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I don't suppose it's any secret that when Joseph Silverstein was named director of the Utah Symphony in 1983 the other top contender for the job was Gerard Schwarz.

The problem was neither of them had yet conducted the orchestra.In Schwarz's case that will at long last be remedied when he returns, baton in hand, for his first-ever concerts with them Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, in Symphony Hall. Which means local audiences will finally have an opportunity to hear the conductor who, together with the orchestra that did hire him, the Seattle Symphony, has racked up no fewer than eight Grammy nominations in the nine years since.

Schwarz says he's looking forward to it, too. "I remember when I came in that time to a rehearsal," he recalls by telephone from Philadelphia, where he is guest conducting that city's orchestra. "I was absolutely knocked out by how gorgeous that hall sounds and looks. It was just beautiful."

As he recalls, one of the deciding factors in his not being picked was the limited amount of time he would be able to spend here. At the time, he was also serving as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony and New Jersey's Waterloo Festival, as well as music adviser of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival.

He still has the last three jobs. Yet he nevertheless manages to spend 22 weeks a year in Seattle, where he leads 11 of the orchestra's subscription programs, conducts one opera a year with the Seattle Opera and, obviously, makes a lot of records.

(At present, Silverstein's commitment here is roughly comparable, likewise involving 11 subscription programs a season together with a number of extra concerts and benefit performances. In addition he has made himself a highly visible figure on the local chamber-music scene.)

"I think we've done maybe 27 discs in Seattle," Schwarz reflects, "although it was 25 until this week, when two more came out, a new Piston disc and a Strauss disc." Also in the can, he affirms, are Paul Creston and William Schuman collections, Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" and "The Rite of Spring," Mendelssohn's "Lobgesang," another Strauss disc and the final installments in the orchestra's Schumann cycle.

Nor do these look to be the end. According to Schwarz, the orchestra's current contract calls for 25 sessions a year, something made possible by its members' decision some years back to sever themselves from the American Federation of Musicians and set their own recording fees.

"I didn't take sides on that one," Schwarz says. "I told them if they wanted to stay in the A.F. of M. I would support them, if they wanted to stay I would support that, too."

It's worth noting that it was Schwarz who also increased the number of subscription programs in Seattle from 12 to 18. Also, he says, "When I got there, attendance was way down, the Sunday series was about to be cancelled, we did no touring, no divided orchestral work and no educational work at that time, which was amazing to me."

By contrast, Utah, he says, "was already on a higher plane. A lot of this stuff was already going on. So even though I was disappointed not to come there, I was very happy to go to Seattle. Obviously it's worked out well for me and for Utah and Joey."

So much so that, if there is any rivalry between the two of them, you wouldn't know it from this week's program. For not only is Schwarz leading the orchestra in his trademark mix of American and European music - the David Diamond Symphony No. 4, the Barber Violin Concerto and orchestral excerpts from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," "Das Rheingold" and "Goetterdaemmerung" - but his soloist in the Barber is going to be Silverstein.

In that, the latter will be repeating one of his more successful Utah Symphony recordings. It is Schwarz, however, who has become more closely associated with this repertoire, to the point where even he admits it has become a major factor in his success.

"I started out as a teenager loving Hanson, Barber, Copland, Diamond and Creston," he recalls. "In fact the first piece I conducted at Interlochen, at age 11, was the slow movement of the Hanson Second Symphony, which was the Interlochen theme. Then, when I got older and won the Ford Foundation Award for Concert Artists in 1967, I asked Aaron Copland to write a trumpet concerto for me and he said no. Then I asked Samuel Barber and he said no. Finally Gunther Schuller agreed, but that was the direction I went in. That was the music I liked the most."

Indeed it was as a trumpeter that Schwarz made his early reputation, including four years as principal in the New York Philharmonic. Today, however, his press biography does not even mention that phase of his career, and he admits he has not picked up the instrument in 15 years.

"I just felt that physically I couldn't do both," he says of soloing and conducting. "There are people who can - Joey does both, Rostropovich does both, Barenboim does both. But what I loved best about being a trumpeter was playing in orchestras. That's what I wanted all my life, from the time I was 11 years old. And from the time I was 13 I wanted to be in the New York Philharmonic."

Obviously Schwarz fulfilled his dream. But along the way he picked up another. An early contact with the composer for the Erick Hawkins Dance Company led to his being appointed its conductor in 1966, at age 19. Six years later he was named music director of the Elliot Feld Dance Company and four years after that to the same post with the Waterloo Festival in his native New Jersey.

But, he says, "it wasn't until I'd been in the Philharmonic a couple of years and began to feel I could do the job that I began thinking maybe that wasn't what I wanted to do the rest of my life. So I began analyzing the guest conductors, seeing where they were successful or where they made mistakes. That was my training."

It was while he was in Los Angeles that Schwarz made his first recordings for Delos, the company responsible for all his Seattle Symphony recordings, including the American-composers series that netted them those Grammy nominations.

"Those first ones were my idea," he says of the initial Hanson, Piston and Diamond discs. "But afterward it was Delos'. After we had done the Hanson (coupling the First and Second symphonies), they said, `Let's do all seven.' I said, `That's great, but don't you think it would be good to see how it goes first?' Until that first recording was released, whenever I had programmed any of Hanson's music audiences loved it but the critics didn't. But they pushed for it and it worked. They've ended up being our best sellers."

Schwarz acknowledges deliberately steering clear of more avant-garde American repertoire. "Here in Philadelphia in recent years they've been doing pieces by Ralph Shapey and Milton Babbitt, who, whether you like them or not, are certainly not traditional orchestral composers. They make audiences nervous and the orchestra unhappy. So even though it may be music I enjoy intellectually, I don't feel I should subject an audience to it.

"That's not to say David Diamond's music is milk toast, or Piston's or Sessions'. They have their difficult moments, but they also have a reason for existence. And thanks to the recordings, when as a guest conductor I say I want to do a piece of theirs, nobody minds, and it used to be like pulling teeth."

At the same time, Schwarz confides, the higher profile may have hurt a bit in Seattle.

"When Stephen Albert came in as our composer-in-residence in 1985," he relates, "he said to me, `Do you realize that we are doing more American music than any orchestra in the country?' I said I didn't and he said, `That's marvelous. Let's make a big press story out of it.' And I said, `No, let's don't tell anybody.' He said, `Why not?' And I said, `Because nobody's complaining.' And sure enough, it wasn't until the recordings caught on around 1989 that everyone started to notice and we started getting some complaints, although in fact we may have been doing less than we were in '85, '86 or '87. Only now people noticed and had something to complain about."

Starting time for this week's concerts is 8 p.m., with Silverstein presenting a complimentary pre-concert lecture at 7:15 p.m. Tickets are priced from $10 to $30 ($5 students) and are available at the Symphony Hall box office. For information call 533-NOTE.