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Monday, December 17, 2007

French Horns and Razor Blades

posted by on December 17 at 11:05 AM

If you’re looking for a comprehensive primer on the internal battles that have been screwing up the Seattle Symphony for the past few years, start here, in the Sunday NYT.

There isn’t much new information, but the article covers all the bad bits, including Schwarz purported incompetence and cronyism, including rigging his friend John Cerminaro, a French horn player, into the orchestra:

Normally orchestral openings are subject to rigorous blind auditions, but Mr. Cerminaro was invited to substitute for a player on leave. He eventually auditioned for a permanent job, but an orchestra committee rejected him by a vote of 9 to 1. Mr. Schwarz appointed him anyway. A number of players continued to oppose Mr. Cerminaro; he and Mr. Schwarz attribute that to jealousy or personality conflicts. “Success is the only unpardonable sin with these people,” Mr. Cerminaro said in an interview.

(That quote’s not going to make Cerminaro any friends.)

And it doesn’t neglect the anti-Schwarz revolts at his other conducting jobs:

Mr. Schwarz also faced trouble elsewhere. Friction built at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in England, where he had become principal conductor in 2001. Malcolm Stewart, the orchestra’s concertmaster of 24 years, quit in 2003. And in 2004, 40 of the 65 musicians cast an anti-Schwarz vote.

So how does he survive? Rich people like him. He’s a charmer, a money-magnet, the man who built Benaroya Hall. Too bad his musicians don’t think much of his conducting.

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I've been bitching for years about Schwartz letting the Guy with the French Horn get away with murder.

Mosttimes, he sounds like he's just strangling cats.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | December 17, 2007 11:09 AM

Schwartz is the dullest conductor I've ever heard. He can't conduct strings, not even a bit, so the string section under his baton lacks any punch because it lacks any direction. Apparently he believes rhythm is best left to the horns. The SSO with him on the podium sounds like a second rate college orchestra with better intonation. What a waste. Leave it to rich people to adore classical music and not know the first thing about it.

Posted by kinaidos | December 17, 2007 11:29 AM

I've watched and performed many concerts with the SSO. Most of the great ones were not with Gerry Schwartz but with guest conductors. Why can't we have a fab conductor like Baltimore's?

Posted by binkley | December 17, 2007 11:36 AM

Sorry but I heard Cerminaro in a solo part last season, and he brought tears to my eyes. Never met any of these guys but Cerminaro can make truly beautiful sounds with his horn.

Posted by Perfect Voter | December 17, 2007 11:45 AM

Slog - you are only telling half the story the article told. From the article it sounds like both sides are spoiled. Taking sides in this one is like taking sides in an elementary schoolyard fight.

Posted by mac | December 17, 2007 11:49 AM

The performances of the SSO I've seen with Scwartz conducting have been incredibly mediocre, which is a shame, as there are a lot of fine, fine players in the orchestra. I liken to going to a Seattle Symphony concert to watching a bunch of guys in recliners watching TV. Every now and then, they pick up their remotes and change the channel.

But yes, Schwartz has the donors in his back pocket, as well as Melinda Bargreen from the Seattle Times.

I found the bit about Cerminaro very interesting. I didn't know the story about his hiring, but I had heard that the principle horn player had the biggest salary of all of the orchestra members--something in the range of 340K/year. If that's indeed the case, it adds another layer.

For those of you who don't know what the blind audition process is, many orchestras will have musicians audition behind a screen, so the panel doesn't see any of the folks auditioning. The musicians will even take off their shoes, so the panel can't tell by how they walk whether they are male or female. The idea is to avoid various kinds of discrimination, but also to avoid preferential treatment of friends, people known by the panel, etc.

Posted by Emily G | December 17, 2007 11:50 AM

Half the story is right; this one is just about the on-going public artistic battle between Schwartz and the musicians.

Then there's the whole administrative/financial debacle that barely gets more than a cursory mention in most articles about SSO.

Posted by COMTE | December 17, 2007 12:00 PM

The Stranger only telling half of a story?!? Imagine that!

Posted by daytrpr | December 17, 2007 12:11 PM

so seattle: a mediocre talent in a position of unimpeachable tenure.

he's the jim mcdermott of conductors.

if the blue hairs who fund the SSO boredom (programming is a snooze, too) die, things might change. what a thing to hope for.

on a related subject, when i grew up in cincinnati, every summer the CSO played 6-8 concerts in parks around the region. sure they played warhorses, & the sound sucked, but 5,000 people turned out for a concert & a picnic. where the fuck is that outreach in Seattle? the audience gets older & older & older...

Posted by max solomon | December 17, 2007 12:13 PM

I can only say "right on" to 2, 3, and 6. I had the good fortune to hear Alsop in Baltimore recently, and she, and the BSO, blow the doors off of anything we get here in Seattle.

Posted by Yes again | December 17, 2007 12:21 PM

Perhaps he can make beautiful sounds with his horn, #4.

But most of the time he makes out-of-tune gargling noises over the top of everyone else.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | December 17, 2007 12:54 PM

Although Schwartz has done much to add talented musicians to the orchestra, he has never inspired me as a conductor. SSO is at best bored playing under his baton. We desperately need new blood on the podium and programming that reflects Seattle’s contemporary artistic scene. LA Philharmonic seems to have the formula down…why can’t we do the same? The SSO board has failed Seattle miserably.

Posted by Polka Party | December 17, 2007 2:01 PM

Schwarz breathes boredom into nearly every piece he conducts. It's truly amazing in it's own way.

It would be nice to get a conductor with some energy, and who can inspire the orchestra.

Posted by BallardDan | December 17, 2007 2:39 PM

Somebody dig up Eugene Ormandy!

Posted by Greg | December 17, 2007 2:40 PM

Somebody dig up David Zinman.

Do all musicians pass blind auditions now? Did Joshua Roman? He's really really good -- but dude, there are definitely better players around. Not saying he's not the best choice, especially since I think he's infusing a lot of energy and publicity to the orchestra but honestly I don't think he's *that* good. Not nearly as good as, say, Zuill Bailey. All I'm saying is that competition in that scene is fucking tough, so you'd expect blind auditions to filter all but the very very best.

Posted by Bob Hall | December 17, 2007 2:54 PM

Cerminaro cacks notes all the time. Part of the reason the orchestra is pissed is because he was installed and he cant play.

I've seen many orchestras play and the worst thing about Seattle is the unrealized potential. With the right conductor, someone who inspires and motivates an orchestra, I think Seattle could be world class, on par with Clevland, Chicago or NY phil. The talent is here (aside from Cerminaro) but they wont play for Schwarz...

Posted by Greg II | December 18, 2007 10:44 AM

As a musician who came of age in Seattle, watching (from afar) the unhappy situation between the SSO musicians and music director play out in the press the past 3+ years has been akin to seeing stories about old friends in a nasty child custody battle -- no one comes out looking good.

It might be useful to consider this situation by thinking about what a music director should accomplish to be considered a success. The basic answer to this question is twofold. First, the MD should make artistic decisions and engage in the necessary strategic planning and development efforts to ensure the current viability and long term survival of the organization. Second, they should guide the collective artistic growth of the musicians they lead to the highest possible level given the resources at hand.

On the first count, Schwarz has been a clear success. The record of organizational accomplishment during his tenure is indisputably impressive -- the building of Benaroya Hall, turnaround from near bankruptcy and subsequent growth of funding to move the orchestra into top-10 budget and pay class (base pay of >$80 K), large catalog of CDs (made possible by the musicians' breakaway from the national union and its recording agreements). You could compare the fortunes of the Oregon and Vancouver Symphs over the past 25 years to see how well the SSO has made out (plenty of other have factors contributed to the differences, but having a focused, hands-on, politically astute MD has been a big help). The orchestra is well positioned to achieve the artistic stature of ensembles such as the Baltimore and St Louis Symphonies and the Minnesota Orchestra in the coming decade.

This brings us to the second area. To assess it, we should first define, broadly, the qualities a conductor needs to be an effective podium leader for a major professional orchestra. Two adjectives come to mind: competent and inspiring. A conductor's competence can be assessed by three simple queries (assuming the given of unimpeachable musicianship): does s/he know the score, does s/he know what s/he wants, does s/he know how to get it? Inspiration is harder to quantify, with personality, temperament, and chemistry between conductor and orchestra each playing a big role. Based on my own experiences, I'd propose that the wellspring for a conductor's ability to inspire an orchestra of accomplished, mature musicians is that conductor's desire and ability to think and feel deeply about a piece of music, drawing on knowledge of the score, the composer's process/aesthetics/cultural context, and performance practice, etc. to create a compelling point of view that can galvanize an orchestra into performing with the intensity, refinement and distinction comparable to that of a great string quartet (which may have rehearsed and performed a piece for years as opposed to the ~8 hours a typical orchestra rehearses for a subscription concert).

My views about artistic leadership considerations in the Seattle situation are based on a few observations of Schwarz's conducting in recent years (both in Seattle and elsewhere), conversations with friends in the SSO (from both the pro- and anti-Schwarz camps), and informal discussions with industry insiders (orchestra musicians, artistic admins, etc.) Relative to competence: I have never heard anyone suggest that Schwarz's musicianship was flawed or that he was ever less than completely prepared for rehearsals. Likewise, the accounts of his approach to rehearsal (detailed to the point of micromanaging, according to his detractors) indicate that he has a clear idea of what he wants to hear. His physical approach, while not particularly elegant or refined, does seem to communicate his intentions. While his bias toward an orchestra response quite delayed from his beat is not to everyone’s taste, it’s fairly common at this level of orchestra. So the former RLPO concertmaster’s characterization that Schwarz is a “charlatan” is unwarranted, in my opinion.

The trouble starts when examining Schwarz’s ability to inspire musicians. Even his supporters acknowledge his “nuts and bolts” (addressing loud/soft, short/long, rhythmically accurate/inaccurate) approach doesn’t go deeply into the music – “that’s just not who he is”. One player told me that Schwarz never speaks of music in rehearsal in terms of metaphor/imagery, which might lead one to conclude that he doesn’t think of it that way either. Unfortunately, it is precisely this dimension – produced by the “thinking and feeling deeply about the music” mentioned above – that leads to the type of approach that can inspire and galvanize an orchestra. Pursuing technical excellence (or score-literal accuracy) as an end in itself becomes pointless and wearisome – only when it is connected to realizing a composer’s vision that is only sketched out in the score does it make any sort of sense. The problem at the root of Schwarz’s approach appears to be a lack of imagination.

While the number of orchestras capable of performing at a world-class level has grown immensely in the past 50 years, the number of conductors capable of taking full advantage of this virtuosity has not – so when a conductor emerges with the interpretive insight and soul that can bring out the best in an orchestra, s/he will eventually have a full calendar of engagements and move progressively up the ladder to higher profile positions. A key litmus test is simply whether a conductor is reengaged as a guest most of the time or rarely. I don’t have a calendar of Schwarz’s guest activity in the recent past or into the future, but it is notable that he has not had a significant presence on the podia of American orchestras at roughly the same level or higher than the SSO. The verdict appears to be that orchestras with a strong artistic identity have limited interest in what Schwarz has to offer.

Szell in Cleveland, Reiner in Chicago, Commissiona/Zinman in Baltimore, Slatkin in St Louis, Dutoit in Montreal, Skrowaczewski in Minneapolis – each had notably long tenures in which they led remarkable organizational and artistic growth. Some were beloved, some were feared or resented by their players, but all created something special and left an imprint of excellence in their orchestras’ DNA that has been built upon by their successors. Schwarz has built a great platform for a musician of distinction to build upon. Sadly, by holding on at this point, he begins to endanger the legacy of organizational success he has built.

Posted by cegbdfaceg | December 19, 2007 1:30 PM

Hi All: The Stranger... "stranger than fiction." That should be the trademark for the paper. Obviously, Strangophils don't like rich or competent people. Incredible comments here about Mr. Cerminaro's "lack" of abilities. Incredibly absurd and, frankly, malicious. All you have to do is read the reviews (do a search for Cerminaro at either of the Seattle daily newspapers).

Even the wacky NY Times reporter, Mr. Wakin, a co-author of the recent NY Times "hatchet job" on Schwarz quoted above, gave Mr. Cerminaro rave reviews (see Cerminaro Demonstrates Prodigious Control - June 24, 2007) just a few months before deciding to pen an article that would have readers believe that Mr. Cerminaro was hired as a "friend" and NOT because he was and still is one of the world's best horn players. Check his discography at

I call the NY Times article a hatchet job for many reasons, but the most outstanding reason is the writers apparently have NEVER attended a single SSO performance (they don't cite it, if they did), have never watched Schwartz in rehearsals, and, indeed, for the most part let their article stand almost entirely on quotes (hearsay) and did very little real fact checking. In fact, quite likely, at least one of the reporters was on vacation from the September heat of New York to the west coast, and had to likely justify his stint in our wonderful climes by doing something -- even an under-researched article will do. NY no longer has a stranglehold on the arts. It may be the center of the universe in some people's minds, but all you have to do is attend an opera at the Met or a symphony at Avery Fisher, and you will get to experience the falling apart personally. Seattle doesn't need or want NY's opinion -- stick to reviews closer to home, if you can swallow it.

Only disgruntled and whining SSO musicians would give Mr. Cerminaro a bad review, and you know what that is based on. Quite frankly, I like what Mr. Cerminaro said about "success being the only unpardonable sin." Look, he had no friends before and he has been able to perform in the midst of clear hostility since day one post-appointment, so why should he try to make friends now? Would you, in such circumstances? Seattle, including the Stranger, needs to get out of its adolescence and move on (read "grow up").

Posted by MarkThis | December 20, 2007 9:14 AM

Having followed the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra through the Schwartz years, they started with great promise. He promised new programming, a new hall and to play the long game with Liverpool. He undoubtedly attracted some money. The orchestra played some great concerts with Gerry Schwartz, but they also played some absolute bummers - unfortunately increasingly more of the latter than the former. I never quite got his string sound, and he had seemed to have little idea of what to do with the Choir. Unfortunately, he'll probably be remembered mainly for his falling out with the Orchestra and Society, secondly for a personal manner that might be OK for selling insurance, and only then for any musical contribution to Liverpool.

Posted by RPW | December 23, 2007 12:07 PM

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