting such a significant score with such a convincing and idiomatic performance.'

The Prison is at once a unique expression for Smyth, and also a summary of her previous compositional life, including a Leipzig-inspired organ prelude that opens the second half of the piece, dedicated to Brewster in 1884 and now beautifully orchestrated. The instrumentation and use of two soloists would seem to be a nod to the Brahms Requiem, and given her devotion to Brahms' music (which Tchaikovsky chided her for in letters to her), this would resonate as a motivation for her final large-scale composition. But the music itself reveals other influences, including a dark Wagnerian orchestration palette, soaring Straussian melodies over rich harmonies in the orchestra, and references to her composition teacher von Herzogenberg's fugue on a birdsong.

Ultimately, however, such references fail to capture the nature of the music. Featured in the second half of the work is a melody called the 'Seikolos fragment', which had been re-discovered in 1922, and was considered the oldest surviving complete melody. What is clear in exploring the symphony is that it is the work of a master composer at the end of her life. Written in 1930 and premiered in 1931 as she increasingly lost her hearing, it also reveals a new, deeply personal musical language.

Smyth faced significant discrimination as a female composer throughout her fifty-plus-year career, with critics saying her music was 'too feminine' or 'too masculine' or 'a remarkable achievement - for a woman'. Brahms reportedly approved of her music, but did not at first believe it had been written by a woman. Her support was strongest from prominent conductor-advocates. Bruno Walter conducted The Wreckers at Covent Garden in 1910 and Thomas Beecham conducted a retrospective of her works at the Royal Albert Hall in 1934. Donald Tovey was also a champion of her music, and Hermann Levi advocated for her music for decades. Smyth later became central to the Suffragette movement in England, writing the March of the Women. Her gender politics and sexuality were cause for attacks by critics, and she even went to prison for throwing a stone through an MP's window.

James Blachly is a conductor dedicated to artistic excellence and broader accessibility. He currently serves as Music Director of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra (PA) and Music Director of New York City-based Experiential Orchestra. Dedicated to finding new ways of empowering audiences, he is also in demand as a speaker on Listening as Leadership, bringing his expertise as a conductor and passion for music to Fortune 500 companies, schools and other organizations.

Blachly's innovative programming aims to increase audience engagement and empower audiences. With the Johnstown Symphony, he conducted the orchestra in a former steel mill in a concert that was featured on Katie Couric's America Inside Out, and in three seasons the orchestras has increased season ticket sales by 43%; with the Experiential Orchestra, he has invited audiences to dance to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, sit within the orchestra at Lincoln Center, and engage with Symphonie fantastique and Petrushka with circus choreography in an ongoing collaboration with The Muse in Brooklyn. A strong supporter of composers of our time, Blachly has commissioned and premiered more than fifty works from composers such as Jessie Montgomery, Courtney Bryan, Kirsten Vollness, Viet Cuong, Michi Wiancko, Kate Copeland Ettinger, Patrick Castillo, Brad and Doug Balliett and many others. In recent seasons, he has collaborated with soloists Julia Bullock, Andrés Cárdenes, Michael Chioldi, Karen Kim, Andrew Yee, Owen Dalby, Janna Baty, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and more. He was the only conductor from the USA invited to participate in the First Annual Young Conductor's Showcase as a part of El Sistema's Fortieth Anniversary celebration, and is the co-founder of Make Music NOLA, an El Sistema-inspired program in New Orleans now in its ninth year.

Founded by James Blachly, the New York City-based Experiential Orchestra and Chorus (EXO) takes as its mission to create new experiences of sound. In addition to giving its signature concerts at Lincoln Center, it prepares innovative programs which have invited audiences to dance to Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps and Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, welcomed them to sit and lie down inside the orchestra itself, surrounded them with thirty-six oboes and bassoons in performances of music by Lully and Rameau, and performed Symphonie fantastique and Pétrouchka with original circus choreography by The Muse in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Both the orchestra and chorus are made up of top freelancers, many of whom are soloists in their own right, or are drawn from prestigious chamber ensembles. Through venue-specific programming, commissions and collaborations, EXO is re-imagining ways to inspire audience members to fall more deeply in love with the sound of a symphony orchestra and chorus.

Posted 12 June 2020 by Christina Jensen






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