Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s rare appearances at the podium of the Minnesota Orchestra, of which he is conductor laureate, are cherished occasions, a mix of the familiar, the astonishing and significant areas between. Memories of these concerts surely will be shared among music lovers in years to come, their fine points mulled over and trumpeted. “The Skrowaczewski years in Minnesota,” people will say. “Now there was a Golden Age.”
But why it is that Skrowaczewski’s engagements here have for so long been limited to one program a year? Is it not enough that at 92 he is the oldest major conductor working today and that as part of a rejuvenating of his career at an improbable age he is revered in Europe and treated in Japan like a rock star? And he has done all this world travel while maintaining (since 1960) his home in Minneapolis.
Some might hope that during this twilight of Skrowaczewski’s brilliant career the orchestra might actually go out on a limb and stage a festival in his honor, a series of events showcasing both his conducting and any number of his award-winning compositions. Who knows? So novel and potentially interesting an undertaking might attract an audience at least equal to the crowd that will show up for the Beethoven festival — yet another one — that the orchestra has scheduled for January.
His program here this week plays to one of his strengths: Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 as centerpiece with the Schumann Cello Concerto serving as prelude. Skrowaczewski has long championed the Austrian Bruckner’s orchestral works. His recordings of them with the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony are much admired, and during his years at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra (1960-79), he and a handful of other conductors helped introduce Bruckner to American audiences in a substantial way.
But there’s more: Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner 7 story. It’s part of his lore. As a child in Poland, Stan (or “Stas”) was walking with a friend when he heard unknown music from an upstairs window as they walked by. The music struck him so forcefully that he fainted, and he remained in high fever for a day. Even his father, a doctor, couldn’t determine the cause. The cause was, of course, Bruckner — “my beloved Bruckner,” as Skrowaczewski so often says in conversation.
Judging by the superlative performance he drew from the orchestra Thursday morning at Orchestra Hall, that fever never really went away. It continues to energize and inspire him, as it does the musicians around him. Skrowaczewski captured the special ardor and ecstasy of this music in a way that seemed to make so many other interpretations, either live or on disc, seem prosaic. Partly it was the conductor’s easy command of structure, which allowed the long crescendos for brass choir in the first two movements, both so beautifully played, to seem so effortless and so satisfying. The scherzo had vigor and charm; the finale was lean and energetic.
In the Schumann, another of Skrowaczewski’s favorite composers, the soloist was the orchestra’s esteemed principal, Anthony Ross. The work itself, a product of Schumann’s mentally troubled period, is diffuse and loose-limbed. It held together on this occasion, thanks to the skill of the players. The finest pages are to be found in the middle movement, and here Ross’s playing was beautifully articulated and full of introspective song.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.