The Chamber Music Society of Minnesota wrapped up its 23rd season Sunday afternoon with a concert at Sundin Music Hall at Hamline University in St. Paul dedicated to one of the giants of American music, Gunther Schuller, who died a year ago at age 89.
The prolific composer, conductor, author and teacher coined the term "Third Stream" to describe music that blended jazz and classical forms. Schuller, born in Queens, N.Y., maintained strong connections to the Twin Cities.
Schuller's ties to the Minnesota Orchestra date to 1959, when, as the Minneapolis Symphony, the orchestra recorded one of the composer's most admired orchestral works, "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee."
In 2014, against the advice of his physician, Schuller, frail and suffering from leukemia, flew to Minneapolis to conduct the premiere of his "Encomium" in a Chamber Society concert honoring the 90th birthday of his friend Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra. Though barely able to walk across the stage, Schuller conducted with surprising vigor. (Skrowaczewski attended Sunday's concert.)
Violinist Young-Nam Kim, the Chamber Society's artistic director and a longtime friend of Schuller, put together a program that reflected Schuller's lifelong love of jazz.
Among the guests were tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano; bassist Anthony Cox, who lives in the Twin Cities, and drummer Frederick Harris Jr., director of wind and jazz ensembles at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of the acclaimed Skrowaczewski biography "Seeking the Infinite."
Lovano, Cox and Harris took up the second half with excerpts from a 1994 Grammy-nominated recording, "Rush Hour," for which Schuller wrote most of the arrangements, mixing standards with originals of his own and Lovano's. It was a revival of Schuller's "Third Stream" idea, by 1994 a more acceptable notion than it had been in the 1950s.
Obviously, three players couldn't deliver the texture of Schuller's sophisticated charts for larger ensembles. The result, nonetheless, in a 45-minute set, was hard-swinging and expressive in a variety of moods. Lovano's big, warm sound filled the hall in long, thoughtful improvisations using the entire range of his instrument in up-tempo bop tunes and sweetly mellow ballads — Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" and Matt Dennis' classic "Angel Eyes." Cox provided firm harmonic support on bass, and Harris, surrounded by a battery of percussion instruments, delivered a constant supply of inventive rhythmic ideas.
Lovano joined Kim in the first half with "Moon Sculptures," an evocative three-movement piece by Peter Child, another MIT faculty member who was present in the audience, that mixes a set of variations on a Korean folk tune with a number by Lovano. Then Kim and violist Thomas Turner played Childs' wistful tribute to Schuller, "G.S. In Memoriam."
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.