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Gunther Schuller: I Hear America (Part 2)

Part Two: The Magic Row

The second concert (go to Part One) of the festival at Boston’s New England Conservatory celebrating Gunther Schuller’s 80th birthday took a much more serious tone than the opening performance earlier in the week. While the opening performance portrayed Schuller as the arms-wide-open acceptor of all the world’s musics, this performance solemnly presented Schuller the introspective academic.

Most pieces on the program were based on his “Magic Row.” Inspired by dodecaphony, Schuller’s row, born in the slow movement of his 1968 violin concerto and used in many pieces since, is deliberately impure – the twelve notes of the row are arranged such that some groupings of three adjacent notes spell triads. The organized examples provided – Chimeric Images (1988) for chamber ensemble or Song and Dance (1990) for solo violin and wind ensemble – display a familiar conflict in academic writing of this sort. He can (and does) write beautiful, lyric passages, only to turn around and shun them, writing self-consciously cryptic sections that are wrapped in a shroud of scholastic experimentation. The final NEC contribution to the festival were “improvisations” on the Magic Row performed by the conservatory’s Department of Contemporary Improvisation. They were not improvisations, but organized, overlapping tableaux in a variety of “world music” idioms that simultaneously attempted to drive home the egalitarianism exposed in the earlier performance.

It should be noted that the quality of all the performances was excellent, and the festival was obviously crafted with quality of performance in mind. The festival concludes with performances of Schuller’s Spectra by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on November 19th and 22nd.

(Go to Part 3.)

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