Monday, 19 September 2011

Gunther Schuller at the Met

Next month the University of Rochester Press will publish a book that is already attracting critical acclaim from proofs that were sent out to potential reviewers, the first volume of Gunther Schuller’s autobiography. Whether you know Schuller as a jazz composer and performer, or a jazz historian, or a composer of contemporary concert music, or a conductor or writer on classical music, or even - for those with long memories - a horn player, you will be charmed by Schuller’s attempt to ‘document the incredibly fortunate, exciting life in music (and its sister arts) that I have been privileged to live thus far,’ as he puts it in his Preface to the book.

Here, after our summer break, is the first of a number of extracts from this compelling memoir. In this week’s edited extract, we join Schuller as a horn player in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in 1949:

One of that season’s happiest encounters for me—and I think for most of the orchestra—was the arrival of Jonel Perlea, one of the best conductors to grace the Met’s podium during my years there. Romanian-born, but trained in Munich and Leipzig, where he studied with Max Reger at the Hochschule (he must have been in the same classes with my father, both being the same age), Perlea had already enjoyed a distinguished conducting career in Europe, including leading the first performances in Romania of Rosenkavalier, Meistersinger, and Falstaff.

At the Met Perlea was given four operas to conduct: Rigoletto, Carmen, Traviata, and for his American debut, Tristan und Isolde. In his very first rehearsal we could tell that we were in the hands of a superior musician. (I found out later that he was also a fine composer, more than just a conductor-composer.) He managed to bring to that ecstasy- and hysteria-laden score a wonderful calming restraint. With Fritz Stiedry the more frantic episodes in Tristan, especially in the third act, could easily spin out of control. It is incredibly intense music, sometimes more intense than it can readily tolerate. Perlea treated the music with an almost chamber music transparency—lyric, eloquent, even elegant—without diluting the drama and emotional excitement of Tristan, or for that matter of Carmen or any of the operas Perlea was given.

All this was all the more amazing since Perlea had had a heart attack and a stroke, and as a result was paralyzed on most of his right side; he conducted only with his left hand. This is highly unusual and takes some getting used to—which we did very quickly. We really loved this man. Alas, Perlea was at the Met for only one year. All year long we kept hearing backstage rumors that certain conductors, especially Alberto Erede, also new at the Met in 1949, were agitating with the management to have Perlea retired. If true, it was but another typical example of what is known far and wide in the music world as “opera intrigue.” I saw Perlea several times in the 1950s in the hallways at the Manhattan School of Music, where both of us were on the faculty, and I could never resist telling him how much we missed him after he was let go.

Near the end of the 1949 Met tour we began to hear rumors that our orchestra might be hired to play a two-week season—at the Metropolitan Opera House—of the visiting Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The rumor turned out to be true, and the two weeks with Sadler’s Wells were a wonderful musical and educational experience. It brought back many happy memories of my days with the Ballet Theatre, six years earlier; and now I was fortunate enough to witness with my own eyes the brilliant work of England’s premier ballet company, with its outstanding, oh so graceful prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. (This was a special bonus for Margie [Schuller’s wife], who was so keenly interested in great ballet. She came to almost every performance, accompanied by Jeannie Clark, my dancer friend from Ballet Theatre.) But for me the two major highlights of the Sadler’s Wells visit were the discovery of Prokofiev’s extraordinary Cinderella music (in its first performance in the United States), and the amazing experience of working with Constant Lambert.

I really looked forward to playing with Lambert, for I admired him greatly as a composer, and for years had heard that he was a marvelous conductor. In England he was generally considered a lightweight composer, I assume owing to his very jazzy 1929 Rio Grande Suite and his catchy, devilishly clever ballet Horoscope. I thought of him more as a kind of British George Gershwin, a high compliment.

I was thrilled with his conducting; it was so intelligent and sensitive, although I noticed that sometimes in certain performances his beat, his direction, would be kind of wavering, wobbly. I began to realize that the man was at times not entirely sober. It got worse when, in the middle of the second week, disaster struck. Halfway through Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet music (which Lambert had turned into a ballet), completely befuddled, he simply broke down in tears and slumped over the podium. We tried to keep playing; Felix Eyle, our concertmaster, beat time with his bow. But it was no use; we barely knew the music (none of us had ever played Hamlet before), and we certainly didn’t know the dancers’ tempos. We never finished the performance. It was a truly tragic occasion; I felt so bad for Lambert. We now all knew that he was a raging alcoholic, and wondered how he had held up so long.

Discovering Prokofiev’s Cinderella music was a much happier experience. It was completely new to me—the first recording (of only excerpts of that ballet) didn’t come out in England until a year after the New York performances. I was so taken with the sheer melodic, harmonic beauty of the music, with Prokofiev’s seemingly boundless creative imagination, that I knew I had to somehow get a look at the score. When I found that none was available for purchase, I did the next best thing: over a period of fours days, in every intermission during the six rehearsals we had of Cinderella, I copied out, either fully or in a shorthand of mine, a dozen of my favorite excerpts from Lambert’s conducting score—which, bless him, he always left on his podium in the pit.

I was now approaching my fifth year at the Met. Two major events loomed ahead, which made my life there much more agreeable, much more rewarding musically, professionally, and artistically. One such event was my full promotion to co-principal horn. David Rattner was relieved of his position near the end of the 1949–50 season, and I was told sometime on the spring tour that Max Rudolf, Fritz Reiner, and Fritz Stiedry had all recommended that, without need for an audition, I be moved up to first horn—with an appropriate and, I thought, rather generous raise in salary. “Would I please accept the offer?” Would I? Well, of course I would. I was thrilled and gratified that my work as third horn (and first horn in Mozart and Rossini operas) had truly been appreciated. It was nice to know that the conducting staff and the management valued my particular way of playing, which contrasted considerably with Richard Moore’s generally more boisterous, extroverted style. I think they recognized that I brought a composer’s insights to my playing, an intimate awareness of the music’s inner workings, structurally, orchestrationally, conceptually, particularly in regard to ensemble considerations.

For me it wasn’t just a horn part, which one could use to display one’s soloistic and technical prowess. My horn part was just one of some thirty other voices that in toto yielded the complex and constantly variable ensemble relationships in an orchestra. I can truly say that there was no ego involved in my playing—pride yes (when justified), but ego, no. I knew that I and my horn part were just one small cog in a great wheel that required constant flexibility and pliancy in adjusting to the myriad and diverse collective demands of the composition. Fitting in—rather than standing out—gave me the greatest pleasure—and still does to this day, a commitment I ardently pursue as a conductor as well.

The other event that not only affected my life as a musician but also significantly enlivened New York’s musical scene, and probably, by extension, the entire opera field in the United States, was the ascendancy of Rudolf Bing to the general manager throne of the Metropolitan Opera Company. I use such language because, in my view and that of most others in the opera world, Bing was an authoritarian aristocrat, virtually a dictator, certainly not a pleasant man to work for and with. He had a rather severe don’t-mess-with-me look about him all the time. Indeed, with his balding head, piercing eyes, and hawklike nose, he always reminded me of Max Schreck in Nosferatu, Murnau’s famous vampire film of 1922. His twenty-two years at the helm of the Met were marked by continual strife, altercations, feuds, and controversy—although they weren’t always his fault or his creation.

All that said, one has to acknowledge that he was in the end an extraordinarily talented, genial impresario–general manager. He really knew his stuff. Bing was what we call in German a real Opernhase (opera hare), richly experienced as managing director (Intendant in German) of the Stadttheater in Darmstadt, Germany, the Charlottenburg Opera in Berlin (that city’s second opera house), and as artistic director of Glyndebourne in England, literally bringing that institution to international prominence in the 1950s. In 1957 he helped organize and then managed the Edinburgh Festival.

Bing was remarkably knowledgeable in musical matters, especially in his primary function and responsibility of bringing to the house the best and most appropriate singers. He set the highest standards in selecting and hiring the casts himself, a skill that had eluded Edward Johnson in his later years. It is not enough to know that a certain role is for a soprano or baritone, and then hire the most famous soprano or baritone in the business. Every part, every role, has its own characteristic requisites: questions of range, timbre, size, and quality of voice. In the category of soprano alone there are officially three kinds: dramatic, lyric, and coloratura. But the Italians make further distinctions, such as soprano acuto (high soprano) and soprano leggiero (light soprano), and—I like this one—soprano sfogato. Furthermore, the Italian vocal tradition is significantly different from the German, and even from the French and English. In addition, not all composers always conformed in their vocal works to these basic categorizations. The same distinct differentiations exist in the other four vocal types: alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. So the opera manager must know particular singers’ voices really well in order to choose someone with the right quality, timbre, and expressive character—not to mention acting ability and stage presence, another aspect of casting decisions that Bing addressed very seriously and successfully. In these matters he engaged a whole roster of singers in his first year as manager who, by their presence and artistry, raised the overall artistic level of the Met. To name a few: the galvanic mezzo-soprano, Fedora Barbieri; the outstanding (but woefully underappreciated) Lucine Amara, who sang important roles at the Met for another incredible twenty-seven years, still in beautiful voice to the very end; Hans Hotter, in the twilight of his career, but one of the greatest Inquisitors ever in Verdi’s Don Carlos; Roberta Peters; Mario del Monaco; Victoria de los Angeles; and, above all, Cesare Siepi, one of the very greatest vocal artists I had the privilege to work with in my fifteen years at the Met.

Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty by Gunther Schuller is scheduled for publication in October by the University of Rochester Press, and can be ordered from your favourite bookseller now.