Falling on Sunday, this year’s feast of St. Cecilia would also have been the 90th birthday of Gunther Schuller, a giant in music of this or any age, who sadly passed away last June. The body of work he left, as a composer, conductor, educator, innovator, author, and father (both literally of two talented sons and as the mentor to numerous composers and musicians around the world) is immense, both in size and scope. It’s scarcely credible that a single individual could have accomplished so much, even in such a generous lifetime. But it is staggering when the quality of the result in each field is taken into account.
He was a talented French horn player in the Metropolitan Opera, he played jazz with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, he conducted Schoenberg, Berg, Ives, Martino, Joplin & Monteverdi, and on and on. He wrote books on theory, composition, conducting, jazz, and created a fusion of jazz and classical styles called Third Stream. He won prizes, including a Pulitzer, MacArthur and MacDowell Award. And he wrote over 200 compositions, large and small.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose celebrated the life and music of Gunther, and a more fitting tribute would be hard to imagine. Especially as the concert took place in Jordan Hall, in the heart of the New England Conservatory, where Gunther as President led the school for 10 of its most adventurous and abundantly creative musical years.
The event opened with Games, written in 2013 for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Scored for woodwind quintet & string quartet plus double bass, it is a brief but extremely colorful work. Beginning with a sort of instrumental chuckle, not unlike Till Eulenspiegel, it then proceeds through a number of complex rhythmic sorties, pointillistic melodies, and hidden snippets of favorite orchestral excerpts. It is a bit of an inside joke, but it’s not necessary to detect every allusion, and it would take more than one hearing to tease out all the nuggets. Overall it was transparent and colorful, the sort of expansive and non-tonal music you would imagine the spheres make: strange and still beautiful.
Gunther’s delightful Journey Into Jazz deserves a place in the beloved canon of children’s classics like Peter & the Wolf, Tubby the Tuba, and A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It is a wonderful way to introduce children (or adults) to what it means to make music, and having been at the “Reminiscences & Reflections of Gunther” earlier that morning and hearing how he himself was introduced to jazz, one can sense that this piece must have had deep personal meaning for him. The piece is for chamber orchestra, jazz combo, solo trumpet, and narrator, and describes the journey of young Edward Jackson as he falls in love with music, learns to play the trumpet, discovers jazz, and ultimately learns how to express himself through his playing. The “voice” of Eddy is the trumpet, and for this performance, it was both played and acted with great skill by Richard Kelley, who “stumbled” through scales and exercises at the beginning and by the end was riffing with the best of them. The orchestra served as the background music, and the jazz combo was a group of musicians down the street, who invited Eddy in, but kept sending him away, as he needed to learn more. Don Braden on tenor sax was “the tenor man” who sternly but kindly kept telling Eddy to “come back again” when he was ready.
BMOP recorded this in 2002 with Gunther narrating. Gil Rose spoke before the performance of the experience of working with Gunther, describing the joy and terror of working with a stern but kindly taskmaster, the possessor of some of the best ears in the business. The scheduled narrator for their performance had taken ill, and Gunther stepped in, doing such a good job that they asked him to be the narrator for the recording. What a blessing, as the clean recording of Gunther’s voice was able to be used for this performance. Rose very sensitively remarked that he hoped people would find this comforting and not strange. From my perspective, it made the experience all the more special, as his inimitable voice added to his musical presence. How lucky we are to have that recorded. Also appropriate and touching was the fact that Schuller’s sons, George and Ed, were in the jazz ensemble, playing drums and bass respectively. Needless to say, the ensemble as a whole did a fabulous job.
With Odyssey Opera joining the orchestra, a first rate performance of Gunther’s hour long opera, The Fisherman & His Wife, was the closer. This staging was so well done, that it hardly seemed like concert opera. The orchestra was front and center in the stage, with a bed representing the house of the couple on one side, and a few posts representing the dock where the Fisherman went to fish on the other. At times singers were placed around the front of the stage or in the back of the hall to great effect, and the magic fish entered through a side door. Over the orchestra, there was a simple screen with slides of the sea or of the successive houses of the couple were represented along with supertitles, which were almost not necessary, as the singers had excellent diction. Really creatively realized.
For this commission by the Junior League of Boston, Gunther asked novelist John Updike to adapt the libretto from a Grimm’s fairy tale. Briefly, the fisherman and his wife live in a tiny, fishy hut with their cat. He is very content, but she is not. One day he catches a magic fish who tells him he is an enchanted prince. The fisherman releases him, and goes home. His wife is annoyed, saying he should have asked for a wish, which would have been a better cottage and a few luxuries. He is reluctant, but she convinces him. The fish/prince grants the wish. This goes on through a succession of increasingly grandiose wishes, wishing for a castle, to be King, to be Pope, until the fisherman’s wife really overdoes it and wishes to be God. Well, that’s too much for the magic fish, so he returns them to their original little cottage, “no bigger than a vinegar jug”. But the journey has been transformational for the wife, and now she is content. The couple’s cat provides delightful commentary, both in meows and in actual dialogue.
The singing and acting was exceptional, with a standout performance by Katrina Galka as the Cat. Sondra Kelly was wonderful as the discontented wife, and Stephen Goldstein was both humble and desperate as the Fisherman. David Kravitz’s powerful baritone leant majesty and menace to the fish/prince. He even made a fishy crown/hat look good. This was not easy material to sing, but all the cast did a great job. The repetition of verse made the story clear and the music easier to understand for anyone not used to non-tonal music. The ocean was always introduced with a shimmering cymbal and the orchestra got more and more menacing as the wishes became more outrageous. This work has not been performed since its premiere run with Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston. It, too, deserves wider performance.
Journey Into Jazz was written in 1962, The Fisherman and his Wife in 1970, and Games in 2013. To showcase the range of Gunther’s work was a great tribute, and Gil Rose and both his ensembles deserve a huge round of applause for this gem of a concert. The final line of Journey Into Jazz is the new sign that Eddy Jackson put on the door of his practice room after he has learned all he needs to know: “Music is being made—come on in!” Most likely, this is exactly what St. Peter said to Gunther when he arrived at the pearly gates.