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Gunther Schuller: I Hear America (Part 3)

Part Three: Spectra

For the final installment (see Part 1 and Part 2) of the festival celebrating Gunther Schuller’s 80th birthday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra programmed the composer’s Klangfarbenmelodie fantasy, Spectra (1958). The piece is meticulously organized, eschewing the traditional orchestral seating chart and replacing it with five “chamber” ensembles reinforced with strings and percussion. The purpose of the reorganization, as the title suggests, was to make tone color the thread of the piece, as opposed to melody, or even the orchestra itself. The tonal idea in use here was Schoenberg’s, and altered orchestration was the subject of many similar experiments of mid-20th-century avant-garde composers. A recording exists of the work -- though it might be difficult to get one’s hands on it -- with James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony.

Though the concept of Spectra is a difficult one to handle, especially for 22 minutes, the realization of it through the artistry of Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s magnificent players crystallized the experience. Schuller was a French horn prodigy (playing principal chair in the Cincinnati Symphony at age 17) and, as such, had insights on the difficulties of hearing across the sections of an orchestra. This piece took such concerns out of the equation, while providing an opportunity to hear the technical mastery of some of this orchestra’s players who normally get buried in the texture. Of particular note were the low reeds, anchored by bass clarinetist Craig Nordstrom and contrabassoonist Gregg Henegar.

The strings had their chance to shine at the concert’s opening - Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony No. 35 in D. Upon hearing this piece performed by this ensemble, the mutual respect that exists between the BSO strings and Levine is absolutely clear. Later, the orchestra gave an expansive reading of Debussy’s La Mer – the American premiere of which was given by the Boston Symphony (see page 6 of this concert’s program notes for a history of this premiere, including interesting first reactions by Bostonian critics) – and addressed the lush scoring, which may have been just as good on piano, with sensitivity across all sections.

There is much to sort out after this week’s examination of the life and work of Gunther Schuller thus far. On one hand, there is the educator opening new boxes that deliberately shake the foundations of traditional musical thought, whether that necessitates utopianism, an examination of the role of the conservatory, or the appreciation of the American musical heritage. On the other hand is the largely self-taught, introspective, academic composer. Either way, Schuller is a living composer and educator who can still shed insight on the best and worst that American classical music wanted and tried to be. Examples of his writings on conducting, education and jazz history can be found here and here. As for his work as a publisher, visit Schuller’s own Web site. also has a nice array, including Of Reminiscences and Reflections, for which Schuller won the Pulitzer Prize.

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