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Sunday, September 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Conductor Gerard Schwarz looks back at two decades on the podium

Seattle Times music critic

Classical music

Seattle Symphony Opening Night Gala


Gerard Schwarz celebrates his 20th season as the Seattle Symphony music director in a gala program. .7 p.m. Saturday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle, $26-$375 (206-215-4747 for tickets, 206-215-4834 for party options).

When the house lights go down at Benaroya Hall on Saturday night, the stars will come out.

Jane Eaglen, Vinson Cole, Garrick Ohlsson, Gary Graffman, Lorin Hollander, Elmar Oliveira: two singers, three pianists and a violinist, all highly respected fixtures in the classical firmament. They'll join the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Gerard Schwarz, in an opening-night gala celebrating Schwarz's 20 years in that job.

For two decades, Schwarz has been Seattle's official man of music. He has donated his time, both as conductor and speaker, to countless fund-raisers, commemorative concerts, community music groups and educational events. He conducted at the KeyArena opening in 1995, and at the city's Safeco Field Mozart Requiem commemorating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Schwarz has become the symbol of classical music for this region.

Schwarz also has taken the Seattle Symphony on a great leap forward, not only in terms of artistic quality but also community standing. This is the orchestra for which Seattle's leaders, financiers and voters built Benaroya Hall; this is the orchestra that earned a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall last April.

But the past year, the Seattle Symphony's centennial season, has definitely not been one long ovation. Schwarz has weathered his share of crises, most of them centered around his "other" orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (which Schwarz will leave after the end of his contract in 2006). Just last month, a little bombshell arrived in The New York Times, when a critic slammed Schwarz for his tenure (which ended in 2001) at that city's Mostly Mozart Festival.

"It's been quite a year," says the maestro in a masterpiece of understatement. It's a year that included Schwarz's nomination by President Bush to the National Council on the Arts, and his leadership role in the 50-CD recording project for the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music — but also its share of challenges.

Twenty years in Seattle

It is impossible to overstate the level of excitement in Seattle's arts community when Schwarz agreed to become the symphony music director 20 years ago. Then in his mid-30s and so boyish-looking that he would be described as a "rising young conductor" for another decade, Schwarz was one of the hottest podium properties around.

After a stellar career as a trumpeter, both in the principal chair at the New York Philharmonic and as a solo recording artist, Schwarz took up the baton and quickly rose to prominence. He earned early fame as a music director from coast to coast, from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to the Mostly Mozart Festival, plus the Waterloo Festival of New Jersey and the New York Chamber Symphony (which Schwarz founded in 1977). He was winning national music awards, featured on music-magazine covers, lauded as an up-and-comer in People magazine.

Orchestra musicians are never unanimous about anything, but there was a surprisingly high anecdotal approval rating for Schwarz upon his arrival here. Musicians praised everything from his rehearsal technique to musical insight, and all around the community, the same fear was voiced: When would he leave Seattle for the next big thing? No one expected him to stay.

But Schwarz put down roots in Seattle, with his flutist wife, Jody, and two new youngsters to join his two children from an earlier marriage. Along with the couple's musical expertise came a level of social skills rarely seen in the orchestra business: The Schwarzes drew a circle of high-powered and generous friends, some of whom (particularly the Benaroyas, Stroums and Rubinsteins) became as close as family members.

"When Jerry came to Seattle, many people thought the orchestra might not be around for long" because of shaky finances, says Peter Donnelly, president of ArtsFund.

"He promised the orchestra's sound would be better, the musicians' lot would be better, and the new hall would be great. That's all true. The revitalization of that orchestra is due to the maestro and his wife, who are a wonderful pair for this town — a sort of golden couple for the arts. They are both such community champions for music."

Twenty years is a rather long tenure in a symphony orchestra, though it is by no means unusual (Eugene Ormandy, for example, was the Philadelphia Orchestra's music director for 42 years; many other conductors have enjoyed multidecade tenures at major orchestras). Schwarz is approaching the long timespan enjoyed by Milton Katims, whose ouster after 22 years by a board coup d'etat in 1976 caused a schism in Seattle's music community that still resonates.

Of course any conductor who leads an orchestra for two decades opens himself up to charges of stagnation, or at least predictability. And it is no secret that Schwarz has his detractors as well as his admirers, among the orchestra players, board members and concertgoers. Scratch almost any symphony-orchestra family around the world, and you will find ripples of discontent. But no one who heard the Seattle Symphony on tour last spring, with its standing ovation in Carnegie Hall, can doubt that it has improved mightily in 20 years.

Mostly Mozart

Schwarz already has demonstrated he knows when to walk out. He resigned his post at the Mostly Mozart after nearly 20 years, and a season finale that culminated in a Prime Time Emmy nomination (for the televised Mozart Requiem of 2001), because he felt he had "achieved everything I could within the available possibilities. My pulse felt the situation was turning."

Schwarz says he had wanted to do many new things, including "staged Mozart operas with great casts and conductors," but his plans were turned down by Lincoln Center. Still, over two decades he had expanded the festival repertoire, taken the orchestra on the road for regular residencies in venues from the Kennedy Center to Tokyo's Bunkamura, and launched the festival's near-annual televised appearances on "Live From Lincoln Center."

That's why many were surprised to read the Aug. 5 New York Times, where critic Anthony Tommasini landed a retrospective jab at Schwarz ("He lacked a compelling artistic vision and was too limited as a conductor") in the middle of a review of the new director's concert.

A subsequent phone call to Tommasini gave him the opportunity to amplify.

"He was a perfectly solid conductor, a solid musician, and was dedicated to Mostly Mozart," said Tommasini of Schwarz, "but it was clear pretty early on that the festival was starting to seem tired. It was not the best that New York City could do, to come up with a festival on Mozart ... familiar works, familiar soloists, not much for me to write about. [Schwarz] tried some things and resisted some things.

"He's an energetic guy, but I'm not sure Mostly Mozart was a forum that brought out his best. If you're going to do the staples, you have to come up with something to say about them, and I think his limitations were more as an interpreter. He is much more fired up discovering [Walter] Piston symphonies and new American music, with a real sense of mission."

The future in Seattle

In Seattle, Schwarz says he feels the situation is very different from that at Mostly Mozart.

"When you look at what we've accomplished here," he says, "I think the potential for the orchestra becoming still greater is very strong. The hall was the first great step, and we have made strides. But musically and technically, and in terms of [outside] perception, we still have a lot to achieve. We still have some ensemble issues; our players need to play together as a string quartet does."

Schwarz points to Saturday's gala, and concerts with a new work by composer Paul Schoenfield (Sept. 16-19), as highlights of the opening weeks. There will be several Mozart symphonies this season, plus his Requiem, along with big orchestral works of Mahler and Bruckner. Later, the orchestra will announce a spring festival of American music.

"Fortunately, we now have a team at the top that is very strong. Paul (Meecham, the new executive director) has an artistic dedication that is quite rare. Patty Isacson Sabee (development director) is another wonderful supporter. And we have Ron Woodard coming in to lead the board of directors. This is a great team, and a great time for our orchestra."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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