In 1955, Chuck Schneider had no interest in rocking around the clock with Bill Haley.
Ten years later, his Broadway experience with Leonard Bernstein and "West Side Story," while wonderful, was keeping him from doing what he really wanted.
"Rock 'n' roll just wasn't my style, and while I did a lot of Broadway work in the 1960s and loved it, I felt like I had gotten off track," said Schneider. "I never went back to Broadway after 1968. I wanted to get back into serious music."
Schneider has managed to do that quite well. After 35 years of conducting the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, he is retiring following Sunday's 3 p.m. concert at Proctors. The first event of the symphony's 2018-2019 season also marks the group's 85th year.
"I have loved making music with these people," Schneider said of the 70 or so volunteer and paid musicians comprising the Schenectady Symphony. "There is some outstanding talent in that orchestra, and many of them don't care about getting paid. They are very willing to join the orchestra and make music -- that is, if they pass their audition. It's not just a free-for-all out there. They have to be good."
Schneider's return to the "serious music" world began in 1970, when he became associate director of the Kansas City Philharmonic. He then studied with some musical greats in Monaco and Rome between 1970 and 1972, and returned to the U.S. in 1973 to work with the Catskill Symphony Orchestra in Oneonta, a gig that also ended earlier this year. He was conductor of the Utica Symphony Orchestra from 1980-2011, and after taking over in Schenectady in 1983, he was the founding music director of the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, working there from 1987 to 1998.
Growing up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a small town about 20 miles north of the Iowa border, Schneider's passion for music began early. He says he inherited his love of the symphony from his parents, while his talent more likely came from his grandparents.
"My grandmother was an amazing pianist and my grandfather a wonderful violinist," he said. "My mother taught me how to read music when I was around 3, and I started taking piano lessons when I was 5 or 6," said Schneider. "Music and the piano were always in the house, and my parents were never really into rock 'n' roll. But we didn't have a lot of money. They had to rub two nickels together to get any money. My father worked in the post office from 3 in the morning to noon, and then walked across the street and ran a barber shop until 6 that night. That's how we lived."
Schneider earned a music scholarship to Cornell College in Iowa and was also a good enough basketball player to be the starting guard on the Rams' 1959-60 team, helping them to a semifinal finish in the 1960 NCAA College Division Tournament. He also played piano with the Cedar Rapids Symphony during his time at Cornell, and after graduating went to the Juilliard School in New York City for two years.
His next six years were spent working with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including Jimmy Durante, The Supremes, Jimmy Dean, Juliet Prowse, Andy Williams and Howard Keel. His time touring with "West Side Story" included working with Christopher Walken, who was playing Riff, and it has been said of Schneider that he has conducted more performances of Bernstein's Broadway masterpiece than anyone.
"I needed a summer job in 1962, and I had been working as an accompanist for a Columbia artist, Richard Cross, who was pretty big at the time," said Schneider, remembering his entry onto the Broadway scene. "So I got a job doing summer stock to play rehearsal piano, and within two weeks they were asking me to conduct. Because of that experience I got offered to do some Broadway work and actually spent time doctoring shows like 'Hello Dolly!' and others. Music would need to be rewritten and orchestrated, and that's how I got onto Bernstein's radar."
Schneider was music director on two national tours of "West Side Story" and his last big collaboration with Bernstein was for a special Lincoln Center performance of the show during the summer of 1968 celebrating the composer's 50th birthday. Bernstein's work will also be a major part of Sunday's concert at Proctors.
"I think I can certainly say that I know more about 'West Side Story' than any other conductor," said Schneider, who lives in the town of Frankfort in Herkimer County with his wife, Rayna. "I worked through the score with him. I know it backwards and forwards. It's a great work. I don't know if it's his best, but it's obviously his most famous."
While Schneider is putting down his conductor's wand for the most part, he is picking up his composing pen to create an opera named "Skaters." It follows the life of Otto and Maria Jelinek, a brother-sister tandem from Czechoslovakia who fled to Canada as young children in 1948 and went on to win the 1962 World Figure Skating Championships in the pairs competition. He hopes to have the show ready to produce sometime next year in Hamilton, Canada.
"There's a wonderful symphony up there in Hamilton and I've worked with many of the musicians up there before," said Schneider, who said he's nearly done with the opera. "The life story of Otto and Maria is incredible, and I became close friends with them. Otto was like my brother when I was working with the Ice Capades."
A search for Schneider's replacement at the helm of the Schenectady Symphony is currently underway. He is just the fourth music director in the group's history, following Kenneth G. Kelley (1935-1940), Anthony Stefan (1940-1963) and Anthony Pezzano (1964-1982).
"This will be a big change for all of us," said Schenectady Symphony board president Robert Bour. "For most of us on the board and for many of our musicians, Chuck is the only music director and conductor we have ever known. His contributions to this orchestra and this organization are huge."
Janet Hutchinson, owner of the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady, is also a Schenectady Symphony board member and a violinist with the orchestra.
"I was in the symphony when Chuck first joined us and I feel we are all better musicians because of his insights and experiences," she said. "He knows how to make the best use of rehearsal time, and adds some humor to our practice by relaying wonderful stories about how things have sometimes gone wrong with other groups and performers. He will be missed."
Along with music from "West Side Story," Sunday's concert will include selections from "Candide" and "Trouble in Tahiti." Evan Mack, Michael Miller and Sylvia Stoner will be the soloists, while the program will also include a performance by students from the Orlando School of Dance.
While Sunday's event may be his last for the Schenectady Symphony, Schneider has been named the orchestra's conductor emeritus.
"I'll be around," said Schneider, who in 2000 received the Governor's Award for Musical Excellence as well as a "citation of musical excellence" from the U.S. Congress. "I love Schenectady. It's a great city, and I have a lot of friends there. It's a very special place."
Schenectady Symphony Orchestra
WHAT: A concert celebration of Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21
HOW MUCH: $22-$15
MORE INFO: (518) 346-6204, or visit www.proctors.org or www.schenectadysymphony.org