“Come in, please.”
The voice from inside the white brick midcentury cottage in Wayzata was clear if not a little frail. Through the glass, one glimpsed Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, trudging with some effort across the stone-floor foyer.
His shoulders were stooped, his eyes dim, but as “Stan” greeted a visitor, his handshake was that of a young man — firm, steady and friendly.
These are the hands that have conducted orchestras and composed music for 80 years. They are working hands not content to retire and coast on the maestro’s legacy.
“He is the only major musical figure [in the symphonic world] today still actively conducting and composing,” said Dick Cisek, a friend since Skrowaczewski came to Minnesota in 1960 to begin a 19-year tenure as music director of the then-Minneapolis Symphony. “You can’t find anyone who is on that top level; most perish before they get to be 93.”
The passing of his successor, Neville Marriner, at 92 two weeks ago was a reminder that talk about mortality is not an abstraction. Skrowaczewski, who celebrated his 93rd birthday Oct. 3, acknowledges the physical annoyances that hinder his ambition. He has conducting dates on his 2017 calendar. (“Conducting is very uplifting, a pleasure and not at all tiring.”) More daunting is the composition sitting in his basement studio — a piece he hopes will be his magnum opus. (“If it doesn’t come, it doesn’t. But I will not write something banal.”)
Before all that, however, the Minnesota Orchestra’s conductor laureate will conduct Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony on Friday and Saturday at Orchestra Hall, an assignment he eagerly anticipates.
Bruckner Eight was his valedictory when he retired as music director in 1979, and during the course of a conversation he wondered if this will be his farewell to the ensemble. With a chuckle, he added, “I am 93, so who knows?”
It is a statement more matter-of-fact than introspective.
“He’ll make comments now and then — ‘I have this engagement coming up and I hope I’m alive to do it.’ Very businesslike,” said Fred Harris, author of “In Search of the Infinite,” Skrowaczewski’s biography. “He might be reflective, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time with it.”
Happy in his sanctuary
“I am glad to see you again,” Skrowaczewski said, pointing a visitor toward the large, open living room with a wall of books on one side (“Please, if you see something you like, take it”) and sliding glass doors opposite that open to a small balcony. A tall fireplace reaches for the vaulted ceiling and an old couch rests against the north wall. He sits in a chair that could be a set piece for a Victorian stage drama.
This is the sanctuary where Skrowaczewski has enjoyed peace, quiet and rejuvenation for more than 50 years.
He and his late wife, Krystyna, moved here in 1963, when the territory just north of Wayzata nurtured turkey and beef cattle farms.
He used to ski down the hill that cuts along the side of the house, down to a small lake. The best exercise, he said, was walking back, herringbone style, to pack the snow.
In his basement studio, he composed symphonies and studied the dozens of scores that he would conduct and whose covers bear his signature. The scores are stacked in bookcases, along with a wall of albums.
For all his storied career, the walls of Skrowaczewski’s home are adorned with pictures of children, parents, grandchildren, scenes from his Polish childhood, of him on the ski slopes or smiling atop a mountain peak.
“If you didn’t go downstairs, you wouldn’t know what this man’s occupation is,” Harris said. “There is no pretension, and it’s emblematic of who he is.”
This is the house in which Skrowaczewski will likely draw his last breath. Several years ago (Krystyna died in 2011) he was ready to move to assisted living in Wayzata. But he couldn’t pull the trigger, so his son Nicholas and daughter-in-law Angela are moving in with him, evidenced by the boxes stacked in the living room and the downstairs den.
“I wanted to stay here,” he said with the smile that remains charismatic and friendly.
‘We are free!’
The Minneapolis Symphony had courted him since the young Polish superstar electrified crowds at the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958, and even before, following a triumph in Amsterdam in 1956. But Poland’s Communist government was suspicious, and put him under close watch. He and Krystyna escaped in 1959 in a white-knuckle train trip to the West.
Cisek, then an administrator with the symphony, got a phone call from Skrowaczewski.
“He said, ‘We are free!’ ” Cisek said. “We thought it was kind of humorous, but looking back on all those years of German and Russian domination in Poland, for him to have finally tasted the freedom to come to the West, those words are now so meaningful.”
Skrowaczewski wanted to retire in 1974 after he finally succeeded in getting Orchestra Hall built in Minneapolis.
“My wife said, ‘You are stupid. You have this wonderful hall,’ ” he recollected. He stayed five more years until “people had had enough of me.”
Bill Schrickel, now assistant principal double bass, spent his first three years in the orchestra under Skrowaczewski.
“Maybe people had stopped listening to him with complete discipline and people were ready for a change,” Schrickel said. “I loved those three seasons, but … 16 years is a long time for any conductor to be with an orchestra.”
Skrowaczewski went on to a lively guest conducting career around the world while staying in Minnesota as conductor laureate. His presence took on legendary status, and he was an early and vocal supporter of the musicians during the 2012-14 lockout, which endeared him to the ensemble.
“Newer players were hearing this man who had this long history who was not afraid of putting himself out there,” Schrickel said. “He is a high priest for the art.”
Advocate for art and culture
Skrowaczewski always has believed in the necessity of art in a cultured society, and he is discouraged by what he sees today.
Skyscrapers may be important to a city, he said — and he might have added stadiums — “but culturally, music, theater, museums are to me a judge of the level of people’s intelligence, what they hope to do.”
He feels there is a general lack of artistic sensibility in the world, and that lies at the center of his current creation — a piece he calls a “nonreligious requiem for civilization.”
Yet, as he speaks about a sense of despair over the state of civilization, he also expresses optimism. “I feel civilization is eroding in the last century,” he said. “I do have some hope for resurrection. I will not see it, but you will.”
That duality, Cisek said, is “very much like him.”
His “requiem” clearly weighs heavily on Skrowaczewski’s mind, and his physical limitations have made it difficult to work. Still, he will not compromise his standards merely to finish the piece.
“It all depends if my musical ideas will be good enough,” he said, standing in the studio next to his small grand piano. “It must be of a quality that will be accepted by me. I must feel the excitement of something that makes me hot, musically.”
As he bade farewell to his visitor, he said he had plenty of work to fill the afternoon. There were faxes to send, reading to inform his musical work, time to spend at his desk with the Bruckner score.
“It is where I can concentrate,” he said.
Told that it sounded like he had a full day left, he laughed.
“When you are 93,” he said at the door, “there is so much work to do because there is not a lot of time left to do it.”
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.