In a startling development, longtime maestro of the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, announced his retirement, which will come at the end of the 2010-11 season. Schwarz is among the longest-tenured of any major American conductor, leading the Seattle Symphony since 1985. His title after 2011 will be conductor laureate, and he will retain occasional conducting duties.
In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Schwarz gave these reasons for his decision: "The orchestra just finished a great season, we balanced our budget, ticket sales were the best in our history, everything is in good shape. We are as strong artistically as we have ever been. I have been here a lot of years. I love this orchestra and the city and the hall, but I thought this might be the moment to relinquish all those responsibilities of being music director. I loved being music director, but I need a little rest. I already feel the relief of those duties. That is the main impetus behind this decision." Schwarz has no immediate prospects for another conducting post, and he and his family plan to stay in Seattle, where they are deeply rooted in the community.
Recent years have not been entirely happy ones for the conductor. Many orchestra members have actively pushed for a new conductor, and bitter orchestra labor disputes alleging a harsh personal style by the maestro have made for damaging national coverage. The orchestra has regularly struggled with deficits, as have many in the country, while attendance has been strong. Two previous executive directors departed abruptly, suggesting that Schwarz was a difficult partner. There has been a four-year controversy over the firing of a concertmaster and the search for a new one. Critical comments on Schwarz-led tours of the orchestra were tepid, and Schwarz has lost conducting positions in Liverpool and New York City in recent years. The Symphony board has been split between those thinking Schwarz should stay, particularly in light of his fundraising skills, and those longing for the excitement a new conductor could bring to the players and audiences.
Until very recently, Schwarz, who is 61 and was paid $577,500 a year according to the 2006 tax filing, seemed determined to stay as long as he wanted. After the 2006 decision to extend his contract, word was quietly passed to advocates for a change that there was a tacit agreement that this five-year extension would be the final one. According to several board sources, Schwarz argued against making this tacit agreement public, on the grounds that it would harm his ability to raise money for the Symphony and to find a new post. Others pleaded that the board needed years to conduct a proper search for a new conductor, and needed to get started early.
But since the 2006 decision on Schwarz's contract, the board had been changed in the direction of Schwarz loyalists, of which there are many, and Symphony board chair Susan Hutchison, head of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, a key benefactor of the Symphony, instructed the board to stop arguing about Schwarz and get with the program of raising money. (That advice seems to have worked, with the Symphony finishing the last season with a small surplus, perhaps aided by extending the fiscal year by two months.) A key test was whether Schwarz and others could dramatically increase the Symphony's endowment, a crucial part of regaining financial stability, but progress has been slow in growing the endowment beyond its current $30 million.
The contract with the musicians expires next August, and Symphony observers hoped to make a decision about extending Schwarz's contract again before contract negotiations commenced with the players, many of whom were furious at the last extension. Schwarz's decision, which was apparently made just last month, comes earlier than next spring, when the board was expected to face the issue. The decision clears the air for the labor talks, which will get started next spring, and the president of the players union, timpanist Michael Crusoe, issued a warmly positive statement saying the players look forward to "celebrating the many gifts" Schwarz has brought to the orchestra. Schwarz's early decision also enables a search for a successor to get under way, though two-three years is tight as these things go. And it gives time for three seasons of tributes to the maestro for his long service, for building Benaroya Hall, and for greatly upgrading the quality of the orchestra.