In the world of music, it's hard to avoid the name Gunther Schuller. Among classical composers, he's regarded as a significant contributor to the art, and the recipient of recognitions such as the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Award. Jazz musicians and historians refer to his book The Swing Era as required reading, and Downbeat Magazine has honored him with a lifetime achievement award. There are also plenty of musicians and music lovers throughout the world who consider his efforts as a conductor, publisher, educator and record producer among music's major driving forces in the 20th century. And through it all, Gunther Schuller has kept coming back to Spokane.
The history of Schuller's relationship with the Inland Northwest dates back to 1982, when he was a guest conductor with the Spokane Symphony. Two years later, he spent a year full time with the orchestra, and became the artistic director of the festival at Sandpoint. The rewarding working relationships he formed with the musicians and audiences in the region led Schuller to accept the position of artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival, which he has held since 1993.
From the beginning of his affiliation with the festival, Schuller has emphasized the ability of Bach's music to connect with contemporary ears. Under his direction, the festival's performances have attempted to unveil the vital artistry that lies behind the often academic and historic enthusiasm brought to Bach's music.
"The whole goal of this," Schuller explains, "is, of course, to represent this music in its fullness and its inner complexity as fully as one can."
It might seem unusual at first glance that an artist so strongly affiliated with music from the 20th century would devote so much time year after year to music from the 1700s. However, for Schuller, the contrast is a rewarding and enlightening one, particularly from his perspective as a composer.
"I've found a way of using some of the older musical traditions and musical forms, which I don't reject. Many composers do that. They say, 'All that stuff is on the garbage heap of history, and we needn't bother with that.' I've never believed that. I still don't. And so I've been fascinated in my more mature years to also work with older forms, but also to bring them into the 20th century -- but not in the neoclassic way, but in a very personal way."
Another example of Schuller's personal touch -- and a vivid portrait of his broad interests -- will be brought to town following the Bach Festival by the Spokane Chamber Music Association. Under Schuller's guidance, a program of four contemporary jazz violinists of varied ages will bring four extremely different musical styles to The Met stage. Johnny Gimble, a long-time country and swing musician; Johnny Frigo, one of the great living jazz violinists; Matt Glaser, a jazz violinist and author most recently featured on Ken Burn's documentary Jazz; and Jon Vriesacker, a jazz and rock violinist, will all join together to explore the role that the violin has played in jazz music.
It's an unusual, unprecedented combination that's taking place here in town due to Schuller's unique musical knowledge and tastes. But his innovation is not without precedent. As Schuller said once when discussing Bach, "That's what great composers do. They go out on the edge and lead us into new territory."
& & & lt;i & The Jazz Violin Summit, with Gunther Schuller, is Tuesday, Feb. 27, at 7:30 pm at The Met. Tickets: $20; $18 seniors; $10 students. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &