Encountering Gunther: My First Encounter With His Music

Last semester was the first time I ever performed music written by Gunther Schuller. As part of New England Conservatory’s Jazz50 Celebration, the NEC Philharmonia and NEC Jazz Orchestra combined forces to produce the third performance of Gunther’s tour-de-force Encounters (2003). The piece was originally written to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Jordan Hall, NEC’s prized historical concert hall.

There were many challenges involved with putting together Encounters. The first is the sheer number of people required to perform the piece, approximately 150 musicians (comprising an orchestra, a jazz orchestra, three jazz soloists, and a 6-piece jazz choir). It was difficult to schedule sufficient rehearsals for the full ensemble and to fit everyone and their instruments comfortably on stage.

Further, Gunther calls for the use of some more obscure instruments such as Heckelphone, Bb Contrabass Clarinet, Bass Trumpet, and a Quarter Tone Piano. At first, I thought this to be somewhat excessive, but as I became more familiar with the piece, I came to appreciate the unique colors that only these instruments could provide to the piece. Through reading his autobiography, I learned of Gunther’s passion to create repertoire for underrepresented instruments. I also admire Gunther’s ambition to take advantage of the resources he had. He knew that NEC had access these rare instruments and was teeming with many students and faculty eager to play boundary-busting new music. Gunther puts it best in his program notes:

One doesn’t have an opportunity very often (if at all) to write a work for a “symphony” (classical) orchestra and jazz orchestra (“big band”). My earlier Third Stream pieces in the 1960s were either composed for one or the other, or for a classical group with jazz soloists (e.g. Modern Jazz Quartet). I must say that the chance to write for the two just-mentioned types of orchestra was most inspiring, to the point that it caused me to write various things (gestures, phrases, instrumental combinations, “classical” ideas played by jazz musicians and vice versa, etc.), that is, musical ideas which A) I would probably never have thought of had I only had one or the other orchestra at my disposal, and B) ideas which I could only have had if both types of orchestras and musicians were available to me.

Source: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/work/32660

Each group of musicians rehearsed separately at first. Once we were ready to rehearse as a full ensemble, new challenges emerged. We had to learn how to balance and blend our sounds, how to come together as one unified orchestra. Us jazz musicians struggled at first to follow the orchestral conducting style, being ahead of the beat (customary for orchestral conducting), went against much of our training. The classical musicians were not accustomed to accompanying improvisers. We navigated these challenges together, with patience. This was an opportunity for us all to learn new musical customs and be exposed to new sounds.

While the process of putting Encounters together was intense, it was a rewarding pursuit. When I stumbled upon the video of our performance (embedded below), I enjoyed listening and watching, reminiscing about the experience. While we may have not perfected every minutia, I would like to think that Gunther would have still found delight in knowing that his music continues to bring together young musicians of two streams (“jazz” and “classical”) together to create something monumental.

NEC Philharmonia + NEC Jazz Orchestra: Encounters
October 30, 2019

Learn more about my Encountering Gunther blog series.


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