"There are so many memories, too many to list," said Schwarz, who has been the music director for the famed Seattle Symphony Orchestra for the last 20 years. "It was a wonderful place to grow up. My roots are still in Weehawken. It's where it all began for me."
His love of music was fueled by his parents, who were avid music lovers. In fact, his father, Dr. John Schwarz, who was very influential in the restoration and rehabilitation of the Weehawken Free Public Library a decade ago, still resides in the township.
But Gerard Schwarz was inspired to become a musician and a highly respected trumpet player by teachers in the Weehawken school system, where Schwarz attended before heading off to study at the renowned Juilliard School of Music in the 1960s.
"They had quite a good music program in the Weehawken schools when I was young," said Schwarz, who has traveled the globe with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and has earned 10 Grammy nominations for his work with the SSO. "At Roosevelt School, they had a band, a chorus and an orchestra. I remember I wanted to play trumpet for the school band when I was seven. I actually snuck in to play with them, but my teacher, Mr. Rossman, caught me and told me I couldn't come back until I was in the fourth grade."
Schwarz said that in the 1960s, there were many talented teachers working in the Weehawken school system.
"There was Eugene Sullivan, who also went to Julliard, and Carl Wilhelm, who went on to play with the Pittsburgh Symphony," Schwarz said. "Mr. Rossman, my first teacher, was wonderful and brought me to play in the school orchestra, where I played piano and trumpet. I was able to play for the Woodrow Wilson School jazz band. Even though I was still in middle school, I played for the high school marching band. It was a wonderful experience."
Schwarz initially gained worldwide recognition as the founder and director of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. For the last 20 years, he has been the music director for the Seattle Symphony, building that orchestra into a world-class organization that performs internationally and has recorded many CDs with Schwarz at the helm.
Because of his hectic schedule performing with the Seattle Symphony, Schwarz doesn't have many opportunities to return to his youth.
But when Bruce Sherman, the executive director of the Hudson Riverfront Performing Arts Center (HRPAC), arranged for a group of Weehawken High School students to meet the Maestro before a recent performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, it gave Schwarz a chance to rekindle those memories.
"It really brought back some fond memories and it was a touching experience," Schwarz said of meeting the WHS students last week. "I never really get a chance to come in contact with Weehawken High School anymore, although my father and sister still live there [in Weehawken] and my nephew (Jordan Young) recently graduated from there. They were just such lovely kids. I was so surprised by them and their openness."
Schwarz invited the students to sit in and listen to a rehearsal of a program he was preparing for four weekend performances with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
"I loved the enjoyment the students had, because they had never heard an orchestra before," Schwarz said.
Weehawken High School senior Chris Piacentino was so impressed with the music that he told the Maestro a secret.
"I said it almost sounded too good to be live," Piacentino said. "I thought it was a recording."
"It was absolutely phenomenal," said sophomore Tanvee Trehan. "After they played it, the Maestro pointed out the flaws, but I thought it sounded perfect. It was incredible. It just added to the whole experience."
After the rehearsal, Schwarz invited the students back to his dressing room, where they had an informal question-and-answer session.
"The excitement for me was exposing those kids to the great music and the orchestra," Schwarz said. "The kids never heard music like that before. It was Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major and the Shostakovich 11th Symphony, and they said that they were hearing it for the first time. It was a thrill for me to bring it to them."
WHS music director Steve Spinosa was impressed with the way Schwarz told the students about the historical perspective of the piece.
"He was very cordial with the kids and made them feel very comfortable with him," Spinosa said. "He made them feel at home. He talked to them on his level and told them that music has a lot to do with history. I think he was able to give the kids a better understanding of what he does. He was outstanding with the kids, explaining everything about the piece and the history behind it."
Spinosa was excited to have finally met the Maestro, whom he had heard so much about over the last 20 years as a teacher in the district.
"I [had] never met the man, but I heard so many stories from people who know him, like Craig Bertile, a teacher in the high school who was in a band with him," Spinosa said. "I knew of Gerard Schwarz just from being around here for so long. I always wanted to meet him, and he was a tremendous person."
The students feel that Schwarz is an inspiration.
"I think it's cool that someone like that could come out of Weehawken," Piacentino said. "It was a big confidence booster for me. He went to the same schools that we went to. He talked to us about where he grew up. It made it easy to relate to him."
"You don't see many people from your hometown doing the things that he has, traveling the world and performing," Trehan said. "I think the fact that he was from Weehawken added to the whole experience. It inspires me a lot."
Schwarz said that he feels good to learn that he served as an inspiration to the students.
"I would be thrilled if I could be an inspiration to them," Schwarz said. "I think it was fantastic. I'm very pleased that Bruce Sherman took the initiative to organize this."
Sherman said that he met Schwarz last year to see if he would be interested in supporting the HRPAC's drive to get a performing arts center built on the Weehawken waterfront.
"Since the Maestro is one of Weehawken's most notable native sons and is in the arts, I wanted to share our vision to build the arts center and try to gain his interest and enlist his aid in whatever way would be appropriate," Sherman said. "Maestro Schwarz was great with the students. He was very gracious to allow us all to come back to his dressing room after a very intense two and a half hour rehearsal. He was down to earth and very relaxed and seemed to truly enjoy sharing his experiences with the students."
Schwarz was pleased to learn about the HRPAC's efforts to build an arts center along the waterfront.
"I think it's an extraordinary idea," Schwarz said. "Weehawken is a great small town and one of its strengths is the amount of talented people who live there. There has been tremendous growth in the waterfront, and having an arts center on the water would define the whole community. If you look at the important opera houses in the world, like Lincoln Center and Sydney, they define the community. Even the NJPAC. You now think of Newark in a different way."
Added Schwarz, "Not only do we need something like that in Hudson County and in Weehawken, but it could really define Weehawken. It could create an image of what Weehawken is and what it is becoming. I would do anything to help this come about. It's a brilliant concept and there's definitely a place for it."
The HRPAC is continuing its efforts to bring the arts to Weehawken, as well as educating the youth in the area about the arts. HRPAC is bringing a program called "Let Freedom Swing" by Jazz at Lincoln Center to schools in Weehawken, Union City, West New York, and Hoboken next month.
The HRPAC will also be adding a pair of children's concerts, as well as a holiday concert in December and another in the spring.
There are also plans in the works for special jazz and cabaret concerts at the Chart House Restaurant this winter. In addition, the UBS Atrium Series of free lunchtime concerts will begin again in December.
Schwarz said that his week-long homecoming turned into something very special, performing the four concerts with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, spending time with his family, especially his father and his sisters and their families, and reminiscing about a young man's life from years ago.
"It really was nice to come home again and visit with everyone," Schwarz said. "Meeting with the kids really jogged some fond memories of Weehawken, the many people, the teachers I had. So many wonderful teachers. It was a wonderful time, a great era. I remember we weren't allowed to wear sneakers to school or run or play ball. But there were so many great kids in Weehawken in those days, and apparently there still are."