The Swiss-Australian conductor Elena Schwarz has had a bumper few years. At just 33 years old, she has been the inaugural joint Assistant Conductor at the West Australian and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Assistant Conductor at the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and is currently a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. If that weren’t enough, Schwarz returns to TSO this year as its inaugural Associate Conductor, a prestigious two-year engagement that will see her make her main series debut as well as lead important projects such as recordings, family and education concerts, and elite training programs. So Schwarz’s season-opening gig with WASO for its Favourites concert in February feels not only like a second homecoming but a victory lap as well.
Elena Schwarz. Photo © Elena Schwarz/Priska Ketterer
“I’m very much looking forward to playing with these musicians again,” she says over the phone from Athens. “It’s the wonderful feeling of returning to a place and group of people you know well, and of course being with an orchestra which is so fantastic. And also to be doing this kind of program featuring local talent – I think that’s extremely important so it will really feel like a celebration.”
A thoroughly West Australian affair, Schwarz, the orchestra and the WASO Chorus will be joined by tenor Paul O’Neill, bass James Clayton and pianist Shuan Hern Lee for some much-loved arias and opera excerpts – think Nessun Dorma and the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana – all culminating in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Copland’s Appalachian Spring.
It’s a program in keeping with Schwarz’s characterisation of the orchestra as incredibly versatile. “They not only do the concert season but also opera and ballet, which means it’s a very agile orchestra. They play and interpret a lot of different repertoire with a lot of presence, so they’re very good at the big German symphonies but they also play, with a lot of delicacy, works by Mozart.”
She credits much of this to the can-do attitude of the orchestra as well as its Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser Asher Fisch. “I was lucky to work with Asher last season when they did Tristan und Isolde, and I saw how an orchestra can really give its best when they are challenged. I felt very fortunate to collaborate with Asher and Marko Letonja [TSO’s now Conductor Laureate], who are both wonderful conductors working with orchestras at a moment when they are doing extremely well artistically.”
In her time as joint Assistant Conductor of WASO and TSO during their 2017/18 season, Schwarz shadowed both chiefs, attending rehearsals which allowed her not only the opportunity to ask questions but also provide feedback about balance, bowing and articulation. In Perth, she participated in a series of masterclasses with Fisch and the orchestra, an invaluable opportunity to work on repertoire mainstays, and in Hobart received hands-on experience leading educational concerts as well as performances of new music for the Australian Composers’ School.
Elena Schwarz. Photo © Axel Saxe
Schwarz was not born into a family of musicians, she says, but a “music-loving one”. Growing up, she played piano and cello, but an interest in conducting soon eclipsed both pursuits as she began to sit in on rehearsals with her hometown orchestra in Lugano, the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana.
“At the time they had a chief conductor who is quite well known, at least in Europe, called Alain Lombard,” she says. “He was an assistant to Bernstein and Karajan and is himself a fantastic musician who has had a wonderful career. At first I was interested in attending rehearsals as a player but that quite quickly morphed into being interested in the relationship between conductor and orchestra, and what it means to have an artistic vision and try to achieve it. So my choice of conducting definitely stemmed from that.”
It’s fitting then that one of her earliest musical heroes got his start assisting the greats. Schwarz is clearly grateful that she’s been able to hone her interpretive and communicative skills as a conductor with Fisch and Letonja, something that stands her in good stead for the well-known works she’ll play with WASO.
“As a performer, we can sometimes have this feeling of following in the footsteps of giants when it comes to really iconic works. But the more I continue as a conductor, the more I feel I am developing an approach to music that is unique to me and that comes through in my interpretations. That’s why I’m so excited to perform in particular Rhapsody in Blue and Appalachian Spring with WASO – they’re works of such contrasting characters and I just know we’ll be able to do them with a lot of fun.”
Elena Schwarz conducts West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Favourites Concert at Perth Concert Hall, February 8 and 9