Music in dark times

Conductor Gerard Schwarz talks about his upcoming program with the National Symphony Orchestra and the imperiled US classical music industry

By Enru Lin  /  Staff reporter

Sat, May 03, 2014 - Page 12

Emmy Award-winning conductor Gerard Schwarz is in Taipei with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO, 國家交響樂團), rehearsing the Strauss masterpiece that musicians and audiences alike are least likely to know.

“The orchestra sounds great. Even with the Metamorphosen by Strauss — nobody knows this, but from the moment we started, we had 23 great players,” Schwarz says.

Metamorphosen is third on the program tomorrow at the National Concert Hall. It’s an unusual pick, checking nearly none of the boxes for today’s successful classical music program.

“First, it’s long at 30 minutes. It uses 23 players, not the full orchestra, so you have the full orchestra onstage but only 23 players playing,” Schwarz says.

But mostly, Metamorphosen does not win favor due to its overwhelming tone of despair, he says.

“When people compose based on stories, like Mahler did with his funeral march, it’s funereal but it ends in triumph. With Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the first movement is very dark but the last is triumph … People like to have the happy boisterous ending,” he says.

But Strauss, a German composer who completed Metamorphosen at the end of World War II, does not conclude with an uplift.

He had been a well-connected, influential composer that the Nazi regime courted and later harassed. By 1945, Dresden was reduced to rubble, and many relatives of his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice had perished in the concentration camps, despite his appeals on their behalf. Strauss had retreated into a mountain, where he wrote Metamorphosen.

“He was 80 years old and he had seen that everything around him was death and destruction,” Schwarz says.

Strauss opens Metamorphosen with a simple theme on bass and cello that gradually becomes raw — a metamorphosis that results not in self-knowledge and intimacy with the divine, but in bestiality. In the final movement, he explicitly quotes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

“For me, there are moments of sunshine. It’s introspective sadness and all of a sudden, some memory of a better time surfaces, but in the end the memory is destroyed,” Schwarz says.

Tomorrow, the NSO will also perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring soloist Florian Uhlig, followed by Beethoven’s Konig Stephan Overture.

The concert concludes with the Strauss repertory classic Don Juan, a virtuosic early work inspired by an energetic man who pursues many ladies.

“It starts with this incredible flurry and there’s a great theme followed by cute little episodes, where the flute represents the woman,” he says.


Schwarz, a two-time Emmy Award winner, is the retired music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

During his 26-year tenure, he was known for championing living American composers and for drastically elevating the orchestra’s international standing, from a small pops ensemble to a powerhouse.

On the whole, though, today’s American classical music industry remains in crisis. Following the footsteps of ensembles in Syracuse and Honolulu, the Philadelphia Orchestra — one of the US “Big Five” — filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. This year, Nashville barely skirted foreclosure.

“Classical music is in trouble. Education is lacking, the tradition of great support for great art is waning. It’s just the way it is — there are many different things that take precedence, like sports,” Schwarz says.

“In the biggest cities like Berlin, New York and Vienna, it’s not hard, because you have such a large audience for classical music … When you get into the smaller cities, small countries, you have to figure out what’s your place.”

In recent years, strategies deployed to gain more audience share have varied wildly: Some ensembles have tried bringing in more star soloists, while many others have leaned toward popular programming.

“With each orchestra the needs are different, but I don’t believe we need to play rock and roll. Some orchestras do — they bring in rock bands, they play backup, people come and it’s very nice. I think that if you don’t have to do it, you shouldn’t do it,” Schwarz says.

“You are raising a new audience, but not an audience for classical music.”

For Schwarz, a sensible direction is community involvement and education, which delivers benefits to both the industry and the wider public.

At Seattle, he and the orchestra offered concerts tailored to specific ages — little recitals for 5-year-olds, cooler concerts for 12-year olds and 16-year-olds and events for seniors.

“We played once a year at city hall and at major companies’ headquarters. We played with students. We did a community orchestra where we embraced everybody that played,” he says.

“You do anything you can to become an integral part of the community.”

Schwarz’s latest project is All Star Orchestra, a series of TV programs featuring top US musicians performing and explaining classical masterpieces and new works. Users can stream episodes for free at