Organ + Orchestra

By Leon Botstein

It is a pleasure to welcome the audience to this concert of the American Symphony Orchestra at St. Bartholomew’s. St. Bartholomew’s has a rich and noble history as a venue for concerts, particularly concerts that utilize its spectacular and legendary Aeolian-Skinner organ. Although the present organ dates from 1918, it incorporates much of the previous organ by Hutchings and Odell. The organ has been meticulously maintained. Its current configuration dates from 1971, when it was rebuilt just one year before Aeolian-Skinner closed its doors in 1972. It is one of the finest instruments in the United States and is ideal for a performance of the most famous symphonic work with organ from the 19th century, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 which opens this program.

Leopold Stokowski, the founder of the American Symphony Orchestra, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this season, began his career in the United States as the organist and choir director of St. Bartholomew’s. Ambitious and charismatic, he made the church on Park Avenue a major venue for secular concerts in New York. The popularity of these concerts would prefigure Stokowski’s subsequent triumphant success as one of the major conductors of the 20th century. The two orchestras with which he is most closely associated are the Philadelphia Orchestra and the American Symphony Orchestra. He was not only a master of orchestral sonority, but an inspired interpreter known for spontaneous and imaginative readings of the standard repertory, which includes the organ symphony of Saint-Saëns. But it should be remembered that Stokowski was a leading advocate of new music and avant-garde modernism to the end of his long career. He pioneered in programming works by 20th century composers including Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, William Dawson, and a host of post-World War II Americans.

In his lifetime, he was the object of misplaced snobbery as a podium showman. This was largely the result of envy on the part of competitors and the corrosive snobbery of critics who resented Stokowski’s innovative use of film and popular media. He was without question as fine and original a conductor as his rivals. He cultivated a lush string sound and had a keen sense of drama and rhythmic propulsion. One can observe his mastery of the technique of conducting in a film now available on YouTube made with the American Symphony Orchestra at Madison Square Garden of a rehearsal of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Tonight’s program is constructed in part to honor Stokowski’s legacy, first in the selection of a great late-Romantic symphony that features the organ, his own instrument (played by his current successor at St. Bartholomew’s), and second with the kind of underappreciated music he was quick to champion. Saint-Saëns’ well-known masterpiece is followed by a rare performance of Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D.

Smyth may very well be the finest woman composer of the late 19th and early 20th century period. The American Symphony Orchestra was participant in the first fully staged, complete performance of her operatic masterpiece The Wreckers at Bard SummerScape at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. That 2015 performance is also available on YouTube and on the Fisher Center’s website. Another opera by Smyth, Der Wald (The Forest) was the first opera by a woman staged at the Metropolitan Opera. In addition to being an outstanding composer, Ethel Smyth was a determined and outspoken political activist, primarily on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement in England. She was arrested for her role in protests against the exclusion of women from voting. Her 1911 “The March of the Women” became popular as a means of galvanizing political support for the right of women to vote.

She was, in addition, closely associated with Bloomsbury. She maintained close relationships with writers and intellectuals including Virginia Woolf. Her talents extended to sports. She was an accomplished equestrian and tennis and golf enthusiast. She achieved considerable fame in her lifetime. She was the first female composer to become a Dame by action of the King, and was honored with honorary degrees by the Universities of Durham and Oxford.

It is fitting that one of Smyth’s finest pieces, the Mass in D is being performed in a major Anglican church. As Byron Adams, the program annotator for this concert (and arguably the finest expert on English music in the English-speaking world) points out, the Mass is organized to fit the Anglican liturgy. The composer Donald Tovey, the distinguished and celebrated English writer on music, compared Smyth’s Mass to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. There can be no higher praise for a sacred work based on the traditions of the Mass and written with concert use in mind. The ASO hopes this performance will inspire the long-awaited entrance of Smyth’s Mass in D into the repertoire of orchestras throughout the United States.

Written for

Organ + Orchestra