The Polish-born conductor and composer Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who led the Minnesota Orchestra for nearly two decades and worked with that symphony for well over 50 years in total, died Tuesday at age 93.
His death was announced this afternoon by his management company and the Minnesota Orchestra, which confirmed that he died at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, near Minneapolis. He had suffered an initial stroke in November and another one earlier this month.
Born October 2, 1923, in Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), Skrowaczewski began studying piano and violin at age 4; by age 7, he had composed his first work for orchestra. In the 1990s, two of his own compositions, Passacaglia Immaginaria and his Concerto for Orchestra, were short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.
Skrowaczewski was a child of both the Soviet occupation of 1939-41 and World War II; when he was young, he dreamed of being a concert pianist, but his hopes were ruined when he injured his hand in a Nazi bombardment of his neighborhood.
After the war ended, Skrowaczewski moved to the city of Krakow, where he became involved in Polish contemporary music; he collaborated with two of the most prominent Polish conductors of the 20th century: Andrzej Panufnik and Witold Lutoslawski. (He later conducted the American premiere of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra.) In the 1950s, Skrowaczewski moved through the ranks of Poland's regional orchestras, and in 1956 he became the permanent conductor of Warsaw's National Philharmonic Orchestra.
His career began to open up internationally after he won the Santa Cecilia Competition in Rome in 1956, which led to an invitation from conductor George Szell to come conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958. Soon, Skrowaczewski was leaving his native country regularly to work abroad.
But the turning point of his life came in 1959, when he was 36 years old. He and his wife Krystyna (who died in 2011) were already under close watch by the authorities, and they fled communist Poland to remake their lives in the Upper Midwest.
He accepted the position of music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, now known as the Minnesota Orchestra. He held that title for 19 years — a tenure only equaled by the symphony's founding music director, Emil Oberhoffer.
While he also served as a regular guest conductor at orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and as principal conductor of England's Hallé Orchestra from 1984 to 1991, and as principal conductor of Japan's Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra beginning in 2007, it was his beloved Minnesota which formed the heart of his career, and the place he called home.
After his music directorship with the Minnesota Orchestra concluded in 1979, he returned every year to lead the orchestra as conductor laureate. In all, he had a 56-year relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra, which encompassed growing the group from a part-time symphony into a year-round ensemble; leading the charge to build the orchestra a new and acoustically brilliant concert hall, which opened in 1974; making recordings for labels like Mercury Living Presence and Columbia Masterworks; and taking his musicians from being a very good regional orchestra into being a national powerhouse.
And he came very publicly to the side of the Minnesota musicians when they were going through a very public — and ugly — battle with management beginning in 2012 that led to a 15-month lockout. It was Skrowaczewski who conducted the players in an independently organized concert at Minneapolis' convention center in October 2012. As MinnPost columnist Pamela Espeland wrote when that concert was announced:
"The news that Skrowaczewski will lead the Oct. 18 concert is loaded with symbolism. The 89-year-old conductor laureate was here in mid-June for the triumphant season finale concerts, leading Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-minor. Host Brian Newhouse reminded us that the Bach was the first piece the orchestra played when Orchestra Hall opened in 1974. Skrowaczewski was 51 then, and the new hall was his dream. That the maestro is now siding with the musicians while his hall is being rebuilt cannot be ignored. Also, Oct. 18 was the original opening night for the 2012-13 season, one of several concerts canceled by management. That the show will go on under Skrowaczewski's baton turns up the heat."
As a conductor, he was a champion of new music and had a special affinity for the music of Anton Bruckner. His last performance with the Minnesota Orchestra was last October, the same month he turned 93; fittingly, he led a performance of Bruckner's massively scaled and sprawling Symphony No. 8.