It isn’t exactly your traditional classical music event. To get in, you pass through a crowd of high-culture groupies buying up running shorts, mugs, sweat shirts and, of course, T-shirts—all emblazoned with a few bars of Mozart. Then you pay an average of $11, about half of what you’d expect to pay at a proper concert in the same hall. When you take your seat, you find that only a square minority turns up wearing suits and ties. And beginning this season, you’re confronted with the energetic podium presence of Gerard Schwarz, 35, who, according to one member of the orchestra, “is the all-American conductor—more like a baseball coach than a stuck-up maestro.”
So it goes with the “Mostly Mozart” festival, the most popular indoor hot-weather music series in the U.S. and, 17 years after its birth, an institution in its own right. It opened earlier this month for a seven-week run at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan, with such noted soloists as Yo-Yo Ma and Jean-Pierre Rampal. A 95-percent-of-capacity attendance figure has become standard for the festival. And it has been franchised in San Francisco, with more cities on the way.
When the idea was launched back in the rock-roiled summer of 1966, founder William Lockwood determined that “we had to get kooky. I wanted to do the same kind of things that the rock industry did.” So out came the Mozart memorabilia and music programming that was keyed to the works of the composer Schwarz calls “the only classical superstar no one could possibly denigrate.”
The challenge to conductor Schwarz was to freshen up the popular format, which critics complain has become stale over the years. To the “Mostly Mozart, Barely Bach…” programming he has added J.C. Bach (J.S. Bach’s youngest son and a major influence on the young Mozart), plus Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Mendelssohn.
It’s a task the young conductor’s been prepping for since the age of 25, when he was co-principal trumpet for the New York Philharmonic and was being praised by the New York Times for his “unfaltering lips and the lungs of a blimp.” That combination made him one of the most celebrated trumpet players in the world. But that wasn’t enough. Undaunted by the classical establishment’s bias in favor of European, or at least European-trained, conductors, Schwarz says he “just hung in there and kept on fighting.” In 1976 he quit his trumpet chair with the Philharmonic to form and lead Manhattan’s Y Chamber Symphony. Then he took charge of several increasingly important groups, including the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 1978. Now there are five different orchestras under his baton on a regular basis. Says Robert Mann, founder of the Juilliard String Quartet: “Almost no other musician has moved so fast and so well from superior instrumentalist to superlative conductor.”
Things aren’t quite so successful at home. Last May Schwarz’s second marriage—to modern dancer Lillo Way—ended in divorce, leaving Schwarz a part-time daddy to his kids, Alysandra, 9, and Daniel, 6.
Schwarz’s own parents, still happily together, are his most ardent fans. Like Mozart, both are Austrian by birth, though Gerard was born and raised in Weehawken, N.J. His mother, a psychiatrist and operaphile, listened for hours on end to Mozart operas when she was pregnant with Gerard. While both his paternal grandfather and father were M.D.s too, his mother insists that “somehow I knew this child was going to be a conductor of Mozart.” Cracks Gerard: “That’s funny. Being Jewish, I could have sworn I was a born brain surgeon.”