Chamber program honors Gunther Schuller at Festival Miami

By Dave Rosenbaum

Richard Todd performed music of Brahms and Messiaen Wednesday night at Festival MIami.

Richard Todd performed music of Brahms and Messiaen Wednesday night at Festival MIami.

The ingredients for a moving musical evening were lined up for Wednesday night’s Festival Miami presentation at Gusman Concert Hall. Late and early Brahms works sandwiching two short works by Olivier Messiaen and American composer Gunther Schuller might seem like mismatched programming. What brought these works together was Schuller.

The conductor, composer, hornist and distinguished visitor at the 2011 Festival Miami died this past June, one month after hornist Richard Todd, violinist Joel Smirnoff and pianist Christopher O’Riley got together in Worcester, Massachusetts to help Schuller realize his final wish of recording the Brahms Horn Trio in E flat. The other Brahms on the program, his lovely Three Intermezzi for piano, was a favorite of Schuller and his wife. As for Messiaen, Schuller once spoke of the great impact the 20th century composer had on his career. So, this program—titled “Chamber Music Treasures”—could just as easily have been called “Gunther Schuller’s Favorite Things.”

O’Riley, host of NPR’s From The Top, opened the program with an affecting performance of the Brahms Intermezzi, which Brahms called “three lullabies to my sorrows.” O’Riley’s tender, expressive treatment of the poetic first two intermezzos led to a jolting contrast with the brooding moodiness of the third.

The pianist joined Smirnoff, conductor and former first violinist with the Juilliard String Quartet, for the first and last sections of Schuller’s four-part Duologue for Piano and Violin.  The first section is “Threnody,” or song of mourning, the last is “Fiddle music,” which isn’t mournful at all. Both were characterized by playing of ominous undertones and bursts of nervous, frenetic energy.

The play-it-forward theme continued with Appel Instellaire a five-minute piece for solo horn that Messiaen composed as a memorial to a composer friend. Standing in a spotlight on the darkened stage, Todd captured the mystery and detail of this highly technical, atmospheric piece. The work’s horn calls, occasional silences and bird and animal sounds were inspired by Utah’s canyon country. Played by Todd with Schuller in mind, they conveyed, at different moments, loss, yearning and, with loud, clear bursts, a calling out to a departed friend.

The main work on the program was the elegiac Horn Trio, composed by Johannes Brahms shortly after the death of his beloved mother. With the three musicians playing this work as a tribute to their colleague Schuller just months after his death, the performance was impressive and stirring.

The affection Todd, Smirnoff and O’Riley had for Schuller was evident in their passionate playing. Brahms’ trio almost seems to reflect the stages of mourning, and at times, Todd–a Frost School of Music faculty member–seemed to be going through those stages before the audience’s eyes.

The version played by Todd, Smirnoff and O’Riley had been edited and heavily annotated by Schuller for what he hoped would be the definitive recording of the Trio. The score, with Schuller’s notes to the men he called his “three musketeers,” was projected on a screen at the back of the stage, which, while creating a visual distraction, gave the feeling that Schuller was present.

Todd, Smirnoff and O’Riley delivered a richly textured performance in which the first two movements were embedded with a little more gravitas than customary. Before the third movement Adagio, the three musicians bowed their heads and paused as if they were offering a moment of silence. This is the emotional heart of the work, and Todd, O’Riley and Smirnoff rendered the music as an expressive yet dignified elegy without sentimentality.

The energetic fourth movement provided contrast and a combustive, momentum-packed drive to the finish. After the final note, an emotional Todd slumped in his seat, then he stood and kissed O’Riley on the cheek, and all three musicians joined hands as they took their bows.

Festival Miami continues through November 7.

Posted in Performances

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Thu Oct 29, 2015
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