Stravinsky, dinosaurs optional Part II: The unusual suspects

The author and a friend. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. Wonderful composers. Whose music, as I mentioned last month, retains its luster but after dozens of performances of the same works, tends to … not bore, necessarily. But to lose the excitement of the new. There are only so many ways to play Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue,” Beethoven’s ninth symphony (interminable TV commercial excerpts notwithstanding), or Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Yet that’s what most orchestras do, then wonder why attendance falls off and interest in classical music wanes.

I don’t care how much you love “Star Wars.” You don’t want to just see “Star Wars” every time you go to the movie theater. Ah, you say, but I’d go to see something like “Star Wars.” So, isn’t there something like Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky?

There’s plenty, and much more besides, but modern orchestras just won’t program it.

Love Tchaikovsky? When was the last time you saw Sergei Bortkiewicz’s first or second symphony on an orchestral program? Like, never?

There is so much wonderful music by so many fabulously talented composers that never, and I mean never, gets played. Here’s a sample program of American classical music that I’d drive a long ways to hear but that you’ll never see on a domestic symphony orchestra program. Because, no Copland.

Rocky Point Holiday” (yes, that Rocky Point) by Ron Nelson. “The Fiddle Concerto,” by Mark O’Connor. “A Night in the Tropics,” by Louis Gottshalk, and lastly Symphony No. 2 by Meredith Wilson (yes, the same Meredith Wilson who wrote “The Music Man”). Alternative: “Symphony in D,” by John Vincent. If you don’t leave this hypothetical concert feeling good, you shouldn’t be listening to music, period.

We can’t even hear good ol’ Howard Hanson these days. Why won’t the Phoenix symphony do Alan Hovhaness’s “Mt. St. Helen’s” symphony, never mind delightful early American composers like Strong and McDowell. Orchestras do Christmas concerts all the time. Instead of the 4,863rd set of excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah,” how about essaying Vaughne-Williams’s wonderful “Job” or Fry’s “Santa Claus Symphony”?

If I was a trumpeter in a symphony orchestra, I’d be both terrified and exhilarated at the prospect of performing in a rendition of Bantock’s “Hebredian Symphony.” What about celebrating the music of Iberia without yet again programming … well, Albeniz’s “Iberia?” Instead of yet more de Falla, how about we hear Braga-Santo’s third or fourth symphonies, or Guridi’s “Symphonia Pirenaica”?

Like film music? How about this for a lineup? “Theme, Variations & Finale”, by Miklos Rosza; “Violin Concerto” by Erich Korngold; “Variations on a Waltz,” by Jerome Moross; and “Moby Dick,” by Bernard Herrman. All composers much better known for their film scores.

A fan of the comic book/movie “Thor”? You should hear Geirr Tveitt’s “Prillar” or “Baldur’s Dreams.”

There’s just so much great, listenable music that never gets performed. I expect to die before I have a chance to hear Tournemeire’s sixth symphony, “L’an Mil” by Vierne, or any of the great romantic French works for orchestra and chorus. Forget about ever hearing Bantock’s huge setting of “Omar Khayyam.” But, orchestral programmer’s say, these pieces are expensive to mount, and who would pay to hear them?

There follows a tale.

Havergal Brian, circa 1900. Public domain.

Havergal Brian. There’s a great composer you never heard of because he never gets played. At least, not in this country and certainly not by major orchestras. The word “iconoclast” was invented for Brian. An honorable definition for a true artist. Brian was British, self-taught, lived to be 96, wrote five operas, thirty-two symphonies (a bunch of them after he turned 80 (!)), and much else besides. Concertos. Orchestral suites. Songs. It took him eight years to finish his first symphony, “The Gothic,” which requires two double choruses, a children’s chorus, four soloists, over 200 musicians in the main orchestra, an organ, and three separate, isolated brass groups. It had only been performed a handful of times, usually with reduced forces, until the BBC decided to open its 2011 Proms season with the first fully staffed compliment of performers. Expensive to mount? You bet. No one would come to hear it?

Tickets sold out in less than 24 hours.

I flew to London to hear the performance … the only time I’ve ever done anything remotely like that. It turned out to be the greatest concert-going experience of my life. For the curious, there’s an award-winning CD of the live performance and plenty of relevant material on line. Also my own partial video excerpt of the rehearsal, viewable on Vimeo. Sadly, no video was made of the actual performance itself.

I use this as an example of music that’s rarely played but when it is, often draws a bigger response than the familiar Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. Maybe if performances of wonderful music by composers like Buttner, Tanayev, Klami, Steinberg, and others were more frequent, classical music performances might sell out more often. Maybe if instead of the Nutcracker suite we heard some excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Vakula the Smith,” those who love Tchaikovsky might come out for a concert they would otherwise have skipped.

Maybe then I wouldn’t have had to inform a wide-eyed concert goer at a live performance many years ago by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, that no, they didn’t write “Pictures at an Exhibition,” but that it was actually composed by some Russian chap named Mussorgsky, and maybe she should go see “Fantasia.”


Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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