Who or what inspired you to take up cello, and pursue a career in music?
I am so lucky that music education was an expectation growing up, not a luxury. It helped that I came from a musical family, so there was a sense of it being a ‘family business’, but the study of music was viewed like going to school, playing sports, or reading. What inspired me to pursue a career in music was much more intense. I remember sitting beside the Lincoln Center band shell hearing a performance of the Beethoven 6th Symphony when I was 10 years old. That was my moment. I couldn’t believe the beauty. I was riveted. I knew that nothing could ever come close to the awe I felt at that time. A career in music became a need, not a choice. Since then I have been searching for beauty in every note I play.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My most important musical influences have been my parents. Though my father (conductor Gerard Schwarz) is most well-known, my mother (Jody Schwarz) fostered my passion as well. They were the perfect team, training me from different angles. My father taught me how to phrase, how to make creative decisions to bring out the best in the music. My mother taught me that too much of a good thing—can be wonderful. The restraint and organization that my father gave me complemented the musical vulnerability my mother instilled. My greatest cellistic influences would have to be Joel Krosnick and Lynn Harrell—two master cellists with very different ideas of what music should say. I feel as if I am a combo of both my mentors. This all said, without the great music itself I would be nothing. Without Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Richard Strauss, I would have such diminished inspiration.
As far as my career, my manager, Linda Marder, has been my greatest influence. We have been working together for ten years. I remember playing an audition for her when I was sixteen years old. She has taught me so much about a career with longevity, and that it is a marathon, not a sprint.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest single challenge of my career has been reconciling art and business. I am so invested in my art. I am crazy about it. Nuts. Yet art is art regardless of who is listening. The business side of music is something so vital to my survival as an artist, yet is in some ways the antithesis of art. To be invested in my career, which I am, while making sure I am always creating art for the right reasons, is a very difficult balancing act. It is a difficulty I could have never imagined growing up.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I feel as if I am constantly improving. I am always working toward unattainable goals of music-making, so much so that I am never satisfied. This means that my last performance is almost always that which I am most proud. Last week I performed the Shostakovich 1st Concerto with the Lake Forest Symphony in Illinois. The conductor was Vladimir Kulenovic. Through his leadership and poetic story-telling, he was successful in making
the orchestra buy-in to our interpretation—the journey I wished to convey. It was so emotional. Though I have performed the work many times, it really felt like I was speaking the part of the protagonist through my instrument. The audience felt it. We all felt it. At the end it felt like we had all been through something together. That is so rare.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I find it funny that I am always changing my answer to this question. When I discuss repertoire with conductors for future engagements, I almost always want to play the piece I have most recently played. I give so much of myself to each work, that when I perform a piece—especially a concerto—I feel as if that particular piece must be the pinnacle of my ability. I happen to enjoy conveying emotion and telling stories. I find that I play narrative works particularly well. I am lucky that many of the great cello concertos are real journeys. I would say that Elgar, Shostakovich 1st, Bloch Schelomo, Dvorak, and the recent concerto by Lowell Liebermann I premiered, are my bread and butter pieces.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Whereas violinists and pianists need to isolate certain pieces to perform season to season due to the huge amount of repertoire, such choices are not crucial for cellists. I believe that a cellist on a soloist type track should be able to perform the entirety of the standard repertoire in one season. Last year I performed 9 different concertos. This year it will be 10. I have never turned down an opportunity to play because I did not want to perform a certain piece. There are always considerations, though. I want the conductor to perform a piece he/she feels inspired by, and I want the orchestra administration to feel like the repertoire can be marketable. For certain pieces, like the Shostakovich 1st, it is important to find out whether an orchestra has a strong principal horn for the obbligato. For the Dvorak, it is important to have a brilliant principal flute.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
This is an easy one for me: the Port Angeles High School Auditorium on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I first performed with the Port Angeles Symphony in the spring of 2009, and have been back four times since. The Port Angeles High School Auditorium is an acoustical gem. I don’t know how, or why, but it is. It is rather old, and is very drafty, but man do I love making music in that space. The culture of the town of Port Angeles is such that the local symphony orchestra is the toast of the town. Everyone from the community shows up. The place is packed. I can barely get a seat to hear the second half! The audience knows me. I know them. There is history there. They saw me grow up as a musician. Coupled with the superb acoustics, the energy is very special. If invited, I will always return.
Who are your favourite musicians?
My family. There is definitely a special musical bond that is created from love. I love my family so it is so easy to love their musicianship. It helps that I have incredibly talented parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins! I have performed with twelve members of my family, and I am always inspired by them. In addition, I am the luckiest guy in the world to be engaged to my favourite pianist, Marika Bournaki. The interpreting we do together is the finest of my career so far, and I have unending respect for her as an artist. Our musical bond is the strongest of any I have ever had. As far as recorded legacy, my desert island discs would be assorted Schubert songs and the Winterreise cycle by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the complete Beethoven quartets by the Orford Quartet on Delos.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My most memorable concert experience was as the first ever soloist for the newly created Orquesta Filarmonica de Boca Del Rio in Veracruz, Mexico. In 2014 I got a call from my dear colleague and friend Jorge Mester to play Dvorak Concerto with a new orchestra. A new orchestra? No kidding. The mayor of Boca Del Rio, Miguel Yunes Angel, wanted to create a symphony orchestra out of thin air, and educate the poorest population of his city in classical music. At the time, the classical music news cycle was dominated by orchestras shutting their doors. For me, this was an incredible sign of hope. I performed for a community thirsty for great art, and even changed my flight to play an added second concert because the first was such a success. Never before had I felt like I was part of something that could change lives. I was brought to tears by the public’s enthusiasm.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
For me, my success as a musician is defined by how much of my life I can fill with playing and performing great music. I love to play. I love to make music with friends and inspiring colleagues. Success for me is not earning a lot of money or becoming famous—it is getting to create art every day. If I could perform every day I would. There are artists who would rather play one concert for a large fee. For me, it is very much the opposite. I would much rather play 50 concerts for much less.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
My world of teaching has been opened through my professorship at Shenandoah Conservatory. Each student has different needs, learning styles, and obstacles. That said, there are two things I have found to be consistent in my teaching philosophy—cultivating the love of music, and imparting the ability to find solutions. Without the love of music, the work of practicing and picking at one’s own playing loses meaning. Pure love of music is the only thing that will sustain an artist. The second is finding solutions. So often I see musicians (especially string players) practicing something to death that just doesn’t work. It is so important for aspiring musicians to realize that they are only as good as the creative solutions they find. For example: I hear my students play certain fingerings because they are written in the music by someone else. If the fingering sounds bad, they so often accept it because it is in some kind of rule-following box. I am constantly trying to get them to realize that they must not accept anything that sounds bad. If it sounds bad, there is a better way to do it that they just haven’t thought of yet. I sometimes jump in and give them my solution, but that is not education. I must educate them in the process of finding creative solutions. Beauty is always the goal!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Exactly where I am now, but even busier. I am so lucky to find fulfilment in my varied life as an artist. I feel like I have the perfect balance of teaching, chamber music, solo playing, recital playing, and travel. I also get to do much of it with people I love. In ten years I definitely want to feel my career is growing, but it would be hard to imagine my being any happier than right now.