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Return From Seattle of Conductor Gerard Schwarz

January 27, 1988|JOHN HENKEN

For local audiences, at least, Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony is a coupling of a very familiar conductor with an almost unknown orchestra.

Schwarz became music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in October, 1978 and greatly expanded that ensemble's activities throughout Southern California during his tenure, which lasted through June, 1986.

This week he returns, but with an orchestra familiar to local listeners only through recordings. The 40-year-old trumpeter-turned-conductor became music adviser to the Seattle Symphony in May, 1983. He was named music director a year later and signed a three-year contract extension last summer.

The Seattle Symphony makes its first appearance in Southern California since 1935 tonight in a concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center sponsored by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. Performances follow Thursday at Royce Hall, UCLA; Friday in El Cajon; Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium and Monday in the new McCallum Theatre at Palm Desert

When a tour by the orchestra was first suggested, New York was inevitably nominated as the destination. But Schwarz pushed for Los Angeles.

Three of the sites--Ambassador, Royce Hall and the East County Performing Arts Center in El Cajon--are well known to Schwarz from performances with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. "I loved all the venues that I played in," Schwarz reported recently from Chicago.

(Schwarz was in Chicago to tape "The Performing Arts Salute Public Television." In that PBS special, scheduled to air in March, he conducts the Indianapolis Symphony and hosts a portion of the program.)

The other two concert locations have opened since Schwarz departed. Of Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, he knows only hearsay. "Which is that it is fabulous," he said. "A number of people have told me that."

The tour, the orchestra's first appearances outside its home state since a financially disastrous tour of Europe in 1980, is "very meaningful" to the organization, according to Schwarz.

"People don't know us. Coming to a major cultural center like Los Angeles is important for us," the conductor said.

The problem of his orchestra's identity is a real one for Schwarz, who humorously reported receiving a "who-do-you-think-you-are?" challenge from a journalist, regarding the current tour. The tour itself is part of Schwarz's answer to such questions, as is an ongoing recording relationship with Delos International.

In fact, most of the repertory that Schwarz and Co. will play on this tour is representative of its work--finished and projected--for Delos. Another piece, Brahms' First Symphony, was chosen as a standard for comparison.

"I wanted something standard to be judged by. I have a great respect for the press in Los Angeles," the diplomatic conductor claimed.

Through two recordings of excerpts, the Seattle Symphony is becoming known as a Wagner orchestra, and music by that composer is featured on several of the tour programs. The excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet music, which will be played here, have also been recorded by Schwarz and his orchestra.

Stravinsky's "Petrushka" and Howard Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony No. 2 complete the tour repertory. The former caps an interesting disc of early Stravinsky, and the latter is part of a Hanson survey the orchestra will record.

"I'm just an American music fan, that's all," Schwarz avowed. "Hanson has been maligned over the years, particularly by other composers with whom he disagreed." The Second Symphony was commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its 50th anniversary, and Hanson's Fourth Symphony was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. But the composer's tonal music came to sound increasingly conservative and was given fewer and fewer performances, leading to unconcealed bitterness.

Contemporary music has also been a priority with Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, though it is not a risk they are taking on this tour. "What I felt I had to do was start slowly and gradually have the audience build a trust in me," Schwarz said of his programming in Seattle. "And it's been successful," he added.

The Seattle Symphony has achieved a measure of financial stability since Schwarz arrived. "It's a success story," he said. "Last year we actually had a surplus. We average over 90% (ticket sales) in our 3,100-seat house. You build the artistic quality, and then the other things fall into place."

There is some union turmoil within the orchestra, Schwarz reported, but not in conflict with him or management. "We have a group of musicians from the orchestra who are not pleased with the American Federation of Musicians' representation."

Schwarz had a close association with his players here, and that, he says, is true of his work now with the larger ensemble in Seattle. "I feel like we're all looking for the same thing, for the same reasons," he said. "There's an unanimity of opinion, to make music on the highest level we can."

He does not find work with a bigger ensemble that much different from conducting a chamber orchestra. "Obviously, there's a lot more to choose from in repertory," he noted. As for technique, "I don't find it significantly different."

Schwarz recalled his days with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where he acquired much of his podium presence, with fondness and gratitude. "They took a risk in me," he acknowledged. "I love that orchestra. I was listening to the radio the other day and heard our recording of the Prokofiev "Classical" Symphony. All it did was bring back the memories."

All of that contributes to the New Jersey native's sense of homecoming about this tour. "In the end, I'm just very excited to be coming back."

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