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Review of Festival

I Hear America : Gunther Schuller at 80

Monday-Wednesday, November 14-16, 2005, 8:00 PM
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston , MA

Organized by New England Conservatory pianist Bruce Brubaker, this three-day affair of concerts and lectures showcased the wide-ranging interests of Pulitzer Prize winning composer and former NEC president Gunther Schuller on his 80 th birthday. The presentations on Monday and Wednesday evening were devoted to music by this American icon, while Tuesday's event concerned itself with classic ragtime repertoire. Your reviewer attended the November 14 and 16 programs.

The first of these featured several modest bonbons and a large full-course meal. The tiny Fanfare for Twelve Trumpets (1986) is a delightfully festive work that infuses its polytonal harmonic language with jazzy sonorities. Perpetuum Mobile (1948) is a cheeky and charming bit of juvenilia scored for an usual ensemble consisting of bassoon and four muted horns. Neoclassic in sound, it possesses more contrast than one normally associates with motoric entries. Scored for two contrasting quartets, one "legit" (string quartet) and the other jazz based (a rhythm section of bass, piano, vibraphone, and drum kit), Conversations (1959) fascinatingly explores the similarities and differences between progressive jazz and avant-garde classical idioms of the mid-20th century. Its architecture, a four-part schema with coda, allows the players to explore free expression in both genres -- both cadenzas and jazz solos appear here.

The evening's magnum opus was Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards (2005). This is a major addition to the percussion ensemble literature that compels greatly. Schuller here revels in coaxing as many colors and textures as possible from the eleven battery executants, harpist, pianist, and celesta player. Forms are intriguingly delineated by long-range use of dynamic levels and timbre types, while the clangorous harmonic world tends to meld into the non-pitched sounds along the lines of what occurs in the coda to Varese 's Ionization. It's an unpredictable and non-prescriptive, but satisfying listen.

Schuller's transcriptions of Duke Ellington's Daybreak Express and Cottontail as well as his evocative arrangement of the Richard Rodgers standard "Blue Moon" rounded out the evening.

Performances, featuring the NEC Percussion Ensemble (Frank Epstein, conductor) and NEC Contemporary Ensemble (John Heiss, director) were ready-for-prime-time excellent, though the effort put forth by Ken Schaphorst's NEC Jazz Orchestra proved a bit less polished.

Wednesday's presentation allowed this critic a rare opportunity to reassess three Schuller pieces previously encountered. The Fantasy (1951) for solo cello had not satisfied at a performance up at Warebrook earlier this year, but here's a classic case of a selection gaining coherence through a repeat listen. This showy virtuoso vehicle does have elements of recapitulation that lend a sense of shape to what on first hearing seemed unduly capricious. And the tone row that generates pitches here is flexible enough to admit more triadic aspects -- including a grandiose C-major chord that ends it all. In brief, there's much under the surface to ground the fanciful exterior.

For large mixed ensemble of eleven players, Chimeric Images (1987-88) appears not to have been programmed locally since its 1999 Boston Modern Orchestra Project presentation. Like some of Schuller's other compositions, it's one of those rare birds that can trump nebulous architecture with engrossing unfolding. This three movement opus, loosely modeled on fast-slow-fast concerto principles, pleases greatly the second time around, as does Song and Dance (1990), a splashy bipartite romp for violin and large wind ensemble. Last encountered five years ago at an MIT event, it too organizes pitches via tone row, but utilizes one that admits popular-idiom verticals ranging from jazz to country. And its finale conjures up fiddling idioms from both traditions without seeming the least bit corny.

Special citations should go to Song-Ie Do, a demonstrative cellist who nevertheless featured the controlled ability of the finest performers, and Angelia Cho, whose violin playing traversed both expressive and rambunctious passage work with seemingly effortless expertise. Donald Palma led an exciting rendition of Chimeric Images , while Charles Peltz drew personality-filled playing from the NEC Wind Ensemble that never squashed the soloist. And what may have been the entire student complement of the NEC Third Stream Department turned in an engrossing, duet-dominated jam session on one of Schuller's favorite pitch sets; a delightful cameo from Hankus Netsky's NEC Klezmer Department and a tasty concluding improvisation from Third Stream legend Ran Blake only added to the pleasure.

--David Cleary