Letter from the Provinces

[We have it on reliable authority that Ethelbert Nevin is nom de guerre. Ed.]

Ethelbert Nevin

[Janurary 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

Names have been adjusted to implicate the innocent and exonerate the guilty.

From my outpost here in quaint New England, the big town across the river is sometimes provincial, sometimes small-minded when it comes to music events. Two on a recent weekend betray all the strangeness of this sometimes backwater region.

The big town’s local symphony just delivered a premiere in celebration of its birthday. Now I admit to not being a subscriber, but I did take in some of the new work over the radio, which admittedly is a skewed way of experiencing new music. I had no program notes to ruffle during quiet passages, no obstructed views to behold and no opportunity to ruminate upon what animals might have been gassed to create the odd garments worn by the natives.

Let me remind the reader that I did not hear all of the new work in question, but I was struck by one thing. Why would someone dare to recast a string quartet for string orchestra as a response to an orchestral commission? The opportunity presents itself to write a work for one of the most respected orchestras in the land, and all that the composer can come up with is a bit of recycling! Were I associated with the local symphony in question, I’d be a little offended.

This part of the world is very musically inclined: within a radius of 100 miles several dozen composers of equal or even lesser renown would have gladly stepped up to the task of writing a fresh work for the occasion.

From my vantage point of lumpy sofa with moderate radio reception, the work was well played, but hardly innovative or memorable. Perhaps I would have found it more stirring in person. The locals seemed to approve and I did not hear of any ensuing riots or public disturbance. Interestingly, reviews skirt around the issue of recycling, preferring exuberance and restrained delight.

I must contrast this with another music event of the same weekend, also incompletely sampled. It’s not really appropriate to judge a work by what one hears during part of a working rehearsal, but this was a musical setting of a popular children’s holiday story for vocal soloist, chorus and full orchestra. Now this was more resourceful than the recycled string quartet. Straightforward and without pretensions, this new work communicated more and was more entertaining and more distinctive (though, I did think the orchestration was consistently thick in the mid- to low-range with persistent doubling of piano with cello, contrabass and bassoon).

Unfortunately this story setting will probably become less well known than the recycled quartet, and not just because it won’t reach a roster of season subscribers or a radio audience. What is deserving and what will be successfully marketed is a mysterious art bearing no relation to value. I expect nationwide performances of the recycled quartet and a recording due out by Grammy time, and that the children’s work will find some adherents, but probably languish. I am happy to report that in these provinces success and value have little to do with merit, and that we will carry on in our quaint misguided ways.