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Music Review

Schuller’s 85th sounds rare notes

Gunther Schuller (center) at the end of New England Conservatory’s 85th birthday salute. Gunther Schuller (center) at the end of New England Conservatory’s 85th birthday salute. (Andrew Hurlbut)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 19, 2010

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On Tuesday night New England Conservatory convened a warm birthday tribute to perhaps the city’s most accomplished musical citizen. Gunther Schuller turns 85 on Monday, and the many hats he has worn over the course of his career make him sound like a one-man music industry: composer, conductor, instrumentalist, teacher, writer, administrator, record producer, and music publisher.

Schuller led NEC as its president from 1967 to 1977, a tenure that the school’s current president, Tony Woodcock, credited on Tuesday with redefining “what a conservatory is about.’’ Among his accomplishments, he founded the country’s first jazz department at a major classical music school, started the classical-meets-jazz Third Stream department — now called Contemporary Improvisation, and brought faculty luminaries to Boston including violinist Rudolf Kolisch and pianist Russell Sherman.

Tuesday’s tribute, conceived by NEC’s John Heiss, took the form of an all-Schuller program, focusing mostly on rarely heard chamber works. The stage was well set, however, by a pre-concert discussion in which Schuller recalled his revelation as a teenager that the best contemporary jazz artists were creating music equal in quality to the masterworks of Beethoven.

The notion was heretical in classical circles at the time, but Schuller put his belief into practice, first in his French horn career. (As he told the audience, he once went directly from a rehearsal of Verdi’s “Otello’’ with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf to a recording session with the Miles Davis Nonet.)

By his early 20s, Schuller’s jazz and classical interests had already begun intersecting in his own compositions, as evidenced by his 1946 work “Jumpin’ in the Future,’’ which concluded Tuesday’s concert with a growling, energetic blast of Third Stream music avant la lettre. The night began with Schuller’s finely wrought “Aphorisms’’ (1967) for flute and strings, with Elizabeth Erenberg navigating the thorny virtuoso flute part.

The first half also contained “Five Moods’’ (1973), a striking piece for tuba quartet, conducted here by the composer himself. Over the years, Schuller has not infrequently lavished attention on the neglected Cinderellas of the orchestra, as if to prove that these instruments too deserve a rich solo and chamber repertoire. In this case, Schuller’s tuba quartet conjures some oceanically deep sonorities that washed over Jordan Hall, but the work is also notable for the subtlety of expression Schuller demands through both traditional means and extended techniques such as sharp rapping on the instrument, toneless blowing, and so on.

Faculty pianist Veronica Jochum spoke about the intersections of Brahms and ragtime in Schuller’s “Sand Point Rag’’ (1986) and then delivered a warmly swaying rendition. Schuller’s “Symbiosis’’ (1957), an airy work for piano, violin, and percussion, also received a strong student performance. Some of the night’s most charged playing came from pianist Ran Blake, who dispatched a probing improvisation on Schuller’s “magic’’ tone row, the 12-note musical DNA at the core of so many of his works. The stage was darkened, Blake’s playing was lustrous and expansive, hinting at a keenly exploratory ear that Schuller, of all people, would appreciate.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

LOOKING BACK: Gunther Schuller at 85 At: Jordan Hall, Tuesday night