This weekend, the New York Repertory Orchestra is performing Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable." Before we started rehearsing the symphony, I didn't know much more about the piece than its two sets of timpani that "duel" in the last movement. The entire work has grown on me over the past six weeks and I can't wait to play it on Saturday night. As of yesterday, my mother was still thinking about coming to New York for the concert, in part because Nielsen 4 is one of her favorite pieces and she's never heard it live before. I found that hard to believe, given the popularity and accessibility of the symphony. In addition to the fireworks of the outer movements, the second movement is a quiet showcase for the winds and the third movement features a sweeping melody that gives the symphony its "inextinguishable" character. I assumed that she'd heard it in concert at some point during her many years as a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra season-ticket holder.
The PSO doesn't have a database of its performance history, but my other favorite orchestra, The New York Philharmonic, does. I looked up Carl Nielsen and I was surprised to see that of his six symphonies, only four of them have ever been performed by the orchestra. Symphonies No. 4 and 5 have been played the most, with four and five subscription performances (sets of concerts), respectively. Neither one has been on a Philharmonic program since 2003. Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments," which NYRO played in May 2007, has had only one NY Philharmonic subscription performance, in 1973. Symphony No. 3 had one subscription performance in 1965. By way of comparison, Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 3, not one of his most famous works (but one that NYRO has also performed recently), has had eight performances, the last in 2006.
Looking elsewhere in Nielsen's body of work, his Violin Concerto has has two performances, though none since 1989. That may have more to do with the work's place in the virtuoso repertoire than the Philharmonic's program choices. And Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto had two performances by the orchestra's now-retired longtime principal, Stanley Drucker, the last in 1982.
The point is that if Carl Nielsen's music is this unpopular with the New York Philharmonic, one of the busiest orchestras in the world, one could assume that his music is equally unpopular with other major orchestras. I do realize that I'm extrapolating from a small sample size, but I can only work with the data I have. Maybe someone well-placed at the Philharmonic will hear our concert this weekend and more of Nielsen's music will find its way onto upcoming programs.
As of tomorrow, NYRO will have performed four of the six Nielsen symphonies (2, 3, 4, & 5) AND the Violin Concerto. Also, NYRO has played four of the seven Sibelius symphonies (2, 3, 5, & 6). Take THAT NYPhilharmonic!
Nielsen is much more popular in Europe than in the US. Perhaps that's changing. I hope so.
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