Concerto for Solo Guitar and Chamber Orchestra (1963) by Esther W. Ballou

My Friend, Esther

I first studied theory at American University with Esther in 1963. She was an inspired teacher, one who could breathe life into the dullest exercise. In me, she encountered an eager student. Something clicked between us, and during the second half of March of the following year, she told me she was interested to compose for the guitar, and would I advise her as to the technicalities?

Memory failing me as to the particulars of the first performance, I contacted Dick Thomas, the recording engineer on the occasion, who kindly offered the following information:

“You knocked on the right door. I made that recording and have here in
hand the original master tape. Your very fine performance was with
Richard Bales conducting the National Gallery Orchestra at the Unitarian
Church of Arlington VA on Sunday afternoon, 21 March 1965. This program
was presented by the Bennington College Alumnae of Washington DC as a
benefit for their alma mater and included several other pieces by Esther.”

Orchestras don’t come cheap. The performance budget for the occasion provided for one meagre rehearsal, immediately prior to the concert. In spite of my inexperienced student status, preparation by Esther and accommodation by Richard Bale’s adroit conducting meant I did not feel unduly discomfited. None the less, such limited rehearsal time inevitably qualifies the result; so digitalizing and editing Dick’s great tape (audiophiles: for more info, see Dick and Bruno’s correspondence below) has played a crucial role in finally producing the present, at least listenable account.

As to details, I recall practicing for several months prior to the performance on Aaron’s Velasquez. Also, I remember the trumpet player coming over and apologising after the performance. His embouchure was in bad shape it seemed, as he had come from a three week gig with the circus!

Time passed. For me, Washington was exchanged for Baltimore; American University for the (then still) Peabody Conservatory. One day in mid-1969 as I was sauntering through the canteen, suddenly there was Esther, that gaze of hers that had seen everything, riveting me as though she had merely glanced casually away, rather than been absent from my life for four years. For two more years following that chance meeting, while a Peabody faculty member/cum photography student at the Maryland Institute of Art (thank you Jerry Stephany!), I studied composition with Esther. The time for our departure for Singapore in 1972 narrowly preceded that of hers for England, where she was going, ostensibly, for a year of study leave. Our parting, one evening at her house in Washington, was the only thing about her farewell party that stuck with me. It was certainly (I thought at the time) a conclusive ‘goodbye!’ Just how conclusive was to dawn on me a few months later, when it became evident that she and Harold had in fact journeyed to the English countryside,  “far from the madding crowd,” to cope with her terminal illness.

In memory, as in her music, Esther lives on. Now, happily, through the wonders of technology, Bruno and I are able to present the one and only rendition of her Concerto for Solo Guitar and Chamber Orchestra, to you, the listener.

Do as Esther would have had you do: Get comfortable and let the music begin!

Recording Engineers old and new – a conversation between
Bruno and Dick Thomas.

BGL: Could you tell us about the equipment that was used to make the original 1965 recording?

DT: The original recordings were made with a stereo pair of microphones (notably, Joyce Carr’s singing, as well as a cantata/oratorio in a church with organ, soloists, and large choir) on a big Ampex 354, writing half-track stereo tape at 15ips [no noise reduction circuitry needed!!] and sound today as though they were made yesterday. The recording is half-track mono at 7.5 inches per second, and  I’m fairly certain that the microphone was a Neumann U-67. For a completely compulsive detail I’ll note that the medium was Scotch quarter-inch low-noise mylar.

First, a note on the Neumann U-67 itself.  This large-diaphragm single-channel condenser mike cost $600 back in 1963 (and I had to buy a pair for stereo, of course).  It was known for its extremely clean sound and its versatility — you could choose from several distinct patterns, all of which performed very accurately. There’s a ton of info on the web about this mike and you may find it entertaining.  I sampled some of it recently and played a video in which it was suggested that the few original U-67s still to be found (production ceased in the mid-1960s) will fetch as much as $15,000 each. There are also modern “replacement” U67s advertised as “similar” for two or three thousand but they apparently lack the smooth virtues of the true original.

BGL: What was the recording setup like and how were the microphones positioned?

DT: As I recall, the church had a small raised choir stall at the front on the right side (as seen from the back of the room) and Robert & Bales & orchestra, facing the congregation, were all squeezed into that space rather tightly.  I believe Bales was using a reduced orchestra; Esther’s score didn’t call for Wagnerian forces.  Robert was alone fronting this assembly and I had a single U-67 as close to the guitar as I could get it (several feet?).  There was really no choice about placement.  The space was not designed for recording, so we had to go with that primitive pickup.  Bob’s recollection of the arrangements will be much more accurate than mine, as I was in the room just long enough to place the microphone before exiting while laying cable to a side or basement room where the recording machine was set up.

BGL: What do you think of the ‘new’ version that we have produced, almost half a century after the original recordings were made?

DT: Wow — that’s a pretty impressive piece of work.  Things really came together for a much better representation of the event and of Esther’s intent.  (On the tech side, the tight response of that old U-67 can be heard as well.)  The orchestra has always sounded tentative, with certain brilliant exceptions, and clearly more rehearsal would have led to better blend.  But considering the realities and the fact that what you started with is the one and only existing source, it’s all the more important that you’ve been able to create this resuscitated performance.  It must have been a huge effort for both of you and what you have made is a thing of value and beauty.

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