American conductor Gerard Schwarz talks to Geoffrey Newman
The career of conductor Gerard Schwarz stretches over five very productive decades. He currently serves as Music Director of the Palm Beach Symphony, the Mozart Orchestra of New York and the Eastern Music Festival. He also heads a distinguished All-Star Orchestra for educational concerts designed for public television. He is Conductor Laureate of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Conductor Emeritus of the Mostly Mozart Festival and Distinguished Professor at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, where he also conducts the university orchestra.
After graduating from the Juilliard School as an exceptional trumpeter, Schwarz served as co-principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic (1972-1977) before taking on his first conducting position with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (1978-1986). His biggest appointments followed quickly: Music Director of the Seattle Symphony (1985-2011) and New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival (1982-2001). Schwarz also founded the New York Chamber Symphony in 1977 and maintained it until 2001, when he accepted the additional appointment as Music Director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (2001-2006).
Schwarz’s recordings are voluminous (some 350 CDs total) and cover a vast repertoire, as is amply revealed by his 30-CD Gerard Schwarz Collection, released in 2017 on Naxos. Nonetheless, the conductor’s most significant contributions have been in fostering and recording modern American music. This interview picks up on a number of this commitment’s dimensions. It was undertaken during the conductor’s October 2023 appearance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, where David Diamond’s rarely-performed Symphony No.4 was played.
Geoffrey Newman: One of your outstanding contributions to American music has been the series of recordings of the symphonies and concertos of Howard Hanson, David Diamond, William Schuman and Walter Piston made over the period from 1988 to 1994. It is remarkable that you took on the conductorship of the Seattle Symphony in 1985 and, in only three years, got the orchestra to a level where it could produce such high-quality performances of this music.
Gerard Schwarz: Actually, my initial association with the Seattle Symphony was a little earlier: I started working with the orchestra in 1983. One can only thank the founder of Delos Records, Amelia Haygood, for taking on the project as part of her admirable mission to preserve American music. Amelia thought that the original Hanson symphony series was a definite risk but one worth taking. And, fortunately, it turned out to be a great success: we went volume by volume and then moved to the other composers.
Producing the series was not an easy task: the orchestra had not played the music, so I often had to familiarize them through previous recordings where they existed. And I had to be much tougher with the orchestra in achieving the appropriate discipline and orchestral sound than I would be for any normal concert session. It was a forbidding amount of work – but totally worthwhile. I believe this experience was a key part of making the Seattle Symphony into the world-class ensemble it is today.
GN: Most of these Delos recordings now appear on the Naxos label. Is that correct?
GS: Yes. After Amelia’s death in 2007, Delos entered into a distribution agreement with Naxos Records. Carol Rosenberger took over the directorship of Delos. The Naxos ‘American Classics’ series is now an invaluable historical resource.
GN: Given the ascent of atonal music in the latter part of the twentieth century, it is unfortunate, but not surprising, that there were few recordings of these esteemed American composers after 1970, leaving a gap of almost twenty years until your contribution. Those extant were largely undertaken by Howard Hanson himself with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, and by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic, who did Roy Harris’s Symphony No.3, David Diamond’s No.4 and three symphonies by William Schuman. How do you assess this situation?
GS: I actually wish Bernstein had done more. When he was young, he was an ardent champion of all this music, but his later years were spent mainly in Europe, wrapped up with the Vienna Philharmonic, doing Brahms, Schumann, Sibelius and another Mahler cycle. I remember visiting him at his home very late in his life, and I managed to play my recording of David Diamond’s Symphony No.2 for him, a work that Koussevitzky had premiered in 1942. He sat there and listened intently for its full 45 minutes, and after its completion he turned to me and said, ‘I must get back to American music again!’ That did happen in the 1980s to some degree, but the CDs he made were mainly of Aaron Copland, his teacher, and Charles Ives, composers who have been consistently well-represented. The exception was the 1985 CD coupling of Schuman’s No.3 with Harris’s No.3, but these were works he had previously recorded.
GN: Did you have an opportunity to meet and get to know the composers of this period?
GS: Yes, I knew a lot of them: Copland, Barber, Schuman, Piston and, in particular, Paul Creston, with whom I studied. Schuman was especially interesting since he was president of both the Juilliard School and Lincoln Center. It is unfortunate that I never got the opportunity to meet Howard Hanson. I had a meeting set up, but he was in ill-health and died [in 1981] before it could take place.
GN: You are almost unique in championing the works of David Diamond, and I understand why you continue: his compositions have an architectural strength, elegance and transparency that were certainly the equal of his contemporaries, with possibly even greater lyrical reach. How close were you to him?
GS: I would call David ‘family’. Every time I performed one of his works, I would invite him to the concert, and he would be there, even if it involved travel. I would try to incorporate him into social events and dinners. He is the Honorary Composer-In-Residence of the Seattle Symphony, and I have continued to perform his works since his death in 2005.
GN: He had the reputation as being a ‘difficult’ person. Is that true?
GS: I think a better way of putting it is that David had emotional vulnerabilities like virtually any artist who feels his work has been ignored. I remember the time I invited Rostropovich for a concert visit, and suggested that David join us for dinner. He immediately responded, ‘No, I don’t want to come. He doesn’t like my music’. I then asked him if he liked the type of music that the great cellist plays, and he responded, ‘Not really’. So I said to David, ‘See, you are both in the same position, but we all want you to come to dinner’. David came and had a great time.
GN: You will be presenting Diamond’s Symphony No.4 (1945) and Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1939) in your current Vancouver visit. This is an intriguing pairing since both works date from around World War II, yet the Diamond will be completely unknown to the audience while the Barber concerto is a mainstay of the violin repertory.
GS: There is no doubt that the Barber concerto is one of the relatively few works from this period that has survived and become increasingly popular. Who can resist that tender and engulfing opening theme? It is even more intriguing since Barber wrote two other equally-worthy concertos, one for piano and one for cello, and they receive little attention today. It will be nice to work with the brilliant violinist Karen Gomyo, whom I have known from her earliest Juilliard days.
GN: Your association with the Vancouver Symphony goes back many decades. I remember a concert of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony that you gave in the late 1970s, when you were just starting your conducting career. I recall it as a pretty tight and rigorous reading.
GS: I conducted the VSO a fair amount in those days, and I remember that concert. You are probably right on the conducting: when I was young, I tried to control the orchestra far too much. I was not confident enough to give the musicians the freedom to ‘just play’.
GN: Keeping with the early days, I notice from my record collection that you even recorded David Diamond with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for Nonesuch as early as 1980.
GS: I do remember this. It was my first recording of Diamond’s Rounds (1944), a beautifully written and affirming piece. It is his best-known work and the only one to be performed and recorded regularly over the years. I made a later recording for Naxos but, in some ways, I might like this early one better. It was coupled with shorter string works by Barber, Elliot Carter and Irving Fine.
GN: It must have been nice to inherit a chamber orchestra started by Sir Neville Marriner for your first appointment.
GS: Yes, I admired Marriner, and we expanded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to play larger works just like he did with the Academy. The only problem at that time was that we did not want our programming to conflict with the concerts of the LA Philharmonic or its chamber music ensemble.
GN: One composer from this period we have not mentioned is the iconoclastic Carl Ruggles, who composed for almost a half century in a more uncompromising, atonal style. Michael Tilson Thomas recorded his striking Sun Treader first in 1971, and then recorded all his works for Sony with the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1980.
GS: Interestingly, I took part in the Buffalo recordings, playing trumpet and leading the brass ensemble in the original version of ‘Angels’ and in the composer’s last work, ‘Exaltation’ (1958). Ruggles wrote very little, but the directness and strength of his communication remains memorable. I was impressed that the (young) Tilson Thomas made the effort to meet the composer, even though he was then very old and infirm.
GN: The only non-American orchestra you have headed is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (2001-2006). Was this a change in culture for you? Did they want you to perform more modern British music as part of your programming?
GN: Well, I did the two Elgar symphonies, Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, and Walton’s First with them, but our big projects were complete cycles of Mahler symphonies and Richard Strauss tone poems. The Mahler was recorded on Artek. I think the RLPO were at least as interested in performing modern American music. For example, I got the opportunity to play and record some of the symphonies of Alan Hovhaness, another American composer I have championed, who lived in Seattle.
GN: There are countless other things we might talk about in your long career: running the Mostly Mozart Festival for two decades; the vast repertoire you have conducted, amply illustrated in your 30CD Gerard Schwarz Collection; and your new memoir, Behind the Baton, full of interesting personal stories. However, in closing, I thought I would ask you about the significance of a single administrative accomplishment: namely, the completion of Benaroya Hall as the new home of the Seattle Symphony in 1998.
GS: It certainly ranks as one of the most important accomplishments in my 26-year tenure with the orchestra, and perhaps in my entire career. To watch how the city, the symphony board and the large donors all came together to make this beautiful building possible was something I probably would have not thought possible. The hall is stunning architecturally and acoustically, and five years after it was built, my wife and I would still walk around the building in awe.