As a composer, Gunther Schuller’s legacy is complex and has yet to be settled. Sorting through it all over the coming years ought to constitute a great, welcome adventure.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
It’s one of the kinder ironies of fate that Gunther Schuller’s birthday fell on St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music’s, name day. This past Sunday would have been his 90th birthday, the many events scheduled around it now memorials following Schuller’s death in June. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) is no stranger to Schuller’s music—one of their earliest BMOP/Sound recordings was an all-Schuller disc—and they commemorated his life with an ambitious memorial concert on Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. The most substantial offering on Sunday’s program was Schuller’s 1970 opera The Fisherman and His Wife, an adaptation of a tale by the Brothers Grimm (with a libretto by John Updike) that tells of a fisherman’s wife who demands increasing wealth and power from an enchanted fish her husband caught (and released; hence, the debt). Sunday’s performance was, evidently, the opera’s first in 45 years and, while it offers some striking moments, that long hiatus seems, if not deserved, at least understandable.
The Fisherman’s biggest problem is a libretto that’s dramatically inert and offers characters of little sympathetic appeal. The fisherman’s wife is a shrew, an archetype of unbridled greed and power. Her husband is weak-willed, with a bit of a wider perspective; however, his repeated iterations of “this is not the right thing to do” when sent by his wife to do her bidding with the fish are not enough to encourage him to stand up to his spouse. Updike was surely among the 20th century’s finest American writers (particularly his short stories), but in The Fisherman his sense of pacing isn’t in top form. There’s too much repetition, not enough diversity of activity, and, except for a short duet between the Cat and the Magic Fish, not much by way of psychological probing of the characters or their motivations.
Part of the blame may well lie with Schuller, too, whose conception of opera seems to have been more conventional than not and who apparently had a difficult collaboration with his librettist in part because of this. Even so, the score is striking for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s uncompromisingly hard-edged, especially for an opera geared toward an audience of children (it was commissioned for the Junior League of Boston). True, perhaps, to the spirit of the Brothers Grimm, the music doesn’t shy away from darkness, especially in the scenes by the seaside that glower and growl with increasing menace as the opera progresses. Schuller, true to form, also incorporated moments of real wit and musical knowing, sometimes making surprising allusions (or anticipations), like the Cat’s Ligetian premonitions. Schuller’s music certainly makes the libretto more palatable, though the whole opera would have benefited from more moments like the bluesy duet between the Cat and the Magic Fish to bring it closer to the fringe of the repertoire. Nevertheless, The Fisherman proved a treat to hear on Sunday, especially with the sure control and color BMOP brought to its pages.
As the Wife in Sunday’s semi-staged production, Sondra Kelly filled the role’s transformations well, singing with a noble, commanding tone and imperious bearing. Steven Goldstein’s Fisherman sounded suitably light and clear, though there were times when he struggled to be heard above the orchestra and his first scene by the seaside was marred by a few memory lapses. It was announced that David Kravitz was singing under the weather (which elicited a disappointed “oh, man!” from one of the audience’s youngest members seated near me), but you really couldn’t tell, so fully and, seemingly, easily, did his robust baritone fill the space as the Magic Fish. Katrina Galka played a charming Cat and also nailed Schuller’s hair-raising acrobatics in the aforementioned duet with the fish. Gil Rose and the orchestra delivered a reading that bristled with energy, wry humor, and an unsettled emotional urgency. That it’s not a perfect opera didn’t once mar the performance, which was a collaboration with Odyssey Opera and yet another quirky feather to add to that company’s cap. Penney Pinette’s simple costumes and the straightforward stage direction (which involved projections of a cottage, grand house, castle, etc. on a screen behind the players) proved effective in Sunday’s setting.
Heavy traffic kept me from hearing all but the tail end of the concert’s opener, Games, a 2013 score originally for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. But, happily, I was able to catch the other piece on the concert’s first half, Journey into Jazz, Schuller’s charming 1962 composition for narrator, jazz quintet, and orchestra. It’s a sort of synthesis of Peter and the Wolf and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, one of Schuller’s rare Third Stream compositions that blends jazz and classical traditions, telling the story of an ambitious young trumpet player learning about the meaning of and, along the way, how to play jazz.
On Sunday, the speaker’s part was handled by Schuller, himself: his narration of BMOP’s commercial recording of the piece extracted and piped through the hall. It was a sweet gesture that, in the event, worked out very well: Schuller knew the piece better than anyone and he was a fine speaker to boot. BMOP played with characteristic energy and color. But the real story in this performance was the excellent jazz quintet, led by trumpeter Richard Kelley. Kelley ably traced the development of the story’s protagonist, from the missed notes of a trumpet novice to the confident, swinging master of jazz he becomes. His playing had it all: color, character, lots of heart, and not a few touches of whimsy. Don Braden and Nicole Kämpgen gamely traded saxophone solos with Kelley and one another and Schuller’s sons, Ed and George, solidly anchored the quintet on, respectively, bass and drums.
The big takeaway from Sunday’s memorial was not that, in Schuller, the music world has lost a titanic figure (though that certainly came across both through the music and in Robert Kirzinger’s fine program note). Rather, it was the realization that, as a composer, Schuller’s legacy is complex and has yet to be settled. Sorting through it all over the coming years will be the duty of any number of ensembles but, if presented with the thoughtfulness and commitment BMOP demonstrated on Sunday, the process ought to constitute a great, welcome adventure.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.