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In Memoriam

James H. Schwabacher Jr.


July 25, 2006

James H. Schwabacher Jr.

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Farewell to Our Man of Music

By Robert Commanday

James H. Schwabacher Jr. was never called "San Francisco's Mr. Music," but he should have been. Or better, "San Francisco's Gentleman of Music," for he was all of that. He was an elegant person whose manner and style as singer, friend, colleague, and public figure were all of a gracious piece. He was so well-known and affectionately regarded that there was never need for an introduction when he took the stage to deliver an urbane introduction, or a running chat with audiences, at the San Francisco Opera, Merola Opera Program (notably at its Grand Final Auditions), Spring Opera, Carmel Bach Festival, and, since 1983, the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, which he founded and supported to give budding young singers the best platform on which to launch their careers here.

The best and wisest friend singers here ever had passed away on Tuesday of pneumonia, at 86. The memories of all he accomplished in music and for music remain as his lasting monument. He was a generous and gifted teacher, sharing his knowledge and insights with his many students in his studio on the top floor of his Pacific Heights home. He mentored aspiring singers wherever he encountered them — at the San Francisco Opera; at his alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley; at Stanford University, where he sang in operas and conducted the Glee Club; at the San Francisco Conservatory; at the Carmel Bach Festival, where he was a singer and lecturer for 43 years.

Today, deeply felt testimonials to his love of the art, the artists, and the Bay Area community are being given by leading figures in the region's musical life. Colin Murdoch, San Francisco Conservatory of Music president, said of Jimmy on Wednesday, "Jim Schwabacher was a giant among the giants of San Francisco music history. He was a gentleman among gentlemen — warm, discerning, unpretentious, and terrific sense of gentle humor are words that quickly and freely come to mind. His touch with people was not unlike that of a great artist at the piano. Here at the Conservatory, the greeting was, 'Ciao, Maestro!' He served totally and unselfishly on both the faculty and the board of trustees for more years than anyone can remember, including several years as board chair in the 1960s. We have lost a dear and much-loved friend, and we miss him already." You couldn't feel otherwise about Jimmy (as he was fondly called by all who knew him) and his many contributions.

It was a blessing to this musical community that Jimmy was independently wealthy and could devote his entire life to music and musicians. He was the only scion of a pioneer family, merchants on the West Coast (both in Seattle-Tacoma and in San Francisco) shortly after the Gold Rush. They created a stationery and printing company just before the 1906 earthquake and fire, eventually founding the office supply house of Schwabacher-Frey and the Schwabacher and Company investment banking firm in San Francisco.

An inheritance, a legacy

Jimmy Schwabacher came into music through that family: His grandmother, Carrie Fleischhacker (of another distinguished pioneer family), was a composer; his father a singer; his mother also musical. His family was also closely linked to the Dinkelspiels. Naturally, Jimmy was started on the piano at age five and guided by such outstanding teachers as Gunnar Johannsen, and he excelled as a boy soprano. The die was cast early. In the musical life that followed, there were few major singers and musicians in opera whom Jimmy did not associate with and learn from, including such greats as Martial Singher, with whom he studied, and all the others who embraced this amiable colleague.

There will be a service for James Schwabacher at 4 p.m., September 19, at Temple Emanu-El, 2 Lake Street, San Francisco.

The following article I wrote for San Francisco Classical Voice in 2002, discussing Jimmy and his singing during the crest of his vocal career:

Anyone listening seriously to opera and singing here between 1952 and 1967 will remember fondly the singing of James Schwabacher. For them, and for those who missed this special but too-brief career, there is now a CD of his recital performances during that time (Cambria CD 1127). I suppose that for most people today, the name James Schwabacher primarily conjures up the musical leader, the patron of the Schwabacher Recitals given on Sunday afternoons and featuring the Adler Fellows, often in recital debuts — such artists as Thomas Hampson, Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, and Deborah Voigt. Or the host at important Opera events. Or his helping initiate the Merola Opera Program and serving as its president for 30 years while it sent out branches (such as the Western Opera Theater) and became the foundation of the S.F. Opera Center.

Those who have been around might recall his role helping to found both Spring Opera, a great institution that should never have been taken down, and San Francisco Performances, the only lasting success of a concert presenting organization in the City. For all that, he was first and foremost a musician and tenor.

He was deeply involved in the San Francisco Symphony for most of his adult life, serving as the third president of the San Francisco Symphony Foundation, and as a member of the Board of Governors since 1959, eventually becoming a Life Governor.

The scion of a distinguished San Francisco family, Jimmy used his advantages well. He studied at UC Berkeley and, after service in World War II and in the family firm, Schwabacher-Frey, he took up a singing career. His first solo role was while he was a student at UC Berkeley, in the Mozart Requiem. He sang roles in West Coast opera premieres — Stravinsky, Britten — at Stanford, which in those days mounted such important performances. After his S.F. Opera role in Die Meistersinger and 14 others for the company, including Tamino in The Magic Flute, his course was clear. It led him to the roles of the Evangelist in the St. John and St. Matthew Passions at the Carmel Bach Festival and the St. Matthew with the S.F. Symphony. His first Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion was at the Carmel Bach Festival's first performance of the work, in 1950. Jimmy had just the voice for that. Ironically, his last performance was in that role, with the Kansas City Philharmonic in 1976.

For his performance with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf on January 17, 1953, the Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote in his review, "Schwabacher's assignment as the Evangelist was sung with the mastery of its music and its meaning such as the writer of these lines has seldom witnessed." From then on, it was a career of recitals and lecture recitals, along with opera intermission broadcasts and preview lecturing. After a nonmalignant growth on his vocal chords did in his voice, teaching, mentoring, and institutional leadership became his life.

The CD reawakens memories of that clear, true tenor as if it were yesterday. And not just the sound, distinctive and pure as it was. In songs by Dowland, Haydn, and a lovely rendition of the aria of ineffable beauty, "Un' aura amorosa," from Mozart's Così fan tutte, his inimitable way of getting into the piece is immediately apparent: keenly, never stretching an interpretive point, subtle yet telling and to the point. In the two Schubert songs "Dass sie hier gewesen" and "Geheimes," the poetry comes alive. Schwabacher digs deeper in four songs by Schumann, ending in the dark irony of "Ich grolle nicht," while the refinement of his singing and the even, silvery tone, remain constant.

The recital of a lifetime

The diction is impeccable, setting a standard, crystal clear in the French repertory that is the largest part of the CD. There are single songs by Massenet (the aria "La Rêve" from Manon), Hahn, and Chausson. The treasures are six by Fauré. The line and feeling of rapture in "Nell," the intimacy and inner passion in "Le Secret," the urgency of "Dans le ruines d'une abbaye," the depth of "Tristesse" and intensity of "Fleur jetée" capture the essence of Fauré's art. Three by Poulenc and two old charmers by Lehar and Stolz round out what turns out to be "the recital of a lifetime."

The pianists for these performances are Edwin McDonell, Paul Ulanowsky, William Corbett Jones, and Wallace Berry. Remarkably, the performances are so finely engineered, his singing so consistent, that there is no appreciable sense that these recordings were made over a 15-year period in many different halls and studios. It is James Schwabacher, tenor, at his best.

(Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.)

©2006 Robert Commanday, all rights reserved