Minnesota’s maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski got Orchestra Hall built in 1974, after years of proselytizing. For decades, he filled the hall with music, leading the Minnesota Orchestra as its music director, then conductor laureate. On Tuesday, that grand hall hosted his memorial.
More than 600 people gathered at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis — a place Skrowaczewski once called “a temple of mystery and contemplation” — to say farewell to their maestro, who defected from Communist Poland to become a musical giant in Minnesota. “Stan” died in February at age 93, after suffering two strokes in recent months.
On Tuesday, friends and fellow musicians gave speeches, praising the conductor for his old-world etiquette, deep musicality and tireless composing. But the memorial centered on music, starting with Bach.
That’s how Skrowaczewski — whom the musicians lovingly called “Skrovie” — would have wanted it, said Anthony Ross, the orchestra’s principal cellist. Ross recalled sitting with Skrowaczewski for a concert honoring the maestro’s 90th birthday. During one of many speeches, Skrowaczewski leaned over.
“Why are they talking so much?” Ross remembered him saying. “Let’s get on with the music.”
So on Tuesday, the musicians did. A quintet performed “For Krystyna,” a piece Skrowaczewski wrote for his wife, with whom he fled Poland in 1960. (The pair raised three children — Anna, Paul and Nicholas — in their Wayzata home.) Ariana Kim and Daniel Kim played “Duet for Violin and Viola,” a piece Skrowaczewski completed in 2015. (Skrowaczewski composed three dozen chamber and orchestral works.) Then, former Minnesota Orchestra Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis and cellist Lynn Harrell performed “Lent,” from Sonata for Violin and Cello by Maurice Ravel. (Harrell was the first soloist to perform at Orchestra Hall.)
Before leaving the stage, Harrell turned to blow a kiss to Skrowaczewski’s image, projected onto one of the “cubes” that reflect sound. In the photo, Skrowaczewski is summitting Grand Teton peak in Wyoming. Two flags flanked the stage: the United States on the left, Poland on the right.
Born in Lwow, a Polish city that’s now part of Ukraine, Stan was 7 and walking down the street when he heard music through an open window. “I stood there, completely out of this world, listening,” he recounted in “Seeking the Infinite,” a documentary film by Skrowaczewski’s biographer, Frederick Harris Jr. “It turned out that it had been Bruckner, his Seventh Symphony. And since then, Bruckner has been someone special.”
For what would become his final performances with the Minnesota Orchestra, Skrowaczewski picked Bruckner, conducting the Austrian composer’s Eighth Symphony in October, just after his 93rd birthday.
The hall “echoes still with the magnificent sounds” of that final performance, said Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chair of the orchestra’s board of directors. “We close our eyes and see the delicate, aging man walk slowly across the stage and pull himself up on the podium,” Carlson Nelson told the mourners gathered Tuesday. “And then, before our eyes, he became strong. He became vibrant, alive and free.”
Afterward, audience members stomped their feet and clapped their hands, she continued. Musicians tapped their bows on their stands. “He knew that he was loved.”
On Tuesday, the orchestra closed with Bruckner, playing the Adagio movement that had struck the young musician. Music director Osmo Vanksa led the musicians as they filled the hall with rich tones, four Wagner tubas deep and low.
As family members and musicians greeted one another in the lobby, Harris stopped bassist David Williamson to compliment him on a few low, loud notes during Bruckner. “I saw you smiling,” Harris said. Skrowaczewski loved those plucked notes, especially on the low instruments, Williamson said, wanting them louder than the soft or mezzo they might have been marked.
“It’s not really what’s there, but yet he was right,” Williamson said. The two men nodded. “So we laid a couple in there for him.”