Celebrating Gunther Schuller at 86 was the worthy and ambitious task of Eric Hewitt, saxophonist and conductor of the Boston Conservatory’s Wind Ensemble. Hewitt, Schuller’s former student at New England Conservatory and later his protégé and apprentice, brought the requisite verve, keen ear, and attention to detail to do justice to the esteemed composer’s varied and thought-provoking works for band. Hewitt and assistant Matthew Martin also assembled nearly 80 wind players (complemented by percussion, harp, and double-bass) to the ebullient proceedings and carefully rehearsed them in four grand band works by Schuller, neatly offset by pieces from earlier and latter-day experimenters.
To lend historical perspective, the program at The Boston Conservatory Theater on December 8 opened with Schuller’s tart, animated concert band arrangement of Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture (1844). Clarinets (cast as violins) were first to the fore, with treacherous runs yielding to a mellow introspective theme. Soon sailing melodies, etched in clean clear dramatic lines, underscored the sense of billowing sails coursing over the frothy main; martial derring-do, with brisk 2/4 timpani, climaxed with exhortatory call-and-response between reeds and brass.
Octandre by Edgard Varèse shifted the mood from festive candor to introspective irony. Starkly set for solo flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, and double-bass, this rare Fauvist piece (1923) bristles like a Braque collage. Bucolic oboe lines (derived as much from Debussy’s flute in Syrinx as from Stravinsky’s incantatory bassoon opening in Rite of Spring) spar with, then yield to mechanistic, ominous rumblings from French horn, trombone, and bowed bass, only to return, bereft. Harsh and strident Harmon-muted trumpet calls and brutal off-kilter ostinati mark this 7’ chamber trilogy as a sardonic slam at the gross, inhuman inroads of the lately defeated “Boches” (Germans).
Schuller’s Double Quintet (1961) echoed the Varèse in instrumentation, with wind quintet on the left, mirrored by a brass quintet on the right. The winds play leafy textures as the brass are furtive and muted; together the groups rise up and fade to flutterings. Side by side, the French horns — centered, rational, and modulated — ground and anchor the two quintets. Movement two’s opening unison legato sports staccato jazzy jabs, reminiscent of “The Little Blue Devil” from Schuller’s 1959 orchestral masterpiece Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Jaunty pointillist surprises abound, and the finale, burbling and whooping merrily, climaxes on an Ivesian panchromatic yawp.
After intermission came four short, powerful pieces for large ensemble, three by Schuller. Festive Music (1992) pits strong ‘fun-filled’ contrasts in a dramatic tonal landscape: grand tutti lead to a smeared schoolyard ditty that seems to gesture playfully at out-of-tune junior-high bands. Suddenly, a stark solo flute, then oboe emerge against a shimmering backdrop of harp, celeste, marimba, and tintinnabulating hand percussion.
Nature’s Way (2006) spoke to me as an Al Gore object lesson in what may befall us Earthlings if we don’t get our eco-act together. Think of Mother Earth’s time-line, from the Cretaceous Period to a potentially disastrous near future, compressed into seven action-packed minutes of ‘data sonification’. Moody oscillating waves of primal ooze gradually crescendo, as scintillating glockenspiel, triangle, and snare rolls gather swelling brass and winds into an overwhelming pan-oceanic tsunami – and then that swooning slide back into oblivion. Whew. Schuller intended that the challenging score nudge questing students to explore heightened levels of achievement. Martin conducted.
Blue Dawn Into White Heat (1997) a rare foray for concert band into the world of jazz, was named and commissioned by Fred Harris, conductor of Belmont High School’s bands. Schuller whips out his “Birth of the Cool” harmonic palette (he wrote for and played French horn in Miles Davis’s legendary nonet); there are nods to “Peter Gunn” with flutes and muted brass; and languid wah-wah trombones wail “viper music.” As Vic Holmes’s walking bass lines dart and halt, they open up dramatic stop-time passages for brass and reeds. Trombonist (Keith Almanza or Matt Luhn?) handled his 64-bar improvised solo with the bluesy aplomb of a Dicky Wells, followed by sure solo spots for tenor saxophonist Joe Neale and pianist Nick Place. Would that all high school (and college) bands could play such hip charts!
Black Dog (2003), a bravura piece for clarinet and band by young (now 32) Scott McAllister blends Klezmer smears with bursts of Led Zeppelin-inspired hard rock backbeat. Guest clarinet soloist Jonathan Cohler played with breezy command: searing glissandi, altissimo gossamer leaps, alternate fingered notes, and hackneyed Mickey Katz licks.
All night during the concert, the busy stage crew bustled about, stacking and moving chairs, opening music stands, lugging the harp and tympani, placing the piano, replacing scores. In the second half, instrumentalists numbered about 80, 65, 30, 80. Among the tubists, the frequent movement of mutes recalled traffic cones, and the industrious excitement attendant on road repair projects.
Schuller himself took a modest bow at the footlights to rousing cheers at the end; he had, in a companion concert a few nights earlier, conducted his own Jumpin’ In The Future and other equally demanding and rarely heard Third Stream works of half a century ago (when he coined and then defined the genre) by bad-boy geniuses George Russell, Charles Mingus, and Bob Graettinger.
Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine and All About Jazz, and about wine for Beverage Business; he lectures on jazz at Boston University, and teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music.