The gilded opulence of the Fairmount Copley Plaza Hotel’s Oval Room provided an evocative setting for the November 4 concert of music by Boston-based composer Tony Schemmer. Presented as a period salon de musique, Schemmer’s stimulating bill of fare included ten pieces written over the past two decades – pieces that, far from being a sort of exercise in vanity publishing representing the best efforts of an amateur, consistently evidence that this composer should be regarded as a professional by virtue of the cornucopia of highly accessible, always engaging and often entrancing musical thought composed with consummate skill – attributes with which Schemmer’s music is refulgent. Even more, Schemmer’s is a distinct voice, one whose ostensible surface charm is but a translucent veil for a most convincing, often forceful argument about the direction of musical style since the opening of the Copley Plaza Hotel, which is on the eve of its centenary.
The event’s title, Salon d’un Refusé, should be taken on approximately the same level of seriousness and credulity as Schemmer’s self-effacing, martini-dry humor, interstitially spread throughout a program for which the composer served as master of ceremonies. Just as the tongue-in-cheek titles from Friday’s program, which included A Toney Tango, Bonbons Bohèmes, Reggae Nevada…. potential deceptions that might camouflage remarkable truths about Tony Schemmer’s music.
Enumeration of truths emanating from well over two hours of remarkably varied stylistic content filling the program would need to place near its top, in large font, a major essence of Schemmer’s art – namely, music that communicates in a highly direct manner, at once sensual and intellectual. Unlike music that can achieve little beyond simply washing over the listener, Schemmer’s writing possesses a physicality inviting you to feel part of the process of its coming alive in performance. While this sort of direct connection obtained throughout the concert, it seemed especially evident in A Toney Tango, as performed so memorably by cellist Sebastian Bäverstam and pianist Constantine Finehouse, whose gripping, transportive reading was every bit itself a dance consistent with the art of tango.
Similar physicality abounded in the Suite from ‘Bus, also dance-informed, the orchestration of which brings to mind Aaron Copland’s original scoring for the Ballet for Martha (later known as Appalachian Spring). Schemmer’s suite characteristically engages the listener on a variety of levels as it comments upon several less-than-glorious episodes in the somewhat spotty career of Cristoforo Columbo a/k/a Columbus a/k/a ‘Bus. The ensemble of nine players provided an interesting array of talent, uniformly young (I would guess most to be in their twenties) and highly accomplished, yet varying in their degree of comfort with Schemmer’s jazzy writing. Several, especially cellist Aristides Rivas, percussionist Michael Roberts, flutist Erika Boysen, and clarinetist Kristian Bäverstam, displayed admirable fluency with the language, to the point of enjoyable ease, extending to highly appropriate moments of sheer panache emanating from Rivas. Others in the group seemed a bit out of their element stylistically, although unfailingly precise.
Of the evening’s several pianists, all superb, Constantine Finehouse would be my candidate as the one who best filled the attribute of fluent ease. To be sure, Finehouse has enjoyed a much longer association with Schemmer’s music, and this pianist is also conversant in jazz, his résumé including being a major interpreter of the music of William Bolcom, with already-impressive concert and recording credentials in that arena.
Which leads this reviewer back to the main track along the course of discovery as to truths about Tony Schemmer’s art, proffering the suggestion that the element of language is of absolutely central importance in understanding the work of this composer. Think of the various components and attributes of successful communication: what comes to mind? In the realm of verbal communication, it is axiomatic that success is a direct function of comprehensibility. Yet composers who strive to express themselves in a language widely understood, in so doing, are immediately confronted with the dilemma of embracing familiarity while striving for distinctiveness.
Some might believe that a composer is entitled to require a partaker of his art to learn the special, esoteric language that might be employed — that a composer is entitled to reject the importance of the extent to which his creation is communicated, declaring omni-sufficiency in its allegedly being art. So, does not inventing one’s own language virtually guarantee uniqueness, thus assuring distinctiveness? Tempting and perhaps entropic, but definitely not Tony Schemmer’s chosen path.
That Schemmer has clearly embraced the principals and art of effective, expressive communication was among the principal truths enunciated throughout the evening. Accompanying that basic truth is that he does so with a distinctive voice that immediately and effectively dismisses any allegation of derivativeness. Our present-day written language arguably achieves much the same, being at once rooted in centuries-old precepts as well as reflecting its constant evolution. If Schemmer’s stylistic wardrobe includes notable eclecticism, now embracing 1920’s jazz, now embracing the Late Romanticism of Puccini, now recalling the Neoclassicism of Hindemith, now seriously academic, now tongue-in-cheek, … it is consistently grounded in a musical lingua franca traveling along a centuries-old line – language that elicits comprehension and, ultimately, deep involvement on a full panoply of levels.
The totality of Friday’s Salon d’un Refusé could arguably place him in the same line as Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, and others who recognized the monumental importance of American jazz as it was fomenting in the 1920s and who sought to inform their own art with its elements, effecting what was tantamount to the fresh, innovative language they so craved as an antidote to what they regarded as overstuffed, decadent Late Romantic effusions. One might ponder why “classical” music in America failed to heed the advice of none less than Antonin Dvorak, as he sought during his 1890s American sojourn to influence the cultivation of a national style of composition, citing the “Negro melodies” that were already spawning jazz as the most fertile source of that national style. One might ponder how jazz, even as manifested in the genius of George Gershwin, came to be marginalized by the proponents of “serious” music.
There are doubtless those, Tony Schemmer included, who would argue that while Dvorak’s recommendations did not result in a national school, and that a number of -isms existing in very different realms have been accorded larger significance than their detractors would wish, “serious” music amply informed by jazz is very much a present-day reality. That Tony Schemmer can be seen as an advocate of the latter, exuding his distinct voice with such palpable efficacy and technical skill, emerges as a truth worthy of widespread declaration through performances such as were heard by an appreciative audience of over two hundred-fifty. May this be only a beginning of the spread of recognition for a composer of whom, as a distinguished nineteenth century journalist once exclaimed, “Hats off!”
Note: A related article is here.
Charles Olegar is a professional performer, concert producer, and music journalist based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where he serves as Music Director for Saint James Place, as well as Minister of Music of St. James Church.