Symphony patrons anticipate a singular thrill

Prestigious conductor steps in for weekend’s two performances

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If you go

• What: Gerard Schwarz leads the Vancouver Symphony in works by Emmanuel Chabrier, Édouard Lalo, and Felix Mendelssohn with violinist Ryu Goto.

• When: 3 p.m. Jan. 18 and 7 p.m. Jan. 19.

• Where: Skyview High School Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver.

• Cost: $50 for reserved seats, $35 for general admission, $30 for seniors and $10 for students.

• Information: 360-735-7278 or visit http://vancouversymphony.org.

It’s a rarity when an internationally known conductor flies into town to direct a regional orchestra, but that’s exactly what’s happening this weekend. You may see patrons of the Vancouver Symphony pinch themselves and snap a lot of photos when Gerard Schwarz steps on the podium to direct the orchestra in a program of works by Emmanuel Chabrier, Édouard Lalo, and Felix Mendelssohn.

Schwarz, the former music director of the Seattle Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, is a top-tier conductor. He has a discography of 350 recordings, two Emmy awards, 13 Grammy nominations, and six awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Now based in New York City, Schwarz is currently the music director of the All-Star Orchestra and the Eastern Music Festival, and he keeps a busy schedule conducting a lot of the world’s big-name orchestras.

So how did the Vancouver Symphony draw such a megastar? It all started when Mexican conductor Jesús Medina had visa problems that forced him to cancel his debut with the orchestra. That pressed executive director Igor Shakhman, leaning on some contacts at the Seattle Symphony, to take a chance.

“I try to make an effort to work with students, college orchestras, and high-level regional orchestras,” said Schwarz, “and Vancouver is one of the finest high-level regional orchestras. When Igor contacted me and asked me if I could do this, I looked at my schedule and saw that I was free. Other conductors might have said, ‘No I’m not going to do this.’ My answer is yes, because I believe that great music is for every community and every musician. If I can be of service to that cause, I’m there.”

While in Vancouver, Schwarz also plans to visit the headquarters of the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust, a big supporter of the All-Star Orchestra. But his main focus will be on the Vancouver Symphony and performing Chabrier’s “España,” Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole” with guest violinist Ryu Goto, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, also known as the “Italian Symphony.”

“We conductors never get tired of playing great music, and you never do it enough,” Schwarz said. “Take Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian Symphony.’ I’ve done it maybe 30 times, but I haven’t conducted it in 10 years. It’s thrilling. I just love that piece. It’s one of my favorites. I was just in Linz, Austria, and conducted my 50th performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It wasn’t any less exciting for me than the other 49 times.”

To say that the musicians of the Vancouver Symphony have goose bumps might be the understatement of the year.

“This is huge for the Vancouver Symphony,” remarked principal trumpeter Bruce Dunn. “We all feel very honored. This is an excellent opportunity for us to shine. It’s going to be a terrific experience for us and the audience.”

“I am so excited!” exclaimed cellist Annie Harkey-Power. “I’ve never worked with someone who had his credentials. I’m working very hard on the music. It’s a little scary, too. I don’t know what a conductor of his level expects of an orchestra, but I’m eager to find out what attention to details he will ask for in rehearsals. I’m trying to think of every possible scenario.”

The musicians are using scores borrowed from the Seattle Symphony library. They contain bowings and other markings that Schwarz prefers, and that should help to make the rehearsal time more efficient.

“We are very fortunate to have Ryu Goto here as our soloist,” Harkey-Power added. “He is off-the-chart phenomenal. I don’t know how we got him to come here a few years ago. To have him and Maestro Schwarz with us (together) is just out of this world.”

In October 2008, Goto gave an impeccable performance of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Vancouver Symphony. This time around, Goto, who also happens to be violinist Midori’s younger brother, will perform Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole.” This piece is noted for its edgy rhythms and melodic passages common in Spain.

“This is the first big concert in which I am playing the ‘Symphonie Espagnol,’ Goto said, “and I had never performed it before last year. The piece is most often known as a ‘student concerto’ that young artists tackle, but strangely I never got around to it when I was growing up. Of course, I had practiced it, but performing it in Vancouver will be a new experience for me.”

The performance will come with challenges, too, he said.

“One is to overcome the perception that the piece is a ‘student concerto,’ and go beyond simple technical mastery,” he said. And, “One must contend with the established standards of previous generations of artists, all of whom have recorded the piece. The soloist must bring an innovative touch to the piece. I strive to do that by taking a modern -- ‘up-to-date’ if you will -- approach to the Carmen-esque melodies and rhythms, which are the most attractive qualities of this piece.”

This will be the second time Goto has collaborated with Schwarz. He played Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 under Schwarz with the Liverpool Philharmonic in 2006.

This concert also will debut a, state-of-the-art video projection system. Shakhman said there will be two large screens on each side of the stage and several cameras that will provide live video projections of the performance in real time, with close ups of the conductor, soloist, orchestra members and shots of the whole orchestra.

“I’m telling everyone to come this weekend,” Harkey-Power said. “If you’ve never heard the Vancouver Symphony before, now is the time.”