MUSIC REVIEW : Schuller’s Work Brings Modern Music Briefly Back to Symphony

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Over the San Diego Symphony’s current season, contemporary compositions have been scheduled with less frequency than presidential press conferences. Symphony management appears to shun works written since the Second World War with the same aversion President Reagan has demonstrated to the media’s close scrutiny. Sadly, next year’s symphony programming is even less adventurous in terms of new music.

While this critic’s lament may seem to be an ungracious way to introduce Gunther Schuller’s “Concerto Quaternio,” it is undeniable that, when contemporary music is reduced to a rarity, an occasional curiosity, it makes the audience’s task of understanding such music even more difficult.

Fortunately, in last Thursday morning’s Coffee Concert at Symphony Hall, the musically inquisitive had an opportunity to hear the composer explain some of his thinking behind the work and then hear two movements performed. Friday and Saturday evenings at Symphony Hall, the entire concerto was played, neatly sandwiched between a lethargic rendition of Beethoven’s “Lenore” Overture No. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony played at maximum volume.


Although Schuller completed his concerto in 1984, a commission for the New York Philharmonic, the composer does not make strenuous demands on the listener’s ear. For the vast resources it requires--four vocalists in addition to the four instrumental soloists, as well as piano, harpsichord, harp, celesta and a massive percussion battery that occupies the attentions of seven players--its musical exploration is modest and the sonic horsepower it generates is less than overwhelming. Its texture embraces the chamber music ideal, even if the forces are on the scale of a Mahler or Richard Strauss orchestra.

Stylistically, it is both an homage to Neo-Classicism and a generous step beyond it. Were it limited to the percussive chords and busy counterpoint of the last movement, it would be little more than a parody of middle Stravinsky. Rather than relying on the structural devices of earlier periods, Schuller freely roams the tonal palette, using the contrasts of unexpected instrumental combinations to propel each movement. The voices, which are used instrumentally, add a warm and uncanny shimmer to the texture. And the sinuous lyricism of the slow middle movement is Schuller’s unique musical signature.

By the Saturday performance, the orchestra appeared to enjoy playing the concerto, and the soloists sounded secure. Trumpet soloist Alan Siebert negotiated his rapid-fire passages with notable clarity and brilliance. The other soloists, violinist Karen Dirks, flutist Damian Bursill-Hall and oboist Elizabeth Green, were equally distinguished.