Frederick Edward Harris Jr.

Seeking the Infinite:

The Musical Life of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski

(Create Space 2011) 634pp  ISBN 1439257744    www.seekingtheinfinite.com

 

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IF ONE were seeking nominations for the accolade of ‘Greatest Living Bruckner Conductor’, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski would have to be up there on the short list, alongside such devoted and venerable Brucknerians as Barenboim, Haitink and Blomstedt. Born in October 1923, making his conducting debut at the age of 13 in 1936 (as soloist and conductor in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto!), Skrowaczewski is still going strong at 89, touring and conducting Bruckner at venues across the world in the USA, Europe, and Japan. His devotion to Bruckner began with a revelatory experience when, at the age of 7, walking in the streets of Lwów (then Poland, now L’viv, Ukraine) he heard the sound of music coming from an open window. He was transfixed: “I was in a trance. I was in heaven - the world didn’t exist for me.”  It was, as he wrote in the reply to a card I sent him after a deeply moving performance of Bruckner’s 6th at the Royal Albert Hall, (BBC Proms, 5 September 1996), that “metaphysical shudder that great music can produce.”  The music he had heard coming through the window on that occasion over 80 years ago was the Adagio of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.

 

Frederick Harris Jr.’s magnificent biography, Seeking the Infinite, traces the life of this great maestro and composer from his earliest days in Poland, surviving the extremes of Naziism and Stalinism, through his time in Paris where he worked with Nadia Boulanger and joined the avant-garde composer group Zodiaque, to his career as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra for nearly 20 years. Seven years with the Hallé in Manchester followed, and today he is the Conductor Laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, and Honorary Conductor Laureate of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo.  Interesting biographies of conductors can be difficult to write because the life is so much in the music and its performance, and hence the story of it can easily degenerate into a mere list of dates, orchestras and performances.  The best ones, such as Peter Heyworth’s biography of Otto Klemperer and Tanya Tintner’s biography of Georg Tintner, whilst fulfilling the requirement for the essentials of that mundane information, rise above it to present a vivid narrative of the maestro’s life, giving some insight into how his character and his times interact. The reader is given the option to conjecture how these might impinge on the interpretations, so enhancing the understanding of performances, giving an added dimension to their eloquence.  Seeking the Infinite achieves this goal admirably. A well constructed and thoroughly readable account of Skrowaczewski’s musical life, the result of many years of painstaking research and 230 interviews, it gives intriguing insights into the composer/conductor’s personality, musical aspirations and working practices.

 

In Dr. Harris’ biography the musical life is nicely framed by two portraits of Lwów, then and now, seen through Skrowaczewski’s eyes.  As a young boy he was very sensitive to the surreal images evoked in the autumnal mistiness of the city. “The streets were eerie during autumn: dead leaves underfoot, flooded streams, the fog and mist in the air dimly illuminated by gas lamps.  …  ‘[It was] very mysterious, vague, and impressive to me.  All of these images, although realistic, were unrealistic to me, creating a surreal vision of the world.  The atmosphere of Lwów, supported by fables I knew, created a special openness in me … building my sensitivity to art in general.  Later these images connected music with its mystery, like I felt with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, for example: one world that is alive, another dead.’”  In the final chapter Harris describes Skrowaczewski’s return to Lwów in 2008. Before boarding the plane Skrowaczewski turned for one last glimpse of Lwów. Clouds were gathering and it began to rain. “From his window seat, he saw that the sunny Lwów he … had experienced for two and a half days had been transformed.  Pressing his face to the small oval window, Skrowaczewski smiled.  His mysterious, veiled, and vaporous city had been restored to him.”

 

The description of the musical life that grew out of these images gives us a picture of an artist, courteous and gentlemanly, but rigorous in his efforts to recreate the mystery of music that had been revealed to him.  The cellist Lynn Harrell says of working with him, “Most important to him was, no matter what, ‘we are not as good as the music is’; therefore, we have to work particularly hard and afresh each and every single time.”  Harris writes that Skrowaczewski’s “intense self-discipline brings a businesslike, task-oriented approach to rehearsals, a characteristic associated with past conducting titans,” but asserts categorically that “the idea of him having a tantrum on the podium is inconceivable.”  This humility before the music and courtesy to his fellow musicians seem not, however, to be easily ‘marketable’ virtues, and Skrowaczewski himself has throughout been averse to the business of self-promotion. Clive Smart, general manager of the Hallé, observed that Skrowaczewski “felt that mainly the music should do the publicity.  He’s a very reserved gentleman, a little shy, and does not communicate well with the crowd.”  The benefit of his approach for the music, but its disadvantage for modern publicity, is summarised succinctly by Richard Dyer, critic for the Boston Globe: “These days it’s hard to make qualities like ‘honesty’ sound exciting, but Skrowaczewski’s honest, straightforward, experienced performance of the Eroica was very exciting indeed.”

 

 “To me, Bruckner is one of the greatest composers,” says Skrowaczewski.  “He is another Mozart: his music is magical. … Its message speaks about the infinite, transcendental cosmos, God, timelessness, love and tragedy.”  Skrowaczewski’s devotion to Bruckner’s music is charted at every stage of his career. When in his twenties he became music director of the Silesian Philharmonic, Katowice, 1949-54, he programmed Bruckner every season.  During his 19 years at Minneapolis some complained that there was too much Bruckner: “I dislike Bruckner symphonies, and there are many who share my opinion,” a patron stated. “If they must be played, one per season is quite enough.”  Skrowaczewski conducted all nine symphonies in Minneapolis, and performed the 8th at his final concert.  When he returned to Warsaw in 1981, during the anxious times of the rise of Solidarity, at his first concert he conducted Bruckner’s 3rd, and for the Warsaw Philharmonic’s 90th anniversary concert in 1992 he conducted Bruckner’s 7th.  The 80th anniversary season of the Minnesota Orchestra saw him conduct Bruckner’s 9th.  He took the Hallé to Linz and performed the 3rd Symphony in Bruckner’s home town, and in his last season with the Hallé he conducted the 7th and 8th symphonies.  It was the much lauded recording of the 4th with the Hallé from 1993 that first demonstrated to the record-buying public his great prowess as a Bruckner conductor, and this recording has retained its high reputation to this day.  Then came the cycle of eleven symphonies with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, at ‘super-bargain’ price on Arte Nova (now on Oehms Classics).  Re-visiting those performances now, they reveal themselves still as interpretations of great strength, especially notable for clarity of orchestral colour, with woodwind and brass subordinate voices always shining through. They are performances that remain memorable not because of any dramatic exaggeration or overt religiosity, but rather because of the honesty and cogency of their presentation. Today his recorded legacy of Bruckner performances is increasing with contributions from the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra.

 

Readers of this biography will find much about Skrowaczewski’s wide repertory, which has always contained a strong input of modern works in addition to performances of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Shostakovich, Chopin piano concertos, Lutos³awski and Penderecki whose works figure frequently in his programmes.  Music lovers are probably less aware of his work as a composer.  Over 70 compositions are listed at the back of Dr. Harris’ biography.  Brucknerians might be especially interested in the recording of Skrowaczewski’s Concerto for Orchestra, 1985, available on CD, (Reference Recordings, RR 103CD), whose second movement is entitled, “Anton Bruckner’s Himmelfahrt” - (Anton Bruckner’s Journey to Heaven).  More recently a CD “Skrowaczewski - The Composer” includes Music at Night, Fantasie for flute and orchestra, and his Symphony, 2003 (Oehms OC712).  The music is often dissonant, even brutal, but at times moves with a Brucknerian slow patience and mastery of the extended span. There are atmospheric sounds that easily evoke the misty nights as one imagines them to have been in Lwów.

 

Lwów was annexed by the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II, invaded by the Nazis in 1941, returning to Soviet control in 1944.  The story of Skrowaczewski’s survival during this period, and building a career in the Soviet era, is extraordinary and gripping to read in Frederick Harris’s narration.  By twists and turns of good fortune and bad, his career developed via a scholarship to the Sorbonne and thereafter to the Warsaw National Orchestra, till he left Poland and began his career as Music Director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.  It’s a story well worth the reading, with much of interest about orchestras and their management, and about the long and active life of an extraordinary and courageous man - and his wife, Krystyna - devoted with high seriousness to the creation and performance of beautiful music, music whose soul, as Skrowaczewski wrote, “is revealed only to those who desire and are willing to go through certain stages of ceremony and mystery to reach it.  A concert hall should be a temple where music leads us gradually from the secular life into the realm of the extraordinary, to the life that is innermost…”

Ken Ward

Oct. 2012

www.seekingtheinfinite.com

 

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