The coalescence of art, capital, and wise public health policies that is rapidly transforming South Florida into an international cultural hub has received a great boost this spring from the Palm Beach Symphony. The orchestra’s dynamic maestro, Gerard Schwarz, has led it to new heights and placed it among the ranks of the very best American regional ensembles (an ascendancy that was sorely needed following the closing of the Florida Philharmonic in 2003). The longtime director of the Seattle Symphony and New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Schwarz moved to Florida in 2019 to become Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and the director of the Frost Symphony, before assuming his post as the Palm Beach Symphony’s musical and artistic director last season. His son Julian, an accomplished cellist who joined his father as the soloist in this judiciously programmed concert, quite rightly described him to me as “the busiest conductor of the COVID-19 pandemic era.”
Eager to get his ensemble back to work even as the pandemic lingers on, Schwarz has programmed five major concerts running from January to May, along with ancillary events. The players are masked and distanced onstage, and each concert is livestreamed from the Symphony’s home venue, the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. In addition to the at-home audience, about seventy-five special guests—on this evening myself included—are invited to enjoy each performance in person. This concert, given on April 19, was preceded by a virtual gala with some limited on-site events, including an announcement of the Palm Beach Symphony’s 2021–22 season.
The concert’s warmest moments came from the father–son collaboration. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor (1872) is a member of the small but august company of great concertos for that noble string instrument. Scored in one movement, its feather-light orchestration leaves the soloist no place to hide. The cello’s range is explored in exquisite detail and never blends into the aural swirls around it. Schwarz fils played soulfully, delivering a virtuoso performance alongside Schwarz père’s characteristically meticulous attention to every nuance of the score. The familial synergy easily confirmed the young cellist’s plaudit, given in a pre-performance interview, of his father as his greatest teacher.
This remarkable collaboration was repeated in the second part of the program in Antonín Dvořák’s Silent Woods, a short piece for cello and orchestra adapted from his piano suite From the Bohemian Forest (1883). Not entirely removed from the Germanic musical tradition in which he was trained, Dvořák nevertheless imparted a measure of Slavic whimsy to this brooding, haunting depiction of the woodland of the modern-day Czech Republic, then known as Bohemia. From the Bohemian Forest was originally composed for piano four hands, a very popular style in the nineteenth century because of its suitability for social occasions in parlor rooms and at parties. Later, Dvořák transcribed the excerpt Silent Woods for cello and piano and then for cello and orchestra, as performed here. Silent Woods is also known by its Czech title, Klid, which simply means “silence,” though it is most often translated into English from its more evocative German name, Waldesruhe.
Bracketing the father–son selections were two outliers in the repertoire. The concert opened with William Grant Still’s Darker America (1924), a short orchestral piece composed in 1924 and intended by the composer to be “representative of the American Negro” in that it “suggests triumph over sorrows through fervent prayer.” Drawn from the Blues—which Still found more authentic than other genres because it was less influenced by what he called “Caucasian music”—Darker America does not entirely escape either the realist compositional aesthetic that Still learned from his studies with George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory, or the modernist influence of Edgard Varèse, with whom Still studied while Varèse resided in New York. Darker America’s admirable authenticity—drawn in fact from multiple traditions—made Still what he was most of all: an American composer.
The program concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (1824), an ebullient work that the composer wrote at age fifteen to celebrate his older sister’s birthday. The piece is indicative of a transitional moment between Mozart’s colorful geometry and Beethoven’s more monumental style, and its distinctive voice gives evidence of the Romantic style that was quickly taking hold. The tension between the two styles emerges in full relief when one considers the symphony’s third movement, originally a Menuetto, a dance popular in the eighteenth century. For the symphony’s London premiere, Mendelssohn removed the Menuetto and replaced it with an orchestration of the more Romantic Scherzo movement (likely inspired by a section of Goethe’s Faust) from his String Octet (1825), though he later switched back the excised Menuetto in the published score. Here, Maestro Schwarz ingeniously decided to include both pieces to create, in effect, a five-movement symphony so that the listener could delight in exploring the contrast between the rival sections.
Live music is alive and well in our great Southern free zone. Maestro Schwarz, in the words of his son and colleague, is “living his life like it’s 2019.” One more concert remains this season, but the sheer momentum of cultural life in Florida will not be stopped any time soon. This fall the Palm Beach Symphony will open earlier than usual. Palm Beach’s cultural season seems poised for the first time to become year-round.