Seattle Symphony Orchestra music director Gerard Schwarz looks over his 26 years with the SSO as he prepares to step down after the June 18 concert.
More than 2,000 performances, rehearsals, recording sessions.
More than 140 recordings; 14 Grammy nominations; two Emmy Awards; too many world premieres to count.
And no regrets.
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Asked if there’s anything in his Seattle Symphony tenure he’d do over, Gerard Schwarz thought for a moment, and responded: “I don’t think about do-overs. Everything is not 100 percent successful, but it is all a part of your experience and your life. There’s really nothing I’d do over: the way things have evolved, I think I was right. Everything I’ve done has been in the service of great music.”
Looking backward is not Gerard Schwarz’s natural stance; he is more interested in what’s coming next. But in these weeks, as his long Seattle Symphony music directorship winds down, national and international publications are focusing on the history of this city’s man of music with considerable intensity. Those 26 years are among the lengthiest tenures in today’s major orchestras — though Schwarz is far from the longest-running maestro (the late Eugene Ormandy, for example, led the Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years, and such conductors as Seiji Ozawa and Leopold Stokowski held 29- and 28-year music directorships).
So how did it all happen?
Schwarz sits back in his Queen Anne home with a cup of coffee and considers his answer.
“I always wanted to be a trumpeter when I was a kid,” he reflects, “not a conductor; that was never of interest to me. I wanted to be in the New York Philharmonic.”
And he was — becoming the youngest co-principal trumpet in the orchestra’s history. He rose to the top of his profession, making solo recordings that are still considered among the finest available. That’s why few in the classical-music world could quite believe it when Schwarz left the Philharmonic in 1977, at the age of 30. His reasoning was simple: The music had become more important to him than the instrument, which had a limited repertoire. Schwarz wanted to “delve into the great 19th-century repertoire” — works by Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven, among many others. He didn’t hedge his bets by trying to be an instrumentalist/conductor, that hybrid career that was becoming popular in the 1970s.
“I wanted to be taken very seriously as a conductor,” he explains. “I continued teaching trumpet lessons for a time because I had to have some income. But I didn’t want to be a conductor/trumpeter. I wanted to make it very clear that I was a conductor.”
Schwarz rose quickly to podium prominence, and was already music director of six orchestras or ensembles when he was called in to conduct as a replacement for Seattle’s previous maestro, Rainer Miedel (shortly before Miedel’s death in 1983). Schwarz had no idea of taking a job in Seattle — much less staying here for 26 years as music director.
“I wasn’t into longevity,” he notes. “I was in the Philharmonic for four years, and in the American Brass Quintet for seven or eight years. I had no idea of the kind of tenure and impact I would have in Seattle; I didn’t think about it. When you’re young, you do what comes along: ‘Great, let’s go to Seattle.’ But you don’t always think in terms of your career, of what this means for the future.”
And, indeed, some of Schwarz’s other appointments have not been all that lengthy. He headed the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for seven years, for example; the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for five, and the Tokyo Philharmonic for a specific three-year appointment.
If he wouldn’t redo anything here in Seattle, which aspect of his career here makes him the happiest?
“So many things!” the conductor responds. “That I was able to be here and raise my family here, with all four kids with us; that Jody and I were able to make our home here and lead a normal life, which musicians rarely have the opportunity to do. That I was able to make repertoire the way I do — I must have conducted 50 or 60 Beethoven’s Fifths — and make every performance meaningful.”
Not everything, of course, has been rosy. Most observers think it was Schwarz’s appointment of John Cerminaro as principal horn, against the recommendation of the orchestra’s hiring committee, that started a groundswell of discontent among some of the players. Some also were perplexed when a three-year search for a new concertmaster ended in an unprecedented four-way tie, finally settling on a player who wasn’t a candidate in the first place (Maria Larionoff, who steps down as concertmaster at the end of this season).
“The Cerminaro appointment was among the most important artistic things I’ve done,” Schwarz says. “He has probably done more to help the artistic growth of this orchestra than anyone else. John is a good friend of mine, but I have never made musical decisions in terms of friendship. I wanted him here because he is one of the greatest horn players that ever lived. Now we are playing, as an orchestra, like John; we know what greatness is.”
For players like principal flutist Scott Goff, who joined the orchestra in 1969 and has sat in the first chair longer than anyone else in the Seattle Symphony, it is Schwarz himself who has lifted the orchestra to its current level.
“This man is one of the great conductors of the world, and so many in this city and this orchestra haven’t the confidence and the perception to realize the great artistry that has been in their midst for the past 28 years,” says Goff, who will retire this month at the top of his game. “This orchestra is now recognized as great outside of Seattle. Jerry’s legacy will be the recordings, which document his artistic achievement and what he has done.”
Cerminaro agrees: “Everywhere I travel, people talk about our terrific CDs and distinctive sound. Jerry will be enormously missed — his vision, enthusiasm and devotion to the SSO for over a quarter-century have been truly awe-inspiring. I’m sure we will enjoy his continued participation from time to time as conductor laureate.
“I’m equally sure Ludovic [Morlot, the incoming music director who takes over this fall] already appreciates the quality ensemble that has been turned over to his leadership now. I am certainly dedicated to giving him a memorable first season with the orchestra. Truly, we all look forward to accomplishing great things with him in the future.”
Looking back on his years here, Schwarz says it has been “an amazing trajectory. It’s like watching a relative grow up, having more depth and becoming more interesting. As long as an orchestra keeps growing and adding depth, why would anyone want to end that? You can’t make a real artistic impact in five years, not even in 10. The growth in the audience, the interaction with the community, have both flourished in the past five years.”
In addition to his more public work on the podium, Schwarz has involved himself with the community in a wide span of educational and civic activities that don’t get as much notice. A tireless advocate for contemporary music, he has conducted more than 100 world premieres in Seattle, including this season’s unprecedented commissioning of 18 short works.
And, of course, there’s Benaroya Hall. Schwarz “pushed long and hard,” he says, for a concert hall to allow the orchestra to take that great leap forward, and his close friends, philanthropists Jack and Becky Benaroya, made the hall possible with an unprecedented gift of more than $15 million — committed during a fateful lunch at the Rainier Club.
Now, as Schwarz begins his third career phase, he will wear several hats: conductor laureate in Seattle (he’ll return to the Symphony for several weeks each year); composer (currently working on a band piece for Cornell); and director/conductor of an upcoming educational TV/DVD series featuring an “All-Star Orchestra” of the country’s best players in great concert repertoire, in eight hourlong annual programs with many other enhancements.
“I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to do what I have done,” Schwarz reflects, “and I couldn’t do it without a lot of people saying yes. It’s been a phenomenal time.”
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.