I think that most people would agree that the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of a golden age. Under the artistic leadership of Music Director Osmo Vänskä, and the administrative leadership of President and CEO Kevin Smith, the ensemble has leapt from one success to another. Rave reviews, award-winning recordings, enthusiastic audiences, historic cultural exchanges… the Orchestra is enjoying them all right now.
I don’t wish to take anything away from its current, well-earned successes. But in many ways, the foundations of today’s successes were laid by another man: former Music Director, and long-time Conductor Laureate Stanisław Skrowaczewski.
Stan passed away yesterday at age 93 after a series of strokes… but his immense legacy will live on across the world through his dozens of recordings, his riveting biography Seeking the Infinite, and the memories of those he touched.
Over the length of his astonishing career, Stan worked with countless ensembles, in countless places. Each has a rightful “claim” on him, but allow me to share a few thoughts about his impact here in Minnesota.
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Well, easier said than done.
In truth, it’s difficult to describe the full extent of Stan’s impact on the Twin Cities’ cultural scene, and especially on his beloved Minnesota Orchestra. For starters, there’s the near-unbelievable length of his tenure here: he became Music Director in 1960, and never really left. Immediately after Stan “retired” from the post in 1979, he was named Conductor Laureate and continued to conduct annual concerts with the ensemble right up until just a few months ago. That’s 56 years, out of the Orchestra’s 114 years—or very nearly half the time the ensemble has been in existence.
And right up to the end, he was extraordinary. I am forever grateful that I saw his concert last October… a concert of superlatives. At the start, he slowly shuffled out to the podium—looking for all the world like he was imitating Tim Conway’s “Old Man” character—while the crowd erupted into a sustained standing ovation. He had to “shush” us to get us to take our seats, with the most gentle of gestures.
And then he raised his baton.
Just like that, age fell away. The gentle old gentleman launched into Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony with searing passion—it felt just like a scene from Lord of the Rings, when the heroic, seemingly-bent old wizard throws back his cloak and proclaims in radiance, “I AM GANDALF THE WHITE!!” Stan proceeded to conduct the entire 90-minute work from memory, in a performance locals are still talking about. I don’t know how he pulled it off… I was exhausted just experiencing it from the audience.
I remember a few years back, he remarked that conducting Mozart made him young again; if so, then conducting Bruckner clearly made him mighty again.
The concert was perfectly judged to show off the profound depths of his artistry. Stan didn’t just have natural musical intelligence and musical instincts, he had musical wisdom, gleaned from a lifetime of engaging with his beloved scores. He prepared. He learned. He reflected, and learned some more. The proof was in the pudding; as a result of his he knew precisely how to gauge a forte so that it clearly took into account the forte from two pages ago… or a forte from two movements ago. The architecture was so clearly prepared and articulated that it paradoxically faded into the background, so that the music never felt over determined or forced. Plus, he perfectly judged the needs of the moment, so that he was able to communicate his ideas to both the musicians and the audience.
It was remarkable to watch.
But although Stan was a glorious conductor, his legacy in Minnesota goes far beyond great music-making. He was instrumental in fusing the Minnesota Orchestra into the cultural fabric of Minnesota. The Orchestra has had few such dedicated supporters, or more passionate community advocates. He was a force of nature in trying to move the Orchestra from its then-home venue at Northrop Auditorium into a venue dedicated to music. Not, as he often pointed out, for the good of the conductor or the musicians, but for the good of the community. So the community could experience top quality music as it was meant to be experienced. His advocacy paid off, and Orchestra Hall was built… entirely from private funds.
He was even more remarkable during the Minnesota Orchestra’s 16-month lockout. From the very beginning, he was a stalwart supporter of the musicians, and I’m sure as he saw it, the strength of the institution as a whole. He stepped up and led the locked-out musicians in a wild-cat concert on what would have been the season opener. Stan would go on to co-write editorials calling for an end to the lockout, and for the organization to remember its mission of performing great music. In 2013 he conducted another lockout concert; in addition to leading a gripping performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, he led Burt Hara in an unforgettable rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, which served as a tearful goodbye to our much-loved Principal Clarinet. His willingness to take a stand inspired many, and helped galvanize community support.
And as soon as the lockout was over, Stan stepped up again, this time to lead the process of rebuilding. In February 2014 he lead the Orchestra in its first concert back in Orchestra Hall since the renovation; he included on the program his own transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, which first opened the Hall in 1974. It’s hard to fully explain the impact of this gesture. For one, it spoke of Stan’s dedication to begin the healing. He was the perfect intermediary, a person who was uniquely qualified to work with both sides in pursuit of their shared goals—and for the benefit of the organization as a whole. It was a tense moment, and one that Stan helped defuse as few others could.
In the end, he saw his efforts rewarded, and the orchestra he fought so much for has entered a new golden age. And I am profoundly grateful that he was able to see this rebirth.
In the end, I think what I will most remember about this remarkable man, among his many legendary qualities, is his tireless faith. Faith in the Minnesota Orchestra to be a truly great ensemble. Faith in the community to support it. Faith in humanity to rise to the challenges it faces. And faith in music to continue speaking to us.
Which is why I and so many of us here in town mourn today—and think that 56 years of friendship and shared artistry still feel far too short.
Rest in peace, maestro.