Danish composer raised standards at Peabody Conservatory

Even the most steeped-in-Baltimore-history types might stare blankly at the mention of Asger Hamerik, but the Danish composer played a crucial, longtime role in the city's cultural history. Hamerik arrived in Baltimore in 1871 to become the second director of the still young Peabody Institute, a post he held for 27 years.

During that period, the music conservatory came into its own. Hamerik ushered in tough academic standards. As Ray Robinson's "A History of the Peabody Conservatory of Music" (1969) points out, the director even decreed mandatory class attendance for all students.

In an appreciation that ran in The Baltimore Sun in 1928, five years after his death, Hamerik was described as "so rigorous in his standards that in a quarter of a century of his administration at the Peabody, only ten diplomas were awarded. Ten years was the usual time for graduation."

The conservatory drew high praise from several distinguished musical visitors during Hamerik's watch, among them Tchaikovsky and Arthur Sullivan.

The director also won the public's attention and support with a concert series he founded and conducted for many years.

In 1874, The Sun reported, Hamerik "astonished musical America" by presenting a performance with orchestra and a 300-voice choir "devoted to nothing but American music." That seems to have been one of the first all-American classical programs in the country, possibly the first.

It was also through Hamerik's concert series that the Peabody Orchestra introduced Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to Baltimore in 1875, a year after the conservatory director started a Wednesday afternoon recital series that welcomed "unescorted ladies."

Throughout his time in the city, Hamerik regularly led performances of his own music, including the premieres of six of his seven symphonies and his Requiem between 1881 and 1898. Now, thanks to a boxed set of four CDs from Dacapo Records (distributed by Naxos), Hamerik the composer can be rediscovered in a big way.

Some of the composer's pieces have made it onto disc before, but they are likely to be eclipsed by this compendium, featuring handsome performances from the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard (who has guest conducted the Baltimore Symphony in recent years).

It's not that Hamerik is revealed here as some lost symphonic giant. But he does emerge from these recordings as a confident, respectable, often very imaginative composer with a gift for engaging melodies, a keen sense of orchestral coloring and a knack for creating heightened drama or lyrical warmth. His effective use of recurring, unifying motifs is traceable to his friendship with a master of that technique, Hector Berlioz.

While the conventional harmonic progressions or the workmanlike passages in the Dane's symphonies are easy to spot, it's just as easy to overlook such things and simply drink in the directly communicative music, starting with the beguiling, pastoral melody that launches Symphony No. 1. The charming second movement of that symphony seems to provide a foretaste of Grieg's "Peer Gynt" music written several years later.

Hamerik liked to give descriptive French titles to his symphonies. The first is "Symphonie poetique." The second, "Symphonie tragique," lives up to that billing, full of dark themes and vivid strokes. The composer seems to have been in a very Beethoven mood here, for the finale includes an action-stopping oboe solo, as in the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth, and a piccolo fluttering about in the triumphant coda, as in the finale of that Fifth.

There are engaging ideas throughout Hamerik's Third ("Symphonie lyrique"), a little too much bluster in the Fourth ("Symphonie majestueuse"). Symphony No. 5 is as weighty as its title, "Symphonie serieuse," and often exceptionally powerful, nowhere more so than in the involving Adagio. Beethoven rears his head again, this time most obviously in the rhythmic insistence of the Scherzo.

Most persuasive of all is No. 6 ("Symphonie spirituelle"), written for strings alone, because financial constraints forced the suspension of full orchestra concerts at Peabody. This score abounds in distinctive melodic ideas, all beautifully worked out. Although the very end of the score runs out of steam - Hamerik wraps things up too matter-of-factly - the Sixth would still make a particularly strong candidate for revival. I suspect audiences today would take to it instantly.

With Symphony No. 7, the "Choral," Hamerik aimed for the grand statement, but got rather long-winded in the process. The piece certainly has its powerful moments, however, and, aside from a sometimes wobbly mezzo-soprano soloist, the performance is as admirably committed as the others in this set. (The first performance of the work in Baltimore was at the Lyric Opera House in 1898, days after Hamerik left town, having resigned in apparent annoyance over budget cutbacks at the conservatory.)

The Danish choral forces are excellent in the recording of the Seventh; same for the Requiem. That work's premiere drew a standing room-only crowd that included Cardinal James Gibbons in 1895.

The Requiem is imbued with echoes of other composers (the "Tuba mirum" passage begins with a fanfare that comes curiously close to the one in Mendelssohn's "Wedding March"), but Hamerik has original flourishes as well and unleashes genuine drama along the way. In the end, it's a substantial achievement by any measure.

Hearing this hefty dose of Hamerik's music helps bring to life a figure who has slipped into obscurity.

Shortly after his death in 1923, a Sun editorial suggested that "two memorials to Asger Hamerik could appropriately be established in this community which owes him much." One was a plaque, realized in 1925 and mounted at the conservatory outside the entrance to Peabody's main concert hall.

The other memorial, "which he himself would prefer," the Sun editorial said, "would be that his compositions should be more frequently played here. They merit the tribute."

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