An American Champion – Gerard Schwarz interviewed by Jeremy Siepmann

January 18, 2011
Gerard Schwarz
Gerard Schwarz
Photo: Yuen Lui Studio

Like many people of a certain age, I first knew Gerard Schwarz as a trumpeter—one of the best in the business: a stunning virtuoso with an uncommonly wide expressive and stylistic range. Whatever the period, he seemed at home in it. Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary, you name it. He was not only brilliantly gifted but clearly well-informed. When he moved into the world of conducting, few can have been surprised. Since those days, back in the 60s, he has been associated with many orchestras, on both sides of the Atlantic (he was Music Director of Britain’s Liverpool Philharmonic from 2001 to 2006, and has appeared at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Orchestre National de France, to name only a few). The greatest monument to his achievements, however, is the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which he leaves this year after a tenure of a quarter of a century. In that time he has transformed the orchestra into a world-class ensemble and raised the subscription base from 5,000 to a staggering 35,000 subscribers. Now 63, he can look back on a lifetime rich in memories. What, musically speaking, I wondered, were his earliest?

‘Oh, there are so many! My parents were Austrian and they came to the United States in 1939. And I was born in 1947. We lived in a house that I can only describe as a Viennese home in the middle of Weehawken, New Jersey. The way it was decorated, the way it was laid out, the way music was a central part of our existence. On Sundays, my father would take me down to our very elegant basement, and play recordings to me, Beethoven symphonies mostly. This was when I was three and four years old. We also had a country house, and a 1951 Buick, in which we would listen, wherever we traveled, to WQXR, which was the main music station in New York. So classical music was pretty near always there. My parents both played the piano, and they took us to the ballet, to the opera, to the symphony…and my sisters and I all started playing the piano when we were five. We were a very lucky family in that regard.’

And at what stage did he realise that a musician was what he had to be? ‘When I was 12, and already an avid trumpet player, I went to a summer music camp, called Interlochen, and the first important piece we played was the Sibelius Second Symphony. Playing first trumpet in the finale was the most extraordinary experience of my life up to that time. By the end of the summer I knew I simply had to become a professional. At that point I was focused entirely on becoming an orchestral trumpet player. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I started conducting, and not until after I joined the New York Philharmonic, aged 24, that I really began to take it seriously. Joining the Philharmonic was my dream come true. And what an opportunity to learn! The orchestra became my unofficial academy. I studied very closely what all the conductors did—their movements, what they said, what worked, what didn’t work, I studied everything about them—especially Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein and Erich Leinsdorf, the conductors who influenced me the most.

‘These, of course, were three very different conductors. Boulez was just a joy to watch. He was extremely meticulous, he had great ears, a marvelous sense of balance, a fantastic ear for intonation and for rhythm. He made very complex works very clear, and the clarity made them sparkle. He was also very respectful—both demanding and easy-going—and he allowed players to do their stuff, to really express themselves, which was great. Bernstein, of course, was one of the most charismatic people who ever lived, even if he was just walking into a room. He always made you feel like he was there just for you. It was very personal. And the music making was very personal too: not very intellectual, but tremendously heartfelt, very deep in its emotional reality. Bernstein always let orchestral players know that they were important people. He made everyone feel that they really mattered. Leinsdorf was the real intellectual of the three, especially where classical repertory was concerned. That’s not to say that Boulez isn’t an intellectual—he is—but Leinsdorf really knew every note, every rest, from Bach to Mahler and beyond—he seemed to know everything. If you asked about the metronome marking in the March in the Beethoven Ninth, he could immediately tell you what it was, what it should be, why it was a misprint and so on.’

Beethoven himself, of course, was unavailable for comment. The same can not be said of many of the composers Schwarz has championed. Did his celebrated promotion of American composers, very many of them living, arise quite by chance, or did he make a principled decision to fly the flag? ‘I made a very definite decision. As I mentioned earlier, I was brought up in a very Austrian way in a very American place. Though I was born in the United States I had this tremendous pull towards the Germanic classics. At the same time, particularly being a trumpet player, I was interested in new music and was lucky enough to be involved with many of the great living composers. I’m old enough to have been a friend of Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, and to have studied with Paul Creston, Milton Babbitt, Jacob Druckman and Vincent Persichetti. Gunther Schuller is a close friend, as was David Diamond. So when I came to Seattle in 1985, I made a determined effort to promote not only these composers but such masters as William Schuman, Walter Piston and Howard Hanson, whose music at that time was being almost completely ignored, thanks to the rise of the avant-garde, and of serialism. Their more conservative music wasn’t just neglected but actually looked down on.’

But that was then. Why does Hanson, in particular, still need championing today? ‘Part of the problem, I think, is that during the period of Hanson’s greatest compositions, the 40s and 50s, he made a practice of conducting his own pieces all the time. This was a great mistake. Because composers need champions. They need full-time conductors to promote and disseminate their works. If you look at all those composers who conducted their own works more than anyone else, you find that they got very few performances by other conductors, because their own performances were naturally regarded as definitive. It wasn’t until after they died that other conductors really took up their works, which are now being performed, I’m pretty sure, more than ever before. On the whole we in America have been the followers of European traditions. One result is that even crusading conductors like Koussevitzky, who was the greatest champion of modern and contemporary music in his time, confined their championing of American composers to American audiences. When they traveled to Europe, they almost invariably conducted European repertoire. True, Bernstein in 1976 toured an American programme in Europe, but there again, the fact that it was an all-American programme somehow served to isolate the music from the mainstream. But it had already been isolated by changes in taste. By 1960, even earlier, Stravinsky had adopted the serial system of composition, everyone was more interested in that, and in aleatoric aspects of music, etc. They were no longer interested in the kind of well grounded, well structured symphonies that Hanson wrote. It was almost like there wasn’t time for his music to gain a following because we had moved on, and become interested in other things. Since then, though, two recording companies in particular have made a major contribution the fortunes of American music. First came Delos, and now we have Naxos, who have helped a huge amount. What Naxos is doing with their American series is really tremendous. Fantastic. Still, what we really need is for everybody to be doing it.’

How, I wondered, would Schwarz ‘place’ Hanson for the music-lover unfamiliar with his works? ‘To me he’s really a composer who comes mainly from the tradition of Sibelius. The music is tuneful, beautiful, often gorgeous, and very well constructed; it certainly has some flaws, but then so does most music. The first three symphonies in particular I think are masterpieces, and Lux Aeterna, the choral piece, is wonderful. Every piece he wrote, without exception, is finely crafted and enjoyable to listen to. Some are greater than others, no question, but there’s nothing anyone should be afraid of. It’s really all quite beautiful.’

And was he a masterly composer for the orchestra? ‘I don’t think of him as a great orchestrator, in the class of Stravinsky, Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, but he was a very good one. His combination of big brass, rich strings and soaring horns is very effective, and it became a trademark of film music, particularly of the John Williams variety. His influence on film composers was actually far greater than most people realize.’

From Hanson, our conversation turned naturally to the subject of Schwarz’s next release for Naxos: Rimsky-Korsakov—one of those household names who remain more known about than known. Does Schwarz consider him underrated? ‘I do now. But I didn’t always. In my early years I thought he wrote a couple of good pieces and that was that. I certainly didn’t think much of the operas I’d looked at. In recent years, though I’ve come to feel that there’s something really quite extraordinary in his music. It tends to be a bit repetitious on occasion (a little like Hanson, actually) but it’s full of youthful fire, beautiful tone painting, and wonderful orchestration. Because of the series of I’m doing now for Naxos, I’ve fallen in love again with Sheherazade. When I was growing up, that was one of the staples of the repertoire and I had every recording of it ever made, or so it seemed at the time. It still crops up pretty regularly, of course, but nothing like as much as it used to. And the Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture are wonderful pieces. I love them. What I’ve really gotten to appreciate now are the overtures to some of the operas, and some of the operatic suites. The best of these are absolutely sensational. Tsar Saltan, which is on the first release, is a knockout—full of imagination, colour, and beauty. I’m now wondering seriously about the operas in general. Maybe they’re better than we’ve all given them credit for. After all, when I was growing up everybody said that Robert Schumann couldn’t orchestrate, which is outrageously untrue. So received opinion isn’t always to be trusted. I really want to have a look at those operas.’

And what of the works in his latest release? ‘Well, it is the first in a series of three of favourite Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral works in surround sound. We will have the famous ones, Sheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol and Russian Easter; we have Dubinushka, which I love, the Overture on Russian Themes, the May Night Overture, the Maid of Pskov overture, which is absolutely delightful, the Mlada Suite, The Golden Cockerel Suite, and the Snow Maiden Suite. One album is devoted entirely to overtures, and I’m very excited about them all quite frankly.’

Gerard Schwarz is much more than a music lover. He is deeply convinced that music matters, that it affects us fundamentally. Does he, though, believe that it has a moral dimension? Can music actually make one a better person? ‘Absolutely! But not inevitably. If you listen to Beethoven it won’t necessarily make you a better person. Hitler, after all, was a great lover of Beethoven, and it certainly didn’t make him a better person. Wagner was violently anti-Semitic, but he wrote great music. On the other hand, music can have a transforming effect. Not on everyone, but on many, many people. I have a friend, a recovering alcoholic, whose salvation lies in music. I also remember one very poignant article in our local newspaper a couple of years ago, about a mechanic who was a real beer-guzzling, tough character. Every morning on the way to work he listened to heavy metal rock music, and he always arrived at work angry—that’s just the way he was (I’m not blaming the hard rock music). And one day, he was hanging around at a bar after work and he met this lovely woman, and was immediately taken with her. But she was different from him in almost every way. Among other things, she loved classical music. He was so knocked out by her that he decided to listen to classical music. So he set the car radio every day to the classical music station here in Seattle, and he noticed after about a month of this that he was no longer screaming at work. He wasn’t so angry any more. He started dating her and they actually went to some home music classes—and it changed his whole life. In every way. He was still a mechanic, he still did his job; but his personality had altered. Even his friends were different now. Classical music had obviously had a huge effect on him in a very positive way. Well that’s a very simplistic story, but it can happen. It can happen to all of us. You can be touched in a way that lifts you onto another plane in life. And yes, you can be a better person for it.’

In this, as in so much else, musicians may count themselves among the luckiest people in the world. Gerard Schwarz has no doubts at all on that score.

Gerard Schwarz Biography & Discography