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ELLEN BALLON

Ellen Ballon. Pianist, b Montreal, of Russian parents; honorary D MUS (McGill) 1954. She was a child prodigy and at the age of six, in the inaugural year of the McGill Cons (1904), won the first director’s scholarship awarded at that school. She studied there with Clara Lichtenstein. As a child Ballon was praised by Josef Hofmann (whose pupil she became later, in Switzerland and again in New York), Adele aus der Ohe, and Raoul Pugno. Arthur Rubinstein is said to have declared her ‘the greatest pianistic genius I have ever met’. Following a farewell recital at Royal Victoria College in Montreal 27 Dec 1906 she was sent to New York to study with Rafael Joseffy (her patrons were the Canadian prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and the principal of McGill University, Sir William Peterson). She was a child when she made her New York debut in March 1910, playing concertos of Mendelssohn (G minor) and Beethoven (C major) with the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch. In 1912 President Taft invited her to perform at the White House (she returned to play for President Roosevelt in 1934 and for President Eisenhower in 1954). She continued her studies in New York with Josef Hofmann and in Vienna with Wilhelm Backhaus, and when she returned from Europe to play with the New York Philharmonic under Josef Stransky (Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 4, 31 Jan 1921), she was a fully developed concert pianist. However, she continued her studies with Alberto Jonas in New York until at least 1925 and appeared again with the New York Philharmonic in the 1925–6, 1929–30, and 1932–3 seasons. She began her first major European tour in 1927, appearing with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw orchestras, and then settling in London. She gave private recitals for Princesses Beatrice and Helena Victoria at Kensington Palace, appeared in public recital (eg, International Celebrity Series, 1936–7), and toured in Great Britain and Scandinavia. She returned to North America before the war and eventually settled in Montreal.

A long friend and admirer of the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, she performed many of his works and commissioned his Concerto No. 1, giving the premiere (1946) in Rio de Janeiro under the composer’s direction. She also gave the US premiere (Dallas SO under Antal Dorati) and the Canadian premiere (CBC Montreal studio performance by the CSM under Désiré Defauw) in 1947, repeating the work in 1951 with the CSM and in 1953 with the TSO. Her other Canadian appearances—those made in the 1920s during North American tours—include recitals in 1928 for the Montreal Ladies’ Morning Musical Club and the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto and, later that same year, a performance with the TSO. She also performed with both the CSM in 1939 (Sir Ernest MacMillan was guest conductor for Grieg’s Concerto in A minor) and 1951 (Villa-Lobos’ Concerto) and the TSO in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18 in 1942 and appeared on CBC TV’s ‘Heure du concert’.

Ballon’s playing was rhythmically secure and, at its best, full of excitement. If her concert career fell somewhat short of the promise shown by her prodigious childhood, it may have been that she was not under pressure to prove herself—a stimulus which most successful pianists experience. She became a person of considerable wealth and was popular in social and artistic circles. In later life she made important contributions to the Faculty of Music at McGill University (where she established a piano scholarship in her own name in 1928) as a philanthropist, as a fund-raiser, and, for a short time, as a teacher. In the 1950s she initiated and sponsored a series of lectures by musicians of renown such as Gian Carlo Menotti, Lotte Lehmann, and Deems Taylor. Sir Jacob Epstein did a bust of Ballon. Her papers are deposited at Dalhousie University.

Source: Encyclopedia of Music in Canada


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