Every time I go to the Seattle Symphony, I think about one of the oldest cassettes in my collection, Gerard Schwarz Plays New Music for Trumpet (Desto/CMS Records). On that 1972 recording, Schwarz plays music by composers with little or no connection to his 21-year reign as music director, including Elliott Carter, Stefan Wolpe, and Charles Whittenberg. Back then, Schwarz championed craggy, hardcore modernists.
Several events, especially the recent extension of the maestro's contract to 2011, have prompted a flurry of discussion about Schwarz, who will become the orchestra's longest-serving conductor. Then there's "the survey," an ostensibly off-the-record, self-administered poll of Symphony musicians that trumpeted the musicians' immense dissatisfaction with Schwarz.
Recently, an invitation to the Mayor's Arts Awards—aimed at recognizing artists "who make a difference in our community through arts and cultural activities"—appeared in my mailbox. Schwarz is among the awardees and rightly so; he and the Symphony share a legacy of fine recordings and performances dating back to the 1980s.
I've been listening to the Seattle Symphony regularly for over a decade and a half. Under Schwarz, the Symphony remains a good orchestra capable of great performances of old (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler) and kinda-old (Stravinsky, Hanson, Chavez) music. The band sounded excellent when, with score in hand, I compared their March concert of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 to performances by the NY Philharmonic and the Russian National Orchestra.
Schwarz does need to clear out some cobwebs or bring in someone who can. The failure to perform those craggy—sorry, Carter's Elegy doesn't count—modernists and experimentalists has left the orchestra technically and stylistically unfamiliar with entire swaths of 20th-century classical music (think Cage, Carter, Berio, Feldman, Ligeti, Xenakis, Rihm). This repertoire will be crucial to attracting the next generation of curious listeners who will fill seats and make those all-important donations. CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI