Meeting Kenneth Schermerhorn
Insights from the conductor as he wrestles Beethoven,
Beach, and the game of tennis
What would you envision a conductor to be like? When
Kenneth Schermerhorn is the conductor in question, you might be surprised. In
some ways he is exactly as you may have imaginedXpassionate about his craft,
eminently knowledgeable, a commanding presence. His extensive background, numerous
appearances at Carnegie Hall, glowing New York Times reviews, and the countless
luminaries with whom he has collaborated all lend credence to that view.
Yet in other respects, the
maestro would likely be a delightful surprise. He is gracious, deliberate,
warm, and conveys a generous spirit--all the more reason he would be a person
we believe you would greatly enjoy meeting if you had the opportunity. We
recently had that distinct privilege and invite you to listen in on the
Naxos: As you complete
your second decade with The Nashville Symphony, of what are you most proud?
Kenneth Schermerhorn: Certainly I
would have to say the growth of the orchestra in the twenty years I have been
involved. When I arrived in Nashville, it was a very good community orchestra
that rehearsed evenings. It has grown into a really excellent ensemble that has
eighty-four full-time musicians. It's a splendid orchestra now, as we have
demonstrated on tour and in Carnegie Hall. I am especially proud of our
recordings with Naxos. They're quite varied and very challenging music.
N: Yes, Charles Ives is
certainly not for the faint of heart!
KS: Yes, the Browning Overture
in particular would fit into that category, but I think the Symphony No. 2
is quite accessible. The Browning Overture takes a bit more patience
N: We know about your
early years that provided your musical development: your background with the
7th Army Symphony, and your time with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. But
prior to all of that, what inspired you back in your small town of Schenectady,
New York to pursue music?
KS: Well, not only is Schenectady a
small town--well, perhaps a small city is a better way to put itXbut also, when
I grew up, it was at the time of the depths of the great slump. The depression
was worldwide in the thirties. But oddly enough, there were opportunities. The
machines that were put in place to employ out-of-work artists, musicians, and
dancers were really quite a beneficial aspect of my youth. We had free training
and lessons and also the use of musical instruments, which helped me make great
progress. Also, at the time there was the utter magic of radio. Every network
had an orchestra in those days: the NBC Symphony Orchestra with Arturo
Toscanini; the City Service Gasoline Company had an orchestra; Bell Telephone
had an orchestra; WOR in New York had an orchestra; the Longines Watch Company
had an orchestra; and so on. It was really quite remarkable. Every day of the
week there was something extraordinary on the radio, and it captivated me. My
first response as a child was to dance, and to dance wildly. Of course, there
were very few opportunities to pursue dance professionally, and besides, my
father had been a professional football player in the Canadian American
football league at one time, and I think he would have taken a rather dim view
of the dance [smiles].
N: But you eventually
incorporated something of the dance into your career anyway, what with your
time with Baryshnikov and the American Ballet Theatre.
KS: Yes, I did. At any rate, I got
bitten by this desire to be involved in some way, in any way, to participate in
N: I know our readers are very interested in the upcoming
slate of Naxos releases from the Nashville Symphony. Your newest release
features works by Amy Beach. She had quite a career as a performer, and a
significant output of very interesting works. After nearly fifty years of
obscurity, to what would you attribute the resurgence of interest in her music?
KS: Well, she's not alone in this.
Much of the music of the turn of the century in America was overlooked. She's a
remarkable woman, at a time when there were very few women performers and
precious few composers.
N: And she was
apparently largely self-taught as a composer.
KS: Yes, but very, very gifted. I
think the symphony and the piano concerto on this particular CD are both startling
in their grasp of form and shape, and certainly their virtuosity. The piano
part and the orchestra parts are certainly not lacking in virtuosity.
N: It would seem that
Beethovens Missa Solemnis, which was recently recorded by the Symphony and will
be released by Naxos in 2004, is a very difficult work to perform, as well.
KS: Yes, it's a challenge. I've only
done it a half dozen times in my life and it is extremely challenging, like the
north face of the Eiger. It's fiercely difficult and every part is difficult.
The entire orchestra is challenged, and certainly the chorus is challenged.
It's a mighty work, and then of course the solo voices are also very demanding.
The work itself is mature Beethoven and is so extremely well-fashioned. Its
very, very touching in some places and in others so extremely forceful. It's a
whole gamut of emotions.
N: And Beethoven was so passionate
about it, although he didn't need to complete it for any pressing professional
use. And he labored it over so long. It's such a beautiful and mighty work.
KS: But once he did complete it, he
was so proud of it he wanted it to be performed all over the place. When he
would hear that plans were being made to perform his Ninth Symphony, he
would essentially say "please don't play my Ninth Symphony, please
play the Missa Solemnis." Its really a tremendous work.
N: Another release hitting
many stores later this fall is Elliott Carters Piano Concerto.
KS: Now that's a
N: My goodness, yes. I have heard it
described in many ways; from antagonistic to cerebral to "there's no good
way to explain or express this work, you just need to experience it". What
is your take?
KS: I have done it a
couple of times before and actually, my friend Charles Rosen thinks it is, along
with the Second Concerto of Brahms, one of the two most difficult pieces
in the repertory. Mark Wait is a brilliant pianist and a very refined performer
of contemporary music. Hes so well versed in it. He and I spent a total of
probably forty hours together, just the two of us, working through the notions
that we felt the piece was trying to convey. There are extraordinary tempo
relationships throughout the piece and the style is really hard and very
challenging to grasp. It IS cerebral, but on the other hand it is very
emotional. It's that battle between Apollo and Dionysus that keeps going on
constantly in this piece. I have not yet heard the first rendition from the
recording session from the engineers, and I'm very anxious to hear it. I think
it will be quite different from the other extant recordings still available.
The rest of the CD contains two earlier works of Elliott Carter. They are much
more accessible music, but are difficult in their own way. I think juxtaposed
you'll be able to see a great alteration in his musical thinking.
N: I think I might know the answer
here, but do you have a favorite composer to conduct? I'm guessing Sibelius
because of your reputation as a Sibelius specialist.
KS: Well, I was the
recipient of the Sibelius Medal from the Finnish government for the first
American performance of Kullervo which
precedes the Symphony Number 1. It's a huge work for men's chorus,
soloists, and orchestra. And I really do love the symphonies of Sibelius.
However, every conductor that I know is challenged to the nth degree by the
orchestral works of Beethoven. I do think that Beethoven is the greatest
composer that ever lived. For sheer conducting enjoyment, something I would
liken to eating macadamia nuts, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler are a
conductor's delight. And I enjoy selected works of Richard Strauss, and the
Schumann symphonies, and the Brahms symphonies and the great works of Igor
Stravinsky. To conduct Pétrouchka or the Rite of Spring, these are some of the
extraordinary pleasures of life.
N: How does preparation
for a recording differ as compared to a performance, or are they somewhat
KS: Well, they are
somewhat similar. In a recording you want to be as meticulous and clear in the
presentation of the pieces as possible. In a performance, of course, you cannot
go back over it. In a recording, you know that it's possible to fix something.
However, my goal in recording has always been to do as long segments as you
can. The goal is to get continuity and fluidity, to get the emotion up and
running and sustained so that it doesn't get interrupted by the insertion of a
bar here and two bars there. So that's what I try to do, and that's what the
engineers that I really love to work with like to do as well. If one is going to
make a recording, the idea is to make it as much a live performance as
possible. If something goes wrong or you feel it can be better in places, then
it's judicious to perhaps make some insertions.
N: You have traveled
the world and conducted on most of the major continents. Do you have any
favorite destinations to share with our readers?
KS: Well, you know, as
a ballet conductor, thats all we did was travel. In those days it was the
battle of the cultures, so to speak. Eastern Europeans used to travel the
entire world and the American Ballet Theatre was sponsored by the State
Department to tour all over the world, as were other groups. I always found the
audiences in Eastern Europe so very, very warm and welcoming.
N: There's such a
KS: Yes, and of course
they have, it would seem, the greatest thirst for the dance. The dance seems to
be an integral part of their existence so the audience was always rapturous and
warm. I have never been back to Eastern Europe as a symphony conductor and it
was always something I wanted to do. I never really found the time, because
I've had a number of posts and I take them very seriously as compared to just
leaping around. I have tried to stay put and exert energy to my previous posts
in New Jersey, Westchester, Milwaukee, and Hong Kong, as well as especially
these last twenty years here in Nashville. They've taken up a great deal of my
time. But yes, I have guest conducted in a great many places, and I don't know
if I could say have a favorite spot. I've enjoyed life immensely as a
N: Ive heard that you
enjoy tennis when you have time off the podium.
KS: Yes, I'm an avid
tennis player. I took up the game as an adult. I still take tennis lessons from
time to time and enjoy the game immensely. I'm not sure if I'm capable of
playing aggressive singles anymore as of just last week when I tore a little
cartilage in my right knee; Ill have to have a bit of arthroscopic surgery to
correct things. In the last half-dozen years I've taken up golf which makes
everything else in life seem somewhat easy [smiles]. I was running quite
actively as well. I've run a couple of marathons. I enjoy jogging, and feel
that it treats me well, too. It always leaves me with a bit of euphoria.
N: Are there any
younger musicians or folks that you are mentoring in the tradition of what
Leonard Bernstein did for you? Or ones that you are encouraged or inspired by?
KS: Leonard Bernstein
was my mentor, my guide, my teacher, and my inspiration. He wasn't my only
teacher, but he was certainly the most memorable and created the most lasting
impressions. I find that the upcoming generation of musicians, just as the
upcoming generation of basketball players or baseball players, in most cases
far exceeds the earlier generations. I find them really extraordinary. I mean,
they play faster and louder and softer than ever before, and there seems to be
such a plethora of talent in the world. I never cease to be impressed whenever
we have auditions here in Nashville when we are looking for an instrumentalist.
We get so many applications and for the most part they are all such gifted
players. Certainly the young crop of solo violinists, pianists, and cellists
are just so uniformly gifted, which is not in any way to denigrate the great
talents of the Casals, Heifetzes, and the Kreislers of the past, but they are
just so extraordinary. In a way, Im envious, but in a way its such a great
comfort that the arts are in good shape, that culture is falling into such
N: Ive heard that
something thats usually reserved for sports superstars has been used to immortalise
KS: Have you seen one?
N: Ive seen pictures
of them, but not the actual item.
KS: [smiles] Well, let
me get one! Just a minute. [Despite the torn cartilage in his knee, KS quickly
leaves the room for a bit before I can stop him, and returns with the item in
question.] (For a picture of
the bobblehead, visit https://www.nashvillesymphony.org)
N: What a wonderful
idea. When I saw the photo, I knew this would be a fun interview.
KS: The head not only
bobbles, but the arm holding the baton does as well so it conducts.
N: Thats great, I love it.
Whats next for the
Symphony? It seems there is so much going on. I hear theres a new Schermerhorn
Concert Hall coming soon.
KS: The concert
hall is simply magical. The idea that were going to build an edifice for the
next three hundred years is really remarkable. The groundbreaking is coming in
December, and it will open in the fall of 2006. The architecture is glorious.
Its very classical, and we have such competent people involved. It has the
possibility of being the best concert hall in the world. The whole prospect is
absolutely thrilling. And the fact that it is going to bear my name is even more
overwhelming. Im sure I have never done anything deserving such an accolade.
N: If we disagree with
that statement, I hope youll be comfortable with that!
KS: [smiles] Well,
thats what is on the horizon. In the near term, my next concert with the orchestra
is an all-Russian program that will feature the Fifteenth Symphony of Dmitri
Shostakovich: a grand piece, and like the last quartets and all the major
works, very autobiographical. He is presenting himself, writing his own musical
autobiography, including a signature. He always signs them with DSCH (i.e.,
DVE flatVCVB) which is quite an identifiable series of four notes.
N: And lots more Beethoven.
KS: And yes, lots more
Beethoven. We are presenting a Beethoven festival this summer that promises to
be quite remarkable. Im also going to take some time off this summer and write
some music, which Ive been meaning to do for some time but not had the
N: Do you have some
commissions coming up, or are you writing for your own pleasure?
KS: No, these
particular works I have planned arent commissions. I do often write for
particular situations, for a celebration or other special event. However, this
is a project that isnt for a particular event, but thats been rolling around
in my mind for some years now. Im finally going to get around to addressing
it; more than that, I cant say right now.
N: I understand, and well wait for
their debut with baited breath! I do appreciate your time today, thanks again.
KS: Well, thank you!
The Nashville Symphony
conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn will appear to millions of viewers on the
American cable channel A & E as a part of the U.S. Independence Day
celebration on July 4th. Replacing the Boston Pops annual special as it
moves to CBS, the symphonys program will be broadcast live from Nashville, Tennesseee,
USA from 7:00pm V 9:00pm, and will include music legend Brian Wilson, country
music artist LeAnn Womack, and soul pioneer Rev. Al Green.
The symphonys recording
of Amy Beachs Piano Concerto currently is available in Europe and spent
several weeks on the UK classical charts. The album will be released in
the U.S. on June 17, 2003. Other Naxos releases by the Nashville Symphony
include works by Ives, Hanson, and Chadwick, plus the critically-acclaimed
recording of Leonard Bernsteins West Side Story.
Interview by Lorrell Holtz-Oxley,
May 2003. This interview is the property of Naxos.com and may not be
reprinted without permission.