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Seattle’s Saviour

May 18, 2011

The outgoing director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz, leaves behind him a world-ranking ensemble, as Chloe Veltman discovers

Around midnight on a chilly February evening, conductor Gerard Schwarz is regaling violist Pinchas Zukerman with jokes in a high-end Seattle bar. It’s nearing the end of a day that would be considered gruelling by most people. Schwarz has wedged meetings in between leading rehearsals with a sprawling, musically-challenged regional youth orchestra in the charmless Seattle suburb of Bellevue and helmed a Seattle Symphony Orchestra (Seattle SO) concert at the Benaroya Hall, its downtown home. The conductor has just finished hosting a dinner and has run into Zukerman, the viola soloist of that evening’s performance. If Schwarz is tired, it isn’t showing. He looks like he could go on all night.

This summer Schwarz retires from his job as music director of the Seattle SO, a position that the 64-year-old conductor has held for 26 years. Over that period, the indefatigable maestro (whose other career achievements include playing principal trumpet with the New York Philharmonic and music directorships with the Mostly Mozart Festival, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) has barely paused for breath. From overseeing the construction of the 2,500-seat Benaroya Hall, a highly praised $118.1m development project which kick-started the urban renaissance of downtown Seattle in the late 1990s, to making more than 140 recordings with the Seattle SO, resulting in one of the largest recording catalogues of any American orchestra, Schwarz has worked tirelessly to raise the profile of his organisation. ‘Jerry has been enormously ambitious,’ says Simon Woods, the newly appointed executive director of the Seattle SO. ‘You don’t build an orchestra and recording legacy like this and one of the best halls in the US without a high degree of passion and determination.’

These qualities have undeniably helped to put the Seattle SO on the map. Founded in 1903, the Seattle SO flourished in the 1940s under Thomas Beecham. But by the time Schwarz took over in 1985 it was languishing. As a result of his vision and drive, the organisation has grown from being a part-time regional orchestra playing 12 subscription weeks a year, to becoming a major if not top-tier presence on the American symphonic scene with a full 47-week season and programming that extends from Baroque to new music, of which Schwarz has been a particular champion. Schwarz has conducted nearly 300 world premieres to date, with 100 of them being with the Seattle SO. He is especially known for recording and performing the music of otherwise underplayed 20th-century American symphonists such as David Diamond and William Schuman. His farewell season features performances of short, newly commissioned works by 18 living composers including Bright Sheng and Philip Glass, creating a panoramic view of new music in America. ‘Jerry inherited the Orchestra at a time of disarray,’ says Melinda Bargreen, the former classical music critic of The Seattle Times. ‘He hired better players, refined the sound and forged deep friendships with the donor community. The orchestra made great strides forward under him.’

But like most long-reigning leaders, Schwarz’s ambition and strength will have also caused discord. The main issues, which have been well- documented by the media, include his controversial decision to install John Cerminaro as principal French horn in 1998 against the wishes of the orchestra hiring committee and his unorthodox system of having four concertmasters in 2007-2008 before eventually settling on Maria Larionoff in 2008. (Larionoff is stepping down at the end of this season.)

‘Jerry is an efficient conductor who gets right down to business but he can be prone to tunnel vision,’ says Jordan Anderson, the Seattle SO’s principal bassist. ‘The concertmaster search was stressful because there was never a sense of true leadership. It was like musical chairs up there.’ For his part, Schwarz sees himself as a team player. ‘I accepted everyone else’s ideas,’ he says, chatting in his Mercedes on the way to a youth orchestra rehearsal in Bellevue. ‘Only on rare occasions was I insistent.’ The musicians’ rebellion against the hiring of Cerminaro remains a mystery to the music director. ‘We’re talking about maybe the greatest horn player that ever lived,’ says Schwarz, who, with his round face and business casual attire, cuts a genial and unimposing figure. ‘I couldn’t understand why he was not accepted. Perhaps people thought he was arrogant. It couldn’t have had anything to do with his playing.’

Born in New Jersey in 1947, Schwarz started learning the piano when he was five. At eight, much to the consternation of his workaholic physician parents, he took up the trumpet. ‘My parents were Jewish Viennese immigrants,’ says Schwarz. “‘My son, the trumpet player? Give me a break.’” Nevertheless, Schwarz stuck to his passion. Five hours of practice a day led the young brass virtuoso to Juilliard and eventually to trumpet positions with the American Symphony Orchestra, and, at the age of 25, the New York Philharmonic.

But he soon grew restless. ‘I loved music but I wanted to be more involved,’ Schwarz says. Inspired by New York Philharmonic maestros Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, Schwarz developed an affinity for the podium, drawing attention for his inventive programming and go-getter attitude. Schwarz founded the Waterloo Music Festival in New Jersey in 1976 and co-founded the Y Chamber Symphony (later the New York Chamber Symphony) in 1977. ‘Mr Schwarz is an American conductor of increasing and deserved prominence,’ wrote The New York Times critic Bernard Holland in 1987.

The opportunities flowed from there. Schwarz snapped up directorships at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Mostly Mozart Festival, where he remained for nearly 20 years. He was in demand as a guest conductor all over the world, leading such ensembles as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

When Schwarz was initially summoned to Seattle in 1983, it was as music advisor in the wake of the unexpected death of the orchestra’s then-music director, Rainer Miedél. Eventually he was persuaded to stay. ‘Moving here was huge,’ says Schwarz, who lives with his wife Jody in Seattle’s genteel Queen Anne neighbourhood. ‘This is my home. Two of my children were born here and all four of them grew up here.’

Schwarz quickly entrenched himself in Seattle’s civic life. He forged relationships with the city’s most powerful figures including celebrity artist Dale Chihuly, Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins and real estate developer Jack Benaroya (the namesake of Benaroya Hall) and championed music education. Unlike most prominent American music directors, he regularly led youth music endeavours and was a generous mentor to young conductors. ‘I’ve worked with various conductors, but Jerry and Marin [Alsop] were the only ones who came to my rehearsals,’ says Carolyn Kuan, the assistant and associate conductor at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2009.

Over the last decade, Schwarz’s high standing in Seattle has somewhat eclipsed his musical reputation elsewhere. With the exception of the Seattle SO’s appearance at Carnegie Hall in 2004, Schwarz has been estranged from the New York classical music scene since he left the New York Chamber Symphony in 2002. That organisation folded soon after Schwarz’s departure owing to financial challenges. Meanwhile, for several years before leaving the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2001, Schwarz saw his involvement with the annual summer event dwindle as the management increasingly emphasised touring period instrument ensembles.

Schwarz’s spell in England between 2000 and 2005 didn’t greatly enhance his footing abroad. Sandra Parr, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s head of programming, credits the conductor for launching a well-attended Sunday afternoon concert series. ‘The decision to start the series was not popular with the orchestra but Jerry went ahead and it attracted an immediate audience,’ says Parr. ‘It’s our biggest growth area today.’ Ultimately, though, the organisation chafed against Schwarz’s unconventional ideas and they parted company in 2005. ‘He got the orchestra to think again about how it worked,’ says Parr. ‘But maybe it wasn’t ready to take that on board.’

Back in Seattle, the symphony orchestra is excited to welcome its new music director, Ludovic Morlot, an energetic, 37-year-old Frenchman who has been praised for his strong artistic vision and personable demeanour. The organisation is also embracing the arrival of Woods, a seasoned executive, following a period of administrative turbulence. Since the departure in 2003 of longtime executive director Deborah Rutter, the Seattle SO has had six executive and interim executive directors and dealt with considerable financial woes. The current deficit stands at $4.4m. ‘We are launching an ambitious fundraising campaign and working to reduce our line of credit,’ says board member Leslie Jackson Chihuly. ‘We intend to finish the year with a balanced budget.’

As the Seattle Symphony Orchestra prepares to leap into a new era, so, in his own way, is Schwarz. He will maintain his ties with the orchestra as conductor laureate and continue his ongoing directorship of the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina. But Schwarz is primarily focusing on two activities: composing and launching an educational TV series devoted to exploring canonical classical works with an ensemble of high-calibre players from across the country. Schwarz hopes to lead the initial recording sessions with this new group, dubbed the All-Star Orchestra, this August in New York. ‘I’m obsessed with finding ways to get classical music to more people,’ says Schwarz. ‘Will things slow down for me? Probably not.’



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