CAMBRIDGE — MIT's celebration of Gunther Schuller on Sunday night, culminating a day and month of area concerts commemorating the composer, conductor, performer, educator, and advocate who died in June, came complete with relics. A tabletop shrine in the Kresge Auditorium lobby displayed Schuller's tools and talismans: scores, recordings, awards, a flamboyant sport coat. Onstage was a golden idol: Schuller's own French horn. The concert itself, however, organized by MIT conductor (and Schuller student) Frederick Harris, eulogized Schuller in more provocatively indirect ways.
Classical repertoire gave oblique homage. The Romanticism of César Franck's Violin Sonata — transcribed for flute by Michael Faust, played by him and pianist Randall Hodgkinson, reprising their recording for Schuller's label, GM — was far from Schuller's interrogatory style, but channeled a straightforward eloquence. Later, Richard Todd lifted Schuller's horn from its perch, joining pianist Christopher O'Riley and former Juilliard String Quartet violinist Joel Smirnoff for the last movements of Brahms's Horn Trio (Op. 40): an expansive Adagio, a white-knuckled Finale.
Living composers offered appropriate tribute. Peter Child's slyly stately "G.S. 75" (wittily dispatched by violinist Young-Nam Kim) was followed by "G.S. In Memoriam," luring Schuller's favorite 12-tone row into lyrical, sinuous shadows. (Kim was joined by his son, Daniel, on viola.) Equally lovely was "For Gunther," a piano meditation by idiosyncratic jazz master (and self-proclaimed Schuller disciple) Ran Blake: a stained-glass cortège of glowing, crushed harmonies.
Two of Schuller's works were absorbingly dark in divergent ways. The Borromeo String Quartet (violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim) dug deep into Schuller's Quartet No. 4 (2002), a brooding, bruising high-modernist requiem, gray and steely by turn. Harris led a part-professional, part-student chamber orchestra in "Lament for M," a memorial for Schuller's wife, alternating noir glamour with dangerous free-jazz outbursts (from saxophonist George Garzone, bassist Bruce Gertz, and drummer Garrett Parrish): stages of grief, in unresolved counterpoint.
The evening then fully pivoted to jazz. A special guest, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, offered sincere testimony, then joined Gertz, saxophonist Don Braden, pianist Alain Mallet, and Schuller's sons — bassist Ed Schuller and drummer George Schuller — for a deeply playful up-blues. Marsalis exited; Garzone, Todd, and Nicole Kämpgen-Schuller entered for Ed Schuller's "Big Daddy's Magic Row Blues," the same row Child referenced now seeding a fractiously fun jam. And then Denzil Best's "Move," from Miles Davis's 1949 album "Birth of the Cool" — which, of course, featured a young Gunther Schuller on French horn.
It was one more sharp turn in an evening full of them. But the program's unwieldiness was, perhaps, the ultimate evidence of Schuller's versatility, his ecumenical mentorship, his everlasting curiosity. Three hours of variety only scratched the surface of Schuller's genius. The most telling relics were invisible: threads of influence, stretching in every imaginable direction.
GUNTHER SCHULLER: Celebrating a Life in Pursuit of Beauty
At: Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Sunday
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.