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When Boston ruled the world of music

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When I moved to Massachusetts in the mid-1970s to start a PhD at Boston University, there was a specific teacher I wanted to study with: the wonderful pianist Leonard Shure.

But Shure was not Boston’s only renowned educator. By this time, the city had long been a center of academic music, with distinguished programs at Harvard, Brandeis, and Boston universities, the New England Conservatory, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Until I arrived, however, I had no idea how the Boston area was a center for contemporary music; from afar, the city seemed too calm and traditional for that. But in its buttoned-up New England way, it was a modernist home. Each of these institutions was like a small fiefdom, with eminent composers in faculty. Each maintained active student groups, many of whom devoted themselves exclusively to new music.

If you wanted to be at the forefront of the battle between harsh “uptown” music and rebellious “downtown” postmodernism, you are heading to New York. If you were drawn to Mavericks and intrigued by non-Western cultures, especially Asian music, you’ve probably found your way to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

But if you wanted a classical education, study with a real master songwriter – and at that time almost all great college composers were white men – you would go to Boston. But the music that emerged there over those decades has faded in favor of the work of other American cities.

Not entirely, however. Keeping this legacy alive is part of the mission of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and its BMOP / sound label. The ensemble is championing modern and new music everywhere. But according to its founder and artistic director, Gil Rose, 40 to 45 percent of his recordings have been by Boston-area composers.

Several recent outings have taken me back to my early years in the city, when composers from these various academic institutions occupied an important place. Three recordings are particularly exciting: Gunther Schuller’s neglected opera “The Fisherman and his Wife” and albums of orchestral works by Leon Kirchner and Harold Shapero.

Schuller, who died in 2015 at the age of 89, once described himself as a “high school dropout without a single diploma”. Technically, it was true. But he was a protean musician who, in his late teens, won the post of Principal Horn at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, then, two years later, moved on to the Metropolitan Opera, where he held the same post until 1959. Yet he also performed and recorded in jazz groups like Miles Davis.

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When I moved to Boston, Schuller was in the final years of his transformative tenure as president of the New England Conservatory. There he had created the first jazz-granting diploma program at a major American conservatory – bringing in pianist Ran Blake to chair it and hiring giants to teach, including Jaki Byard and George Russell.

Anticipating by decades the creative practices that are common today, he coined the term “third wave” to describe music that drew inspiration from both classical and jazz genres. Schuller, who as a composer was drawn to 12-tone idioms, but not in the strictest sense, also appointed the brilliant modernist Donald Martino as the head of the composition faculty. He had covered all the bases. Schuller also taught for two decades at the Tanglewood Music Center, as artistic director for 15 of those years, until 1984.

For all of his formidable skills and vision as a composer, Schuller was perhaps more important as a teacher, mentor, conductor, and tireless (sometimes shrill) agitator on behalf of contemporary music and living composers than ‘as a music writer himself. This perception has long seemed unfair, but it persists. Although the beautiful pieces in its large catalog have attracted attention, “The Fisherman and his Wife” languishes.

It was commissioned as a children’s opera by the Boston Junior League and first performed in 1970 by Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston – although Caldwell had another composer in mind for the project when she found herself. to work with the imposing Schuller.

The 65-minute opera, based on a familiar story from the Brothers Grimm, has a libretto by none other than John Updike. As the story unfolds, a humble fisherman makes repeated journeys to the rough sea to summon a magical fish he has caught and released – the fish is actually an enchanted prince – and to demand fulfillment another of his wife’s increasingly grandiose wishes. . Schuller organized the score in an inventive, yet subtle way, like a theme and variations. More boldly, he wrote entire parts of the score in his trademark Modernist language – steeped in, but not beholden to, the 12-tone approach, with a few jazz chords built in.

A 12-tone opera for children?

Still, Schuller was on to something. The story is full of darkness, strangeness, magic, evocations of a threatening sea and a cloudy sky, of bitter clashes between wife and husband. Why not transmit it through flint and atonal music? The vocal lines are skillfully written to make the words stand out clearly. Updike introduced the character of a cat that meowed and spoke at the same time, a charming role that Schuller attributed to a high soprano. The orchestration, for a smaller ensemble, is alive with a myriad of captivating tones and colors.

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Although released last year, the BMOP / sound recording was made in 2015 in collaboration with Odyssey Opera, founded by Rose, following a semi-staged concert. Dominant mezzo-soprano Sondra Kelly as wife, plaintive tenor Steven Goldstein as fisherman, and rugged baritone David Kravitz as magical fish are excellent – and Rose draws up a sparkling, swirling and mysterious playing of the orchestra. . I could be wrong, but with a lively staging, I think a children’s audience would respond well.

Schuller, an accomplished and demanding conductor, has written a comprehensive book on conducting. Across the river in Cambridge, respected composer and Harvard professor Leon Kirchner also had a following as a conductor at the time, although he was not the most effective technician. He was, however, an experienced pianist and a penetrating musician who understood how the pieces were meant to play out.

In 1978, with the support of a Harvard dean, Kirchner founded the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, a professional ensemble of independent musicians organized solely for Kirchner to conduct free and regularly filled concerts. With these dedicated players, he conducted scores like Debussy’s “The Sea” and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony as if he had written them. A remarkable 1984 account of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, with Peter Serkin as soloist, was recently released on a Verdant World Records release, and it is just as exhilarating and profound as I can remember.

As a composer, Kirchner was strongly influenced by his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. Like Schuller and others of their generation, Kirchner adopted the aesthetic and approach to 12-tone music, but with freedom and flair, not bound by strict rules. I remember him being stubborn about composers who mostly stuck to tonal harmonic languages ​​- not to mention minimalism, which he couldn’t stand.

But I have always admired the depth, imagination and captivating complexity of his music. These qualities abound in five orchestral pieces on a captivating BMOC / sound recording from 2018 – particularly the 11-minute “Music for Orchestra,” from 1969. It’s a captivating score that feels understated in an expectation, as if at all. moment, pensive stretches of lyricism could explode. And sometimes, through cascades of capricious riffs and swarming gusts.

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Harold Shapero, born in Lynn, Mass., In 1920, was perhaps the most precociously gifted American composer of his generation, which included his friend Leonard Bernstein. As a student at Tanglewood, Shapero deeply impressed Aaron Copland. He caught the attention of his idol, Stravinsky, when this composer came as a guest to Harvard, where Shapero was a student.

Shapero set out to adapt Stravinsky’s neoclassical style, giving him a jerk of American courage and unfettered complexity. From 1940 to 1950 he produced a revolutionary series of ambitious works, including his impressive 45-minute Symphony for Classical Orchestra, composed in 1947. Bernstein loved the piece and premiered in 1948 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He recorded it in 1953 during a single eventful day with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Then the work disappeared until André Previn discovered it and led a triumphant performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1986, then recorded it. You could promote the piece as one of the great American symphonies.

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The BMOC / sound album features Shapero’s 1945 Serenade for String Orchestra, a 35-minute five-movement score that vividly demonstrates how Shapero, while writing in a neoclassical idiom, attempted to make music essentially tonal modern and stimulating. The first movement is a captivating jangle of counterpoint, but in a way transparent. The Menuetto is like a diatonic replica of Schoenberg’s 12-tone minuets. The slow movement is heavy and seeking, but harmoniously tangy and imbued with tension. The finish is frenetic, pointillist and wonderfully edgy.

In 1950, Shapero helped start the new Brandeis music program. This department quickly became the unofficial seat of the “Boston School” of composers, as it was called, which included Irving Fine (deceased 1962, aged 47) and Arthur Berger. All three started as neoclassics influenced by Stravinsky. But over time, Fine and Berger slowly adopted their own brands of 12-tone writing that took hold in academia, for better or for worse, as the de facto language of modernism. Shapero, who died in 2013, explored the technique but never followed suit. He was composing less and less, until he had a creative boost at the head of Brandeis’ electronic music studio.

But he has been an excellent mentor to countless student composers. And his life offered a lesson, a kind of warning: hold on to your guns; don’t be intimidated; write the music you want to write. These were lessons eagerly learned in the explosion of creativity that was happening in Boston.

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