Almost forgotten ‘Bicentennial Symphony’ will ‘re-debut’ in Long Beach at Juneteenth event Roy Harris’ almost-lost piece rescued by friend and music lover John Malveaux

By Greg Mellen, Staff writer
Posted: 06/06/2009 05:56:34 PM PDT

John Malveaux concludes a decade-long quest to revive the long lost Bicentennial Symphony of Roy Harris, who passed away in 1979, with production of the music at this year s Juneteenth celebration at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Long Beach, to honor the legacy of his friend. (Stephen Carr/ Press-Telegram)

LONG BEACH, Calif. — This is a story about a man, a composer and a quest to bring a mysteriously absent piece of classical music back into the American canon.

It is also a love story about one man’s attempt to honor the legacy of a friend and artist whom he greatly admired.

With a little flight of fancy, conspiracy theorists can find plenty of Angels and Demons in this tale — people becoming mysteriously ill, transcripts supposedly lost in transit, inexplicable absences of records and archives, initially gung-ho orchestras that suddenly become silent and officials turning art into political capital.

The music is the “Bicentennial Symphony,” the 13th and last completed symphony of late renowned composer Roy Harris. The piece was commissioned by Cal State L.A. and debuted by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1976 as part of the country’s bicentennial celebration.

It is a piece that was intentionally controversial. Through much of it a chorus excoriates the racism of this country before and during Lincoln’s time, accentuated by angry shouts from singers.

The symphony may have questionable musical value. The Washington Post called it possibly the worst piece of music ever played by the National Symphony Orchestra. The few who have actually read or heard the music, are not as harsh, but neither do they gush about the music.

Love it or hate it, the symphony is worthy of discussion and debate, if for no other reason than its overt politics and its unorthodox style. If for no other reason than it was the last finished symphony of one of our country’s most important and original composers.

Instead, the “Bicentennial Symphony” was greeted with resounding silence and has disappeared from the American musical scene, either through deliberate actions or amazing happenstance.

That ends June 13 in Long Beach, when local activist and music lover John Malveaux brings the symphony to the public more than 33 years after it went silent.

The “Bicentennial Symphony” will be the centerpiece June 13 of the annual Juneteenth Celebration at Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

Without a trace

In the 33 years since its debut in Washington, there is no record of the symphony ever being played again by any orchestra.

There appears to be no archival recording of the music, despite its National Symphony Orchestra debut on the same nights legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich wowed the crowd with his artistry.

Until Malveaux paid to have it meticulously reproduced from the original, archived at Cal. State L.A., there were no copies of the score.

To Malveaux, who first met Harris in 1977 and later became a close friend of the composer, it’s not only mystifying that the symphony disappeared, it’s just plain wrong and inexcusable.

As the founder of MusicUNTOLD, a nonprofit group that seeks to increase the awareness of cultural diversity in classical music and opera and promote under-represented music, Malveaux found in Harris’ work a cause close to his heart.

In recent years, Malveaux has staged programs with music by African-American composer William Grant Still and Mexican composer Carlos Chavez.

This is by far his biggest undertaking.

Although the Caucasian Harris is well known in classical music circles, the “Bicentennial Symphony” is a work that has fallen through the cracks.

Granted performance and promotional rights to the Harris’ work, Malveaux has spent the past decade trying to find an orchestra, any orchestra, to play the symphony. Malveaux has offered the music to “every major orchestra and many others.”

The reasons for not playing the piece have ranged from solid to spurious.

Malveaux calls the “Bicentennial Symphony” “the strongest musical statement on U.S. history, slavery and race relations ever made by an American composer.”

The Long Beach solution

After numerous setbacks, including a one in the past year from the Long Beach Symphony and a failed attempt to secure a partnership with the Ford Amphitheater, Malveaux feared he was out of options.

However, the Long Beach Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine agreed to allow Malveaux to use Martin Luther King Jr. Park as a venue on Juneteenth.

Malveaux put together and funded a freelance orchestra and chorale dubbed the MusicUNTOLD orchestra and chorale.

Also known as Emancipation Day, Juneteenth commemorates the announcement in Texas of the abolition of slavery. This year, America also celebrates the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, making the presentation of Harris’ work all the more appropriate.

The federal Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission gave Malveaux’s production official recognition in its calendar of events celebrating the 16th President of the United States.

Although 2009 may be economically the worst year in recent memory to attempt a large-scale symphony from scratch, Malveaux says there was no choice.

Because this is the year of the Lincoln bicentennial, to Malveaux it was the last/best opportunity to honor the legacy of the man he admires and whom he feels has been so thoroughly and unfairly silenced by the classical music community.

Harris considered Lincoln possibly the greatest man in American history and Malveaux decided he could wait no longer.

Loved or hated, thankfully forgotten or unjustly buried, Roy Harris’ “Bicentennial Symphony” will emerge and be recorded live at King Park in broad daylight to stand or fall on its music and its message. But it will never again be silent.

“I hope to give a presentation that will spark interest and consideration of what (the symphony’s) potential is and its historical value,” Malveaux says.

“Classical music is conspicuously lacking in much that speaks to certain subjects, and slavery is one of them,” Malveaux says. “Considering that this is the strongest anti-slavery statement ever made, and considering there is no other piece that speaks so eloquently about the issue, it is paramount that the public have another opportunity to consider the value of this music.”

A love for Lincoln

Roy Harris was one of the most famously “American” composers of his time and had a special affinity for Lincoln.

Understandably so. He shared the same birthday as the 16th President, and he was born in Lincoln County, Okla. — in a log cabin, no less.

Harris, who has been compared by many to his contemporaries such as Aaron Copland, has been described as a “major creative force in developing an indigenous American symphonic style.”

After famed Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky debuted Harris’ Third Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1939, he called it “the greatest orchestral work yet written by an American composer.”

Despite his acknowledgment at the time as one of the giants of American music, to all but a few, Harris and much of his music have fallen off the radar of American classical music.

“He is one of the most important conductors in American history whose memory should not have slipped away,” says Keith Clark, a student of Harris, an acclaimed composer and founder and artistic director of the Astoria Music Festival.

Copland, considered by some as the “dean of American composers” jokingly recalled when he first met Harris, a one-time farmer and truck driver.

“It seemed this farmer had taken it into his head to write symphonies,” said Copland.

And while Harris, like Copland, studied under French master teacher Nadia Boulanger, his was a different aesthetic from Copland, who was a New Yorker of Lithuanian Jewish descent.

Copland said Harris’ music had a “Western cowboyish” quality.

Curiously, with works like “Billy the Kid,” “Rodeo” and “The Red Pony,” Copland would become best known for “Western” American music.

Harris most overt ode to the Western heritage of American music is found in his fourth or “Folksong Symphony,” which incorporates parts of “Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” “The Dying Cowboy” and “Oh, Pappy’ll Tie My Shoes” into its 45 minutes.

When critic Herbert Elwell reviewed it for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he wrote “Forty-five minutes swept by like a second and left one listener with the excited consciousness of having heard something like the American continent rising up and saying hello. This music is nothing if not 100 percent USA”

Indelible stamp

Indeed, the list of many of Harris’ compositions reads like an anthology of Americana. Many of his 13 completed symphonies and 160 other works carry names that are unmistakably American or are inspired by uniquely American voices, from the “Folksong Symphony,” to “Epilogue to Profiles in Courage-JFK,” to the a cappella symphony on words by Walt Whitman, to the “Gettysburg Symphony” and so forth.

Recognizing Harris’ unique Americanism, the United States Olympic Committee commissioned Harris to write a symphony for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Harris had barely started work on it at the time of his death in 1979.

The decision by President Carter, who called Harris and congratulated him on his 80th birthday in 1978, to boycott of the 1980 Games forced cancellation of concert honoring Roy Harris.

Despite the seeming Pollyanna nature of the names of his works, Harris was not immune to controversy.

In some ways he even courted it. It is a paradox that a composer considered so openly democratic and patriotic would become something of a pariah in certain circles. Many suggest it was Harris’ unabashed patriotism that drove him out of popular favor. And yet, Harris found himself, albeit briefly, caught in the maelstrom of Red hysteria and the McCarthyism of the early 1950s.

Harris listed several Soviet composers among his friends and performed and was honored in the Soviet Union on several occasions.

One of his early champions was Koussevitzky, who gave Harris his first big break when he debuted Harris’ “Symphony 1933” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Harris dedicated his Symphony No. 5, written in 1942 during World War II to the “heroic, freedom-loving people of our great ally the USSR,” after Germany had invaded the country.

Clark says Harris even donated the proceeds from the symphony, a considerable sum in those days, to buy ambulances for the besieged USSR.

An FBI informant 10 years later learned that Harris rededicated the song to the Soviet citizenry as he was preparing to have it performed by William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the inaugural International Festival of Music, of which Harris was executive producer.

Paddie Harris, one of Roy’s daughters, said her father had no love for Soviet leadership, but supported the people of the country.

Despite a clamor of opposition, the symphony was staged amid tight security.

Harris late wife, Johanna, told National Public Radio that a local paper branded Harris a “Pinko prof” and the family received threats and was told not to leave the house.

“It was a catastrophic year,” Johanna Harris told NPR.

Paddie, who was in elementary school at the time, remembers the time well.

She says her younger brothers and she were shunned by teachers and had to be tailed going to and from school for protection.

Paddie says the family was virtually homebound. It was only the willingness of a pair of Holocaust survivors who owned a local grocery store to deliver food that the family was able to eat that year, Paddie says.

According to Paddie, her parents attended the presentation of the symphony with a police escort. “After the last note was struck, the place erupted in wild applause,” she recalls being told.

Clark says Harris’ pugnaciousness and willingness to stand up for his beliefs, which included standing up for the common man, was a hallmark.

It was not uncommon for a copy of the International Worker, to be found on Harris’ coffee table, according to Clark. But it was more an expression of Harris’ populist and Roosevelt-Democrat ideology than anything anti-American.

“He was very much like Pete Seeger,” Clark says. “Our greatest American patriots understand what it means to be American and they suffer the consequences.”

The furor died down eventually and in 1958, Harris was part of the first delegation of American musical ambassadors to visit the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“My dad was the first American composer to conduct his own music on Russian soil,” says Paddie Harris. The piece: the “Fifth Symphony.”

And then, of course, there is the strident message of the bicentennial work, which again went against the general feel-good, self-congratulatory spirit of so much of the 1976 celebrations.

So, the most “American” of composers may have gathered more detractors for reasons not entirely aesthetic.

It is in this murky land between politics and art where suspicions about why a piece of possibly major music could be so thoroughly buried.

Malveaux says it’s possible that the “Bicentennial Symphony” would have flopped in the marketplace. It is not only that the music was never adequately aired but that it was so completely ignored that he finds particularly troubling.

‘All but buried’

As a result, the “Bicentennial Symphony” is Harris’ most curious and curiously ignored work.

“Not only has the symphony been overlooked, it has been all but buried,” Malveaux says.

Murry Sidlin, the dean of the Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, was the conductor of the “Bicentennial Symphony” for its debut.

He took the baton when conductor Antal Dorati suddenly and unexpectedly took ill on his way back from London.

There have been whispers about Dorati’s illness. One theory was that once he saw Harris’ score he no longer wanted to be associated with it.

Another more plausible explanation is that Dorati did not want to share the stage with the immensely popular cellist Rostropovich.

At the time, the National Symphony Orchestra had already decided to replace Dorati with Rostropovich as musical director against Dorati’s wishes. It was a painful rebuke to Dorati, who had rescued the national symphony orchestra from near-ruin from bankruptcy and a players’ strike. He was in the process of building the orchestra’s musical reputation when he was unceremoniously deposed.

Thus it fell to Sidlin to take the baton for the Abraham Lincoln birthday concerts.

Sidlin is circumspect when discussing Harris’ piece, saying that it had “interesting moments” and was “very unusual.”

And while he admits “I have never been motivated to go back to it,” he applauds Malveaux for bringing the symphony back.

Paul Hume, a critic at the Washington Post wrote the symphony “may be the worst piece the National Symphony has played in 30 years.”

Hume wrote “the work is a caricature of music, a parody of Abraham Lincoln’s messages and a travesty of all it sets out to do.”

However, Hume also wrote the symphony was politely received by the audience, somewhat undermining the harsh critique.

Clark, for one doesn’t put much weight in the review.

“(Harris’) name would be on a long list of guys hammered by that guy (Hume),” Clark said.

Despite the Lincoln and bicentennial connection, the star of the proceedings was clearly Rostropovich, performing a Dvorak concerto.

After the show, Sidlin says Harris came to him backstage and said “You know, I started out as a truck driver in Oklahoma and now I’ve sold out the national symphony three nights.”

Sidlin said he didn’t have the heart to tell the elderly Harris that it was Rostropovich for whom the crowds had turned out.

Sidlin says it is possible the Harris’ work was ahead of its time, or that under different hands and with different interpretations it may truly resonate.

“This piece just didn’t captivate people,” Sidlin said of the symphony when it debuted. “What’s unfair is it just went to sleep. Maybe Malveaux will be a hero.”

About the symphony itself, Sidlin said, “It’s a very unusual piece and not memorable in the way great choral pieces are. It’s more atmospheric and has a harmonic sweep.”

L.B. Symphony passed

One orchestra to which Malveaux shopped the symphony, twice, was the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra. Harris had a connection with the Long Beach group which premiered his 10th Symphony, entitled coincidentally enough “Abraham Lincoln” in 1965.

Former Long Beach Symphony Orchestra executive director Jack Fishman remembers looking at the score of the “Bicentennial Symphony” and reviewing it with conductor Enrique Diemecke before deciding to pass.

Although Fishman can read music, he says by merely looking at a score “I’m not qualified to say whether its great or crappy.”

In the end, Fishman said logistics were as much of the discussion as the quality of the music.

“It’s not a question of whether it was not a good symphony,” Fishman said. “It’s just a question of how much space to you allow in a season for an unknown work.

“You’re always thinking about how to balance in only six concerts well-known symphonies that sell tickets with unknown works that the audience might like. It was one of those tough calls you make.”

Fishman, now the CEO of the San Antonio Symphony, said the complexity of the work, large chorus needed and its obscurity required higher than normal expenditures in resources, personnel and rehearsal time.

As for the symphony falling from the American repertoire, Fishman says “There’s 500 unjustly neglected works by American composers.”

However, he does admit it’s peculiar that a work by someone of Harris’ stature and debuted by the National Symphony would disappear entirely.

But he adds there’s an axiom in classical music that the biggest challenge is getting a second show for a piece.

Like Sidlin, he commended Malveaux and offered good wishes.

After its debut, the “Bicentennial Symphony” was put on a plane and destined for a performance in Dallas.

The music was purportedly lost in flight and could not be retrieved and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra went on to perform another piece.

The “lost in flight” scenario doesn’t play with Sidlin, who says there would have been multiple copies of the symphony score available, including scores for the conductor and the choral director.

And yet all have been lost, discarded or misplaced over the years.

Sidlin’s guess is that after the reviews of the piece in Washington, a decision was made to go with a different performance.

The National Symphony Orchestra says it has no audio records of the the “Bicentennial Symphony” and there is no known recording of the music anywhere.

In the modern YouTube age such an occurrence seems inconceivable, but representatives of the National Symphony say shows in past years often went unrecorded and that the volume of music the orchestra produced made it unfeasible to save everything.

Malveaux believes there is also a certain conservatism that runs through the classical music community and once Harris became old news and his star had faded, few were willing to take a chance on his music. Particularly a piece for which there were no recordings and no accessible score, save for the lone original squirreled away in Los Angeles. Malveaux only learned years after he began pitching the piece that there was no publicly available copy of the written music.

There have been some revivals of Harris’ music since his death. When Clark conducted the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, he staged a Roy Harris Festival and recorded Harris’ sixth or “Gettysburg Symphony” on Albany Records.

That symphony was also included earlier this year in a three-day Lincoln bicentennial series by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in February.

But it is Malveaux, and Malveaux alone, who has led the effort to revived the “Bicentennial Symphony.”
Malveaux holds no illusions that next Sunday’s concert will make Harris a household name or transform his legacy.

Having the symphony played free of charge by a community orchestra and freelance chorale group, outdoors and in a public park setting filled with running children, harried mothers and teenagers whose tastes lean to hip-hop is not the ideal set-up for such a high-minded effort.

And yet, to someone like Harris, who believed wholly in the accessibility of music of all music to all people, the unlikely setting may be the perfect setting.

Malveaux admits he would have preferred a more formal setting with better acoustics and assigned seating where listeners could truly focus on the music.

At the same time, Malveaux has said the financial limitations have been “staggering” and he his immensely grateful to the Parks Department and Sherri Nixon-Joiner in particularly for agreeing to provide the venue and the date.

Malveaux says there will be leaders in local classical music circles at the event who he hopes will give the piece serious consideration. He also plans to record the concert for posterity.

“I hope to give a presentation that will spur interest and consideration,” Malveaux says.

And if there were racial motives at play in ignoring the music, Malveaux says he is duty-bound to bring it back.

“If there were racial issues for holding it back and I didn’t bring it forward, I would be complicit in the effort to bury it,” he says.

If the music fails to reach people musically, Malveaux can say he did his part to honor Harris and to give his last major work an airing that had been denied.

In the end, however, Malveaux says the idea of the symphony is really about bringing people together. The symphony ends with the Emancipation Proclamation and the idea that this country and its values are for all to share.

“It’s not only about about slavery, it’s about our constitution, our common humanity,” Malveaux says. “Our common humanity. What else brings us together?”, 562-499-1291


June 13, Martin Luther King Jr. Park

12:10 p.m. High Stepper Drill Team/Drum Squad

12:30 p.m. Opening Ceremony

1:00 p.m.Bicentennial Symphony, West Coast premiere: MusicUNTOLD Orchestra & Chorale Joseph R. Taylor, conductor, Zanaida Robles, chorale director.

1:50 p.m. Homeland B-Boy Breakers

2:20 p.m. Hmong Association of Long Beach

3:05 p.m. Mighty Mo Rodgers-The New Bluez

4:15 p.m. Bobby Rodriguez-Latin Jazz

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