The New Criterion
By John Check
On “Behind the Baton: An American Icon Talks Music”by Gerard Schwarz and Maxine Frost. Amadeus Press, 2017, pp. 378, $27.99
One of the oldest musical jokes in the book involves a young man from the provinces freshly arrived in New York. He has a ticket, acquired at considerable cost, to hear Jascha Heifetz in concert that evening and he wants to be sure of the location of the venue. Heading uptown on Seventh Avenue, awestruck to be in this city that has always boasted so robust a musical life, he spots an old violinist with his battered instrument case tucked under one arm. “Excuse me, sir,” the young man asks, confident that here was someone who would know the way, “can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The old violinist looks him over, shakes his head, and wearily replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”
Gerard Schwarz may have had this joke in mind when, as he reveals in his lucid autobiography, he was asked how to become a conductor. “It’s simple,” he answered, “by being a great musician.” Schwarz, a longtime director of the Seattle Symphony (1985–2011), was a great musician indeed, a trumpet player of the first class. For instance, his recording of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto features a deep, dark sound, reverberant in overtones; soft entrances, emerging as if from nothing, that have no perceptible attack; dynamics that are expansive yet controlled; and an overall flair that demonstrates what the music theorist Eugene Montague has termed “performerly agency.”
Schwarz, born in New Jersey in 1947, grew up in a house filled with music. His parents—doctors both, Jewish émigrés from Vienna—were serious amateur pianists who saw to it that their children received excellent training in the instrument. Schwarz soon became enchanted by the trumpet, and began to practice (practice, practice) diligently. While a student at New York’s Performing Arts High School, he participated in a variety of ensembles, learning the orchestral repertoire from the inside. As a teenager he played his first professional jobs. Work soon interfered with school as demand for his services grew: it would take him seven years to complete his bachelor’s at Juilliard. Securing a permanent job with the New York Philharmonic was for Schwarz a “lifelong dream”—which he achieved at the age of twenty-five, when he was hired in 1972 as a co-principal trumpeter.
Naturally, a new dream began to form. Finding that some of the orchestra’s guest conductors “did not delve deeply enough” into the music, Schwarz wondered if he had the makings of a conductor. He would learn that he did in what he calls his defining moment. It happened in 1973 at the Aspen Music Festival, and it came about because Schwarz, hired to teach trumpet, made good on an opportunity.
A performance of Elliot Carter’s Concerto for Piano was scheduled, but the slated conductor cancelled his appearance. Substitutes were sought, yet none was willing to tackle so formidable a piece on such short notice. Not wanting to see his preparation wasted, the piano soloist Samuel Lipman (later the founding publisher of The New Criterion) asked Schwarz to fill in. The resulting performance was a hit, and Lipman thereafter “pushed [him] very hard” to strike out as a conductor.
To become the kind of conductor he had in mind to be, Schwarz realized he had to leave the Philharmonic. In the meantime, he continued to scrutinize all the conductors for whom he played. He would look back on his relatively short career with the orchestra as his “greatest education in conducting.” As he writes, he “watched the conductors, saw their techniques, saw what worked, heard the words they chose.” He knew, in his new endeavor, that he had to be responsible for “every note, every part, every phrase, every nuance, every marking in the score.” His education as a conductor would be broadened by directing the Waterloo Music Festival (of which he was a co-founder) and the Mostly Mozart festival (whose reputation he was instrumental in burnishing). It would acquire added depth during his years at the helm of the New York Chamber Symphony and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. While leading all of these groups, he would, in the early 1980s, make his first appearance as a guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
Schwarz had been looking to set his mark upon a large orchestra. Seattle’s, he grants, had the reputation of being “second-tier”: its subscription season was short, its performance space deficient. Management pursued him assiduously, but his was an enviable position—other orchestras were interested in him, too. Before finally committing to Seattle, Schwarz asked “everyone—the board, the staff, and the orchestra’s leadership” whether there was “100 percent buy-in” with his plans for the organization. Assured that there was, he set to work, honing the sound of the ensemble and inspiring the musicians to raise their standards. Progress came quickly under Schwarz’s directorship; a series of Wagner recordings that the orchestra produced in the early period of his run earned favorable press, and soon plans were underway for the construction of a new hall. As music director, Schwarz, capitalizing on his reputation, played a key role as a fundraiser. Benaroya Hall opened in 1998, and for the next dozen years, accolades would rain down upon both orchestra and conductor. Wanting to write “another chapter” in his artistic life, Schwarz stepped down in 2011; since then, he has been busy composing music, furnishing online lectures for Khan Academy, and appearing as a guest conductor.
Behind the Baton is rich in anecdotes, especially about conductors and soloists. With discretion, the book also captures something of Schwarz’s life as a husband and father. Short chapters toward the end, one of them entitled “Vignettes,” convey in capsule form his point of view on a range of artistic topics. Unfolded in the pages of this absorbing book is the story of a great musician who made himself an even greater conductor.