MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Schuller's Klee Sketches

A few years back the London Philharmonic Orchestra played Gunther Schuller's Seven Studies on themes of Paul Klee to an audience dominated by lady piano-teachers - they had come to hear Cherkassky in Rachmaninov 3 - and were discernibly successful in engaging their attention and sympathy. The LPO's Festival Hall concert on November 10 was ostensibly a repetition of this formula, except that the star attraction this time in the same programme was Korean-born Tong Il Han. Thus the audience was dominated by the oriental contingent, especially Japanese - but it didn't work so well.

For one thing, the orchestral playing in the Schuller was below par. Their ensemble was frequently ill-judged, and rhythmically there was much left to be desired. Furthermore, John Pritchard was more inclined than in the earlier performance to play the work as a suite of individual movements separated by long pauses, during which the audience fidgeted with programmes, chattered, took their coats off and generally distracted one from the music.

The work does demonstrably hang together well, in spite of its wide idiomatic range. The seven movements are pivoted around the third and sixth - Little Blue Devil and Arab Village. The former acts as focal point for the expressionistic violence of Antique Harmonies (which incorporates a repeated 14th-century cadence) and An Eerie Moment, and the pointillist textures of Abstract Trio and The Twittering Machine. Little Blue Devil is indeed a typical piece of 'third-stream jazz' - whose label and integrative principles originated with Schuller - relating closely similar modes of attack, scoring and expressive ambivalence. Arab Village is the internal reference point for all the static elements in the music, many of which feature in the final Pastorale, and this is the longest movement. It is static, meditative, restful in effect, fixing the listener's attention on a succession of Arab folk-themes played by off-stage flute and on-stage oboe and drums. We are here at 'the still point of a turning world', for the work as a whole is like a piece of mobile sculpture, all one entity, yet constantly presenting a different aspect. Just as Klee's pictures have an abstract base that overlaps into the figurative, so Schuller's musical counterpart spills over into onomatopoeia. In sum, a highly successful translation of visual experience into comparable yet independent aural experience.

It was rewarding to hear Schuller's Seven Studies again - we hear the work all too seldom, and we encounter little enough Schuller anyway - so I hope that on future occasions the LPO will allot more rehearsal to it, and possibly place it in a context where it is not so obviously the tiny pill to be swallowed with a basinful of sugar.