The Story SSO Far

A new season offers a close look at a controversial conductor.

The Seattle Symphony returns from summer vacation a different orchestra, at least in the eyes of concertgoers—with the sudden departure of Executive Director Paul Meecham, their worsening financial situation (an accumulated deficit of $3.2 million), and the intensifying controversy over the extended tenure of Music Director Gerard Schwarz (his current contract runs through 2011) all becoming public knowledge.

Onstage, though, it's business as usual. On the subject of Schwarz's remaining years in the position (we'll see if money worries distract the SSO's board of directors from even thinking about, much less moving ahead with, plans for a post-Schwarz transition), I'm inclined to remain neutral. However beneficial a change at the top could be, what I hear week to week in concert doesn't entirely square with the he-can-do-no-right stance of the anti-Schwarz fundamentalists.

Schwarz's strongest performance at the SSO's Sept. 16 opening gala (among bonbons by Rossini, Verdi, and Respighi) was of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, as much a test for a conductor as for a soloist. In its lyrical high point, the popular Variation 18, Schwarz got things moving with an impassioned, liquid phrasing of the main melody (following an indulgent, not completely convincing rendering by pianist Lang Lang). I remember noticing it literally the first time I heard him, 12 years ago: Schwarz has always been particularly skilled at finding in such ripe romantic string passages the right balance between milking and pressing forward.

SSO's Sept. 28 concert included a composer who often comes up when Schwarz's weaknesses are discussed: Beethoven. A lack of sonic definition in the "Eroica" Symphony wrought havoc with the first movement's cascading violin licks—the passage starting in bar 186, for one example, was pure Mantovani. Some of this squishiness, a second hearing revealed, could be blamed on where I'd sat: As a rule of thumb, for any repertory before 1840, you're better off in one of Benaroya Hall's balconies. (I'd also be curious to hear Schwarz do the Eroica in the drier Recital Hall with half the strings.) But Schwarz seems to approach Beethoven, this piece in particular, as a precursor to Brahms, Wagner, and even Bruckner—the first in a century-long line of romantic symphonies—rather than as a trailblazer following Haydn and Mozart. I'd argue that Beethoven sounds better taken in the context of his ancestors, because then his innovations sound more shocking.

But Brahms is well within Schwarz's comfort zone. This Beethoven concert opened with Bright Sheng's sensitive orchestration of his Intermezzo in A Major, retitled Black Swan and played finely and tenderly. (I hope the SSO doesn't consider this as part of their new-music quota for the year.) The following week, Oct. 5, they offered Brahms' Symphony No. 3; Schwarz brought it a marvelous spontaneous rhythmic flow, welling and ebbing gorgeously. Thickness of texture is a battle every Brahms conductor has to fight, and I suspect Schwarz, with limited rehearsal time, decided not to even go there; this was a performance about long, buoyant, ravishing gesture rather than detail. (I'd be curious to hear Schwarz do this piece in the Recital Hall with half the strings, too.)

Before the Third came Aaron Copland's 1925 Music for the Theatre, written just as American composers were starting down the path of vernacular inclusiveness that characterizes, probably more than anything else, American "serious" music. A performance of this piece can hardly be too snappy, swingy, or sharply defined. Unfortunately, among many effective moments, the ones that weren't stood out: the tensionless lead-in to the fast section of the Prologue, the jump cuts in the Burlesque, or the big-band brashness of its climactic tune. In the plus column, the Interlude had a lovely gentle (Brahmsian?) flow, and the many solos came off well— particularly from clarinetist Laura DeLuca, who played with a wry insouciance that seemed to sum up what Music for the Theatre is all about.

Perhaps the most heartening moment so far—one that suggests SSO audiences are paying attention and not inclined to cut Schwarz any slack—followed "The Star-Spangled Banner," his perennial season-opener, a tradition I admire. Expressions of national feeling are only jingoistic if you concede them to the rabid right; to hell with that, it's my anthem, too. It was followed by one very loud boo from the balcony—another honorable American tradition.

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