Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Great Piano Heist

I ask my readers: do you remember where you were and what you were doing the day when the local press announced Music Director Gerard Schwarz's retirement from Seattle Symphony? Here's what I recall. I was bent over the kitchen sink peeling potatoes. The phone rang. A symphony violinist drew in a deep breath, paused, and calmly stated, "He's retiring."
"Who?" I asked innocently, but silently hopeful.
"Schwarz," she said. "June, 2011."

I can remember the wheels spinning in my head; 2011 would feel like an eternity, I thought to myself.   It's probably not, dear reader, what you may expect. I waxed nostalgic for a few magic moments after the call, sentimentalist that I tend to be. I remembered some meaningful times from the past, mostly celebratory gatherings; baby showers and birthday parties; a Bat Mitzvah too. I was a mother with two young daughters, but also first chair and artistic director for the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, now defunct, as many other arts organizations will soon be. For example, Bellevue Philharmonic just folded after 43 years. I was also concertmaster of Pacific Northwest Ballet back in the glorious days of Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. My husband, Ilkka Talvi, served for twenty years as concertmaster for Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera under Schwarz. Although my husband was an exemplary soldier, you won't hear much about his notable past from the departing one; the epaulets from his uniform were stripped by the commander for reasons that were never articulated, but can be deduced, judging from the outcome of his absence. But listen to the SSO recordings of Diamond and Creston on the Naxos label, with my husband as soloist, and you'll hear a fiddle player of top rank; one that inspired a warm, refined European sound from the strings.

The choice of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony as a closing event might have proved symbolic. After all, in terms of morale, the Seattle Symphony—with many fine players—can  now move forward to not only new leadership (the orchestra is simply not the same orchestra as it was when Schwarz first appeared on the podium back in the early 80s), but to a future of civility under the musical directorship of Ludovic Morlot, a 36 year old French violinist/conductor who has already directed the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, and New York Philharmonic. Certainly, Maestro Morlot  possesses a sensibility when it comes to strings, already eager to regroup first and second violins so that the two sections will blend and hear each other, rather than second guess from one end of the massive stage to the other.

Schwarz's tenure lasted exceedingly long (26 years) by industry standards; normal shelf life for a Music Director is about 7-10 years. The retaliation within the orchestra began to resemble a TV crime series, with alleged vandalisms, a dented French horn, and a razor blade found in a mailbox. But to the Seattle masses, Schwarz is an icon, and understandably so. A downtown street has been named after him. One that, I'm sure, many musicians will attempt to avoid, for the sign itself might just trigger a bout of post traumatic stress disorder. One retired musician will have a book completed by this summer's end as testimony to bullying in the orchestral workplace.

Life is never what it appears in the symphonic arena; you can be sure of that. Not a word of gratitude was exchanged after the final rehearsal between the departing one and his followers. Not a simple, "Have a great summer and future" or "Thank you, colleagues, for coping with my didactic approach, retaliatory measures of hiring and firing, not to mention the episode of withholding your bargaining contract from being ratified unless you agreed to my choice of principal horn." Oh yes, and not to forget  the "declaration of loyalty to Gerard Schwarz" the principals were forced to sign back in 2002. (Without that declaration, the Schwarz era might have ended years ago, when his contract was up for renewal.)

With any cult of personality, audiences go wild. Think Adolf Hitler. I suppose the speeches at the final farewell were scintillating. I was told that the applause bordered on frenzy. Schwarz turned to the orchestra on stage—and publicly professed his love to each and every orchestra musician. I'm sure my colleagues felt the loving vibes, and reciprocated whole-heartedly.

Shall we take one final trip down memory lane?

So, what happened next after all the hoopla? Like any other employee, the departing one was required to clean out his office. Seems he went the extra mile with this, too, and performed an exemplary job. Nothing half-way. The Steinway grand piano, which Seattle Symphony claims belongs to the organization (uh-oh) and expects returned, was packed up along with everything else. If lightbulbs were pilfered along with rolls of toilet paper, you know tough times are ahead. Oh, and in case anyone's interested, there's a mansion for sale on Highland Avenue.

Reporting (still alive) from Seattle!

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