La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Gunther Schuller: A "Renaissance" Musician Tells All!

Gunther Schuller: a Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty
University of Rochester Press: Rochester, 2011
664 pages

In the fall of 1959, I made my third visit to New York City. I was an ambitious young bass player making a pilgrimage to the ‘Big Apple’ to play for one of the most respected of bass teachers anywhere at that time, Frederick Zimmermann of the New York Philharmonic. Fred and I got on very well and, in time, became the best of friends.

I remember vividly that when I saw him in 1959, Fred was consumed with excitement about a new work for four basses written by a man named Gunther Schuller. When I finally got to hear the piece, I too became excited about it and about its composer. The story of the Bass Quartet and Fred’s role in its gestation is told at length in this first volume of Schuller’s autobiography, in which, to my delight, he praises Fred as a man, a musician and a painter. Fred died of a brain tumor in 1969 shortly after retiring from the Philharmonic; although his life’s work has not yet been fully appreciated, Schuller, in this autobiography, has noted its importance.

Schuller the "Renaissance" Musician 
At 85, Gunther Schuller looks back on a life of enormous accomplishments in many musical fields. He was appointed principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony at age 17 and went on to spend 15 years as principal horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. At the same time, he was writing music and by the 1960s had become one of the leading composers of his generation.

Schuller has always had a strong interest in jazz and before long, he was collaborating with the likes of Miles Davis, John Lewis (of MJQ), Charles Mingus (one of Fred’s students, by the way), Bill Evans, Gil Evans and many others. He was one of the first composers to bridge the gap between classical and jazz music, and in so doing, was credited with spawning the movement known as “Third Stream.”

As though not busy enough, Schuller also found time to write books, including one on horn technique and two on the history of jazz. He also penned a massive analysis of hundreds of recordings of orchestral music under the title The Compleat Conductor. He founded his own record label, his own music publishing company, had a major career as a conductor and was head of music schools in both Boston and Tanglewood.

This autobiography by a multi-talented musician is a fascinating documentation of musical life in America from about 1945 to 1960. Schuller knew nearly everyone of importance in musical circles in those years and was talented and curious enough to digest everything that he saw and heard about the business.

Conductors: Up Close and Personal!
From his first chair position in the Met orchestra he saw many of the leading conductors of the period at their worst and at their best. He is able to confirm that Fritz Reiner, for example, was just as mean and nasty as his reputation suggests. On the other hand, he recalls a 1949 performance of Salome under Reiner, with Lubja Welitsch in the title role, as one of the greatest experiences of his life. Then there was George Szell, a conductor known to be just as mean-spirited as Reiner; for him, Schuller has nothing but contempt, and he never forgave Szell for his relentless efforts to humiliate him.

One of Schuller’s heroes is Maestro Dimitri Mitropoulos. Admittedly, his admiration of Mitropoulos is coloured by the conductor’s enthusiam for Schuller’s own music; nevertheless, the author’s defense of this immensely gifted musician, who deserved better than he got from the members of the Met orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, is commendable.

Schuller comes from a long line of musicians. His father, a violinist, played under Furtwängler in Germany and went on to become a member of the New York Philharmonic. Gunther was sent to study in Germany when he was very young and learned to speak German at an early age. Since it was the late 1930s he also fell under the control of the Nazis for a time, and was even forced to join the Hitlerjugend. He might have been trapped in Germany over the course of the war had it not been for a terrible accident, in which he lost an eye, prompting his mother to fly to Germany to bring him home.

From High School Drop-out to French Horn Vituoso
Schuller was virtually self-taught as a pianist, horn player and composer and in view of his illustrious career, it came as a shock to this reader to learn that he was a high school drop-out. Equally shocking was the revelation that after only a handful of lessons and a couple of years of practice on the french horn, he was playing this instrument, not only professionally, but at the highest level! 

What do I mean by “playing professionally at the highest level?” How about as a member of the NBC Symphony performing the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich in New York with Toscanini conducting!

In short, Gunther Schuller is a prodigious musical talent. In this autobiography, to be sure, he is not above boasting about his accomplishments or quoting from complimentary newspaper reviews - he is not a shy or modest man; on the other hand, there would be little point in writing an autobiography of more than 600 pages unless the subject were very special indeed. Credibly, an unusually shy or modest man would neither have had the opportunities afforded Schuller time and again, nor had the nerve to take advantage of them so effectively.

Details May be too Much of a Muchness for Some
One of the potentially annoying features of Schuller’s book is his description of literally dozens of people as “close, personal friend(s).” How could one man have so many “close” friends? Well, he had an insatiable curiosity, and as noted, he wasn’t shy and he wasn’t modest.  He wanted to know things and he often introduced himself to new people for that reason: i.e. they could answer his questions and satisfy his curiosity. Making friends is clearly another of Schuller’s great talents: he spent his afternoons playing the Ring cycle in piano four-hand arrangements with jazz pianist Bill Evans because Lewis could take him further into the world of jazz; he insisted on meeting Furtwängler in Berlin in 1953 because he admired the man and wanted to know what made him a great conductor.

For someone like myself who greatly admires Schuller and wants to know everything about his life, such a long book is not long enough; I can hardly wait for volume two. Many others, however, will find Schuller tedious and self-indulgent. They don’t need to know the name of every mountain in the Swiss Alps nor be taken on a Cook’s tour of Europe, nor do they need long lists of films that Schuller saw as a teenager, 20-year-old or 30-year-old.

Even Schuller’s admirers must wonder about the veracity of some of his claims. He often mis-spells names (e.g., film director Paul Czinner [p. 362], jazz player Gerry Mulligan [p. 497]), and some of his facts are demonstrably wrong (e.g., Karajan never recorded Ives Unanswered Question [p. 627], nor did he conduct an all-French program with the Vienna Symphony in 1953 [p.543]). Schuller prides himself on his sports knowledge but writes about “Bob” Boudreau when it should be “Lou” (p. 43).

On the basis of this volume, one must conclude that Schuller either has total recall of everything he has done throughout most of his life - every piece of music he has heard, every sideman on every jazz concert he has heard, and every word that he and his future wife said to each other when they were courting in their early 20s; he alludes to the separate diaries he and his wife kept, but even diaries don’t usually record the kind of detail he recalls throughout this autobiography.

Doubts aside, one cannot come away from this book without being utterly convinced that the greatest achievement of this gifted and ambitious man, was his marriage to Marjorie “Margie” Black.

Schuller first met Margie in Cincinnati when he was a member of the orchestra and she was a voice and piano student at the Cincinnati College of Music. They fell in love, lived together in New York, got married and had two sons. She died of cancer 20 years ago. The courtship is recounted in great detail but then Margie suddenly fades into the background. Perhaps she will rise to prominence again in volume two. In any case, there is no mistaking the depth of Schuller’s love for Margie, or how much he misses her. “I am very lonely…The void left by her disappearance from my life is at times not only unbearable but also incomprehensible (p. 569).”

A Life Lived to the Fullest Measure!
Schuller presents his life story with unusual candor. He writes a good deal about his early years making it clear that he was a young man who wanted to experience everything life had to offer. He described himself as “an Epicurean, not only in matters of food and drink, but also in the whole range of human pleasures, from the intellectual to the sensual (p. 569).” When he toured with the Met he liked nothing better than to visit seedy night clubs and brothels. And later, accompanied by Margie, he loved to visit the fleshpots of Europe. Schuller is somewhat hyperbolic on the subject of sex but there is no mistaking its importance in his life.

Although love and sex often guided his thoughts and actions – a hyperactive libido is not uncommon amongst gifted musicians – they did not interfere with his career goals. Schuller worked extremely hard to improve himself as a musician, and while the book tells only the beginning of the story of Schuller the composer, educator and conductor, it tells us a great deal about Schuller as a young man and about the challenges of building a career in music during this period.

We learn that total commitment is required, a willingness to go anywhere anytime to work with older and wiser colleagues, a belief in oneself, and an understanding of what it means to be a professional musician – that is, showing up on time day after day, and being totally prepared for the job at hand. Music is an art form, but for a working professional it is also a job, which means that being ready and being punctual are almost as important as being talented.

Any young musician, no matter their instrument or career path, would do well to read Schuller’s A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty to understand the challenges that lie ahead and how to deal with them. Schuller’s The Compleat Conductor, is a must read for those considering a career in conducting.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

Photo: Gunther Schuller conducts in the Tanglewood Music Shed c. 1970s (Photographer Unknown, Courtesy BSO Archives)

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Sunday, 18 November 2012

DSO/van Zweden Record LBJ Concert Drama in Dallas

Steven Stucky: August 4, 1964
Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Jaap van Zweden
Date of recording: May 6, 2011 (live)
Place of recording: Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas
DSO Live DSOL-4 (72 m 21 s)

In Texas, especially in Austin where he lived most of his life and where his library is located, 36th President of the United States ((1963-1969), Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), is a legendary figure. The Johnson ranch, just outside the capital, is visited by thousands every year, and the library hosts major speakers and conferences.

LBJ was a native son of Texas who became president of the United States under horrendous circumstances - the assassination of President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963 on the streets of Dallas. It was the Dallas Symphony that commissioned a work to commemorate the Johnson centenary in 2008.

Composer Steven Stucky (photo: right) and librettist Gene Sheer came up with a “concert drama” as they called it, which binds together two important events in American history that defined Johnson’s presidency: the first, the finding of the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers in Mississippi; the second, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, half way across the world, which accelerated American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The deaths of the Mississippi civil rights workers moved LBJ to launch an FBI investigation and led to landmark civil rights legislation that ended segregation. For that, LBJ is remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, on the other hand, prompted him to an overreaction to events that may or may not have occurred and ultimately sent tens of thousands of American troops to Vietnam to fight what was ultimately seen to be a futile and unnecessary war.

The Vietnam War ultimately destroyed LBJ’s presidency and quite possibly hastened the death of the man himself.

In conflating these two events, Stucky and Sheer have tried to capture the essence of the Johnson years in Washington; ultimately, Johnson is defined in the piece as a misguided figure who totally misunderstood America’s role in Vietnam and made the decisions that led to 58,000 U.S.  and 3.7 million Vietnamese deaths.

While history has been kind to LBJ on the civil rights issue, in the Stucky piece he is depicted as somewhat passive in the face of the killings of the three young civil rights workers. If the idea of the centenary commission was to honour LBJ, the donors to the project may well have been taken aback by this depiction of the President.

August 4, 1964 is not a great piece and it fails for a variety of reasons, starting with the libretto. If this were an opera, we would have characters like LBJ, his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (photo: left) and the mothers of the slain civil rights workers playing their historic roles, with LBJ at the center of it all as a troubled but ultimately tragic figure.

In real life, McNamara later admitted that he had failed to understand the Vietnam War and had made terrible decisions. He was a truly pitiful figure and could be rendered as a riveting character on stage.

But this work is not an opera. Instead, we have the above-named characters appearing from time to time singing more or less their own words as we know them, often in the Oval Office, with, at one point, a poem by Stephen Spender thrown into the mix; unfortunately, there is no clear dramatic arch to the text except that the work quotes Spender at the beginning and the end using poetic language that is really too abstract either to focus the mind or to touch the heart.

The characters in Stuckey’s piece never come to life, least of all Johnson; at the end, we have neither a new appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses nor a better understanding of his feelings about much of anything.

While using it not only as a unifying device in the work, but also as a commentary on the events depicted, I wonder if Sheer and Stucky really understand the Spender poem, which is clearly a tribute to the power of the solitary artist or activist.

Spender (photo: right) himself said that when he wrote it at age 21 he had in mind “Beethoven’s late quartets, movies by Eisenstein of heroic workers and so on, D.H. Lawrence’s ideas about sex and perhaps Michelangelo’s sculpture” (The Poetry Archive). While it seems obvious that Sheer and Stucky are applying this message to the three civil rights workers murdered in fighting for a just cause (they quote Goodman’s mother saying that “when my son was killed I put some lines on the wall of my apartment in New York City”), the work is ultimately about LBJ. Listeners might well take away the impression that the words of Goodman’s mother - “I think continually of those who were truly great” - were meant to apply to LBJ.

It seems to me that any composer writing a work of this kind must ask him/herself, “What is to be gained by having this text sung rather than spoken.” In the case of real people appearing in August 4, 1964 singing their own words, too often my response was “Nothing.” Even worse, in many cases, including some in this instance, when text is sung rather than spoken, intelligibility flies out the window.

Apparently Movement 11 – the penultimate movement - was a late addition and came to be known as “McNamara’s Lament.” While it alludes to McNamara’s latter day self-flagellation over the Vietnam War, and gives the concert drama, at least in small measure, a point of view it otherwise lacks, for many people who opposed the Vietnam War it will seem too mild a rebuke of government leaders who let American hubris get the better of them. Incidentally, as printed in the CD booklet, the name ‘McNamara’ is left off the sub-heading for Movement 11.

Without a better libretto, composer Stucky had one hand tied behind his back before he started. That said, the music itself is disappointingly mundane and unmemorable. To relieve the relentless mournfulness of the subject matter, the composer and librettist give us a somewhat contrived scene in the middle of the piece depicting the battle in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although skillfully written for soloists, orchestra and chorus, the music comes across as uninspired.

Despite my reservations about the quality of the piece itself, this recorded performance certainly makes the best possible case for the work. The chorus and orchestra produce a glorious sound and under Jaap van Zweden every detail seems to be in its proper place. The dynamic range is colossal thanks to van Zweden, the Meyerson Symphony Center and the recording engineers.

While I think August 4, 1964 has serious structural and conceptual problems, this concert drama is nonetheless an important reminder of the great and terrible events it commemorates.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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This Week in Toronto (Nov. 19 - 25)

Conductor Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra play Stravinsky and Haydn at Roy Thomson Hall (photo: B Ealovega)

Top news on the symphonic front this week is the much anticipated visit of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under the musical direction of Kent Nagano, for a single performance at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday Nov. 21 at the unusually late time of 8:30 pm. The centerpiece is Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, on occasion of the 100th anniversary of its premiere in Paris. Also on the program is Haydn's Symphony no. 94, the so-called "Surprise" Symphony. Rounding out the evening is Peter Maxwell Davies An Orkney Wedding.  Perhaps it's more imagined than real, but to the minds of Toronto music lovers, there has always been a friendly rivalry between the TSO and the OSM. So it's always fascinating to compare the two orchestras when the opportunity arises. This is an important event and not to be missed. There will be a pre-concert talk with Rick Philips in the lobby at 7:45 pm. 
French pianist Alexandre Tharaud plays Haydn's Piano Concerto in D Major  

On Saturday and Sunday, the TSO presents a program of Haydn and Beethoven with guest conductor Bernard Labadie and French pianist Alexandre Tharaud in Haydn's Piano Concerto in D Major. This elegant and colourful work is not heard in concert halls all that much these days, as the spotlight tends to be on the super-virtuoso finger-breakers. The evening opens with Haydn's Symphony no. 101 "The Clock", and ends with Beethoven's Symphony no. 1.  Two performances, on Saturday Nov. 24 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, and on Sunday Nov. 25 3 pm in the under-used but acoustically wonderful George Weston Recital Hall in North York, a perfect venue for these Classical pieces.

Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski makes his Koerner Hall debut on Sunday

A rare event this week (that coincides with the TSO performance on Sunday) is the Koerner Hall debut of Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski in an all-Bach program. One of the most fascinating, intense, charismatic, uncompromising, and - yes, "eccentric" also comes to mind  - musicians of our time, Anderszewski astounded the musical world by walking off the stage in the middle of the Leeds Competition in 1990 when he wasn't happy with his playing at that moment. For that he was interviewed, written about, and Bruno Monsaingeon made a film on Anderszewski, The Unquiet Traveller (2008) that makes for fascinating viewing. It is available on the Medici label, or if you can understand Polish, you can watch it on Youtube! The program Sunday consists of English Suites No. 3 and 6, French Suites No.5 and the Italian Concerto.    For more information, go to 

Britten fans will get a chance to see its rarely performed church opera, Noye's Fludde. To my knowledge, the last time this piece was heard locally was almost ten years ago in the Benjamin Britten Festival organized by the late Niki Goldschmidt. On that occasion, he conducted this opera in a church in the west end - I vividly recall attending it. I think that might have been his last conducting assignment.  This opera is being presented on Nov. 23, 24, and 25 at the Trinity St. Paul's Centre on Bloor Street near Spadina. Baritone Justin Welsh and mezzo Marion Newman are the soloists, plus R.H. Thomson as the Voice of God.

Portrait of Conductor Agnes Grossmann by artist Soheir Morcos

Austrian conductor Agnes Grossmann is of course no stranger to the Toronto music scene. She was the artistic director of Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy until two years ago. She is back in town this week, bringing with her the Taiwan National Choir, in a performance of works by Bruckner, Brahms and Schumann, plus Taiwanese folksongs. Friday Nov. 23 Koerner Hall 8 pm.

As mentioned last week, Opera By Request's presentation this week is the wonderful Tchaikovsky opera, Eugene Onegin. As usual, with piano accompaniment at the College Street United Church, 452 College St. in downtown Toronto. Sunday Nov. 25 7:30 pm.

Opera in Concert, the august group of presenting operas in concert format, has a new moniker, Voicebox.  This Sunday at 2:30 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre, it is presenting Armida by Rossini. It stars Raphaelle Paquette in the title role. This is one of those hard to cast operas with three (!) tenors. In this case, they are Edgar Ramirez, Christopher Mayell and Michael Ciufo. This piece is unlikely to be staged in Toronto any time soon, so this is a good opportunity to catch it.

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