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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Monday, 3 June 2013

MIMC 2013: A Competition to Remember

MIMC 2013: A Competition to Remember

Joseph So

 MIMC 2013 Laureates (l. ro r.) Zeyu Victor Li (3rd Prize), Marc Bouchkov (1st Prize), Stephen Waarts (2nd Prize)

To music lovers, there's nothing like a good competition, where we get to hear the stars of tomorrow. The Montreal International Musical Competition is certainly one of the best.  I have been covering the MIMC since 2005 and I've heard repeatedly from many people (audience members, competitors, jury members) that MIMC is one of the best organized and prestigious classical music competitions in the world. Many of the laureates, be it violinist, pianist or singer, have gone on to significant careers.  So this is an eagerly anticipated event for me every year.  I received a formal invitation to cover the 68th Jeunesses Musicales International Annual General Assembly for La Scena Musicale, in conjunction with the MIMC finals, but a freak accident - resulting in an injured shoulder - prevented me from attending. Best laid plans of mice and men as they say.... Sadly, life intervened!   

However, all was not lost!  I limped my way from Toronto to Montreal to attend the Winners Concert in the evening of May 17th, in the acoustically wonderful, Jack Diamond-designed Maison symphonique. And it was a grand concert indeed, a nearly full house. All six finalists performed, beginning with 19 year old Taiwanese Chi Li playing the last movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. This is a happy, bubbly piece of music, and Mr. Li certainly expressed that fully, with a fluent and liquid style that was a pleasing start to the evening. However, one wished for ideally a bit more weighty tone, more depth of expression through a great variety of tone colours.  He was followed by the only female finalist, 18 year old Ji Young Lim of South Korea. Her "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso was altogether lovely, beautifully expressive and with plenty of chiaroscuro. Twenty year old French violinist Fedor Roudine reprised his Tchaikovsky last movement with refulgent tone, although I find his playing lacking a bit in excitement. 

After an intermission, it was the first of the three laureates - 16 year old Chinese violinist Zeyu Victor Li played Ravel's Tzigane, a piece with a very long, unaccompanied solo right at the beginning.  This piece taxes even the most seasoned violinist, someone with lots of experience. Mr. Li played it with astonishing ease, prodigious technique, supreme confidence, and uncommon poise - I ran out of accolades in describing his playing.  The truth is that all these young artists have technique to burn - that's a given. But the best ones also have something to say. Victor Li definitely has a great deal to say, and I predict a great future for him.  Second prize winner Stephen Waarts followed with the first movement of the Brahms he played previously.  This enormously talent young man (another 16 year old!) played with the most gorgeous tone and uncommon musicality. I did notice that his stage presence was a bit too self-effacing, and he was distinctly nervous, wiping his palm on his pants at least a half dozen times during the performance. With some fine-tuning (no pun intended), Mr. Waarts will go far.  The last performance belonged to 22 year old Belgian Marc Bouchkov playing the complete Sibelius Concerto. For the finals, he played the Tchaikovsky, so to have both ready to go was really impressive to begin with. Mr. Bouchkov's interpretation of the Sibelius was nothing short of stupendous - exemplary musicality, singing tone, abundant expression, bravura technique, and a musical understanding that belies his tender years. I was just overwhelmed by his playing, and I feel strongly that Mr. Bouchov was fully deserving of the First Prize. I look forward to hearing him many more times in the future. The conducting of Maxim Vengerov was terrific, very sympathetic to the soloists, yet allowing the marvelous Montreal Symphony to shine through.

This competition underscores the depth of talent among the young artists coming up, and music lovers can look forward to the continued renewal of the art form. Thanks to initiatives of Jeunesses Musicales of Canada that spearheaded the MIMC in 2002, Canadian music lovers have the opportunity to hear the best young artists in the world, and I say 'Bravo'!  

The Winners Circle: 
First Prize: Marc Bouchkov, 22 (Belgium)
$30,000 plus Sartory bow valued at $3700 Canadian.

Second Prize: Stephen Waarts,16 (USA)

Third Prize: Zeyu Victor Li  (China)

Best performance of the Compulsory Canadian Work: Luk Hsu, 22 (USA)

Radio Canada People's Choice Award:  Stephen Waarts (USA)

Wilder and Davis Award for the best Semi-Final Recital:  Marc Bouchkov, 22, Belgium

MIMC Grants for the Unranked Finalists: Chi Li, 19 Taiwan; Ji Young Lim, 18 South Korea; Fedor Roudine, 20 France. 
$2,000 each

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In Memoriam: Mario Bernardi (20 Aug 1930 - 2 June 2013)

Mario Bernardi (Kirkland Lake Aug 20th 1930 - Toronto June 2nd 2013)

It was reported overnight that the eminent Canadian conductor Mario Bernardi has died. He was the founding conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and was conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic and the CBC Radio Orchestra.  Here is a very good obituary of Bernardi in the CBC News website:

To remember Bernardi, here is a video clip of a CBC News segment on the passing of Mario Bernardi:

And here is another Youtube clip of Bernardi conducting the Bach keyboard concerto in F minor BWV1056, with Angela Hewitt as the soloist.

- Joseph So

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This Week in Toronto (June 3 - 9)

Violinist Joshua Bell makes a welcome return to the TSO

The big news on the classical music scene this week is the return of American violinist Joshua Bell to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. A frequent visitor, Bell will perform Ravel's Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra, and then he will join forces with bassist Edgar Meyer in the Canadian premiere and TSO co-commission Concerto for violin and double bass, an unusual combination!  The Ravel is a stunning piece with an extended unaccompanied violin solo in the beginning. I heard this played just two weeks ago in the Montreal International Musical Competition (Violin) Winners Concert. Peter Oundjian conducts. Rounding out the program are Copland's wonderful Appalachian Spring - is there a more archetypal piece of Americana? - and Respighi's Pines of Rome. This is a terrific program and well worth attending. Three performances on June 5, 6, and 8 at Roy Thomson Hall.

John Malkovich appears in The Giacomo Variations (Photo: Show One Productions)

Svetlana Dvoraskaya's Show One Productions, together with Starvox Entertainment, is presenting The Giacomo Variations starring famous actor John Malkovich of Dangerous Liaisons fame.  This show represents a fusion of theatre and opera, based on the life of Giacomo Casanova, and the music of Mozart. Also appearing with Malkovich are Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite, German baritone Florian Boesch, and German soprano Sophie Klussmann, with Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselboeck.   The show opens at Place des Arts in Montreal on June 4 and comes to the Elgin Theatre in Toronto for performances on June 7, 8 and 9 at 8 pm (extra performance at 3 pm on June 8) this week.

Heather Ogden and Noah Long in Carmen (Photo: Sian Richards)

With the COC season over, the Four Seasons Centre has once again become the home of the National Ballet of Canada. It is presenting a full length version of Carmen. Originally presented in 2006 in a one-act version by Davide Bombana, he has now expanded it to a full-length work, set largely to Shchedrin's Carmen Suite as well as music by Bizet. Performances daily June 5 to 9 at the Four Seasons Centre.  Details at

Opera by Request, an artist-driven organization, is presenting Massenet's Manon in a concert performance on June 7 at 7:30 pm, at the College Street United Church. I had my first Opera by Request experience recently, when I attended the Wagner Birthday Celebrations at the Arts and Letters Club, courtesy of the Toronto Wagner Society. Three fine singers (tenor Jason Lamont, soprano Olga Tylman and baritone Will Lewans) together with pianist William Shookoff from Opera by Request performed a concert Act One Die Walkure, and it was an enjoyable afternoon hearing the divine score. Obviously operas are meant to be presented with orchestra, but I don't remember the last time the Massenet opera was put on by the COC, so this is likely the only chance one will get to hear this opera in the foreseeable future. Do give this group a try.

Domoney Artists Management, an up-and-coming management company representing Canadian classical artists under the direction of soprano Kathy Domoney, is branching out to include concert presentation with this show, The Star of Robbie Burns. On June 7th 7:30 pm at the Church of the Redeemer, actor RH Thomson, soprano Virginia Hatfield, baritone Benjamin Covey and pianist Melody McShane will be featured in a program of poetry and song, and there will be tea and shortbread, presumably at intermission!  Details at

Two artists new to me - American violinist/literary scholar Keir GoGwilt and pianist/poet/composer Matthew Aucoin join forces to present Wordless Dreams, a recital that features two Canadian premieres, a musical reworking of Beckett's television play Nacht und Traume inspired by the famous Schubert song, and Whitman Suite, from Aucoin's opera in commemoration of the Civil War. The program also includes Sonatas by Bach, Mozart and Bartok. Finally one of my favourite songs, Nachtigall by Alban Berg, one of the Sieben fruhe Lieder, arranged by GoGwilt. Normally sung by a soprano or mezzo, I assume the solo here is the violin. The full program can be found at  Recital at noon in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre June 4. Be sure to arrive early to ensure a seat.

- Joseph So

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