Conductor / Composer  Stanisław  Skrowaczewski
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Stanisław Skrowaczewski retains a unique position on the international musical scene, where he is both a renowned conductor and a highly regarded composer, especially of large-scale orchestral works. Recognized as the preeminent Bruckner interpreter of his times, his interpretations have earned him the Gold Medal of the Mahler-Bruckner Society. He has also received the "Commander Order with White Star," the highest order conferred by the Polish Government, the 1973 Ditson Conductor's Award, and the 1976 Kennedy Center Friedheim Award.

Born in Lwow, Poland on October 3, 1923, Skrowaczewski began piano and violin studies at the age of four, composed his first symphonic work at seven, gave his first public piano recital at 11 and two years later played and conducted Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto. A hand injury during the war terminated his keyboard career, after which he concentrated on composing and conducting. In 1946 he became conductor of the Wroclaw (Breslau) Philharmonic, and he later served as Music Director of the Katowice Philharmonic (1949-54), Krakow Philharmonic (1954-56) and Warsaw National Orchestra (1956-59).

Skrowaczewski spent the immediate post-war years in Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger and co-founding the avant-garde group "Zodiaque". After winning the 1956 International Competition for Conductors in Rome he was invited by George Szell to make his American debut conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958. This led to engagements with the New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Symphonies and, in 1960, to his appointment as Music Director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra). Skrowaczewski has regularly conducted the major orchestras of the world as well as the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. He has made international tours with the Concertgebouw, French National, Warsaw and Hamburg orchestras, and twice toured the Philadelphia Orchestra to South America and the Cleveland Orchestra to Australia.

From 1984-91, following 19 years as Music Director of the Minneapolis Symphony, he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. With the Hallé he gave concerts throughout England, led tours to the United States, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Spain and Poland and recorded for RCA, Chandos and Pickwick/Carlton.

Beginning with his Overture 1947, which won the Szymanowski Competition in Poland, many of Skrowaczewski's works have received major international awards. Among his most recent compositions are his Symphony, premiered in 2003 by the Minnesota Orchestra, the Concerto for Orchestra, shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and his Violin Concerto, commissioned and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Earlier works performed by major European and American orchestras are the Concerto for Clarinet, Concerto for English Horn and Ricercari Notturni, recipient of a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in 1976, and at the end of 2009 his latest composition Concerto for Winds will be premiered by the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie and Bayerische Rundfunk orchestras.

Skrowaczewski's interpretations of the Bruckner symphonies have earned him the Gold Medal of the Mahler-Bruckner Society, whilst his programming of contemporary music at the Minnesota Orchestra has been acknowledged by five ASCAP awards. An extensive discography includes recordings for RCA, Philips, CBS, Denon, EMI/Angel, Mercury, Vox, Erato, Muza, Arte Nova and Oehms Classics. Many celebrated earlier recordings have been re-released on CD and his digital recordings of Shostakovich, Brahms and particularly Bruckner have received highest praise. Skrowaczewski's recordings of Bruckner's 11 symphonies and Beethoven's 9 symphonies with the Saarlændischer Rundfunk Orchestra for Arte Nova have received enormous critical acclaim, with the Bruckner receiving the Cannes 2002 Award for Best Orchestral Recording of 18th/19th Century Orchestral Work. Other recent releases include Shostakovich's First and Sixth Symphonies with the Halle Orchestra on their own label and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony with the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester Berlin, recorded live in concert in 2003.

Guest engagements now take Skrowaczewski across North and South America, Europe and Japan. Skrowaczewski is currently the Conductor Laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie (formerly Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra) and Principal Conductor of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo.

Stanisław Skrowaczewski is represented by Intermusica.

In June of 1987, I had the pleasure of spending an hour on the telephone with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.  Naturally, I asked him if my pronunciation of his last name was satisfactory, and he said it was "excellent."  So it is skroe-vah-TCHEF-skee.  I then inquired about the use of the "barred L" (ł) in his first name, and he said, "That doesn't matter, but the Polish pronunciation is stah-NEE-swaff."  I repeated it that way and he said that was perfect.  Now we know.

We also know that this man has achieved much as both conductor and composer.  He is of the generation where that combination was not unusual, and our conversation kept those two ideas together for much of the time.....

Bruce Duffie:    You are both a composer and a conductor, so are you a composer who conducts, or a conductor who composes?

Stanisław Skrowaczewski:    I cannot answer this because I started in my childhood as a composer, and this was really the greatest interest.  I played piano, I played the violin, I played chamber music a lot and I studied scores.  But I studied scores not for conducting; I studied scores for knowing the instrumentation for my composing purposes.  Only at the age of 16 or 17 I turned to conducting simply by the fact of my hurt hands and I couldn't play anymore.  I could play a little, but I couldn't make a career of this.  I was composing for orchestra and chamber music from the very beginning, not so much for piano.  The orchestra was really fascinating, and when I found that I knew all the scores of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and so forth, as a composer it was very easy for me to start to conduct.  It was almost automatic.  Also during the occupation, we had in the underground some concerts of chamber music, and sometimes we played works which include twenty to twenty-five piece orchestras, and automatically I was conducting.  It was not a new profession for me; it was coming from performing activity.  I think this is the best way to get into it, not to learn conducting with a mirror but just to play music.  As such, it is no jump, no big step into conducting.

skrowaczewskiBD:    Is this kind of a throwback to the old masters who were conductor and performer and creator and chamber musician all at the same time?

SS:    In a sense, yes!  But it just happened to me as life indicated; it was very normal.  So the question is still open, and later, when I had more conducting and I got some prizes, including this Rome Prize and I started to conduct, I didn't have time to compose.  I became purely a conductor at that time.  I stopped seriously composing for almost 15 or 16 years for two reasons.  One reason is that I was very busy as conductor.   I didn't have time, and composing always took a lot of time.  I didn't compose easily or quickly.  The second reason was that I was disgusted with my own music and I tried to change it.  Not to change because the avant-garde was going this way, but to change for myself my own language.  This required a lot of time for thinking and rethinking, and I had to be isolated from music of other composers completely.  Of course, if I was conducting all the time, this isolation was impossible.

BD:    Was this change a metamorphosis, or were you scrapping the old and starting fresh?

SS:    No, I wanted to change my language, or those bricks that language is composed of in music.  I felt that I was repeating myself all the time, and I was not happy with this; I really didn't like it.  I was always expecting that next summer I would have more time, a few months free to rethink everything, to start something new.  New was always very important for me, not because of pressures from the outside; I was somehow immune to pressures from the outside.  Maybe there was a certain arrogance or sort of a revolt against the need to be in a group of the avant-garde.  At that time, composers easily joined the avant-garde and they said, "Together we win!"  I was just the complete opposite; I was very much alone and was not interested in any avant-garde at the time.  I had my way of composing, and I would not try to get into the group to get some performances.  At that time in the festivals of contemporary music, especially in Germany, you had to belong to the group, otherwise you would not get performances.  I didn't get the performances in those places; I would get performances in normal places, though.  Anyway, this was the reason that I stopped composing completely for 15 years, or even, I would say, it was something like 17 years.  The first opportunity was the Concerto for Cor Anglais, for English Horn, which happened in a very strange way.  I had a marvelous English horn in my orchestra, the Minneapolis Symphony, Tom Stacy, who recorded it later.  He always asked me to write something for him because he said there is no literature, only the little Donizetti Concertino.  In 1969, as you may recall, was the big first strike of the Metropolitan Opera, for six months.  I was supposed to conduct the premiere of Eugene Onegin in September and October.

BD:    You were one of the casualties!

SS:    Yes.  I was the first casualty, the very first casualty.  I had suddenly five or six weeks free instead of being devoted for this opera, so I came home and said, "This is the time to write something."  So I wrote for Stacy this Concerto for English Horn.  And so this was sort of a deus ex machina event, and I started to feel again what I was lacking for all those years that I did not compose.  I was really feeling that I must now try to do both as much as I could, and be happy with the output of composition.  But it was not easy, so after the English horn piece I didn't write for four or five years.  Then it was the next commission for saxophone, again for a local man, the Ricercari notturni.  Then I realized that I would like to do something more serious, and a few chamber music things happened.  They were small, and finally the Concerto for Clarinet for my soloist, Joe Longo in the Minneapolis Symphony.  I was completely satisfied with the weight of the composition, and finally I got two nice big commissions.  One was from Philadelphia Orchestra for Concerto for Violin.  It was their anniversary and also an opportunity for their concertmaster Norman Carol, who was first my concertmaster in Minneapolis!  The other was for the tenth anniversary of the new hall in Minneapolis.  Some people commissioned a big piece which I called Concerto for Orchestra.  I was two years late with both things, and finally it happened that I finished both of them in '84.  It happened by sheer coincidence that the premieres of those two big pieces were within two weeks of each other in '85.  After that I was really very tired with composition and stopped for one year.  Now I'm writing some chamber music and one more concerto for England, but I don't have much time in this moment.  Somehow I felt exhausted as a composer after the Concerto for Orchestra and the Concerto for Violin, and I stopped for a while.  At this point composition became very important again in my life.  I wouldn't call it number two or number one, but it is just the second way of expressing myself.

BD:    Are you a better composer because you are a first-rate conductor?

SS:    I would say that I organize more, and my knowledge of instruments and orchestra certainly could have improved because I had so much experience as a conductor.  What I write is relatively easy to play.  The organization is easy, and with a very good orchestra you can have really one or two rehearsals and it goes.  It goes from the very beginning because all details are clear.  It sounds very complicated and brilliant sometimes, but it's not difficult.  I avoid things that as a conductor I would have to analyze and repeat for hours to get a certain result, which is always dubious because they forget about the next day again.  There are some difficult places in contemporary music that are never really very well performed because they are too difficult and sometimes unnecessarily.  I see many scores that would sound much easier if they would be notated in a simpler way.  The notation's very important.

BD:    So it's not a change of your artistic intent...

SS:    Oh, no, no, no, completely not.

BD:'s just a change of the way you notate it.

SS:    Absolutely.  I would recommend to some composers, really, to get to conduct, and to come to the rehearsal and to see how the poor musicians and the poor conductor is fighting the unnecessary.  Not everything unnecessary is difficult, of course.  For example, the meter is very important, but there is not a way to simplify meter always.  For example, in The Rite of Spring of Stravinsky, if you try to simplify the end it doesn't sound right; it has to be as it is!  It's not too difficult; we can do it, and to change it would be very wrong.  There may be some complications of meter, but it is not exaggerated, and what Stravinsky wrote was a must, rhythmically, for the music.  So we cannot change it.

BD:    I assume, though, that there are times when you are writing that it becomes complicated and you say that's the only way to do it; it must sound that way.

SS:    Yes!   Sure, of course.  But many contemporary scores are so terribly difficult, and even with the best opportunities of performance, they are hardly adequate because of the difficulties.  I know those scores, and I've even been fighting with these scores.

BD:    Then in some cases, just a more simple notation would achieve the same sound?

SS:    [Cautiously]  Yes.  At a certain point, the serial avant-garde in late '60s would get to the point of exaggeration, rhythmically and dynamically, that would be too much complication in the texture.  Some composers which I played during the festivals of contemporary music, I would spend, really, one hour for two measures to read it, and after we had read it and it was correct, the people remarked that it sounded the same way that it had at the beginning.  No one could get into our brain what is perfect only by looking at the score.  But as music, it was nonsense to me; it was unnecessary.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you're writing your own scores, whom do you have in mind?  Do you have the musicians, the public, yourself?

SS:    Not myself at all and not musicians.  I think of the instruments and their possibilities, eventually to risk something that is terribly difficult, but which would extend the instrument eventually.  There is absolutely no event like a concert with the public; not at all.  There is only my own excitement and pleasure in finding certain beauty, but what I call beauty doesn't have to be very beautiful.  Certain things make me hot and I am excited, and I think this is it.

skrowaczewskiBD:    So there is a white heat of composition?

SS:    Yes, which comes very seldom, and sometimes is very illusory.  The next day, the same place in the score could sound terrible, and I would throw it into the garbage can.  It happens very often, and fortunately it does because if it comes the next day, fine, but then one year later you will find even more.  And sometimes you do!  [Chuckles]

BD:    Do you go back and revise your scores?

SS:    No.  I don't have time, but I am one of those composers that would love to revise everything.  If I'm conducting my own pieces, which is very seldom, it is the reason that I always use the score.  In my mind there is already something better, and if I don't follow the score I can mix up the orchestra.

BD:    You say you very rarely conduct your own works.  Is this by design?

SS:    I never liked it because the double exposure is unnecessary, especially in the places when I'm guest conducting for one or two concerts.  If I'm conducting more, sometimes I will consent if this is connected with the soloist, for example my concerti for violin or clarinet or English horn.  If they ask me to do it, I would eventually do it.  I prefer if somebody else does it, but eventually I do it because the soloist of the orchestra is a great soloist, and I have friends in the orchestra and this is fun for them and for me.  So I do it, but I don't like it.  Also, by principle, when I am permanent conductor or music director in a place, I don't do it.  I find it not proper, but eventually I can do it after many years.  For example, my first thing in Minneapolis was the Symphony for Strings, which I played after something like eight years of being music director.  They asked me and I had pressure.  They said to me, "Why don't you play something of your own?  Doráti played something of his every year."  [See my Interview with Antal Doráti.]  I said, "I don't feel like that."  I think this a conflict of interest if you are permanent there.  Like now, with the Hallé Orchestra, I don't play my things there, and I will not let a guest conductor play my things because it is too obvious that somebody was engaged to play my piece.  Even if that is not the case, the public will think like that.

BD:    It seems like you're bending over backwards to make sure to keep yourself out of this kind of conflict.

SS:    Yes!  I find it absolutely the proper thing to do.

BD:    When other people are conducting your works, are you one of these who will go up and make suggestions?

SS:    Never.  If they ask me for suggestions, I say, "Listen."  If they ask me because they don't understand a place in the score, of course then I will explain.  But if they ask me to suggest something, I say, "Please do whatever you like.  You have everything in the score, and if you change something, you are welcome to do it."  By the way, the Louisville record with John Nelson, I think is very good example.  He did it very well, I would say almost better than I could do myself because he added something personal of himself, of his understanding of the piece.  [See my Interview with John Nelson.]

BD:    It's very rare to find a composer willing to let other people tamper with that score!

SS:    Why not?  It's not tampering.  If somebody starts to tamper, then I say, "No.  There's no reason because it's written like that."  But finally, I'm not in those places.  I will not go, I will never go.  If somebody tells me, "Your work is being done in Paris or London.  Can you come?" I would say, "No, why should I come?"  I don't like it.

BD:    [With genuine surprise]  Really???

SS:    Unless by coincidence I am there, of course I will come.

BD:    Even for a premiere?  You won't travel for a premiere?

SS:    [Thinks for a moment]  Uhhhhmm...  Well, sometimes it happens that I cannot because of the schedule.  So I'm not there; I can hear the tape.  Some records I did myself, but I never talked to John Nelson.  He asked me for suggestions, and I said, "No, you go ahead."  I didn't go there for the recording; I got a pressing when it was finished.  I think this is quite normal; maybe it's not normal, but my own feeling is that I am very strong.

BD:    Coming back to the idea of whom you envision, when you're writing a concerto, are you writing for that specific player, or are you writing it for the ideal performer on that instrument?

SS:    In a sense for the player.  In this case I had a very close relationship with those players, and I knew their tone, technique, possibilities.  In the case of the English horn, I would bring some excerpts, some sketches, and ask him for extension of possibilities.  I brought him some things that were unplayable, and he would find out that they eventually could be played.  So I was working with him.  With the violin, which I know even better, I didn't consult him.  I brought him completed portions and he looked and suggested certain things as far as fingering.  I said, "You do what you like with this."  It was the same with the saxophone.  Again I worked with the player.  The saxophone is a strange beast because the commission was for a quartet of saxophones.  I'm not too fond of saxophones at all, so I said a quartet is not for me.  But then they insisted, and I said I would write for one player, especially since I knew the player who was very good, very musical.  They asked, "Could you use three instruments in one piece," in this case soprano, alto, and baritone?  Those three instruments change the characteristics of tone very much, especially the low notes of baritone are marvelous and the upper register of the soprano is very peculiar, and the alto saxophone is the most used because it has a very wide range.  I told them it was a great challenge and I would try.  I worked with the player on all three instruments, especially with alto.  It was a certain risk to write a concerto which is quite difficult to perform because not all saxophone players use three instruments.  A very few would do it.  This is a new situation since there's no literature like that.  It would be like a concerto for violin and viola for one player.  Pinchas Zukerman would do it but who else could do both as well.

BD:    Even Zukerman could not do one for violin, viola and cello all in one piece.

SS:    No, not with the cello!  [Bursts out laughing]  It gives me idea for Zukerman...  I have to propose to him something like that!  [Both laugh heartily]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you a philosophical question.  What is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

SS:    [Ponders for a moment]  I wouldn't say there's any purpose of music; there's no purpose in life!  If you think about music inside the whole complex of art, it is originated as expression of the human mind to seek something that I call metaphysical, outside of the world, something that is beyond our range of our mind.  This is the art.  This is what makes the whole expression, and as such it has impressed listeners and excited them.  It gave the listener this sort of metaphysical feeling and extended the quality of life.  What society does with this, why society accepts that this is something positive that we are lacking more and more with technology and with everything, is why we try to cultivate it.  [Pauses]  I don't know if I answered your question...

BD:    You're getting toward it.  I'm also looking at the question of balance between artistic achievement and entertainment value in music.

skrwoczewskiSS:    Entertainment is something very different.  Personally, I cannot mix the art with entertainment.  Certain art certainly is, and produces, entertainment with all the great possibility of being very refined to quite vulgar.  Art is something that is not entertainment as such; it is a desire to go beyond ourselves to touch infinity, to touch the cosmos and all that produced our curiosity in the universe.  In science this is the same.  Now if you use this for simply entertainment, to get a pleasant moment, certainly any art will have very beautiful things.  If you touch the beauty, you can feel better and you can entertain yourself.  For example, with poetry you can have a very nice, but not profound verse that is quite intelligent, and you will smile and say, "Oh, how clever, how wonderful."  You will enjoy a rhyme and everything.  It is the same with music!  With sounds that are cleverly put together and connected with a good performance, with singing, with dancing or something like that, you can have very pleasant positive feelings  To me, it is something that is quite different from the gist of the art.  A part of the art can be for this, but I don't think it is the real point of the whole wonderful development of music or painting.  There is incredible development and depth in 19th century music.  It is not because people just needed to be entertained.  This was certainly expression of the deepest human desire to know something about ourselves, about our life, about God and religion, anything connected with philosophy and with all the ideas about our universe.

BD:    When composing your pieces, do you write this uplifting quality into the music?

SS:    [Ponders again for a moment]  How to say?  From my childhood, I was terribly impressed by the arts to the point that I was getting sick when I listened a great symphony of Bruckner or Beethoven.  I was getting sick, completely sick, with temperature and everything.  It was like an earthquake to me, and I'm still impressed to the point of absolutely of crying with great music that touches me.  At the same time, you realize that if something happens to somebody, this somebody is getting spoiled.  So I cannot accept very easily things that are superficial or just clever and without message.  I call them the other things.  So as a composer, my big problem is that I will not accept things that I will judge immediately as just superficial because they don't satisfy me.  I write very slowly, and I am very disgusted the next day or a week later.  I am throwing much into the basket.  I am writing very little, really, and am still being very dissatisfied with things that I wrote!  I am seeking something permanent, and very few things, maybe just sections of my works, give me a certain pleasure and satisfaction.  Many things dissatisfy me now.  Not everything, but I wonder how to create a work for myself that I would feel as satisfied, as moved, as I am with the great music of the past...  or not necessarily the past!  Some things from the present impress me very much; not many things, but certain things do.   This is the problem!

BD:    So then you do expect your music to last for many, many years?

SS:    The lasting I don't think of because that depends on circumstances.  I don't know what will happen with all of us and with the world, but at least the music that we call great stays and lasts.  It rejuvenates us now, obviously, or you wouldn't have those crowds in the halls and people excited about it.  If I'm writing, I'm not thinking of how long it will last; I'm thinking just of heeding the feeling for myself, that this is something worthy to stay.

BD:    Is it the public that will say it will remain, or is it the musicians or the critics?

SS:    Obviously the public, the musical world is the factor that will say if it will stay or not!  I cannot help!

BD:    Is the public always right in its decision?

SS:    No!  By "public," I'm not speaking about the public in a concert, because there are very different publics.  Even in one city, you have a different public at 2:00 in the afternoon or on a Saturday evening or Tuesday and so forth.  And within the public, you have always a group of people that know more, and have special feelings, positive or negative, about something.  I'm speaking about a musical community including the public, critics, musicians, performers, colleagues and everything.  This is important.  They will decide if certain things will die or last, or be discovered later as something interesting.  We cannot help!  We can only write, and as such, I tell you frankly I am really only thinking of my own satisfaction, if my own criticism will say, "All right, this is something."

BD:    Are you always right in your assessment?

SS:    Oh, no!  What I mean by right I mean for myself.  I'll accept it and I'll be happy that I did it.  If the next day somebody would say, "This is ridiculous.  It is nothing," that's too bad.  I cannot say it is right for this community; I can only say it is right for me!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us move on to a little different topic.  You've conducted many operas, have you not?

SS:    Very little.  I love opera, but I love only very few operas.  I never conducted Italian opera, and I will not.  They don't interest me very much.

skrowaczewskiBD:    What are the ones that do interest you?

SS:    Mozart, Beethoven,Wagner, and also some Russian operas of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and contemporary operas that happen to interest me.

BD:    Have you written any operas?

SS:    [Firmly]  No!  [Almost immediately reconsiders]  Well, yes.  I've written one, but it was very bad and I threw it away.

BD:    Could you salvage anything out of it?

SS:    No.  It was just sort of a very strange period of time, and I was under certain pressure to write this, and then I completely discarded it.

BD:    Would you write another opera?

SS:    Yes, I would like to very much.  I love the human voice and I was always writing very well for voice.  In the beginning I wrote plenty of songs with piano or orchestra, and I loved certain expressions in adaptation of the poetry.  The human voice always was very close to me, and I felt very well with this.  From this point of view I wouldn't have any surprises, because I have experience.  My songs were very well accepted by the performers.  As to writing an opera, the problem is the libretto.  It must be something that really forces you to sit down and say, "Yes, I must write this.  This is something that really is very important to me," which I was trying to find.  Maybe I didn't try too hard to find something, since I had other things to do.  Also, it is such a colossal work that I would have really to get a full year sabbatical from conducting to do something like that, which is very hard technically and financially.  I would say also humanly, because it involves managers, it involves orchestras that you are with, and it's very hard to stop.  So for the moment it is not something that I'm trying to do, but eventually I would like to.  But I must find something that really has a crushing force on me that I feel I have to do.

BD:    Is this true of all the music that you write, to make sure that it has this crushing impetus for you before you even start?

SS:    It was always origin of the need for composition, a certain feeling, certain mood, atmosphere, and so on.

BD:    When you get commissions, how do you decide which ones you will say yes and which you will say no?

SS:    The commissions sometimes are interesting by subject.  Take, for example, a commission for an instrument like violin or clarinet.  If you know somebody for that situation, it's something that's very exciting to write.  Then you can always put something in such concertos that is purely musical but not just for instrument!  The commissions are sometimes inspiring and sometimes not.  I had a commission to write a piano concerto, and another one for two pianos and orchestra.  I didn't take it for the moment, and I don't think I will take it because I don't feel like it in this moment.  Somehow it doesn't sound to me.

BD:    Perhaps three or four years from now it will?

SS:    It could, of course!  There are so many changes in life and changes of the sort of feeling one needs.  Maybe I will find something that's fascinating to me in this context, so piano or two pianos and orchestra is possible.

BD:    What advice you have for a young composer coming along today?

SS:    I don't have any advice, because they have, with technology, enormous possibilities of knowing what is going on in the world with and all the musicological research and trends in the last twenty years.  They all have the possibility to choose something to express themselves.  I don't think they need advice and leadership.  If they are true composers, born composers, they will find out their own way of expression, because they have all this.  Even fifty years ago you could hear something, but there were no records of contemporary music.  There were some festivals, but you had to go, to travel to hear a work just once.  For a certain new work you might get the score printed, but they had very few things.  There were works of the past years, but not contemporary.  Now you have a festival in Amsterdam or Berlin, and the next day you can have a tape!  So you are au courant of everything, which is terrifying, also [laughs] because the choice becomes a bombardment of many things.

BD:    At what point does the mountain of material become overwhelming?

SS:    It can be overwhelming, of course, but if you have strong personality it helps you to get your own direction.  Maybe young composers just don't care about the past too much.  They know a little of this or that; they know maybe some chamber music.  There were some examples in some festivals by very famous composers, but maybe on principle they just were shunning the past.  Or they didn't know about it, and a few weeks later they were discovering the past to their amazement.  There was some good music written before them.  Maybe it's not that way at this moment, but it was like that twenty years ago with the avant-garde composers.

skrowaczewskiBD:    What advice do you have for the young conductors coming along today?

SS:    Definitely I have something that seems to me very important.  Maybe it's my own way, but it seems to me so natural.  I see many conductors that hardly play an instrument.  They do not perform.  They listen to records and they study musicology, and they go to the orchestra and start to beat.  My advice is to be a performer of any instrument.  It can be piano, violin, organ, percussion, oboe, cello, anything.  And to play chamber music.  If the group needs advice, conduct from your seat.  Say, "No, no, no, it should be like that.  Now let's repeat it."  Something like that, but to play music is very important.  Otherwise, I feel young conductors beat in the air and do not have much rapport with the music.  They are theoretically prepared, but few know the score to the point that they should know.  I used to go to Tanglewood and eventually taught some courses in Europe and the Los Angeles Institute, and very often conductors were coming
even some that had been with good orchestras for a year or two or threeand when it came to interpretation or texture, I'd ask, "You see this chord?  Do you know which instruments play this chord?" and they would not know.

BD:    [Genuinely shocked]  Oh dear!

SS:    This happened very often.  Recently I went with Juilliard's orchestra to Japan and China, and in Tokyo and Osaka and in Shanghai I had master courses for young conductors with their own orchestras.  They had been studying three or four years already, and they did very well manually.  They knew very well about subito pianissimo and entrances; everything was marked and for what they played for me they were very well prepared.  They had studied for many weeks.  But when they played something like Brahms' 2nd Symphony, I would ask, "Could you tell me the very first solo with horns and bassoons in the repeat in the ninth measure, who plays what?"  They would not know.  The knowledge of the score is very seldom adequate, but it is also because they don't play.  If they would play in the orchestra, they would get interested about the score and the instruments, and how they are used by Brahms and Beethoven, and how Mahler and Bruckner and Strauss composed.  They would get much more contact with the score when they start to conduct rather than just the music from records and from concerts.

BD:    So then it's the composite knowledge of all of these details that makes up the needed knowledge?

SS:    Yes, because if something's not right, you need to say, "The second horn is too sharp."  You have to say it.  Otherwise it remains not very good, and you have to play it once more without improvement!

BD:    With your experience of both new composers and new conductors, are you optimistic about the future of music?

SS:    The future of music as art does not depend only on the quality of composers or conductors.  It depends on the development of humanity
what will happen with us and how that will go; what will happen in the new brave world and how it will look.  Of course if you have very serious, devoted musicians and composers, exciting conductors and performers, certainly they help attract and impress people to continue to come to the concerts, to maintain the orchestras and the associations.  This is very positive, certainly, and from this point of view our education is progressing very well.  Maybe it is even too fast, as I said for young conductors.  The young musician has really the opportunity to get knowledge, to get experience in a way that a few years ago was impossible.  Now there are all the exchanges, all the possibilities of travel and contacts.

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BD:    What is next on the calendar for Stanisław Skrowaczewski?

skrowaczewskiSS:    Many things; some very exciting things next season and a few things in the summer that are pleasant.  I would say all pleasant things because I don't take things that are not pleasant.  Why should I?  Why should I go and conduct in a place that is not very high artistically or very interesting?  If I am asked to do something that doesn't interest me, then I don't go!  I am always connected with programs of quality, and with music that I like to do.  It doesn't need to be just the greatest orchestra in the world.  I find some smaller ensembles here and there very satisfying with their music-making.

BD:    What about compositionally?

SS:    I have two commissions; nothing great like an opera, but chamber music mostly that is interesting to me enough to write something.  It is not something that I would think is the work of my life in this moment, but I'm thinking of the future to write something.  Maybe it will be the opera or another big orchestral work like a symphony.  I would like to bring certain things that all my life I was trying to express but somehow they were escaping.

BD:    To make that your life's statement, then?

SS:    Everything is a statement of the life.  One always hopes that the next time you can gather those elements more intelligently somehow, to engender an interesting form that would create a better work.

BD:    Do you work on more than one composition at a time, or do you concentrate just on a single work?

SS:    When I did the Violin Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra, I was working at the same time, but they were two completely different pieces.  It helps sometimes, because when I am stuck with one piece for a moment, I start the other one.  Then I come back to the first thing and somehow it goes after a while.  So it is more convenient, but I don't have special methods for one or two; rather it is a question of time.

BD:    I hope that we get a lot more things from your pen, and of course lots more performances from your baton!

SS:    [Delighted and flattered]  Well, thank you.

BD:    It's fascinating speaking with someone who has made such a significant mark in both areas.

SS:    Well, I don't know if I did.  This is my life and I am getting excited about certain things.  I am very critical and sometimes I am a little happy; very seldom, but momentarily.  [Laughs]

BD:    Thank you for spending the time with me this evening.

SS:    It was so nice.  Thank you for calling me for this.  It was very pleasant.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 27, 1987.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1988, 1993, and 1998.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in hte Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

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.