The Sinfonia tragica in Hamilton

Paul Rapoport

The Sinfonia tragica in Hamilton - Paul Rapoport The following article was written in 1989 after a significant performance of Brian in North America, still one of very few. It appeared in NL 85, and a review of the broadcast by David Brown appeared in NL 87. I have revised this slightly without changing the perspective, and added a note at the end - PR.

In the fall of 1986 I first suggested to the Canadian conductor Boris Brott that he perform Brian’s Sinfonia tragica with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, a fully professional group of which he has now been conductor for 21 years. The intent was to have it in the 1987-88 season. I gave him both recordings (the 1966 broadcast and the record), and he was impressed. Subsequently the 1987-88 programmes were announced but there was no Brian. I tried again, but 1988-89 came along again without Brian.

I am sure that anyone who has been in this game, trying to convince conductors to do things, has suffered this same frustration and disappointment. (Rule 1 in this impossible business of musical midwifery: Hope for whatever you like, but expect less than nothing.) Most of the time you spend your own money on scores and tapes, conductors take them with a polite feigning of interest, and you hear nothing more. Professional conductors are, after all, conductors, music directors, personalities, public figures, high-profile, high-status types. They do not have time, and most do not have any desire to learn about music they do not know from people they consider unfit to shine their batons. Besides, performing something which someone else suggests might imply that these conductors do not have a grasp of the world of orchestral music. The truth hurts.

Boris Brott is a different character altogether. He can be as difficult as any of them, but he freely admits that he doesn’t know everything, and is more than willing to accept advice from quarters he trusts. For some years I have been dropping off more suggestions than he could possibly use regarding programming for a small annual concert series called ‘Music Alive,’ containing 20th-century music of a not too radical sort played by the ‘core’ Hamilton Philharmonic (c.30 players). Over the last several years he has programmed some of my suggestions, and the results have usually been good.

But I digress. Finally, for 1989-90, Brian’s Tragica stood on the programme, as the first work in the whole main series of the HPO, their flagship ‘Celebrity’ series, which uses the core players plus extras for 19th-century music and such works of the 20th century which sneak onto the series and require them. Boris hesitates before putting any 20th-century works (familiar or not) on this main series, as Hamilton is perceived as an industrial city with no strong interest in any music but the standard repertory, which stops in 1896 - 1796 for some people. This perception, true or false, rules (and ruins) programming.

Having got the score of the Tragica from United Music Publishers, I worried a great deal about the legibility of the photocopy of HB’s manuscript, and what condition the parts would be in. Both were problematic, but they did not affect the final result much. (Rule 2: Never tell a conductor he’s going to have a problem with something. Cancelling the performance then becomes all too easy. I’m not talking about Boris here.)

Publicity was a problem. The HPO couldn’t generate any about HB on its own, because nobody there knew anything about him. So I provided photocopies of various things for their publicity, the pre-concert talk, and the programme notes. The eventual publicity was alright. The pre-concert talk I will come to shortly. The programme notes were basically sensible: that was all I could expect. It did not help, however, to have HB born in 1872. (One review stated that he died in 1976: nice balancing of errors! I only wish he had lived to be 104.) Elsewhere in the programme notes we learned the startling fact that Christoph von Dohnányi was the composer Dohnányi’s son. He’s his grandson.

What about the performances, you ask? Just a moment: you're getting a bit ahead of me. Surely you cannot be forgetting the Brian jinx? (Rule 3: If a difficult project involves Brian, expect the unexpected. By definition, it’s impossible to prepare for it). On Sunday 1 October was the initial rehearsal of the Tragica. The first difficulty was that it took place in basically a large shed. The Philharmonic had been unable to secure its normal rehearsal space, the Great Hall of Hamilton Place, a good location where they play most of their concerts (including this one, which took place on 3 & 4 October). So they were stuck out in a suburb of Hamilton in a room that held the orchestra and almost no more.

I walked into this place for the rehearsal and found myself in the percussion section. I looked up to find that the conductor was the orchestra’s librarian, Jeff Mason. Where was Boris? Nowhere to be found. I heard subsequently that he was in Québec. (Consult your maps: that’s 700 miles away.) One of the percussionists turned to me and asked: ‘Are you here to conduct the Brian?’ He wasn’t joking. ‘You ought to, it’ll improve your circulation’, he went on. I told him that if I did conduct it, I would be taken out of circulation immediately. Fortunately, a few months earlier, the librarian had asked me for a tape of the Tragica, because he was to give the pre-concert talk. So he had heard it, and freely admitted that he could not have done much with it as conductor at that rehearsal if he had not.

How much time had he had to prepare the score? As befits emergencies, virtually none at all. He had been notified only the night before, and here we were at the 2 pm rehearsal. What he did at it was to conduct the score slowly but steadily. As a percussionist, he had a good steady conductor’s beat, but of course he could not make the piece come alive or make interpretative decisions for Boris Brott. He also had to rehearse the Rakhmaninov Symphonic Dances. As it turned out, HB was given only from 4.05-4.30 that day (Sunday), and due to stops and starts for questions and fixes, the orchestra got into the finale of the symphony but not all the way to the end of it.

So there we were, two days before the first performance, with a real calamity looming. The next day, Monday 2 October, Boris was in charge and rehearsed the Tragica from about 10.00-11.05 a.m. Later he said he had thought I would be at that rehearsal. I would have been, but I am a more-than-full-time university professor during the week, so that was not possible. Boris was kind enough to suggest that I might have been of some help at that hour-long rehearsal, but I doubt that I would have been. I don’t know the score of the Tragica in enough detail, and the copy that UMP had sent me was now Boris’s for the rehearsals and concerts. I didn’t make a photocopy.

In any case, they obviously worked hard at it for those 65 minutes or so on the Monday, but still in the wrong location, that out-of-town overgrown gymnasium. (I’m not being fair, of course. The room is neither a shed nor a gymnasium. But a concert hall it isn’t either.) The last rehearsal of the Brian took place on Tuesday 3 October, from 12.05 to 12.30, after a long, concentrated effort on the Rakhmaninov and Dohnányi Variations on a nursery song. The players simply had nothing left for the Brian; Boris informed me that he thought the Monday rehearsal had produced better results. Not a good sign when the concert is only 7 ½ hours away and there is no further rehearsal.

I’m sorry that the Brian was last on Tuesday’s rehearsal schedule. It had been planned to be first, at 10.00, but I told Boris I couldn’t be there then. Despite my protests that I couldn’t help anyway, he moved the Brian to a time when I could be there.

So, finally the players got to go over all the music in the Great Hall, because that’s where the Tuesday rehearsal was. Fortunate? Not completely. Having played in that other disaster area Sunday and Monday, they found that hearing everything a new way on Tuesday was terribly confusing, despite now working in their regular hall. (Rule 4: Just as Havergal Brian can make a chord of C major sound like a dissonance, the Hamilton Philharmonic can make their regular home sound foreign. You can see why from the above.)

Of the two rehearsals I attended (Sunday and Tuesday), of course the Tuesday one was better. On Sunday, some of the players talked through sections of the Tragica, and some did not take it at all seriously: this was quite off-putting, to put it mildly. On the other hand, they pulled together and gave what was a fairly good performance by Wednesday night. Tuesday’s was less good in most ways, although there were some problems Wednesday which did not occur Tuesday. Wednesday night before the concert one of the orchestra members told me that most of them still felt unprepared.

I attended the pre-concert talk Tuesday, given, as mentioned above, by Jeff Mason, who is not only the librarian, but also the assistant personnel manager and a part-time percussionist. Jeff did his best by reading a fair bit about HB beforehand, and he had of course attended a rehearsal of the Symphony. But his inexperience in speaking about music to an audience did not help him. I imagine that his talk the next night went better. (The pre-concert audience, in a room to the side of the Great Hall, generally numbers between 30 and 40.) Disorganisation was at work before the Tuesday talk, as the audience expected the speaker at 7.15, and the speaker expected the audience at 7.30.

The performances used the following: strings, woodwinds in 3s, brass and (surprise) 7 percussionists. The strings were too few, due to the orchestra’s financial inability to hire more. The percussionists were unfortunately right next to the back wall on the stage, causing one to remark that they couldn’t tell what they sounded like because the sound simply went ‘right up our backsides’. We got the requested three side drums, except for near the end, when everyone was busy playing other instruments.

In the Tuesday rehearsal, the final tamtam stroke was inaudible, produced (or not) by the harried Jeff Mason. Tuesday night’s concert had it a little better, and by Wednesday it was just right. Tuesday’s offstage trumpet had problems (more than in the Tuesday rehearsal), so Wednesday’s solution was to have him stay on stage and put a whiskey bag over the bell. Less than ideal.

After Tuesday’s rehearsal I meant to ask Boris something about an odd-sounding trumpet passage, but in the rush of events I forgot. I was reminded of it at Tuesday’s concert and hurried home to check the microfilm of the score which I had made in 1971. Part of my microfilm reader then broke, making further use of it impossible.

More comments on the performances I will not make here. The Wednesday performance was to be broadcast on 31 October across Canada, so a tape will certainly make it to the Society in due course. Only one final remark: Tuesday’s timing was about 18:50, Wednesday’s 19:05.

Reactions? I am inclined to dismiss all those that are superficial, but I will report some of them anyhow. One violinist in the HPO said she thought the Symphony would have notes all over the place - one high up, the next down low, etc - and was pleasantly surprised to find a different situation. (Rule 5: Don’t expect orchestral players to know the symphonic repertory either.) Another player took a look at his part and assumed the work wouldn’t amount to much because there was nothing in it that looked interesting to him. (Rule 6: No comment. There is no Rule 6; it’s too obvious.)

Audience members had various reactions too. One hated all this modern stuff. (Rule 7: When it comes to audiences, no stereotype is too true or too ridiculous to be ridiculously true.) Another figured that the Tragica was essentially a film score, and constructed a plot, complete with locations and characters, to describe it. Nothing to do with Synge, of course. The person next to me on Tuesday night seemed to sleep through the piece until near the end of the Epilogue, when he (while still apparently nodding) began beating a furious tempo with one of his legs. Remember that this was the first piece on the programme.

Wednesday night I packed off to an unoccupied corner of the hall with my wife and four friends, only to have two morons come in about ten minutes into the Symphony and sit in front of us, wiggling and twitching boorishly through the rest of it, causing one of the seats (A-260 to be specific) to emit loud sounds which would not fit in with any symphony I know of.

Most of my students who attended (a handful) liked the Tragica but could not say why. Still superficial reactions, regrettably. One friend of mine explained that he didn’t like it because it sounded like an English salad: a slice of tomato here and cucumber there, smeared all over with salad cream. Now that is at least not superficial. (The cream penetrates. Mind you, this particular person dislikes almost all English music. His wife offered the opinion that he also thinks English salads are anaemic. Should be obvious from the above. All correspondence to me on English cuisine will be forwarded to my friend.)

Quite seriously, the whole episode, from three years ago to now, left me dissatisfied. The same feeling resulted after I managed to convince the University of Illinois Orchestra conductor to do Brian’s 23rd Symphony. (The two sets of performances took place 16 years apart to the week. On that occasion a crucial rehearsal was also taken by an assistant, and other things went wrong too.) This time, for all the reasons mentioned, the result, however admirable (as it was in many ways), was not what it could have and should have been. The considerable effort put into it on the part of conductor, orchestra and organization seemed constantly thwarted by problems, some of which I’ve mentioned. In any case, the performances were wasted on an audience most of whose members seem not to go to concerts to hear music or to learn anything. Now, I don’t know all the reactions, of course. Boris Brott certainly liked the work. There may be some people, in the orchestra or in the audience, who gained something from the experience (other than my wife and friends!).

The reviews numbered two, in the local Hamilton paper and in the respectable Toronto Globe and Mail. There are inaccuracies and other wrong things in both but at least the Globe critic made a committed effort to understand what was going on, apparently having heard both symphonies 6 and 16 beforehand. The heading ‘Entertainment’ in the Hamilton review tells everything: this bad excuse for a newspaper once objected to the use of ‘JS Bach’ in a music article because no one would know who that was, and was he still alive? The only other newspaper notice appeared in the Hamilton paper before the concert, providing a short, basically factual preparation, while nonetheless saying that HB’s music contains ‘vast washes of colour, long, somewhat rambling statements’.

The next time anyone suggests that orchestral programmes are simply chosen, rehearsed, and performed, relate to them some of this article. Its events or events like them are common.

Rule 8: If you want to try to promote Brian’s music amongst North American orchestras, be prepared for a lot of problems. Note, however, that the problems might accrue regardless of what the music is. The Sinfonia tragica has now been heard in a concert, and Brian’s orchestral music has been given its first performance in Canada, as well as its first professional performance in North America. Not bad for one event. I wish I could sound more celebratory, but I doubt that this pair of concerts will make any substantial difference to appreciation of Brian’s music.

Postscript, nearly ten years later

The reference to the Hamilton Spectator above was deserved at the time. It is a better paper today, although its coverage of the arts (particularly music) is still too little for a major city in Canada.

Another factor that affected this entire unpredictable three-year adventure of Havergal Brian’s Sinfonia tragica were tensions between conductor and orchestra. At the time of the performances, Boris Brott had been removed as conductor as of the end of the 1989-90 season. So the Tragica made it just in time.

In 1995, the orchestra declared bankruptcy and disappeared. Those who liked Boris said that the orchestra sank without his leadership. Some who did not claimed that his financial settlement led to the bankruptcy. Two years later a New Hamilton Orchestra appeared, slightly smaller, with many of the same problems that plagued the Philharmonic but fewer additional musicians hired, hence no big works. The repertory of the new orchestra is uninteresting and it continues to struggle. The chances of it playing Brian are zero.

NL 85 © Paul Rapoport 1989, 1999

Newsletter, NL 85, 1999