A good friend who knows of my deep ongoing interest in orchestra conductors loaned me Frederick Edward Harris, Jr.’s biography of conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski entitled Seeking the Infinite: The Musical Life of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Lovers of classical music may recognize his name, but he’s not a “superstar” conductor, even though his extraordinary talent as a conductor and composer would make him one. He was music director of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1960 to 1979, and has been their Conductor Laureate ever since. He is responsible for the construction of Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis (not the recent renovation) in 1973-74. I met him once or twice when I was working there in the 1980’s, but I doubt he’d remember me. Today, he’s 91 years old, still conducting, and still a staunch supporter of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.
I’ve read many biographies of conductors over the years, but this is truly the first that offers an inside and intimate view of a conductor’s life, especially working as a music director vs. a guest conductor. Maestro Stan ( as we call him in Minnesota now) was born in Poland, survived World War II just barely, and then managed to survive the communist regime that took over after the war. His music education began when he was a young boy, and he began composing almost immediately. As he went through school, he thought of himself as a composer and that he would earn his living as one. He discovered, however, that he needed to conduct in order to earn a living. During the early years of his career in Poland, he endured an inner conflict between conducting and composing. He wanted more time for composing. Time for composing would be something he’d search for his entire life.
Harris details Maestro Stan’s conducting career from the beginning to about 2011. Maestro Stan had the good fortune to meet George Szell, the venerated conductor and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, who invited him to conduct his orchestra in America. This brought him to America and to the attention of American orchestras. It wasn’t long after that that he landed the job of music director of the Minneapolis Symphony, now the Minnesota Orchestra. He had one assistant conductor, so he conducted almost all the concerts himself. At the same time, his education in working with a board of directors began. Fortunately, he had good friends on the Minneapolis Symphony’s Board of Directors who helped him, championed his ideas, and supported his choices. As a result, he was able to build the Minneapolis Symphony into a world class orchestra. In fact, as I read these chapters, I thought often of what Osmo Vanska has done more recently.
Two major events mark Maestro Stan’s tenure as Music Director. The first occurred in the late 1960’s. The Board took the action to change the name of the orchestra from the Minneapolis Symphony to The Minnesota Orchestra. The name-changers wanted the orchestra to represent the entire state rather than a metropolitan area. This name change also made the orchestra stand out because most symphony orchestras were named after the cities in which they performed. Maestro Stan heard about the name change while he was traveling as a guest conductor, and he was furious about it. Some orchestra musicians shared his anger, and a movement to change back the name to the Minneapolis Symphony existed in the orchestra well into the 2000’s.
The second event was the realization of Maestro Stan’s dream for a concert hall of the orchestra’s own with superb acoustics. He was involved in nearly every aspect of the creation of Orchestra Hall, campaigning tirelessly for it, raising money, then working with the architect and overseeing the construction, all while continuing his busy conducting schedule. Orchestra Hall was completed in 1974, and Maestro Stan conducted at the grand opening concert.
It was fascinating to read about his tenure as Music Director. In addition to conducting, he also had administrative duties such as developing programs for an entire season and hiring musicians. He also had much closer contact with the Board than a guest conductor would. Eventually, the administrative duties and needing to fight the Board for what he wanted in terms of artistic initiatives tired him out. When he resigned his position in 1977, he decided to become a freelancer, a guest conductor.
Since then, Maestro Stan has done more composing as well as continuing his busy conducting schedule. Harris shows in detail what the life of a guest conducting conductor is like — nearly constant travel with little down time, but the only administrative responsibility concerns deciding on one’s own program at each orchestra. This, of course, reminded me of my conductor, Evan Quinn, in the Perceval novels. Maestro Stan has been in demand especially in Europe and Asia as a guest conductor, and served as principal conductor for the Halle Orchestra in England and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Japan, and principal guest conductor of the Saarbruecken Radio Symphony Orchestra in Germany.
Harris’ biography is massive, highly detailed, and fascinating. I often thought of current events with the Minnesota Orchestra and the current Board while reading of Maestro Stan’s experience in the 1960’s while music director. The more something changes, the more it stays the same. I recommend this biography for anyone interested in the Minnesota Orchestra, composing, conducting, nonprofit management, and the life of a conductor. I read this biography in spurts, took my time, and truly savored it.