The “Resurrection” Ends an Era:Music Director Gerard Schwarz Steps Down after 26 Years.

Mahler, Schubert, and Glass: Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Angela Meade (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 16-18.6.2011 (BJ)

Two fine performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony brought Gerard Schwarz’s 26-year tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony to an appropriately glorious conclusion. Thursday 16 June was a particularly busy day for the conductor: a few hours before that evening’s concert, in a ceremony in the Benaroya Hall Garden of Remembrance, representatives of the Seattle city council and the orchestra management officially bestowed the name “Gerard Schwarz Place” on the block of University Street adjacent to Benaroya Hall.

I’ve only attended two previous street-namings, both in Philadelphia: one was for Bach, and the other was for Schubert – when you add Schwarz, not a bad trio! Not many musicians, at least living ones in the classical field, are afforded such an honor. But with all he has achieved through 26 years of musical progress, the Maestro deserves it. Along with a fine concert hall that wouldn’t have existed without his vision and drive, and an orchestra that can now stand proudly with the best in the world, Gerard Schwarz has left Seattle with a firmly balanced and creative way of programming. The way to have a healthy musical life is not by segregating today’s composers in a sort of contemporary ghetto. Rather, it’s by putting them on regular programs beside older music. It’s by programming David Stock, and Aaron Kernis, and Richard Danielpour, and Samuel Jones, and their contemporaries the same way you program Mozart and Beethoven – not just one piece, one time, but a whole series of works, frequently repeated. Only by becoming familiar in our ears do new works have a chance of becoming classics, and Schwarz has determinedly given them that chance.

In the arts, almost without exception, you reach great achievements only by standing on the shoulders of earlier artists. Schwarz has shown that he has very broad shoulders, and it is to be devoutly hoped that his successors, and the orchestra’s administration, will have the wisdom to stand on them.

Aside from his dedication to championing new music and his parallel devotion to the core classical repertoire, some of Schwarz’s biggest successes have come with his performances of what a former colleague of mine once referred to as the “bloated symphonies” of Mahler and Shostakovich. So it was highly appropriate that the conductor should have chosen to make his farewell with Mahler’s Second Symphony – which, he noted, also ended his first season with the orchestra as music advisor back in the 1980s. The two performances he led this time around were characteristic of the lofty standards he has set, and his appearance on the stage was greeted on both evenings with a standing ovation of obvious warmth.

Mahler goes naturally enough with Schubert, whose Rosamunde overture ended the Thursday concert’s short first half. (It was omitted on the Saturday to leave room for various valedictory ceremonies.) But surely there was a touch of Schwarzian humor in opting to open the evening with the premiere of a piece by Philip Glass, thus pairing a minimalist with, in the person of Mahler, the biggest maximalist of them all.

Harmonium Mountain, the last of the season’s eighteen Gund/Simonyi Farewell Commissions in Schwarz’s honor, is a lightly-scored trifle, five minutes long, rhythmically resourceful and agreeably textured in Glass’s inoffensive tonal manner. Like Schubert’s tuneful overture, it was smoothly and expertly played. But the epic emotions came after intermission.

The Second is not Mahler’s biggest symphony, but it is one of the most ambitious in emotional and quasi-philosophical scope. Its five movements intersperse really striking invention with moments that are awkward or uninspired. The urgent march in the finale, depicting the procession toward resurrection of “the great and the small, kings and beggars, righteous and godless,” is a clearly deliberate essay in demotic vulgarity. At other moments – one of them just before the end of the first movement – inspiration, less pointedly, seems simply to go into auto-pilot, with banal results.

Schwarz, however, managed to shape what was perhaps the most cogently unified interpretation of the whole symphony I can recall. The crucial stroke toward this end was his downplaying the surface charm of the slowish second movement – which can sound drastically out of style with the rest – and his emphasis instead on the mystery of the music and on the curious and fascinating twists and turns of its texture and dynamics. Instead of bright sunshine, this was a Second Symphony of magical half-lights and whispered innuendos. “Schattenhaft” – “shadowy” – was one of Mahler’s favorite words, and this was a performance frequently beset by shadows.

That is not to say that the big effects were neglected. There were some spine-tingling climaxes – and it could actually be felt that some of the offstage music was a shade too loud on the Thursday, though by Saturday the “scarcely audible” dynamics Mahler asked for had been duly secured. But the pianissimos achieved by Joseph Crnko’s excellent Seattle Symphony Chorale were as compelling as its fortissimos, and the same could be said of much of the orchestral playing. Trombonists Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, David Ritt, and Stephen Fissel offered especially cultivated soft tones. Scott Goff and Maria Larionoff, in their last week as principal flute and concertmaster, shaped their solos beautifully, as did principal oboe Ben Hausmann. Angela Meade and Sasha Cooke were the warmly expressive soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists. Altogether, then, both vocally and instrumentally, this was a reading of the “Resurrection” Symphony that was well worth resurrecting.

Bernard Jacobson


Part of this review appeared also in the Seattle Times.