The Classical Station’s interview with Gerard Schwarz for Preview!

Interview with Gerard Schwarz
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: Ben van Houten)

Gerard Schwarz, the Musical Director of the Eastern Music Festival, appears on Preview! A four-time Emmy-winner, a 14-time GRAMMY nominee, and the first American to win Musical America’s Conductor of the Year, Gerard Schwarz speaks with Caleb Gardner about the upcoming Eastern Musical Festival.

GARDNER: First of all, Maestro, what is it that most excites you about returning to Greensboro and being here at the Eastern Music Festival?

SCHWARZ: There are so many levels of excitement. One is, of course, the students we have this year—we’ll have over 200 students among two full orchestras. Some of these students are young professionals who will be professional musicians; others will just have music as a part of their life. Like you, we all love to pass on what information we have and what knowledge we have, and it’s so much fun to work with these wonderful students and to pass on a little bit of the knowledge that we have accumulated after many years in this world.

I love Greensboro. I’ve been coming to Greensboro for almost 20 years now. It’s a wonderful, beautiful city. Guilford College is a perfect place for us to house our festival, with a gorgeous concert hall. Acoustically, Dana Auditorium is one of the best in the country. Then, of course, there’s the great audience, the great patrons, and the great board members; it does feel like a community and a family. I go to all the concerts, not only the ones that I conduct, and I see some of my closest friends who live in Greensboro. The staff headed by Chris Williams is just dynamite. They’re wonderful people, they care deeply and make life smooth for all of us during these five weeks that we’re together at the Eastern Music Festival.

GARDNER: What challenges come with managing faculty who are all artists and individuals, and who are often the head of their own musical departments?

SCHWARZ: That’s a great question, but that’s really what conductors do. We face orchestras and think about what they are. An orchestra is made up of highly talented people; to get there, they’ve practiced for hours and years and worked very hard. They’re highly intelligent with strong opinions and ideas. To lead a group like that is not easy because you have to treat them correctly with great respect and as artists. And yet we all have different opinions. It’s interesting when you think about it, because so many parts of our lives these days, you see people fighting and not working together or calling each other names. You have these fights going on constantly in business and politics and education. When we come together for these five weeks, it is really a melding of ideas and attitudes towards education and music. Everybody who’s there wants to be there. Everyone cares about the success of their students. And I can say without exception, we’re all friends, regardless of whether we agree about everything. But in disagreements, you can have interesting discussions. If someone says we rehearse too much or we don’t rehearse enough, you can have that discussion. The other great advantage is that it is five weeks. If there is a conflict, which rarely happens, then in five weeks it’s over.

GARDNER: Secondly, Julian Schwarz is coming to the festival. I remember one of the greatest experiences I had was to hear you conduct him for the Elgar Cello Concerto. Can you tell our listeners what’s so special, seeing your son grow into this musician and playing with him on the same stage?

SCHWARZ: How lucky am I? I have four wonderful children. He’s the fourth, and he’s the classical musician. It can be good or bad, right? You can help him in his life, or you can hinder him by having too many opinions, or by people saying, oh, he got ahead because his father’s famous or something like that. When it’s all said and done, Julian represents himself. He is a great, great artist, one of the great cellists alive today and a great person, a great human being. For me to have the opportunity to conduct him, which I do two or three times a year, is something that I always look forward to. First of all, I love the way he plays. I could listen to him all day long. He plays a recital, and I always wish it went on longer because I love it so much because it’s such a special voice that he has. When we do concertos together two or three times a year, it is just among the highlights of my year.

At Eastern, it’s different because first of all, he was a student there. His years as a student were very successful. And then he became a faculty member. And so he plays in the orchestra on the first stand. Neal Cary was his teacher and he sits with Neal on the first stand of the cellos. And he doesn’t play in orchestras. On occasion he’ll play with the All Star Orchestra on my TV show, but this is the only orchestra he plays, and I’m just so thrilled that he comes. He doesn’t have to. And he comes. He loves to teach. He loves to play chamber music. He loves to play occasional solos. But he actually loves orchestra. He loves the music, he loves the experience. And so we get to do it together. There’s nothing that is more gratifying for a father than to work with your son, who is, in a sense, in a different field, and to see how remarkable he is. The pride I feel is extraordinary.

GARDNER: Throughout your recording and your performing career, you’ve always been a champion of new music. Why do you think that it’s so important and why have you prioritized performing the music of living composers?

SCHWARZ: We are involved in a living art form. We’re not a museum. People like to say symphony orchestras are like museums, but they’re not. If you go to a museum and see a painting by Renoir or Van Gogh, you can look at it for an hour, you can look at it for 10 seconds and you can walk by. It exists, you see it, and you leave. A Beethoven symphony doesn’t exist unless you actually hear it. You have to hear it. And to hear it properly, you have to hear it live. We are a living art form. You want to hear Beethoven, you come to a concert.

The art form that we’re involved with is a continuation of what happened in the past. It continues. I think conductors have a responsibility to help that continuation with promoting great music by living composers. Every composer wasn’t great. If you look at the composers during Mozart’s time, some of them are outstanding and most of them are not, and most of them you’ll never hear of again. So our job is to, in principle, find the ones that we think have important things to say and then give them the support they need, and hopefully get the audience to be part of it so that they say, “Oh, wow, I love this piece. How interesting.” The Elgar Cello Concerto, as great as it is, it’s not a piece that every concert-goer in our country knows. And yet if you hear it for the first time, you’re taken because it is such a remarkable piece.

It’s our job to represent the music of the past and to represent the music of the present. That’s hard because there are thousands of composers writing music, some of it good, some of it not so good. Someone who’s highly educated and highly experienced has to help decide which pieces are played. And it’s hard because composers all think, as they should, that they’re great, but I have to personally love it. I also have to believe that an audience can like it, can identify with it. I could find a very avant-garde piece that I find fascinating but realize that the audience wouldn’t like it at all because it’s just too hard to grasp. So you have to make those determinations. This art form is a continuation, and for the years that I’m here, I’m a little cog in that wheel of that continuation. It will continue after me, and it was there before me.

GARDNER: The festival continues to expand its programs. In 2015, I was honored to be there for the guitar intensive. The euphonium program came afterwards. Are there any other additions or plans to grow the festival’s educational programs?

SCHWARZ: The inaugural two-week guitar intensive is fantastic and continues to this day. And then we added the tuba and euphonium two-week intensive, which is very successful. There are probably 20 tuba and euphonium players coming and we have two of the greatest teachers coming to teach those great students. I’m very interested in expanding that. You can do it with just about every instrument.

The obvious one to do is the flute, because there are so many flute players of high quality that try to come, but it gets complicated. We have the teachers, we have the students, but we have to have the infrastructure to make it work. It’s my hope that in the next year we’ll have a flute intensive. I want to do a percussion one, and I want to do a trumpet one. These are great for the students and great for the festival. When there’s room, we will be expanding educationally in those directions.

GARDNER: If listeners had two or three performances to attend, which would you recommend they come to see?

SCHWARZ: Focusing on orchestra, every Saturday night is special. They’re made up of professional orchestras with some students as well. It’s phenomenal. Whether we’re doing the Beethoven Fifth or the Mahler Fifth or the Pines of Rome or the Brahms Violin Concerto, we’re doing it with some of the great soloists.

If people are interested in hearing orchestras made up of students, I recommend Thursday and Friday nights beginning on week two. We’ll have Rachmaninoff symphonies, works of Respighi, just tremendous repertoire played by these really gifted young people.

If people are interested in chamber music, we have five Tuesday nights. They are uniformly wonderful. So starting from week one, visit any Tuesday night. We also have specials on Wednesdays, including a piano recital by Santiago Rodriguez, a Euphonium/Tuba night, and an incredible Percussion night which is not to be missed. There’s so much activity. On Sundays, we have piano recitals by student pianists. If I were going to pick three, I’d pick one Tuesday night, one Thursday or Friday, and one Saturday, and get a taste of all of that.

Come week one, go Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and see what you like. It’s easy to get tickets. It’s not expensive. We’ve worked really hard to keep the ticket prices reasonable, and as for the acoustics, every seat in the house is great.

The Eastern Music Festival runs from June 24th–July 29th at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium. Visit to learn more. Listen to Gerard Schwarz’s full interview on Sunday, July 2nd, on 89.7 FM,, or our app.