One man's career switch -- from trumpet to baton
New York — Eight years ago, trumpeter Gerard Schwarz took the most important step of his musical career to date: He stepped down from the post of principal trumpet with the New York Philharmonic to become a conductor. The hardest part of his career switch, Mr. Schwarz told me recently, ``was first of all to have people take you seriously. Second of all . . .'' -- he hesitates, then repeats the question he heard, almost rhetorically, for some time: `` `Why would you want to be a mediocre conductor after you were such a great trumpet player?' ''
Had Gerry Schwarz stayed with the trumpet (an instrument he has now retired from permanently), he would have become as celebrated on that instrument as Jean-Pierre Rampal is on the flute. But the podium beckoned, so the trumpet became the musical means to the new career end.
``I survived,'' Mr. Schwarz says. ``In retrospect, it's not so many years -- eight. Living it, it was a lot. When you're a conductor, you're so lucky. . . . I know every note of the piece. I know why they're there, I know what he [the composer] wrote and why he wrote it -- I think I know! I have to say, `I know for the moment.' . . . You almost feel like you're writing the piece. It's really thrilling. It's a great life.''
He is now principal conductor of the Seattle Symphony -- an orchestra he loves, in a city whose cultural life he is proud to be a part of. He is music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York and, since 1978, of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (a post he relinquishes next year). He heads the Waterloo Music Festival in New Jersey and is director of the Y Chamber Symphony and Merkin Concert Hall's ``Music Today'' series, both in New York.
Clearly, he is not wanting for work. If anything, the schedule is frenetic. In the summer, for instance, he shuttles back and forth between Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan and Waterloo Village in New Jersey. He led the Mostly Mozart telecast ``Live From Lincoln Center'' in July. Today, especially for the up-and-coming conductors, jetting around the globe seems to be the way to build a career.
How does he keep all the threads of his career from tangling? ``I do almost no guest-conducting,'' he answers simply. ``The big difference between me and everybody else is that they're all running all over the world guest-conducting, and I'm not. I'll do six weeks in Europe, 20 weeks in Seattle [including 4 weeks with the Seattle Opera, for which Seattle Symphony is traditionally the pit orchestra], 12 weeks at the Y [in New York]. L.A. I'm cutting out, as you know, so I'll finish with four or five week s there this year.''
Not that this leaves Schwarz with many weeks left over to ruminate, think, or absorb. But absorb he does -- like a blotter. Knowing just the Beethoven symphonies is not enough for him. He wants to inhale the string quartets, the sonatas (he's played the piano since he was 5), and anything else Beethoven wrote to get a real perspective on the symphonies.
For all the repertoire he has performed -- from Mozart, to the Beethoven piano concertos (with Alfred Brendel and the Y Chamber Symphony in Carnegie Hall), to Schoenberg -- there remains so much he has yet to do. Much of the major romantic and postromantic literature awaits his scrutiny, because so much of his early years was involved with chamber orchestras. But Mr. Schwarz is a quick study, as they say in the trade. In fact, one of his early dates was as a last-minute substitute conductor for Elliott
Carter's Piano Concerto -- a stupefyingly involved work, yet one Schwarz learned on a moment's notice.
But this facility rarely proclaims itself in a Schwarz concert. More often, one is aware of the attentive ear, of the careful balances, the deft phrasing, the sense that here is one who really knows the difference between Mozart and Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert (there are many younger conductors out there who don't, odd as it may seem).
This year he will perform Mahler's Ninth Symphony for the first time. I asked him how he felt about reseating the orchestra with the first violins on his left and the seconds on his right, the way orchestras sat in Mahler's day (rather than bunched together on his left, which is the norm for today). ``I always use divided strings everywhere I am music director,'' he replied. This in itself is rare today, even for the work of a composer who created sounds and contrasts specifically for that divide d-strings seating, but it is another sample of what sets Schwarz apart.
His recording career, which includes numerous releases on the Delos and Nonesuch labels, continues, although he expresses some discouragement at the state of the industry. Nowadays, orchestras often have to fund their own recordings, and the implication is that only the top five or six orchestras record much these days.
Gerard Schwarz begins his second season in Seattle this fall. He looks forward to introducing a wide range of music to his audiences, and to showcasing his orchestra. He stays away from the star-player syndrome as much as possible, preferring to let the orchestra have the spotlight, or to give a younger performer a chance. He also plans an active music-education program that will eventually involve some 38,000 children. And there is to be a special series for adults who want to learn something about t he works they are hearing.
``Right now, I'm accomplishing what I set out to accomplish: I'm making music on a very high level in a lot of wonderful places with a lot of wonderful people. Hopefully I'm making an artistic impact on those places because of my musical integrity. I don't sell out; I don't do stuff for the wrong reasons; I never do anything for publicity -- I do it for the music. And I am conducting some of the greatest music ever written, with terrific orchestras.''