Skrowaczewski—Still Seeking the Infinite

Skrowaczewski—Still Seeking the Infinite

We have invited Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s biographer and friend Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr., to contribute the following essay about the legendary maestro’s remarkable career in celebration of his appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra this week.

Extraordinary music history is quietly being made each time audiences witness Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conduct. At 93, he stands alone as the only major conductor-composer his age still active internationally. With his Minnesota Orchestra concerts this weekend he matches Leopold Stokowski in age for longevity of conducting public performances.

The act of leading a major orchestra at such an age is impressive, but the integrity of Skrowaczewski’s ever-deepening interpretations is what places him on a unique plateau. His conducting repertoire of recent decades ranges from Mozart to Alban Berg and beyond, but his leadership of Bruckner symphonies is transcendental. It stems from a personal identification with Bruckner’s spiritual aesthetic and Skrowaczewski’s own inner life as a composer.

Decades ago he added a soft tam-tam note and cymbals in the finale of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. “I thought it was necessary for this mystical place,” he explained. Years later, upon the release of the Korstvedt edition of this symphony, Skrowaczewski was astonished (and gratified) to discover that Bruckner had added a cymbal in precisely the same spot. He clearly relishes the aesthetic nexus. Retelling this story Skrowaczewski joked, “Maybe Bruckner learned something from me!”

In Japan and Europe (particularly in Germany and in the U.K. with the London Philharmonic Orchestra) Skrowaczewski is a bona fide “rock star” consistently selling out concert halls and earning ovations that often linger for ten minutes. Yet outside of Minnesota, where he is beloved and revered, in recent decades he has largely been neglected in his adopted home country. (Polish-born, he fled his then-Communist birth-country in 1960, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1965. But recently the Polish government honored Skrowaczewski with its two highest awards: The Order of the White Eagle and The Order of Reborn Poland.)

Last summer, however, the Cleveland Orchestra was wise enough to invite him back after a 33-year gap. He tore apart Severance Hall with a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth with which he made his American debut with the Clevelanders back in 1958. “So authoritative—and fresh—was Skrowaczewski’s interpretation,” noted The Plain Dealer in 2015, “that he seemed to fade from view, with the shade of Shostakovich coming into focus over the proceedings.” The rave reviews were reminiscent of a long-ago date with the Cleveland Orchestra that was pivotal to Skrowaczewski’s life. “Polish Conductor Electrifies Severance Hall,” trumpeted the headline of The Plain Dealer review from an atypical placement on the newspaper’s front page following Skrowaczewski’s first Cleveland Orchestra engagement. Board members from the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra were in the audience for Skrowaczewski’s second equally-successful Cleveland performance in 1959 and knew they had their next maestro.

Thankfully the Minnesota Orchestra has valued Skrowaczewski’s artistry since appointing him music director in 1960 (a post he held until 1979—a tenure length only matched by the Minnesota Orchestra’s first music director) and continuing to this day. In fact his professional relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra as music director and now as conductor laureate is the longest such ongoing relationship (56 years!) in the annals of major American orchestras.

Skrowaczewski’s bonds with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra go beyond years of service. He fervently supported them during the lockout and led them in their first concert as the “Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra” in 2012 and again in 2013. And when the Minnesota Orchestra officially returned in February 2014, it was Skrowaczewski who conducted their “Homecoming” concert, the first performance in the newly renovated Orchestra Hall, an edifice that Skrowaczewski fought for and musically inaugurated in 1974.

Two weeks after the “Homecoming” concert, the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota presented “Happy 90th, Maestro Stan!” at Orchestra Hall. Featuring premieres in his honor by some of America’s greatest composers, the concert brought together cellist Lynn Harrell, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges (who presented a “Skrowaczewski Day” proclamation from Governor Dayton), and an all-star orchestra of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and beyond to celebrate Minnesota’s most distinguished classical artist.

Though Skrowaczewski’s primary musical persona is as a conductor, his career as a composer is the life-blood of his artistry. Currently he is working on a large-scale composition for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists that he describes as “a non-religious ‘Requiem for Civilization,’ but still with hope for the future.” Given the duality of Skrowaczewski’s personality, his harrowing experiences living through World War II, and his concern for over half a century of what he describes as “an erosion of cultural and aesthetic values,” the concept of his new symphonic piece is not surprising.

For 70 years Stanislaw Skrowaczewski has in many regards been a singular artistic voice in the world of music. Artistically uncompromising, professionally consistent, and endlessly probing, he has conducted and composed on his own terms. Through his concerts, compositions, and recordings, he has created a priceless artistic legacy—one that Minnesota and the greater world of music should rightly embrace, study and celebrate.

While our fast-paced, technology-driven society promotes ease and self-absorption, this maestro invites us to pause, reflect and contemplate the deeper mysteries that surround us—in effect, to join him in seeking the infinite.

Sto Lat Stanislaw!

Tickets and information for Celebrating Skrowaczewski: Bruckner Symphony No. 8, October 14-15, 2016

Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr.

Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr., is Director of Wind & Jazz Ensembles at M.I.T., the author of Seeking the Infinite: The Musical Life of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and the director and producer of the recent documentary film of the same title. For more information, visit seekingtheinfinite.com.