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Northwest People

A Life In Tune -- Gerard Schwarz Orchestrates A Life That Blends Family, Fund Raising And Mozart

"I HAD THE MOST wonderful 50th birthday at the Mostly Mozart Festival," Gerard Schwarz confides. "Conducting a Beethoven overture, a Mozart piano concerto, some beautiful Schubert. What better way could you celebrate?"

Look at that face. This isn't the face of a 50-year-old guy. Plagued all his life by the "rising young conductor" label, Jerry Schwarz has always looked younger than his years and is still recognizable as the whiz kid who sailed into the principal-trumpet job of the New York Philharmonic when he was only 25. He still has that same youthful grin and thick, wavy hair.

Ever since his marriage in 1984, he cuts a svelte profile on the podium (thanks to Jody Schwarz's penchant for fresh vegetables and fish from the Pike Place Market).

His is the face of a contented man with a stressful but well-tuned life.

At 50, all the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place. A recent winner of Musical America's "Conductor of the Year" award, Schwarz has settled into a career with a significant presence in New York, Europe and Japan as a music director and guest conductor. Most important, after more than a dozen years of hard work and planning, the Seattle Symphony's new downtown home, Benaroya Hall, is set to open in the fall of 1998.

A man who calls himself "a pretty serious guy" is also the man without a lot of free time. His routine of international jet flights, rehearsals, recordings, meetings and concerts, not to

mention playing ball with the family and teaching his kids to ride their two-wheelers, is a schedule few could handle. But it's a life that works for Schwarz, enabling him to put this city's symphony on the world map and his own career in high gear.

SEATTLE HAS LEFT its mark on Gerard Schwarz. The hard-charging conductor is visibly more laid-back than the cherub-faced New York single guy who arrived here in 1983 for a news conference in a plaid sports jacket that Jody almost certainly wouldn't have allowed out of the house. The Schwarzes are anchored here. They have an eye for Northwest art, a vested interest in education, a strong presence in the Jewish community, and the unquestioned status of Seattle's first family of music.

And in return, Schwarz has left his mark on Seattle. Aside from the rise in quality of the Seattle Symphony, and an impressive stack of more than 65 critically acclaimed compact discs, the most visible sign of his tenure here certainly is Benaroya Hall, which now is rising in imposing curves and layers on its downtown site at Second and University.

Would that $60 million hall (plus an additional $30 million for an endowment) have been built without Gerard Schwarz? Maybe eventually, but maybe not. The fact that Schwarz is liked and admired by such figures as mega-patron Jack Benaroya and Mayor Norm Rice has been paramount in the success of the hall, which required cooperation from all the region's public and private sectors. Another conductor - more aloof, less savvy, not so beloved - couldn't have mobilized that kind of support.

When Schwarz first arrived in Seattle, he was still running the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony (then called the Y Chamber Symphony), New Jersey's Waterloo Festival, New York's "Music Today" Series and the high-profile Mostly Mozart Festival. Gradually the outside-Seattle list winnowed down to just the Mostly Mozart and the New York Chamber Symphony.

But even when Schwarz had been here a decade, he was still fielding questions about when he was going to leave Seattle for a more prestigious post. After all, he had a New York apartment (he still does), and his family's Seattle home was a condo (albeit a pair of condos remodeled into one).

Now, with Schwarz and family settled in a historic house in Queen Anne, a house with a yard and a pool and a driveway for bike riding, the questions have gradually dwindled away.

It also helps that Schwarz is known to have fended off several offers from rival orchestras, whom he won't name (though industry gossip has it that he turned down the larger Milwaukee Symphony and was approached by the New York City Opera, among several others).

"Why should I go somewhere else, when Seattle is such a wonderful place to be, and the symphony is such a wonderful orchestra?" Schwarz asks.

"This is my community; this is my place, where I live. I want to make it an even better place to live in."

ARRIVING AT THE HOME where Schwarz and his wife, Jody, live with their two young children (9-year-old Gabriella and 6-year-old Julian) and two older children (Alysandra, 23, and Daniel, 20, both from Gerard's previous marriage), you'll see more reasons why Schwarz considers himself a fortunate man.

Remodeled and decorated under Jody's guidance, the house looks ready for a spread in one of the less ascetic issues of Architectural Digest - even with small children dashing about.

Every detail of decor - from the antique pieces Jody buys at auctions to the subtle fabric wall covering and the plants that give a conservatory feeling to the glassed-in porch - has been considered with care. The house fits. The wide staircase and an expansive entry are tailor-made for big parties, and the huge dining-room table is designed for elegant dinners. For personal moments and play time, there's the view deck and the pool.

The first thing you're likely to notice about Jody Schwarz is that she is beautiful; she also is smart, a devoted wife and mother, a high-level hostess and a gifted flutist who could easily make a career on that instrument.

She would fit right in on a best-dressed list - she turns heads when she enters the Opera House - or performing in Lincoln Center. Jody is the daughter of a musical family (her late father, Sol Greitzer, was principal violist of the New York Philharmonic), which also means that she knows the music business and provides feedback on rehearsals and concerts.

Gerard trusts and values her judgment. If Jody says the orchestra's out of balance, or that his last performance of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony was the best ever, he knows it's true.

At parties and receptions, or privately at home, they're a warm-hearted and clearly affectionate couple who also know how to make others feel welcome.

Gerard, trained since early childhood (in Weehawken, N.J.) by his two older sisters to appreciate details of dress and style, is quick to notice a guest's new haircut and to make an appreciative comment on a great-looking cocktail dress.

With people he doesn't know, he projects an easy and unassuming friendliness: "Hi, I'm Gerard Schwarz," he'll say, extending a hand at a reception to unfamiliar guests (who know perfectly well who he is but feel awkward addressing him), drawing them into conversation.

Outside the Schwarzes' house, there's a Porsche and a Mercedes parked in the driveway - but both are older models, bought from a relative and a friend who treated them well before moving on.

The Schwarzes may live glamorously, but they also keep a careful eye on costs. It's a necessity in Schwarz's professional life, where orchestras exist because of a delicate mating dance among the donors, patrons, foundations, businesses and public support that fills the other 50 percent of the budget that ticket income can never cover.

Still, there is that occasional splurge. At a private party for close friends celebrating Gerard's birthday, Jody served two bottles of 1947 Chateau LaTour - the same vintage as her husband, and reportedly a very good vintage indeed.

"I didn't ask her how much those two bottles cost," Gerard confesses. "I don't want to know!"

Schwarz may be serious about his music, but friends say the couple is also very upbeat and witty, full of jokes and anecdotes.

Melvyn and Rosalind Poll, like most of the Schwarzes' friends, are part of the greater symphony family; Mel is an operatic and concert tenor who has often sung with the orchestra, and Rosalind is an artists' representative and symphony-board vice president.

"Maybe Jerry doesn't have a lot of hobbies, outside of music," Mel acknowledges, "aside from a little tennis and going to ball games. He is very taken up with the new hall right now, understandably so. But he also is a very astute guy, and not just for music. Toscanini was a great conductor, but even Toscanini might not have been able to get this hall built."

The Schwarzes are also close friends with the symphony's most generous benefactors, the very private Jack and Becky Benaroya (Rosalind Poll's uncle and aunt); the Benaroyas, in fact, take on the role of affectionate local grandparents for the Schwarz children - as do Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, adored by the Schwarz kids and also among the orchestra's top donors.

Other close Schwarz buddies read like a "Who's Who" of Seattle's arts-activist community: Sam and Althea Stroum, Faye and Herman Sarkowsky, Ralph and Marlys Palumbo, Ron and Carolyn Woodard, David and Dorothy Fluke, Alec and Monica Clowes, David and Jane Davis, Lyn and Jerry Grinstein.

Although she could have a bigger performance career than she now does, Jody says what is more significant to her is "creating a balance with the people and projects that really need me. When I'm very involved in music, as I was in August when I played in the orchestra for `Der Rosenkavalier' with Jerry conducting, it's hard on the people around me. My children; my husband, fund raising for the orchestra, and the new hall - these all matter to me, not just my music."

Although the Schwarzes seldom take vacations - a cruise here, a 10-day break there - Gerard confesses he dreams of the kind of vacation he used to take as a youngster, long summers at the Jersey shore with swimming and tennis and the beach.

"What does any parent want for his children? You want it to be better for them than it was for you," says Schwarz, who nonetheless has very happy memories of a childhood with two physician parents and two older sisters.

Self-propelled from the very beginning, the future maestro started piano at 3, and later told his parents he was going to a performing-arts high school, then on to Juilliard. He was very much the young man in a hurry, and his personal life suffered; by the time he was 35, People magazine was writing about the end of his second marriage.

Now he is older, wiser, less in a hurry.

"We are including our children in our lives in a way we were never included. What other 6- and 8-year-old has had the opportunity to see `Der Rosenkavalier' twice? Gabriella wants to be a violinist; Julian tells me he wants to be a cellist or a baseball player.

"He asks me: How will I know which? And I tell him, it'll be clear to you when the time is right. You have to follow your gifts. But you keep your options open by being educated."

SCHWARZ GRABS A cup of coffee in his kitchen from a pot that always seems to be full, and heads off to the study to conduct an interview.

It's hard to imagine concentrating on a musical score in that study, with its panoramic view of the Space Needle, the mountains and the city, but Schwarz is a very focused fellow.

At the moment, he wants to play the opening of a new recording by French-horn virtuoso and longtime friend John Cerminaro, who gave Schwarz advice back when he was trying to decide whether to give up the trumpet and become a conductor.

"I loved playing the trumpet," he remembers, "and the only difficulty was the enormous pressure I put on myself to be perfect. I felt I had to be the best trumpet player in the world. I spent an incredible amount of time learning to play passages perfectly, controlling every nuance, adjusting the speed of pushing the valves down. I'd tape myself playing, and then play it back at half speed so I could hear every detail."

But the trumpet wasn't enough. Schwarz had always studied the whole orchestral score - not just his trumpet part - to get the whole picture, and he wanted to conduct. In Moscow, after a great concert on a 1976 New York Philharmonic tour, Schwarz strode alone through Red Square and pondered his future.

"I realized that I had reached the point where everything was coming together for me as a trumpet player.

"I put in my resignation, effective the following year."

If there were no new worlds to conquer with the trumpet, conducting left plenty of scope. No conductor can control a performance in the same way that a gifted instrumentalist can direct his own playing. Doesn't this bother a perfectionist?

"In performance, I hear the mistakes," Schwarz acknowledges, "but I don't really hear them. I never make faces or glare at a player who makes a mistake; I concentrate on the good things. In some ways, I think (Herbert von) Karajan's way of conducting with his eyes closed makes sense; you're not thinking about the individual moments, but about the totality of the music."

Karajan was a legend; Schwarz is well known and widely respected, but certainly not at that level of fame. For Schwarz, however, fame and career-building aren't really the point. He's much prouder of having built good orchestras: the Los Angeles Chamber Symphony, the New York Chamber Symphony, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and, most of all, the Seattle Symphony.

Hearing great results over time is more interesting to Schwarz than flitting from flower to flower; what he wants is "the creation of a beautiful and distinctive sound for the orchestra which defines the music in a new and interesting way." That takes time - at least 10 years, Schwarz believes - and it also takes talent, not only from the conductor but also from the players.

"Frankly, I think I'm already pretty famous. Here in Seattle and in New York, and in Tokyo, people know who I am. In New York, the classical radio station was playing all my records on my birthday, and I got a Happy Birthday call from James Galway in Chicago because they were doing the same thing there. I'm not famous in Berlin. But if Claudio Abbado (conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic) walked down the street in Seattle, nobody would know him either. I enjoy guest conducting, but I'm happy where I am."

THAT DOESN'T MEAN life is always easy sledding for Schwarz, who, like all conductors, must maintain a productive working relationship with his orchestra musicians and his administration, while balancing two important equations: money and power.

The conductor wants more money for the musicians ("They must and will get paid better"), and also for himself. (His Seattle salary for both the music-director job and his conducting engagements here is a reported $341,000, quite low by any reasonable standard of comparison.) At the same time, he must answer to those who raise and dispense the money (the board of trustees and the symphony administration).

Schwarz says money isn't that important personally, and he proved it a season ago by turning down an offer from another orchestra that would have doubled his Seattle salary. (For comparison, the New York Philharmonic's music director, Kurt Masur, makes a reported $1.2 million annually.)

There's the power struggle, too, with the orchestra players' committee, which not only negotiates the union contract for the musicians but also takes an important role in player auditions. Schwarz cannot hire and fire at will; nobody can.

"I'm here to bring the orchestra to a level they wouldn't reach otherwise," Schwarz says candidly. "It doesn't matter if the players like me. Conducting can't be a popularity contest; you have to make tough decisions."

Conductors often are accused of polishing their podium choreography and their images as much as they polish their musical scores. Schwarz prides himself on being a straight shooter.

"I won't put on the airs of someone I'm not. I try to act decently always. I treat the musicians with respect as long as they treat music with respect." That means no reading books at rehearsal; no phones or beepers; plenty of practice beforehand.

Then there are the critics, most of whom have been very positive in their reviews of the "warmth and vitality" of Schwarz's conducting. New York critics have sometimes chided Schwarz and his Mostly Mozart for "nonthreatening" and "bankable" programming, but this is exactly what the New York public wants to hear.

Nearly every concert this summer sold out, after an upheaval two years back when the New York Philharmonic's own "risky multicultural musical adventures" (New York magazine), in a rival music festival, pushed the Mostly Mozart into a shorter time slot in a hall controlled by the Philharmonic. The Mostly Mozart, however, refused to go quietly, and this year's reviews are among the best ever: One critic wrote, "When Mostly Mozart gets this good, complaining about the festival seems a little ungrateful."

AN OLD CHINESE proverb warns us to be careful what we wish for, because we might get it. Faced with the certain prospect at last of the long-awaited new concert hall, Schwarz admits to being a little nervous about seeing his dream come true. Classical music, by definition, is a fairly conservative enterprise, focusing mainly on music of earlier points in time. Major change, even positive change, is always an upheaval.

"The new hall is like a new child," Schwarz says. "Your responsibility is great. You have to make sure it is well educated and healthy. It matters so much."

This season will be Schwarz's 15th with the Seattle Symphony. No longer just a New York guy who just happened to spend some time in Seattle, he has become Seattle's leading man of music.

"I'll stay here as long as I continue to lead and inspire the orchestra, and as long as I'm making an artistic contribution," he says.

"The moment that ceases, I will leave. Of course, I'm not thinking about leaving now, not when we are just building a new hall. Not when there are so many great possibilities on the horizon."

One reason Schwarz likes it here is because of the community support for the arts from public figures, from Charley Royer and Booth Gardner through Norm Rice and Gary Locke. The corporate community, too, has come forward; the fact that Ron Woodard, chairman of Boeing's commercial-airplane group, is the symphony's board chairman is a source of pride.

"These people share the vision we have at the symphony - that when something is really good, that it is important and uplifting to our lives, you have to share it with the people and show them that it's there."

When you think of the high points of Schwarz's Seattle career, you think of those big symphonic moments - masterworks of Mahler, Beethoven's Ninth - where the final electrifying notes die away and Schwarz stands there on the podium for a moment before he turns to acknowledge the standing ovation.

Dripping with sweat, hair plastered flat, this is the face of a man who has seen paradise.

Melinda Bargreen is The Seattle Times music critic. Harley Soltes is Pacific Magazine's photographer.

Published Correction Date: 11/02/97 - Jody Schwarz's First Name Was Misspelled In A Photo Caption In This Story.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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