Thursday, December 10, 2020

Dame Ethel Smyth’s "The Prison" Nominated for a GRAMMY® Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album, on Chandos Records; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Dame Ethel Smyth
The Prison
Sarah Brailey, soprano
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone
Experiential Orchestra and Chorus
James Blachly
Chandos Records
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

James Blachly, Conductor

Sarah Brailey, Soprano & Dashon Burton, Bass-Baritone

 Experiential Orchestra and Chorus


“an album of the year, by any measure” – The New York Times


The Prison exerts a metaphysical gravity, not just because of the text by Henry Brewster but also because Smyth’s music calls to mind Brahms, Elgar, and even Mahler at their most visionary and searching.” – The New Yorker


“Smyth’s haunting music, given here in conductor James Blachly’s new edition,

is beautifully constructed and highly evocative.” – Gramophone


More information: | | |


New York, NY – The world premiere recording of composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s 1930 masterwork, The Prison, released on Chandos Records, is a nominee for the GRAMMY® Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. The recording is conducted by James Blachly with his Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, featuring soprano Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton as soloists. The producer is Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror. Appropriately given Smyth’s role in the Suffragette movement in England, the August 2020 release date coincided with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States.


Conductor James Blachly’s work on The Prison began in 2015. He is the editor for the new Wise Music Group critical edition of The Prison that not only made this recording possible, but paves the way for a resurrection of the work. According to musicologist Dr. Liane Curtis (Ph.D. Musicology), President of Women's Philharmonic Advocacy and Affiliated Scholar of the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, this is the first GRAMMY nomination for a composition of Dame Ethel Smyth, who lived from 1858 to 1944 and struggled her entire career to have her music judged on its merits, rather than on the basis of her gender. Until this year, the only other historic woman composer to be nominated was Amy Beach. And, it comes in a year of several other historical firsts for women at the Awards – women lead nominations in the four general categories for the first time this year. Curtis says, “As such, this nomination has taken on new energy for advocates for Smyth and women composers in general.”  


Blachly says, “It is incredible that 90 years after the premiere of Ethel Smyth’s career-culminating masterpiece, she is finally receiving her first GRAMMY nomination. There are so many reasons to be inspired by her – the way she lived, all of her ‘firsts’ as a woman composer, the way she held strong against the powerful pressures of society that would not accept her work, her strength of purpose and her openness of her sexuality, her political activism, and more. But for me, it was the experience of conducting this piece for the first time that led me to understand – in a flash, at the downbeat of the first rehearsal – that I was conducting a work that deserves to be heard throughout the world. The moment I heard that first note in the rehearsal hall, I got shivers up and down my spine, and my life has not been the same since.”


Ethel Smyth left home at age 19 (against the wishes of her military father) in order to compose music in Leipzig. In the company of Clara Schumann and her teacher Heinrich von Herzogenberg, she met and won the admiration of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvorak, and Grieg, and became the first woman to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1903. (The second was not until Kaaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin in 2016).


Her work The Prison is a 64-minute symphony in two parts, “Close on Freedom” and “The Deliverance.” Sometimes called an oratorio or a cantata, it is similar in scale and scope to the vocal symphonies of Mahler. On the title page, Smyth quotes the last words of Greek philosopher Plotinus, “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and merge it in the universally divine.” The text for the work, drawn from a philosophical work by Henry Bennet Brewster, describes the writing of a man in a solitary cell and his reflections on his past life and his preparations for death. But the text is poetic and reflective, with layers of meaning and metaphor. Thus the “prison” is both an actual jail, and a philosophical representation of the “shackles of self,” as Brewster describes them. This was Smyth’s last work and her only symphony – she was 72 when she completed it in 1930. She stopped composing shortly after, due to advancing deafness.


Soprano Sarah Brailey, who has been hailed by The New York Times for her “radiant, liquid tone,” “exquisitely phrased,” and “sweetly dazzling singing,” sings the role of “The Soul” on this recording. She says, “Smyth is an inspiration as a composer, an activist, and a woman. It has been such an honor to help bring this incredible piece to the world. I hope listeners enjoy discovering it as much as we have.” Brailey enjoys a career filled with projects as diverse as soloing in Handel’s Messiah with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, performing with Kanye West and Roomful of Teeth at the Hollywood Bowl, and recording cello and vocal soundscapes for the 2018 Fog x FLO Fujiko Nakaya public art installation in Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system.


Bass-Baritone Dashon Burton, who sings the role of “The Prisoner,” says, “This piece is an immortal dedication to those who fight for freedom. Working with James, Sarah, and all the amazing musicians on this album has been a dream, and I hope it awakens all our spirits as much as it has awakened mine.” Burton is a frequent guest with the major orchestras of the United States, Europe, and Japan. He sings recitals throughout the U.S., including a program based on works from his album Songs and Struggles of Redemption; We Shall Overcome, singled out by The New York Times as “profoundly moving…a beautiful and lovable disc.” He is an original member of the Grammy-winning groundbreaking vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.


Ralph Couzens, Managing Director Chandos Records, says, “Championing the works of lesser known or neglected British composers and bringing their music to a wider public is an intrinsic part of the ethos of Chandos Records. We are delighted to be releasing this extraordinary recording, and very grateful to James Blachly and his team for resurrecting such a significant score with such a convincing and idiomatic performance.”


More about The Prison

The Prison is at once a unique expression for Smyth, and also a summary of her previous compositional life, including a Leipzig-inspired organ prelude that opens the second half of the piece, dedicated to Brewster in 1884 and now beautifully orchestrated. The instrumentation and use of two soloists would seem to be a nod to the Brahms Requiem, and given her devotion to Brahms’s music (which Tchaikovsky chided her for in letters to her), this would resonate as a motivation for her final large-scale composition. But the music itself reveals other influences, including a dark Wagnerian orchestration palette, Straussian soaring melodies over rich harmonies in the orchestra, and references to her composition teacher von Herzogenberg’s fugue on a birdsong.


Ultimately, however, such references fail to capture the nature of the music. Featured in the second half of the work is a melody called the “Seikolos fragment,” which had been re-discovered in 1922, and was considered the oldest surviving complete melody. What is clear in exploring the symphony is that it is the work of a master composer at the end of her life. Written in 1930 and premiered in 1931 as she increasingly lost her hearing, it also reveals a new, deeply personal musical language.


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