wed 20/03/2019

Extract: The Show Must Go On (1912) | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: The Show Must Go On (1912)

Extract: The Show Must Go On (1912)

The first of two extracts from a new book by LSO flautist Gareth Davies follows the orchestra to the US a century ago

The LSO in Wichita, Kansas, 1912: the first British orchestra to tour the USA © LSO

New York City, the movie star, is so familiar now even to those who have never visited that it’s difficult to imagine the impact on the LSO players of arriving there for the first time. As they stood on the deck of the Baltic, the Statue of Liberty must have been a welcome sight after 10 days at sea. First impressions of the city were not entirely favourable: before they could get to their hotel, the entire orchestra with its baggage, instruments, and music had to be checked through customs. The timpanist Charles Turner notes:

Awake about 3 or 4 am. Still dark. The engines are stopping and it disturbs me. We are getting into New York Harbour. Everybody up at 5 am shouting and larking. Breakfast 6 am – early rising this! We are a very long time landing and when we land lots of trouble with the baggage. They inspect it all. Everything must be opened. Go to Hotel Victoria, Broadway. Walk round in afternoon and dinner at 6 pm. Schroeder and myself have an amusing experience with some cabmen but we don’t get quite taken in. The weather is as hot as it was in London last summer.

However, the flautist Henry Nisbet doesn’t like it at all:

Arrived at New York at 7.30 am, weather very hot, the first hot day this year, went to Victoria Hotel, nearly baked there through steam heating, walked along Broadway with Gomez in the morning; the town is quite rotten, streets much too narrow for the high buildings, roads & pavements in a disgraceful state of repair – trams ugly and overhead railway an awful disfiguration. Rehearsal at 7.30 pm.

After a good night’s sleep on solid ground (albeit with three other men sharing the room), Nisbet sees the city in a slightly more forgiving light:

Went for a motor bus ride to ferryside with Gomez and Payne, through 5th Avenue the millionaires’ residences were very fine indeed, but much too ostentatious. We nearly all have bad colds, I especially have a bad one; through the artificial heating one is subjected to chills so easily.

The press were waiting in the darkness of the stalls for their prey

Turner seems to be enjoying himself a little more. He and the rest of the percussion section take a walk:

... to Brooklyn Bridge, a gigantic affair over the mouth of the Hudson River. Nothing happens. Lunch at 1 pm. Then we go to the Zoological Gardens at Bronx Park. Ride all the way 35 or 40 minutes fast run on the subway for 5 cents. Commences to rain and eventually pours. We get home anyhow at 6 no worse. The Electric light advertising in New York at night is very novel and beautiful. Got a rotten cold in my head, but the asthma has gone altogether and I feel more free than I have for 12 months. I believe the voyage has cured me. Hope so.

The reaction from the players to their new surroundings was mixed, and the same could be said of critics’ responses to the orchestra. After a blitz of publicity in the month before its arrival, expectations were running high for the band, which was being touted as the greatest orchestra in the world. The LSO arrived having not really played very much for two weeks, and after only two rehearsals in New York – one of which took place before Nikisch arrived – they took to the stage of Carnegie Hall for the first time on April 8th. Edgar Wilby, one of the second violins, said that the first sound of the orchestra in the hall came “like an electric shock. It made one feel proud of oneself.”

The atmosphere at that first concert was tense and excited. Pew had set the scene for a night of legendary music-making, one that would linger in the minds and hearts of New Yorkers for a long time. The hyperbole had been noted by the New York Times:

After much heralding, the London Symphony Orchestra, with Arthur Nikisch at its head, appeared in New York last night in Carnegie Hall, giving the first concert of its American tour. The undertaking is a very large one, and it is not surprising that the enterprising managers should have exhausted the art of the press agent to advertise the enterprise they are conducting. Expectation was raised very high. The audience was very considerable in numbers, though it did not entirely fill the hall.

A good house, but, despite the manager’s best efforts, not a sell-out. Nikisch was praised for his conducting and his profound musical interpretations, a welcome return for the great maestro. But what of the self-proclaimed “best orchestra in the world”? It met with a mixed reception: the review praised the sound of the strings, although admitted that they had a brilliant sound rather than a mellow one. The wind players were quite good, the brass excellent:

The orchestra as a whole is exceedingly responsive to the conductor, but its ensemble, especially its attack, is not of the most finished. [The Brahms symphony] has not been heard more beautifully this season … although there was one more technically finished. It was not only dramatically forceful, but musically convincing; at least for the moment.

Both our diarists seemed happy with the concert and the reception they received, although Turner grumbled: “Not a very large audience. The concert goes very finely. I am unfortunate and break a good skin. This is a bit of bad luck for me. New drum head costs me $4.00.”

Critics were moderately impressed with the LSO. There was still talk of Nikisch’s tenure with the Boston Symphony, and whether the two orchestras could be compared, but there would be another opportunity for New Yorkers to hear the orchestra in two days’ time, at the second Carnegie Hall concert. Before that, on April 9th, the LSO boarded a train to Boston. Turner wrote: “We have a 6 hour journey. They have a famous orchestra in Boston. Hope we do well. I get my policy for insurance in case of accident.”

As it turned out, this insurance might well have come in handy after the mauling the orchestra received from Boston’s critics. The people were to welcome Nikisch and his new band with open arms, but the press were waiting in the darkness of the stalls for their prey. They had sharpened their pencils and their tongues, and weren’t afraid to use them.

  • This is an extract from The Show Must Go On - On Tour with the LSO in 1912 and 2012 by Gareth Davies, published by Elliott & Thompson, hardback and ebook editions available.

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