Minnesota’s beloved maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who defected from Communist Poland to lead the Minnesota Orchestra to new heights, died Tuesday at 93.
During his tenure as music director in the 1960s and ’70s, “Stan” expanded the orchestra’s repertoire and raised its national profile. He regularly returned to that podium between guest-conducting major orchestras around the world and composing his own works in the basement of his Wayzata home.
“I think he gave the Twin Cities a sense of artistic luster that they’ve enjoyed ever since,” said Frederick Harris Jr., author of Skrowaczewski’s biography “Seeking the Infinite.” Reinforcing that cultural milieu by staying in the state while building a distinguished international career, the Polish-born maestro became “the dean of classical musicians of Minnesota,” Harris said.
Skrowaczewski suffered a stroke in November and again in February. A memorial will be held March 28 at Orchestra Hall.
“Maestro Skrowaczewski’s mark on the Minnesota Orchestra was significant and continued well beyond his years as music director,” said music director Osmo Vänskä. “He was a consummate musician and conductor, and he will be greatly missed.”
By the time of his final concerts with the orchestra last fall, Skrowaczewski’s wild hair was white, his body frail. But critics lauded the performance as “vigorous,” full of “drama and fury.”
His first stroke came just a few weeks later, causing him to cancel a Dallas Symphony gig and conducting engagements on his 2017 calendar. Skrowaczewski’s tireless career is forever tied to the orchestra he took charge of in 1960, at age 36, and never left. After stepping down as music director in 1979, he remained its conductor laureate.
It was his relentless proselytizing that got Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis built in 1974 after decades in the then-acoustically deficient Northrop Auditorium. He was the conductor the musicians turned to during a bitter 16-month lockout, leading a rogue, musician-led concert in 2012. And, when they returned to Orchestra Hall in 2014, he held the baton.
Despite increasing frailty and heart problems, he conducted and composed until the end. “When you are 93,” he told the Star Tribune last year, “there is so much work to do because there is not a lot of time left to do it.”
In what turned out to be his final concerts, he led the Minnesota Orchestra in Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in October, just after his 93rd birthday. It was a fitting farewell: Skrowaczewski was one of Bruckner’s finest interpreters, and, when he retired as music director, the same symphony was his valedictory.
The October performance “seemed hardly the work of a man in his twilight years,” wrote critic Michael Anthony, who covered Skrowaczewski since the 1970s. “It was bold, vigorous and dramatic, a prime example of what might be called this conductor’s later style, a reading with a strong sense of direction, of inevitability and flow.”
‘Out of this world, listening’
Skrowaczewski forged an early passion for the Austrian composer he often referred to as “my beloved Bruckner.”
Born in Lwow, a Polish city that’s now part of Ukraine, Stan was 7 and walking down the street with a friend when he heard music through an open window. He felt faint and feverish even the next day.
“I stood there, completely out of this world, listening,” he recounted in “Seeking the Infinite,” also the name of Harris’ documentary film about Skrowaczewski. “It turned out that it had been Bruckner, his Seventh Symphony. And since then, Bruckner has been someone special.”
Skrowaczewski began studying piano and violin at 4 and composed his first symphonic work at 7. At 13, he played and conducted Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. But his dream of being a concert pianist was dashed when the Germans bombed Lwow in World War II. The wall of a house crashed down on him, injuring his hand.
So he composed and conducted, becoming known as Poland’s young star maestro. The Minneapolis Symphony courted him after he electrified crowds with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958. But Poland’s Communist government was suspicious, and put him under close watch. “Getting him out of Poland required a little bit of strategy,” said Dick Cisek, a friend and former orchestra administrator. In 1959, Skrowaczewski and his wife, Krystyna, escaped to Amsterdam by train.
Cisek got the phone call: “His first words were, ‘We are free!’ ”
His early performances with the orchestra earned accolades like these, in the Minneapolis Star: “The highest praise one musician can give another sounds like an understatement to the layman: ‘He is musical,’ [the musicians] say, and that means everything.
“They add that he’s efficient without sweat or strain or temperament, that he has a natural and innate courtesy and that — another understatement — he ‘lets them play.’ ”
A rare combination
Stan and Krystyna moved in 1963 to Wayzata, where they raised three children: Anna, Paul and Nicholas. In the basement studio of their white midcentury house, he studied scores and composed works of his own.
“He calls it the conflict of his lifetime, composing vs. conducting,” one article noted. From 1947 to 2010, he wrote and published 30 orchestral works, chamber music, transcriptions and arrangements. Two were shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize: Passacaglia Immaginaria (1995) and Concerto for Orchestra (1999).
“At his heart, he was a composer,” said his biographer Harris. “That combination was so incredibly rare. You can count on one hand the great composers who were also great conductors.”
Partly because he was a composer, Skrowaczewski possessed a deep and profound knowledge of a score, a mastery of its “pacing, architecture, emotional content,” said Anthony Ross, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal cello. His conducting was subtle yet powerful, Ross said. “There might be a moment where he tilted his head toward the cello section, and I knew the minute he did that, he was looking for a little more cello sound in the balance of that harmony.”
He conducted scores from memory — partly because of poor eyesight — but always felt there was more to learn. Skrowaczewski would show up at Orchestra Hall on days he wasn’t conducting, said Ross, who has been with the ensemble since 1988.
“He would come up to me, wanting to discuss the bowings of a certain phrase he might be conducting in Japan the next week,” Ross said. “In his 90s, he was still searching and curious and alive.”
In all, he conducted nearly 5,000 concerts, regularly leading the world’s top orchestras. That lively guest-conducting career gained momentum in his later years. Both in Japan, where he had become a kind of rock star, and Minneapolis, he sold out concerts and earned lingering ovations.
He kept writing, too. After his wife died in 2011, Skrowaczewski wrote her an elegy, performed by six string players at her funeral. He had been working on an orchestral version of that piece, as well as a wordless, nonreligious requiem for civilization.
That project came from his belief that art is necessary for a healthy society — and his concern that people were investing in stadiums rather than culture. “Music, theater, museums are to me a judge of the level of people’s intelligence, what they hope to do,” he once said. The arts meant “everything” to Skrowaczewski, Cisek said, and he was disappointed in society’s loss of interest, as well as commercialization.
But he wanted his requiem to end with hope. “I feel civilization is eroding in the last century,” he said last year. “I do have some hope for resurrection. I will not see it, but you will.”