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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gunther Schuller premiere

Howard Gardner, a distinguished professor at the Harvard School of Education, proposed a theory of multiple intelligences in 1983, and it includes a category for “Musical Intelligence.” It is believed that people in this league exhibit a greater sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones, and music. An article in Wikipedia observes that these individuals have a good sense of pitch – perhaps even absolute pitch. They are able to sing, play musical instruments, and compose music. The online encyclopedia goes on to state: “Careers that suit those with this intelligence include instrumentalists, singers, conductors, disc-jockeys, and composers.”


Let me propose another definition for this learning style. It’s simple…

Musical Intelligence = Gunther Schuller

All-around musician Gunther Schuller (b. 1925 in NYC) is clearly a poster-child for Gardner’s theory of musical intelligence. At age 5 Schuller sat in the bath tub with his rubber ducky and sang the overture to Tannhauser from start to finish. At age 11 in he composed a piece for everyone in his family to play. It was a 30 measure mini-concerto that featured his younger brother Edgar on his new toy Xylophone. His first work also had a part for flute (played by himself), piano (for his mother), and violin (for his father). Dad, a German immigrant, was a member of the NY Philharmonic.

By age 15 Schuller abandoned the flute in favor of the more difficult French horn, and in 1943 played it professionally with the American Ballet Theatre. He was appointed to the position of principal hornist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the age of 17, but soon dropped out of high school. In 1945 he returned to NYC as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and remained in that position for 14 years. Schuller was a stand partner with my cousin Louis. You can read about him in my previous post: “My cousin Louis.”

Interested in everything musical, Schuller through himself into performing, composing, conducting. He moonlighted as a sideman for Miles Davis and other jazz greats while playing under the directorship of Auturo Toscanini and others as his “day job.”

While I had known about Schuller as a youngster from his recordings and radio broadcasts about modern music on the NY alternative FM station WBAI, I became better acquainted with his work after I came to Boston in 1973. At that time Schuller was President of the New England Conservatory, and had justifiably earned world-acclaim as a conductor, new music specialist, educator, author of several hefty books about music, scholar, and composer of distinction. He rode a wave of success from his Grammy-award winning recordings where he conducted the nationally acclaimed NEC “Ragtime Ensemble” in arrangements of Scott Joplin. Schuller’s influence at Tanglewood, through his own music publishing and recording business (GM Recordings), and connections with the shakers and movers of the musical establishment could make or break careers. He often would conduct and promote works by his composition students, many of which have gone on to have notable careers or be appointed to prestigious university jobs.

Schuller is also said to have one of the best “ears” in the business, and few can claim to know the orchestra with his depth of understanding. Although he has struggled with his limited eyesight (having lost an eye in his youth in an unfortunate accident involving a Christmas present wrapped with wire), his degraded vision has not slowed him down one iota.

As a self-admitted workaholic who is usually engulfed on at least five projects at once, Schuller has composed nearly 200 works to date. The commissions keep rolling in. The majority of his works are orchestral and rather significant in scope. He’s won all of the prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and a “genius” award from the MacArthur Foundation. Simply put, Gunther Schuller is the epitome of “musical intelligence.”

It was not surprising that James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra would turn to Schuller to commission a work for the 125th anniversary of the orchestra. A Massachusetts Cultural Council grant was obtained, and Schuller began work on his BSO piece. His new 25-minute composition for large orchestra was written in breath-taking speed – in roughly 20 to 30 hours – less than a work week for most of us mere mortals. He titled it “Where the Word Ends” to indicate that music can add meaning beyond the point where verbal communication becomes ineffective. I find this concept insightful, since it acknowledges that music is at some level indescribable and impossible to articulate, yet informative and with purpose. Even the best attempts to analyse or describe a work of music is destined to come up short. It would be like reading about the taste of an exquisite dish without ever tasting it in real life. Words help, but nothing can substitute for the direct culinary experience.

Schuller’s work was completed on time for performance in 2006-07 season, but it became clear to Levine that it was more than the BSO could take it on as originally planned in that concert season. James Levine waited for the right moment, and ultimately rescheduled the world premiere of “Where the Word Ends” for last evening – a season later.

Given the importance of the Schuller premiere, this concert has been on my list of essential events to attend ever since it was announced years ago. As always, I gained access into last night’s concert with affordable “Rush Tickets” (see my previous posts about this). Unfortunately, in Boston in February, this involves brazing sub-zero weather and standing in the cold for an hour of two outside of Symphony Hall. I was in line with other not-so-well-healed music enthusiasts, many of which were also there to hear the Schuller. The wind-chill was torturous, but I dutifully held my place in line and thought about the delayed gratification of the musical payoff later that evening. Being situated near the front of the queue, I thought I’d have some options regarding seat selection as had been the case in the past. However, the ticket agent at the window scoffed at my request for a “jump seat” in the second balcony. He sternly said there were only front row seats, and passed the ticket to me without discussion or debate. Another rush ticket patron with more experienced than I said that the BSO management has recently been making the house look fuller by placing the rush ticket people conspicuously in the empty seats of the front rows. For $9, one does not expect to receive the best seats in the house, but I was mildly disappointed to be situated so damn close to the orchestra: seat OR-D-28 to be precise. I’m generally not a whiner, but the subtleties of orchestral balance are hard to hear when your are virtually sitting within the orchestra. Sitting right upon the stage, the ambient sound in Symphony Hall comes at you from behind with a vengeance. It’s an almost disconcerting affect – but one that surely represents what the musicians themselves experience as they go about the job of making music in a big room on a stage filled to the brim with an army of musical colleagues.

But sitting in the first row does give one a unique perspective regarding the symphonic concert experience. For example I was situated directly before the third desk of the first violins, and could observe them with microscopic clarity from six feet away. It was more intimate that I would have preferred, but I learned more about how orchestral musicians behave under bright lights and in the claustrophobic and tense work environment they routinely operate in. There is nervous chatter, petty gossip, and cross-instrumental bickering in between the rendering of profound musical works, and the musicians exhibit a broad range of human emotion and non-verbal interaction with their co-workers – including but not limited to the esteemed Maestro himself. As expected, the conductor, soloist, and musicians sweat profusely, and the thought occurred to me that industrial-strength deodorant must be a stable among professional orchestral musicians. Along with their requisite instrument and black formal wear, the tools of the trade probably include clinical-strength antiperspirants and perhaps even prescription drugs (beta blockers for example are sometimes used to calm the nerves).

It could be my imagination, but I had more than one uncomfortable exchange of eye-contact with a few of the violinists directly before me. They appeared to be simultaneously wired and helplessly bored. It’s a state of mind not unlike flight attendants who maintain calm as they hand out pillows, but under the surface know that the plane could end up in the Hudson at any moment. Aside from listening to the great music, it was equally entertaining to watch the violinists effortlessly flip the pages of their music. They skillfully navigated and caressed the time yellowed pages on the stand with fragile violin bows crafted out of Brazilian pernambuco. The bows functioned like robotic extensions of the violinist’s physical appendages, and these expensive pointed sticks were manipulated with the precession of chop sticks. It’s not a perfect system, at one point in last evenings’ performance two pages were turned instead of one, but the recovery was swift and inconsequential. It’s no wonder that these wonderful musicians occasionally glance out at the faces of members of the audience and wonder if we are aliens from another planet. They may indeed feel like humans on display in the inter-galactic zoo. Playing in an orchestra must be a strange way to make a living.

The soloist last evening was the Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli who began the concert with two rarely heard Mozart arias from act III of the opera Idomeneo. Frittoli had stayed over from last week when she sang in a concert performance Simon Boccanegra with the BSO. She is a good soprano, but her voice is neither memorable or distinctive. She didn’t perform the arias from memory, and often had her eyes buried in a copy of the printed score. From my unusually close vantage point, I couldn’t help by notice that she has a good dentist too.

But I get ahead of myself. Before the concert got underway, Robert Kirzinger presented his regular 6:45 PM pre-concert talk. He had expected Gunther Schuller to join him at 7 PM, and had to improvise verbally when the composer did not show at the appointed time. At 7:15 the 83 year old Schuller barged through the stage doors and literally ran up to the front of the stage. He put down his canvas bag and, noticeably out of breath, greeted the enthusiastic audience. Schuller was probably running late from a previous appointment, perhaps a three-star rated dinner with Jimmy Levine.

Kirzinger and Schuller seemed in sync. They had apparently done a dog and pony show for a high school audience earlier in the day, and I got the impression that the level of the public discussion remained about the same. Schuller explained to the crowd how the violin has a different timbre than the oboe. Kirzinger previously mentioned that he had confessed to the high school audience that Schuller – who is entirely self-taught - dropped out of school to follow his dreams. I’m sure the word “dropout” was NOT the message that the teachers had wanted to deliver to their classes. Outreach programs are often a source of bread-and-butter for arts organizations, who often apply for easy-to-justify government grants based on educating our culturally deprived (yet highly impressionable) youth. However, the ugly wrinkles of truth are often hard to accept: Hey kids, want to become a famous composer like Gunther Schuller? Then drop out of school and pursue your dreams.

Schuller talked about his interest in visual arts, and mentioned that as a child he produced a good number of paintings. “Everyone assumed that I would become a visual artist.” His pieces often refer to works of art, such as by the abstract painter Paul Klee in his "Klee Studies" performed last season. He spoke of his wealth of experience as an orchestral musician, and mentioned that he prided himself on being able to change the color of his French horn to match the characteristics of the composer he was performing. For example, Wagner calls for a “blood rich purple color” and Mozart needs something lighter and brighter in hue. He railed against what he observed as the “store-bought sound” of some current orchestral musicians. They are a new breed who choose to assert their unique but personally-branded instrumental tone against what he considers to be better musical instincts. (Schuller once described to me the tone color produced by my cousin Louis on his French horn. He remembered it going back more than 60 years. You can read more about Louis in a previous blog post: )

In the short time allotted, Schuller talked about the genesis of his new work. He seems to have drawn upon his entire life-experience to create “Where the Word Ends” (2007). The piece derives inspiration from musical works he studied and performed over his formative years, including works by the modernists of his time: Debussy, Ravel, Delius, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Szymanowski, and Reger. He also greatly admires two composers that he feels were the most important musical figures of the 20th century: Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Schuller said that for many people the jury is still out on Schoenberg, but that Stravinsky is now universally acknowledged as a major force in the history of music.

“Where the Word Ends” is written for a BIG orchestra. By my standards it is a HUMONGOUS orchestra. If there are any recession-related cutbacks in staffing at the BSO, it was not evident on the stage last night. The battery of regular BSO players were heavily fortified with additional musicians: all of which I’m sure were well-compensated members of local musician’s union (AFM Local 9-535). In addition to a large divisi string section, the score calls for four flutes, three oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contra-bassoon, four French horns, FOUR WAGNER TUBAs, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, five percussionists, timpani, piano, celesta, and two harps. The quartet of Wagner tubas is an unusual supplement to the standard orchestral fare, and their warm sound did in fact add to the rich texture of his piece. The now-archaic instrument is a genetic cross between the French horn and tuba, and the sound of its’ baritone-register gives new meaning to the 1970’s buzz-word “mellow.”

Although it did not seem like a full house Thursday night at Symphony Hall for the premiere, I did spot a few Boston-area composers – including Yehudi Wyner perched in the first balcony. I sat next to Elliott Schwartz during the pre-concert talk, and chatted with him and his delightful wife. Most of the Boston-area new music cognoscenti will probably come to hear Schuller’s piece on Friday or Saturday evening when the BSO has ironed out the rough edges of this difficult work. I’ll be at home listening to WCRB on the radio Saturday evening for a second hearing.

NYC is still the de facto center of the artistic universe, and when Levine and the BSO take Schuller’s work to Carnegie Hall for a performance on Monday, New Yorkers will have their opportunity to hear the music. We’ll have to see what the NY Times writes about it, since it seems as if they uniformly label any new music coming from Boston as old-fashioned academic dribble. But I wont pre-judge what they will write, since Schuller immigrated to Boston (actually Newton) many years ago from New York, but his NY connection may in fact transcend the provincial Boston-composer stereotype that has stuck like a bad odor to the rest of us practicing composers who reside in the cold North.

Now comes the part of the “review” where I should proclaim to characterize Gunther’s complex 25-minute piece. There is something disingenuous about writing a review of a piece of music titled “Where the Word Ends.” It’s contradictory. If words could suffice, then why would we need to hear the music? If words worked, you would just need to read my review and not bother to hear the music.

There is a theory that concert reviews spare the reader from inconveniencing themselves from actually attending concerts themselves, and believe it or not, I see the value in this philosophy. Who wants to stand out in the freezing cold waiting for rush tickets when you can easily go online and visit to get the inside scoop? Well my friends, I hate to disappoint you, but the reality is that if you want to experience “Where the Word Ends” you will have to listen to it yourself – somehow, somewhere, someday. Beyond a cursory description, I can’t verbalize what the piece is about. That’s why I never finished the written analytic portion of my doctoral dissertation. Words are simply impotent when used to describe the intricacies of a musical work. They can only come up short.

That said, I will share with you just a couple of personal observations that are probably more of an indication of my musical bias than of anything Maestro Schuller intentionally crafted.

The opening of the piece is very quiet. It begins slowly (quarter = 56) and the first little twitter we hear (depending on how close you are sitting) is a very soft E to D-sharp trill in the second violins. Over this background chatter, four muted violins play a fast septuplet arpeggio (C-Db-Ab-Db-C-Db-Ab). This little figural scale passage becomes a “viral” motto that we will hear throughout the first movement of this work. The figure appears throughout the string section in increasing frequency, and spreads like a virus amongst the musicians over the next 30 seconds or so. The shimmering effect begins to vaguely imply an overall background harmony of supporting the notes derived from the opening gesture. Soon the celli and basses enter with a motto molded from this musical clay as a more explicit melodic statement. The pitch process behind all of this musical inventiveness is Schuller’s “magic” row at work. He has used the same 12-tone row for virtually all of his compositions, and “Where the Word Ends” is no exception. The shape and design of the Lento movement is Wagnerian in design. It grows slowly, increases in volume and texture, and ultimately results in a big orgasm at a place that Schuller marked in the score as the “Grand Convulsion.” It’s a musical climax that precedes the next major section of the work, the Adagio.

The odd thing about the design of this Lento movement is that its sonic emergence out of nowhere resembles something Schuller described at Harvard’s memorial service for Donald Martino. He began his remembrance of Martino that sad Sunday afternoon by talking about a dream he had the night before. Schuller said that Martino had written an orchestral piece that began with soft, imperceptible sounds, but grew slowly and had a crescendo. To my mind, that is not necessarily a piece that Martino would compose, but that dream may have been Schuller’s inspiration for the beginning of “Where the Word Ends.” Could we perhaps credit Martino for inspiring his colleague Schuller from the afterlife? Who knows.

I found the Adagio section to be the best music in the piece. It has some really beautiful melodic material. Levine really took pleasure in bringing out the lush velvety sound of the orchestra in this section, and we hear some great jazz-formulated harmonies and Gil Evans-inspired cluster chords at this spot. The trombone has a great solo, and he bends the notes with his side to create sensuous “blue notes.” The quartet of Wagner tubas were in their essence and added additional warmth to this already sizzling music. It’s strange, but the jazz chords I heard seemed to come more from Alban Berg than Miles Davies. It’s as if Schuller was expressing modern orchestral music with elements of a jazz syntax, but with a pronounced German accent. (He is fluent in German, but does not speak in English with any accent at all).

All good Adagios come to and end, and this one was no exception. But when we listen to music, the audience is actively involved processing the musical flow and narrative in real time. I kept wondering, how is he going to end this? Where are we going?

Schuller’s solution to this question in this piece is a Scherzo section. Scherzo’s are by nature rather diabolical, and this is no exception. Naughty things happen in the percussion, brass, and winds. It’s as if Stravinsky and Varese had returned to Symphony Hall with a vengeance. We hear lots of pounding, and some brutal glissandi in the trombones.

The final section of the work, the Allegro vivace, moves the piece into high gear. We hear lots of scalar passages. I watched as the music flew by on the 3rd desk of the first violin section. There were many pages of staffs blackened with notes. Sometimes a phrase that would be played by the first violin stand (to my right) would be echoed immediately by the 7th violin stand (to my left). It created a very interesting spacial effect that I had not expected. Of course the piece gets very loud, and ends with a bang. I did find my concentration beginning to wane, and I looked back at the audience to observe if others were also reaching their limit. I did sense that a few audience members were showing signs of fatigue, and the number of random coughs in Symphony Hall were beginning to escalate.

But all in all this premiere met and exceeded my expectations. We’ll have to see if “Where the Word Ends” finds performances with other orchestras. It’s a difficult piece, and the size of the orchestral forces will make it more expensive to mount in difficult economic times. Schuller is fortunate to have many commissions on his plate, and to my knowledge all of his works have been performed at least once. But very few orchestras want to perform a new work if it is not a commission and/or a world premiere. Even Schuller suffers from a poverty of 2nd or 3rd performances of his orchestral music. That’s just the way that it is.

During the intermission I overheard two composers excitedly discussing the piece. One said, “you never know what to expect from Gunther. His works are always different.”

That’s true. Schuller’s music is always new, original, and stylistically diverse. That makes it even more exciting. I did have an opportunity to shake the composer’s hand and congratulate him on his success during the intermission.

The program ended with the Brahms Second Symphony Op. 73. It was a spirited performance, and Levine led the orchestra with great physical energy. The opening was very pretty and Levine gave the first violins an inspired cue for their thematic entrance. It’s a special moment in the music where a statement of the meandering tune (doubled in the violas) begins every so quietly on the note E in the first violins. It’s marked with the dynamic piano and expressively marked with the indication dolce. The expression on Levine’s face was one of ecstacy as he pulled the sound out of the air with his hands. Whether the emotion was genuine or simply contrived as a mechanism to coax the desired sound from the violin section does not matter. The violins responded appropriately and attacked the note with perfect precision and Brahmsian grace– thus making the entrance a special event. Oddly enough, when the exposition section of the movement was repeated, Levine didn’t even look over at the violin section to oversee the event. Musically, it was no longer a first entrance. The first violin section had already conceived and delivered their first-born, therefore playing the passage again in the repeat of the exposition while still beautiful, was merely routine and matter of fact. Little details like this keep my interest in the music that I know well, since the uniqueness of events, and their framing and interpretation within the overall context of the piece often play out in ways that amaze and surprise me.

I had to wonder if Levine was nervous conducting the Brahms with Schuller sitting in the audience. Schuller published a large 570 page monograph about conducting titled "The Complete Conductor." In the book the rails against conductors who do not pay close attention to the composer's intensions as notated in the score. Schuller's book has extensive chapters on the Brahms 1st and 4th Symphonies, but I'm sure Schuller has his own ideas about how the 2nd Symphony should (and should not) be conducted. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall to hear Schuller and Levine talk shop.

So ends another day in the simple life of a simple concert goer. I’m back at working on my own piece – a three movement Chamber Symphony. It’s not at all like Schuller’s composition, but it will be in three movements and about a half hour long. Writing this “review” has been a way for me to clear my mind of the wonderful piece by Schuller, and focus again on my own muse. My internal voice is easily distracted by hearing the work of others, but hearing the music of our time is a responsibility that comes with the territory. It’s part of the job, if you can call it that.