Electric conductor: From dropout to center stage at S.F. Symphony

It’s hard to believe the polished conductor waving his baton at Davies Symphony Hall came home from high school one day and said to his parents, quite seriously, that he wouldn’t be going back. Ever.

What use was a health class if he intended to play in a professional orchestra?

Benjamin Shwartz, now 27, looks back on the years his family calls “an educational odyssey” with humor. Despite dropping out of high school three times, he ended up exactly where he planned.

Shwartz, who grew up in Los Angeles and Israel, has been a resident conductor at the San Francisco Symphony for the past two years. He also conducts high school and college students in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra — perhaps the ideal role for someone who knows exactly what it’s like to be a teenager who wants only to create music.

“You have to have a certain charisma on stage when you’re leading an orchestra, and Beni has that,” said Chen Zhao, a violinist with the main symphony and a youth orchestra coach. “He’s very enthusiastic, and I think very inspiring to the youth orchestra members.”

Shwartz has hazelnut eyes and curly brown hair. He speaks onstage and off as though narrating a book on tape — his cadence animated, his diction clear.

Friends and colleagues call him Beni, a nickname that originated from a childhood in Rehovot, Israel. He was born in Los Angeles but moved to Israel with his family (his father grew up there) when he was a baby.

He remembers life in Israel as “idyllic.” Hearing his parents sing Israeli folk songs introduced him to music; he still listens to Yair Dalal and Nomi Shemer.

“I remember one Friday night, when he was just 9 months old and not even speaking yet, that he started singing the Kiddush,” his mother, Michelle Shwartz, recalled, humming the blessing’s tune.

Shwartz and his family moved back to California when he was 8, and he started learning how to play the flute. For his bar mitzvah, the 13-year-old asked his parents to buy him a complete set of orchestral flute repertoire. By the following year, he was practicing up to six hours a day.

Regular high school became nothing but a distraction, so Shwartz set his sights on the Curtis Institute of Music, a highly selective conservatory in Philadelphia that selects students by skill, not grades. But there were no openings for a flutist when he tried to enroll.

“So my kid says, ‘That’s OK, Mom, I’ll just go to Philadelphia and study with the principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.’ That was his big plan,” Michelle Shwartz said.

“He was just going to go, rent himself a room and study with Jeffrey Khaner. I worried he’d be isolated in some seedy part of town, going out one hour a week to take lessons. It sounded undoable. But he was very single-minded, very determined to do what he wanted to do.”

The flutist agreed to take Shwartz on as his private student. Shwartz studied composition for a year before he was able to enroll at Curtis, and eventually earned two degrees.

He started listening to a wider variety of music in college, and also composing his own, which he described as “thrasher classical music” and very under the radar.

Conducting, Shwartz thought, would be a great way to introduce people to the music he loved, including this “punk classical.” He also felt strongly about the way music should be played, and so he began to study how to lead an orchestra. “The job of a conductor is an interpreter,” he said. “The art of being a conductor is to express musical ideas with your body.”

He looks a bit like a dancer when he conducts — arms flailing and head bobbing, he rises and crouches as the music swells and softens.

In addition to the youth orchestra, he leads the main symphony during its “Concerts for Kids.” With elementary school children in attendance, Shwartz charms and teaches the young audiences, explaining things like how a woodwind makes sound.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to give young people the exposure to this music they otherwise wouldn’t get,” he said.

He also is still committed to unusual forms of classical music, bringing an electronic/classical fusion to an S.F. dance club via Mercury Soul, a collaboration between himself, a local DJ and a 20-piece orchestra.

On Thursday, June 5, Shwartz will make his conducting debut with the full symphony, but as excited as he is about that, he truly revels in nurturing young musicians.

Shwartz recalled an experience when the orchestra’s trumpet players couldn’t master Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. They fumbled during rehearsals …

“But they nailed it during the performance — it was like an electric shock through my body,” Shwartz said. “I was blown away, so excited and proud.

“The youth orchestra has been a tremendous, unexpected pleasure. It’s some of the most fulfilling music-making I’ve ever done.”

Benjamin Shwartz will make his debut in the San Francisco Symphony’s subscription series at 2 p.m., Thursday, June 5, followed by performances 6:30 p.m. June 6 and 8 p.m. June 7 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Each performance also will include conductors James Gaffigan and Ragnar Bohlin. Shwartz will also conduct the Youth Orchestra’s “Bon Voyage Concert” at 1 p.m. June 22. For more information, visit www.sfsymphony.org or call (415) 864-6000.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.