Concluding Commissions: Seattle Celebrates Gerard Schwarz’s Commitment to New Music

This year in Seattle, Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony are celebrating the music director’s final season at the helm of the orchestra by presenting 22 world premieres, including 18 new works commissioned under the banner of the Gund/Simonyi Farewell Commissions. We caught up with the maestro in advance of his final concerts of the season to chat about new music, new ideas, and not taking no for an answer. —MS


Gerard Schwarz
Photo by Ben VanHouten

Molly Sheridan: This has been a stunning year for new music in Seattle. When the 2010-11 season is over, you’ll have celebrated your farewell season with the symphony by presenting 22 world premieres. The common perception is that “new music” and “orchestra subscribers” don’t mix very well, so how are you getting away with this?

Gerard Schwarz: It is a huge honor to end my tenure as music director of this terrific orchestra with a season full of new works. It’s a testament to this great orchestra, to our adventurous audiences, and to our committed board that we could all make this happen. Of course a season with 22 world premieres couldn’t work without our history of exploring contemporary music together. Our audience in Seattle is quite remarkable. I think they really do trust my programming instincts. The music I’ve championed over these many years has, with very few exceptions, been extremely well received by audiences and critics alike. There is no question that the audience here is not fearful of new music, and I am so grateful to them for embracing so many living composers.

MS: Obviously, you’ve made supporting the work of living composers a hallmark of your career. On a personal level, where does this commitment come from? What has fueled it through the years?

GS: From the time I was quite young, I was interested in composing. When I told my parents that I wanted to be a musician, I know that they were skeptical. But my father then insisted that if I was going to devote my life to music that I must study properly and he arranged for me during my high school years to study with Paul Creston. I was already very familiar with the mainstream American composers because of my extensive LP recording collection. Composers like Schuman, Piston, Diamond, Copland, Barber, and Mennin were all very familiar to me. I first encountered Howard Hanson’s music as a student at the National Music Camp in Michigan. When I became active as an instrumentalist, both playing as a soloist in the American Brass Quintet and in most of the new music ensembles in New York in the mid ’60s, this curiosity and interest in new music was intensified. The excitement I felt in those years for new music has continued until today. With 22 world premieres in Seattle and 9 at the Eastern Music Festival this summer, this year has been without question the most exciting for me in terms of new music.


Bright Sheng, Gerard Schwarz, Gunther Schuller, and Sam Jones in Seattle
Photo by Ben VanHouten

MS: What characteristics have most attracted you to a new composer/new work? Has that changed for you in the course of the 26 years you’ve led the Seattle Symphony?

GS: I have always been interested in a clear musical voice from a composer and not much interested in a particular composer’s popularity at the moment. The actual style of music was less important to me than a discernable personality. For example, I love the music of William Schuman, Walter Piston, and David Diamond—these are all composers whose voice is distinctive and whose music speaks to me. When you look at the composers whose music I have championed over the years, I think you’ll see a consistency there.

MS: Considering the length of your relationship with the ensemble, what has kept things fresh for you artistically?

GS: I approach each work, whether I’ve conducted it once or a hundred times, with a new set of eyes and ears. For me the continued study of the great repertoire for orchestra is thrilling. Every time I conduct a standard work, I feel that I have benefited from my history with that work and I am now in a new place to take the interpretation even further. When I conduct the Seattle Symphony, we go on this journey together and I always find that these wonderful musicians are able to see each work with fresh eyes and ears. They are always willing to take music making to new heights.

Over the years, I can really see that my approach to particular works has definitely changed. I can only conduct from where I am now—I cannot go back and do something as I did 20 years ago. A piece of music becomes a part of yourself—and you have to go with where you are in your own journey and bring that to the music.

I have to say that both conductor and orchestra in this partnership have grown tremendously over these past 26 years, and so has our relationship with the audiences. We know each other well and it shows in the freedom of our music making.


Gerard Schwarz working with Gunther Schuller
Photo by Ben VanHouten

MS: Is there anything particular to the character of the communities you work in that guides the music you select to perform for them? Is playing to a house in Seattle any different from playing anywhere else?

GS: Not really, but as I’ve been in Seattle for 28 years, we must continually challenge our musicians and audiences through innovative programming as well as continuing to reevaluate the traditional repertoire. That can mean playing The Song of the Bell by Bruch or artist Dale Chihuly’s vision of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Of course it also means understanding the language of the composers of more recent music. I think it is very important for a music director to give the audience an opportunity to truly understand a contemporary composer by playing numerous works by that composer. As a music director you must believe in the composer and then give the audience the opportunity to understand his or her language. When I guest conduct, I work together with the orchestra to determine the best program and I try to understand as much as I can in advance about the uniqueness of the ensemble. I always hope to pick a program that plays to each ensemble’s greatest strengths and will make a lasting impression on their audiences.

MS: What piece of music has inspired you the most, strictly on a personal level?

GS: There is no single piece that has inspired me more than any other. Even to give a short list would end up being quite long. Yet some composers’ style or language resonate with me at different times. Lately I’ve been touched by Strauss’s harmonic language, Bruckner’s warmth and grandeur, and I am presently studying the Mahler 2nd for our final concerts; his imagination, sentimentally, and drama have been very inspiring indeed.


Photo by Yuen Li Studios

MS: In the course of your career so far, what changes in the music field in general (or the orchestra field in particular) have most challenged or distressed you?

GS: The most challenging part of our world over the past few years is no doubt the economics. There are so many wonderful artistic and educational ideas that need to be funded. This is positive in some ways because it forces you to think through your plans and be very sure and confident. Yet the constant struggle to fund these dreams can be very tiring and sometimes even difficult. Still, those who know me well see me as optimistic—I rarely take no for an answer or listen to people who tell me something is impossible. If I have a dream—like building a new concert hall or commissioning 18 composers in one season, or founding an All-Star Orchestra to bring classical music to a broader audience—I simply keep at it until I make it happen. My heart goes out to the orchestras who are struggling and I encourage those players and their communities to come together to keep the music alive and thriving for our next generation.

MS: Flipping that around, what developments have most inspired you?

GS: Though news reports concentrate on declining numbers, I know that audiences have grown in Seattle over the past 26 years—both in numbers and in musical sophistication. In addition, I am inspired by the remarkable technical capabilities of players in orchestras all over the world. I believe that one can hear a great performance from any of our major orchestras. Recently I’ve heard some concerts at Carnegie Hall in the Spring for Music Project. That festival clearly supports my feeling that any of our major orchestras can produce exquisite concerts. In summary, what inspires me is the music—giving concerts, commissioning new works, coaching young musicians, studying the masterpieces of the classic repertoire, and simply the day-to-day work in rehearsal with great musicians to keep the music alive.


GUND/SIMONYI FAREWELL COMMISSIONS

September 8 – 10, 2010: Of Paradise and Light for string orchestra by Augusta Read Thomas

September 23 – 26, 2010: The Poet’s Hour – soliloquy for violin and strings, “Reflections on Thoreau” by Joseph Schwantner

September 30, October 1 – 3, 2010: On Wings of Light by Aaron Jay Kernis

October 14 – 16, 2010: Con Gai (a greeting and farewell) by Daron Aric Hagen

October 23, 2010: Benediction for organ by Samuel Jones

November 4 – 6, 2010: Blast! by David Stock

December 7, 2010: Adieu for brass quintet and string orchestra by Bernard Rands

December 29 – 31, 2010; January 2, 2011: Prelude to Black Swan by Bright Sheng

January 6 and 8, 2011: Bagatelle: With Swing by Gunther Schuller

January 20 – 22, 2011: “Be Thou the Voice” for soprano and orchestra by Daniel Brewbaker

February 3, 5 and 6, 2011: Avanti! (Fanfare for Jerry) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

February 17 – 19, 2011: Ground O by Robert Beaser

March 24, 2011: Song of Rain for orchestra by Chen Yi

March 26, 2011: False Alarming by George Tsontakis

March 31, 2011: Canzonetta by David Schiff

April 2 and 3, 2011: Across the Span of Time by Richard Danielpour

June 2, 4 and 5, 2011: Freilach by Paul Schoenfield

June 16 and 18, 2011: Harmonium Mountain by Philip Glass