Swan song?

Signs that Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwartz is preparing to move on are growing stronger by the day.

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the Seattle Symphony has had one hell of a great year: ticket sales topping projections, fund raising on track, the new hall a hit with the public and artists alike, the orchestra sounding better than it ever has. There's only one little cloud to diminish all that sunshine. The orchestra sounds good all the time; but it consistently sounds a lot better when its music director Gerard Schwarz isn't on the podium.

This is something that happens, particularly when a leader and a band have been together for a long time. Even couples happily married for decades can go through patches when they start wondering if it's worth the trouble now that the kids are grown: Familiarity alone can breed, if not contempt, at least forgetfulness of better times. And the 16-year marriage between Schwarz and the SSO has been showing signs of strain for sometime.

Some trace the real trouble to the conflict between conductor and players over the hiring—forced by Schwarz—of John Cerminaro to lead the orchestra's horn section. Schwarz publicly admitted feeling insulted when the players on the audition committee voted against hiring Cerminaro, Schwarz's hand-picked candidate. The players felt just as burned when Schwarz, in retaliation, persuaded the symphony board not to ratify a new contract with the players unless Cerminaro was installed as principal horn for as long as Schwarz held the podium.

Badly as that passage of arms damaged conductor-player relations, a contract promising substantial (well-deserved, and long-delayed) salary hikes and the excitement of moving at last from the cotton-wool acoustic of the Opera House into a hall designed to enhance symphonic music would probably have smoothed things over if l'affaire Cerminaro had been the only cause of friction.

The fact is, dissatisfaction had been growing for sometime, at least among the players; a dissatisfaction due, as often happens, not to a failure to perform on Schwarz's part, but in consequence of having done his job too well. In terms of personnel, the Seattle Symphony is today substantially the same erratic and demoralized group Schwarz took over from an ailing Rainer Miedel back in 1983. That it sounds like a different orchestra entirely—confident, consistent, technically accomplished—is in large measure due to Schwarz's patience, persistence, and professionalism. It is he who built the orchestra's present self-confidence.

But self-confidence, as every parent learns, ultimately brings in its wake independence, a penchant for thinking and making judgments on one's own. The less they have collectively been troubled by their own shortcomings and the more confident they have grown in their ability to meet an exacting standard, the more critical have the SSO players become of their leader's own shortcomings, and the less willing to discount or forgive them.

Those—relative—shortcomings have been cruelly apparent in the course of the orchestra's first season at the Benaroya. On the wide spectrum of conducting styles, from the micromanagement of a Pierre Boulez to the apparently oblivious abandon of a Bernstein, Schwarz falls far toward the controlling end. He cues even those entrances players could make in their sleep; "Watch me" is a frequent injunction. This level of concentration is valuable in keeping an orchestra alert, and even an absolute requirement in playing difficult, unfamiliar music with minimal rehearsal—something the SSO, given the sheer number of works it has to get through in its leader's ambitious annual roster of premieres and recordings, has to be grateful for, at least on the occasions when his cueing is the only thing keeping the performance from falling apart.

But conductors who take their job title as literally as Schwarz does are not, on the whole, among the ones most beloved by musicians. Musicians want to cut loose, fly, soar when they play; they want to feel that lift like an oceanic swell that only those who've played in a large orchestra ever experience. It's difficult, if not impossible, to achieve that state of satori when you have to "watch me."

TWO GUEST CONDUCTORS this spring demonstrated, in very different ways, the thrill of musicmaking on the fly. Neville Marriner, the British-born conductor who brought the Minnesota Orchestra well-deserved acclaim, represented one extreme approach. So casual and nonspecific on the podium in rehearsal that the players found themselves in catastrophic discord in a work as relatively familiar as Strauss' Rosenkavalier Suite, Marriner was unfazed, saying only, according to one player: "Well, we shall have to have another go at that tomorrow, won't we?" Another go they had at it, and this time, "We didn't wait for him to tell us everything, we listened to each other and did it ourselves." The result was sheer rapture, and received rapturously as well.

In rehearsal, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, a guest from Cincinnati, is a conductor of an utterly different stripe. Meticulous to the point of mania, he "practically goes through the score bar by bar, one bar forward, two bars back. It's maddening, and it's definitely not fun." But when performance time comes around, Lopez-Cobos seems to forget all that. Control is for rehearsal, now we play. And play they did, with an effortless sense of phrase, a dancing momentum, and a sumptuous tactility of sound that this orchestra has never before achieved in this listener's experience. In comparison with the best musicmaking we've heard this season, the best Schwarz performances have seemed a bit angular, knocked off, unappealing, routine. It hardly seems grateful to say it, considering that we wouldn't have Benaroya Hall without a decade of relentless hard work by Schwarz, but after some of the dazzling musical surprises we've been treated to this season, the notion of a Seattle Symphony sans Schwarz is one to be contemplated, perhaps with sadness, but also with equanimity.

There are signs that Schwarz is thinking along similar lines. He and his family have become pillars of the community, but there is a world elsewhere, and, at the moment, one in which positions at major orchestras are opening up with unusual frequency. He has been heard on two occasions to say that June 2001, when his current contract expires, will be his last bow with the orchestra. With the SSO's 100th anniversary falling only two years later, in 2003, it's hard to imagine his departure so soon, but should a really big job—Atlanta, say, or Houston—beckon, it could very well happen. In the past, when SSO management was asked about rumors of a possible Schwarz departure, denials came quickly and vehemently. Not this time: Asked about the June 2001 rumor, executive director Deborah Card says, unfazed: "If so, we haven't heard about it, from Gerry or his management."

There's some indication even in the musical lineup announced for the 1999-2000 SSO season that change is in the freshening breeze. Among the guest conductors slated to lead are some well-known quantities—the beloved Hermann Michael, George Cleve, frequent Seattle Opera artist George Manahan—but an even more extensive roster of young unknowns . . . well, unknowns to Seattle, but who are conducting a wide and impressive range of repertory and holding significant appointments with major orchestras, primarily abroad. The absurdly young twentysomething Oberlin graduate Michael Christie is already making waves from Helsinki, Finland, to Perth, West Australia. At the advanced age of 39, Andreas Delfs holds appointments in both Milwaukee and Hanover. Since settling full-time in London, Junichi Hirokami had conducted all the major English orchestras (recording regularly with the Royal Philharmonic) before debuting in the New World with Toronto, Dallas, and the LA Philharmonic.

Martin Turnovsky, Kerri-Lynn Wilson, Roberto Abbado (no, not that Abbado, his nephew, but with a distinguished concert and operatic career already behind him) . . . the list goes on. Have the auditions for a leader to kick off the Seattle Symphony's second hundred years already quietly begun?

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