Ontario-born composer John Burge (b 1961) has produced a significant contribution to contemporary piano repertoire with his Twenty-Four Preludes (2011-15). Taking their cue from Chopin in their key scheme, they succeed in creating atmosphere and conviction within accessible yet pastiche-free stylistic limits. The complete cycle takes about 65 minutes fo perform, but pieces form the set could also be presented in groups, pairs or even individually.
Though there are about five or six fiendishly viruoso numbers in the set, there are some that lie comfortably under the hand and could be tackled by a Grade 5- to 6-level player with relative ease. No 5 is a case in point—a remarkable essay in which the pianist's left hand sliently depresses as many bass notes as possible before bar one. This creates a wonderful quasi-Bartókian "Out of Doors" soundscape, which continues for all of the Prelude's 19 bars. In fact, there are lots of special effects in the cycle, with the player plucking strings and obtaining 'extra-pianistic' colours that recall sonorities first exploited by the American composer Henry Cowell at the start of the last century (see Prelude 14, a piece in which the right hand is directed to "slap the lowest strings inside the piano like a bass drum').
As one may expect, there are motivic and colouristic references to Chopin: the opening C major prelude, with its delicious inner melodies, seems like a commentary on Chopin's Op. 28/1 as well a The Swan by Saint-Saëns. Also, don't miss the touching and witty, reference to the 'Aeolian Harp' Etude in Prelude 17 — a striking essay in piano texture, dividing the instrument into four ranges (as decreed on many grands by the iron frame itself). Elsewhere there are nods in the direction of Kabalevsky and Prokofiew (No 3 'Playground Games') as well as hints back to Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Nos 4, 5 and 15). There is lots of exotic rhythmic asymmetry (see no 7) as well as the potential to project exquisite colours and 'colour counterpoint' (8 and 21).
In terms of bravura and virtuosity the final Prelude in D minor pulls out all the stops, ensuring rapturous applause for whoever performs it live. Perhaps it is easier than the outsized Prelude in G-sharp minor, which requires lots of flexibility and élan. On a smaller scale, No 9 'The Singing Clock' is an effective concert study. But none of these are as memorable, nor as 'funky' as No 13, entitled 'One-Note Ostinato." Overall Burge is not as melodically indvidual as one could have hoped, but these Preludes are pianist-and audience-friendly pieces that many will find persuasive.
Murray McLachlan [Publication Review from International Piano, January/February 2018 p. 76]
Piano Reflections is a varied collection of compositions for the Intermediate and Advancing pianist. Each piece is virtuosic in its own right, and would make a wonderful addition to any student’s performance repertoire. Burge includes a diverse assortment of styles, from the neo-impressionistic Pastels to the driving and energetic One-Note Groove. This well-balanced collection contains many excellent pedaling and fingering suggestions, made by Burge himself.
Variations on a Simple Theme is a particularly attractive piece, particularly for students who are new to the form. Burge takes a simple C major scale and manipulates it creatively through diverse variation techniques within the work’s twelve variations. The piece is extremely fun to play and sounds very flashy, making it an excellent recital piece for any Level 9 student.
Dancing Arpeggios is another notable selection that is a follow-up to the Etude Dancing Scales from the RCM Level 6 Celebration Series. Burge’s arrangement of O Canada gives advanced pianists a flashy and virtuosic take on our nation’s great anthem. Finally, the collection includes Oscillations, a Diploma level selection approachable for students of any age. Utilizing elements of impressionism and minimalism intertwined with “modern” notation and exploiting the extreme registers of the instrument, Burge has created a piece that many advanced pianists will love, and be able to grow with. This collection is a welcomed addition to any advanced pianist’s repertoire.
Dr. Christine Tithecott - Ontario
[Publication Review from The Canadian Federation of Music Teacher's Association Magazine: THE CANADIAN MUSIC TEACHER, Volume 68, No. 2, January 2017, p. 39]:
- Burge's Piano Quartet gives us a shifting focus of moods and expressivity in the three movements involved. The second movement centers around lyrically passionate mystery; the outer movements have a rousing rhythmic energy and part writing that plays the piano off of the strings as aggregates and individually, all in ways that immerse you continuously in a grand wealth of thematic invention. Throughout there is the spice of chromatic modernism, classical developmental presence plus a neo- and post-romantic passion that come together convincingly and individually. Ensemble Made in Canada do much to communicate the excitement and depth of the music. They are a first-rate ensemble who play with great conviction and elan. The combination of Burge's dynamic individuality and the Ensemble Made in Canada's brio and brilliance make for a real winner. Bravo! [Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review, February 4, 2016]
- The largest portion of the CD [Ontario Reflections, Hannaford Street Silver Band Live, Vol 1] is devoted to Burge's work, Cathedral Architecture, recently premiered by the HSSB last November (2012) at Metropolitan United Chruch with organist William O'Meara, lead by UK composer and conductor Edward Gregson. A substantial five-movement piece, the combination of brass band and organ generates numerous sonically varied passages and the recording has done a fine job capturing the reverbereant resonance particularly in the loud passages (and the work certainly tries to blow the roof off at the end). [Notations Fall 2013, page 34, Canadian Music Centre Ontario Centre]
- The Westben Festival launched its 13th season with the Jun. 30 premiere of its first opera commission, The Aution, by composer John Burge and librettist Eugene Benson. Billed as a "Canadian folk opera," it based on the Jan Andrew's children's book of the same title. Thematically, however, this story about the sale oa family farm, told mainly from the perspective of a young boy, deals with loss and regret acorss three generations, and the opera makes more of the adults' experience. It unfolds rather like a balla opera, with time shifts between past and present creating a nice dramatic layering. Written for voices and a small chamber orchestra—string trio, piano, guitar/banjo, percussiona and musical saw—Burge's score is varied and colrful, providing the right soundscape and scale for the rural story that premiered in a barn theatre. This must be the first Canadian opera to feature a musical saw in the plot and score, skillfully played by Beverley Johnston. Conducted by Philip Headlam, the staging benefited from the experience of a cast including baritone Bruce Kelly as the widowed Granddad, whose farm is for sale, mezzo Kimberly Barber as his wife (in flashbacks) and soprano Donna Bennett as Alberta, their daughter. Tenor Keith Klassen, verstile as ever, took on the double role of the Auctioneer and Preacher, alongside tenor Tim Stiff as Mike Fedak, the rather yokelish family friend and baritone Matthew Zadow as the young Granddad. Special mention must be made of the vivid portrayal of the young Todd, here played as a trouser role by Grade 5 student Olivia Rapos. Her voice was enhanced, so seemed in a different space at times, but here clearly was a very talented young artist singer-actor. Burge's tuneful and witty score draws on many genres (there is also a couple of dance sequences) and Benson's text is full of character and incident...The Auction is a poignant and engaging piece that will resonate with audiences well beyond Westben's farmland setting. [Wayne Gooding, Opera Canada, Fall 2012, page 38]