25 Sep 2010

Sandy reviews Gunther Schuller at the Edinburgh Festival


My Edinburgh Festival highlight...without doubt the composer, conductor, and teacher Gunther Schuller, who conducted two concerts of American
music with the RSNO and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and took part
in a “conversation” with Jonathan Mills, the Festival Director. He was, he said, a late starter, not becoming interested in music until he reached the age of 11...but five years later at the tender age of 16 he made his debut with the New York Phil, playing horn in Toscanini’s legendary war-time performance of Shostakovitch’s 7th Symphony...before joining the Met Opera Orchestra as first horn in 1944. He described New York in the forties and fifties as ‘a golden age’ for all of the arts...and Jazz, to which he was particularly drawn, experienced a remarkable period of development...from Swing to Bebop and beyond. There were 127 active Jazz Clubs at the end of the forties... now for example, there are only 7. No wonder Schuller fears for the future of the music...indeed for all music of quality as the relentless barrage of commercially driven “pop” pouring forth from a globalised culture industry intent on maximizing profits, literally obliterates all other forms of music. Schuller talked about what might constitute a typical day for him at that time. Opera rehearsal in the morning...afternoon in New York Public Library studying scores...evening performances of Figaro or Rosenkavalier ...afterwards, ending up in a Jazz Club. In 1949 he recorded with the Miles Davis nonet on what became the famous Birth of the Cool album and went on to coin the term ‘Third Stream’ to describe his own compositions that combined elements of Western art music and jazz. Schuller’s teaching career is also worthy of mention...at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1950’s...Professor of Composition at Yale from 1964 to 1967 and then for the following ten years, President of the New England Conservatory where he promoted the music of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington - black musicians hitherto ignored by the American musical establishment. His many awards include a Pulitzer Prize (1994) and the Gold Medal for Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997).

Schuller’s concert with the RSNO featured Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and the Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives. Although probably written between 1909 and 1916 the symphony remained unperformed until it’s belated premiere in 1965. Three conductors were needed on that occasion, such is the complexity of parts of the score...multitudinous polyrhythyms, quarter-tone harmonies, and countless tunes. A percussion group, pianos, bells, gongs, continues independently throughout the transcendent final movement. Is it possible that such a complex score be conducted by only one person? Schuller explained that as a performing musician he was able to figure out ways of overcoming the countless difficulties involved...even though it still can take half an hour or so of experimenting, for some sections of the orchestra to figure out the best way to play particular passages in time. It should be said that Schuller stopped the applause at the end of the performance and told the audience “ some of that music was out of time”.

With the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Schuller performed what he
termed as jazz masterpieces, all notated by himself...works by Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey and Gil Evans...including the Miles Davis/Gil Evans version of Gerswhin’s Porgy and Bess (again in Schuller’s own notation and again it should be mentioned that Schuller played horn on the original 1958 recording).....works which he claimed were the equal of the great classical composers such as Bach and Haydn. Schuller’s performing ideas are interesting in that he believes in an authentic recreation of the original...he is disinclined to tamper with or update the unique sound that Duke Ellington’s band made in the 1930’s or 1940’s...the important thing is to play those pieces as accurately as possible. As he puts it “ the original music is so great that it stands on a par with a Beethoven symphony or a Rachmaninov concerto ” and as a footnote to the high musical standards attained by jazz musicians he said he couldn’t really think of a better singer than Sarah Vaughan...an opinion Simon Rattle has also
endorsed in a recent interview.

As a young man he got to know Ellington and had the privilege of staying with him in Chicago for a week in the mid 1940’s, and was able to study his compositional methods at close hand. Ellington’s special sense of colour...often giving the highest notes in the ensemble to the baritone sax, the lowest sounding instrument...was explained in detail as was the Duke’s
use of modern European harmony, including bitonality, polytonality and
even, in one instance, atonality.

Once again, the Edinburgh Festival has had the vision to bring to Scotland an exceptional artist and communicator, whose ability to reveal unheard of musical vistas has enhanced our lives. It must have been quite a relevatory experience for the young musicians of the Scottish National Jazz Orcestra to have worked with such a warm hearted legend. Next year sees the publication of the 85 year old Schuller’s autobiography...I can’t wait.

Sandy Moffat

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