Ściskam dłoń—I shake your hand—was the recurring refrain expressed in person or at the close of every handwritten letter from Maestro Stanisław Skrowaczewski, who passed away on February 21 in Minneapolis. Congratulating the Maestro after his concerts, too, was a rather formal ritual: smiles and warm words were fine, but please no embraces! Just a firm handshake—ściskam dłoń—nothing less and certainly nothing more. Instead, the music would provide warmth and embrace—of the metaphysical kind—and the Maestro would magically conjure it up from the orchestra. He led and inspired scores of them all over the globe—each concert a discovery and revelation of music’s mystical powers for the conductor and his audience.
The orchestra was his instrument, even though he first studied piano and violin in Lwów, where he was born on 3 October 1923. There was also his early interest in composition and the encounter with music’s powerful spell at the age of seven after hearing the Adagio of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. “It was the same shock that someone who believes would have from seeing God in front of him,” he later said. His debut as a pianist in Lwów in 1936 elicited positive reviews: Skrowaczewski performed the solo part and led the orchestra in Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto. Only a few years later a wartime injury to his hands when a wall collapsed on him during a bombing raid put an end to his pianistic career.
When the war ended, Skrowaczewski and his parents were forced to leave Lwów (it became part of the Soviet Union) and resettled in Kraków. He became an assistant to Walerian Bierdiayev, a well-known conductor on the faculty of Kraków Music Academy, and passed exams to receive his diploma in conducting and composition. His first professional engagement in Kraków was to lead the Philharmonic in performance of Andrzej Panufnik’s Five Polish Peasant Songs for voices and winds. By fall of 1946 Skrowaczewski was appointed associate conductor in Wrocław and began to lead other orchestras in Poland. After one of these engagements, he was offered a French government scholarship and arrived in Paris where he soon met Nadia Boulanger, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Kletzki, and Charles Munch, and was invited to lead L’Orchestre Philharmonique de France. Soon, performances of Skrowaczewski’s Overture 1947, Music at Night, and Symphony for Strings established his credentials as a composer. He left Paris in 1949 to take the reins of the Silesian Philharmonic in Katowice and, after a five-year tenure there, was appointed conductor of the Kraków Philharmonic.
The next big break came in 1956 when Skrowaczewski won the Santa Cecilia Competition in Rome which led to concerts across Europe and to principal conductorship of Warsaw Philharmonic. George Szell, who toured Europe with the Cleveland Orchestra, met Skrowaczewski in Poland in 1957 and invited him to Cleveland. Skrowaczewski’s success there—both with the orchestra and the public—led to his second U.S. visit and a tour arranged by the legendary Arthur Judson. A year later Skrowaczewski was offered the music directorship of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Leaving Poland at that time was difficult, but Skrowaczewski managed to persuade the Communist authorities to allow him to fulfill his February 1960 engagement in Amsterdam. He also insisted that on this occasion his wife, Krystyna, accompany him. Luckily, at the last minute Polish government issued a passport for her. Carrying one suitcase each, a few hours later both left Warsaw by train, reaching their destination safely a day later. “We are in the free world,” Skrowaczewski said in a phone call from Amsterdam to the manager of Minneapolis Orchestra.
Soon thereafter, the thirty-six year old Skrowaczewski arrived in the U.S., settled in the Twin Cities and enjoyed a long tenure with the orchestra lasting over fifty years. For the first two decades—until 1979—he served as the Minnesota Orchestra’s Music Director. In due course Skrowaczewski began to record and tour and was invited as guest conductor all over the world. His unerring sense of line and elegant, insightful approach to a wide range of orchestral repertoire was well-received by the public and critics, who praised him for “honesty, cleanliness, and shining detail.” After his long stewardship in Minnesota, Skrowaczewski began his seven-year tenure as principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in the mid-1980s. During the following decade he was principal guest conductor for the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony with whom he recorded, among others, the complete cycle of Bruckner’s symphonies. During the last twenty years he often appeared in Japan with the NHK Symphony Orchestra and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony in Tokyo.
Skrowaczewski’s worship of Bruckner that began in Lwów in 1930 intensified with the passing years. Aware of his fondness for German Romantics and superb recordings of Beethoven, Bruckner, Schumann and Brahms,I asked the Maestro about Mahler’s symphonies. It was right after his very successful concert with the USC Thornton Symphony in 2004 that ended with a rousing performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique followed by long standing ovation from the capacity audience at Bovard Auditorium. “Mahler?” The Maestro’s eyebrows rose up a notch. “Mahler? Not my cup of tea. Weak and feverish. Bruckner is different: manly and so much stronger.” The topic of Mahler thus closed, we walked back to his hotel off campus. Was the room comfortable? “Yes, fine. But the restaurant! There’s nothing to eat there!” This was pure Skrowaczewski—direct and honest, as always. Walking at his usual brisk pace, I did my best not to fall behind. I also had to explain to him that we were to attend an event in Beverly Hills, a meeting with the local Polonia. “Do I have to go?” he testily asked, adding, “There’s so much work I have to do.” I insisted he should—also because Polish cuisine served there would be really exquisite. “All right; count me in.” Ściskam dłoń—do zobaczenia. A customary firm handshake, a quick farewell, and he vanished inside the cavernous hotel lobby.
The meeting with an overflowing crowd of Polish expatriates a few days later went very well. The Maestro was in fine spirits, enjoyed discussing his life and career with a mix of modesty and a touch of gentle, self-effacing humor. The food was superb and Skrowaczewski—always a fastidious eater and lifelong champion of physical exercise—enjoyed the elegant and bountiful buffet provided by his beaming hosts. His two-week residency at the Thornton School of Music eventually led to the commissioning of his magnificent Music for Winds that was world-premiered at USC in October of 2011. As one of the founders and original manuscript donors to the Polish Music Center in 1984, Skrowaczewski continued to generously support the PMC annually and, a few years ago, sent us several boxes of books about music and orchestral scores from his home library. Annotated with interpretative remarks and bearing dedications from close friends like Witold Lutosławski, they are among the finest treasures in our collection.
For years since we first met, there were many handwritten letters dispatched from hotels all over the world. Correspondence was something that the Maestro—in spite of his failing eyesight—kept up meticulously, often apologizing for being late with his news. His closing lines, Sciskam dłoń—Stanisław, usually ended with a flourish of his pen, large letters climbing skyward or gently sliding down. They would be just like the crescendos and diminuendos that made Bruckner’s heavenly adagios glow and whisper in turns, responding to the graceful aerial arabesques traced by his hands. Marked Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam, the Adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh was always his favorite, alongside that of the Eighth—Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend, which he conducted in Minneapolis last October, right after his ninety-third birthday. Returning to this music throughout his life gave him the opportunity to rediscover it every time, seek the metaphysical rush of touching the infinite and feel the spark of the otherworldly realm of ecstatic experience. Other than music, the mountains he began to scale as a young boy, climbing the peaks of the Carpathians and the Tatras, were always his favorite dominion. The limitless skies and veiled views of distant horizons freed one’s mind from the mundane worries, at long last allowing for a peaceful contemplation of the Universe. Just like the mysterious Rückenfigur in Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeerthere was the Maestro at the lofty summit with his back to audience, contemplating the still undiscovered worlds beyond.
Please see also the following interviews and performances Maestro Skrowaczewski around the web:
- A 30 min. interview with Mary Hanson (2012): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fX3RagXnxaQ
- A short interview on performing Bruckner (2012): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E69j9KaOEEM
- Skrowaczewski conducts his Passacaglia Immaginaria (Hessische Rundfunk, Frankfurt, 2014): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOTYBKwh8II
- Skrowaczewski conducts Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor KV 466 with Jan Lisiecki (Gothenburg, 2015?): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hLu6bPaUuY
- Skrowaczewski conducts Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in Saarbrucken (ca. 2003?): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJ4QeKn_Gb8
- A 16 min. video interview (in Polish) with several clips of live concert performances of Bruckner’s Symphonies (NIFC): http://en.chopin.nifc.pl/institute/events/news/id/4345