September 9, 2012 in Features

Spotlight: Next Bach Festival will be last for Schuller

By The Spokesman-Review

At a glance

Gunther Schuller

 The renowned composer and musician was born in New York to German immigrants in 1925. As a horn player, his early career included stints with the American Ballet Theater, the Cincinnati Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera. He played French horn on Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” and taught composition at Yale University.

 As president of the New England Conservatory from 1967-’77, Schuller helped establish the school’s jazz degree. He has composed more than 180 works, winning the Pulitizer Prize in 1994 for “Of Reflections and Reminisciences.” He has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Award, a Downbeat Lifetime Achievement Award and a membership in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, among other honors.

 He has been artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival since 1993. The first volume of his two-part biography, “Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty,” was published in 2011.

Source: New England Conservatory, archives/gunther-schuller

There’s a transition coming to the Northwest Bach Festival, as Artistic Director Gunther Schuller has announced his 20th season will be his last.

Schuller, now 87, will retire after the 2013 festival’s final concert on March 24.

Gertrude Harvey, executive director of Conoisseur Concerts, said Schuller hinted at the end of the 2012 festival that 2013 could be his last.

“Gunther is 87,” she said. “It’s not that his age is a hindrance, but his health is a factor.”

Meanwhile, after she booked cellist Zuill Bailey to perform in last year’s festival finale, Harvey said she was “hearing about all the great things he was doing with his festivals in El Paso and Sitka.” She decided to find out more and liked what she found. Bailey will assume the title of artistic director beginning with the 2014 festival.

“I think this is the right person at the right time,” Harvey said.

Bailey, 40, is artistic director of both the Sitka Music Festival in Sitka, Alaska, and the El Paso Pro Musica, in El Paso, Texas. He teaches cello at the University of Texas, El Paso, and had a recording contract on the Telarc label. In a phone interview, he said joining the Northwest Bach Festival helps him accomplish a mission he’s had since he was a teenager: To help bring music education and the arts to the nation’s smaller communities.

He grew up in Alexandria, Va., and in the area around his home, there were 15 regional symphonies and the National Symphony. He just assumed that everyone had the same opportunities to discover great music that he did. As he began his life as a touring musician in his teens, he realized that wasn’t the case.

“This has become a priority to me, to invest in communities and make sure that people have the kinds of things that I had growing up for their future and their kids,” he said.

His fondness for Bach – “I feel Bach is the beginning of all that we know in classical music” – makes his appointment in Spokane a natural fit. He also has a longtime friend in Kevin Hekmatpanah, a cellist with the Spokane Symphony and music director of the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra.

For the next year, Bailey will serve the Bach festival in an advisory role, and is looking forward to celebrating Schuller in his final season.

“He’s a gift to us,” Bailey said of Schuller, adding that it’s a “humbling” honor to accept the torch from a man of Schuller’s stature. “He represents just by his whole life what we should by doing. My goal is to hold the torch as high as he always did.”

The torch will symbolically be passed between the two world-class musicians during the festival finale on March 24, with Bailey performing the Bach Suites for Cello Nos. 4, 5, and 6.

The Northwest Bach Festival, now in its 35th year, will be March 2-24 at St. John’s Cathedral on Spokane’s South Hill. Tickets go on sale Oct. 2 through TicketsWest outlets, online at or by phone at (800) 325-SEAT.

For more details on the festival, visit>

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