The Canadian pianist, Ellen Ballon, was born in Montreal of Russian parents. She was a child prodigy and at the age of 6, in the inaugural year of the McGill Conservatory (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. Artur 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 on December 27, 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).
Ellen Ballon was a child when she made her New York debut in March 1910, playing concertos of Felix Mendelssohn (G minor) and L.v. Beethoven (C major) with the New York Symphony Orchestra 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 Orchestra under Josef Stransky (Camille Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 4, January 31, 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 Orchestra in the 1925-1926, 1929-1930, and 1932-1933 seasons. She began her first major European tour in 1927, appearing with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Wiener Philharmoniker, and Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, 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, 1936-1937), and toured in Great Britain and Scandinavia. She returned to North America before the war and eventually settled in Montreal.
Long a friend and admirer of the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ellen Ballon 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 USA premiere (Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Antal Doráti) 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 Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Her other Canadian appearances - those made in the 1920’s 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 Toronto Symphony Orchestra. She also performed with both the CSM in 1939 (Sir Ernest MacMillan was guest conductor for Grieg's Concerto in A minor) and 1951 H. Villa-Lobos' Concerto) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 in 1942 and appeared on CBC TV's Heure du concert.
Ellen 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 1950’s 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. Ballon was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music by McGill University in 1954. She married Colonel Theodore LaFleur Bullock of Quebec in 1958 and died in Montreal in 1969. Her papers are deposited at Dalhousie University.
Her recordings include: Frédéric Chopin’s Concerto No. 2.with London Symphony Orchestra under Ernest Ansermet (1950, London/Decca); Piano Solos by Ellen Ballon: Bach-Siloti - Schubert - Liszt - L.v. Beethoven. (1951, London); H. Villa-Lobos’ Concerto No. 1 with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet (c1949, London); Piano Music: selections (c1950, London/Decca); Piano Music: selections (c1950, London/Decca). Ballon made a piano roll 'Were I a Bird' for Aeolian c1927.
Ellen Ballon: 'Problems of the prodigy analyzed by pianist who was one,' Mcour (January 10, 1945)
W.S. '"Give us this day our daily Bach" is the prayer of Ellen Ballon, pianist,' Musical America (May 30, 1925)
John Bauer: 'Ellen Ballon,' CRMA, Vol. 2 (October-November 1943)
H. Hill: 'Prodigy's progress,' SatN, Vol. 68 (April 11, 1953)
A Selection of Items From the Ellen Ballon Music Collection at the Dalhousie University Library (Halifax 1972)
Elise K. Kirk: Music at the White House (Chicago, 1986)
Musical Red Book
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