Robert Burch (1929-2007)
Concertino for horn, piano and strings (1988)
Performers: Edward Allen (horn), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Franz-Paul Decker (conductor)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
10 May 1994
Introduced by Kenneth Young
Out of everyone I've ever met to this day, it's Robert Burch who had the best timing of the humourous one liner. I was fortunate to call Bob a friend and colleague. He was Second Horn in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for 34 years, and I worked alongside him in the brass ranks for his last 10. We shared a similar sense of humour relating back to the Goon Show, and the orchestra was regularly treated to his poignantly funny lines, delivered in an undertone which, because of his timing, could still be heard by everyone.
Bob Burch was born in Lyttelton in 1929 and grew up in Timaru where he sang in the St Mary's Anglican Church Choir. He also played cornet in the Timaru Municipal Band - yet another New Zealand composer steeped in the brass band tradition.
Moving to Wellington in the mid 40s Burch studied under Frederick Page and Douglas Lilburn at Victoria University. After graduating in 1950 he travelled to London on a Government bursary to study at the Guildhall: composition with Benjamin Frankel and horn with Raymond Bryant of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He returned to New Zealand in 1953 to take up a position in the NZSO. He retired to the Marlborough Sounds in 1987, and passed away in January 2007.
The work we're featuring tonight is his Concertino for horn, piano and strings: a 1988 commission from Principal Horn Edward Allen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
The Concertino is a one movement work in 3 sections; much of it derived from the opening motive. Burch exhausts all the possibilities harmonically, texturally, melodically and rhythmically with this one simple piece of thematic material.
Of course one can take it for granted that his horn writing is idiomatically sound. He takes no undue risks and yet provides well thought out writing in all registers, with effective variation in tone colour which is never overwhelmed by the string accompaniment.
The opening of the Andante middle section is a Passacaglia which admirably demonstrates Burch's contrapuntal skills. It builds in dynamic while flirting with bitonality, a trait of his teacher Frankel, who eventually developed his own style of 12-tone composition that retained contact with tonality.
In the first two sections of the work Burch relies on the piano for harmonic reinforcement, particularly in the lower register (the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů did a similar thing in his own orchestral works). However, starting just before the extended horn cadenzas, Burch begins to treat the piano in a more concertante manner.
I have often lamented how little Bob actually wrote: just nine works in total, and only two of these involving an orchestra. He was a considerably talented composer, but also a keen sailor, and the lure of his boat and the Marlborough Sounds understandably distracted him.