RIP Gunther Schuller (1925-2015)

Saddening news today. Gunther Schuller has died at the age of 89. A musical polymath, Schuller was active as a composer, conductor, arranger, historian, educator, arts administrator and, earlier in his career, French horn player. He pioneered the concept of “Third Stream” music: works that combine influences and materials from jazz and classical music.

In Schuller’s honor, today I’m listening to a Boston Modern Orchestra Project recording of his pieces for jazz quartet and orchestra. Given all of the attempts over the years to synthesize jazz and classical, it is amazing how fresh these pieces remain, how effortlessly Schuller (and BMOP) move from one style to another, and how seamlessly they blend the two.

I was looking forward to this summer’s tribute to Schuller at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. Now this concert, with Magical Trumpets, a new work by Schuller, as well as his formidable Concerto da Camera, will serve as an elegy in memory of an extraordinary man of extraordinary talents.

Mercury Living Presence Boxed Sets

It has been an excellent year for reissues of audiophile classics. In my previous post about Decca’s Mono Sound boxed set, I mentioned that CD reissues of those classic recordings not only provided a collection of excellent music to enjoy, but they also gave one a sense of the history of recording.

Enter the Mercury Living Presence CD boxed sets; three volumes that are an embarrassment of riches. For audiophiles, MLP recordings are prized not only for their excellent sound, but also for classic performances by important orchestras such as the Minneapolis Symphony, London Symphony, and the Chicago Symphony. Soloists such as Janos Starker and Byron Janis are represented. In addition, the aesthetics of presentation – the album artwork – is often quite beautiful. An audio interview with the series’ producer, Wilma Cozart Fine, once again helps listeners to gain historical perspective.

There’s so much here that it is difficult to choose favorites, but I’ve particularly been enjoying a disc from Volume Three: the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antal Doráti, performing Copland’s Third Symphony. A mono recording that is new to CD, it displays an impressive dynamic range, detailed sound, and a performance that is taut and fast-paced. It removes a layer of the unnecessary bathos to which this symphony has sometimes been subjected in recent years.

From Volume One, there is the very first (!) recording of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition by Byron Janis. In addition to his solo recital, the disc includes a recording of the Ravel arrangement of Pictures, once again performed by Minneapolis under the direction of Doráti. From Volume Two, there is a recording that speaks volumes about its time: Morton Gould’s West Point Symphony, Alan Hovhaness’s Fourth Symphony, and Vittorio Giannini’s Third Symphony, performed by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under the direction of Frederick Fennell and Howard Roller. One may quibble about whether these are the most substantial works in the American canon, but the committed performances here by a collegiate ensemble of works by then-living composers serves as an object lesson for curating contemporary music.

Like all boxed sets, one must weigh the potential substantial investment against what it provides. Here, there are simply some of the best recordings released during the early LP era.