La Scena Musicale

Monday, 20 January 2014

Austin Symphony Plays & Records Neglected Music by Edward Burlingame Hill

Grieg: Peer Gynt: Prelude to Act I
Hill: Concertino No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra Op. 44 (1938-39)
Grieg: Peer Gynt: Suite No. 1
Hill: Divertimento for Piano and Orchestra (1926)
Grieg: Peer Gynt: Suite No. 2
Hill: Concertino No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra Op. 36 (1931)

Anton Nel, piano
Austin Symphony Orchestra/Peter Bay

Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
January 11, 2014

Orchestras all over America are having a difficult time balancing their budgets in tough economic times and one isn't surprised to see many of them playing it safe - programming largely repertoire that audiences know and love to keep their box offices busy. Not the case in Austin, Texas! Yes, the Austin Symphony (ASO) gives its audiences a healthy dose of the "familiar" classics...but to its credit, it also occasionally steps out on a limb to promote neglected music - in this case, "made in America!" 

Last week, the ASO programmed three works by Edward Burlingame Hill (1892-1960), a more than “relatively” unknown American composer. While Hill (photo:right) spent most of his life teaching at Harvard, he was able to get some performances of his work by ensembles of the stature of Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. He is also remembered as a teacher of classical superstar Leonard Bernstein, and composers Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, among others.

While Hill apparently successfully nurtured the musical genius of others, his own music has disappeared almost without a trace.

Last season the Austin Symphony gave Hill’s Symphony No. 4 its world premiere! This season, in programming three of his works in one concert, the Austin Symphony and conductor Peter Bay were setting out on a Burlingame Hill adventure and inviting audiences to take that journey with them.

Austin Symphony Spearheading Hill Revival?
A cursory scan of orchestral programming around the country gives no hint of a Hill revival. In fact, there isn’t one! The Austin Symphony is singlehandedly leading the charge. Not only is the ASO performing Hill’s music in concert, it is also releasing a "live recording" CD of the four Hill pieces it played - the Austin Symphony’s first commercial recording!

In his program notes for last week’s ASO concerts, Karl Miller claimed that the neglect of Hill’s music “had more to do with circumstances as opposed to the quality of the music.” I am already on record as having being unimpressed with last season’s Symphony No. 4, and while the three works for piano and orchestra performed last week each had some memorable moments, I came away from that concert more convinced than ever that Hill was, at best, a minor composer.

To offset the unfamiliarity of the Hill pieces to his audience, conductor Peter Bay alternated the three Hill pieces with some incidental music written by Edvard Grieg for Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt.

Interestingly, both Grieg and Hill were miniaturists; that is to say, they were at their best in short pieces. Unfortunately, while Grieg is one of the greatest miniaturists in the history of music, Hill’s miniatures often give the impression that they are short because the composer couldn’t think of anything more to say. Taking the comparison further, while Grieg gives us one inspired melody after another – especially in Peer Gynt – Hill demonstrates no lyric gift at all.

American Classical in the Jazz Era 
In his program notes and pre-concert talk, Karl Miller also emphasized the influence of jazz on Hill’s music, noting that the jazz in question was “very early” jazz. To my ears, Hill seemed to miss the point of jazz music entirely. Significantly, the evening’s soloist, pianist Anton Nel (photo:right) chose Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk as an encore. In this charming piece Debussy showed that he not only understood the jazz music of his day, but he also understood how it could be used to wonderful effect in a classical piece - but then, Debussy was a musical genius and Hill was not.

Then there is the example of Maurice Ravel and his Piano Concerto in G major. This piece not only illustrates the influence of jazz on classical music, but also demonstrates an ability to handle large forms. Hill’s three works for piano and orchestra - none of which lasted much more than 10-12 minutes - seem more like “sketches” for a concerto than finished pieces.

Strangely, each of the Hill pieces has a grandiose tune that would have been more at home in a bigger piece. The grandeur fails to flow from what has come before, and never reaches its full potential. The piece is over before we can appreciate what all the huffing and puffing is about.

That said, Concertino No. 2 did have a slow section of uncommon beauty, and Concertino No. 1 had some striking harmonies and orchestral textures. While he tossed off the demanding piano parts with his usual mastery, pianist Anton Nel was, unfortunately, guilty of trying to oversell these modest pieces. One tired of his continual tossing of both arms in the air after nearly every phrase.  

In spite of my reservations, however, I did welcome the opportunity to hear these three pieces by Edward Burlingame Hill, especially in such well-prepared performances. The concert helped to flesh out my appreciation of what American composers were writing in the 1920s and 30s, and how they were influenced, for better or worse, by jazz and other home-grown music. This was a period when many young American composers were going to Europe to learn their craft but trying to create a sound and a style that was truly American.

Aaron Copland was spectacularly successful in this regard, and not long afterwards, Leonard Bernstein. And the figure of George Gershwin towers over most of the others. Gershwin understood jazz from the inside out, had a unique gift for melody, and was well on his way to being able handle large forms too, when he died suddenly at the age of 38. I would venture to say that as long as there are symphony orchestras Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and the Concerto in F will continue to be played – and often.

Whether or not Grieg’s popular Peer Gynt Prelude and Suites were programmed to balance the unfamiliar Hill pieces, their inclusion was definitely appreciated by the audience. Peer Gynt may be overly familiar, but it is wonderful music that deserves to be part of a “main series” program not just a Pops concert. The musicians of the Austin Symphony were in top form playing this music, and conductor Peter Bay found the essence of each of these short pieces. The strings played with remarkable warmth, and the winds and percussion sparkled.

Something more…
For their recording of the four Hill pieces, the Austin Symphony engaged some of the best producers and engineers in the business. Blanton Alspaugh and John Newton operate a Boston-based recording company called Sound Mirror. The company’s personnel literally travel the world recording soloists, choirs and orchestras. Among the orchestras they have recorded are the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Mariinsky Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Nashville Symphony and the Toronto Symphony. Recordings produced by Sound Mirror have been issued on most of the major labels including Philips, DG, Telarc, Chandos, Naxos, and Pentatone. In 2013, Blanton Alspaugh won a Grammy as Classical Producer of the Year.

Anyone interested in hearing more music by E.B. Hill will find only a handful of commercial recordings available, but there are some internet offerings here.

For more on Karl Miller, an authority on neglected American composers and their music, visit the website for his record label Pierian.

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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Sunday, 19 January 2014

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 20 - 26)

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 20 - 26)

- Joseph So

Pianist Louis Lortie

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is in full swing this week with four concerts. French Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is in town to play and conduct an all-Mozart program with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  He's playing the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K, 482. Jonathan Crow, the TSO Concertmaster, is soloist in the Violin Sonata No. 18, K.301/293a. Rounding out the program is Serenade No. 10, the "Gran Partita".  Wednesday Jan. 22 and Thursday 23 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.  On Saturday Jan. 25 8 pm and Sunday Jan. 26 3pm, Quebec Symphony Orchestra conductor Fabien Gabel is in town for an (almost) all French program of Thomas, Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz, Satie, Saint-Saens, plus Wagner, a bit of a potpourri. The centerpiece is the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major with soloist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough.

Pianist Marc Andre Hamelin

Pianist Marc Andre Hamelin is making a welcome return to Toronto under the auspices of Music Toronto, this time in Schubert's Four Impromptus D935, another finger-breaker by Nikolai Medtner - Sonata in E Minor Op. 25 no. 2, and Hamelin's own composition, Barcarolle (2012). Recital on Tuesday Jan. 21 at 8 pm.

 Soprano Layla Claire

Canadian Opera Company continues with Cosi fan tutte (Jan. 24 at 7:30 pm) starring soprano Layla Claire, mezzo Wallis Giunta, tenor Paul Appleby, baritone Robert Gleadow, soprano Tracy Dahl and bass Sir Thomas Allen, conducted by COC Music Director Johannes Debus.  I attended the opener last evening and it was quite a memorable performance for a number of reasons.  First of all, it was the longest Cosi I've ever experienced, positively Wagnerian in length, clocking in at three hours and thirty-five minutes, including a fairly short intermission. Debus proved to be a most versatile conductor, adept at Strauss as well as Mozart, and everything in between! His tempi tend to be on the slow side, and as a singer-friendly conductor, he allows the soloists the more leisurely tempo in their respective arias. As far as I could tell, most if all the music typically cut in performance these days have been restored in this production, including the Act 2 aria "Tradito, schernito" a difficult aria that sits awkwardly in the passaggio. Tenor Paul Appleby sang it well if at a fairly slow clip. In fact the singing of the six principals were excellent.  Layla Claire and Wallis Giunta made a totally believable pair of sisters - they could be twins - their voices blending beautifully. Veterans Sir Thomas Allen (Alfonso) and Tracy Dahl (Despina) couldn't have been better as the pair of intriguers. Baritone Robert Gleadow showed off his perfect comic timing as Guglielmo and he sounded the best I've heard him. The production by Atom Egoyan is fanciful and heavy on symbolism, its merit dependent on one's affinity to concept staging. The funny bits were right on the mark, judging by the frequent laughter from the audience. Visually it's quite a lovely production. This show is a must for Mozart fans, and you won't get better musical qualities than this.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe

The great American mezzo Stephanie Blythe is in town this week giving masterclasses at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. She was supposed to be the John R Stratton Visitor last year but illness forced her to withdraw. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka took her place last year. Blythe is finally here this week. She is giving an art songs masterclass on Tuesday at 7 pm  to 9:30 pm in Walter Hall, and an arias masterclass at noon on  Thursday Jan. 23. On Friday Jan. 24 at 7:30 pm is An Evening of English Songs, with Ms. Blythe and the students who participate in her classes this week.  Incidentally, the singer has a new CD coming out -  As Long as There Are Songs, with Craig Terry at the piano and featuring selections from the Great American Songbook.  This CD is recorded by Meyer Sound using their groundbreaking Constellation Acoustics Technology. If you are intrigued by this disc, more information is available at    For more information of this week's activities, go to

Soprano Charlotte Corwin

Domoney Artists Management, under the directorship of Kathy Domoney, is presenting The Star of Robbie Burns on Saturday Jan. 25 2 pm at Church of the Redeemer in the Bloor Street & Avenue Road area of downtown Toronto.  This concert celebrates the life and work of Scottish poet Robert Burns. The host is Andrew Gillies, well-known for his Shaw and Stratford Festival appearances. The first half of the program explores Burns' world through word and song. Selections from the Broadway musical Brigadoon is the centerpiece in the second half. Soloists are soprano Charlotte Corwin and baritone Benjamin Covey. Tea and shortbread will be served at intermission. For more information, go to