Gerard Schwarz Takes His Last Bows–For Now
This weekend sees the final concert of Gerard Schwarz’ long tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony (June 18, 8 p.m., tickets). He’ll be back, as conductor laureate, for several weeks next season but Thursday night’s audience at Benaroya Hall treated him to a prolonged ovation—several minutes—as he came out on stage with former governor Dan Evans and the Symphony’s board chair, Leslie Jackson Chihuly.
Chihuly paid tribute to Schwarz, describing him as a “big dreamer,” emphasizing his tremendous energy and thought for the community’s musical wellbeing, as well as being the force behind the building of Benaroya Hall itself. Evans spoke of Schwarz’s comnmitment to Seattle, moving to live and raise his family here, and the building of the orchestra.
In brief and graceful comments, Schwarz said: “The music says it all. My gratitude goes to the musicians. I love you all.” Then he turned to the audience and thanked us, for being there, supporting the orchestra over the years. He received more applause, including from the musicians themselves.
Then it was down to business.
The first item on the program was the last of this season’s 17 Gund-Simonyi Farewell Commissions, Philip Glass’s Harmonium Mountain in its world premiere. All of these were stipulated to be short concert openers, and this one came in at just under five minutes. An appealing work, it is in the composer’s minimalist vein, but much less aggressively so than some of his other works. Perhaps it was the short length, but this sounded more like a kaleidoscope of colors shifting frequently, with different patterns in the music but without any theme per se, and very basic rhythms.
Because of the length of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection,” the major work on the program, one more short work came before intermission, Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde, which was given a well-shaped performance that brought out its dramatic portent as well as its singing melodies.
The Mahler is a huge work, around 75 minutes. It requires huge forces, such as ten horns and eight trumpets, all the flutes doubling on piccolo, and plenty of percussion, not to mention a chorus and two vocal soloists. Perhaps Schwarz wanted to have on stage for his farewell all the musicians with whom he whas worked in recent years, including all those who have substituted. Perhaps it was the grandeur of the work, and its message of death and resurrection, as metaphor for “Au revoir” which means “to meet again” or in today’s laconic parlance, “See you!”
Whatever the reason, this was an excellent performance. Mahler’s was an extraordinary accomplishment, to create a work of such length while constantly holding the attention of the listener. Schwarz achieved the same feat, maintaining the symphony’s nuances, triumphs, despondency and joys, its descriptions, its charm, and above all its endless variety. Soft sections had fine tone and transparency, and there were startling salvos from the brass—which sounded superb all evening despite catching a few minor frogs.
The Seattle Sympony Chorale in the last movement could easily be heard over the orchestra forces without straining, and the two young soloists, soprano Angele Meade and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, have voices it would be a pleasure to hear again. I was particularly taken with Cooke’s mezzo, which has the true alto quality and timbre essential for Mahler.
Schwarz has his detractors. Almost all conductors have feet of clay to their orchestra musicians, but I think nobody would deny that when he came in, 26 years ago, the Seattle Symphony was a provincial orchestra. Nobody could describe it that way now. He has been a consummate orchestra builder. He has brought in excellent players, and his programming has been consistently enlightening, adventurous at times without turning off the audience.
He hands off to Ludovic Morlot a fine-tuned precision instrument able to do anything Morlot requires of them.
The audience brought him and the soloists back three times. At the last one, when Schwarz signaled the orchestra to rise, concertmaster Maria Larionoff shook her head slightly and the orchestra remained seated, giving the applause to him.