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Gunther Schuller

Symphony Hall

February 7, 2009

It’s hard to be a living legend. It’s hard enough having one brilliant idea. It’s even harder moving past it. To be an over-the-hill performer without just regurgitating the epiphanies of one’s early years is certainly something.

To be doing it at the ripe age of 83 is something extraordinary.

The audience at Symphony Hall was more awake than usual for the second day of the premiere of Gunther Schuller’s “Where the Word Ends.” This wasn’t a history class. People felt as if they were part of something — chatting a little bit louder, leaning out a little bit further. The air felt just a little bit heavier. People were expecting something new. Schuller, once again, delivered.

He’s had some experience. Playing French horn with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the age of 17 and recording with Miles Davis six years later, Schuller has consistently managed to stay ahead of the curve, never getting trapped within a genre and always managing to both push the envelope and respect and imitate the contributions of past players.

While a professor at Brandeis, he coined the term “Third Stream” to describe the fusion of jazz and classical elements in music. He’s worked with Ornette Coleman, John Lewis, and Gil Evans, along with the likes of James Levine, managing to blur the gap between Mahler and Mingus (conducting the latter’s posthumous work Epitaph). The product is fresh and refined, soulful and technically brilliant, improvisational and yet deeply controlled. He’s encouraged more classical players to pay attention to jazz and vice-versa.

“Where the Word Ends” is an ode to music itself: it teeters on the point where concrete arguments fail, where we need pure sound to communicate. It’s both textural and driven, with the persistent moodiness of Brian Eno, and the sudden intense emotional shifts of Mahler. Unlike Mahler though, Schuller doesn’t need a whole orchestra to change keys, nor does he need a section to drop out. He’s more subtle, exploiting minute changes in articulation, tempo and tiny variations in repeated patterns to make a world of emotive difference. By pulling a single strand in a tightly interwoven polyphonic wall (parts are rarely doubled — each of the eighteen first violins has, in essence, a solo part), Schuller manages to either tighten or unravel an entire texture.

The result is exact, meticulous, delicate, nuanced, and sublime. At the same time, though, it is emotionally whole. Composed in a mere thirty hours, “Where the Word Ends” has a certain consistency. There are no chapters, just a single story. It is, in that sense, improvisational jazz. It is free, with each melody prepared to resolve or intensify at a whim, but with every whim feeling natural, significant, and necessary.