Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: A Personal Reminiscence
By William Schrickel
Stan Skrowaczewski was my first boss. He hired me to join the Minnesota Orchestra on November 27, 1975. Thanksgiving Day. My parents had driven me and my bass from suburban Chicago up to Minneapolis (actually, the Holiday Inn in at 35-W and Cleveland Avenue in Roseville) the previous day, and they dropped me off downtown at Orchestra Hall that morning around 9:30 AM. They then went and checked in to the Holiday Inn a block south of the hall. (It’s the Millennium now.) All the auditions were being held on one day, and 57 players showed up. I played the first round on the stage around 10:30 in the morning and was subsequently informed that I was being passed into the next round, along with 8 other players. I called Mom and Dad and told them that they wouldn’t hear from me again that day until I was either eliminated from the audition or won it.
I was twenty years old and three months into my junior year of college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I had been playing bass a little over seven years, but was lucky enough to have been studying with one of the world’s great bassists, Joseph Guastafeste, (Principal Bass of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1961 until his retirement in 2011) for the last five of those years.
I played three more times that day. The orchestra’s Music Director, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (I didn’t have the courage to address him in any way other than “Mr. Skrowaczewski” until a good ten years after he stepped down from being the Orchestra’s Music Director), drove in from Wayzata and joined the members of the audition committee for the final round, when it had been narrowed down to me and one other player. At 5:45 PM, I was told that I had won the audition. I was hustled upstairs by the personnel manager, and I signed a contract to join the Minnesota Orchestra bass section. (Minimum scale, of course!) My entire universe shifted in that moment. My bass and I floated down the sidewalk to the Holiday Inn. I knocked on the door to my parents’ room. They had been waiting there all day and evening with some friends from Minneapolis. My mother opened the door: “Mom,” I said, “I won!!”
Years later, I found out that there had been a good deal of discussion after the final round about whether or not I should be awarded the job. Some of the committee members were reluctant to name a 20-year-old student to become a member of the orchestra. But the Maestro had the final say, and he chose me. I started the following September, and my first subscription concert was a typical Skrowaczewski program: Brahms’ Haydn Variations, Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, and the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. Surrounded by better musicians
than I’d ever performed with, and with one of the world’s finest conductors on the podium, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!
I played three seasons with Stan as Music Director. (Among ourselves, the musicians affectionately, but never to his face, referred to him as “Skrovy.”) I realize in retrospect how much the man and his music-making became part of me and my approach to playing and conducting during those years of performing with him for fourteen or fifteen weeks a season. He was meticulous in his preparation. Never did he seem to be unsure of what he wanted to achieve in a rehearsal. It was clear that when we finished a rehearsal on Tuesday afternoon at 3:30, he went home and continued to rethink his interpretive ideas, and on Wednesday morning he had something new and important to add to what we’d done the previous day. He was a fantastic accompanist. He obviously had strong ideas of his own about everything he conducted, but he was gracious in working with soloists, and flexible in adapting to their ideas and requests. He conducted a ton of new music, not just new works by a small circle of his composer friends. And he conducted Beethoven and especially Bruckner as if the composer were whispering in his ear, guiding him the entire time. His concerts tended to be on the long side, often lasting more that two hours and fifteen minutes. We worked hard with him, and he approached making music as if it were a spiritual quest. All conductors have egos, and the best have huge ones, but Stan never aggrandized his own ego or lorded it over what he believed to be the composer’s intentions. Musical selfishness simply was not part of the man’s personality.
I mentioned earlier his Bruckner performances. I believe I played all ten Bruckner symphonies under his baton over the years, some at key moments in his and the orchestra’s histories. Bruckner 8 was the last piece he led as Music Director in 1979, and it was the final work he led in Orchestra Hall in October of 2016, his last appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra. In April of 2013, in the midst of the horrendous 16-month-long lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians (which Skrowaczewski had immediately and vehemently protested), he led a soul-searing account of the Bruckner Fourth. To be honest, as much as I love the music of Bruckner, and as much as I look forward to conducting some of his symphonies down the road, I really don’t care if I ever perform them on the bass again with any other conductor. Additional performances might be interesting, and maybe even excellent, but I feel positive that none will be better or deeper than those that I played with Stan. Re: Playing Bruckner—I have been to the mountaintop.
Stan had a reputation of being courtly and slightly formal in his personal interactions, and while I saw that side of him from time to time in his dealings with well-wishers and strangers whom he was meeting for the first time, I have
to say that he was unfailingly warm with me and the other orchestra members when he returned to the Orchestra Hall podium over the years. He was always complimentary to me, both about my bass playing and conducting, and he was generous enough to come and hear me and the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra when we performed his Overture 1947 a few years ago. He also came to hear a performance of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale that I conducted at Sundin Hall at Hamline University. (That’s where the backstage photo of the two of us that is printed in this program was taken.) The Stravinsky is difficult to conduct, and often shows up on conductor auditions, and I was so glad that I didn’t know ahead of time that Stan was in the audience! As always, he was kind and encouraging. I know that he also supported the work of myriad composers, conductors and instrumentalists throughout his career.
For years, I had asked Stan if he’d consider writing a bass concerto for me. Sadly, that never came to pass. He always had several compositional “irons in the fire,” and he was guest conducting around the USA and in Europe and Japan even into his nineties. So, I don’t have a piece written by him for me to perform. But what I do have is a wealth of memories of Stan, both musical and personal, that I return to literally every day as I continue playing and conducting. The portrait of Stan in the turtleneck printed on the front of this program is a shot I took of him in the conductor’s studio at Orchestra Hall between rehearsals a few years ago. I brought my camera, one light, and my turtleneck for him to wear, and we did the session in about ten minutes. I photographed him the way Robert Freeman shot the Beatles in 1963 for their With the Beatles album. My favorite picture of him from that afternoon is one where I made him laugh out loud and got a huge grin, but he preferred this more serious one, which he chose to use on the back cover of his biography (Fred Harris’ excellent Seeking the Infinite) as well as on the cover of the 28-CD collection of his recordings on the OehmsClassics label that was released in celebration of his ninetieth birthday. It feels like a gaping hole in my musical life that I don’t get to play under Stan’s direction any more. But I’m so happy that I got to do so for forty years. I lucked out—my first boss was my best.