Remembering Charles Schneider, longtime leader of the Schenectady Symphony

Charles Schneider looks on as Ryan Reilly practices the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 for the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra in March 2013.Right: Schneider conducts the Schenectady Symphony. (Gazette file photos)

Charles Schneider looks on as Ryan Reilly practices the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 for the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra in March 2013.Right: Schneider conducts the Schenectady Symphony. (Gazette file photos)

Charles Schneider, a longtime leader of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra as well as several other New York-based music groups, died last week from complications due to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, according to the Symphony.

“He was one of the most even-keeled people that I’ve ever seen,” said Bob Bour, the president of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra. “No matter how bad rehearsal was going or whatever problem came up, he was always very calm, very professional. Many musicians told me that they loved playing for him because he was just such a wonderful person on the podium.”

Schneider, who lived in Frankfort in Herkimer County, led the Schenectady Symphony for 35 years, before becoming the music director emeritus in 2018. Throughout his lifetime, he was also the associate director of the Kansas City Philharmonic and conducted/directed the Catskill Symphony Orchestra and the Utica Symphony Orchestra. He was also the founding music director of the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown from 1987 to 1998.

Growing up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, he a passion for music. According to a previous Gazette article, Schneider credited his grandparents for his musical sensibilities. He studied music at both the Cornell College in Iowa and Juilliard School in New York City.

Early in his career, Schneider worked with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including Jimmy Durante, The Supremes, Jimmy Dean, and others. He toured with Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” and it’s said that he conducted more performances of the Broadway musical than anyone else. In 2000 he received the Governor’s Award for Musical Excellence and a “citation of musical excellence” from the United States Congress.

Yet, what stuck out to members of the Schenectady Symphony was his geniality.

“There are legendary conductors out there who scream and yell . . . and that was not his style. He was very, very even-tempered and because of that, he was able to get the most out of his musicians,” Bour said.

Janet Hutchison, Schenectady Symphony musician and owner of the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady, has been in the orchestra since Schneider first stepped into the leadership role.

“I loved working with Chuck and have so many fond memories,” Hutchison said. “He brought a wealth of knowledge, experience, and joy to his work and I feel I learned a great deal under his direction and became a better musician because of him. In addition to his great sense of humor and storytelling ability, he was respectful and encouraging to all who worked with him. I always enjoyed our rehearsals. He will be missed by all.”

Schneider also had connections with musicians all over the world, and would sometimes bring them into play with the Schenectady Symphony.
“He brought people into us sometimes who never would’ve dreamed of playing with the Schenectady Symphony but they would do it as a favor to Chuck, just because he knew them. That was one of the other things that was helpful with him was he just had this wide net of contacts throughout the orchestra world. It gave us access to folks that we might not normally have had access to,” Bour said.

Schneider was also very encouraging to student musicians, according to Bour. The Schenectady Symphony ran two student competitions each year, which Schneider was instrumental in organizing.

“Whenever we would find someone that we thought was good, one of the things we would do was give them the opportunity to play a concerto with the orchestra at Proctors. For many of those young kids, some of them as young as 12 and 13, it would be the very first time that they would play that kind of a work with an orchestra in a hall like Proctors,” Bour said.

“I think one of Chuck’s biggest strengths was when we would bring these young folks to him, he really just had a way of making them feel comfortable and getting the most out of their performance. I personally witnessed a couple occasions where things were tremendously going off the rails and he was able to pull it back and counsel the student and end up with a very good performance. I think he just had the innate ability to do those kinds of things.”

“Giving thanks for the amazing life, energy, kindness, and music-making of Maestro Charles Schneider,” wrote musician, Madalyn Parnas Möller on Facebook. “From Mozart and Mendelssohn to Saint-Saëns and Lalo, I had the honor and privilege of performing so many of my concertos for the first time under his baton . . . He blessed my musical life with so much support and opportunity as a young person beginning a career in music.”

Toward the end of his life, Schneider was battling with worsening idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. However, according to Bour, the conductor was as sharp as ever.

“He was a great guy to work with and I really enjoyed the time we had together. It’s really sad what has happened,” Bour said.

Many took to Facebook to express their condolences and talk about the influence that Schneider had in their lives.

”My first professional orchestra experience and many thereafter were under Chuck’s baton,” one musician wrote. “I will forever be grateful for everything I learned from him and the many works I got to perform for the first time with him! Chuck was always so kind and supportive and inspired me to make music in a way that I enjoyed the process! You’ll be missed, Chuck.”

Another wrote: “May you rest in peace, Maestro. Thank you for all the many wonderful musical experiences and magical memories! You will long be remembered as a true blessing to our community.”

Services or memorial events have not yet been announced. The Symphony, which has not been able to perform live in several months because of the coronavirus pandemic, hopes to celebrate Schneider’s life and work in the future.

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