Monday, June 22, 2015

Gunther Schuller: A Remembrance



By Erica Miner 

The loss of a respected musical icon, no matter at what age, is always a sad event. For those musicians among us who knew and worked with Gunther Schuller, the news of his passing at age 89 evokes more than respect; it evokes memories of wonderful performances, richly varied conversations, and a man whose influence in my early life as a young, aspiring musician still resides in my soul.

Schuller was iconic in more ways than most. In his almost nine decades, he was a performing classical and jazz French hornist, a composer of wide influence, a teacher of extraordinary insight, a brilliant writer (sadly, only the first volume of his autobiography, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty has been published), and more. In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Schuller marveled at having enjoyed more full-time musical careers than Leonard Bernstein. It was no exaggeration.

Gunther never shrank from controversy and innovation in his work. Perhaps the height of his influence came from his linking the two so-called main streams of 20th century American music to create what he called the “Third Stream” in the 1950s - collaborating with jazz pianist John Lewis to compose works that reflected both classical and jazz musical genres. Classical and jazz musicians alike were quick to condemn the marriage of the two styles. Eventually the American Musical Inquisition relented, and the concept took hold.

The formerly energetic, vital composer and musician looked terribly frail when I spoke with him last April in the Green Room of Symphony Hall after a performance of his Dreamscape with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Yet he was as articulate as ever, and his recall of my past encounters with him in Boston and at Tanglewood was astonishingly clear. Leaning over his wheelchair, I could still perceive the sparkle in his expression that I remembered from my days as a Fellowship student at the Tanglewood Music Center (then the Berkshire Music Center). When I mentioned working with his violinist father in New York, Schuller’s expression positively lit up. “Your father made a great impression on me,” I told Gunther. “He told me he owed everything that came to him in life to this instrument, the violin. He was right. And I’ve never forgotten that.

When I first went to Tanglewood as a student in my teens, I was as impressionable as they come. I looked up to Gunther; he was a leader in so many ways: teacher, conductor, composer, mentor to young composers, and a fierce champion of contemporary music. Many of the avant garde compositions we young musicians were required to perform sailed right over our heads. Yet Schuller had a way of rehearsing as he was conducting us that was infinitely patient and instructive.

One particular composition by a young composer seemed uniquely problematic and incomprehensible, and the indomitable jokester of our small ensemble couldn’t resist a prank. At one point in the score, the composer specified that the conductor was to stop, take a sip of water from a glass on his podium, and then continue. Before the performance our prankster confided to us that he had replaced the water in Gunther’s glass with vodka. Hardly able to contain our conspiratorial glee, we all awaited the prescribed moment in the piece. When Gunther, his brow beaded with sweat from the summer Berkshire heat, stopped to take the sip of water, he gasped, practically dropping the glass. The expression on Gunther’s face was priceless. Afterwards he and the group all shared a hearty laugh over the incident.

Later, as a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, I was proud of the fact that Gunther was our president, and impressed at his courage and forethought in instituting NEC’s degree-granting jazz program. I remember thinking at the time that the NEC powers-that-be could not have chosen more wisely or appropriately. I listened, enraptured, when the BSO performed his 7 Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Along with other pit musicians I sweated furiously, rehearsing his opera The Fisherman and his Wife, as new revisions came in on a daily basis right up until the last minute before the premiere in Boston.

All of these memories came flooding back to me when I heard of his passing. He was an icon to many thousands of musicians, composers and scholars. To me he was an irreplaceable force of nature. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him professionally, and to speak with him personally just a few weeks before his passing: to have one last chance to take in that always inquisitive, highly intelligent expression.

We will miss him.

Photo: James Primosch

Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

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