Gunther Schuller’s classical-jazz mix finds a home at Festival Miami

By David Fleshler

Composer Gunther Schuller will be in the spotlight at this year's Festival Miami, which opens September 30.

The key to the composer Gunther Schuller’s abundant productivity rests on personal habits that may not be for everyone.

Schuller, a jazz historian, conductor, musical administrator, record producer, music publisher and hugely prolific composer, gets by on four to six hours of sleep a night. He awakens to the clanging of not one but two alarm clocks, mixes a cup of Maxwell House instant coffee and sets out on the day’s work—on a recent Thursday that meant completing the index to volume one of his autobiography (nearly 700 pages and leading up to 1960). As he works — whether on a book or an administrative matter or a new musical composition — the 85-year-old composer keeps the radio blaring in the background, with either music or the news.

“I found out in my late teens that I could function very well not with the traditional eight hours of sleep which your parents told you but with four to six,” said Schuller, who will be a star attraction at this season’s Festival Miami, a series of jazz, classical and Latin music at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “And if you slice away the two hours at night and two hours in the morning that other people are sleeping, you can get a lot done over a period of 70 years.”

Schuller, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, blends elements of jazz into a classical harmonic and formal framework, reflecting his view that jazz can be every bit as substantial as works by Beethoven or Mozart. As president of the New England Conservatory of Music in the 1960s and 70s, he established the first degree program in jazz at a major classical conservatory. He was involved in the revival of ragtime in the 1970s. His approach to music is in keeping with the ecumenical spirit of Festival Miami and the Frost School, which gives a larger place to jazz than most conservatories and where several faculty members speak both musical languages.

“He has crossed genres and been a pioneer of music where jazz and classical elements are fused,” said Shelly Berg, the jazz pianist who serves as dean of the Frost school. “And so for a school like ours that aspires to those very things, it’s a perfect fit.”

Schuller’s upbringing was impeccably classical. His German immigrant father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. Schuller took up the horn and found he had a gift for that difficult instrument. At 17 he became principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony and then joined the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. While in Cincinnati, he heard the music of Duke Ellington, quickly becoming obsessed with jazz.

At the Metropolitan Opera, on days when he wasn’t playing Tannhäuser or La Traviata, he haunted New York’s jazz clubs, appearing either on stage or in the audience. As he played and listened to classical and jazz, he became convinced that musicians and composers in each camp should be talking and listening to each other, calling for what he referred to as a “third stream” that would merge the two traditions.

“He treats Duke Ellington and jazz and the best forms of pop music and any other type of music that’s written if it has integrity as great music,” said Richard Todd, the noted horn player and Frost faculty member who will perform Schuller’s Horn Concerto No. 1 at Festival Miami. “And it’s important to him that great music is given the respect that it deserves.

“I think any form of music that doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator takes a certain element of involvement to understand,” Todd adds. “And once you actually get involved, it’s something that you can really appreciate much more. And I think the doors are not closed as much as they used to be from classical people to listen to jazz, and for jazz people to try and respect classical music.”

Schuller is not one of those composers to throw in a few jazz or pop tunes to make his work accessible. He writes complex music in an increasingly unfashionable 12-tone style, a musical idiom invented by the early 20th century Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg that produced some great works embraced by audiences, such as Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, but alienated much of the public with music that seemed cold, dissonant, and academic.

Since the 1980s, many of Schuller’s contemporaries gave up on 12-tone music, opting for a more familiar and accessible tonal vocabulary that proved an easier sell in the concert hall. But Schuller is dismissive of their efforts, saying he wants to write uncompromising music, demanding and technically advanced, but rooted in the best innovations of the past.

“There are a lot of turncoats, you know, who used to write atonal music and they don’t anymore,” he said. “I call it warmed-over Sibelius and warmed-over Rachmaninoff. That’s what audiences do like, when there’s tonality. And it’s still sort of somewhat modern, but not really. And that’s where we’ve been for the last 30 years. But the minute it goes into atonality and then very polyphonically complex music, or rhythmically complex or strident or harsh or whatever, then of course audiences walked out.”

The 28th annual Festival Miami will open with a mini-Schuller festival, starting with a free talk by the composer on Sept. 30. On Oct. 1 there will be a concert featuring Schuller’s youthful Horn Concerto No. 1, with Todd accompanied by the Frost Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Thomas Sleeper. Finally on Oct. 2, Schuller will mount the podium to conduct the French composer Darius Milhaud’s jazz-influenced La Création du Monde, followed by a performance of a recent Schuller work, his 2009 Quintet for Horn and Strings, with Todd joined by the Bergonzi String Quartet.

Festival Miami, traditionally the first big event of the concert season, has many highlights besides Schuller’s appearance. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Michael Colgrass will have new works performed by the Frost Wind Ensemble. There will be performances by the pianist Claire Huangci, winner of the 2010 National Chopin Piano Competition and Juilliard piano chairman Jerome Lowenthal in an all-Liszt concert. Other highlights include the Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist Benny Golson, singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor and salsa star and bandleader Willy Chirino. Festival Miami will close with a concert at the Arsht Center starring the singer and pianist Michael Feinstein called Jazz Meets Gershwin, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and other leading musicians.

Despite the challenging nature of his compositions, Schuller said his works have been well received when given good performances in front of alert, interested audiences. The horn and string quintet, for example, turned out to be a hit, he said, surprising even himself.

“I’m a 12-tone composer and it’s quite advanced and it’s very challenging for the players,” he said. “But audiences love it. I’m just amazed. We are used to the fact that most audiences don’t even like contemporary music at all. There was a standing ovation and part of that was for the performers because they had to work very hard – but somehow the piece spoke to the audience.”

The work shows the complexity and modernity of his compositional style, as well as his conscious effort to root it in the past. “As a horn player, I’ve played Mozart’s K. 407, which is a horn quintet, many times,” he said. “So in this particular case I wrote a horn part that is very, very modern and quite challenging and difficult. But I made a lot of classical references in this piece, not only in the horn part but in many, many different ways. In some of my pieces I make these allusions or references, and in this particular case to Mozart.”

The first volume of his autobiography, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, is due out in mid-October. He said it contains a portrait of the richness of the musical world in the 1940s and 50s, as well as frank accounts of some of the period’s leading conductors.

“Stokowski was in some respects a genius, and an absolute charlatan in other respects,” he said. “And Reiner was a major tyrant, sadistic by Krafft-Ebing standards.”

Festival Miami runs from Sept. 30 to Nov. 4. 305-284-4940;

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