Last Saturday night, March 26, the Concord Orchestra offered us a real treat – a magnificent cello concerto by Gunther Schuller. He composed it in 1945 at the age of nineteen for his close friend Walter Hermann, the first cello of the Cincinatti Symphony. But Hermann suddenly retired from the cello before the piece could be performed, and it was forgotten. Schuller’s rapidly growing career as the first horn of the Metropolitan Opera prevented finding another performer for the piece, and it lay neglected until the late ‘70s when Schuller started his own publishing company, Margun Music. He looked at the concerto critically for the first time in more than thirty-five years, wondering if it was worth offering. It was “Wow, this isn’t half bad. In fact, it’s quite good!” he said. But the cellists he shopped it to were too busy to learn a new and difficult piece, and it went back on the shelf. Finally he met Andrés Diaz, an ambitious young cellist at NEC, who premiered the piece in 1995. Richard Pittman and the New England Philharmonic gave it its second performance three years ago. The two performances in Concord with Jan Müller-Szeraws as the performer were the third and fourth times the piece was played.
The Concord Orchestra mainly consists of serious musicians whose life path diverged from music as a career, but whose enthusiasm and delight in playing is undiminished. Under Pittman’s leadership their performances are consistently delightful. This concert was typical. Pittman programs beautiful and sometimes neglected works as well as a few old favorites and brings to them thoughtful and exciting performances. The opening piece, Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, “Clock,” was a bit ragged. The final piece, Strauss’ Don Juan, was more than respectable. But the orchestra rose to the occasion with Schuller’s concerto, and according to Schuller gave it its best performance to date.
According to Schuller’s program notes – which I will not attempt to improve upon — “The work is in two movements, played without pause. The first movement features the cello – and the orchestra mostly in a lyric singing mood, with more agitated episodes and a highly virtuosic cadenza interlaced, but always returning to the languid quiescent mood of the opening Andante. The second movement is a combination of Scherzo and Finale, with the cello in its most pyrotechnic virtuosic mode.”
The performance brought out the best of the orchestra. The first violins were together, the wind players consistently excellent, and the brass exciting. Müller-Szeraws played with precision and passion. I need not ramble further on my experience of the piece, because with the permission of the composer, the conductor, and the soloist, BMInt is able to let you hear it yourself.
I am always interested in the sound of performances, and sometimes arrange to make binaural recordings from my listening position. The recordings are made from the sound pressure at the eardrums of a precise model of my own pinna and head. After some electronic manipulation they can be played back more or less successfully both on headphones and on stereo loudspeakers in close proximity to a listener. The recordings are not intended to be played from a conventional loudspeaker system. The recording we offer here is not a closely-miked commercial recording; it is from a good seat in the middle of the audience. So expect audience noise. The frequency response of inexpensive ear-buds can be awful or surprisingly good, and very expensive ones are often much to bright, so you are unlikely to hear precisely what I heard at the concert. But the result is probably adequate to hear the beauty of Schuller’s piece. A link to an MP3 of the performance is here. Be patient as the file is large and there may be a pause before it begins to stream.
When I play these recordings over carefully equalized headphones the reproduction for me is startlingly realistic. I am transported to the scene. For me these recordings are sonic snapshots, enabling me to precisely compare the sound of different seats in the same hall, or the sound of different halls.
This recording – made from the center of the front row of the rear seating – shows that with a full audience the sound in the Concord Orchestra’s venue – 51 Walden Street in Concord Center – is surprisingly good. The building is small for such a large orchestra, and the winds are nearly twice as far from the average listener as the strings. But as you can hear, this is not a big problem. The whole concert was a pleasure – and the chance to hear a fine performance of a completely new old work was extraordinary.