WHEN CONDUCTOR GERARD SCHWARZ joined the editorial board of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music: The American Experience in 1997, he was already an authority on the American side of the equation, having transformed the Seattle Symphony Orchestra into a leading purveyor of music by modern American composers. But the Jewish side? According to Schwarz, not so much. "It was an area that many of us, me included, knew very little about," he says.
Those familiar with Schwarz's professional history might take that with a grain of salt. As music director of the New York Chamber Symphony, for example, Schwarz premiered a number of Jewish-themed works by such prominent American composers as David Diamond and Hugo Weisgall, whose music also appears in the Archive. In fact, he led the first performance of Weisgall's T'kiatot: Rituals for Rosh Hashana, whose stylized versions of the call of the shofar, or ram's horn, ring out in Volume 11 of the Archive's 20 themed collections. And as a member of the editorial board, Schwarz was responsible for bringing this and several other pieces to the attention of the Archive. Still, Schwarz describes the experience of working with the Milken Archive as nothing less than revelatory; it was, he says, an opportunity to discover a body of extraordinary music with deep personal significance.
Schwarz began his career as a virtuoso trumpet player; a prodigy, no less, who chose his instrument at the age of 7 after hearing the Triumphal March for trumpet and orchestra from Verdi's Aïda. Schwarz joined the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski just out of high school, and the American Brass Quintet while he was still a freshman at Juilliard; was named co-principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic at the age of 25; and by the age of 30 had committed to vinyl a series of discs that remain dear to the hearts of trumpet aficionados the world over. Only then did he refashion himself as a conductor and music director, founding the NYCS and the contemporary music series Music Today, and directing the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center as well as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Upon taking the helm of the Seattle Symphony, which he led as music director from 1985 until 2011, Schwarz quickly established the orchestra as a world-class ensemble, and himself as one of the world's great conductors. He also became the country's foremost champion of American symphonic music, launching a series of recordings in the early 1990s that brought renewed attention to mid-century works by American composers such as Howard Hanson and Walter Piston, while commissioning new ones by the likes of Philip Glass and David Stock. "Jerry has always made a point of bringing together masterpieces of the past and modern works," says Paul Schwendener, artist and repertoire consultant for the Milken Archive, and the man who helped Schwarz record a series of works for the Archive in both the United States and Europe. "It's always been a part of him."
That commitment to showcasing contemporary works by American composers aligned perfectly with the work of the Archive, which is among other things a unique repository of modern American music, much of it every bit as neglected as the symphonic repertoire that Schwarz had already successfully revived. And just as Schwarz's attention to compositions by the likes of Piston and Hanson increased awareness of American symphonic music, so has the Archive raised the profile of Jewish-themed works by American composers. (Samuel Adler, a founding member of the Milken Archive's editorial board, credits the Archive with boosting radio airplay of his Symphony No. 5, and with making his Five Sephardi Choruses a staple of the college choral repertory.) Similarly, Schwarz's own fame has helped heighten interest in many neglected gems of the American-Jewish repertoire—though he's characteristically modest about that, as well, allowing only that his name-recognition may have helped bring to the Archive the attention that it has always deserved.
Yet if Schwarz's stature and willingness to traffic in both the old and the new made him the ideal conductor for the Milken Archive, so, too, did his personal background.
Schwarz grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, the son of Austrian immigrants who were, he says, "more Middle European then Jewish." Nevertheless, they made sure that he and his sisters received a Jewish education, attending synagogue and Hebrew school in nearby Union City. Schwarz rejects the notion that one must be Jewish to conduct Jewish-themed music, any more than one must be Catholic in order to conduct a Mass—"there is a universality to great music," he asserts—but he does contend that one must understand the context of whatever music one is interpreting, along with any related texts. Or as he says, in keeping with the Mass analogy, "you do have to understand what Agnus Dei means." Which is why some knowledge of Jewish culture can only help when interpreting pieces that allude to Hebrew prayers, Old Testament texts, and the traditions and history of the Jewish people.
Adler believes that Schwarz's upbringing afforded him precisely such an edge—"just like Leonard Bernstein." Adler ought to know. The son of a renowned cantor and liturgical composer, Adler is himself a prolific composer of sacred Jewish music, and knew Bernstein personally—well enough to have been deeply impressed by Bernstein's familiarity with the Jewish liturgy. (Schwarz also knew Bernstein, having played under him in the Philharmonic. The two became friends, which made it even more fitting that Schwarz would eventually record Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms for the Archive.)
Schwarz's sensitivity to Judaica, coupled with his flair for contemporary music and his ability to quickly establish trust among his fellow musicians, helped him pull remarkable interpretations of unfamiliar works not only from the SSO, but also from major European ensembles like the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic. The recordings they made together for the Archive breathed new life into pieces that had either languished in obscurity—like Herman Berlinski's majestic Avodat Shabbat, a Sabbath prayer service for cantor, choir, and orchestra that Schwarz had never before encountered, yet which he now describes as a masterpiece—or been known primarily through fragmentary or disappointing performances, like Kurt Weill's epic The Eternal Road, which examines the arc of Jewish history through the lens of opera and musical theater. Schwarz knows that the process of incorporating new or previously unknown pieces into the repertoire can be tricky, but he hopes that the yeoman's work done by the Archive will encourage new commissions of Jewish-themed works by American composers.
If Schwarz has given much to the Archive, however, he also received much in return—including a whole new level of engagement with Jewish-themed art music. "To come across a great number of wonderful pieces that actually relate to you and your religious beliefs or upbringing was an extraordinary revelation," he says; a revelation that affected him tremendously as both an artist, and as a human being. Just as importantly, he forged a series of significant personal and professional relationships: with Lowell Milken, whom he describes as "a brilliant leader"; with Milken Archive artistic director Neil Levin, from whom he continues to learn much about Jewish music; and with Paul Schwendener, whom he recruited to serve as executive director of his latest project, the All-Star Orchestra.
The ASO, which completed its first season in 2013, comprises players culled from orchestras across the country. Rather than performing before live audiences in concert halls, it instead makes exquisitely detailed video recordings of well-known masterworks and pieces by contemporary American composers. It is also a large-scale instrument of music education. The ultimate goal, says Schwarz, is to create a library of great works and accompanying educational materials that will last forever—a goal that can't help but bring to mind the Milken Archive, with its vast trove of musical recordings, scholarly essays, documentary videos, and oral histories.
Schwarz has always taken his role as an educator seriously, in part because he sincerely believes that music has the power to enrich people's lives, and in part because education plays such a large role in building audiences. Bernstein's televised Young People's Concerts, which Schwarz played on as a trumpeter, and which blended performance with pedagogy in a highly popular format, made a lasting impression on him; and Schwarz established his own educational series, Musically Speaking, in Seattle, commenting from the podium to sold-out houses on works by classical and modern masters alike. Not surprisingly, he sees the ASO as a powerful tool for cultivating young audiences and building interest in concert music amongst the public at large.
Imagine, he says, featuring works from the Milken Archive like Berlinski's Avodat Shabbat, or perhaps the great Franco-American composer Darius Milhaud's Service Sacré. Imagine, too, expanding further into the realm of online distribution, and reaching millions of children who might otherwise never have the opportunity to see a first-rate orchestra in action.
That is the kind of vision that has long defined Schwarz. It characterized his early work as a musician and conductor in New York; his years with the SSO; and his efforts on behalf of the Milken Archive.
And it's clear he's far from being done yet.
Milken Archive Curator Jeff Janeczko has assembled a playlist of some of the great works performed, conducted, and even composed by Schwarz as the audio compliment to this article. The Spotify playlist is free to stream and features tracks from Kurt Weill's The Eternal Road, Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and more.
Learn more about the life and work of Gerard Schwarz on this website, or visit our Spotify page for a special playlist featuring his work from the Milken Archive and beyond.
About the series: Though the adage "like father, like son" remains a salient expression, the world of music has not produced a wealth famous father-son pairs. This four-part series looks at two very different fathers and sons who have made—and continue to make—significant contributions to music both Jewish and otherwise: Lazar Weiner, the sine qua non of Yiddish art song, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning son, Yehudi Wyner; and Gerard Schwarz, conductor and founder of the All-Star Orchestra, and his son, cellist Julian Schwarz.
Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.