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Schwartz Concerto for Solo Conductor

Haydn Symphony No. 94 in G major, ‘the Surprise’
Beethoven Violin Concerto D major (Roberto-Juan Gonzalez)

Francis Schwartz “Concerto for Solo Conductor”,“Fashionable Music” and “A Festive Smile”


North Bay Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Roberto-Juan González
Napa Valley College Theatre, May 14 2006


Composer Francis Schwartz has done it again! And we should also include the conductor Roberto-Juan Gonzalez in this Brave New World where the concert experience uses musical vestments to be played on and eliminates the presence of the orchestra. Were we dreaming or what?


The May 14, 2006 North Bay Philharmonic concert that took place at the Napa Valley College Performance Hall, was a fascinating mixture of the traditional --- Beethoven and Haydn--- and the mind-altering creations of Francis Schwartz. Led by music director, Roberto-Juan Gonzalez, the concert opened with a fluent performance of Beethoven's D Major Violin concerto with Joseph Gold as soloist. Gold has a fine technique and put it at the service of this great music. The pace was on the quick side and Gold clearly articulated the demanding passagework while playing with feeling. The second movement was particularly lovely. Gold performed cadenzas by the violin legend, Jascha Heifetz. Roberto-Juan Gonzalez was a very sensitive accompanist.


Then came the fireworks. With a stage totally devoid of orchestral players, Gonzalez, under the glare of spotlights, greeted the packed audience who looked on incredulously as the conductor launched into the world premiere performance of Francis Schwartz's “Concerto for Solo Conductor (2006)”. Where was the orchestra, they seemed to be thinking? The 6 minute work evolved with a exhibition of various stick techniques, styles, gestures and even audience participation- - - apparently a longstanding Schwartz theatrical requirement.


In an accompanying program sheet, the public was informed that there would be 9 fragments to be conducted from the orchestral canon: Beethoven's Fifth, Mahler's Fourth, Debussy's “La Mer”, Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring”, Wagner's “Liebestod” among others. Several of the fragments also had precise references to conductors such as Toscannini, Walter, Reiner, Bernstein, Boulez, Karajan, Rostropovich and Monteux. The conductor-soloist had to synthesize the two elements, work and conductor, in order to fulfill the instructions of the score.


  Gonzalez was magnificent in his performance. The audience was mesmerized by the goings-on. When the section arrived in which Gonzalez conducted the ‘Papageno-Papagena' fragment from Schwartz's 1991 composition “Papageno's Dream”, the audience was treated to some extraordinary conducting techniques which included stereophonic lip gestures. I watched as many audience members involuntarily imitated the onstage conductor who jabbed his fingers at them while trying to get them to make silent gestures. What an experience this was!


In a sense, “Concerto for Solo Conductor” is a serious game which the public can appreciate on different levels. They can admire the clarity of the conductor's stick technique. Also, the ‘interpretative' gestures that he uses to coax sounds from the players are often taken from the world of mime or dance and used for musical communication. On another level, some of the professional musicians in attendance claimed that they could actually identify or ‘hear' several of the works that Gonzalez was conducting even though there was no instrumental sound present.

One can only say that Roberto-Juan Gonzalez pulled off a true tour-de-force. We could clearly perceive the change from Toscannini's crisp, electric beating to the more relaxed, “gemutlich” technique of Bruno Walter. And Mstislav Rostropovich's athletic approach to conducting pulled giggles from some of the audience members.


This Schwartz work gives us much to think about. I felt that I was in a rarified atmosphere. This composition brought to mind another work by a composer of another era: John Cage and his “Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds.” It was electro-shock in the concert hall.


When the”Concerto” ended the public roared with approval. We can only ask, where will Francis Schwartz go from here? Well, we will be waiting and watching. I will never forget this experience.


The program also featured another Schwartz composition, “Fashionable Music” (1993) which was performed by the composer and Maestro Gonzalez. Both put on specially prepared vestments that had small objects sewn on. These were made from wood, iron, plastic and glass. Each player had two drumsticks and subsequently played on their own bodies as well as that of the other musician. The short work, constructed in three movements, was a surrealistic ballet. Again the audience smiled and laughed. One saw children jumping up and down and clapping. It was refreshing to see people actually having fun in a concert.

Mark Barnes


© Peter Grahame Woolf