in: Reviews

November 23, 2015

Remembering Gunther With Vigor and Liveliness

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Third streamer before it was coined?

Third streamer before it was coined?

The late Gunther Schuller was fortuitously born on November 22nd, the day celebrating St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. New England Conservatory, to which he gave so much, offered one of the many observances of the cultural omnivore’s life’s work in “A Musical Celebration” on Thursday in Jordan Hall. An artist and teacher as multi-faceted as Schuller could hardly be fully celebrated in one concert (it was in fact one of many), even one so eclectic as to genre and time period. The one composition not by Schuller came as a musical tribute from his onetime student and friend of many decades, Ran Blake. John Heiss of the NEC faculty, organized the event and also contributed an enlightening and moving essay.

The evening opened, appropriately enough, with Schuller’s bright, optimistic, and powerful Fanfare (1986) for 12 trumpets which largely stays in the classical realm, though with some amiably crunchy harmonies. Only the penultimate chord was so overtly jazzy as to draw a collective chuckle. The 12 trumpeters blended handsomely throughout the dynamic spectrum, while John Heiss conducted crisply under his signature cap.

Heiss then read a declaration from Mayor Marty Walsh proclaiming November 19th “Gunther Schuller Day in the City of Boston.” The numerous “whereas’es” testified to the man’s numerous interests, skills, and accomplishments, particularly, his appointment to the presidency of NEC in 1967, during a time of racial strife, and his consequent creation of the Third Stream Department. The first anywhere of its kind, this effort to diversify the conservatory’s academic musical offerings—and thus its student body. Schuller defined “Third Stream” (now called Contemporary Improvisation) as a genre about halfway between jazz and classical music, made up of elements of both.

Schuller characterized his fairly early Jumpin’ in the Future (1947 as the first purely atonal piece in jazz, though to my ears, it is exceptionally user-friendly atonality. It showed how the “third stream” concept in the composer’s mind preceded the founding of the department by many years. The NEC Jazz Orchestra “and guests” (i.e., flute, oboe, two French horns, and tuba) integrated very naturally, playing handsomely with a gentle swing under Ken Schaphorst’s direction.

Some convincingly Joplinesque piano ragtime followed in Sandpoint Rag (1986). As there were no printed notes, we heard from the performer, Veronica Jochum. She pointed out a musical reference to the famous second-movement theme of Johannes Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, and the fact that shortly before his death in 1896, Brahms expressed an interest in ragtime. Sandpoint Rag (no explanation given of “Sandpoint”) felt introspective on the whole (aside from one rather more declamatory section); it employed somewhat tangier harmony than Joplin’s. Jochum enjoyed subtly bringing out the “wrong notes” for comic effect. The rather abrupt ending also tickled a few funnybones.

Another work that “bridged the gap” was Headin’ Out, Movin’ In (1994), a title which refers to “mov[ing] ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the mainstrream tradition.” It features a smaller jazz combo than Jumpin’—solo tenor saxophone, trumpet, guitar, double bass, and drums–and a larger wind ensemble of flute, three clarinets, bassoon, two French horns, two trombones, and tuba. The opening section was comprised of sound effects, sonic “shapes” without melody, rhythm, or tonal center, After a long ascent of accelerando-crescendo and a percussion climax it entered a fast jazz with regular rhythm and more overtly atonal than Jumpin’ in the Future. A number of tempo changes and mood swings took place, then, in Schuller’s description, “a gigantic all-out collective improvisation over a constantly accelerating tempo—all capped by a ‘sudden-death’ ending.” This demanded more concentration for both performers and audience than its predecessor and was expertly led by Charles Peltz.

In 1947 Schuller presented his newly minted Quartet for Double Basses to a well-known bass teacher and “virtuoso” (composer’s quotes) who declared it unplayable. It was premiered, however, in 1959—in Carnegie Recital Hall, no less. Its three movements are not the standard fast-slow-fast but rather fast-fast-slow. In a fascinating innovation, after the first movement the players re-tune in different ways “to avoid the endless quartal harmonies and double-stops limited to fourths and fifths that afflict so much bass literature.” In the first movement Schuller treats the instruments homophonically in chords and sometimes with three accompanying one. The composer deploys his resources skillfully, and the musicians employed sufficiently transparent tone that the harmony was never allowed to become murky. Though its creator calls the second movement a scherzo, it is not a scherzo in the light-hearted “joke” sense; rather, it is an intense, brooding statement making imaginative use of a bass’s various ways of producing sound. The contrasting trio features sustained, unearthly eight-part chords in the harmonics range. (One wonders if eight bassi profundi singing falsetto chords might be comparable, but probably not!) The third movement, considerably slower, uses more of the lowest range of the instrument–a wonderfully rich sound. Also, one lead player emerged at times to be accompanied by the other three—sometimes with pizzicati, other times with tremolos. The conclusion faded off into the distance, leaving the audience enthralled.

The only piece on the program not composed by Schuller was entitled Gunther, by Ran Blake (b. 1935). With all the house lights turned completely down, Blake gave the world premiere of this expression of grief and love for his teacher, mentor, friend, colleague and co-founder of the Third Stream Department. The crystalline, Messiaen-like chords in the treble, heard at the outset, sounded the prevailing motif before many varying dynamics, both crescendi/diminuendi and sudden shifts from loud to soft and vice versa moderated it. The booklet contained a moving note by Blake in tribute to Schuller; the latter’s advice is sound for all musicians: “Listen, listen, listen . . . Even to people who don’t knock you out.” Blake’s only, oblique reference to his own composition was, “He helped me channel many of my skills, particularly how to transform cells, how to individualize my touch, to use many registers, and above all else, dynamics. I hope you hear that tonight, but maybe not.” This was unduly modest; all the above came through clearly, and the results were cathartic.

Finally, the stage was crammed full of all manner of percussion instruments with piano, harp, and celeste for the Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards (2005), a work cast in more traditional classical format:

This “concerto” in the Bartok or Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra manner highlights various solo instruments throughout. As well as the keyboards of the title, many such orchestral voices—individual and grouped—and, arguablythe xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone (depending on how strictly one defines “keyboard”), fill concertante roles. Schuller also makes imaginative use of both pitched and non-pitched percussion. The pitched instruments are certainly used melodically but also for harmonic color whether in the foreground or background; the non-pitched instruments of course perform their usual role of defining and accentuating a rhythmic pattern but also lend atmosphere (wind machine and wind “chimes”, notably). It was very satisfying to hear this from the commission recipient: the NEC Percussion Ensemble, conducted by Frank Epstein.

The conclusion of Schuller’s note for this concerto seems to describe not just this composition but the man’s approach to music, indeed to life: “Writing this piece was like enjoying a tremendous gourmet feast. Or to put it another way, I felt like a little four-year-old splashing wildly around in a big bathtub with dozens of plastic or rubber toys . . . My imagination was constantly fired with the excitement of taking all those hundred-instrument sounds, like a chef’s ingredients, collecting, combining—and/or featuring—in a seemingly limitless, exhaustible variety.” New England Conservatory, and all music lovers, are the richer for Gunther Schuller’s “splashing around”.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

2 Comments

  1. I believe Veronica Jochum did mention at the end of her comments that the “Sandpoint Rag” was written for the Sandpoint Festival.

    It was a wonderful concert. Ran Blake’s contribution was transformative!

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — November 24, 2015 at 1:46 pm

  2. Re: Sandpoint — Gunther was director of the Sandpoint Festival in Idaho from 1985 to 1998.

    Comment by Bogen — November 24, 2015 at 2:47 pm

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