Schwarz opened his farewell season Saturday night

Denyce Graves

By R.M. Campbell

After nearly three decades of association with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz is saying goodbye. This season will be his last as music director, although he will return to the SSO podium in subsequent seasons as conductor laureate.

The annual gala Saturday night at Benaroya Hall, which raises several hundred thousand dollars every fall for the orchestra, was dedicated to Schwarz. The first piece, “The Human Spirit,” was written by him, and the second, a cello concerto written by the SSO composer-in-residence Samuel Jones, was performed by Schwarz’ son Julian. The closing work, a suite taken from Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” was arranged by Schwarz. The only piece on the program which did not bear any involvement with Schwarz, except as a conductor, was Mahler’s song cycle “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.”

Of course, that kind of programming was an act of pure indulgence for Schwarz. But after 28 years, and his enormous contributions to the organization, why not? Certainly, no one in the dressy crowd seemed to mind. The capacity house was wildly enthusiastic about nearly everything with standing ovations a commonplace. Even for a city that is promiscuous with standing ovations, these were appropriate for the occasion. Schwarz’s tenure has been a long journey from the sometimes dark, early days when the symphony barely had the money to turn on the lights to its glossy presence in Benaroya Hall. The accumulated deficit of some $4.45 million seemed in the background, for once. The evening was an appropriate tribute to Schwarz.

All sorts of other tributes have been planned,with something like 18 new works commissioned by Agnes Gund, former president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an important art collector and fixture in the international art world, and Charles Simonyi, whose fortune comes from Microsoft and is a key supporter of the Schwarz and the symphony. Although Augusta Read Thomas’ “Of Paradise and Light” was given its premiere during the Beethoven and Wine Festival last week, there was nothing at the gala from that series. There were enough premieres as is. The next work from that set of commissions will be Joseph Schwantner’s “The Early Hour — Reflections on Thoreau” Sept 23-26.

Galas are galas designed to give pleasure and raise money. This particularly American custom is rarely an ordinary night. There are always high expectations from patrons who, in general, paid a lot of money for their seats. When people arrived in the concert hall itself, the stage was jammed packed with instrumentalists and singers of different generations. The guest ensembles, at Benaroya, for “The Human Spirit” comprised the Northwest Boychoir, the young women of Vocalpoint Seattle, Seattle Girls’ Choir and Northwest Girlchoir Amore.

“The Human Spirit” is an expansive work, not necessarily what many would program for an opening work. Schwarz devised a rich tonal palette for the singers. The work does not move quickly or with much assertiveness. It is slow moving. That is its virtue and deficit. The work could use greater variety of material, but that said it offers many opportunities for the singers to display that vocal attributes.

Jones has written a number of concertos for the symphony that featured SSO musicians as the soloists. They were generally larger pieces in scope than the cello concerto which is in several movements but played without a pause. It a virtuosic work of considerable drama and even theatricality. Schwarz played with decisiveness, musicality and a varied tone. He may be young — he is a student at the Colburn School in Los Angeles — but he possess considerable maturity and inevitably a huge technique. Schwarz has been given many opportunities to perform — far more than most musicians his age — and so he seems to be a veteran on the stage. That sophistication spilled over into the performance itself. Jones is always deft in finding a means by which an instrument’s potential can be expressed. I wish, in this concerto, he had found time for more lyricism. It would have been a good contrast to the rest of the piece.

The rest of the program was familiar fare. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves was the soloist in Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer.” At one time she had a voluptuousness to her voice. That seems to have disappeared. The voice was often edgy and had little bloom at the top. However, she is an experienced singer and made the most of her resources. The Mahler was an excellent display piece for her. “Rosenkavalier” always pleases audiences, either in the full-opera version or in a suite for orchestra. I am not sure why Schwarz did a new arrangement, but it works well enough and should travel readily. He has proven insights into Strauss and so this new version sang with an authentic voice. The orchestra played well all night.

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