Audience member David Balto contributed this powerful essay after hearing Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony recently.
One of my fondest memories of my early childhood was going to concerts of the Minnesota Orchestra with my parents and sister Joan. It was rare for us to be able to go out as a family and going to a concert required us to try to be something more than just children. We would have to dress up. Our parents took us out to dinner at a nice restaurant. And we would have to listen (or try to listen) quietly to a two-hour concert to music that was not the least bit familiar. This was a lot to expect from an 8-year-old.
Patient and well-behaved were not terms easily used to describe us. But there was something about the entire process, getting dressed up, going to the magnificent Northrup Auditorium, going into a huge concert hall and ascending to the balcony seats, trying to acquire the state of concentration, and trying to fall into the music that was both moving and magical. And to do anything together with my parents seemed special.
A child has a special vision touched by innocence. A child can more easily find the sense of awe.
I had never been in a building so large and majestic―a building built in the 1920s as a memorial for World War I. Cyrus Northrup was the second President of the University and Cass Gilbert’s original plans for the University was to have an Auditorium at one end of the Mall. You walked in to a magnificent foyer with golden chandeliers. The inscription above said "The University of Minnesota: Founded in the Faith that Men are Ennobled by Understanding; Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning and the Search for Truth; Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State." WPA murals throughout the building. We climbed countless stairs to the “upper decks.”
Even at a distance the inside of the Hall was stunning. Great, majestic, regal. A great proscenium arch above the stage. A huge chandelier―over two tons―280 bulbs (my father explained how it was cleaned). And then we saw the stage―so many instruments and musicians, and they all seemed so intense, so devoted.
And then the music. We had not been touched by classical music. A child’s mind wanders “why so long, where is this going, what is the journey we are on?” But I could see my father transfixed. His eyes had a special vision. The music is not just aimed for the ear, it is aimed for and touches the soul. It touched his soul.
My father loved music. He and his five siblings, like most depression children, had so little; they just hoped to be fed and clothed. But sometimes he and his brother and sister would get their hands on some sheet music and harmonize with the only instruments they possessed―their voices. And their home would be filled with the tunes of the day.
He worked his way through college in the 1940s and was assigned the job of washing the walls of Northrup Auditorium. Climbing scaffolds and washing walls. He could watch the Orchestra practice. And that gave him the opportunity to be introduced to the wondrous world of classical music.
I never asked my father what composers he loved. I could tell by sitting next to him in concerts, by being close, that he was powerfully moved by the romantics―Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Stravinsky. He could really cheer at any sporting event but you could see his soul ascend when the romantic classics were played.
When I hear that music played today, I think my soul is specially attuned from sitting next to him and watching him.
A Great Polish Conductor
In 1960 my father was so excited. Was it the Senators moving to Minnesota? (Yes, that was exciting.) There was perhaps even a greater gem―Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a great Polish conductor had fled from behind the iron Curtain to come lead the Minnesota Orchestra. The iron curtain seemed like a prison. How did he escape? What would happen to him? Why did he leave?
Skrowaczewski and the Romantics were meant for each other. He had a vision, an intensity, and a drive that brought out the pain, joy, strife and passion in the music. I was too young to ponder why or how he could transform the music. (Or even know it was transformed). I only knew that for a few moments a magnificent artist led a group of talented musicians to bring out the unique sounds that touched our souls.
My father developed a special attachment to the Orchestra. He was an accountant for many of the musicians and did their tax returns. I remembered how much fun it was for me to assist him and figure out how to depreciate a timpani, bassoon, or viola.
Skrowaczewski conducted the Orchestra until 1974. It’s hard for Midwest culture to be recognized on the East Coast or in Europe or in other cultural capitals but with Skrowaczewski at the helm the Orchestra was acknowledged as superb.
Skrowaczewski Returns to the Podium
On October 15, 2016, accompanied by my wife Naomi, my niece Susan (one of my father’s ten grandchildren, his greatest blessing) and my cousin Peggy, I attended Skrowaczewski’s return to conduct the Orchestra at age 93. When we arrived at Orchestra Hall I could remember the anticipation and wonder I felt as a child. Seeing the Orchestra on stage with musicians busily preparing. And then Skrowaczewski appeared.
It was remarkable. Short, somewhat hunched over, but energetic. He conducted Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony flawlessly. It was over 80 minutes with no intermission. And he conducted without a score―when the music is engraved in your heart you do not need the script.
And I remembered the blessings of the music. I remembered the wonder of an orchestra creating something much greater than any individual artist. I remembered how the music can create a beauty that no words or images can ever describe.
And I remembered how being with my parents and sister taught me how to listen and how to open myself to be touched by and moved by the music.
And I was grateful for that blessing.
Skrowaczewski stood for three curtain calls. He stopped because it was tiring the Orchestra. While he was standing I recalled the Psalmist:
Even in old age they shall bring forth fruit
They will be filled with vigor and strength
To declare the Lord is upright
In whom there is no unrighteousness
David Balto is a public interest attorney and a hospital chaplain in Washington DC; he previously served as policy director of the Federal Trade Commission. His wife is the President of her Jewish Community Choir Kolot Halev (Voices of the Heart). He is a graduate of St. Louis Park High School and the University of Minnesota.