A US conductor accuses British orchestras of ‘genteel antisemitism’

In the turbulent history of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the five-year tenure of Gerard Schwarz as music director from 2002 to 2006 does not stand out among the more memorable.

Schwarz himself, in an approved biography to be published by Amadeus Press, admits that he was forced out. ‘I can’t say that my departure was my choice,’ he says. He goes on to blame the musicians for their resistance to ‘the American music director model’ and the management for not giving him enough support.

He then quotes, by way of background explanation, an August 2004 article by John Rockwell in the New York Times, linking Schwarz’s departure from Liverpool and Leonard Slatkin’s from the BBC Symphony to an unnamed London music critic ‘who spoke speculatively of a certain residual genteel anti-semitism in Britain.’

This is nonsense – lazy, offensive and dangerous nonsense. It is also easy to disprove.

I visit the Liverpool orchestra once a year and have never sniffed any whiff of Jew-hatred among them, then or now. Schwarz was the wrong choice for an orchestra that was going through a difficult transition. His successor, Vasily Petrenko, achieved an instant turnaround and an international revival by getting the music right.

As for other UK orchestras, if they were riddled with anti-semitsm or anti-American, how does Schwarz explain the long tenures of Andre Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas as principal conductors of the LSO? Let alone Otto Klemperer at the Philharmonia, Georg Solti at the Royal Opera, Rudolf Barshai in Bournemouth and others far too numerous to mention.

Rockwell admitted that his theory is both speculative and anonymous, yet Schwarz does not hesitate to cite it as a likely cause for his premature departure from Britain.

This, to my mind, is disgraceful conduct.

Let’s be clear: there is antisemitism in Britain.

It is not at all genteel and it is on the rise. The number of reported hate incidents, 1,309, was higher last year than ever before. Anti-semitism is a complex, disturbing phenomenon that crosses many parts of British society and most political parties. It is not, however, embedded in the ranks of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, or in the mindset of any other British orchestra at this time.

Gerard Schwarz owes the RLPO a public apology.

UPDATE: Gerard Schwarz responds.

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  • Some people just cannot handle losing. I appreciate all that Mr. Schwarz has done for American music (which is extremely significant), but the fact remains that he was in Seattle far, far too long and his career did not appear to be progressing, but rather in decline. His Liverpool appointment seemed like a dud from the get-go. Sometimes you have to be able to let go, but to be still dwelling on these appointments all these years later makes him appear quite desperate.

      • The All Star orchestra thing also not really a successful venture because there are so many good players in the top orchestras, that you end up getting something that’s about the same. The conductor has to be really exceptional to make that sort of difference count.

        • The all-star orchestra is a Schwarz venture. Even though I find the programs interesting, part of me feels that it’s a vanity project used to help keep his name out there and because it looks good on a resume. Again though, I still have respect for Schwarz for what he did for American music – especially the David Diamond recordings and performances, but also Hovhaness, and others.

        • Excellent point. Someone else might have been able to accomplish something extraordinary with an orchestra like that.

  • How does Schwartz – who didn’t right the criticism, merely cited it to support his contention he was forced out – owe RLPO an apology? I’d have to read the entire book for context of the quoted material. He is entitled to his opinion for feeling he was treated differently due to his heritage; seems to me you may owe him an apology if you are claiming he didn’t experience anti-semitism when he believes he did, Norman.
    I do agree that his maestro persona did not fit RLPO well at all and the group has certainly rebounded with Petrenko: I just can’t get enough of their new recordings together.

    • Quick – edit the “right” to “write” for me before the grammar police issue an arrest warrant.

    • No, no, a thousand times no! If Schwarz felt whatever reservations people had against him were based in anti-Semitism, that does NOT make it so.For there to be anti-Semitism — or anti-anything — there has to be intent, whether focused or systemic.But it is an easy accusation to throw and a hard one to defend. And people in his job often raise antipathies without being Jewish.

    • Schwarz’s problem was not his religion, nor was it his citizenship. His problem was priggishness, plain and simple. To claim antisemitism was in any way a factor (even ‘merely citing’ such a claim) is pathetic.
      Bluntly put, he wanted to be the RLPO’s supremo, with ultimate authority over artistic planing, appointments and hiring. Players and management didn’t wear it and Schwarz’s disappointment wasn’t all too latent (if that sort of situation didn’t end well for one Herbert von Karajan, it’s bound to end badly for a Gerard Schwarz).
      Further, had his religion been an issue, it’s rather strange that the RLPO actually offered him another contract, albeit not as Music Director, after his time as MD had concluded. (It was he who refused that offer)

  • Excellent rebuttal of clear nonsense. I spend a lot of my life at the Liverpool Philharmonic and have frequent conversations with both management and musicians, and I have never detected any anti-semitism, genteel or otherwise. There may be some lurking somewhere as everwhere else,but the RLPO has Jewsh musicians, welcomes Jewish soloists and conductors, and has a sizeable Jewish audience as well as Jewish benefactors as is only to be expected. During Schwarz’s tenure of the orchestra I never heard anyone make any reference to his being Jewish and he had supporters as well as detractors; in a measured assessment he left a positive legacy as well as a lot of negative feelings, especially among members of the orchestra, but their objections were musical and connected with Schwarz’s personality rather than in any way racial. The relationship just didn’t work out and to blame the conductor’s Jewishness for this is perverse and grossly unfair to the musicians and management of the RLPO.

  • He seems to imply, a British orchestea should change their self administration model to the American model (whatever that means), if the conductor happens to have US citizenship. Is he insane?

  • Perhaps global anti-semitism is responsible for the fact that GS hasn’t had a meaningful engagement since Seattle jettisoned him.

  • Reminds me of the story of the man who auditioned for a radio announcer job and stuttered throughout the text he was asked to read. When he didn’t get the job his comment was: “They didn’t want a Jew.”

  • Oh? I didn’t know he is a Jew. Now I am glad that I didn’t buy his recordings.
    Gustav Mahler did suffer from some serious antisemitism. But as far as I know, Mr. Schwarz, even only supposed to exposed to some genteel antisemitism, is not as successful as Mahler.

  • Astonishing thing to say about an orchestra in a diverse city with such a large Jewish community and such a deep-rooted Jewish heritage – both thoroughly represented in the orchestra’s membership and audience (this is the orchestra in which Fritz Spiegl and Atarah Ben-Tovim made their names – to name but two – and which has had a decades long, hugely successful relationship with Carl Davis).

    It’s no secret that Schwarz’s personal manner didn’t go down well with the orchestra (fairly pedestrian programming and plodding performances didn’t help endear him to the audience either) – but sometimes a personality clash is nothing more than that: a personality clash. If this is as reported, it doesn’t reflect well upon him.

  • “Let’s be clear: there is antisemitism in Britain……It is not at all genteel and it is on the rise.”

    Can’t imagine where it’s coming from.

  • Sour grapes indeed…. having worked with him and RLPO for a short time during his tenure my opinion of him was that he was adequate but that his talent wasn’t equal or greater than his treatment of the musicians in front of him.

  • Well, it appears from the later Slipped Disc post that he didn’t really say what he’s said to have said! Shall have to get the book…

  • Perhaps John Rockwell might care to comment? I doubt the unnamed London critic would be so accomodating.

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