Kenneth Schermerhorn is one of the most respected conductors on the American scene, especially highly regarded as a builder of orchestras.
He grew up learning to play the trumpet and graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, where he studied conducting with Richard Burgin. He then won the Koussevitzky Prize, the main prize for young conductors at the Berkshire Music Center. During his military service he became the conductor of the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra (stationed in Germany), obtaining leadership and artistic experiences rarely available to aspiring conductors in their early 20s. On his return to the United States he joined the American Ballet Theater, of which he was the musical director from 1957 to 1967. He also studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and became assistant conductor to Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic (1959 - 1960 season). During this period Schermerhorn married Lupe Serrano, the ABT's principal ballerina.
From 1963 to 1968 he was the music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, then in the years 1968 - 1980 had a similar position with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. In both cases he was credited with accomplishing great improvements in their ensemble and artistic qualities. He remarried in 1975, to soprano Carol Neblett. The dancer-choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov chose Schermerhorn's 1977 recording with the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker as the soundtrack for an annually-televised production of that ballet.
From 1982 to 1984 he accepted three major positions. The first was the resumption of the post of music director of the American Ballet Theater (1982 - 1988). Grove's Dictionary's contributor Michael Steinberg credits his ballet leadership experience, in part, with making him "one of the most versatile, dependable American conductors of his generation." In 1983 Schermerhorn became music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which he brought from the status of an average regional orchestra to a contender for national recognition. In late 2000 he lead the orchestra on a tour of the East Coast, including its Carnegie Hall debut. In 1983 he was also selected to conduct the gala concert for the Metropolitan Opera Centennial, thus appearing on a world-wide television network produced by PBS. In 1984 he became the music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, remaining there through 1988. That orchestra had been founded by HNH Records executive Klaus Heymann, who was transforming it into a fully professional ensemble with the aim of making it fit to record and release recordings on his Hong Kong (later Marco Polo) Records label. Schermerhorn accomplished this feat of orchestra-building and, in so doing, forged a close link with HNH. For HNH's labels Marco Polo and Naxos he has recorded orchestral music of Villa Lobos and Alexander Glazunov, and a Cesar Cui release. In 1999 he began recording for Naxos a series of the orchestral music of Charles Ives and Howard Hanson.
Schermerhorn has guest conducted extensively, appearing on the concert stages of the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, The Cleveland Orchestra, and symphony orchestras of Cincinnati, Detroit, San Antonio, Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore, and New Orleans, as well as at the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, the National Orchestra of Mexico, the Zagreb Philharmonic, and other venues in Australia, Europe, China, and Japan. He has conducted opera in San Francisco, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Edmonton.