Two Times 20

How long can the opera's Speight Jenkins and the symphony's Gerard Schwarz lead?

Seattle's two most visible and powerful classical-music figures hit town at the same time. Seattle Opera's general director, Speight Jenkins, marked his 20th season in 2003, and Gerard Schwarz will celebrate his 20th with the Seattle Symphony with a gala concert this Saturday. Such milestones invite stocktaking and speculation, especially in a cultural climate that's grown more turbulent (you've seen the catchphrases: "the death of classical music," "the graying of the audience") and financially uncertain.

Jenkins is straightforward about his future with Seattle Opera: "I've been very clear—if my health holds up, I will retire after the 2013 Ring" (when his current contract runs out). He'll be 76. On the eve of its 50th anniversary, SO will have had all of two general managers in its entire history. What then? It's far too early to guess, though Jenkins hopefully anticipates a year of overlap with his successor: "In my experience, there has never been a truly easy switchover."

He hopes to leave a company with fewer financial worries, but even more he'd like to be remembered as an effective spreader of the gospel, nurturing for SO's future "an audience that loves opera and knows more about it than when I got here."

Educate us he has, with a near-encyclopedic exploration of the entire standard Mozart-through-Puccini repertory, well-seasoned but not overloaded with the Wagner that's made the company's reputation. I'll always clamor for more 20th-century works and more intriguing rarities, but it's a worthy achievement that there are very few operas in the upper ranks of popularity that SO hasn't staged in the last 10 seasons.

If Jenkins' contract and retirement are faits accomplis, the question of longevity is touchier in Schwarz's case. Twenty years is not an unusually long tenure for an opera administrator, but for a conductor it's remarkable, even eyebrow-raising. The relationship among all collaborative artists is socially and emotionally complex, but that between the conductors who make the decisions and the players who carry them out is especially fraught. Disillusionment on some level is inevitable. "Any relationship has a shelf life," says one local freelancer who's played not only with the SSO but with some of America's first-rank orchestras. "After a while, all you can see are the shortcomings."

The most obvious accomplishment of Schwarz's two decades is as an orchestra builder, improving and refining the SSO and bringing it national recognition—and it's to his credit, one player points out, that he didn't drop the SSO as its profile and his ambitions grew. Schwarz, like Jenkins with Seattle Opera, has become the committed public face of the SSO, a recognizability that (coupled with his personal vigorous persuasiveness) inspires confidence and opens wallets—with Benaroya Hall being the most visible and long-lasting result, not to mention a subscriber base that's crescendoed from 5,000 to 40,000.

By praising Schwarz's administrative skills, I don't intend to short his musicianship. He does have his detractors; every now and then, a "When are you going to write about how awful Schwarz is?" letter pops up in my mailbox. True, not every SSO performance is a tell-your-grandkids event, though 10 seasons of listening have left me considerably more impressed than dismayed, more excited than bored. He's at his best—which is damn good—with big late-romantic music: He's led some stunning performances of Mahler and Shostakovich, Wagner and Strauss, big choral-and-orchestral pieces. On the other hand, last season heard some baffling Beethoven, a troublingly soft and directionless Third and Ninth.

Schwarz's anniversary year has been a rough one. He recently stepped down from the directorship of New York City's Mostly Mozart festival; a recent New York Times review of this summer's series made the hot-buzz e-mail rounds by praising the new music director's debut season—and mentioning Schwarz negatively by name.

Worse, his five-year contract with his second orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, launched in 2001, was not renewed after a vote of no confidence from the musicians. Hired to goose a tired provincial ensemble— as he was here 20 seasons ago—he ruffled feathers by replacing some players. Another bone of contention seems to have been Schwarz's programming, possibly too offbeat for wide audience appeal. What troubles Liverpudlians apparently satisfies Seattle audiences, with attendance figures in recent seasons on the upswing. His taste in new music doesn't overlap much with mine—but at least he has tastes, composers he actively champions.

Next May's annual festival, for example, will be devoted to the American symphonists—Piston, Diamond, Hanson—with whose music, through recordings, Schwarz first made a name for the SSO. For just about every Tchaikovsky Fifth, Schwarz programs something out of left field, like Josef Foerster's Cyrano de Bergerac Suite: a deserving piece that was almost certainly new to everyone in the hall. Schwarz himself has said that building a receptive climate for novelty is based on trust, and he's worked hard during his tenure to persuade audiences to follow him wherever his own musical curiosity leads him.

Schwarz's current five-year contract ends with the 2007–08 season. There will be people, inside and outside the SSO, pondering the question, "Is it time for a change?" One SSO player passed on a bit of wisdom: "You have to be able to celebrate the re-signing of a conductor's contract with the same enthusiasm you had at the signing." Finding an answer and kindling that enthusiasm will take some complicated calculus, reconciling the needs of players and listeners, of the bottom line, and of a civic arts scene whose health and liveliness are founded on the strength and forward-looking vision of its mainstream institutions.

Gavin Borchert's Fall Favorites

Dizzy fingers

Specializing in the piano repertory's most intimidating works—the music of slightly insane composers like Charles-Valentin Alkan (the Berlioz of the piano), Ferruccio Busoni (his 75-minute piano concerto includes a men's chorus), or Leopold Godowsky (for whom Chopin's études weren't quite hard enough, so he wrote his own supersaturated hothouse versions of them)—Marc-André Hamelin is a pianist's pianist, renowned for his play-anything technique, his curiosity, fearlessness, and intelligence. For his Seattle recital, he's taking it easy: merely the last three sonatas of Beethoven. Sept. 30. Meany Hall, 206-543-4880.

Love of labor

On the eve of the election, Wayne Horvitz will recall the Northwest's history of progressive politics with his song cycle/theater piece Joe Hill. Subtitled 16 Actions for Chamber Orchestra and Voice, the piece weaves traditional tunes and Industrial Workers of the World songs into a text by Flying Karamazov Brother Paul Magid to evoke the life and ideals of the martyred labor leader. Robin Holcomb, Bill Frisell, and a band of Seattle Symphony players will join Horvitz for this premiere. Oct. 30. Meany Hall, 206-543-4880.

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