Asked last week how he feels some four months after his 90th birthday, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski wasted no words. “My health is poor,” he said, “but my spirit is very high.”
Indeed, the Minnesota Orchestra’s conductor laureate can legitimately register a few health complaints. He suffered heart damage and atrial fibrillation in 2008, prompting the use of a pacemaker, and he has been plagued with eye trouble since the 1960s. His spirit, however, has been energized in recent years, he said, by his growing acclaim abroad. Critics in Germany and England use terms like “living legend” (Manchester Evening News) in reviews of Skrowaczewski’s concerts, and in Japan, according to the conductor’s biographer, Frederick Edward Harris Jr., Skrowaczewski is treated like a rock star and is besieged by fans for his autograph after his concerts. (They also bring him gifts, so many that one of the Tokyo halls put up a sign backstage: ”No Hand-Shaking, No Gifts.”)
“Suddenly, it’s like a new era for me,” the conductor said. “The reviews I’ve gotten the past five to six years are incredible. This keeps me going.” Skrowaczewski was speaking by phone from his home in the west suburbs of Minneapolis, where he has lived since 1964 while maintaining an international conducting career. Born in Lwow, Poland, he was music director of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1960 to 1979. (His wife of 55 years, Krystyna, died in 2011 of progressive supranuclear palsy.)
On the eve of his 90th birthday, Oct. 3, during a series of concerts and birthday parties in Tokyo, where Skrowaczewski is honorary conductor laureate of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, the conductor was given a surprise gift, a 28-CD deluxe set of all the widely admired recordings he has made since the early 1990s for the German Oehms Classics label with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonic, the orchestra in Saarbrucken of which he is principal guest conductor. The musicians there, it has been said, have coined a term, “Stanislove,” to describe their attitude toward their conductor.
Skrowaczewski’s birthday – and the fact that he is not only the oldest working major conductor in the world but a composer who has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize – was ignored in the United States, and, except for his dates in the Twin Cities, he has no bookings in this country this season. There are various theories about why this is so. Violinist Young-Nam Kim thinks it’s because Skrowaczewski has resisted self-promotion. “Stan’s as great a conductor as any of them, Bernstein included,” he said, “but he’s under-recognized.”
Birthday concert Feb. 23
To alleviate the situation, at least on the local front, Kim and Harris, whose generous, deftly researched biography of the conductor, “Seeking the Infinite,” was published in 2011, have put together a birthday concert that will be given at Orchestra Hall Feb. 23 as part of the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota series, of which Kim is artistic director. Several major composers – Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, Steven Stucky and Paul Schoenfield — have composed pieces in honor of Skrowaczewski. He, in turn, will conduct three of his own works, including the Symphony for Strings and the premiere of a brief work for cello — a “musical joke,” the composer calls it – to be played by Lynn Harrell, a longtime friend and colleague. Karel Husa, the 93-year-old Czech composer, has sent an elaborate arrangement of “Happy Birthday” that he composed some years ago but that has never been played. Joe Dowling and the Minnesota Orchestra’s former concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis will also perform.
Hardly less weighty will be the concerts this weekend at Orchestra Hall: the official opening of the remodeled facility and, with Skrowaczewski conducting, the return of the Minnesota Orchestra after its bitter and controversial 16-month lockout.
These are events of some considerable historical resonance. In a sense, Orchestra Hall, completed in 1974, is Skrowaczewski’s building. He lobbied for it relentlessly starting in the late ’60s, and by all accounts, it never would have been built, nor would it have been such a success, acoustically, had it not been for Skrowaczewski. More recently, during the lockout, he conducted the musicians’ concerts several times, ignoring the tradition that says conductors should remain neutral during contract disputes. Presumably, when you’re 90, you can go your own way. Skrowaczewski has a lot to say on the subject – and hasn’t said it publicly until now.
“This invitation to conduct the opening was unexpected,” he said. “It came at the last minute. (Contract agreement was announced Jan. 15. Word of Skrowaczewski’s participation came just four days later.) “This means a lot of work,” he said. “The program has to be very well prepared because we face not really a full orchestra but an orchestra that has been decimated by the tragedy of the lockout. Some of the best players have left. There will be new players here, too, some from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It will be almost, you could say, a new orchestra with, I don’t know, some 20 new musicians. But I’m very happy that they came together finally, and I’m optimistic. I’m hoping that (Osmo) Vänskä will agree to come back. We don’t know yet how much damage this lockout did to the orchestra. It happened at the peak of the orchestra’s excellence. It was tragic and completely unnecessary. It could have been avoided. You know, I’m not in a position to blame people for this, but there were great mistakes and insensitivities.”
Recalling Dayton, Pillsbury
He recalled influential board members of the past: Kenneth Dayton, John Pillsbury, Jr., Charles Bellows, all gone. The lockout wouldn’t have happened were they still in charge, he said.
“I remember saying to one of the gentlemen from the newspaper three years ago when there was news of the renovation of the hall, ‘This can be dangerous. They should have money for musicians, not for renovation.’ You see, for people like Ken Dayton and me and others, the hall was supposed to be a temple of music, a temple of meditation, of spiritual experience. The outer parts, like the lobby, were unimportant. I remember Ken saying, ‘From the outside it looks like a factory or a school. It’s gray. But when you open the inner door, there suddenly is this wonderful, brilliant hall. Everything changes – spirit and everything.’ This was the idea and I carried it with me. Every time I entered the building, through the lobby or backstage, it seemed bleak and not nice. But that was unimportant, because then I would open the door and walk into the temple. That’s why I said this renovation could be dangerous.”
He pointed, as many have, to the proposed Vikings stadium. “Almost a billion will be spent on the stadium,” he said. “In comparison, all they needed at the orchestra was $6 million. Art goes by the wayside.”
As a child: a pianist, composer, conductor
Skrowczewski’s first musical goal in life wasn’t, in fact, to be a conductor but, following in his mother’s footsteps, a concert pianist. (His father was a medical doctor.) He composed his first orchestral work, an eight-minute overture, at the age of seven and made his conducting debut at 13, playing and conducting Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. In 1941, during a German bombing of Lwow, the entire wall of a house fell on him, destroying nerves and bones in his hands. A friend standing nearby was killed. Six months later, after extensive surgery, he tried to play again and got a painful cramp after just 30 seconds. His career as a pianist was over.
He spent much of the war years in hiding, attending what he called an “underground university,” where small groups of students and professors met in private homes to discuss art and philosophy. He continued composing, but the manuscripts of his first two symphonies had to be abandoned when he left Lwow at the end of the war, when Poland was partitioned. He and his family were allowed to travel with only one suitcase per person. His fortunes rose to the highest ranks, however, when he became music director of the Krakow Philharmonic and the Warsaw National Orchestra.
U.S. debut with Cleveland Orchestra
He made his U.S. debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958, and two years later succeeded Antal Dorati at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra (then named the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra). Some of the musicians during those early years found Skrowaczewski to be stiff and overly formal. On the plus side, his programs during the 1960s and ’70s suggest that he presided over a period of advanced, vital programming that hasn’t really been equaled by any of the music directors here since then. It’s doubtful that leading lights of the Polish avant-garde – chiefly Penderecki and Lutoslavski – would have become as admired in the West without the continued support and exposure that Skrowaczewski gave them.
Skrowaczewski’s difficult early years during the war – living constantly on the run and never being able to take art for granted – may have informed his view that the arts offer transcendent experiences, that they are almost a religion. Harris quotes him: “To me, art is a dialogue with the unknown. This dialogue encompasses all fundamental human concerns – such as the meaning of life and death, love and cruelty, sacrifice and redemption – in the constant hope of knowing that which cannot be known.”
Music, in this view, is a profoundly serious business. “I think the older maestros with the kind of values and the approach to music-making that Stan embodies aren’t as valued in the U.S. as they are in Europe and Japan,” said Harris, who is director of wind and jazz ensembles at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A conductor like Stan is a breath of fresh air especially to the musicians and audiences of Japan because they don’t have these monumental figures.”
He quotes Youko Fuji, co-principal clarinet of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony: “Part of the Japanese character is that we are introverted, so it is important for us to express more in our music to really communicate it. Maestro Skrowaczewski’s requests are sometimes very deep and difficult, but later I realize that they are necessary to develop a wide range of musical expression.”
A man to count on in a crisis
An avid mountain climber in earlier years, Skrowaczewski has curtailed some of his more strenuous activities, and since his heart trouble six years ago, he has learned to conserve his energy at the podium by making smaller gestures. He remains, nonetheless, a man to count on in a crisis. Harris recalls the story that in the spring of 2010, Skrowaczewski was scheduled to fly from Poznan, Poland, to Manchester, England, where he was to conduct the Halle Orchestra. But all flights from Poznan were grounded because of volcanic ash from Iceland. Skrowaczewski, however, was determined to make his appointment in Manchester. So he hired a car and two drivers to take him across the continent. Reaching the ferry docks at Vallee Calle, France, he crossed the English Channel and got to Manchester in time for one short rehearsal before the concert. Although he was exhausted from the 800-mile, 24-hour journey, he conducted with aplomb.
Critics have said that Skrowaczewski’s interpretations are freer than they were in earlier days. He agrees.
“Things come more naturally,” he said. “When you are a young conductor, you search and you compare other people’s – or even your own – performances. It’s always search and trial, which gives you tension. But when that searching and comparing disappears, I don’t have the tension. The music just flows organically. I used to come to rehearsal wondering: How will it go? It was a dilemma, a trial. Whereas now it is just a pleasure that I look forward to.”
Off the podium, Skrowaczewski looks frail. On the other hand, standing in front of an orchestra, he seems to gain energy, as if drawing on currents of electricity from the musicians around him. The years drop from him like pebbles and, though it is surely an illusion, he looks taller. We can only wonder about this unusual, gifted man who has outlived all his peers: What will be his legacy? Consider that by the end of the 2009-10 season, he had conducted 4,441 concerts and made over 200 recordings, most of them still in print.
Harris offered a thought. “There are tangibles and intangibles. The tangible is that he is a conductor-composer in the truest sense. His compositions are really fine, and I want to believe that there will be advocates for his music in the future. His recordings are another part of the tangibles. Among the intangibles is his uncompromising artistic integrity. He is a pure artist, an idealistic model. There aren’t a lot of those in classical music today. Music is always in the forefront of whatever he does. Think of it: He’s been true to himself for 70 years in his career.”
Minnesota Orchestra, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, conductor. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Orchestra Hall, 11th St. and Nicollet, Minneapolis. Tickets: $20-$100. Web is easiest — or try 612-371-5656.
“Happy 90th Maestro Stan!” Chamber Music Society of Minnesota and guest performers. Feb. 23, 4 p.m. Orchestra Hall. Tickets: $15-$25. 651-450-0527 or www.chambermusicmn.org.
Michael Anthony, a former longtime music critic for the Star Tribune and the author of “Osmo Vänskä, Orchestra Builder,” writes about classical music and other arts topics for MinnPost.