Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: Reflections from the Minnesota Orchestra Family

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: Reflections from the Minnesota Orchestra Family

The classical music world lost a legend on February 21, 2017, when Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the Minnesota Orchestra’s music director from 1960 to 1979, died at age 93. Musicians, staff, board members, audiences and other members of the Orchestra family shared their memories of Skrowaczewski.


Osmo Vänskä, music director, Minnesota Orchestra:
“The entire Minnesota Orchestra family is deeply grieved at the loss of our iconic Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. He was such an important conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as many of the world’s other great orchestras, and we greatly respect his legacy. Maestro Skrowaczewski’s mark on the Minnesota Orchestra was significant and continued well beyond his years as music director. He lived in the Twin Cities, and I was personally always happy to see him visit rehearsals at Orchestra Hall. I learned many special things about Bruckner’s music from Stanislaw and, last October, I was privileged to hear his grand performances of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. He was a consummate musician and conductor, and he will be greatly missed.”

Greg Milliren, associate principal flute:
“Stan was an ardent advocate for letting music speak for itself and for the musicians who bring it to life. Even in his final years, the robust energy he brought to the podium was an example for us all. I will miss his warmth, his deep knowledge, and the way he drew inspired performances from the orchestra year after year. 

Anthony Ross, principal cello:
“When ‘Skrovi’ conducts many works it feels like the composer is listening! His interpretation of Wagner’s Prelude and Love Death from Tristan and Isolde has shattered my expectations for that piece every time with him. I don’t think even Wagner could have imagined a more colorful, dynamic and moving interpretation, the scope of emotion and architecture was so immense!”

Jean Marker De Vere, second violin:
“I often ran into Stan at the Lunds in Wayzata. In his 90s he was still shopping for himself. It was fun to watch him examining the produce. I would stop to say ‘hi’ and he would tell me about his upcoming engagements around the globe. Stan has a special place in my heart. I was the last violinist he hired during his tenure as music director. I looked forward to his many guest appearances over the years. I especially enjoyed performing Bruckner symphonies with him. His love for this Orchestra knew no bounds.

Wendy Williams, flute:
“I vividly remember Maestro Skrowaczewski’s hands. They pulled him to the podium from backstage while seeming to be electrified by some inner source. In contrast, they could be gently and softly expressive. I am grateful for the deep friendship we shared as musicians with our ‘Stan’ and for his unbridled joy when he was with us at Orchestra Hall. His willingness to speak truth and his unwavering commitment to the service of music and our community will live on.”

Marni J. Hougham, oboe and English horn:
“I have been blessed to have worked under Maestro Skrowaczewski since 1990, first at the New World Symphony in Florida, and since with the Minnesota Orchestra. Stan is my hero. Without Stan our world feels a bit more empty.”

Manny Laureano, principal trumpet:
“I enjoyed the insights I gleaned from his rehearsals, as there were always new things to learn from him regarding balances to allow a melody to be completely clear. To him, the melodic line was everything. Most important, though, was his interest and generosity with my Minnesota Youth Symphonies. He donated many pieces of music along with his scores and the markings that came along with them. Thanks to the Maestro, MYS owns a complete set of Beethoven symphonies as well as other masterworks. What a fantastic gift to the coming generations!

Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, horn 
“In April of 2012, I had the honor of playing principal Wagner Tuba in a few performances of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony with Maestro Skrowaczewski conducting. At the end of the concert Skrovi came back to the horn section as we were having our picture taken. We asked him to join in the photo (which he gladly did), and after the group photo I asked him if I might get a photo with him. Since I was holding the Wagner Tuba, he insisted that he should also hold one. The joy in his face says it all — he was having the time of his life!”

 

Michael Gast, principal horn:
“Stan loved soft playing. There is a long, high and delicate horn solo at the end of the second movement of Bruckner’s Second and I knew Stan was going to ask for the usual near-impossible soft dynamic. I prepared it using a ‘Stealth’ mute that sounded normal in sound. After playing it Stan exclaimed ‘Michael, that was so beautiful—how did you do that?’ I replied ‘It was magic,’ and he said ‘I’ve never heard it played that well, there must be a trick!’ I just smiled and shook my head no. He came back to me at the break and begged me to tell him how I did it, and I told him it was skill with some luck. I never admitted to him how I was pulling it off, but he smiled broadly every time I played it. I always had a great relationship with Stan, and we played our best for him and the music."

Katja Linfield, cello:
“Skrovi always began his first rehearsal of a week here by cupping his hands together and saying to us: ‘Good morning. I am so heppy to be here!’ It was always an endearing beginning to a work session with him.”

Roger Frisch, associate concertmaster, and Michele Frisch:
 
“Our favorite memory of Skrowaczewski: in 1999 Roger and I were touring throughout Ukraine, playing recitals and giving master classes as part of Love Lift to Ukraine. One of the last cities in which we gave concerts after five journeys of touring was Lviv, on the far western edge, known as Lvov when it was part of Poland years earlier. A beautiful city, like a smaller, quainter Vienna, with a lovely opera house and an illustrious, tradition-rich music conservatory, where we gave a recital and conducted master classes. Upon returning home, remembering that we had been in his home city and had taught at the conservatory he attended as a teenager, we prepared a photo album for him. When Roger presented it to him, the Maestro was overcome with emotion as he paged through the album. He explained that he had never returned, since fleeing the encroachment of the Nazi regime. He recognized the opera house, the fresh-baked loaves of bread, our Chopin Hotel, the morning street-sweeping. He had tears in his eyes and gently said that it was one of his best gifts, ever. We have the identical photo album (I made two) and when we page through it, we know that we are seeing a piece of Skrovi’s treasured past. And even better, he told Roger that several years later he embarked on a return trip, finally, to see his beloved home city.” 

Robert Anderson, bass:
“I was hired by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in August of 1974 and started right away in September. I think I may have been the last member of the Orchestra to have auditioned at Northrop Auditorium. I was totally thrilled to get a position in this great orchestra. Previously I had spent three years in the U.S. Army Band at Fort Myer, Virginia, followed by a year in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic following my completion of service. My goal was to join a major orchestra, but at my young age I didn’t know if I would pass the audition or where I would end up. I am originally from Connecticut and had not visited the Twin Cities before, so when I arrived here I was very pleased to find that not only was there a great orchestra here but that it was a very nice place to live.

We performed the first concert at Orchestra Hall on Friday, October 18, 1974. This was a special ‘acoustical concert’ and all of the workers involved in the construction of the hall were invited. When we had our first rehearsal for this concert in the new Hall, everyone was impressed by the resonant sound that resulted from the good acoustics. Northrop, by contrast, had always been problematical sound-wise. It was clearly understood why Mr. Skrowaczewski had pushed for a new hall. He had conducted in most of the major concert halls around the world and had in his ear what a hall should sound like.

As a double bass player one thing I appreciated about the maestro was that he liked a robust bass sound. Some conductors will shush the basses, but not Skrowaczewski. I think this is one of the reasons why he achieved a great sound from the orchestra. This was especially important in Bruckner symphonies. 

When we were on an East Coast tour, we had played in New York at Carnegie Hall and the next day we were booked to play at a venue near Philadelphia. My colleague Chester Milosovich and I decided to take the fast Amtrak train to Philly instead of the Orchestra bus. As we walked through the train to find seats we encountered Skrowaczewski. We exchanged some pleasantries and then sat in the seats behind him. For the entire trip he was intensely studying scores. We knew that he knew the scores very well, but he was always trying to discover a better way to interpret the music. 

Skrowaczewski was a great teacher. For a while he taught at the Juilliard School in New York, and I heard through the grapevine that he was highly appreciated there. 

Shortly after Orchestra Hall opened we embarked on a project recording all of the orchestral works of Maurice Ravel. Skrowaczewski studied in Paris with the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and had a special affinity for French music. These recordings are still considered some of the best for this repertoire."

Kathryn Nettleman, acting associate principal bass:
“In this photo (below), taken after a coffee concert in May 2015, Kristen Bruya and I are thanking the Maestro after an inspiring performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.”

Former President Reflections, Richard Cisek, general manager, 1965-1978; president and CEO, 1978-1991: 
“Though much has been said about the late maestro recounting his many contributions to the arts of our region, a few words offering an orchestra manager’s viewpoint might be interesting as well. 

Stan has rightly been acknowledged as the force that marshaled various community resources that resulted in providing the Minnesota Orchestra with an internationally admired concert hall as its permanent home.

However, he did not simply build the Hall, he also filled it. From its opening in 1974 to his stepping away as the Orchestra’s music director in 1979, his concerts were virtually packed to capacity. This was also true for the 20 concerts each season performed annually during that time by the Orchestra at O’Shaughnessy Hall on the St. Catherine’s campus in St. Paul. Similarly, in 1965 Skrowaczewski and the Orchestra performed the dedication concert of the Benedicta Arts Center, College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, that quickly grew to an annual series there. Thus he was instrumental to the audience development program taking place during those years as the Orchestra’s performing (and employment) season worked its way from 30 weeks at the time of Stan’s arrival to an eventual year-round 52-week season.

The breadth of the repertoire he provided concertgoers reflected not only the masterworks of the past but also kept pace with classical music creativity taking place in the latter stages of the 20th century. The programs of those days also showcased a veritable ‘who’s who’ of international concert stars regularly appearing here. During his time away, guest conducting other major orchestras of the world, Skrowaczewski engaged renowned music directors of other American and European orchestras to direct the Minnesota Orchestra during his absences. Thus his artistic stamp was on the programs whether or not he was on the podium. 

After the 19-year collaboration with our Orchestra my relationship with Stan blossomed into a more personal bond. This reached a particularly poignant peak just a couple of months ago when he called saying that he was experiencing a low point and simply wanted to hear ‘a warm, familiar voice.’ How much I wish I could now ask that of him.” 

Life Director's Reflections, Betty Myers, Minnesota Orchestra life director:
“It was a very hot Sunday of Labor Day weekend in 1960 when my husband John and I went to the airport to greet Stan and Krystyna Skrowaczewski who were arriving in Minneapolis for the first time, having defected from their native Poland under the guise of guest conducting in America. Poland at that time was an Iron Curtain country, under the rule of the Soviet Union. They left behind their families, friends, their household effects, not knowing when they would ever see them again. The others on the greeting committee were Charles Bellows (then chairman of the Orchestra board) and his wife Eunice, and Stanley and Peggy Hawks. They had lived in Poland for a while, when Stan was in the foreign service, and he was a past board chair of the orchestra. All three of the men had been on the conductor search committee.

It was about a month later that Stan conducted the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra for the first time—not at Northrop Auditorium, where the Orchestra had played for years, but at a high school gymnasium in Brainerd. The date coincided with Stan’s birthday (October 3), and the concert was followed by a supper party in a local golf club, complete with a birthday cake. About 20 Orchestra fans from the Twin Cities attended this debut concert! 

The first concert at Northrop was later in October, and opened as usual with the Star-Spangled Banner. Stan wrote an arrangement of that music that is still used today on opening night. The enthusiastically-received concert was followed, of course, with a gala post-concert party. It was a formal black tie affair. In fact, for many years afterward, these quite formal seated, place-card suppers were held after the concerts—almost all of them were black tie events. 

My husband’s three-year tenure as board chair went from 1962 to 1965, so we quickly became well acquainted with Stan and Krystyna. Fortunately John and Stan saw eye to eye on most things, so it was a very happy collaboration. There were few huge crises, and the finances were in order—no deficits as I recall! The greatest crisis came a little later, when the name of the orchestra was changed from Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra to Minnesota Orchestra. There were many repercussions from that event that went on for many years. The musicians were strongly opposed to the change, as were quite a few board members. 

In 1961, as John and I were planning a trip to Europe, Stan asked if we could please include Warsaw on our itinerary, as because of the Russian government, it was very difficult for them to communicate with their families, and they could not return to Poland without being detained and would not be able to return to the U.S. We did spend 5 days in Warsaw. Krystyna’s parents lived in Crakow, but came to Warsaw to be with us. They were full of questions about how Stan and Krystyna lived, the Orchestra, their home, their friends. Dr. Jaroz, Krystyna’s father, an attorney, was a wonderful host. He was a very attractive, dapper, intelligent gentleman and planned our visit, which included dinner parties with some of the Skrowaczewskis’ friends and a concert of the Warsaw Philharmonic, which Stan had conducted. It was a most interesting visit, but always with the oppressive feeling that we were indeed in Iron Curtain territory. Eventually, of course, the Russians left Poland, so Stan and Krystyna could travel there and be reunited with their families. 

Their two boys, Nick and Paul, were born and grew up here. Nick now lives in Minneapolis, and his wife Angela is a charming and capable member of the Orchestra staff. Paul lives in California, but he and his family come here often for special events. 

For me, this has been a friendship for 57 years. And I was so glad that I could attend his last time with the Orchestra, when he conducted one of his favorite Bruckner symphonies. I always went backstage after his concerts to say hello. This time I did not realize it would also be goodbye.”


Click here to read audience member David Balto’s essay reflecting on Maestro Skrowaczewski, family and the Minnesota Orchestra.


Click here for more tributes and information about Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.


 

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