During his long and highly distinguished career, Stanisław Skrowaczewski commanded a rare position on the musical scene worldwide as both a renowned conductor and highly regarded composer. Skrowaczewski conducted the world’s major orchestras and collaborated with some of the musical giants of the 20th century, including Shostakovich, Lutosławski, Penderecki and Andrzej Panufnik. Revered in particular for his interpretations of his “beloved” Bruckner, Skrowaczewski’s last concerts were in October 2016 when, on the occasion of his 93rd birthday, he conducted memorable performances of Bruckner Symphony No.8 with the Minnesota Orchestra, where he was Music Director for 19 years. He matched Leopold Stokowski in years of public performance and, in October 2015, he became the oldest conductor ever to perform at London’s Royal Festival Hall, in Bruckner Symphony No.5 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance was released on the LPO label in 2016, one of Skrowaczewski’s last recordings.
Born in 1923 in Lwów, Poland, 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 Third 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 Wrocław (Breslau) Philharmonic, and he later served as Music Director of the Katowice Philharmonic (1949-54), Cracow Philharmonic (1954-6) and permanent conductor of the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra (1956-9).
Skrowaczewski spent the immediate post-war years in Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger and co-founding the avant-garde organization, Groupe Zodiaque. In 1948 he conducted the Paris premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. 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 amongst others and, in 1960, to his appointment as Music Director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra), a position that he held for 19 years. During the 1960s he made his debuts with the Royal Concertgebouw, London Symphony, Philadelphia, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras, as well as with the Vienna State Opera and Metropolitan Opera (New York). In particular, he became a regular guest-conductor of the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras and the Berliner Philharmoniker where he returned in 2011.
From 1984 to 1991 Skrowaczewski was Principal Conductor of The Hallé with whom he gave concerts across England, Europe and the USA and recorded extensively. In 2007 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra for three highly successful seasons, during which time many of his performances were recorded live for Columbia Records, and he subsequently held the title of Honorary Conductor Laureate, conducting them every season. In addition, Skrowaczewski held the title of Conductor Laureate at the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in Saarbrücken and the Minnesota Orchestra, conducting both orchestras every season. He had a continuous working relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra that spanned 56 years.
Guest engagements took Skrowaczewski across North and South America, Europe and Japan. Highlights of recent seasons included concerts with the London Philharmonic (LPO), Berliner Philharmoniker, Berlin Radio Symphony, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Basel Symphony, Bergen Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony orchestras, The Hallé and the Bruckner Orchester Linz with whom he conducted a historical performance of Bruckner Symphony No.8 in St Florian Cathedral in July 2015. He made a memorable return to the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. In October 2016, he conducted a historic performance of Bruckner Symphony No.8 with the Minnesota Orchestra, the last piece he conducted there as Music Director. He became the oldest conductor ever to conduct at the Royal Festival Hall in October 2015, conducting and recording Bruckner Symphony No.5 with the LPO.
An active composer, Skrowaczewski’s works have recently been performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Bruckner Orchester Linz, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony and Minnesota orchestras. His Concerto for Orchestra (1985) and Passacaglia Immaginaria (1995) were both nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Earlier award-winning compositions include Overture 1947, which won the Karol Szymanowski Competition in Warsaw, and Ricercari notturni (1977), which received the first Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. Music for Winds (2009) was commissioned by a consortium of nine orchestras from the USA, Germany, Austria and Japan. Recordings of Skrowaczewski’s music are found on Oehms Classics, Reference Recordings, Albany Records and Innova.
The recipient of numerous accolades, Skrowaczewski was awarded the Knight’s Cross of Polonia Restituta, one of Poland’s highest decorations, and had six Honorary Doctorates, awarded most recently by the universities of Minnesota and Wrocław, the New England Conservatory of Music and the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice. Skrowaczewski’s interpretations of Bruckner earned him the Bruckner Society of America’s Kilenyi Medal of Honor and the Gold Medal of the MahlerBruckner Society, and his programming of contemporary music at the Minnesota Orchestra was acknowledged with five ASCAP Awards and the Ditson Conductor’s Award, bestowed by Columbia University, New York. He was the recipient of the 2004 McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist Award, one of Minnesota’s highest cultural recognitions. In 2013 the University of Minnesota established the Stanisław Skrowaczewski Endowment in Conducting in honour of his remarkable contributions to music and to Minnesota.
Of particular note within his extensive discography are Skrowaczewski’s complete recordings of Bruckner’s and Beethoven’s symphonies with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra (now Deutsche Radio Philharmonie) for Arte Nova Classics (now Oehms Classics), which received enormous critical acclaim. Latest recordings include Bruckner Symphony Nos 3, 5 and 7 with the LPO and his final recording released was a live recording of Bruckner Symphony No.8 with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra.
A comprehensive account of Skrowaczewski’s life and work can be found in Seeking the Infinite: The Musical Life of Stanisław Skrowaczewski (2011), by Frederick Harris, Jr.
Text and images courtesy of intermusica.co.uk