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Classical Notes

Oliver Knussen honors his mentor and friend at Tanglewood

British composer Oliver Knussen (left, in 2013) was a student at Tanglewood when he met Gunther Schuller (right, pictured in 1995).Globe Staff File

An ineluctable shadow will hang over this year’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, one left by the death of composer Gunther Schuller last month at 89. Schuller began teaching composition at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1963, when it was known as the Berkshire Music Center, and he was its director from 1970 to 1984. During that period he was the driving force behind new music at Tanglewood. There were complaints that he favored serialism and atonality at the expense of emerging trends such as minimalism, but there is no doubt that the ongoing vibrancy of contemporary music there owes much to Schuller’s tireless, and often trenchant, advocacy.

Nowhere will his absence be more keenly felt than at a Thursday FCM concert led by the British composer Oliver Knussen, a Tanglewood student of Schuller , and his successor as the festival’s director. Planned as a salute to Schuller, the concert is now a memorial. It opens with the world premiere of “Magical Trumpets,” for 12 trumpets, and also contains Schuller’s 1971 “Concerto da Camera” as well as music by composers that Schuller brought to Tanglewood.


“Apart from anyone else, Gunther Schuller has been a great mentor and role model for me,” Knussen told me in a 2013 interview. In a recent e-mail exchange, he discussed studying with Schuller, his legacy, and what it was like to go on holiday with him.

Q. Your immediate thoughts on Schuller’s passing?

A. The personal feeling of having lost a musical father figure is uppermost. One of the reasons I wanted to work with him in my late teens was that his orchestral music embodied an area in which I felt most at home, and I reasoned that he, having an orchestral player father as I did, might understand the predicament in which I found myself then, being interested in “advanced” music which orchestral musicians felt ambivalent (or worse) about. However exploratory Gunther’s music could be, it always sounded good in orchestral terms which were familiar to me. I still recommend his scores to my students to study in that respect.


Q. What do you recall about first meeting him at Tanglewood in 1970? What was he like as a teacher, and what specifically was his influence on your development as a composer?

A. I remember our first lessons very well. We immediately found common ground in our mutual love of Scriabin — an enthusiasm not as prevalent then as it is now — and the freely atonal works of Berg and Schoenberg. He was most encouraging of my efforts — I was trying to find my own way then, groping in the dark and very unsure of myself. But he also set the bar very high: What he felt were overly easy solutions were met with suspicion, usually right on the mark. And he had an almost uncanny sense of what I was aiming for, sometimes before there was any written-down evidence of what that was.

He had great facility, but also set extremely high standards for himself and for others, too, and that, together with his tireless encouragement of colleagues and his phenomenal ear working in tandem with technical knowledge in rehearsal, made a huge impression on me.

Q. I understand the two of you actually spent a couple of vacations driving around England together. What was he like as a friend?


A. He called me up out of the blue one day in 2004 and said how much he missed the driving holidays he and Margie (his wonderful, kind wife) used to take, and would I mind doing this with him. Needless to say I couldn’t refuse. It was pretty exhausting stuff — I did all the driving, and he was a very idiosyncratic navigator. We “did” England mostly on the first trip — from the Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire up to the Lake District and down again via York Minster (where his teacher at St. Thomas [Church Choir] School in New York had been organist) to Cambridge to visit his old friend Alexander Goehr.

A few years later (2007) he asked for the same again, and this time we went west to Stonehenge, Plymouth Hoe, and Tintagel before going way north to Scotland. En route I arranged a reunion for him with my daughter Sonya, his other former students Simon Bainbridge and Mark-Anthony Turnage, and their spouses at a complete performance of Glière’s “Ilya Murometz” Symphony (another one of our major mutual favorites) at the Proms, followed by a very festive dinner. Driving north afterward, we took in a boat trip to Fingal’s Cave, and on the way back a viewing of Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross” in Glasgow. None of these things were planned in advance — he liked to improvise, fix on a place, find a good inn with a restaurant, and there we’d stay.


We listened to a lot of music en route. This was my responsibility — very difficult to satisfy someone who knew so much — and I’m proud to have introduced him to the original (and best!) version of “Madama Butterfly” and the music of Frank Bridge, which he became quite passionate about. And we listened to the radio a lot and we talked music all the time. If I felt I had to concentrate on the road all I had to do was mention one or other famous conductor and I could stay silent for an hour.

He was very good company — part of me was always aware of wanting to please my old mentor, though he couldn’t have been nicer in his way. In a way it was a token of gratitude for the lessons I had with him in Boston in the early ’70s— he had never even mentioned a fee.

Q. What can you say about “Magical Trumpets,” the piece of Schuller’s that will have its premiere at Thursday’s concert?

A. My impression of “Magical Trumpets,” which uses every imaginable trumpet from Piccolo F to Bass, is that it is, surprisingly, not flashy at all, but predominantly contemplative in tone, relishing the unexpectedly subtle differences of color that can be obtained from within this family. I know that composing it gave him a great deal of pleasure during a difficult hospitalization some months ago. In no way do Gunther’s last works, when he was really very ill (and very brave), give any sense of a falling-off in his creativity, and demonstrate anew that a great deal can be said in relatively compact time frames.


Q. The other composers on the concert are all composers that Schuller championed. Do you think that the program can be seen not only as a collection of works by colleagues, but as a testament to the musical vision that he championed?

A. No, not at all! The program represents an incomplete snapshot of a few specific years when I was his student at Tanglewood. To do even partial justice to his vision, you’d need at least a whole festival.


Music of Schuller, Maderna, Carter, Perle, and Wuorinen

At: Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Thursday at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $12. 617-266-1200, www.bso.org

Interview was condensed and edited. David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.