Saturday, December 15, 2007

Seattle Symphony in the Times

The New York Times has a big article, co-reported by Daniel Wakin and James Oestreich, on the turmoil within the Seattle Symphony. Drew McManus and others have written in the past about problems between the orchestra players and music director Gerard Schwarz.

Here are some choice quotations from the Times article:
But like many long-serving maestros Mr. Schwarz has also made enemies and generated reservoirs of ill will among the players. Now a lawsuit brought by an orchestra member, scheduled for trial next month, suggests a more complete picture of dysfunction at the Seattle Symphony. It paints a damaging portrait of Mr. Schwarz, 60, who was long prominent on the New York music scene: as trumpeter at the New York Philharmonic, founding music director of the New York Chamber Symphony and music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival.

At least 15 current or former members of the Seattle Symphony have signed sworn declarations on behalf of that member, Peter Kaman, many of them creating an image of Mr. Schwarz as a vindictive, harsh taskmaster who has undermined morale. Even given the strong feelings players in many orchestras have historically had about their conductors, the degree of public criticism is stunning.
I'm just going to say that Schwarz's long tenure at Mostly Mozart wasn't good for the festival, the repertory of which got boring and repetitive. The last few years have seen a great revival, thanks to the brilliant programming of Louis Langree. (Last year, for example, I saw Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide and a lot of music by Magnus Lindberg.) Note, also, the revival of the Boston Symphony under James Levine, replacing Seiji Ozawa, who overstayed his welcome by many years.

Then there's this:
The orchestra’s troubles, widely known in the industry, made it tough to find a successor to Mr. Meecham. The board hired an executive recruiter, Pamela Rolfe. In February she quit, blaming the orchestra for not revealing the extent of its financial problems, according to her resignation letter.

Mr. Schwarz, meanwhile, was pushing an old friend: Thomas Philion, the president of the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., where Mr. Schwarz was the principal conductor. Mr. Philion was hired by the Seattle Symphony in March; Mr. Schwarz was named music director of the festival in September.
That's a nice little quid-pro-quo.

My favorite, though, is this, regarding a player survey that conducted by the orchestra members and buried by the Board of Directors:
A recently obtained copy of the survey showed that the players voted 61 to 8 in favor of new artistic leadership and 61 to 12 to form a search committee for a new music director. Players anonymously poured out a litany of complaints — some stated with eloquence, others with angry language — about Mr. Schwarz and the board’s attitude toward their opinions.
You can't write off those votes as a few disgruntled players.

Honestly, the board is foolish to back Schwarz at this point. The Seattle Symphony may be "churning out recordings," but they're on Naxos. I buy them only for repertory, because, really, Schwarz is competent without being interesting. Long tenures, more than, say, twelve or fifteen years, aren't good for orchestras these days. Considering the level of talent out there, the Seattle Symphony could do much, much better.


Don Sipe said...

I find it incredible that GS will not take responsibility for the chaos. He wants to have complete control on the podium, fine, then take responsibility for the ramifications of not building relationships. "It's a few disgrunteld players" is quite absurd as you point out.

Michael Walsh said...

His complete control on the podium isn't what it's cracked up to be, either, given that he seems to show actual contempt for some of the music he performs.

(I'm also a bit worried about Lisa's "twelve to fifteen years" comment, as that's how long we've had MTT at San Francisco now.)

Lisa Hirsch said...

I love MTT's conducting in many areas of the repertory, but the current programming innovation is a Brahms Festival.

Anonymous said...

What's the general feeling about MTT? It sounds like 12-15 years is when things really started going bad in Seattle. Do orchestras generally make changes after that amount of time, or do they wait for things to get ugly? It sure seems like Seattle waited way too long. Maybe SF needs to be careful that doesn't happen there. (Disclaimer: I'm an out-of-towner not knowing your local situation)

Lisa Hirsch said...

MTT is very much liked by the public. I wish his programming would get interesting again, and I wish he'd go back to playing encores.

As far as when it's time for a change, I think the time varies by orchestra. James Levine has been at the Met for 35 years and is going strong; I have heard nothing about discontent with him. Esa-Pekka Salonen will have been at the LAPO for 17 or 18 when he leaves; apparently he has an excellent relationship with the orchestra, management, the board.

Anonymous said...

Boy, that's some very ugly stuff between the orchestra members!

I heard the horn player mentioned play the Siegfried horn calls in the Seattle Ring a few summers ago and he was very fine. I'm guessing his connection with Schwarz rather than his playing is the real issue. These sorts of morale issues are ultimately the responsibility of the music director and it sound like Schwarz needs to go immediately, contract be damned!
Perhaps this high-profile article will force the issue.

torredehercules said...

Dear bryag, what summer did you hear Siegfried in Seattle? The horn player at issue didn´t play the calls as he wanted more $$ than the rest of the orchestra members....his assistant did, as well as play the whole opera! He played amazingly I must add!

Anonymous said...

2005. I could well be mistaken, but I thought that was the name. But now that I think about it, I road back and forth on the ferry each night with one of the violinists and I believe he said that the Siegfried hornist was not the top section member. Never mind!

The orchestra really sounded good. Maybe the board should go after Robert Spano.

Anonymous said...

I dug up my program, and you're right (Mark Robbins was the player's name). Thanks for the correction.

Anonymous said...

a long time member of the Seattle symphony, I have to assert that the NY Times article accurately reflects the morale of the orchestra and the musicians’ frustration with the SSO board. That said, what the article omitted was that the allegations of “orchestral terrorism” were investigated by a 3rd party, hired by management and union, and turned up no conclusive evidence. This was never reported in the local press.
But the article is not about Mr. Cerminaro; that is just a symptom of the greater problem of what can happen when a music director stays too long. Any intelligent person can see from the current atmosphere that the relationship between Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony is no longer working. Under the current music director, the Seattle Symphony has had many triumphs, but few of them have had anything to do with music; the fact is, in the last decade the symphony has stagnated under this music director because there’s NO “THERE” THERE. Hearing the orchestra under a guest conductor is enough to prove that with fresh, inspired leadership, the Seattle Symphony could be great indeed. With a survey stating 61-8 that new leadership is needed, one can no longer say that it’s just a few disgruntled musicians! Too bad it has come to this.

Anonymous said...

For Tom Philion to deny any of this is ludicrous.
If he chooses to stick his head in the sand, perhaps he should read this revealing review by NY's foremost critic Greg Sandow (Wall Street Journal, 1998):

"What almost killed the evening was the conductor, Gerard Schwarz, who’s been music director of Mostly Mozart for 16 years. In his favor, I can say that he kept the soloists, chorus and orchestra together and moved everything along at the proper speed.
But in his hands the music had no line, no motion from place to place. It had no color, only the most routine kind of clarity, and no sense of Mozart’s style. Mr. Schwarz didn’t even breathe or phrase with the singers, giving them no support at all, as if to him they were just some minor element in an otherwise orchestral texture. Sometimes he’d demonstrate his control by emphasizing details -- accented notes, or momentary counter-melodies, all of which seemed pointless in a performance with no tone or shape, no strong contrast between loud music and soft, and sometimes in fast passages (like the final chorus) not much rhythm.
Why, I might ask, should someone with so little to offer be entrusted with a major musical event, let alone one that so clearly demands a point of view? But there’s a larger issue.
For years, Mostly Mozart hasn’t mattered very much. People bought tickets, and that, it seemed, was all its planners cared about. The performances mostly were routine.
Lately, though, Lincoln Center’s programmers, Jane Moss and Hanako Yamaguchi, have revived the artistic spark that created the series in the first place. Within a week, I’ve heard not just "Idomeneo," but heartwarming and deeply original performances by Emmanuel Ax (playing Chopin’s second concerto on a period piano, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) and by the deeply original Latvian-born violinist Gidon Kremer, with an irrepressible ensemble of 20-something string players from the Baltic states, which he calls KREMERata BALTICA.
In a festival of this emerging quality, Schwarz -- once known for running chamber orchestras in New York, but now not much respected outside Seattle, where he leads the Seattle Symphony -- wouldn’t be invited to conduct. That he should be music director is, quite simply, astonishing."

Greg Sandow adds:

[Some people find this review very strong. Maybe I should have added an explanation, which would have gone something like this:

We have two baseball teams in New York, and when there's an issue concerning one of them, everybody knows it, sportswriters and fans alike. It's debated intensely.

But that's not true in classical music. There's hardly any debate at all. Gerard Schwarz can be a washout as music director of Mostly Mozart and everybody in the business knows it -- but it's never discussed openly. The critics don't say a word.

So I thought I'd try writing what everybody says backstage. One of my colleagues, by the way, praised Schwarz for renovating the Mostly Mozart programs. He should have made a phone call to check his information. Don't music critics do journalism any more?

Late flash -- I got a phone call from a member of the Seattle Symphony, whom of course I won't name, though I'll stress that it's someone I'd never met or spoken to. This musician wanted to thank me for this review, and said, assuring me that all but two or three players in the orchestra would agree: "If they fire him at Mostly Mozart, maybe that will make it easier for us to get rid of him here."

Never before, after writing a review, have I gotten a call like this.]

Wall Street Journal, August 11, 1998

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ah, thanks! That review can also be found on Greg's web site:

Greg is a good writer and reviewer, but I would not call him NYC's most prominent reviewer. That's Alex Ross. Please don't ask who's in second place. :)