Charlotte Symphony’s Albert-George Schram leads two lives

06/06/2014 5:46 PM

06/07/2014 12:42 PM

Albert-George Schram bounces onstage with unshakeable confidence, a champion boxer entering the ring.

He clasps his arms over his head in the traditional gesture of victory while acknowledging the cheers of the crowd. Yet this white-haired, jovial old gent comes to give lollipops and bonbons to audiences who can’t get enough of them.

And though he’s famous for showing up in December – his Magic of Christmas concert has become a Charlotte Symphony Orchestra perennial – he dispenses joy year-round. He’ll lead the CSO’s opening Summer Pops concert Sunday in Symphony Park.

“His exuberance is fabulous,” said Nancy McGahey, a fan from Huntersville. “He puts his whole self into it, even jumping into the air a little bit as he conducts. He has great rapport; when he invites you to sing along at the Christmas shows, you really want to sing. Every time I see him, I think, ‘I want to be a conductor!’ ”

The Dutch-born maestro has never wanted to be anything else since graduate school, and fate has rewarded him in two ways.

Elsewhere, his résumé includes Beethoven and Mozart; in Charlotte, it’s The Beatles and Motown. He’s the only CSO conductor who has been around since the 1990s. For listeners who bypass Sibelius for Sousa or the Supremes, he’s the beaming, mustachioed face of this orchestra.

“I’m there to create an event, not just a beautiful sound,” he said over a long lunch at Soho Bistro, where he hugged proprietors on the way in and kissed them on the way out. “The initial audience reaction should be love: You meet people first in their hearts.”

Mark Fischer, director of artistic operations and principal horn for the Orlando Philharmonic, attributed Schram’s success to taking non-“serious” music seriously.

“An orchestra has to be all things to many people,” Fischer said. “We all came up through music school thinking, ‘I’ll play the classics,’ but we also have to play the music of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Broadway or Earth, Wind and Fire. Audiences for this music love it, and George sends the message that we’re here to do something special.

“He creates a buzz in this orchestra. That’s not automatic because you have people nearing retirement and others with piercings and tattoos. It’s a challenge to galvanize those diverse personalities, to keep the energy up and say ‘This can be better.’ He doesn’t lower his standards if the rhythm is not right or we’re not in tune, whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll or light classics.”

A childhood in the church

Schram, who’s 65, grew up around music of a different sort: Salvation Army tunes. “It’s more a denomination than a service organization,” he explained. “My father represented them at the World Council of Churches. That was his calling. We are all called to something, to the degree we want to listen.”

George was a good soccer player but a better singer. (He goes by George to distinguish himself from his dad, who was Albert.) Music “was the only thing I was quite good at. I was a boy soprano surrounded by 40 young ladies at a conservatory in the Hague. But I’d never have accomplished what I have if I’d stayed.”

So he took a KLM flight to Montreal at 18, “an obnoxious kid lighting up a long thin cigar in my one act of defiance.” Schram bumped along in Canada for a few years, then studied music at the University of Calgary.

Eventually, he went to graduate school in Seattle and earned a Ph.D. in 1985, after getting his first major conducting job at the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony. He wrote his dissertation about Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, known as “Resurrection” for its uplifting spiritual message.

“Mahler’s one of my favorite composers. He could have been a Salvationist,” he said. “You hear his eternal search for meaning. You think he’s got it in the Eighth Symphony. In the Ninth, you see he hasn’t.”

No surprise, perhaps, that religious terms creep into Schram’s conversation. He calls himself “an evangelist for music. Orchestras have always had to make their existence relevant to their environments. I’ve had to fight to spread that gospel.”

People often ask why he doesn’t compose. “I tell them I have nothing to say! And I conduct music by so many people who have nothing to say but say it anyway. Conducting Enesco’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 2 is like pulling an elephant out of a morass. I feel relief at being the medium instead of the oracle.”

A musical conduit

Susan Franano, former executive director of the Columbus Symphony, said that role suits him perfectly.

“He’s clever in putting together creative programs that follow a theme or are centered around a dominant work,” she said. “His knowledge of the orchestral repertoire is extensive, and he has good instincts about what will work together well, even if it might not seem like it would. He also welcomes as much input as one wants to give.

“He’s clear about the interpretation he wants and effective in communicating verbally and physically. He’s especially good at getting the outcome he’s after with little time to talk things through. Musicians enjoy that he communicates right away with stick technique, rather than spending a lot of time talking.”

Though he takes music seriously, he doesn’t take himself seriously. Eileen Jeanette, vice president for artistic administration at Pacific Symphony in Orange County, Calif., recalled their first meeting:

“I asked him to conduct a family concert for Halloween, which required him to wear a Superman costume. He told me his sizes, and I purchased a costume I thought would work.

“Well, when he got to town, he tried on the costume, and it didn’t quite fit correctly. Rather than it being a horribly awkward situation, we ended up laughing like crazy, and I knew we would become friends forever. The concert was a major success – and George ultimately looked great in his Superman costume.”

The fountain of youth

His friendships tend to be long ones. He has worked at the Columbus Symphony for 35 years, and he’s completing his 15th season with the Charlotte Symphony. Because he works out a lot – “I play intense racquetball games, lift weights, do boot camp classes” – he seems younger than his years.

“If you believe like I do, that 65 is the new 45, then I’m 45! I look so good!” He laughed. “I’ve always heard that, as you grow older, you pull in your tentacles. But I want to climb mountains. By a long stretch, I’m not finished trucking.”

He continues to balance his two musical lives, conducting works heavy and light while jetting around from his south Florida home. (He has done one “serious” program in Charlotte, leading Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony in 2011.)

“For most of my life,” he said, “I’ve been the two Georges. The longer I live, the more I realize that what moves me may leave others cold. What elevates them may not do it for me.”

So when he conducts his beloved Verdi Requiem, he puts the Latin text, English translation and critical analysis of the piece in the program, so audiences can deepen their experience.

“But if they feel the soul’s thrill, the deepest point of the heart, when they hear ‘The Armed Forces Salute,’ who am I not to say ‘Yeah’?” he asked. And he thrust his arms into the air again, fists clenched, like a champ.

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