Conductor Andrew Schenck, formerly with BSO, dies

February 21, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

ANDREW SCHENCK, a Baltimore-based conductor on the verge of a major international career, died late Wednesday night of cancer. Schenck, who had been associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1973 to 1980, was 52 years old.

After years of guest-conducting throughout the world, often with relatively obscure orchestras in the United States, Europe and Asia, Schenck seemed to have made a major breakthrough: Last October he spent a week conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, America's most prestigious symphony. He had also been asked to record with the orchestra, a rare privilege. The recording, which consisted entirely of Samuel Barber's music and was released last week on the Koch International label, is expected to become one of the biggest sellers in the label's history, a Koch spokesperson said.

"This is ironic," said Schenck's wife, Lois, yesterday of the conductor's death. "He had just achieved the greatest triumph of his career. But he was always determined to lead a perfectly balanced life; he cared more about his family than fame and ended his life very peacefully."

It was with Barber's music that Schenck had made his recent reputation. Barber had been in a doghouse of critical and popular neglect for more than two decades when Schenck began recording his music in 1988 with the New Zealand Symphony. Though the conductor was almost a complete unknown and though most listeners didn't even know where New Zealand was -- much less that it had an orchestra -- the records shot to the top of the classical best-seller list. They

helped restore Barber's reputation and created a surge of interest in his music.

Soon several prominent orchestras and conductors -- including David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony, Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony and Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony -- had Barber projects of their own. But it was Schenck who remained most closely identified with the American composer, and that identification led to invitations this year from Chicago, the London Symphony, the Moscow Philharmonic and other prestigious orchestras. But his recent illness kept him from accepting most of these invitations.

Just before he went to Chicago last October to perform and record Barber, Schenck had discovered that he was mortally ill.

"I understand professionalism, but Andrew showed a level of courage that was tremendous," said Henry Fogel, the Chicago Symphony's executive director. "Most people in his position would have asked for some indulgences, but Andrew made no apologies and just gave terrific concerts and made a fine recording of several challenging Barber scores. No one ever knew he was ill."

Schenck was born in 1940 in Hawaii, where his grandfather had been a missionary. In 1948, his parents took him to New York when his father, Edgar, became director of the Brooklyn Museum. After attending New York City's High School of Music and Art, the future conductor -- then a clarinetist -- set off for Harvard College, where he majored in English literature.

At Harvard, Schenck decided upon a career in music. A Fulbright fellowship took him to Stuttgart and Berlin, and in 1963 he won first prize in a major international conducting competition in Besancon, France. He also studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and Pierre Monteux in Maine, and did graduate work in conducting at Indiana University in Bloomington. In 1970, he became associate conductor of the Honolulu Symphony and became the BSO's associate conductor in 1973.

During his seven-year tenure at the BSO, Schenck assisted then-music director Sergiu Comissiona by conducting pops concerts, children's concerts and run-outs. But he was also responsible for one of the BSO's most ambitious projects to date -- a concert performance in 1977 of Act III of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger."

"The genuine hero of the evening was Maestro Schenck," wrote Evening Sun music critic Sam di Bonaventura. "For the period of two continuous hours he maintained with a sure hand the intensity of the drama, the songful flow, and the security of the whole."

"Andy did a spectacular job," said BSO violinist Craig Richmond. "I will remember always that he was involved with the music, very professional and kind to everybody. In terms of conducting technique and musical quality, he was the best assistant conductor we ever had."

At the beginning of the BSO's 1979-1980 season, Schenck submitted his resignation and became resident conductor of the San Antonio Symphony -- a post he kept until 1988. But he remained in Baltimore for the 1980-'81 season, commuting to San Antonio, guest-conducting in other cities and trying to start a company for chamber opera here. When the Baltimore Chamber Opera Theatre folded after one season, Schenck and his wife, a writer and a Realtor, left for New York City.

They returned to Baltimore in the late 1980s, Schenck explained last year, because "Baltimore was the first place where I lived for more than six years at a time. It made a big difference for us as a family, and our children still feel very much attracted to Baltimore."

At the time of his death, Schenck was music director of the Nassau Symphony on Long Island and of the Atlantic Sinfonietta in New York City. Besides his wife, Schenck is survived by two sons, Matthew and Timothy, and a sister, Miriam Elia of Jerusalem. A memorial service will take place Feb. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Church of the Redeemer.

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