Lines and Contrasts for 16 horns
Symphony for Brass & Percussion
Lament for M
London Sinfonietta conducted by Gunther Schuller
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: 13 December, 2000
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The question on the lips of most people after this concert given in celebration of Gunther Schuller’s 75th-birthday seemed to run the not very wide gauntlet of “Where has this man been all my life?” or “Why don’t we hear more of this music?” – that and the “Where the hell are the BBC?” from one of our leading composers. Where indeed? A legendary figure conducting his music with one of the world’s best sax players and not a microphone in sight!
As Oliver Knussen explained in his programme note, Schuller would no doubt be embarrassed at the suggestion that he was a legend, but only a brief consideration of the facts would confirm that this was no exaggeration. Schuller is the composer of a huge catalogue of (for want of a better description) serious concert works, including two operas, over a dozen concertos (even instruments such as the contrabassoon and double bass are catered for in this list), and a large collection of chamber, instrumental and miscellaneous orchestral works – most of which have never been heard in this country. He is an inspiring teacher whose British pupils include Mark-Anthony Turnage, Steve Martland, Judith Weir and Simon Bainbridge (part of what Schuller calls his British invasion) – all testify to Schuller’s unique ability to absorb the most complex score in a very short period of time. A perceptive and undemonstrative conductor of a wide range of music, his arrangements and realisations of everything from Jazz Standards to Scott Joplin’s incomplete opera Treemonisha are regarded as the best of their kind. Add all that to Schuller’s ’first career’ as an orchestral horn player, culminating in him being principal horn of the Met Orchestra in New York, a position he retired from at the age of 35! He’s the author of standard texts on Jazz, essays on musical aesthetics, on criticism and a recent book, provocative and illuminating, The Complete Conductor – the fact that Schuller has been or remains a publisher and record producer – there may well be other things too! – seems pretty much like the stuff of legend to me. I once asked Schuller how he fitted it all in – he responded, with a shrug of his shoulders, “I guess I just work hard”.
The short pre-concert performance reminded us of Schuller’s skills as an orchestral horn player – Michael Thompson, principal horn of the London Sinfonietta, conducted some of his colleagues, and students from the London conservatoires, in the remarkable Lines and Contrasts for 16 horns, an extraordinary tour-de-force both of compositional technique – the first movement being a massive twelve-note canon building to a huge climax – and a text book of horn techniques. Though clearly a demanding piece, the young players obviously relished this unusual chance to show off their instruments, to the evident delight of the composer. More brass players, in fact London’s cream, appeared at the end of the evening for Schuller’s Symphony for Brass & Percussion. The composer declared that his intention here was firstly to write a Symphony, but also to avoid the clichés often associated with brass instruments – heroic, noble horns and fanfaring trumpets etc… the result is a demanding, striking and concentrated work that does just that and more. Before that we were treated to a bewildering and diverse collection of pieces that went some way to demonstrate the eclectic tastes of their composer. Saxophonist Joe Lovano’s supreme musicianship and wonderful tone came to the fore in a sequence of arrangements of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Vernon Duke, as well as Schuller’s own Lament for M, a deeply touching memorial to his late wife.
Lovano changed to a bass clarinet for Night Music – a perfect example of Schuller’s ’third stream’ world, combining jazz with classical techniques – in this case a twelve-note Chaconne. Two miniatures – Transformations and Densities 1 – defied their rather ponderous titles by being witty, colourful, elegant studies: perhaps Webern might have written such things had he by chance wondered into Ronnie Scott’s! Anyone who thinks that twelve-tone music lacks charm should listen to these pieces. Finally, Tre Invenzione, which hark back to Renaissance music and architecture, scored for five quintets of high and low brass, high and low wind, harps and keyboards – complex, not so easy on the ear perhaps, but staggering in their instrumental virtuosity and confidence.
This concert was a remarkable tribute to a remarkable man. For those unfamiliar with Schuller’s music, and willing to spend time trying to locate them, may I recommend the following CD’s: Arabesque Z6620 – Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – Impromptus & Cadenzas; Octet (a wonderful companion piece to Schubert’s Octet); GM Recordings GM2059CD – Radio Philharmonic of Hanover/Gunther Schuller – An Arc Ascending; Vertige d’Eros; Meditation (Symphonic Study); Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. The Klee Studies are Schuller’s most famous piece and on this recording are coupled with orchestral works spanning almost fifty years