The Rake: Before the End: A Beginning

From the deck of his home on Queen Anne Hill, Gerard Schwarz looks out on a doozy of a view. There are the San Juans, Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, and there’s the skyline of the city where Schwarz, now sixty-three, has worked since joining the Seattle Symphony in 1983.

That skyline looked very different back then.
So did the symphony season.

Photograph by Young Lee for City Arts.

“Our job as music directors is to provide great music for our community,” Schwarz tells me as we pull ourselves away from the view and into his small home office. “Good variety, traditional repertoire, new pieces, old pieces … and the greatest soloists.” 

As music director, Schwarz has attracted enough subscribers and well-heeled donors to increase the symphony’s budget from $5 million for a twelve-week season in 1983–84 to $22 million for this year’s forty-seven-week season. For each of his past twenty-five years Schwarz has continued to fine-tune this formula. This month he begins another year of programming, but this isn’t just another year. “In a sense, it’s normal,” says Schwarz. Yeah, in a sense. In a sense, the Super Bowl is a normal football game.

This is the farewell season for the man who has presided over the symphony’s dramatic crescendo from troubled regional symphony to thriving, nationally respected one. It will not be normal. 

The season-long celebration, and Schwarz’s unusually personal role in planning it, starts with the first note of the September 11 opening-night gala. 

“What we usually do for an opening-night gala is to have Yo-Yo Ma or Lang Lang be a headliner, and we do some Tchaikovsky piano concerto or something like that,” says Schwarz. “This time we’re doing a program that’s close to me personally. A piece of mine, a piece from our composer in residence that my son [Julian, nineteen, a cellist] is playing, a piece by Mahler, a composer whose works I’m associated with, and my arrangement of some music of Strauss. So that’s really a program that reflects my tastes and who I am. And I’ve never done that before.”

Another first for Schwarz, the symphony and American classical music, is the way each concert will begin. “I’ve asked eighteen of my closest composer friends – who also happen to be the greatest composers alive, really – to write five-minute pieces to open each concert of the season,” he says. “So every week, we’ll have a world premiere of a new piece.

“It’s very exciting for me. In my life as a musician, basically I do the standard repertoire like everyone else. But I, as an American, care deeply about American music. And I’ve had a lot of great associations with a lot of great composers over the years. And I thought: No better way to celebrate my final year. If you’re an aficionado of American music, it’s the who’s who.”

The series will be known collectively as the Gund-Simonyi Farewell Commissions, after two Schwarz friends and backers who ponied up the cash for it. Participating composers include Philip Glass, Aaron Jay Kernis and Gunther Schuller. 

One of the pieces has just arrived on Schwarz’s desk. Composer Joseph Schwantner had promised Schwarz something simple. It didn’t happen. “Once a composer commits to [a piece] they have such pride, that they go in their own direction,” Schwarz says. He grabs Schwantner’s score and tosses it across the room, where it lands on my footstool. 

I open up the coil-bound score and am confronted by five staffs full of notes. No doubt they would register as music if I could sight-read. Since I can’t, the score might as well be a Chinese newspaper. I can tell that one part has way more dots than all the others. Schwarz takes a seat next to me, pointing it out as the lead violin part. “As you can see, it’s very simple,” Schwarz says, laughing. “It’s a big deal. It’s not just whole notes and half-notes … it’s like this little violin concerto.”

Other big deals appearing at the symphony this year as performers: Yo-Yo Ma. Lang Lang. Itzhak Perlman. “They’re people I’ve known for many years and care deeply about,” says Schwarz. 

The season ends on June 18, with Schwarz conducting Mahler’s Second, or “Resurrection,” Symphony. The choice is another personal one for Schwarz, the son of Viennese parents and a former New York Philharmonic lead trumpet. “Mahler was a Viennese Jew, who towards the end of his life was the music director of the New York Philharmonic,” says Schwarz. “So Mahler had a connection to New York but a background in Vienna, exactly as I do. And I’ve had a long-term love affair with that music.”

With that, Schwarz sends me back out into the sunshine with a hearty pat on the back and his assurance that we’ll meet again – at Benaroya Hall. “See you at the symphony,” he says. •