Seattle Symphony conductor and music director Gerard Schwarz begins his 25th season with a "Beethoven & Wine" festival (Sept 9–11, Benaroya Hall, 7:30 pm, $9–$69) that couples Beethoven's hit symphonies (Third, Fifth, and the bacchic Seventh) with a generous ($5 for four pours) preconcert wine tasting.
It may seem premature, but I'm sobered by the notion that Schwarz will depart two years hence, at the end of the 2010–2011 season. In classical music, schedules get set years ahead: Now is the time to ponder who might continue Schwarz's strengths in big-boned symphonic repertory (think Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich), virtuosic fundraising, and commitment to overlooked antique repertory.
I hope Schwarz's successor will remedy the maestro's weaknesses, too, notably the uneven morale among Symphony players and the tangible absence of post–World War II innovators Ligeti, Boulez, Berio, Nono, Stockhausen, and Xenakis from the Symphony's concerts. The lack of these icons in the repertory leaves the Symphony—and its audience—at a disadvantage to grasp works by living masters, including Helmut Lachenmann, Kaija Saariaho, and John Adams. Of course, brave newer voices such as Olga Neuwirth and Thomas Adès as well as local composers like Tom Baker, Gavin Borchert, the Degenerate Art Ensemble's Joshua Kohl, and Eyvind Kang barely register on the radar.
Catching up on a half-century's worth of music takes time, but David Robertson might be up to the task. Visiting the Seattle Symphony last June, Robertson proved himself a fine conductor of the Adès violin concerto and Stravinky's lushly romantic Firebird. When I caught Robertson leading the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain a decade ago, he explained the intricacies of Ligeti's Piano Concerto to the audience with friendly aplomb.
Robertson already has a sizable discography and could continue the Symphony's legacy of superb recordings. His latest disc, Doctor Atomic Symphony (Nonesuch), shows him and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra as virtuosic advocates for the rhythmically tensile music of composer John Adams. Derived from the opera Doctor Atomic, the Symphony sizzles and struts; the companion piece, Guide to Strange Places, brilliantly scrambles motifs from Petrushka. It's my favorite orchestral work of this decade.
Although Schwarz's tenure concludes in 2011, it's not too early to romance Robertson. Several anonymous sources tell me that Robertson harbors an interest in the Symphony in Seattle or San Francisco (should Michael Tilson Thomas retire) when his contract with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra expires in 2010.
The timing might work out: Schwarz along with the Symphony management and board could use the 2010–2011 season to introduce a new music director. A smooth transition would help the financial health of the Symphony, enabling Schwarz's successor to meet, charm, and cajole those deep-pocketed donors who underwrite guest artists, recordings, and festivals. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.