99.5 WCRB Journal

Gunther Schuller: The Passing of a Legend

By Brian McCreath   |   Monday, June 22, 2015
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On Sunday, June 21, composer, conductor, writer, and educator Gunther Schuller passed away in Boston. To hear a recent performance of his music, click on "Listen" above.


Gunther Schuller
(photo of Gunther Schuller by Andrew Hurlbut, courtesy of the New England Conservatory of Music)


In a 2011 article for the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout went some distance in capturing Gunther Schuller's incredible musical life with one sentence: "He is the only musician in the world who can claim to have played with Maria Callas, Miles Davis, Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini."

You'll find the startling narrative of that life in any number of obituaries and appreciations in these days following Schuller's passing on Sunday, June 21, in Boston. From his appointment as Principal Horn of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as a teenager to his pioneering efforts in bringing together jazz and classical music in the educational realm to his Pulitzer Prize winning career as a composer, it makes for a stunning legacy. (For more details, visit NPR Music and the Boston Globe.)

And to hear one example of his remarkable work, click on "Listen" above to hear a recent Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of his Dreamscape.

What those sources may or may not communicate to you, however, is the generosity and character of Schuller as a person. As a student at the New England Conservatory, I heard stories about Schuller that left me intimidated. There was no one, according to these stories, with ears more musically perceptive and accurate, and Schuller could be as demanding as that ability would allow. I never had the chance to play in an ensemble he conducted, but several colleagues have confirmed over the years that, in his presence, bringing less than your best left you in some sort of peril.

Years later, with that demanding image still in my mind, I found myself nervous in opening a letter he sent to me after hearing me host classical music programs on the radio. It was a request to give him a call, which, of course, I promptly did.

I can't tell you much about that first conversation, except to say that he was complimentary and, as you would expect, demanding. Gunther listened to the radio a lot. A LOT. He loved music by virtually all composers, and his motivation in talking with me was, I think, an effort to make sure that those composers were presented with all the respect they were due.

Beyond that, though, Gunther engaged with me in conversations about the nature of music, art, and communication. He loved intellectual discourse and the trading of ideas and opinions. It still strikes me as a great gift that he took me seriously, listened to my perceptions and ideas, and responded as though we were equals. Of course, we weren't, really, and I'm sure he knew that. But I think he also knew that he was achieving one of his goals in life: to affect and educate those around him.

Gunther and I talked several more times in the years after that initial conversation, and when we saw each other in person, he always greeted me as a friend. I'm absolutely sure my experience was not unique.

The last time I saw him was backstage at Tanglewood last summer, following a Sunday afternoon concert. He was awaiting a ride, and I had just finished a broadcast. Once again, he greeted me with enthusiasm and warmth, even though we hadn't spoken in some time.

Toby Oft, the Principal Trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, happened to walk by with his young son. It dawned on me that Toby and Gunther hadn't met before, and it was a huge honor to introduce them. I could tell that Toby felt the same awe I felt when I received that letter years earlier. And Gunther's response to him displayed the same generosity and warmth I had experienced in that first conversation.

The world is filled with incredibly gifted, hard-working, brilliant musicians. Gunther knew most of them, it seemed. And yet there truly was no one like him. Even after a long, rich life, it's hard to believe that we'll no longer see him backstage at places like Tanglewood. He will be missed.

WCRB's Brian McCreath produces Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, and Tanglewood broadcasts, and is the host and producer of The Bach Hour.

From Arcade Fire to Classical

Friday, September 19, 2014
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Canadian multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, known for his work as a member of the Grammy-award winning band Arcade Fire, takes a dive into the rhythms of the human body Music for Heart and Breath.



A quartet of musicians sit before sheets of music with instruments in hand, casually dressed and waiting for instruction. A rehearsal like any other, except the human body is the metronome; each musician is wearing a stethoscope strapped to his or her chest, following their own heartbeat or breath to keep time or, sometimes, that of another performer.

This scene personifies the concept behind Richard Reed Parry’s new album Music for Heart and Breath. Released on Deutsche Grammophon, with contributions from the iconic new music ensemble Kronos Quartet, pop and classical crossover ensemble yMusic, and avant-garde composer Nico Muhly, the compositions and various instrumental configurations explore the notion that the human body can dictate how music is performed and how we interact with it.

Parry is not a name associated with classical music. The Canadian multi-instrumentalist is a member of the Grammy Award-winning rock band Arcade Fire, in which his musical voice might emerge from guitar, double bass, or accordion. Music for Heart and Breath is a reflection of Parry’s desire to make music that reacts with the mind and the body through rhythmic, haunting compositions in an experiment that takes us beyond genre or tradition. 



For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.

















Giuseppe Verdi's "Best Creation"

By Laura Carlo   |   Wednesday, October 9, 2013
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Giuseppe Verdi

October 10th marks the date when the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Italy’s Verdi is invariably mentioned with Germany’s Richard Wagner (also born in 1813) as being the two greatest opera composers of the 19th century, although their styles were quite different, and their opinions of each other were usually less than complimentary.

In his own time, Verdi’s work was celebrated not only for the quality of his musical output, but also for the profound and political connection between his music and his nationalistic leanings towards an independent and unified Italy, freed from the yoke of the Austrian Habsburg Empire.

But for all of his musical and political accolades, what Verdi called his “best creation” may surprise you. No, it wasn’t any of his great operas, or his powerful Requiem, or songs, or sacred works. Or anything else he wrote – or said.

Instead, it was the Casa di Riposa per Musicisti, a retirement home for musicians in Milan. The home, an imposing mansion on Milan’s piazza Buonarotti, was Verdi’s idea of an enduring memorial to his music. And it wasn’t a retirement home limited only to those who sang at La Scala, either. In his vision, Verdi saw the Casa Verdi – as it is now known – as a place for elderly actors, ballerinas, and musicians of all types who had no money and nowhere else to go. Since it opened in 1902, more than one thousand residents have been housed here.

Verdi saw to it that royalties from his works would finance the home, and indeed the lira from such great works as Rigoletto, Aida, and Nabucco kept the Casa Verdi operational for decades. Today it runs on donations. Checks still come in from around the world, and prominent plaques in the main hall show the names of such major donors as Luciano Pavarotti, the Toscanini Family, Marilyn Horne, Maria Callas, and the Metropolitan Opera Company.

Mind you now, this retirement home is not a place for bingo games or arts and crafts: the Casa Verdi residents present weekly concerts that are open to the public. While there, concertgoers can also visit the tombs of Verdi and his wife Giuseppina, ensconced in the chapel on the Casa Verdi grounds.

Verdi celebrations will be noted around the world on the 200th anniversary in concert halls, opera houses and certainly on WCRB…but no place more deeply connected to the composer than at the Casa di Risposa. Verdi wrote a letter to his good friend Giulio Monteverdi saying: “…The poor, dear companions of my lifetime. Believe me, my friend, that Home is truly my most beautiful work.”

download buttonDownload Verdi's Ave Maria, performed in concert by Boston's Cantata Singers and conductor David Hoose.  

Henri Dutilleux, 1916-2013

By Brian McCreath   |   Wednesday, May 22, 2013
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Henri Dutilleux with Leon Kirchner
Henri Dutilleux (right) with composer Leon Kirchner at Symphony Hall in Boston in 1997
(photo by Miro Vintoniv, courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra)

French composer Henri Dutilleux has died at the age of 97. Born on Jan. 22, 1916, in Angers, France, Dutilleux's music became a regular presence over the years at Symphony Hall in performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

His Symphony No. 1 was performed by the BSO and conductor Charles Munch in 1954, and his Symphony No. 2, Les Double, was commissioned by the orchestra for its 75th anniversary. More recently the BSO co-commissioned his song cycle Le Temps l’Horloge, which was given its American premiere by soprano Renée Fleming with the BSO under James Levine in 2007.

Tom Service of The Guardian has written that Dutilleux's Cello Concerto, Tout un monde lointain, written for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1970, is "music of sumptuous but rigorous splendour, music whose sheer attractiveness belies the refinement of Dutilleux's harmonic and structural imagination, and which seduces you into a faraway world of heightened feeling. I defy you not to be won over by this music."

Upon the passing of Henri Dutilleux, Tony Fogg, Artistic Administrator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, said,

Henri Dutilleux will be remembered not only for the singularity of his musical language - profoundly beautiful, perfect in discourse, luminous in sonority - but also, by those of us lucky enough to know him, for his personal grace, generosity, and purity of spirit. Few composers express the level of gratitude to his or her interpreters which Dutilleux showed to the artists who performed his works, and to those who helped bring about those performances.

In the context of his long relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Munch and Ozawa were his gods. Yet just as important in his eyes, were the young composers he befriended during his visits to Tanglewood - friendships he maintained for years afterwards. We are lucky to have enjoyed a unique relationship with this great, great figure.

To hear Dutilleux's Métaboles with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Alan Gilbert in concert, click on "Listen" above.

Roman Totenberg: Boundless Generosity

By Cathy Fuller   |   Wednesday, May 8, 2013
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Roman TotenbergI wish I had known him. For as long as I have been musically conscious, I have felt the presence here in Boston of Roman Totenberg.

Born in 1911, he began as a child prodigy and ultimately became an artist and teacher who would touch the lives of countless musicians around the world. In fact, so widespread was his reach as a mentor that his daughter, Nina Totenberg (NPR's Legal Affairs correspondent) dares to surmise that there is probably not a major orchestra in Europe or the United States that doesn’t have at least one player who studied with him.

His life began in Poland and his memories took him back to the tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution. He studied in Berlin in the 1920’s with Carl Flesch, and later in Paris with one of the most remarkable geniuses music has known, Georges Enesco.

Totenberg toured in his early years with the brilliant Polish composer/pianist Karol Szymanowski. In his travels across the globe, he premiered works by Hindemith, Barber, Penderecki and Milhaud. He toured South America with Arthur Rubinstein.

His playing was surely deepened as he bore witness to revolution and war while coming of age. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, studied the violin with Totenberg for nine years, and told the Boston Globe’s Jeremy Eichler that, for Totenberg, “music was the natural language of freedom. It was not decorative. When he taught and when he played, you were consciously aware that he owned every phrase.”

Roman Totenberg settled here in the United States in 1938. He toured internationally before making his home in Boston and taking up a teaching post at Boston University. He directed the Longy School of Music from 1978 to 1985. He also taught at Aspen, Tanglewood, and Blue Hill Maine’s Kneisel Hall.

Last year, on May 8th, he passed away at the age of 101. And until the very end, he kept on teaching. Through the week leading up to his death, a long line of loving violinists came to his Newton bedside to pay their respects and to play for him. He offered them guidance even in his final hours.

Totenberg’s daughter Amy told the Globe, “He had such a feeling for youth, and had so many people of all ages who filled his life that he didn’t grow old.’’

All three of Roman Totenberg’s daughters are ferociously gifted – Amy is a federal judge in Atlanta; Jill is CEO of the Totenberg Group, a communications firm in New York; and then there’s Nina – Legal Affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, who wrote a beautiful tribute and obituary for her father.

Classical New England has some precious performances that were recorded by our WGBH engineers years ago. Listen for Roman Totenberg’s artisty throughout the day today as we mark the anniversary of his passing.

To hear Roman Totenberg's artistry in performance at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, click on "Listen" above.

The Rite of Spring: Violence in Music in a Time of Violence

By James David Jacobs   |   Tuesday, April 23, 2013
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Boylston Street after Boston Marathon Bombing rite of spring costume design

left: Boylston St. following the Boston Marathon bombing (Anne Mostue/WGBH)
right: Nicholas Roerich's sketch of costumes for the 1913 production of The Rite of Spring (via Wikipaintings.org)

April 24, 2013

May 29th marks the 100th anniversary of the infamous premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The New England Conservatory Philharmonia is celebrating the occasion by performing the work tonight on a program that also features another celebration of Spring, Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 1, and the Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin, one of the other works on the program on that historic night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

What could not have been anticipated when this concert was planned well over a year ago was that, just a week before the concert, the young musicians performing it would bear witness to an historical event as violent and senseless as that portrayed in Stravinsky's music. I talked to several members of the orchestra, and they shared their stories and observations on what it was like to be in downtown Boston last week while working on The Rite of Spring. To hear their thoughts, click on "Listen" above.

For more about the NEC Philharmonia's performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, visit the New England Conservatory.

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