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Making Music From Paintings

February 29, 2000

Gunther Schuller

By Kip Cranna

If there were an official honorific called "American Musical Factotum," Gunther Schuller would undoubtedly be a top qualifier for the title. The distinguished maestro, now 75, has combined a career on the podium with the life of a gifted performer (he played French Horn in the Met orchestra at the age of 19), as well as a composer, music educator, jazz historian, administrator, music publisher, record producer, and author. Several of these abilities were on display when he conducted the Marin Symphony in last week's pair of concerts heard on Tuesday.

Schuller chose an eclectic program of four medium-sized works, highlighted by his own composition, Seven Studies On Themes of Paul Klee, written in 1959. These are short musical sketches based on paintings suggesting musical ideas, mostly from the 1920s and '30s, by the Swiss surrealist Paul Klee (1879-1940). The resulting clever and impressionistic miniatures vary from forgettable to wittily amusing, offering hints of Poulenc, Bartok, and Debussy. Even Stravinsky's influence could occasionally be felt, notably in the "Abstract Trio," an archly dry alternation of various three-way woodwind and muted brass combinations. "Little Blue Devil" (a painting of a geometrically shaped head, cubist style) was evoked with cool jazz effects over nervous string tremolos.

Most striking was The Twittering Machine, based on a 1922 painting of a hand-cranked mechanical bird device. Rhythmically imaginative to the point of fascination, it developed a masterful cacophony of musical cheeps, peeps, and screeches, winding down and then cranking up again like an avian variation on the doll's aria from The Tales of Hoffmann. Klee's bird's-eye-view painting entitled Arab Village, inspired by his travels in Tunisia, was translated into a musical moment using Arabian scales in an evocation of snake-charmer's music over medieval-sounding drones.

Prior to conducting the work, Schuller put on his educator's hat for a brief explanatory talk. Since audience education seems to be the name of the game in classical music these days, it seemed a shame that Klee's paintings couldn't have been on view. Program illustrations are expensive, but renting a slide projector isn't.

To counterbalance the sly intricacies of his own music, Schuller led a mellifluous performance of Vaughan Williams's richly sonorous Concerto in F Minor for bass tuba, featuring the orchestra's talented Principal Tuba, Zachariah Spellman. Just four years older than Schuller's work (composed in 1954), the concerto inhabits the vastly different sound world of English neo-Romanticism. The twelve-minute piece opens with a march-like Prelude full of hearty bonhomie. Spellman played with assuredness and confident control, working with Schuller in a clear determination to honor Vaughan William's intent, avoiding comic grandiosity or buffoonery, but rather creating a true partnership between soloist and accompaniment. This allowed the tuba's dexterity to be heard in an uncustomary way.

The first movement's short cadenza was richly shaped without a trace of showbiz or razzle-dazzle. The central Romanza takes the tuba into its top register, in dreamy baritone lines flavored with Gershwinesque blue notes. The concluding Rondo was expertly played, though it is really too short to justify its fanciful cadenza.

Framing the two repertoire rarities by Schuller and Vaughn Williams were two concert staples, the Prelude to Wagner's Die Meistersinger and Richard Strauss' ever-popular tone poem Till Eulenspsiegel's Merry Pranks. The Wagner was played with generous warmth of tone, but Schuller's pacing was overly broad, lacking in urgency and sacrificing crispness of attack, so that solo lines became submerged in bass-heavy accompaniment.

Till Eulenspiegel had its customary appeal, with Principal Horn Glen Swarts in fine form in the securely played programmatic solos. On the podium, Schuller offered an interpretation that avoided brashness and veered toward foursquare. The reading was technically secure but matter-of-fact. Musical silences in the second half of the program were marred by a persistent electronic hum, a steady B-flat to this listener's ear-perhaps from ventilation or lighting equipment, but more likely from the public address system used for Schuller's remarks. Even in this technologically jaded era, there were surely many others in the audience who were striving mightily--and unsuccessfully--to ignore it.

(Clifford (Kip) Cranna is the Musical Administrator of the San Francisco Opera, the Program Advisor for the Carmel Bach Festival, and a frequent lecturer on music appreciation.)

©2000 Clifford Cranna, all rights reserved