Seattle Symphony's Gerard Schwarz, one of the longest-tenured music directors in America, will step down from his post when his contract expires in 2011, he announced today.

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Back in the mid-1980s, when Gerard Schwarz was new to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, he sometimes found himself “having to convince people there was a need for an orchestra here at all.”

But Wednesday, as he announced he will leave his position as the orchestra’s music director when his contract expires in 2011, Schwarz said it’s hard to think of a better environment for classical music.

“I can’t imagine any conductor not wanting to come here: the greatest city in the country, one of the greatest orchestras, the best hall, a great board, great staff, and of course, the most extraordinary loyal audience.”

Sometimes controversial, often inspirational, Schwarz, 61, is among the longest-tenured musical directors in America and has been a towering figure on the Seattle arts scene during a period of unprecedented growth.

“I’m looking forward to a break from administrative responsibilities,” said Schwarz, who informed symphony players of his decision after a recording session on their first day back from summer break. Hired as the orchestra’s music adviser in 1983, Schwarz was appointed principal conductor the following year and has been music director since 1985.

He will continue to conduct the orchestra several weeks a year, with the permanent title of conductor laureate. But he’ll also have more time for composing, guest conducting at venues around the world and working as an advocate for basic music education in the U.S.

He and his wife, Jody, will continue to live in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. In November, he will travel to Croatia to conduct the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra in “Rudolph and Jeanette,” a piece Schwarz composed and named for his maternal grandparents, who were killed in a concentration camp in Latvia in 1941.

Schwarz, a New Jersey native who started trumpet lessons at age 8 and began conducting for Manhattan dance companies in 1966, helped boost the status of Seattle’s orchestra to world-class level and spearheaded the planning and fundraising for Benaroya Hall, which opened in 1998.

But his relationships with musicians weren’t always smooth. Some were displeased when Schwarz’s contract was extended in 2006, and there has been speculation they would oppose a further extension.

“Every orchestra, every business, always has some employees who are unhappy. It’s life,” Schwarz said. “I consider those kinds of internal frictions to be normal. They had nothing to do with my decision.”

Over the years, Schwarz’s position made him the face of classical music for the region; he served in advisory and leadership roles with numerous civic organizations. He stepped forward to conduct a Mozart Requiem in Safeco Field on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He donned a tuxedo to lead drummers raising money to fight polio in a Guinness record attempt in 2003. And he conducted some of the most memorable performances of the Seattle Opera.

“There will never be another Jerry Schwarz,” said Susan Hutchison, chair of the symphony’s board of directors. “He’s got the artistic talent, the creative energy and he’s always coming up with new fantastic ideas.”

Under Schwarz’s leadership, the symphony’s subscription audience has grown from 5,000 to 35,000 and its annual budget has risen from $5 million to $22 million. The orchestra has made 125 recordings under his baton — 11 of which have scored Grammy nominations. Last year, it won an Emmy for the self-produced TV special “Seattle Symphony From Benaroya Hall.”

He introduced the symphony to the classical-music elite at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2004.

Among the sources of controversy, Schwarz’s professional break with longtime concertmaster Ilkka Talvi in 2004 turned nasty when Talvi attacked Schwarz publicly on a blog. The incident was ultimately resolved through mediation.

The subsequent hunt for a replacement concertmaster — an important leadership position — was drawn out for three years, and only temporarily resolved when Schwarz decided to install four concertmasters on a rotating schedule. The plan didn’t pass muster with the players union, and earlier this year Maria Larionoff was named sole concertmaster.

In another dispute, violinist Peter Kaman sued the orchestra in 2006, saying Schwarz harassed and discriminated against him on the basis of a disability. The case was dismissed by King County Superior Court early this year.

Several musicians who have been critical of Schwarz in the past declined to comment Wednesday.

Clark Story, a violinist with the orchestra for 30 years, said Schwarz’s departure “is long overdue. Musicians will be looking forward for some fresh musical ideas.”

But longtime flutist Scott Goff said that while he understands Schwarz has critics, “an orchestra is a difficult work situation. Everybody’s got a boss. And bosses are tough to work for, especially good ones … He’s the best musician I’ve ever worked with.”

Larionoff said musicians gave Schwarz a prolonged ovation following his announcement Wednesday, a moment she characterized as “bittersweet.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com.

Seattle Times reporter Tan Vinh contributed to this report.