Schwarz bids farewell to SSO

By R.M. Campbell

When Gerard Schwarz first came to Seattle, in 1983, he was not going to stay. Music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, he was about to launch himself in the world of major orchestras. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra must have seemed like dull pickings. But no other invitations were immediately forthcoming, so he stayed, then stayed even longer, becoming music director two years later. Seattle was a good place to learn repertory one wouldn’t ordinarily learn conducting a chamber orchestra: The city was out of the glare of the major leagues. The eighties drifted into the nineties and the 21st century.

There were good years and bad years, and Schwarz found himself in the press a lot. The Seattle he found became a more sophisticated place and sometimes the center of national attention. He came to Seattle pretty much an unknown conductor, a brilliant trumpet player who abandoned his instrument for the podium, and earned an international reputation on a wide variety of fronts. There were dozens of recordings, dozens of commissions and new works, the canon worked and reworked, multiple tours. Musicians came and went. Instead of the tired, overbooked and acoustically poor Opera House at Seattle Center, a brand-new concert complex downtown was built comprising a handsome concert hall, acoustically honest and clear, and an intimate recital hall. Schwarz had a hand in every aspect of the hall, including raising millions of dollars from people who admired and adored him. Along the way he transformed the orchestra from an pedestrian one to a superb one.

The long trip on the podium, one of the longest in history, came to an end this weekend, with University Street, between Second and Third avenues, the southern border of Benaroya, renamed Schwarz Place, and Mahler’s emotionally extravagant “Resurrection” Symphony. When Schwarz was first trying out his skills on the podium, he ended nearly every season with either a Mahler or Bruckner symphony. At first they were somewhat chaotic, then they got substantially better. Eventually he worked his way through both sets of symphonies and then reworked some of them several times; He never lost his taste for them. Neither have we.

With an enlarged orchestra, pairs of choruses and soloists (soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) , Schwarz provided a reading that was vast in scale and generous in its emotions. Any performance should have a “spiritual uplift” and the reading Thursday night did. Schwarz never indulged in extremes in Mahler, seeking a middle road in which the composer’s ideas were given center stage, perhaps even restraint. There was a great flow to the phrases and a lyrical underpinning to many. Those movements that should have been charming were charming. This was a moving goodbye, one of peace and serenity and hope. The brasses were uniformly exemplary

Also on the program were a new Philip Glass — “Harmonium Mountain” — and Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Overture. The Glass was pleasant but uneventful and the Schubert predictably melodious. next

While the concert might seem a farewell to Schwarz the conductor, it is only Schwarz the music director. He will be back season and several more to follow. He leaves a great legacy.

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2 thoughts on “Schwarz bids farewell to SSO

  1. Many Seattle musicians would disagree with you. And we are glad to see him go. If you’ve played, even subbed with Gerry, you know what I’m talking about.

  2. R.M. tends to “tow the line” and be very supportive of the arts scene, no matter the politics. A good thing. That said, whether or not one harbors ill will against Gerry, it’s time for some fresh blood and some new ideas for the orchestra. It will be a lively time — and great for the Seattle arts scene!

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