Strings: The All-Star Orchestra Shines in a New Season

Strings
By Cristina Schreil

It’s August 2016 at SUNY Purchase, a college just north of New York City. As she’s done countless times in her two decades with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, violinist Elita Kang dons concert attire. She’s all made up, notes in hand, as she moves with fellow players onto the concert stage. Yet something feels distinctly odd about this performance: There is no audience.

Along with 86 other musicians, Kang is performing for a fleet of high-definition cameras. “You develop kind of a Pavlovian routine after a while: You get into your concert gear and you walk out onstage and there are going to be people listening. It was a little bit odd to just pretend,” Kang says after the performance. There was, she stresses, a gratifying reason behind the experience. This recording session was for season three of the All-Star Orchestra, a public-television project bringing classical-music education to the masses this September.

When you hear “all star,” it’s usually baseball diamonds—not concert halls—that are likely come to mind. But this inclusive celebration of the “best of the best” embraces a mega ensemble that unites principals and concertmasters from a host of American orchestras—30, in fact. The roster is a virtual cross-country journey; players from Utah, New Jersey, North Carolina, Jacksonville, Washington, D.C., and beyond rub shoulders.

Giving the event this kind of universal moniker communicates the goal of nudging classical music onto a more public stage. “I thought that we should be called the All-Star Orchestra to make it as popular as possible,” says maestro Gerard Schwarz, the founder. “It wouldn’t be a New York show or Chicago show or San Francisco show . . . We wanted it to be an American show.” With this harmonious mission of public service, the All-Stars feel less equivalent to an Olympic basketball team than to a musical Justice League. Since its first season in 2013, about 85 percent of public-broadcasting stations have aired the orchestra’s specially crafted concert-like episodes, which are interspersed with commentary and interviews with players and composers.

Minutes before Schwarz shares his vision with me, I’m walking along a sun-streaked Park Avenue to meet him at his home. It’s springtime in New York City and clusters of bright tulips seem to wave at me from their flowerbeds. And then Schwarz, turning our handshake into something of a dance move, whisks me into his opulent apartment. As he settles in a window-side chair, the marigold blobs of taxicabs streak down the avenue behind him. A chorus of car horns punctuates the atmosphere. You’d think this was just the place to brainstorm big ideas, but Schwarz’ All-Star concept actually took root in Seattle, where he was music director of the Seattle Symphony for 26 years.

Schwarz conducting the All Star Orchestra

Schwarz conducting the All Star Orchestra

Schwarz was by then no stranger to multimedia platforms or the power of public television. Previously as music director of New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, he earned an Emmy nomination for a Live from Lincoln Center broadcast. In 2007 in Seattle, while filming concert shots sans audience for a local public broadcaster, Schwarz found himself beaming. With cameramen not having to worry about interfering with the audience experience, unique bird’s-eye perspectives were possible. “And then it just dawned on me: ‘Oh boy, this is the way it should be done,’” he remembers thinking.

That show won an Emmy award.

When it came time for Schwarz to leave the Seattle Symphony, he sought “another mountain to climb.” With the participation of his wife Jody and other friends and confidants, the plan emerged. A key pillar was the potential of public television. Drawing on its role as a resource for young history students, Schwarz aimed to create a parallel resource about music history. He made a list of composers, including living ones, whom he regarded as history’s hundred most important. He admits it was a titanic feat to narrow it down. Then, for each composer, Schwarz chose what he considered to be his or her most “identifiable” work—one that has notable cultural significance or is intertwined with the composer’s legacy. The dream, Schwarz says, is to present a work by each, forging a complete record.

The Khan Academy, a free online educational nonprofit, is a partner. Its more than five million music students can view lessons presenting music basics, composer interviews, instrument explanations, and full movements. Full episodes are broadcast on public networks and on YouTube. Schwarz asserts episodes are “not a concert substitute at all, but with the idea that the intrinsic value would lead to people being excited about music, people being exposed to music, people being at least a little bit educated, and hopefully that music becomes part of their lives—maybe [they] even become concertgoers.”

There was initial pushback. “Many people didn’t believe that you could bring 80 or 90 musicians together and make it sound good,” Schwarz recalls, also citing worries that a short time frame (each season tapes in a few days) wouldn’t work. But in reality, it did. For season one, they shot eight episodes in four days. Schwarz delivered marked sheet music well in advance, plus recordings of himself conducting, to show such details at his preferred tempo. This was not the time to put a wild new interpretative stamp on repertoire. The All-Stars’ collective experience made it gel, according to Schwarz.

Perhaps making this kind of ensemble work is all in the selection process. There’s no auditioning to become an All-Star. To form his first orchestra, Schwarz hand-picked players he had connected with over the years, and asked his section principals to bring in the rest. Since then, section principals have continued to fill any vacancies.

“Of course you want people to have opportunities to audition,” Schwarz says. “On the other hand if I were making an orchestra and I went to the first trumpet and said, ‘Make a section for me,’ he or she would do better than an audition. [Section leaders] would pick people who play like they do, who make the sound that they make. It’s not like in politics where people feel like if you argue, it’s useful. In music, it’s not. You want to get people who actually sound well together.”

The first two seasons featured masterpieces like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67; Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80; and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. There were also works by living composers, such as Samuel Jones’ Concerto for Violoncello, performed by Schwarz’ son, Julian Schwarz, and Jones’ Concerto for Violin, performed by Anne Akiko Meyers. Much of the first season featured players reflecting with awe on the sheer quality of sound, the surprising force generated when entire orchestral sections are comprised of the country’s top players. “I mean, you’re talking about the highest level of musical performance,” Schwarz says. With a laugh, he adds that after years of conducting, he knows the potential pitfalls of every piece. Time and again, they don’t occur. He observes, “They’re playing like they were in the front, not in the back.”

Kang, who is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s assistant concertmaster, knows what Schwarz means. “Pretty much everyone in the first violin section was a title chair—if not concertmaster, then an assistant or an associate concertmaster—so we’re all used to leading,” she says. “I didn’t get the feeling that anybody was being particularly overbearing. There was still a sense that we were trying to play together as an ensemble. But we’re definitely more assertive as a bunch.”

David Kim, the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, serves as the All-Star’s concertmaster. He recalls it was easy to say yes, noting there are similar groups bringing together top musicians in Japan. “People love doing this,” he says. “It’s exciting, it’s vital, and it feels like we’re a part of something important because of all the curriculum that’s attached to it.” He paints it as a treat for players. In looking ahead at season three, he notes many works are ones professionals can “play in our sleep.” He adds that Schwarz, a steady final arbiter of a group of many distinct voices, has a keen “sixth sense” about when to step in and when to let go.

It’s also a fun atmosphere. “I haven’t seen some people since my Juilliard days 30 years ago and all of a sudden we’re talking about our kids going to college or getting their first job after college. It’s really meaningful,” he relates. A few seasons in, initial uncertainty about the logistics has faded. “We’ve really settled into a new rhythm and everybody feels much more comfortable with the setup,” Kim says. Still, it’s grueling even for seasoned professionals. “It’s really quite a challenge to maintain that incredible, high level of concentration and focus for the whole time, regardless of repertoire,” Kim admits, adding that he prioritizes healthy eating and quick naps.

Season three has a geographical theme, which arose from Schwarz’ continued quest to feature every composer. Thus there’s an episode on “Russian Treasures,” featuring excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged by Ravel. Moving west, there’s a spotlight on British composers, featuring Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 occupies another episode on Nordic Romanticism. The finale spotlights American composers. It features Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 2, Op. 132, “Mysterious Mountain”—a dreamy work that seems to conjure the composer’s home view of Seattle’s Mount Rainier.

It also features the 1944 work Jubilee Variations by Sir Eugene Goossens—which held challenges and intrigue. Ten American composers contributed minutes of music based on Goossens’ theme. Before now, the most easily accessible recording was a scratchy rendition on YouTube. Schwarz recalls worries from the All-Stars, remembering one violist said she had stayed up the entire night before, practicing the unfamiliar repertoire. “It wasn’t a crisp new manuscript,” Kim says, adding that it was yellowed and tricky to read. But “it doesn’t matter how difficult it is—everybody is cool under pressure.” The All-Stars’ performance is a world-premiere television recording.

Despite the fast-paced nature of filming, Schwarz’ self-described perfectionist nature remained. “You have a certain trust in me and a trust in yourself and a trust in each other and a trust in engineering and in the cameramen,” he says. “They know I won’t let anything out that’s not basically perfect.”

Others have noticed. The overall series earned four Emmy awards. However, Schwarz thinks the project still has room to grow—a live concert, or a broadcast with a visual element, perhaps. He recalls an inspiring yet challenging concert back in Seattle, where glass artist Dale Chihuly contributed dazzling structures for a production of Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.”

Schwarz’ main goal is still education. He recalls visiting public-school students in Tenafly, New Jersey, where he showed an episode on Beethoven to a large group of fifth graders. Their reaction gave him hope: “Someone said afterward that they’d never seen a large group of a hundred fifth graders be so quiet.” He hopes the project converts neophytes of all ages into people who are aware, if not transformed.

“How many people in our country feel like classical music is important? Five percent? Four percent? Think about if we could influence another percent,” Schwarz muses. The twinkle in his eye that’s been glimmering throughout our interview intensifies. “If you believe in music and if you believe in music education, it should be in everyone’s lives. Or, at least the attempt should be in everyone’s.”