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Austin Symphony Orchestra recording concert of forgotten composer Edward Burlingame Hill

January 9, 2014

By Luke Quinton
Special to the Austin American-Statesman

When the Austin Symphony Orchestra played its June concert last year, solo violinist Vadim Gluzman’s blistering fast Tchaikovsky understandably garnered most of the audience attention.
But just below Tchaikovsky in that evening’s program was the name of a composer only a handful of people in the room had ever heard of: Edward Burlingame Hill.

Austin Symphony Orchestra conductor Peter Bay and Miller are working together to bring more work from forgotten composers.

The circumstances that made way for Hill’s Fourth Symphony to appear on stage that night were surprising, unlikely and very much the result of an Austin archivist, Karl Miller, who has fairly dedicated his life to tracking down pieces of music that the entire American classical community had completely forgotten.

On Friday and Saturday at the Long Center, the symphony, under the direction of Peter Bay, premieres Hill’s Concertino No. 1 & 2 and performs Hill’s Divertimento for Piano and Orchestra. Both feature Austin pianist Anton Nel. (Also on the program are selections from Grieg’s incidental music for “Peer Gynt.”)
The symphony will record the performance of Hill pieces live for CD release at a later date.

Retired University of Texas music librarian Karl Miller is working to resurrect the music of forgotten American composer Edward Burlingham Hill … read more

Hill was born in Massachusetts in 1872, more than 140 years before his Fourth Symphony received its world premiere in Austin. He studied music at Harvard, traveled to Paris and spent time with French composer Charles Marie Widor, and honed in on the music of Debussy and Darius Milhaud. Eventually Hill taught musical composition as a member of the Harvard faculty. Hill died in 1960.

Miller knows as much as anyone about Hill’s music, from Miller’s work at the fine arts library at the University of Texas where he launched a recordings archive and taught courses in audio preservation and restoration.

Miller sits cross-legged recently on the carpet of his Oak Hill living room, a room less about couch space and televisions and more a shrine to classical recordings.

“I don’t think on these two walls there’s a single Beethoven symphony,” Miller says, with a mixture of defiance and delight. Two white cases packed tight with CDs curve up towards the ceiling, while stereo equipment and several sets of speakers are stacked on either side of the fireplace, along with receivers, tape players, computers and reel-to reel decks.

Miller picks up a photocopy of one of Hill’s pieces. “You can see on there, the dates it was written,” he says. “Between July and August 1931. His summer vacation.”

The composer’s work was not completely ignored during his lifetime. “The Boston Symphony Orchestra played Hill’s music on 80 occasions,” Miller says. A lot of that patronage was due to Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian-born conductor who directed the orchestra for two decades. Koussevitzky came from Europe having championed the likes of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, composers who were all but unknown in America.

When Hill died, he left a lineage of students who went on to become household names, having taught the art of orchestration and composition to Leonard Bernstein and the late avant-gardist Elliott Carter. Miller quotes Bernstein, who said the slow movement of his teacher’s Third Symphony was “like a textbook of orchestration.”

Of Hill’s “Divertimento,” the New York Herald Tribune dubbed the short piece a flirtation with “jazzarella,” saying, “We wanted to hear more of it.”

And yet, for all Hill’s standing among his students and some critics, his work was buried. Only three recordings of his work were ever made, and most of those have serious flaws from poor quality or worn out tapes.

But another reason Hill’s music didn’t survive, says Miller, is that its style was a little too European at a time when two world wars were fanning patriotic flames, and so tastes moved along with the politics, switching rather suddenly into music that was “overtly American.”

Hill had dabbled with jazz — he’d heard Debussy and Milhaud, two European composers who had embraced jazz in a way that many Americans wouldn’t dream. And some of Hill’s jazzy orchestrations predate Gershwin’s famous 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Yet Hill’s use of jazz was subtle by comparison — though Austin audiences will hear the tinges in the symphony concert.

Miller, though, has another theory that explains why Hill’s music was collecting dust in a Harvard library: “Composing, or even performing, was not a thing for a Harvard man to do.”

The mystique, the prestige of higher education did not care to be ruffled by the grit of work, playing for money in the real world.

Bay disagrees: “I actually don’t buy that,” he says. He cites Hill’s own teacher, John Knowles Paine, “Who, in his day, was a very popular composer.”

Hill “was not a huge self-promoter of his music — didn’t have a publisher, agent” Bay says. “If a performance came of it, well, he would be very happy.”

“More importantly, we already had Stravinsky, we already had (Charles) Ives,” Bay says. “And I would say that Hill’s music is not trailblazing. If anything, it’s a throwback to the Romantic era.”

“The same accusation was made with Rachmaninoff. It’s interesting that composers come into their own well after they’re dead. You know, public taste, from what I can explain, is very cyclical — why is there still interest in (the) Beatles’ BBC recordings?”

The symphony’s Hill recording project began with a live taping of the composer’s Fourth Symphony at the Long Center last year. Austin audiences will hear Nel play several concertinos, short concertos written for piano and orchestra. The performance of Hill’s “Concertino No. 2” will garner the symphony a second world premiere.

“I guess it was not in (Hill’s) mindset to do a full piano concerto,” Bay says. But the concertinos are “cut from the same cloth as the symphony — they’re tonal, they’re a little on the Romantic style, little tiny hints of Gershwin with a dash of Debussy.”

Hill’s work embodies an American optimism, Bay says. “I don’t know why that is, but there’s something rhythmic and optimistic about it.”

Bay hopes the symphony’s record will be released later this fall. On both occasions, the symphony has hired a renowned recording team from Boston to capture the live performance. Sound is also taken from dress rehearsals and “patch sessions” — 30 minute recording sessions that happen on the Saturday night, after the audience has left the hall.

“In a perfect world, we would have had a huge amount of cash to do studio recording sessions,” Bay says. “But I think there’s a better energy in a live performance, where we don’t play 100 percent perfectly.”

The symphony is also embarking on a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to help cover the cost of the project.

Bay and Miller both credit their long friendship as the impetus behind this project’s success. “I don’t know anyone who has a more extensive collection of recordings as Karl,” Bay says. “He’s an extraordinary collector of music. He’s not so much a collector of standard literature — he’s more interested in neglected composers.”

They are collaborating with musicians who are interested in recording and releasing neglected music. Miller’s own label, Pierian Recording Society, which is now distributed by Naxos, has long employed Austin musicians to give these composers a chance to be heard for posterity.

“These things may not enter the repertoire,” Miller says. But for him, a music archivist seeing a piece of music in a library is like seeing an architect’s blueprints for a building never built.
The joy comes in lifting it off the page and onto the stereo.

Once the project was confirmed, symphony librarian Alison Mrowka had her work cut out for her. She’s the one who had to take every single note of the hand-written score and transfer them into a computer program.

Then, Bay says, they went note by note, “And in doing this, on occasion, found that Hill hadn’t proofread his own score.” In one flute and clarinet passage, every note was the same — except one.

Miller struggles to understand the mind of the average symphony patrons. “It’s like going to the same restaurant all the time,” he says. And his connection with Bay isn’t always rewarded. Miller says one board member who didn’t like a particular piece (the rather endearing piano duet “Circuit” by Graham Fitkin) confronted Miller, and complained that his influence put the piece on the bill.

“It would be pointless of us to record Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Every orchestra on the planet records that music,” Bay says. But when Miller’s mention of Hill jogged Bay’s memory, he sent off for a copy of the score. “It’s not like we’ve discovered a new Copland masterpiece, but it struck me as honest, charming.”

It also helped that to record Hill’s music, there were no heirs, thus no estate to satisfy. Bay says there are works in a similar state of neglect, written by some of the country’s acknowledged luminaries like Copland and Bernstein.

“For every Hill, there are probably 20 other composers who are neglected.”