Entertainment » Music

Rising conductor Benjamin Shwartz returns to Philly for opera performances

by Lewis Whittington
Contributor
Saturday Feb 20, 2010
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Sweeping in the Curtis Institute of Music this week in a mod cropped coat, Berliner boots and dense dirty blond maestro hair flopping over his brow, conductor Benjamin Shwartz looks as if we just walked off a runway at New York’s Fashion Week.

Actually, he is a guest conducting at Curtis, where he studied just a few years ago. He just finished a three-year tenure as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas and is now in demand with orchestras around the world.

Commenting on an appearance by Shwartz with the adventurous performance group Mercury Soul in Miami, the critic for that city’s Miami Herald wrote: "In spite of his young age, one can already perceive in Shwartz the lineage of the true ’maestros.’"

Mercury Soul, which Shwartz is a key player with, brings classical music such venues as dance clubs for multi-media experiences to introduce orchestral music to audiences who would never venture into the concert hall.

This weekend Shwartz is back in a more traditional venue: his old conservatoire to helm Bellini’s La Sonnambula (or The Sleepwalker), the story of jealousy and those nocturnal vocal emissions.

Last year he conducted Curtis’s elaborate production of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims also at the Prince, this time it will be a stripped down concert opera.

On the fly in between rehearsals in the Curtis studios, Shwartz had 10-minutes of downtime for a quick interview.

"I really do love doing the full productions... the collaboration with designers. But doing a concert version gets to focus mostly on the music. You don’t have extraneous noises, any musical compromises inevitably you have to make when doing a fully staged opera.

"I do a lot of orchestra music," he continued, "more than I do opera, but it (opera) is a passion of mine as well. I’m in Berlin now, conducting all over the place."

He still loves being in Philly. "I lived here for eight years when I was a student and it is still close to my heart."

For Curtis Opera Theatre’s La Sonnambula, the Curtis Orchestra will be onstage and he works with three lead casts for the vocals "three Aminas... all very different singers which makes every night different and keeps me flexible." He has two tenors for the leading man Elvino.

Shwartz is noted for his precision and delicacy with classic repertoire, but is just as passionate about new voices in contemporary classical. "It’s a very exciting time in music. We’ve gotten beyond serialism and there are really new voices." he said.

He says that he knew the Curtis Institute of Music was special when he studied here; since leaving, that feeling has only been emphasized. "Now hearing and working with orchestras all over the world, you get to know how unique it is."

Remaining performances of La Sonnambula are Friday, February 19, Saturday, February 20 and Sunday, February 21 at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA. For more information visit the Curtis Institute of Music website.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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