Conductor’s Outlook for U.S. Symphonies Is Still Downbeat

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There is hardly a facet of American musical life in which Gunther Schuller has not trafficked. The scope of his omnivorous involvements--as composer, performer, educator, conductor, festival organizer and publisher--is equaled only by his trenchant commentary on the musical arena he knows all too intimately.

However, assuming the role of prophet--which he describes as “getting on soapboxes about various subjects”--has not won him any popularity contests.

In his now famous 1979 Tanglewood address, Schuller predicted dire consequences for American symphony orchestras, which had just experienced a decade of unprecedented growth. At the time, most musical observers were predicting an unending bull market.


“Everybody laughed at me or got (angry) with me then,” he said. “But now it’s all there. I saw it coming.”

The 1980s have brought American orchestras everything from massive deficits, lengthy strikes, lockouts and canceled seasons to the demise of some longstanding aggregations. According to Schuller, the internecine battles among players, management and symphony boards distracted them from the increasing alienation of classical music from American society.

Schuller was to have conducted the San Diego Symphony last spring, but the local orchestra’s canceled season delayed his Symphony Hall debut until this weekend. (He conducted Friday night and repeats the program tonight).

On Tuesday afternoon, the intrepid conductor, who had arrived in town at noon and just completed a two-hour orchestra rehearsal, focused his argument in spite of fatigue.

“Orchestras have not seriously dedicated themselves to the vast, unattended educational problem. They say, ‘That’s not our business; it’s the responsibility of the schools, the Office of Education, the NEA. . . . Don’t bother us with that.’ But if they don’t--here’s another prediction--they won’t have an audience in 15 years.

“Nobody is worrying where the next audience is going to come from, particularly since 95% of the young audience is immediately siphoned off into pop, rock and schlock. They will never hear Beethoven, those 9-year-olds. They’ll hear Madonna and Meat Loaf and whatever.


“The orchestras say, ‘We do . . . concerts in high schools, and we do young-audience programs.’ But these are only little drops of water on the stone. The musicians, the management and the board are at odds with each other, not understanding that they have the same job to accomplish with a few subtle divisions as to their particular responsibilities.”

Schuller’s attempts to goad American orchestras into solving what he sees as their most pressing problems stems not from contentious caviling but from a love affair with the symphony orchestra that apparently was in his genes.

“I lived in orchestras; I’ve conducted orchestras. I’ve had my music murdered by orchestras and played gloriously by orchestras. I grew up with the New York Philharmonic--my father played (violin) in the Philharmonic for 42 years.”

Although Schuller has produced a respectable body of chamber music and a pair of operas, most of his compositions--65 according to his own count--are for orchestra. Last night he conducted the local premiere of his “Concerto Quaternio,” which he wrote in 1984 on a commission from the New York Philharmonic.

Like Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto and Samuel Barber’s “Capricorn” Concerto, the piece calls for four soloists: trumpet, violin, flute and oboe. Schuller said that when he received his commission, he thought of writing a trumpet concerto for Philharmonic member Phil Smith, but he had already written a trumpet concerto.

“I always had in mind to do a piece with those bright, brilliant colors, and the Philharmonic liked the idea of multiple soloists,” he said.

Choosing one of his own compositions to conduct on a program is never easy.

“For me it is an absolute torture every time I’m asked to conduct one of my pieces, unless I say, ‘Oh, let’s do the Klee pieces again,’ which is my magnum opus, I suppose.” He noted that his 1959 “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee” has been played by some 312 orchestras. Not a bad track record for a contemporary composition.


“Most of my pieces I love dearly, so it’s like asking me which of my 12 children I like the best. There’s no answer to that.”

Something Schuller does not love dearly is the current musical phenomenon of minimalism.

“The minimalist movement was from its beginning a dead end, a detour, an aberration. This is proven by the fact that at least two of the major so-called minimalists are getting more ‘maximal’ with each piece. And one of them is denying at this point that he was ever part of the minimalist movement--Steve Reich.”

According to Schuller, minimalism’s success may be attributed to the hype of certain powerful critics and its appeal to a low common denominator of musical appreciation.

“Erik Satie did all of this much better many years ago. Minimalism, like all neo-movements, is for me a dead end by definition. Art cannot go backward, and anything that looks back in the end reaches a point of no return.

“It disturbs me that the gifted composers are shortchanged in terms of performances and new commissions because so much of the territory is occupied by this minimalist thing.”