Dallas — Gunther Schuller probably has as varied a résumé as any classical musician ever sported.
On the classical side, he played horn in the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra at 15, principal horn in the Cincinnati Symphony and then in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and is now the Artistic Director of the Northwest Bach Festival. On the jazz side, he founded the Modern Jazz Society, where he coined the term “Third Stream” to describe the fusion of jazz and classical music. As an educator, he was on the faculty of the New England Conservatory and taught numerous conducting and other musical interest workshops around the country (I attended one years ago).
As a musicologist, he was instrumental in the rediscovery of America's first composers, such as John Knowles Paine, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Mrs. H.H. (Amy) Beach, among many others. He is also the editor-in-chief of Jazz Masterworks Editions. As a conductor, he was the music director of the Spokane Symphony, after which he launched a career of guest conducting all over the world. As a composer, he has written more 100 significant works. Whew.
Which brings us to his visit to the area this week. He is the guest of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Wind Ensemble and University of Texas at Arlington Wind Symphony for a pair of concerts on Friday and Saturday, respectively, and will appear as both conductor and composer.
We get to hear three of his compositions: Symphony for Brass and Percussion, op. 16, On Winged Flight: Divertimento for Wind Band; and Blue Dawn into White Heat. Other works on the program include Third Stream compositions by jazz greats J. J. Johnson and John Lewis.
In a recent phone interview, he noted that jazz was an interest of his from early on.
“When I was 11, one night [I was] doing my homework and listening to the radio. At 11 o’clock, there was 15 minutes of news and at 11:15, the big bands came on,” he says. “Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—all of them. That evening I heard some music that overwhelmed me. I stopped homework because I just had to listen. I may have heard this music before, but this time really hit me.”
Schuller's father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic and his reaction to the 11-year-old Gunther, when he said he was going to study jazz, was predicable.
“Dad about had a heart attack,” he says with a laugh. “But when he found out I wasn't giving up classical music, he relaxed a little. He was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany and they never heard jazz, so he had no background to pull from. I tried for five months to teach him jazz, but it didn't work. He couldn't get the ‘swing.’ ”
As to the concert here, Schuller is thrilled about the program, and not just because his music will be featured.
“J. J. Johnson was a fine composer in every respect and a big fan of Paul Hindemith's music,” he says. John Lewis was also an excellent composer. I conducted these works [the ones on the program] over 50 years ago, but they disappeared. Doug Stotter [Director of Bands at UTA] knew about them and hunted them out. I didn't chose the program, but it is great to hear this music again.”
Yes, it will be great to hear this music. Not “again” for many of us, alas—but for the first time.
» Schuller performs with the Meadows Wind Symphony at SMU at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, in Caruth Auditorium ($7-$13) INFO HERE
» And with the UTA Wind Symphony at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, in Irons Recital Hall ($7) INFO HERE