La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Tchaikovsky Upstages Edward Burlingame Hill World Premiere in Austin

By Paul E. Robinson

Maestro Peter Bay: Photo by Kenny Trice
Bernstein: Candide Overture
Edward Burlingame Hill: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Op. 47 (premiere)
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol Op. 34

Vadim Gluzman, violin
Austin Symphony Orchestra/Peter Bay

Long Center
Austin. Texas
May 31, 2013

The Austin Symphony (ASO), a conservative organization by nature (It has the balanced budget to prove it!), seldom programs “new” music, let alone world premieres. Even more rarely does it make recordings. This evening’s concert did both.

Edward Burlingame Hills Fourth Symphony (1941) was given its first-ever performance, and from the live performances recorded tonight and tomorrow, as well as from several more Hill premieres programmed for the ASO’s 2013-14 season, a recording will be produced.

To balance the “new” music on this evening’s program, conductor Peter Bay added some very familiar repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful Capriccio Espagnol. With the dazzling Russian-Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman as soloist, and conductor and orchestra in top form, the Tchaikovsky was the highlight of the evening; more about that later.

“Edward Burlingame Hill? Who was he?” you might well ask.
Hill (photo: right) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1872 (d.1960), studied in Paris with the legendary French organist, composer and teacher, Charles-Marie Widor and eventually became a professor of music at Harvard University. Among his own students were composers who later rose to great prominence - Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter and Walter Piston.

Hill himself enjoyed some limited fame during his lifetime - some of his works were performed by the Boston Symphony, under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky; since his death, however, interest in Hill’s compositions has been almost nonexistent, judging by old Schwann record catalogue listings. The Winter 1992/93 edition, for example, has not a single listing of his works – 2001, same story. Today, the Schwann catalogue is no morebut even with some determined googling on the ‘net, one can turn up only a handful of Hill works on CD, few of them current.

Hill’s Symphony No. 4, which dates from 1940, was never performed – reason unknown. Austin’s Karl Miller, a former administrator at the University of Texas Library and founder of the Pierian Recording Society, has a particular interest in American music, especially in the music of composers who have not received the recognition he thinks they deserve. It was Mr. Miller who urged conductor Peter Bay to program Hill’s Fourth Symphony and record the work for posterity. 
Given the dearth of Hill compositions available on CD, one must concede that this is an admirable project. Based on what I know of his music, however, it would be difficult to argue that Hill was in any way a major figure - indeed, after this world premiere, it would be difficult to make the case, even in the face of Hill’s modest output, that the Symphony No. 4 is a successful composition.

"A salty New Englander who loved Debussy."
Through his studies in Paris with Widor (and also with Nadia Boulanger), Hill developed a life-long love of French music. In the words of famous former student Leonard Bernstein, Hill was “a salty New Englander who loved Debussy.” In fact, Hill wrote a book called Modern French Music (1924). One would not be surprised, then, to hear echoes of Debussy and Ravel in Hill’s works. In the 1920s, he also developed an interest in jazz and even wrote some Jazz Studies.

One listens in vain, however, for the influence of Debussy or Ravel, or of any other major modern French composer in Hill’s Fourth Symphony… and for that matter, of jazz. Not that they had to be there, but they might have contributed something of value.

In preparation for the Hill premiere, I listened to whatever other Hill pieces I could find. I was particularly struck by the Symphony No. 1 (1928) in a live performance by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. This piece has some dazzling touches of orchestration and the performance is superb. Ultimately, it presents itself more like a ballet or movie score; at app. 16 minutes, it is really too brief to be termed a full-fledged symphony. What it does have are sweep and brilliance!

The Fourth Symphony, on the other hand, sounds like the work of a man who has lost his touch. The beginning of the last movement has some promising trumpet fanfares in the manner of Korngold, but then the music all but collapses under the weight of academic counterpoint. The first and second movements are even less compelling; words that come to mind are “aimless” and “plodding.” The melodic material is not inspired, the orchestration is dull and predictable, and the climaxes seem to be over even before they get started. I am not surprised that the composer himself withheld this piece from performance.

That said, it must be emphasized that celebration of quality is only one of the reasons for unearthing scores that have been neglected. In Hill’s case, it is enough that he taught a large number of musical luminaries who went on to forge careers more important than his own. When we read about Leonard Bernstein, for example, we really do want to know more about this Harvard man who taught him orchestration. “What kind of music did he write and why is it not more often played?” In premiering and recording the Fourth Symphony more than 70 years after its composition, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony have given us some answers to such questions.

Gluzman's Tchaikovsky Exceptional!
What really electrified the audience on this night was not the Hill premiere, but an exceptional performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. This familiar music turns up nearly every season on symphony programs and its well-crafted combination of virtuosity and great tunes makes it almost a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, but the piece doesn’t play itself. It still takes a great violinist, a talented conductor and an attentive orchestra to make it work. We had all three in this performance.

Vadim Gluzman (photo: right) played with rich tone, impeccable technical skill and obvious love for the music. Undoubtedly, he had some help from the instrument he played – a Stradivarius once owned by Leopold Auer, the very man for whom Tchaikovsky wrote the piece. Auer, who originally deemed the concerto “unplayable,” later became one of its foremost exponent.

Gluzman’s performance was compelling from beginning to end, with a particularly thrilling rendition of the last movement; it really doesn’t have to go that fast, but Gluzman made it work.

In any performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the soloist gets all the attention, but the soloist can’t shine without a really gifted conductor to take care of the accompaniment. This is a very tricky piece to conduct, but it was no problem at all for Peter Bay. Having watched him now for several seasons, I have no doubt that he has one of the best baton techniques in the business, especially in concertos. Few conductors anywhere have such control in their gestures. Fewer still can manipulate the end of the stick as precisely as he can. He is amazing. There was no guesswork in this accompaniment. That made the orchestra play better and it made Gluzman sound even better. This was an exceptional performance and it was a joy to hear it.

The concert ended with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol. This work, rich in Spanish source material, provides numerous opportunities for members of the orchestra to take solo turns. We heard some fine playing from concertmaster Jessica Mathaes, clarinetist Stephen Girko, and oboist Ian Davidson, among others.

For Something More…
Hill’s book Modern French Music is out of print but you can find it online here.  The composer's Collected Works are available at the New England Conservatory of Music

Anyone interested in hearing more of Hill’s music can find his Stevensoniana Suite No. 1 played by Karl Krueger and the Royal Philharmonic (Bridge 9190), his Violin Concerto played by Ruth Posselt with Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony (West Hill Archives 6016) in a live performance from 1938. His Symphony No. 1, also played by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony, is available on Youtube.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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