In late February, the conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski died at the age of 93. Although successive strokes had weakened him in the three months before his death, he had been active until nearly the end, leading performances in Europe, Asia, and the United States. He was, indeed, the oldest active orchestral conductor. Wherever he made music, Skrowaczewski was well-loved and highly respected, yet his legacy is most strongly felt perhaps in Minnesota. His association with the Minnesota Orchestra spanned more than half a century, as the ensemble grew from a respected regional orchestra into one of the nation’s best.
Born in October 1923, in what was then the Polish city of Lwów (now Ukrainian Lviv), Skrowaczewski managed to survive two Soviet occupations and a period of German rule. He had dreamed of traveling the world as a concert pianist, but during the Second World War, a Nazi bombardment of his neighborhood caused bricks from a crumbling wall to crash down upon his hands. So he concentrated on composition instead, traveling to Paris to study, as so many aspiring composers did, with Nadia Boulanger. And though his music would be well-received, with two of his works shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize—and with a requiem for the demise of civilization left unfinished at the time of his death—he came to worldwide acclaim as a conductor.
As a young man in Poland, he rose from post to post, taking jobs in Wrocław, Katowice, Kraków, and finally Warsaw, where the National Philharmonic Orchestra appointed him as its conductor in 1956. Triumph at an international conducting competition led to an invitation from George Szell to lead the Cleveland Orchestra—a series of concerts so wildly successful that executives from the Minneapolis Symphony (as the orchestra was then known) began eyeing him as a successor to Antal Dorati. With Skrowaczewski’s star in the ascendant, Poland’s Communist government grew leery, increasingly watchful. In 1959, the conductor and his wife, Krystyna, decided to defect, fleeing by train to the Netherlands, and from there making their way to the United States. A year later, Skrowaczewski became the Minnesota Orchestra’s music director, a position he held for 19 years. After stepping down, he would go on to lead the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England, and appear as guest conductor with the world’s greatest orchestras, yet he remained the Minnesota Orchestra’s conductor laureate, and continued to live in his midcentury brick cottage in Wayzata, some 10 miles from Minneapolis.
In an interview he gave in 2011, Skrowaczewski talked about one of the formative musical experiences of his life, a story that has become part of the conductor’s lore:
When I was six, almost seven, I was walking along the street with a friend. It was very hot—people had the window open in their flats. And suddenly I heard music coming from the radio. I stopped and realized I hadn’t heard anything like that before. … I stood there, completely out of this world, listening—it lasted half an hour. Finally, the music stopped. My friend took me by the hand and guided me home, which was nearby. I was sick, I was delirious, I was feverish—my father didn’t know what had happened. I was also feverish the next day; I was partly unconscious. It turned out that it had been Bruckner, his Seventh Symphony. And since then, Bruckner has been someone special.
Skrowaczewski’s love of Bruckner’s symphonies—those titanic, sprawling, deeply spiritual musical essays—endured for all his life. Yet upon arriving in America, he found that only the Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies seemed to be known in this country, and that just a few orchestras ever played them. As a guest conductor, then, he became an evangelist for his “beloved Bruckner,” introducing all of the symphonies, especially the unknown earlier works, to audiences in Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Skrowaczewski brought deep interpretive insight to both the standard symphonic repertory and contemporary works, yet for me, he will always be associated with Bruckner. Last week, the Minnesota Orchestra closed its memorial concert for Skrowaczewski with the Adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh—as fitting a tribute as I can imagine.
Recently, I’ve been revisiting the series of Bruckner recordings that the conductor made in the 1990s, with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra: thrilling, deeply felt, musical readings full of poetry and drama. There isn’t a set of Bruckner symphonies that satisfies me as completely and consistently as this one does. The tempos of the outer movements seem just right—never rushed, but not so broad that the lines lose their shape—with the slow movements of the later symphonies taken at heavenly length. (To my taste, the slower the better in this music. When I listen to the Adagio of Bruckner’s Eighth, for example, I want to feel transported to some celestial realm, and though the sonorities of the strings and the harp help create this illusion of drifting up into the firmament, tempo is crucial, too.) Like the great Bruckner masters of the past, Skrowaczewski erects each symphonic colossus block by block, yet he is always conscious of the curves, the elegant sweep and contours of what he’s building. And what playing he elicits from his Saarbrücken forces—a second-tier orchestra that has the power and finesse of far more glamorous ensembles. Still, Skrowaczewski wasn’t quite satisfied with these recordings: the cramped studio was not to his liking, and he considered the recording equipment to be far from optimal. “I’m glad I was able to record all the symphonies,” he said several years ago. “I’d like to record them once again, better.”
At the end of his life, another venerable Brucknerian, Günter Wand, recorded five of the symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s a tantalizing thought: If Skrowaczewski could conjure such magic out of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, what might he have done—this man at the summit of his artistic career, with a lifetime of experience and wisdom upon which to draw—if given the chance to record the nine symphonies, plus the two earlier essays in the genre, with Berlin? Through the digital wonders of our time, I watched, not long ago, Skrowaczewski conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a 2011 performance of Bruckner’s Third, the work in which we hear for the first time the composer’s unmistakable idioms, sonorities, and rhythms. The performance is stunning, with the ovation for Skrowaczewski continuing long after the orchestra had left the stage. It seems strange to ask of a nonagenarian who accomplished so much, what else might he have done? Yet this is the truth with any towering artist: we always end up wanting more.