in: Reviews

February 17, 2011

Schuller Shapes Music with BU Orchestra

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During David Hoose’s sabbatical leave this semester, three conductors are serially leading orchestra rehearsals and teaching conducting classes, working up to one separate performance each in February, March, and April. The first, composer/conductor Gunther Schuller, began his brief residency on February 2, with a performance in the Tsai Performance Center on February 15, with works by Haydn, Schuller, and Brahms.

This orchestra is huge — 110 players, almost as large as the Boston Symphony Orchestra —distributed as twenty-eight violins, ten violas, fifteen cellos, seven double basses, four flutes, four oboes, four clarinets, five bassoons, eight horns, six trumpets, five trombones, two bass trombones, one tuba, one piano/celeste, two harps, three timpani players, and five percussion players. As far as I could tell, there were no changes in personnel for any of the three works performed, except possibly for the tuba, required only in Schuller’s piece

Thus the orchestra was far too heavy for the Prelude to Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation. Yet Schuller, leading gently, beginning and ending phrases with a flick of his quietly moving, expressive fingers, was able to achieve within them some of the most beautiful pianissimo sounds of the concert. Yes, he kept time with his baton as necessary, although he often held it in one hand as if to get it out of the way; but he was also able to convey the long, broad phrases common to all three of the evening’s works. Haydn’s Prelude, actually entitled, “Vorstellung des Chaos” (Conception from Chaos), in C minor, marked Largo, is ethereal, with rising arpeggios that never fall from the atmosphere, sometimes shaken by surprising fortes. In Schuller’s hands it was full of solemn wonder

Gunther Schuller was president of the New England Conservatory from 1967 to 1977, and the legendary tuba soloist Harvey Phillips was his vice president for Financial Affairs from 1967 to 1971. In 1960 Schuller had written a concerto for Phillips, Capriccio for Tuba and Chamber Orchestra. In 2007, having fallen on ill health, Phillips asked for another, this time with a commission for tuba and full orchestra, although he knew he would not be able to perform it. In fact, he was unable to hear it, because he died last October 20th, and this was the Concerto’s world première. I’m sorry to say, I never heard Phillips perform in person, during my years at Indiana University (where Phillips taught from 1971 to 1994), but I gained a new appreciation for the lyrical capabilities of the tuba, almost like the clarinet, through recordings, and through performances by his students. Given these associations, I was expecting some of that lyricism in Schuller’s Concerto No. 2 for Tuba and Orchestra, written in 2008, but this was a very different work. Schuller’s own program notes, too long to convey here, give a vivid description of the four-movement piece, but I may quote his summary:

The piece starts with a dark harmony in the five solo string basses, answered by the solo tuba and a little later by the contrabass clarinet. At other times throughout the piece, the contrabassoon and bass clarinet make prominent contributions. In the last movement there is a Cadenza which briefly features a two-tuba duet. But by sonoric contrast with the darker sounds the Concerto also presents many shimmering high-register sounds in the violins, and eventually the whole rich and varied coloristic palette of the modern orchestra.

The movements are ruminations, ending on question marks, and are engaging. There are various times that instruments are exposed, for example the harps, or the horn quartet, or other individual instruments; all are welcome and rise sweetly from the dense texture. The soloist was Mike W. Roylance, principal tuba for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who performed his difficult virtuosic role with aplomb. Schuller’s program note for the third movement noted that this would be the opportunity for “the most lyric, singing, gently expressive vein,” but this was not the sound I heard, with the exception of that brief two-tuba duet, in which Roylance was joined by BU student Dwayne Heard. Throughout the performance, the students were engaged, attentive, responsive, and made beautiful music under Schuller’s baton.

After intermission the program ended with a performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, op. 98, in e minor. This is the real repertoire piece, and the students were obviously relishing it. The first movement, Allegro non troppo, opened badly, however, with some out-of-tune brasses, but the students rallied, and the second movement, Andante moderato, was absolutely beautiful, especially the soft opening. The third movement, Allegro giocoso was even better — not so muddled with heaviness, and with the final Allegro energico e passionato, the students were able to generate real excitement. Backstage after the concert, Schuller was rightly elated, and appropriately exhausted, for his eighty-five years.

The next performance of the BU Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Visiting Associate Professor of Orchestral Conducting John Page, on March 10. The final concert, Mendelssohn’s Elijah at Symphony Hall, will be conducted by BU Professor and Director of Choral Activities Ann Howard Jones.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

2 Comments

  1. Please, Ms Davis, get the facts correct before you have them published and not only make these young players look unfavorable, but yourself as well. If you paid attention to the concert at all, you would have noticed very obvious personnel changes between each piece, with the wind section reduced by almost two thirds, and the strings by a quarter. Did you really think otherwise, that there were five trombonists and THREE tympanists playing on the delicate prelude?

    I guess the students can take your comments as a compliment – apparently the diminished instrumental sections sounded hearty enough to seem double their size!

    Comment by Kristin — February 21, 2011 at 1:55 am

  2. Well yes, I did pay attention to the concert, and to the concert program, which listed all the players rather than players for each piece, which is customary. My seat, however, was toward the front, eye-level with the stage floor, so personnel changes could not be seen. (Thank you for that information.) The overall sound, however, was heavy, sometimes even murky,as can happen when sections are not quite in tune with each other. It took a bit of getting used to, which was why I was so impressed by the delicate pianissimos.
    By the way, if you were paying attention, you would have noticed that my name is not Davis.

    Comment by Mary Wallace Davidson — February 21, 2011 at 11:46 am

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