In duo roles, Schuller joins forces with the Frost Chamber Players

By Lawrence Budmen

Gunther Schuller

Festival Miami celebrated the artistry of Gunther Schuller with a program by the Frost Chamber Players Sunday night at Gusman Concert Hall. One of the iconic American composer’s most recent scores formed the centerpiece of a stimulating concert that also featured infrequently played works by Dvorak and Darius Milhaud.

Lucid and spry, the octogenarian Schuller remains a force to be reckoned with, straddling the interconnected worlds of jazz and contemporary classical music. At the festival’s opening night, Richard Todd was soloist in  Schuller’s Horn Concerto. Todd returned Sunday to play one of Schuller’s most recent scores, the Quintet for Horn and Strings from 2009.

The nearly seven decades that separate these two pieces trace Schuller’s journey from modernist romantic to atonal patriarch.  Despite the prevalence of composers embracing minimalism, neo-Romanticism and world-music influences, Schuller has remained steadfast in his loyalty to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system.  The Horn Quintet is typically uncompromising, complex and densely textured yet with the harmonic and structural rigor of Mozart and Beethoven as the composer’s frame of reference. At his best, Schuller ingeniously melds serialism with the visionary language of Beethoven’s late quartets.

The Quintet’s solo horn part is daunting in its wide leaps between registers, speed and rapid alternations of muted and unadorned articulation. Each of the four string parts is independent, while providing a buzzing, churning backdrop for the horn. Between two wildly intense fast movements, a Bartokian night music provides an eerie, austere calm, only to be shattered by string eruptions.

Todd’s playing was dazzling, articulating the non-stop leaps and growls of the solo horn part with verve and polish. The Bergonzi String Quartet met Schuller’s fiercely concentrated writing on its own terms. (Violist Pamela McConnell and cellist Ross Harbaugh were particularly impressive in their rhythmically challenging, exposed solos.) Schuller’s Horn Quintet is a formidable tour de force, and a tribute to his undiminished musical powers. The 85-year-old composer received a strong ovation from an appreciative audience.

Joined by Brian Powell on double bass, the Bergonzi foursome opened the program with Dvorak’s  String Quintet No. 2 in G Major. Astutely balancing spirited Czech dance rhythms, tender yearning and tempestuous drama, the players summoned imposing sonority and power.

The evening concluded with Schuller conducting an enlarged, eighteen-member version of the Frost Chamber Players in Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde. Originally set to choreography depicting an African version of the Book of Genesis, Milhaud’s 1923 score is a musical landmark. In pre-performance remarks, Schuller noted that Milhaud was deeply influenced by a visit to jazz clubs in Harlem during a 1922 American tour and the recordings of American jazz artists.  Predating Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by a year, Milhaud’s piece is the first major attempt to incorporate jazz elements into a classical score. An irresistible blend of Gallic vivacity and American brashness, La Creation puts a French spin on the blues. The climax imagines a chaotic improvisation by a swinging big band.

Saxophonist Gary Underwood’s opening and closing solos were evocative in their bluesy riffs. Clarinetist Margaret Donaghue’s jaunty turn in the spotlight showcased her tonal purity and rapid-fire articulation. Schuller’s lucid conducting brought clarity to every instrumental strand, emphasizing the bold originality of Milhaud’s work.

Festival Miami continues 8 p.m. Wednesday with new music for string quartet by Emerging Young Composers. 305-284-4940.

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Mon Oct 3, 2011
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