Go ahead, ask him anything. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski will give you a straight answer.

The decision to rename his orchestra more than 40 years ago still bugs him ("very wrong, really stupid"). The Twin Cities' cultural state displeases him ("too populist for me"). If he were in charge, he would not remodel Orchestra Hall for $50 million ("I'd put the money into great art").

At 88 years old, this eminent conductor and composer has earned the right to speak his mind freely. Yet, he does so without a hint of crankiness -- almost apologetic about his opinions and supremely gracious. He has accomplished too much in his life to carry real anger in his spirit.

His eyes are dim, his heart is "only half working," and he mentions several times during an interview how sad life has become since his wife of 55 years, Krystyna, died last fall. He himself never thought he would live beyond the year 2000, which had mystical value for him.

But he has lived, and thrived. The conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra travels the globe and this summer plans to compose new work.

This week, Skrowaczewski makes his annual visit to conduct the orchestra he led for 19 years.

"If I would feel that I cannot do it well, I would stop," he said. "The last 10 to 15 years, as far as conducting, the message in the music is deeper and maybe better in me."

Appropriately, he will conduct the work of Anton Bruckner (Symphony No. 8) next weekend. It was the sound of Bruckner's music coming from an open window that put a 7-year-old Skrowaczewski into a trance on the streets of Lwow, Poland.

"Yes, I can still see that in my mind," he said.

From Poland to Minneapolis

Skrowaczewski was barely 37 and something of a novelty when he brought a program of Beethoven and Berlioz to his debut with the Minneapolis Symphony on Nov. 4, 1960. Lean, elegant and cosmopolitan, he came to Minnesota draped in intrigue, a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain.

A prodigy who composed his first work at 7 and conducted at 13, he had his nascent talent at the piano curbed forever when a brick wall fell on his hands during a World War II bombing raid. The Polish Communist regime dogged him following the war, particularly after he spent two years in Paris. He married Krystyna in 1956, and the bourgeois success of her family only exacerbated things.

"Life in Poland was becoming impossible," he said.

Still, his musical talent was unquestioned, and he led Poland's most prominent orchestras, at Katowice, Krakow and Warsaw. That reputation spread to the West, and in 1958, he was invited to a guest engagement with George Szell's Cleveland Orchestra. A year later, he met with officials of the Minneapolis Symphony on another trip to the United States and secretly agreed to succeed Antal Dorati as music director. Skrowaczewski had not set foot in Minneapolis, but he had heard recordings that piqued his interest.

"I heard the first oboe, wonderful, and the timpanist was extraordinary," he said. "The concertmaster, good soloists in the woodwinds. It was a very fine orchestra and because of this, I imagined the city must be fine."

So in 1960, Stan and Krystyna Skrowaczewski, each carrying a small suitcase, left Poland for a trip to Amsterdam. They defected to a new life in Minneapolis. In 1963, Stan and Krystyna moved out to a comfortable house in Wayzata and soon thereafter began a family. Perhaps it was the trauma of his early life -- the forced evacuation from his hometown during the war and the constant anxiety of living under totalitarianism. Or perhaps it was the ease and comfort of the Midwest. Whatever, in the transient world of classical music, Skrowaczewski still lives in the same house.

"It's a place he loves to be quiet in," said Fred Harris, music director of the MIT Wind Ensemble and Festival Jazz Ensemble and author of a new Skrowaczewski biography, "Seeking the Infinite." "His home mirrors his personality. There is order, activity, ritual."

Cultural heyday

The Twin Cities were on the come in the 1960s. The same year the Skrowaczewskis were settling into their new home, the Guthrie Theater was opening. The Children's Theatre Company would evolve a few years later. The museums were vibrant, and across the river was the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Skrowaczeski, the scholarly aesthete, was in his element. With his European savoir faire and his Cold War mystique, he became a darling of high society. The camera found him charming, and he eagerly invited photographers inside his world.

Musically, he began to build the orchestra with high-quality personnel and an expanded repertoire. He was a champion of new music, following a legacy most prominently associated with Dimitri Mitropoulous. Sometimes audiences felt they were being force-fed the contemporary work; Skrowaczewski makes no apologies.

"I would always try to put something irritating in the program," he said. "Even if I didn't believe in it, I felt it was important ferment. People were talking about it -- loving, hating, but talking."

Skrowaczewski was at the helm in the crucial decade when part-time orchestras evolved to full-time institutions. When he arrived, the Minneapolis Symphony played 18 concerts, one night a week, at Northrop Auditorium. At his departure in 1979, the season had grown to 24 dates, with another 20 in St. Paul at the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University).

Of course by then, the orchestra was playing in its own iconic concert hall on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. Orchestra Hall, which opened in 1974, could rightly be called "The House That Stan Built."

"Every conductor was unhappy with Northrop, and Stan was able to do something about it," said Richard Cisek, then general manager of the Minnesota Orchestra. "He really spearheaded the move and energized the board."

Asked about the coming $50 million remodeling project at Orchestra Hall, Skrowaczewski humbly notes that he is only conductor laureate, so "I have no opinion on this."

That said, such things as a beautiful lobby are external. "The art is internal," he said. "This is what is important."

A new world

In 1968, the board of directors decided to change the name of the Minneapolis Symphony to the Minnesota Orchestra. Good, square-headed ideas about the importance of the ensemble to the state did not land well with traditionalists such as Skrowaczewski.

"If not for my family, I would have left immediately," he said. "If you have a good orchestra with a name already known, you don't change it."

He stayed, though, until 1979 ("the time had come for change," as Cisek gracefully puts it). His 19 years tie those of Emil Oberhoffer, the Minneapolis Symphony's first music director, for longevity in the 109-year history of the organization.

"He is the face of orchestra music in the Twin Cities," said critic Michael Anthony, who has covered Skrowaczewski for more than three decades. "His 52-year connection here is longer than any one person has been associated with an orchestra in the world."

Named the first conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra, Skrowaczewski kept his home here after stepping down, and has guest-conducted with every major orchestra in the United States, Europe and Japan. He has recorded more than 200 albums -- including 100 of his own compositions.

"He falls into the category of under-recognized," said biographer Harris. "His work is a language that stems from Eastern European influences such as Shostakovich, Messiaen and Szymanowski. It has the chance to be popular; it just needs to be heard."

Less travel, more composing

Skrowaczewski had recently returned from conducting in Japan before sitting for an interview. His travel schedule waxes and wanes during the year, but he has firm plans to spend a long, uninterrupted stretch at home this summer, to meditate, to find the music pulsing through his being and compose.

"Composing will be healing," he said, referring to his sadness over Krystyna's passing. "It is inner healing, a long process of meditation and getting back to myself undisturbed. Otherwise, it is not worth it."

There clearly is melancholy in the man. He misses friends who have died. Once an avid skier and mountain climber, he can only smile at those memories.

Yet Skrowaczewski still possesses an inquisitive interest in life and seems to know deep within himself that there is work to be done, music to be interpreted and people to meet. If he laments the populism of modern culture, it is not because he begrudges the tastes of others. It is because of his passion for art.

"We never played for the public," he said of his orchestra here. "We played for the art and tried to convince the public that this is great art."

This dedication is what leads people such as his old friend Cisek to refer to Skrowaczewski as a true artist.

"Absolutely uncompromising without being compulsive about it," Cisek said. "He lives and breathes for the true form of artistic expression."

Harris calls his subject a unique figure in music history.

"There is no one in his generation working still as a conductor and a composer," Harris said. "He's still growing, which is remarkable at 88."