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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 conversation.

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 [chuckles].

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 music.

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 challenging work!

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 similar?

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 tradition there.

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 conductor.

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 capable hands.

N: Ive heard that something thats usually reserved for sports superstars has been used to immortalise youXa bobblehead!

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

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 opportunity.

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 and may not be reprinted without permission.


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