Jerzy Semkow, one of the most prominent Polish conductors and champions of Polish music around the world, died on December 23 near Lausanne, Switzerland after a long illness at the age of 86. Born in Radomsko, Poland, he first studied conducting in Kraków and later continued with the legendary Evgenii Mravinsky, the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
From 1965 until 1970 Semkow served as Conductor of the Royal Danish Opera and, during the 1970s, he was the principal guest conductor of Cleveland Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, and RAI Orchestra in Italy. Starting in the 1980s, for almost three decades Semkow frequently appeared with the Detroit Symphony and served as Director of Rochester Philharmonic during the years 1985-1993.
Maestro Semkow also led Milano’s La Scala Opera orchestra and London’s Covent Garden Opera, as well as opera orchestras in Geneva, Rome and Florence. Sekow’s academic credits include lectures at Colorado State University, Yale University and Manhattan School of Music. He was also one of the founders of the Polish Sinfonia Iuventus orchestra. Always ready to promote music by Polish composers, Semkow presented works by Moniuszko, Kurpiński, Chopin, Szymanowski, Lutosławski, Baird, Szabelski, Penderecki and many others in concerts across the world. His last appearance with the Warsaw Philharmonic—an orchestra he first led in 1962—was scheduled for October 2014 but had to be cancelled due to illness.
Music critic for the Detroit Free Press, Mark Stryker, remembered Semkow as:
A beloved musical citizen of the Motor City…. For many years he was a go-to conductor for core staples by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. The Old World depth and warmth he brought to these scores made for countless memorable nights in Detroit…. Semkow favored broad tempos, fleshy textures and flowing phrases that sighed with lyricism. He knew what he wanted, and it was usually a kind of clarified spiritualism, beauty and understanding.