Sunday would have been the composer Gunther Schuller’s 90th birthday. Instead it became a day of tributes on both sides of the Charles.
Schuller, who died June 21 , was an unsurpassed musical polymath who cut a wide path as a performer, conductor, author, and jazz historian. But it was yet another of his roles — as administrator — that was honored Sunday morning in Jordan Hall. Schuller served as president of New England Conservatory from 1967 to 1977.
It was a period of creative ferment and restless energy, one that amounted to a veritable rebirth for a struggling school.
The ceremony, thoughtfully curated and emceed by New England Conservatory faculty member John Heiss, included reflections from prominent local musicians, school trustees past and present, and others. The precarious finances of the school in that era were a running theme. Through his visionary faculty hires, his wildly ambitious programming, and his curricular innovations such as the creation of a jazz department, Schuller, as his longtime colleague Bruce Coppock put it, “made NEC worth saving.” Former treasurer David Scudder later added: “He instilled a sense that finance was the servant of the mission.”
Interestingly, the school is now in the midst of another presidential search, and Ken Burnes, chairman of the board of trustees, told the audience that he would like to see the position go to another “disrupter” in Schuller’s mold. Let’s hope he meant it. The search committee members should have the courage of this conviction, and the school community should hold them to it. When it comes to renewing a school’s claim on its future through the tenacity of a leader’s artistic and pedagogic vision, Schuller’s example remains formidable.
Later Sunday on the same stage, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under Gil Rose’s baton, delivered its own Schuller tribute, beginning with a 2013 work called “Games.” Brief, sprightly and impish, it lives up to its title and is full of musical jokes in thin camouflage. Next came Schuller’s “Journey Into Jazz,” a work for narrator, jazz quintet, and orchestra that takes the form of a kind of parable about a young and gifted Schuller-like boy named Eddie who plays trumpet and yearns to be musically and spiritually worthy of joining the magical world of jazz.
Sunday’s account was affectionate and full of charm, thanks especially to vibrant work from Richard Kelley (trumpet) and Don Braden (tenor saxophone). The avuncular warmth of this account also flowed naturally from Schuller’s own recorded voice as narrator. Schuller’s sons Ed and George anchored the jazz quintet on bass and drums, respectively. The children in the hall sat riveted by Eddie’s journey. Their parents appeared to be too. Why don’t we hear this work more often?
The afternoon ended with a semi-staged performance of Schuller’s 1970 one-act opera, “The Fisherman and His Wife,” here co-presented by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera. It’s a deft and humorous take on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale adapted in a clever libretto by John Updike. Even a slight slackness in its dramatic arc does not justify the work’s neglect since its premiere by Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston. Sunday’s nimble cast — which included Sondra Kelly, Steven Goldstein, David Kraitz, and Katrina Galka — represented it well. Rose, having led a sensitive performance, held aloft the Schuller score to an enthusiastic audience, directing at least a portion of the applause to where it surely belonged.
TRIBUTES TO GUNTHER SCHULLER
At: Jordan Hall, Sunday