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Gunther Schuller’s 75th Birthday Concert

A Star-Studded Performance

By Guan-Jong Chen

Staff Writer

Last Saturday, the MIT Wind Ensemble, MIT Chamber Society, MIT Jazz Chamber Orchestra, and a few guest musicians presented a concert celebrating the 75th birthday of renowned musician and composer Gunther Schuller. In all respects, the concert was very special because all the works presented were composed by Schuller and the caliber of the musicianship at the concert was extremely high.

Schuller had an amazing career as a composer, conductor, educator, historian, and music advocate. Schuller’s works have been premiered by numerous musical groups around the world and recognized with many prestigious awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Genius Award. His works represent both the music of post-war jazz and 20th century American music. The concert’s program included Music for Young People: Five Characteristic Pieces for string quartet, violin concerto Song and Dance, Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, Blue Dawn into White Heat for wind ensemble, and various other pieces from the guest musicians.

Music for Young People:Five Characteristic Pieces was the first piece that was performed in the concert. It is a quartet for violin, cello, flute, and piano. Four performers from the MIT Chamber Music Society played in this quartet: Margy Glasner G on flute; Laurel Smith G on violin; Alan deLespinasse on cello; and Tilman Bauer G on piano. The musical piece is comprised of five movements: The Thinker; The Fiddler; The Swan; The Ghost; and The Clown. The musicians did a wonderful job. It was a flawless performance. Also, each movement truly reflects the character that it is describing. In The Fiddler and The Ghost, many special effects involving both the musicians and instruments were applied, such as snapping of the fingers and tapping on the instruments. Through these effects, unique sounds were produced, which made for a vivid portrayal of the characters in the movements. From just this piece of music, it is not difficult to see the brilliance and the genius of Gunther Schuller.

After the performance by the quartet from the MIT Chamber Music Society, guest artist and Gunther’s old colleague, Ran Blake, appeared on the stage wearing a bright green blazer and a pair of white tennis shoes. It was truly a hilarious scene. Many people in the audience were amused by it. However, the entire audience was quickly silenced as he sat down to play the piano, because what he played was purely genius. It was quite a performance. The audience loved it.

The next performance on the program was the violin concerto Song and Dance presented by the MIT Wind Ensemble, conducted by Frederick Harris, Jr., and with guest violin soloist Young-Nam Kim. The wind ensemble was great in accompanying the soloist; however, Kim was truly the center of the performance. The piece was divided into two movements: Quiet Music and Fiddle Music. As Schuller described it, Quiet Music is “a chorale-like declamation in the ensemble and a song-like response by the solo violin.” On the other hand, Fiddle Music, which represents the “dance” part of the work, is “fiddle music in a contemporary chromatic language.” The techniques required for Fiddle Music are extremely difficult and are comparable to pieces written by Paganini. However, Kim played through the music not only with ease but also with master musicianship. It is not surprising that he was noted by The New York Times for “sparkling virtuosity, strong colors, and intense lyricism. ”

Throughout the rest of the evening, the MIT Jazz Chamber Orchestra and guest artists Kenneth Radnofsky, John McDonald, Ricky Ford, Bruce Gertz, Joe Hunt, and Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin all played music composed by Schuller on stage. The concert ended with a standing ovation for both Gunther Schuller and MIT as the MIT Wind Ensemble, directed by Frederick Harris, finished playing Blue Dawn into White Heat with the power and dignity that the music of Schuller deserves.

As an MIT student, I was truly privileged to hear a wide range of Schuller’s music presented by so many gifted musicians. However, the most memorable part of the evening for me was not just listening to the music but also when the audience, who were not a part of MIT, started to express their amazement at the high level of musicianship here. Overall, it was a fantastic concert for both Gunther Schuller and MIT.