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Austin Symphony Orchestra With Anton Nel

This concert of music by neglected composer Edward Burlingame Hill returned some lost gems to the concert hall

Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 17, 2014

Anton Nel
Anton Nel

Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Jan. 10

The anticipation is there in the music: that quickening tempo in the skipping strings, the winds skittering under the blare of the horns, the gathering force of the percussion. They signal something on the horizon, something to make the pulse race, the breath catch. Edvard Grieg may have penned his music for the Ibsen drama Peer Gynt many decades before hobbits debuted in print and many more before any appeared on film, but his Prelude to Act I might well have scored the opening of the saga of Bilbo; in its joyfully expectant music lies the promise of adventure, of a journey across vast vistas and recovery of lost treasure.

Which is just what the Austin Symphony Orchestra's first concert of 2014 held – not a hoard as spectacular as the one in which that scaly skinflint Smaug likes to nap, but riches of incalculable value nonetheless, at least to those who prize music. Set throughout the program like jewels around a crown were three short works by Edward Burlingame Hill, an American composer whose renown has been eclipsed by his pupils at Harvard: Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, to name a few. Local music scholar/preservationist Karl Miller has sought to return Hill's music to prominence and enlisted ASO Director Peter Bay in the cause. This performance of a divertimento and two concertinos for piano and orchestra by the composer followed the orchestra's performance of his Fourth Symphony last spring, with both of them recorded for eventual release on CD.

Here, however, Hill shared the bill with Grieg, and the two were worlds apart – specifically, Old World and New World. Though the Peer Gynt music works well in American movies (and gets borrowed for them often enough, not to mention for cartoons and commercials), it has that symphonic grandeur of 19th century Europe, when orchestras were expected to sound like orchestras – epic, commanding. By contrast, Hill's works feel like sketches, and not just because of their brevity. A 20th century sensibility is encoded in their DNA: the casual discord and jangly rhythms of the modern metropolis; the swift, shifting tempos of its restlessly mobile citizens. They're quick, mutable, improvisatory, because modern life is, and with those qualities embodied in jazz (our nation's gift to music), they adopt its style, giving Hill's music an American signature as distinctive as a Gershwin Rhapsody. Hill's kinship with George G. was evident here, especially in the Concertino No. 2, composed in the late Thirties but never performed, making this its world premiere. The piano – played by Anton Nel with his customary elegance and finesse – seemed to wander through Manhattan, dancing through the cosmopolitan hubbub on the streets, then contemplating the skyline from a penthouse.

In Hill we hear his time, its lightness, fleetness, changeability, and, remarkably, 75 years later it still sounds fresh and charms our ear. I feel fortunate that I got to hear these forgotten gems – and that soon I'll get to hear them again and again.

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