Back from vacation. A month in a quiet place in England, composing. Much to say about that, about how few mammals there are in the British isles (quite seriously), and about what I’ve learned about my daily routines by living without them for a month. And then there’s the piece I worked on, which might get me excommunicated from classical music.

But later for much of this. I thought I’d jump back in with something about the classical music world. I didn’t much keep in touch while I was gone, and neglected my e-mail happily. But I did check out the news reports from Seattle, where the Gerard Schwarz situation, festering for so many years, heated up like a soap opera. The musicians do a survey, which shows they don’t like the man!

The board says the survey wasn’t properly conducted! (Which evidently it wasn’t, though I’m sure its conclusions are correct.) The executive director resigns! And much more. But there was things missing–major things, I’m afraid–from the coverage. As follows:

1. What kind of conductor is Schwarz? A really bad one, some people say; or maybe quite a good one. Depends on who you talk to. But quite apart from thumbs up or thumbs down, what are his strengths and weaknesses? At a time when the guy’s whole career seems to hang in the balance, it’s quite depressing to read almost nothing that tries to come to grips with his musicmaking.

Maybe something appeared, and I missed it. But in what I read, the writers seemed to say “well, on one hand, and on the other hand, but we do remember some powerful performances.” Powerful how? What’s Schwarz good at, and what’s he bad at? There’s no disrespect in asking those questions. And in fact they’re essential, if you want to evaluate any musician.

Hardly anyone is good at everything. You don’t see Pierre Boulez conducting Beethoven (and his stiff, almost scary recording of the Fifth Symphony from his Philharmonic days shows why). Mariss Jansons, who swept me away in Berlioz and Shostakovich, and in a Rossini overture I heard him do with his former Oslo orchestra, made a mess of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

Schwarz? My sense is that he can lay out the shape of big pieces, maybe a little crudely, but with reasonable force. In music that needs grace and delicacy, he’s out of his depth. Which made it strange that for so many years he was music director of the Mostly Mozart festival in Lincoln Center, but that gets me to question two.

2, What’s his reputation outside Seattle?

The Seattle writers left no doubt that many Seattle Symphony musicians don’t like Schwarz. But then some apparently do. So in the end we got more “on one hand, on the other hand,” with final recourse to a piece of conventional wisdom, the notions that no conductors are universally loved, and that music directors who stay with an orchestra for many years may lose some support.

But it’s easy (or at least easy in principle) to find out how Schwarz stands in the music world. Just see how he’s looked at elsewhere. You can check that objectively–see where he guest-conducts. Does he show up at the Salzburg Festival, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic (where you might think he’d be welcomed, since he’s a New York boy who used to be the Philharmonic’s wunderkind principal trumpet)? Or does he mostly show up in smaller places?

And then there’s the subjective measure. What’s his reputation, in places where he’s appeared, or where he’s talked about? Very low, I’m afraid. The prevailing view in the orchestra world, from what I’ve observed, is that he’s not well thought of. There are issues with his conducting, and issues with his personality. Often this gets expressed rather strongly. Certainly this puts the Seattle situation in perspective–the Seattle musicians who don’t like Schwarz appear (at least in my experience) to be reflecting the dominant view of him inside the business. Surely that’s important for journalists to report.

Though to report it, you of course have to find it out. And that seems to be a problem. Very few classical music journalists, as far as I can see, seem to have extensive sources inside the classical music business. In part this is because the business is national, but appears before the public for the most part regionally. That is, if you’re a critic in Seattle, the Seattle classical music scene is what you deal with, and where you’re likely to know people. But the judgments that affect a conductor’s career are being made–and shared–all over the country, and something like a national consensus will often emerge. How are you, the Seattle critic, going to know about that? It’s going to be hard for you to get on the phone and start talking to orchestra artistic administrators (let’s say) in Detroit and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. These are people you’ll normally have no chance to meet. How can you cultivate them? How can you get their trust so they’ll talk to you, at least off the record?

I’ll admit this is difficult. Music business insiders have to watch what they say. Nobody who hires conductors can afford to have his or her uncensored views about them showing up in the media. But still it can’t be impossible to find out what’s going on. Classical music isn’t the Pentagon, or the CIA. People in the business talk freely to each other, and to their friends, and I’ve known a very few critics, including myself (in the past, when I was a critic), who not just heard this talk, but took part in it. Journalists who cover politics normally know the inside stories of the politicians they cover. I’d suggest an experiment. Find a good regional newspaper, from a substantial city. Sit down with the classical music critic, and then with the reporters who cover the city and state governments. The political reporters, from everything I’ve seen, know where all the bodies are buried. The classical music critics don’t. Why is that?

Full disclosure: I wrote a very negative piece about Schwarz for The Wall Street Journal in 1998. After it appeared, I got phone calls from three Seattle Symphony musicians I’d never met or spoken to, people whose names I’d never even heard. They all wanted to thank me. Nothing like that happened to me before or since, not even when I created a storm with a negative piece about Seiji Ozawa in his last years at the BSO, a piece that was widely discussed (the Boston Globe even did a story about it), and which expressed views that many BSO musicians strongly agreed with. So, yes, not every Seattle musician hates Gerard Schwarz, and yes, every long-serving music director etc. etc. But the Seattle musicians who do hate Schwarz certainly hate him with a vehemence I haven’t found elsewhere.

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  1. says

    Hi Greg,

    You’re probably right about the lack of investigative skills of the average classical music critic, but I suspect there’s a broader issue as well — the need for “balance” that’s been created by pressures by conservatives on political reporting. (i.e. the “liberal media” myth) The idea of investigating and reporting facts has largely been replaced by the standard of dispassionately reporting and giving equal weight to “both sides” of any controversial issue, even when one side is demonstrably wrong. Criticising a conductor is touchy business, and it’s a lot safer for the newspaper to approach it from the he-said/she-said angle than from the find-and-assess-the-facts-on-the-ground angle.

    Additionally, I wonder if perhaps we should recognize that “critic” and “investigative journalist” are two separate job descriptions — perhaps newspaper staffs should assign actual investigative reporters to their cultural beats as well as critics in some sort of tag-team effort. In addition to the problem you cite of the critic being a poor investigator, we often see the reverse problem when the hard-news folks get their hands on a classical music story — they don’t have a clue about the cultural context that a critic is responsible for knowing.

    Thanks. Good points. I agree.

  2. Gavin Borchert says

    Schwarz’s most exciting performances, generally, are of late-Romantic stuff: Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Shostakovich. His weakest are of anything pre-1800–so if your main experience with him, Greg, is from Mostly Mozart, you definitely didn’t hear him at his best. The outstanding SSO performances from this past spring were his Mahler 7, Shostakovich 8, and the Strauss Oboe Cto. (not a “big” piece, but the oboist, SSO prinicpal Nathan Hughes, is miraculously good).

    The Schwarz discussion last month on Seattle Weekly’s blog got pretty acrimonious:


  3. says

    You know, you’re bang on about the lack of insight that many critics have. It’s as if there’s some sort of sacred aura that surrounds musical personalities and organizations – most critics being overly wary of commiting a blasphemy.

    The irony of it seems to be that, with the lack of really detailed ‘insider’ knowledge, most critics tend to end up offending someone or other in the industry, even if they hadn’t meant to. I think if you ask any quality journalist whether writing a story without truly knowing all the ins and outs is something they’d do, you’d get a resounding “no!” in reply.

    Greg, what you wrote is exactly what should have appeared in a newspaper’s cultural section – it’s a pleasure to read measured and insightful views on an issue like this. Any chances of getting something printed?!

    Thanks, Jonathan. Especially since, as you work for a major orchestra, you know the truth of what I was saying. And that’s an important point about how critics can write something that offends or otherwise bothers people in the industry, even if they’re trying to avoid any offense. I’ve worked both sides of this street — I’ve been a critic, known critics, hung out with critics, and also worked inside the industry, made friends there, hung out endlessly with musical professionals. The gap between the critics and professionals is huge — far larger, I’d say, than is normally acknowledged. Well, the professionals acknowledge it, but the critics normally don’t.) Sometimes, at least in my experience, it’s hard to tell that the two sets of people are talking about the same reality.

    I don’t have any plans to write about the Schwarz situation, beyond what I’ve said in this blog. Too much of what I know is off the record. The people who’ve spoken to me about Schwarz — over quite a number of years — certainly didn’t think they were speaking for publication.