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NEC150: Concert Honors Gunther Schuller’s Legacy

NEC’s 150th anniversary celebration continues with a concert of Gunther Schuller compositions on Friday, November 17th.

On Friday, November 17th, New England Conservatory will celebrate the music of past NEC president Gunther Schuller with a Jordan Hall concert curated by John Heiss and conducted by Ken Schaphorst, Frank Epstein, Charles Peltz, and others.

As president, Gunther Schuller steered NEC through one of the most turbulent and formative decades of American and Conservatory history, beginning with NEC’s centennial year. Fifty years after Schuller’s arrival on campus, NEC marks our 150th anniversary by looking back at the legacy of great artists and educators who shaped our identity, while also looking ahead toward the future of music—a viewpoint that Schuller insisted upon during his life.

"Part of the very bricks of NEC."

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Gunther Schuller and John Heiss celebrate Schuller's 80th birthday at NEC

During Schuller’s ten years as President—from 1967 to 1977—he did much to shape the Conservatory we know today. In John Heiss's words,

"He brought new vigor to NEC, creating both the Afro-American Music (now Jazz) and Third Stream (now Contemporary Improvisation) departments; enriching the orchestra program; greatly broadening the curriculum in theory, composition, and music history; creating the first substantive chamber music program; and establishing the Wind Ensemble and Contemporary Ensemble. He fostered an environment highly favorable to new music, rare at this time. He founded the NEC Ragtime Ensemble. He tripled our enrollment."

Schuller also hired many of the visionary faculty members who have continued shaped our approach to teaching, learning, and musicianship—including Russell Sherman, Rudolf Kolisch, Louis Krasner, Laurence Lesser, Ran Blake, Frank Battisti, Carl Atkins, Bruce Coppock, Paula Robison, Kenneth Radnofsky, Donald Martino, and John Heiss.

As Charles Peltz remarked after Gunther’s passing in 2015,

"Gunther Schuller is part of the very bricks of NEC."

Friday’s concert is curated by John Heiss, hired by Schuller in 1967 and currently celebrating his 50th teaching anniversary here at NEC. The program showcases Schuller’s range and his take on Third Stream and Jazz.

About the program:

Friday’s concert is curated by John Heiss, hired by Schuller in 1967 and currently celebrating his 50th teaching anniversary here at NEC. The program showcases Schuller’s range and his take on Third Stream and Jazz. Heiss selected pieces to show the full range of Schuller's music and his connection to NEC:

For [Friday's] concert, we present six representative works over a seventy year time frame. The earliest, Perpetuum Mobile, was written when Gunther was eighteen years old. (Imagine how a piece so technically demanding, and virtually unplayable at that time, can come from the pen of a teenaged first horn player in the Cincinnati Symphony!)

The latest piece, From Here to There (2013), shows his phenomenal ear for harmony and tone color at the still-ripe age of eighty-eight.

That two of tonight’s works were commissioned by NEC is no coincidence, for Gunther maintained close, productive relationships with many of our faculty over his later years.

A conversation between jazz and classical

Schuller’s “Transformation” features a musical back-and-forth between jazz and classical idioms, and exemplifies his take on Third Stream—a term which Schuller coined in 1957 to describe the fusion of classical and jazz music.

In Friday’s concert, the piece will be performed by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, directed by John Heiss and consisting of 11 students from both the classical and jazz departments.

Love of jazz

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Jazz department chair Ken Schaphorst leads the NEC Jazz Chamber Orchestra in “Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk,” a composition which speaks to Schuller’s love of jazz.

Schuller founded NEC’s Jazz department as the first fully accredited jazz studies program at a music conservatory, hiring Carl Atkins as founding chair of the department. Schuller also worked with Atkins to develop the first curriculum and secure such legendary faculty as Jaki Byard and George Russell.

Of Schuller, Schaphorst said,

“Gunther Schuller was one of the most inspiring, contentious, honest, and uncompromising individuals I've ever known...Gunther would always let us know how we could hear better, play better, communicate the ideas of the composer more faithfully.”

NEC premieres

Friday’s program will include an NEC commission, “From Here to There,” which premiered in the year before Schuller’s death. The NEC Wind Ensemble performs the piece with Charles Peltz conducting—the same ensemble and conductor who premiered the piece in 2014.

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NEC Percussion Ensemble will present movements from “Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards,” which premiered at NEC in 1995 in a celebration of Schuller’s 80th birthday. The work will be conducted by Frank Epstein, who said of Schuller,

“People have distinct opinions about how music should be. Gunther was open-minded—and I believe that's a very healthy aesthetic to follow...His view of music, all of it, was that it should be played to the best ability possible no matter what the style or content of the material is.”

Concert details

Tribute to Gunther Schuller
Friday, November 17th
7:30pm
Jordan Hall
Free admission

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