Tag Archives: Music at Night

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: Meeting the Maestro

The Hedgehog notes with great sadness that Stanislaw Skrowaczewsi passed away, February 21, 2017. The Minnesota Orchestra performed a special concert as his memorial. Skrowaczewski has a special place in The Hedgehog’s heart as we had great pleasure interviewing him for the Fall, 2006, issue of The Hedgehog (Vol. 4, No. 1) Born in Lwow, Poland (it is now Lviv, Ukraine), 1923, his gifts were apparent from an early age. He began to study violin and piano at age four, to compose at age seven, made his first public recital at eleven, and conducted Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto at thirteen. In his mid-twenties he became, successively, Music Director of the Wroclaw, Katowice, and Krakow Philharmonic Orchestras, and then of the Warsaw National Orchestra.

After World War II, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, co-founded an avant-garde music group, Zodiaque, and won prizes for his compositions. His symphonic works, from the late 1940s-early 1950s such as Symphony for Strings and Music at Night, are still in the repertory of European and American orchestras. In fact, it was the San Francisco Symphony’s premiere performance of Music at Night which was the occasion of our meeting with him. He composed more than 36 orchestral and chamber works. After Skrowacewski won first prize in Rome’s Santa Cecilia International Competition for Conductors, 1956, George Szell invited him to make his American conducting debut with the Cleveland Orchestra. This acclaimed performance led to his appointment with the Minnesota Orchestra (then named the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra). He and his wife had to defect from Communist Poland to take this position. He said that he and others were not allowed to conduct whole areas of music, “including Stravinsky.” He was Minnesota’s Music Director, 1960-1979, and then became their active conductor laureate. He was principal conductor of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, England, 1984-1991, and returned to Poland annually to conduct in Warsaw and Katowice. Poland gave him its highest honor, naming him Commander with White Star. Minnesota also honored him with the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award  for contributions to Minnesota’s Arts and Culture, 2004.

(For a copy of The Hedgehog with the Skrowaczewski interview and photo portrait by Jonathan Clark, please contact livelyfoundation@sbcglobal.net    A limited number of these back issues is available. These quotations from Stanislaw Skrowaczewski are published with permission of The Hedgehog, a publication of The Lively Foundation. The copyright belongs to The Lively Foundation.  PLEASE DO NOT QUOTE OR REPRODUCE WITHOUT PERMISSION.)

THE FOLLOWING IS QUOTED from Skrowczewski’s Hedgehog interview:after I won the first prize in conducting in Rome, the career went so fast that I stopped composing.” “…a concerto and a symphony that I composed over four or five years; that was a lot of work, and went very slowly. I write slowly, and I wrote very few things, and many I destroyed later. Music At Night is one of five or six works written between 1949 and now that I have kept. now I have many commissions. The first is a piano concerto for left hand for Gary Graffman, sponsored by the Curtis Institute where he is president.” On the current state of music composition, “There is no better word than the French, de grande volard, “it means the arts go down.” On musicians, “Oh, the state of orchestras is technically very, very good, and we have great conductors, I think…The education musically in America is terrific…there are so many that for one opening in a major orchestra you have a hundred very good musicians.”

For a copy of The Hedgehog with the Skrowaczewski interview and photo portrait by Jonathan Clark, please contact livelyfoundation@sbcglobal.net    A limited number of these back issues is available. These quotations from Stanislaw Skrowaczewski are published with permission of The Hedgehog, a publication of The Lively Foundation. The copyright belongs to The Lively Foundation. DO NOT QUOTE OR REPRODUCE WITHOUT PERMISSION.

San Francisco Symphony: Tchaikovsky and Barber

mtt_06-white_0403-400x400The San Francisco Symphony, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, presented Russian and American classics, October 3, 2015. The program embodied the great, universal emotions and actions of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #6 in B minor, Opus 74, the Pathetique, and the intimate, personal emotions of specific memory in Samuel Barber’s, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Opus 24. The fascinating program led to thoughts of how great art connects us to one another by starting with the most singular, immediate experiences to find the universal or starting with the grandest, earth spanning experience to find it  again in the solitary, human heart.

Samuel_BarberComposer Samuel Barber wrote Knoxville: Summer of 1915 soon after reading James Agee’s prose poem of that name. Although Barber grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and Agee in Knoxville, Tennessee, they shared childhood experiences of lying on family back yards in the summer evenings, porches, main streets, trolleys, family characters. The music matched to Barber’s selections from Agee’s work encapsulates that time and place so clearly imprinted in individual American lives. Program note writer, James M. Keller, quotes American opera star Leontyne Price: “As a Southerner, it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father…my home town….You can smell the South in it.”               Guest artist, soprano Susanna Phillips has a lovely stage presence and sang well. She was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra which made the lyrics hard to understand, but, when she was heard clearly, she succeeded in presenting the peaceful contentment of a summertime full of familiar events and happy to be uneventful.



composer_05_2Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #6 can trick the listener into a mistaken, waltz induced optimism. The first movement, Adagio–Allegro non troppo, begins with very low, very quiet notes. It is slow and serious; it may foreshadow doom. The next two movements are so unlike the first that one might think they were randomly put together for the Pathetique. They demonstrate the extent of Tchaikovsky’s gift for variety of emotion and style. He expresses the range of human feelings in the glorious melody and inventive rhythms he creates. The second movement, Allegro con grazia, seems to promise triumph, life embracing life. Then, in the third, Allegro molto vivace, a march insistently piles cloud upon cloud and marches onward as though lines of marchers overtake each other in near collision, force multiplying force. It ends with enormous bursts of energy, always convincing the listener, even the listener who has heard it before, that this is how it will end. It does not. Out of the breath between the movements, the lament arises. Adagio lamentoso –Andante, the final movement, harkens back to the beginning but takes us further as we have already traveled through other worlds created by the life in the middle of the symphony. The music has changed and has changed us. Its nearly unbearable sadness encompasses the greatness of human life and the painful secret of human life. It ends quietly as though the sound itself has no sound. Tchaikovsky died just nine days after the premiere. The San Francisco Symphony contributed a noble performance of this universal masterpiece.

The program opened with the West Coast premiere of Dispatches (2014) by Ted Hearne. MTT introduced the work by offering an idea of how to experience it, greatly appreciated advice.The work was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony, based in Florida and founded by Michael Tilson Thomas. Dispatches challenges the audience by abrupt changes between expressing traditionally “musical” music and excursions into sound design, the composer’s re-do of Stevie Wonder, mechanically rearranging electronic sounds, and more. At one point, a voice emerged, shouting out something hard to understand. It was easy to assume it was part of the sound mix, but from the looks on the faces of the musicians, it was not.  The work was conducted by Christian Reif.

th-4POST-SCRIPT: THE AUDIENCE  Performers say they can feel the energy or attention or lack of either in their audience. The other 1999 people in the concert hall can affect one’s experience of the music. Antsy, noisy, clasping their brightly lit cell phones, quiet, attentive; they make a difference. The convention of not applauding after a movement in a symphony is not something everyone knows. In the course of experiencing Tchaikovsky’s 6th, it can make a huge difference if many in the audience burst into applause at the end of the third movement which is not the end of the symphony. That and a loud call for “Encore” happened October 3. MTT turned part of the way around on his podium and said that he just happened to have something more. Yes, the fourth movement. While feeling prickly, after a while one must recognize the good news: this audience cadre is (1) here and (2) excited and pleased about what they are hearing. All of that is good.

This Hedgehog has maintained the childhood habit of counting up how many movements are coming at the beginning of each piece on a program. Many in the audience read their programs while the music is being played; one might hope they would count, too. On October 21, 2001, Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski led the SFS in performance of his own work, Music at Night, and Tchaikovsky’s 4th. Before beginning the symphony, Skrowaczewski turned to the audience and asked them to remember that despite the long pause before the final movement, the symphony was not yet over. It helped, though this Hedgehog gasped audibly at the end of the third movement, her emotions having been strained to breaking. SEE: Interview with Skrowaczewski in The Hedgehog, Vol.4, No.1, Fall, 2006.

Pictures: Michael Tilson Thomas, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony; Samuel Barber, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1944; Susanna Phillips; Tchaikovsky; Davies Symphony Hall, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.