by Marty Demarest
Tere's a vicarious thrill that's experienced by the local musical community when Gunther Schuller's name is mentioned in aa national context. Whether he's being interviewed by National Public Radio's Terry Gross, or receiving an international award for his composing, conducting or educating, it's exciting to notice that he features his regular involvement with Spokane on his august resume.
But for many local musicians, the relationship goes deeper than just being associated with Schuller. For working musicians and passionate concert-goers alike, Schuller's presence in the local music scene for nearly 20 years has yielded a musical awareness and integrity-driven approach to art that is far from automatic. Having a charismatic, original thinker helming local musical organizations like the Spokane Symphony, the Festival at Sandpoint and the Bach Festival has not only increased audience awareness of classical music-making in the region, but has also endowed local musicians with an informed audience that's ready to accept challenges and appreciate quality.
But it all happened quite by accident. Back in 1982, Schuller came to Spokane for a week as guest conductor of the Symphony. It so happened that he arrived when a full-scale revolt by the Symphony's musicians was underway against then-Conductor Donald Thulean.
For Verne Windham, his first encounters with Schuller then, when Windham was playing French horn in the orchestra, rank among his more exciting -- and memorable -- musical moments.
"Gunther had this outlook," he recalls of that tumultuous winter. "He said management and musicians had to stop making war on each other. Instead they should be making war on the powers of artistic ignorance. While he sympathized with us in many ways, in other ways he said, 'Grow up.' He was a great leveling factor."
After Thulean resigned the following year, Schuller recalls getting a frantic call in May 1983, from then-Symphony Director Wes Brustad.
"I said to Wes," Schuller told The Inlander in 1995, " 'You must be kidding -- you expect me to be free for the next season?' "
Nonetheless, Schuller took the assignment, conducting five concerts the next year and helping the Symphony hire Bruce Ferden and his assistant Fabio Mechetti, now the Symphony's music director. It also started Schuller's long affiliation with Spokane. But even though it was a difficult time politically, Windham says those years were great musically.
"It was such a thrill that somebody so real and such a major figure of music would spend time with us when we feel so disconnected and insular so much of the time," Windham explains. "But on another level, it was the application of his brain: somebody teaching us on the deepest level about how and why things happen in music. It was wonderful to discover what a profound seminar every rehearsal was."
And the excitement about music that Schuller brought to the performing stage during his first appearance with the Spokane Symphony has persisted. Kelly Farris, the concertmaster for the Spokane Symphony, continues to find value in his ongoing collaborations with Schuller. "He's been extremely important to me personally," says Farris, "just being around his whole approach to music, which is really -- like he says -- extreme integrity devoted to the intentions of the composer on the page. That sounds kind of dry, but it's refreshing. There's a group of conductors that believe in personal expression -- they have to do something different every measure and put some personality into the score. That's probably the Bernstein school. Then there is someone like Fabio Mechetti -- who goes from the score and is really good at bringing it out, looking for the exaltation in ways other than distortions. And that approach is sort of a cliche about music around Gunther, because that's where he always comes from.
"But it's not like he's exactly a teacher," Farris continues. "What's refreshing is that he's not hiding behind the score. He's putting it up and gazing at it with us, instead of imposing it on us. He has a genuine enthusiasm for it -- he wants to share it with us."
That sense of excitement and opportunity that Schuller brings is far from a "you had to be there" impression. Like all artists who truly understand their craft, Schuller has managed to infuse local musicians with his ongoing sense of discovery and passion for music, which persists even in his absence. "I don't know if I can come up with a cosmic quote like 'because of him we know more,' " jokes Windham. "But for myself, it's been a constant education and revelation, and he's been a well to which we can return. He's given me all kinds of specific teaching. In that way, he allows all kinds of music education to happen."
Perhaps the most significant effect that Schuller has had on the local classical and jazz music scenes, however, is one of collegiality. "We're already enthusiastic," observes Farris about local musicians. "But the more time you can spend with great musicians, the happier you are. And the thing about Gunther is that he is happy spending time with us. He makes us feel like we're special. He's convinced us of that."