Friday, January 24, 2020

On An Overgrown Path: An African-American in Moscow [John McLaughlin Williams Conducted Novaya Russiya]

John McLaughlin Williams

On An Overgrown Path

Thursday, January 16, 2020

In 1938 Fritz Reiner conducted Henry Kimball Hadley's concert overture 'In Bohemia' at a memorial concert for the composer. Now a very powerful new video from Moscow of the Novaya Russiya Orchestra playing 'In Bohemia' conducted by John McLaughlin Williams - seen above - has appeared on YouTube. Today Hadley is a forgotten figure, but he once played a leading role in American music. In 1911 he became the founding conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, the first American-born musician to hold a major conducting position, and he was associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1921 to 1927. As a major figure in the early years of Hollywood film music he conducted the New York Philharmonic for the soundtrack of Warner Bros' 1926 film Don Juan starring John Barrymore, which was the first movie with synchronized music. He composed the score for the 1927 Barrymore film When a Man Loves, and among his other compositions are five symphonies (listen to symphonies 2 and 4 here and here) and five operas.

This Moscow concert video intrigued me as today performances of Henry Kimball Hadley's music are very rare. So I asked John McLaughlin Williams for the backstory, which he provided as follows:

My agent is Lena Khandros of Momentum Artists. She made the gig happen. Lena is Ukrainian and Jewish by birth and a longtime citizen here. She worked her magic in ways unknown to me. An American organization called the Foundation for Cultural Engagement was greatly involved in making my appearance happen. The concert was under the auspices of the Moscow Philharmonic Society and the orchestra is Novaya Russiya, which is Yuri Bashmet's orchestra. The concert program was billed as "Hollywood Melodies" and it was conceived and largely programmed by the Ivanov Brothers, Mikhail and Andrey, who are famous Russian jazz musicians. The concert also featured three singers: Chuck Wansley (an American song stylist presently residing in Prague), Mariam Merabova (nationally famous over there as a blues singer), and Tatiana Pavlovskaya (world famous operatic soprano resident at the Mariinsky). The performance was in the famous Tchaikovsky Hall.

Though the program featured the Ivanov brothers, I was asked to provide a program opener and in keeping with the American orientation of the extant program, Hadley's showstopper came to mind immediately. The concert's first half began with that and continued with some famous Sinatra arrangements featuring Chuck. I did Morgen (from Strauss' Four Last Songs) with Tatiana (wonderful!) and also did some choice Mancini: Breakfast at Tiffany's, Charade, and his arrangement of Jesus Christ Superstar. Tatiana is a world-class singer: in fact, all these folks are famous in their own fields.

The second half featured the Ivanovs and was constructed like a detective story with music. This half began with Mancini's Pink Panther and went on to feature the big main title songs from James Bond films. The singers delivered these in various combinations along with copious extemporizations from the Ivanov brothers' and their two bandmates. All were excellent. The concert was sold out and was apparently a great success. There was a lot of P.R. for it and the entire concert will be available for online viewing. That's pretty much it. I got an opportunity and tried to make the most of it! I'm presently inquiring about future recording.
We can all learn from John's self-effacing observation that "I got an opportunity and tried to make the most of it". But this story raises two important questions. Why does Henry Kimball Hadley's music have to travel to Moscow to receive the attention it deserves? And why, despite the much-celebrated 'Sheku effect', does John McLaughlin Williams have to travel to Moscow to receive the attention he deserves?

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