Schwarz Surprise

Despite sour notes behind the scenes, Seattle Symphony extends the top conductor's contract.

The morning of May 9, Seattle Symphony Board President Mary Ann Champion made a rare visit to a Benaroya Hall rehearsal. With Music Director Gerard Schwarz standing silently at her side, Champion announced to the orchestra that the board had granted Schwarz a three-year extension to his contract, which had been due to expire in 2008. It now runs through the 2010-11 season. According to many present, a smattering of applause followed Champion's surprise announcement. Then, without a word of his own, Schwarz took the podium and began the day's rehearsal.

If he completes the five-year contract just awarded him, Schwarz will have been in place 26 years. Such casual treatment of a major artistic announcement might seem surprising, but the Seattle Symphony's musicians and their principal conductor have had less and less to say to each other for the better part of a decade. This is not widely known, and the acrimonious relationship makes it reasonable to wonder if Schwarz's contract extension was such a good idea.

Just a day before, on May 8, a meeting of the symphony's governing executive committee was held in part to consider a report on planning for a new musical administration when Schwarz's contract ended in 2008. Instead, according to people who were present, it became a campaign on the part of Schwarz supporters, most notably former Boeing exec Ron Woodard, to show the dangers of making a change on the podium. Leaving Schwarz with just two years to go would render him a lame duck, it was said. Not said, but strongly implied, was that a Schwarz with no Seattle future might cease his formidable fund-raising for the group. A proposal to announce that a search for a new music director would begin was quashed — although in today's competitive market for conductors, five years is none too long to track down, evaluate, and sign a satisfactory candidate.

Nineteen ninety-six marked the first significant degeneration of relations between Schwarz and the musicians, when the audition committee in charge of approving new players rejected Schwarz's hand-picked candidate for principal horn. It was a contract-renewal year for the orchestra, and after player and management representatives hammered out a satisfactory compromise, Schwarz persuaded the board to refuse to ratify it unless Schwarz got the horn player he wanted. (The player, John Cerminaro, is still the principal horn.)

Many players were upset — not by Cerminaro's musicianship but by Schwarz's evasion of a union contract provision through "board blackmail," as one player describes it. Relations have not improved. The bad blood spurted unexpectedly into public view when concertmaster and principal first violinist Ilkka Talvi was fired in 2004 over a contractual technicality after more than 20 years in the chair. Talvi responded with searing commentary on a personal Web site describing what he said was the sorry state of symphony morale, but the window into orchestra affairs quickly closed as Talvi and symphony management came to a face-saving accommodation.

The Talvi incident didn't end there. At the time the violinist first published his blog attacks, Ron Simon, the symphony officer who contracts extra musicians when necessary, notified Talvi's violinist wife, Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi, that her services would no long be required in that capacity. And players say that individual members of the orchestra had been targeted by Schwarz's scorn and sarcasm. Peter Kaman, a gifted but admittedly mercurial violinist, was driven to file a still-pending workplace harassment suit against the conductor. Players say that Schwarz has singled out other performers for particularly withering criticism in front of their peers, including veteran violinist Clark Story. Last year, Schwarz asked for the resignation of popular principal clarinetist Christopher Sereque, who was persuaded by supporting colleagues to resist the demand.

As with marriage, there's no knowing just how long the magic's going to last between a conductor and the band. Sergei Koussevitzky logged 25 years with the Boston Symphony (1924-1949) and never lost his luster or the respect of his ensemble. Seiji Ozawa led the same institution for 29 years and nearly ran it into the ground.

In his quarter-century at the helm, the late Milton Katims built the Seattle Symphony to creditable status but was presiding over near-open musician rebellion before being forced out by the board in 1976. Schwarz, on his arrival in Seattle, impressed everyone with a string of prestigious assignments elsewhere (Lincoln Center's "Mostly Mozart" and the 92nd Street Y concert series, in particular). His contract with Delos Records to record the orchestra was also an early triumph. But Schwarz's international guest-conducting career never really got off the ground, and a number of botched attempts at touring cost too much and didn't produce the acclaim that some on the board hoped for. Schwarz faced something of a board rebellion before his last contract renewal in 2003. It was quashed by a purge of non-loyalists, and Executive Director Deborah Card, who was sympathetic with board members critical of Schwarz, soon left for the exalted post of running the Chicago Symphony.

But resistance to the Schwarz machine did not flicker out. A player present at an orientation meeting with Card's successor, Paul Meecham, recalls that Meecham believed the only thing standing between Seattle and greatness in an orchestra was the quality of its music direction. This may have been conventional flattery, but it was hardly politic, so many expect that the second shoe will be Meecham's announcement that he's seeking greener pastures.

"That would be a catastrophe," says a music maven who's been following the symphony's fortunes for more than 30 years. "The board is already a laughingstock around the country for allowing itself to become hostage to the fund-raising abilities of its music director. Without a committed manager with a clear vision for the future, I don't think there's likely to be much left worth saving at Benaroya Hall."

Why, after such long and honorable service, does Schwarz want five more years of the same, in front of a cranky, unfriendly band and with a manager and board visibly looking at their watches? "What else would he do?" says a recently retired Symphony member, never much under the Schwarz spell. "And have you ever been to that mansion he lives in up on Highland drive? It's expensive being Gerard Schwarz."

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