Conductor Gerard Schwarz Returns to Familiar Territory

Gerard Schwarz should be familiar to Southland audiences: He was music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from October, 1978, through June, 1986, a period in which the orchestra greatly expanded its activities throughout the area.

This week Schwarz returns, but with an ensemble familiar to local listeners only through recordings: the Seattle Symphony. The 40-year-old trumpeter-turned-conductor became music adviser to that orchestra in May, 1983, was named music director a year later and signed a 3-year contract extension this summer.

When the Seattle Symphony takes the stage at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Wednesday evening, it will be the orchestra’s first appearance in Southern California since 1935--and the first outside its home state since a financially disastrous tour of Europe in 1980.

The tour is “very meaningful. People don’t know us. Coming to a major cultural center . . . is important for us,” Schwarz said recently from Chicago, where he is taping “The Performing Arts Salute to Public Television,” a PBS special to be broadcast in March in which he conducts the Indianapolis Symphony.


The problem of the Seattle Symphony’s identity is a real one for Schwarz. He said that in discussing the current tour with a journalist, he received a “who-do-you-think-you-are?” type challenge. The tour is part of his answer to such questions.

So is a recording relationship with Delos International. Most of the repertory that Schwarz & Co. will play on this tour is representative of its work for Delos, finished and projected. Another piece, Brahms’ First Symphony, was chosen as a standard for comparison. “I wanted something standard to be judged by,” he explained.

Through two recordings, the Seattle Symphony is becoming known for its performances of Wagner, whose music is featured on several of the tour programs. The excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet music to be played here have also been recorded by Schwarz and his orchestra.

Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” and Howard Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony No. 2 complete the tour repertory. The former caps an interesting disc of early Stravinsky, and the latter is part of a Hanson survey the orchestra will record.

“I’m just an American music fan, that’s all,” Schwarz said. “Hanson has been maligned over the years, particularly by other composers, with whom he disagreed.” The Second Symphony was commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its 50th anniversary, and Hanson’s Fourth Symphony was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. But the composer’s tonal music came to sound increasingly conservative and was given fewer and fewer performances, leading to unconcealed bitterness.

Though absent from the tour bills, contemporary music has been a priority for Schwarz and the orchestra. “What I felt I had to do” in Seattle, Schwarz said, “was start slowly and gradually have the audience build a trust in me. And it’s been successful.”

The orchestra has achieved a measure of financial stability since Schwarz arrived. “It’s a success story,” he said. “Last year we actually had a surplus. We average over 90% (ticket sales) in our 3,100-seat house. You build the artistic quality, and then the other things fall into place.”

There is some union turmoil within the orchestra, Schwarz reported, but he said the conflicts aren’t with him or management. “We have a group of musicians from the orchestra who are not pleased with the American Federation of Musicians’ representation,” he said.


Schwarz had a close association with his players here, and he said the same is true of his work now with the larger ensemble. “I feel like we’re all looking for the same thing, for the same reasons,” he said. “There’s an unanimity of opinion, to make music on the highest level we can.”

Schwarz recalled his days with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with fondness and gratitude. “I love that orchestra,” he said. “I was listening to the radio the other day and heard our recording of the Prokofiev ‘Classical’ Symphony. All it did was bring back the memories.”

He does not find work with a bigger ensemble much different from conducting a chamber orchestra. “Obviously, there’s a lot more to choose from in repertory,” he noted. But as for technique, “I don’t find it significantly different.”

Schwarz acquired much of his podium presence in Los Angeles with the Chamber Orchestra. “They took a risk on me,” he acknowledged--and that contributes to the New Jersey native’s sense of homecoming about this tour. “I’m just very excited to be coming back.”


Following the concert at the Performing Arts Center, sponsored by the Orange County Philharmonic Society, the tour moves to Royce Hall, UCLA, on Thursday, El Cajon on Friday, Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena on Saturday, and Monday to the new McCallum Theatre at Palm Desert.

The Seattle Symphony, conducted by Gerard Schwarz, will perform Wednesday at 8 p.m. in Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $10 to $30, includes admission to a discussion in the hall at 6:30 p.m. of the works to be performed. Information: (714) 556-2787.