By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – In 1973, as the first performance of the newly dubbed Catskill Symphony Orchestra
under conductor Charles Schneider ended, the room was silent.
“The audience was so stunned they didn’t applaud for about 20 seconds,” said Schneider’s friend Carlton Clay, SUNY Oneonta music professor and trumpet player with the CSO and other orchestras. “Then they jumped to their feet and clapped. It was quite a moment.”
Schneider, went on to conduct the CSO for 45 years.
He died Friday, Oct. 9, at age 84, at his Frankfort home.
A Minnesota native, Schneider was a graduate of Cornell College of Iowa, then studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
Initially, he made a name for himself on Broadway as a musicals man, conducting two tours of “West Side Story,” including one with a then-unknown Christopher Walken, and a six-month engagement of the show at Lincoln Center.
“He was one of Leonard Bernstein’s favorite conductors,” said Tom Morgan, Franklin, a longtime CSO board member and president.
Schneider went on to conduct “Mame” and “Your Own Thing” on Broadway, plus Jimmy Durante’s Christmas Special. And he had a stint with the Ice Capades.
In 1972, Clay and his wife, Julia, a French horn player, were at the Aspen Music Festival, and in addition to playing, had been tasked with looking for a conductor.
“It took about five minutes to realize that Chuck was at the top of the list,” he said. “We made him the offer, but he had just signed on for an eight-month tour of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ with Chita Rivera.”
The symphony hired another conductor, but 10 months later, Schneider called back and asked if
the job was still available. It was.
For the 1973 inaugural season’s debut, Schneider invited his old roommate, Dustin Hoffman, to narrate “The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra.”
“Dustin brought his family up to stay with us, but they got lost in the Catskills driving up,” said Clay. “He made it just in time for their one rehearsal!”
Of the 600 tickets – $5 each – available to that first show, 200 were sold. “A lot of people didn’t think Dustin Hoffman would show,” said Clay. “But attendance was better than it usually was.”
Even with a small audience, the show was a smash hit, and critic Robert Moynihan, Town of Middlefield, the retired SUNY English professor, wrote a review of the show, calling it, “An Orchestra to Be Proud Of.”
Schneider and Clay went on to co-found the Catskill Conservatory, bringing young performers to the area to play and teach, and was the founding musical director of the Glimmerglass Festival.
In addition to the CSO, Schneider was the conductor for the Schenectady, Utica and Clinton symphonies.
He was a four-time recipient of the ASCAP Award for Creative Programming & Performance Excellence and received the Governor’s Award for Musical Excellence, as well as a Congressional Citation of Musical Excellence.
“Musicians and soloists loved him, but on the board, he was very practical,” said Morgan. “If our budgets were tight, he would put himself in as a soloist to save money. He was willing to drive the van, help set up chairs, he would do anything required to make sure the symphony could perform.”
Turning 80, Schneider retired from the symphony in 2018, but continued to attend the concerts,
including the conductor search series.
He is survived by his wife, Rayna, son Dana Schneider (partner Sarah Feliu), daughter Megan Schneider (Ahmad Ajakh), and stepson Paul Baker (Kristie); seven grandchildren; sister Marian Knutson (Ronald)
and many nieces and nephews.
“Chuck was the most hard-working, kind, loving, generous person I have ever known,” wrote his stepson, Paul Baker, in a tribute. “To have been shaped by his love and example is the single biggest privilege I have experienced.”
“Chuck was a wonderful man in so many ways. His humility in accepting accolades, his pride in his orchestra’s musicians, his caring about their families,” wrote his wife, Rayna. “But above all, his joy in his family was paramount. He was a loving, giving husband, father, brother, and grandfather. He was simply one of the best people who ever walked this earth.”
The Clays continued to see Schneider socially, including a few weeks before he died. “He was cracking jokes, he played piano for us,” he said. “He was his full, ebullient self.”
“He’s the best friend I ever had,” he continued. “Or expect to have in this life.”