Conductor  Sergiu  Comissiona

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Sergiu Comissiona was one of the world's best-travelled conductors, a welcome guest with orchestras the world around - though it was in America that he made his deepest impression. He was, in the words of Stephen Cera, music critic of The Baltimore Sun in the latter part of the 25 years Comissiona spent with the orchestra there, "an instinctive and intuitive rather than intellectual conductor, emotionally generous in big Romantic scores, wonderfully adept at achieving coloristic nuances. He preferred a light, transparent sound; under him, the Baltimore Symphony was the orchestral equivalent of a lovely and warm lyric soprano."

Comissiona was born in Bucharest in 1928, into a musical family, and began studying the violin at five. Conducting beckoned early: he studied with Constantin Silvestri and Edouard Lindenberg and made his début at only 17, stepping in as a substitute to take over a performance of Gounod's Faust in Sibiu. In 1946, as a violinist, he joined the Bucharest Radio Quartet and in 1947 the Romanian State Ensemble. In an interview 40 years later he recalled his path to the podium, "From seven years, I started to go to concerts, collecting autographs and preparing the scores for the concert during the week and, of course, dreaming that the conductor would be sick. Then I would jump on the stage, make my début and I would be famous. It did happen, with the Romanian State Ensemble - without poisoning the conductor."

He held the assistant conductorship of the ensemble for two years (1948-50) and was its music director for the next five; from 1955 until 1959 he was principal conductor of the Romanian State Opera.

International attention had come in 1956, when he won the conducting competition in Besançon. Romania was not to hold on to Comissiona for much longer, either: being Jewish, he emigrated to Israel and took Israeli citizenship in 1959. He made his mark in his new homeland, serving as chief conductor of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra from 1960 to 1966. In 1960, too, he founded the Ramat Gan Chamber Orchestra, directing it until 1967. During this period he was a frequent visitor to Britain, appearing first with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1960 and then as a guest conductor of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden between 1962 and 1966 - his spirited gestures allying themselves naturally to the choreographic movement on stage.

Comissiona was first heard in his next adoptive country, the United States, in 1963, conducting the Israel Chamber Orchestra on tour; two years later he was invited to appear as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Other invitations began to arrive regularly, the long tenures which resulted giving an indication of how much his secure musicianship was appreciated: he was music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for 11 years from 1966 (with 1967-68 as music adviser of the recently founded BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra in Belfast) and in 1969 he began his long relationship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

He conducted a staggering 874 concerts in Baltimore, 21 of them including world premieres. He took the orchestra on its first foreign tour, to Mexico, in 1979, and two years later they toured the two Germanies, when the Baltimore Symphony became the first American orchestra to be invited to the Dresden music festival. His adventurous programming brought 271 works to Baltimore for the first time, and the BSO made its first recordings under him. Stephen Wigler, music critic for The Baltimore Sun during the early part of his time in Maryland, put it bluntly: "The modern Baltimore Symphony was created by Sergiu Comissiona."

Comissiona and his wife, Robinne, also of Romanian origin, took their American citizenship with style - on the very day of the Bicentennial, 4 July 1976, at a special ceremony at Fort McHenry on Baltimore Harbor, itself a place of particular significance: it was the defence of Fort McHenry against the British in September 1814 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Sergiu Comissiona was active in the opera house as well as on the orchestral podium. He returned to Covent Garden - for Rossini's Il barbiere di Seviglia - in 1975; his New York operatic début came with Puccini's La fanciulla del West two years later. Music directorship of the New York City Opera followed in 1987-88, and in 1989 he appeared at the Metropolitan Opera with Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Further afield, he was the chief conductor of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Hilversum from 1982 and of the Helsinki Philharmonic for three years from 1990 - a position he held simultaneously with the Radio- Televisión Orquestra Sinfónica in Madrid and, from 1991, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 2000 and was described as "the best thing to happen to Vancouver's musical life in a generation".

At the time of his death on March 5, 2005 - in his sleep but also in the saddle: he was in Oklahoma City to give a concert - Comissiona held a number of posts, among them the principal guest conductorships of the Jerusalem Symphony, the George Enescu Philharmonic (Bucharest) and the University of Southern California Symphony Orchestras.

Stephen Cera sums up Comissiona as, "a tremendously gifted "born" conductor with a decidedly unorthodox technique that could not have been easy to follow. In many ways he was old-fashioned in the best sense - almost a throwback to an earlier era of conducting giants . . . His acute ear for subtly nuanced orchestral sound distinguished his finest performances: an almost alchemical ability to transform the dry ink of musical notation into bewitching sound-images."

Comissiona's repertoire was huge and is reflected in his substantial discography, which is distinguished by an adventurous taste in repertoire: he was recording little-known composers like the Swedish symphonist Allan Pettersson long before this marginal post-Mahlerian became fashionable.

-- Martin Anderson, The Independent, March 11, 2005 

Living and working in Chicago all my life, I have enjoyed many of the world
’s most famous and interesting musical artists.  A few, however, have not been around — at least when I have been available for interviews — so I usually kept my eye on a few places close by.  Since Milwaukee has an excellent orchestra, once in awhile I would venture there for a specific concert or guest.  This meant a pleasant ninety-minute drive up I-94, and the interview on this webpage is a result of one of those trips.

The last week of December of 1995 found Sergiu Comissiona conducting the Milwaukee Symphony, and he agreed to let me visit him at his hotel during his stay.  He was very genial, and though his English had a heavy accent, it was easy to follow his thoughts and ideas.  His sentence structure and construction often were of the European variety, and some of those phrases have been corrected.  But a few were simply too charming to alter, and have been left in this context.

Here is that conversation . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are known as an orchestra builder.   Is it good for you to come to an orchestra that is maybe a little bit in transition once in a while?

comissionaSergiu Comissiona:    I enjoy doing any kind of orchestra because I like to work, even when it is an orchestra that is in transition.  I must confess to you
but only to you, of course!that I make a very bad guest conductor.  I don’t go through the music and say, Bravo, wonderful,” and keep smiling.  After the five minutes I will say, Okay, now let’s start to work!  I keep the orchestra working until the last second, until the exasperated personnel managers make the sign indicating I have five seconds to finish!  So in this respect, I label myself a bad guest conductor.  I love to work, and it’s a challenge, but being a guest your work is limited.

BD:    Can you make the orchestra that you’re guest conducting your own at all, or must you really use what is there and just do a little bit of shaping?

SC:    You’re perfectly right
— you can’t make it your own orchestra.  In six- or seven-and-a-half hours you cannot build a profile of an orchestral sound.  What you can get is a kind of communication, and it’s experience to be able to do so.  As the conductor, I can realize after ten minutes how much I can or cannot get from the orchestra, so with the co-operation and collaboration and friendship of the musicians, I am damning some progress with some sacrifices.  I’m doing it my way, not to obtain what I would if we had two years work.  But already today, here in my second rehearsal, the difference was astonishing for Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier Suite.  With the very hard work we were able to obtain a sound of warmth and spontaneous and sometimes arrogance, but tenderness and humor.  Also many of these sections are written for the voices, so you cannot play them straight. 

BD:    You’ve also done quite a bit of operatic conducting.  Does that help you when you are conducting an orchestral suite like this?

SC:    Yes, absolutely.  Because I conducted the Rosenkavalier, I knew where I can hold a note longer.  I told this to the musicians, that here you have to give this to help the singer, and they understood splendidly.  I told some musicians from the woodwind section that they are not just good players, but they are wonderful singers! 

BD:    Is there a huge difference between conducting in the pit where you have to follow the voices, and being in front of just the orchestra where you are in complete control?

SC:    Well, the idea is to have complete control from the pit!  [Both laugh]  I always pray, and I’m always trying to convince others that I’m in complete control.  But like anything in the pit or on the stage, it’s a matter of a two-way communication in art.  So I consider a singer, like any other soloist, and you have take and give.  It would be a crime to impose my way in a very rigid manner, just as it would be very silly of me to accept without any artistic reasons the directions of others.  Again, it’s communication, and to make love it takes at least two!  With a singer with whom you have done a number of performances, you are very close.  I had a number of very fine singers with whom I collaborated often, and I could obtain this kind of music making; this rapport is superb and you cannot imagine.  I don’t think that music can be made rigidly, like with the push of a button to control it electronically, but when you achieve the wonderful spontaneity in music and collaborate, there’s a great happiness.  I’m very fortunate that in my career, in my life, that I was able to collaborate with excellent and wonderful soloists
both instrumentalists and singersto obtain this kind of music making.  It is like you’re going to heaven.

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

SC:    Never!  Never, never.  But I was very pessimistic and a very negative person in my younger years. 

BD:    As a student, or as a young conductor?

SC:    As a conductor.  I came home and could not sleep.  I said to myself,
This was no good; this was too fast; this was not going together; why didn’t I achieve this?  It was kind of like I had a heart attack or an ulcer; it was not the joy of music.  After many, many years, I started to judge a performance in the momentspositive moments when you achieve this spontaneity and this beautiful sound, when you don’t know if you are the composer yourself.  Forgive my being so terribly arrogant, but at certain moments you lose reality in a way, and if you get a couple of such seconds during a performance, then I’m very happy.  I spoke about spontaneity, and yes, it is a very important thing, but in the same time an artist, a conductor — even an experienced conductorcannot trust, like a pilot, to put everything in remote control.  You have to be permanently an architect, to be able to see how you are going to build this up and where are the dangerous corners.  Now I can enjoy this beautiful landscape, but now I have to drive, so I have to have a plan.  This plan is more or less out of every performance, depending on the moment, depending on the way you started the overture, the volume or the speed.


BD:    I assume there will always be some surprises, but is all of your work done at the rehearsal, or do you purposely leave something for the performance?

SC:    It’s planned but there still is something extra which I don’t correct.  I develop this idea, or I can trust the colleagues from the orchestra to work, to give them more freedom there.  This is another wonderful aspect of this profession, that during the performance you’re getting this electricity, this spontaneity, this chemistry.  And this doesn’t only depend only from the orchestra or from the musicians or your colleagues, it depends so much on the public.  I can feel when I have the public with me.  I feel in my neck the concentration, or if I have lost the public and they’re not with me.  When the public is becoming a partner, then you cannot miss these beautiful things.  This is music making.

BD:    You have conducted all over the world
in North America, in Israel, in Asia.  Is the public for concert music really different from continent to continent?


SC:    Well, more or less but it’s becoming more alike.  If it doesn’t exist in a national orchestra, so it doesn’t exist in the national public.  There are, of course, local characteristics.  In Japan they reserve all their enthusiasm to the end of the performance, not after the overture; so after the first numbers, you think,
I’m a flop, they hate me!  But at the end, you can feel a concentration in the rhythmic clapping.  You feel the warmth in Israel.  You are already starting to be excited when you see the public coming for the concert.  Every concert is repeated four or five times, and you see from your window in the artist’s room these thousands and thousands of people.  So you start to get the emotions before.  I must say that I was very impressed in my years as principal conductor in the northern countries, like Helsinki.  From my window I could see people coming, fighting the big snow and traffic in their big boots.  They came with a kind of feeling that the concert is not to be missed!  It means a celebration of music which gives you a certain responsibility.  You’ve not coming on the stage thinking you have to perform because you’re being paid for this.  Thank God I will never come on stage with this fearing, but only with a desire of serving music, serving the composers and the public with my very modest talents.  I’m sincerely not bragging when I say I try and get new addicts to the music!  This is always my feeling, that if I get a new addict to the classical music, then I’m happy.  In my many voyages, I find a man who tells me, Maestro, my very first concert of my life was with you, and I remained a music lover.  Then it’s lovely, and I think that I did something good in my life.

BD:    That is success!

SC:    Yes.  Conductors are not like composers.  We don’t leave any legacy of compositions.  Some of the legacy of a conductor is to pave an orchestra for an artistic growth.  You never can achieve everything.  As selfish we are conductors, always I feel I have to pave from here to there so the next musical director can continue this.

BD:    So you are building a road?

SC:    Yes.

BD:    But you’re not starting the road.  You’re continuing it?

SC:    Yes, continuing.  The feeling is that I go from mile 200 and bring them to mile 250, and my successor will bring it further.  When I leave an orchestra, I’m trying to persuade the board or the management that the next conductor has to have these qualities to continue this without destroying it.

BD:    Talking about a legacy, obviously the concerts are single events.  But recordings will last presumably as long as the plastic holds up.


SC:    Yes, but how many recordings can be said to represent myself?

BD:    Well, are you pleased with your recordings? 

SC:    Very few of them... very few.  I was pleased, but again I make a confession.  I don’t have any of my records because after a certain time you change yourself.

BD:    I assume it doesn’t displease you when someone says,
I enjoyed this particular recording!

SC:    No, of course not... especially after the royalties!  [Both laugh]  It’s a joy to make them, and I’ve found some of the recordings which I did I’m not ashamed.  But if I could do them again I would do it differently.

BD:    They represent where you were at that time?

SC:    Yes, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    From the huge array of orchestral literature that has been written in the last two or three hundred years, how do you decide which works you’re going to bring to the public, and which works you’re going to let go?

comissionaSC:    This is a question that depends on which orchestra I am with.  If it is my orchestra where I am Music Director, I’m planning a five-year diet for the orchestra, for myself, for the public, and without using the term ‘education’, we are working on developing a taste for music.  I consult to what was played in ten, fifteen, twenty years ago to see what was missing and in which direction I should go.  Also, without having too much new music so as not to be scary, but to spoon in some new novelties.  When I say novelties, it doesn’t mean the most avant-garde, but music which the public and also the orchestra don’t really know.  I hope I’ve proved in my seventeen years as Musical Director in Baltimore that the public will trust me.  So even if they don’t know this work, if Comissiona asks, it must be something important.  With every orchestra which I work, the quality of the Music Director can get this trust to schedule works.  Sometime there is a shock, but I don’t want to lose this effort when economics are so important.  A music director is judged not only by his artistic or musical successes but also by statistics at the box office, by numbers of subscribers.  So we are leading an orchestra not only with some good critics, but with mathematics.  I want them to say,
He came and they had only 3,000 subscribers and he left with 8,000 subscribers!  Then you’ve not only been a good conductor, but also a good Music Director.  This is the difference, and we have to also be good administrators.  As guest conductor you suggest a number of programs, and then the Music Director decides what would be good for their orchestra.  Having a large repertoire, I’m not insisting anymore that I want to do Brahms Second Symphony.  Whatever they would prefer for their orchestra, I more or less gladly will accept.  If it is something which is completely outside of my scope, then of course I say that I am sorry.

BD:    Having been Music Director of a number of organizations, does that help you in making your own suggestions when you are guest conductor, knowing how the Music Director is going to think?

SC:    Usually when I’m invited, I’m asking myself what I should avoid.  Usually they’ll say to avoid Mahler because the Music Director wants to do it himself!  They might also want me to avoid the Brahms or someone else.  So I ask what works they are interested in, what has been less performed?  Building a program also must depend on the soloist. 

BD:    If they ask you for a piece of music which you may know but have never conducted, do you decide on the spot or do you have to go into the score and really dissect it?

SC:    With a new score I ask for two weeks time to look at the score
not to see if the score it good, because I trust the organizationbut to see if I can do it well.  If it is a work that I’ve never conducted but I would like to do, then I see if I will have time to study it and do it properly.  So it depends, but I’m always hungry to learn new things.  I’m not one who will only what I know.

BD:    When you get a new score, how do you decide if it is something you can do properly?

SC:    I will give you an example.  I was asked to do the Hindemith Cello Concerto, which I never conducted.  It was six weeks before the concert, so I looked at the score and heard a record with the London Symphony.  It’s a very, very demanding concerto which requires a lot of work, a lot of rehearsals.  In this case, the rest of the program should be a better-known symphony because seventy-five per cent of the rehearsal time will be dedicated to a work by Jacob Druckman.  [See my Inteview with Jacob Druckman.]  Afterward I was also to do Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, so I said no, I cannot do it.  In this context I could not do it properly.

BD:    You’ve done a number of world premieres.  When you get the score, how do you decide if you will actually bring this work to life?  What do you look for?

SC:    Most of the world premieres have been commissioned, so you don’t know what you are getting.  You’re just praying.  [Laughs]  I’ve been very lucky...

comissionaBD:    So then you don’t really have much choice?

SC:    No!  But also I had a number of world premieres when Allan Pettersson asked me to do the Symphony No 15, or the Viola Concerto.  I was a great admirer of Pettersson I was very interested to do them, as well as others, of course.  I’m getting interested when I hear from my colleagues about new works of other composers, and then I start to be jealous.  Then I want to do a new work by the same composer! 

BD:    Would you rather do a new work by the same composer or the première of that same work with your own orchestra?

SC:    I’m not so vain that I just want to have a new work.  I’d be very happy premiering the same work in my city.  In any case, if I’ve been nourishing the idea of a work for a composer, I want to do this rather than something else.  I hope that I should be the first to do it, but not if it hurts someone else.

BD:    What advice do you have for the composer who would like to write a work for your orchestra
— or any orchestra?

SC:    As a matter of practicality, I would give first advice not to be over twenty-five or thirty minutes because it’s a matter of time to prepare it for the orchestra.  It’s also a matter to give the public concentration not to be forty or fifty minutes long.  Of course you cannot measure by minutes, but if I would get an oratorio of two hours, I would wonder if I’d be able to do it with very often.  I’m passionate for Allan Pettersson’s music, but because the symphonies are over one hour
one hour and ten or twenty or even forty minutesit’s very difficult to succeed to convince other organizations where I’m not Music Director.  I can only do one of his symphonies every three years.  But I’m Romanian-born, so I like to promote music of George Enescu.  This is not only the rhapsodies, but also the symphonies and the other works.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music? 

SC:    Of course, yes!  Otherwise I should not be talking to you at this moment, and we jump from the 20th floor where I am living!  [Both laugh]  With all the complications and the ups and downs, if you look at what’s been going on for fifty years in the United States and how it is now, you must be optimistic.  Even though we are passing, certainly, a crisis in music
— as well as in economicsbut we are searching for new ways.  You see that with all the novelties and the fashions.  The new pieces are going straight on the very solid way, embracing some of the inventions, spirit, serials, and fashion of the century.  Now that we are approaching the gates of a new century, a new millennium, I’m shivering.  People say that we don’t have any more the great composers of the Nineteenth Century, but it’s not true if you look what was written.  This is the Twentieth Century.  You can feel day by day the repertoire.  It was a fantastic century, and I’m always trying with my permanent orchestra to say have the next four or five yearsuntil we get to the year 2000to give to the best of Twentieth Century.  Because there’s been so much done, its impossible to choose in every program at least one great work of this century.  It’s enormous, and not only for the beginning of the century, but even after the ‘60s.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been working with orchestras for many, many years.  Has the quality of the technical prowess of each orchestral member gone up in that time?

SC:    Yes.  Musicians are better prepared than they were before.

BD:    This is technically.  Are they better musically?

comissionaSC:    Maybe not, to be sincere, but they are more committed due to the fact that every chair is so important.  They know they’re not engaged just to sit on a chair.  I find more and more that even not only the great orchestras are committed.  They are interested to play, and this is the joy for everyone.  You can feel it in the hall when they are not just playing down and up and 1, 2, 3, 4.  You can feel that everyone is trying.  Every day in the rehearsal, day by day, the musician is improving now.  I am very happy that I meet sometimes musicians I knew maybe ten years ago, and they are so developed, certainly not only technically but musically.  But again it’s a matter of being individual.  You will always be finding people who are interested, and others who say,
I’m playing my notes.  What more do you want?”  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is there a difference between Europe and America about that?  I’ve heard that the musicians in Europe are perhaps a little less committed than the musicians in America.

SC:    It’s very true, depending on the country.  In Germany they have a tradition, and they are maybe too much based on this tradition and knowledge.  Some of the good orchestras look with their noses in the air at other composers who don’t belong to the German culture.  Unfortunately I had, sometimes, this reaction of musicians in front of a very good work.  They would say,
What kind of music is this?  Why are we playing this?

BD:    They feel Schubert is far better than Enescu?

SC:    Yes, but it’s difficult to tell them what to do.  You also have to play Enescu.  We also have to play Sibelius
which I agree may not be the best composeror De Falla, or Rachmaninoff.  You will never be able to have a Rachmaninoff symphony in Germany.  The piano concertos are wonderful, but orchestral music or symphonic dances they will not do.

BD:    That’s too bad.  They’re missing something, I think.  What advice do you have for young conductors coming along?

SC:    Not to commit suicide on the first day!  [Both laugh]  Seriously, it’s difficult to give advice because if it sometimes it’s so easy and sometimes it’s so difficult.  I personally believe that the normal artistic philosophy of a young musician is to take it from the very beginning.  You need to know how to take a mediocre or a bad orchestra and make it work.  To drive a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce is a joy, but if you don’t know how to fix the motor if something happened, you have to know how to put it in order.  It’s very important to be able to build up an orchestra.  I was lucky not to start to conduct Chicago Symphony or Concertgebouw as a beginner.  I conducted the Chicago Symphony only in my middle career.  I started my career with good orchestras but not great orchestras.  I didn’t know how to behave, how to handle the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  I thought that I had to work at a good orchestra, but it wasn’t in my category early on.  I learned later because I took step by step my conducting activities, learning how to handle a ‘C’ orchestra, a ‘B’ orchestra, an ‘A’ orchestra, and a great orchestra.  I had the chance to conduct some of the major orchestras, and I was not enough well prepared to do music with them.

BD:    Now you would do a different kind of job?

SC:    Absolutely, yes, but they have to trust me now!

BD:    Does it bring you satisfaction with the orchestra you have built up in Baltimore, and the orchestra that you’re building now in Vancouver?

SC:    Absolutely, yes.  Music making gives me satisfaction and joy and happiness everywhere.  When I’m touring and I’m conducting in a small place, I have the same kind of nervousness and the same habits before the concert
how to concentrate, not to eat, and to rest and not to talk over the phone the last two hours before the concert.  I have the same kind of desire to do a fine job.  Music is music anywhere, and if I’m doing this well anywhere, I’m very happy.  I hope that I may sometimes be satisfied with my music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask a balance question.  In the music that you conduct, how much is artistic achievement and how much is entertainment?

SC:    It’s a very good question.  It is all depending on the music.  Certainly, if you are doing a Romanian Rhapsody by Enescu, it’s entertainment.  When you are doing a Mahler symphony, there are other dimensions.  There I’m trying to open the minds and sincerity and the horizons and the emotions.  It is different from when you read a newspaper or a good book.  I hope that in time, more and more concert goers will come prepared to concerts by doing some reading before listening.  I had this idea
without success so farto sell little cassettes.  They want every program that I’m doing so the people who were coming and driving half an hour can already concentrating and listening to this music or hearing some explanation.

BD:    Like living program notes?

comissionaSC:    Yes.  I did it already before.  Because during the concert you cannot read at the last minute, but to have it already in this half an hour drive, you can already start to get into the mood of the concert.  That’s not a discipline.  I’m also asking the musicians to come before, especially to concentrate, to be simply with the public.  In Japan, I was very impressed last year when I conducted in a new hall, the Art Space Center in Tokyo.  Most of the public were seated half an hour before, and the stage, instead of an acoustical shell of wood, it was glass and a Japanese garden.  The people were very quiet, looking at this garden.  Then five minutes before the concert started, they close this glass so they could not see the garden anymore.  The people have this kind of concentration even before the music starts.

BD:    It sounds like a meditation.

SC:     It is a meditation.  Actually people have this quality that they can meditate, to concentrate before in a modern way.

BD:    Is conducting fun?

SC:    Great!  It is the best thing in the world.  If I’m born again, I would start conducting from beginning, avoiding the mistakes that I didn’t like. 

BD:    In this life, do you leave yourself enough time to study and to work and to rest?

SC:    I don’t like long vacations, but I like every three months to have ten days.  Then I combine studying and resting.  But I am also studying the next programs all the time.  So it’s a race with the time!  I’m on a diet of some one hundred concerts a year, which is quite a lot, plus traveling.  In every country I have to learn their music.  There was much Spanish music before, and now I do so much Canadian music.

BD:    You’re really a world-wide musical citizen! 

SC:    Yes, and I’m very happy that I learned the real landscape of music.  When I was in Baltimore I did over one hundred new American titles, and in Sweden I got a different honor for doing so much contemporary music; also in Helsinki, and I hope it continues.

BD:    Is it good for you to bring the music of a country to their people?

SC:    Being in Vancouver, it’s normal that I’m doing Canadian music.

BD:    Is that expecting too much of you, to learn to do their music for them?

SC:    Well, they expect this.  They are paying me for this!

BD:    It’s something you accept gladly?

SC:    Yes.  I’m doing in Vancouver at least five to ten new works, which is not bad.

BD:    Is new music, new music, new music, no matter where you are?

SC:    There is so much new music I cannot have time to read, so I’m relying on what my colleagues are telling me, or my assistant conductor is screaming at me to do.

BD:    But if you get a new score from a Canadian composer, is there very little difference from getting a new score from, Sweden or a new score from Spain?

SC:    I must say that generally it is different.  Everyone tries to have something to say and to use the profile of himself as a citizen of the country.  I have to tell you a funny story.  In Spain, where I’ve been Music Director for the last five years, I’m doing at least five new works and one of them is for the Queen Sofía Composition Prize, which she is giving every year.  She has her own committee and a prize.  Last year I did this work and it was not a very good work.  I didn’t choose it, but I have to conduct it every year.  It’s very prestigious and she comes to the concert.  She’s a music lover and comes quite often to the concerts.  This time she asked me
what I thought about this new work.  I was trying to be diplomatic because I didn’t like the work, so I said, Your Majesty, I have first to read the reviews tomorrow!  She laughed at that, and this year when I conducted again, she said, “Maestro, do you have to read the reviews tomorrow? and I said, No, this time it’s really good!”  [Both laugh]

BD:    I assume you encourage new works
the good and the bad — to give each one its chance?

SC:    Yes.  I did some works of Liebermann and also Lazarof
his Concerto No 1, and two works that I recorded.  [See my Interview with Lowell Liebermann.]

BD:    And in Houston you did some Tobias Picker also?

SC:    Yes, Tobias did, together with me, some wonderful things.  We did the first American music festival in Romania last year.  One week, five concerts with American music.  It was incredible that people had to learn for the first time. 

BD:    Thank you for bringing all of this music to so many places!

SC:    Thank you very much for coming.  I appreciate very, very much.  I knew about you, but you make it so natural to talk like a friendly conversation.


© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 29, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1998, and on WNUR in 2002 and 2005.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.