Gerard Schwarz, conductor laureate of Seattle Symphony, has a big new music project, premiering on KCTS at 10 p.m. Friday.
Titled “The All-Star Orchestra,” it features, as he puts it, “made-for-television orchestral music.” In other words: HD video recordings crafted as carefully as any traditional audio recording.
The musicians, Schwarz explained in a recent phone interview, were hand-picked by him from 30 orchestras from the East Coast to the West, including half a dozen from Seattle (among them former principal horn John Cerminaro and violist Mara Gearman). The aim of the series, he says, was to make great music accessible to as many people as possible.
And the way to do that, he felt, was to put it on public television.
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The results couldn’t be more satisfying. In the first two episodes (there are eight altogether), 18 HD cameras cover the players so comprehensively that they let you see musical details emerge that you might not normally catch on an audio recording or even in a live performance, where you’re at some distance from the players. Having no audience meant Schwarz had no worries about omnipresent cameras interfering with listeners’ concert experience. All eight episodes were filmed in a mere four days.
The show’s educational component is a far cry from poker-faced pedagogy. One of the
most droll points Schwarz makes, before conducting “The Firebird Suite,” is that Igor Stravinsky was the third-choice composer of ballet producer Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes’ 1910 production of “The Firebird.” First choice was Rimsky-Korsakov (who died), followed by Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov (“who people say was lazy”). Comments from other experts are equally pithy and to the point.
In addition to wanting a good geographical spread among his players, Schwarz also needed seasoned performers who had a deep familiarity with the standard repertoire “because we were working quite quickly.”
By that, he means literally without rehearsal. What you see on the program is one of two or three recorded takes of pieces these top-tier musicians had never played together. The results, on both revered classics (“The Firebird Suite,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, etc.) and short works by living American composers, are incredible.
“This orchestra played like they were playing chamber music,” Schwarz says. “Any nuance that I would do they would follow like I’ve never experienced in my life.”
While it feels a little odd to get to the end of Beethoven’s Fifth and not have an audience roar into applause, the music benefits from being presented absolutely without distraction. Pieces are played in their entirety and with a singular concentration.
“In a way, we had each other as an audience,” Schwarz says.
Schwarz is now based in New York, but visits Seattle frequently (he’ll be back at the Symphony next year to conduct Mozart and Richard Strauss programs). As an itinerant conductor, he finds, it’s easier to get to the places he needs to go out of New York.
Also, he adds, “When you’re running a musical institution for as many years as I did, you don’t want to be looking over the next person’s and the next administration’s shoulder.”
“The All-Star Orchestra” is his new baby, and he plans to keep it going.
“If you do, say, 10 standard repertoire pieces a year, in four years you’re going to have a library of 40 pieces that will be available for kids, for adults, for people who are older who can’t get to concerts, that can be used as educational tools,” he says. “This is my new long-term commitment — absolutely.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org