José Serebrier: A Conductor with panache
September 5, 2008
This is an edited version of an interview with Anne Ozorio
With more than one hundred recordings to his name, and eight Grammy nominations, José Serebrier is one of the busiest conductors around. His career has been cosmopolitan, even by the colourful standards of his profession.
“When I was 14, and still in short pants,” José Serebrier says, “I took it into my head that I would create a Festival of American Music”. This would be ambitious by any standards, but in 1949, and in Uruguay, where he was born, it almost defies imagination. To this day, the music of Edgard Varèse and Charles Ruggles is fairly avant-garde. But in his innocence, Serebrier didn’t know what he was “supposed” to do. He didn’t follow conventional wisdom and play safe. Undaunted, he conducted premieres of music that intrigued him, simply because he was fascinated by them as music. If only all conductors had such freedom!
He was so inexperienced then, that he thought orchestras played from memory. Because his orchestra—the first youth orchestra in South America—also didn’t have preconceptions, they went along with his enthusiasm. Photographs taken at the time, however, show the oboist surreptitiously following a score tucked in behind the chair of the cellist. Serebrier only realised his mistake when the President of Uruguay, a cultivated man, closely connected to the Serkin string-playing clan, congratulated them, and said “Amazing! And you all play by ear!”
Serebrier’s first real teacher was Antal Dorati, then conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. “That was a wonderful relationship”, says Serebrier, “because every Monday night we’d meet in his home and go through the programme that we had to rehearse during the week.” Dorati’s meticulous approach to preparation shaped the young apprentice conductor. “It was a fantastic learning experience because his conducting technique was most unorthodox. He was left-handed, yet conducted with his right hand. He taught himself to be ambidextrous, and could sign his name with both hands at the same time. But he was instinctively left-handed so, when he used his right hand, his gestures were awkward and could not be understood by an orchestra which was not first class. Yet what he communicated was his incredible musicianship.” He was a pupil of Kodály and of Bartók. He studied violin with Fritz Busch, so many of the bowings he knew were very unusual, dating from traditions long past.
“My next conducting teacher was Pierre Monteux, with whom I studied in the summertime. He had a conducting school in Hancock, in Maine. With Monteux, I was one of a hundred other conducting students. We all played in an orchestra—made up exclusively of budding conductors. Every 30 minutes one of us would stand up and face the rest, while Monteux would sit in the middle. Eventually, we managed to convince him to conduct, so we could criticise him like he’d criticised us. But his conducting was so revelatory, there was nothing to fault.” What was Monteux’s secret as a conductor? “First, he knew his scores exceptionally well.” Then, he had something indefinable, which Serebrier describes as “pure simplicity, created by sheer experience, something which we young conductors hadn’t accumulated”. Monteux honoured his young student by inviting him home, introducing him to music such as Chausson’s Symphony in E flat major, which remains to this day one of his favourites.
Then Serebrier went to work with Leopold Stokowski. “I never studied with him, because he never taught anyone, but I learned more from him than any of my teachers. Just by being there, and watching his rehearsal technique and the way he prepared the concerts.” Stokowski was also one of the earliest champions of the music of Charles Ives. Ives was still alive in those days, but his music wasn’t at all well known. As a boy, Serebrier had avidly studied other composers associated with Ives, such as Ruggles, but not Ives himself.
Serebrier’s first substantive contact with Ives’s music came at the age of 17 when he was at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. One day, he received a message from Houston: Stokowski said he urgently needed to speak to him. “I thought it was a joke from one of my student colleagues, because we were constantly giving each other funny messages and playing tricks, so I didn’t pay any attention. Then my violin teacher, Efrem Zimbalist, called me and in his thick Russian accent said ‘What are you doing? You don’t reply to Maestro Stokowski’s messages? He just called me!’ And I said ‘I didn’t know it was serious!’ So I called him immediately and he said in his clipped accent, ‘Cannot play Ives Four, Impossible! So instead will you permit me to play your First Symphony?’ I couldn’t believe my ears! In place of the Ives symphony! So I said ‘of course!’ And then he said, ‘Can you come next week? And bring music!’ So I said ‘yes, thank you’, and hung up. I didn’t have parts for it because I wrote it only a few months before.
“And the way he found it was just as incredible! A week or so before I’d literally bumped into a cello player. I was crossing the street and he was crossing the other way and he was in a hurry. His cello was safe because he had it on a strap, but my score fell to the ground. He said, ‘I’m so sorry! what is it?’ and opened it. ‘It’s my first symphony,’ I said. ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘I’m on my way to catch a plane to Houston. It’s my first job and I’m playing for Stokowski. Can I take it with me?’ I said, ‘Sure, I have another copy’, and off he went. But the last thing I expected was to hear from him again! But that’s another thing I learned from Stokowski. The man I met was the newest member of the orchestra and it was his first day on the job, yet when he showed the conductor my score, he actually paid attention and looked at it. What a fantastic lesson in working with an orchestra! Stokowski listened to people, to the least violinist, the least brass player, to anyone who came to him and said ‘Maestro I don’t understand your beat’ or ‘Would you look at this?’ He paid attention to anyone and respected his colleagues.
“Now this was 1957. Nearly 50 years after Ives wrote the Fourth Symphony, it was still too unusual and difficult for orchestras to play. So, after trying to rehearse the piece, at the last moment Stokowski realised he needed another world premiere to replace it with. I was just the lucky bystander! When Stokowski found out that I was only 17 that appealed even more to him. Another conductor might have been prejudiced and simply said no. But not him! He was thrilled! There were of course no orchestral parts to my symphony, so all my young colleagues at the Curtis stayed up all night copying—there were no photocopiers in those days. A few days later, the Institute bought me a plane ticket and I was off to Houston.
When I got there I had a look at the Ives Symphony—that was my first glance at it. Stokowski said, ‘Ah! we tried to play it but the orchestra could never get past the first few bars. We tried again and again!’ A few years later, he formed the American Symphony Orchestra. He was 80, I was 19, yet he invited me to be his Associate. He also attempted once more to do the Ives Fourth. He knew he would need many more than the usual four rehearsals per concert. So he got a large grant from one of the big foundations in America. For a whole month, the orchestra rehearsed it, one bar at a time. Everyone hated it because it was very difficult. So that’s when I became really interested in Ives.”
The score called for four conductors because there are so many different rhythms and speeds all at the same time. “He thought there was at least one conductor too many”, says Serebrier, “and he asked someone to reduce it to three. So the two of us, Stokowski and myself, were on podiums in front of the orchestra, while the third conductor was at the side conducting the percussion in the last movement, which is unrelated. We did a film for television which was lost for a long time. After all, this was 50 years ago. But just a few months ago, the Library of Congress found it and digitalised it. When I was conducting in Washington, DC, they were able to screen it.”
The film covers the whole symphony, and there are interviews with Stokowski and the Ives family. “It’s an incredible first”, says Serebrier, recalling events that occurred half a century ago. “Remember, Ives never heard that symphony performed. He’d only died three years before and never knew what would become of it”. Later, Stokowski found a financial sponsor to convince Columbia to record it, and a few years after that RCA approached him for a new version. “The piece is so involved that it really requires dubbed recording. But Stokowski refused and recommended me, because he’d worked with me on the first, and I knew his approach. When they came to me, I refused, too, because I had such bad memories of the months of rehearsing bar by bar. Stokowski was the pioneer, and without him having done it first, probably no one else could have done it. But studying the score again, I realised that there might be other perspectives through which to interpret the symphony. For example, although Stokowski had a fantastic sense of humour as a person, constantly making quips and doing practical jokes, as a conductor he was very solemn. Music was a serious experience! So he did Ives solemnly. So I thought that if I recorded it, I could have some fun and also introduce some of the metre changes that Ives had indicated, which Stokowski had left out. It was exciting to approach the score with ten years’ extra experience. Moreover, technology had changed. This 1974 recording was the first time that 16 tracks were used for classical music and we could get more detail.” The recording was made in London, where costs were lower. Worried by the lack of rehearsal time, Serebrier hit upon a pragmatic solution: to rehearse the symphony in sections. The orchestra agreed to a plan where each section had three hours with the conductor. On Monday from 9 to noon, the flutes went through their parts. From noon to 3pm, the oboes rehearsed, then from 3pm to 6pm the clarinets, and so on, from nine in the morning until midnight for a week, without a break. But because each sections was rehearsed in such detail, it was possible for them to learn their parts thoroughly. Serebrier did all the conducting himself but was helped by a very young British composer – no less than Simon Bainbridge! Their relationship goes back a long way.
Serebrier also worked closely with George Szell. Szell had been on the jury of the Ford Foundation American Conductors competition when James Levine and Serebrier won. Szell had about six associate conductors at the Cleveland Orchestra, so Szell hired Serebrier as composer-in-residence. “Szell was like a cold shower after Stokowski. They had completely opposite methods of working but both were equally incredible. I was lucky to be in America at a time when music-making was so vibrant. I captured the tail end of an era of giants, and my only regret is that I was too young to really learn more. When I first met Stokowski, I asked him what I should do to be a good conductor. And he said, ‘Go around the world and observe the bad conductors and learn what not to do!’ It’s true, one learns from others’ mistakes, but I learned much more from good conductors, and from sitting in thousands of rehearsals, watching what they did. Szell’s rehearsal technique was fantastic and I studied how he got results by understanding orchestra psychology. Plus, sheer force of personality, and a tremendous amount of preparation. He even knew my own compositions as well as I knew them myself. Any piece he took on, he came completely prepared for, and rehearsals were totally planned. He would rehearse a piece, and we all wondered why because we didn’t see it in the programmes for the season. Yet months later it appeared. Instead of having just that one week to rehearse, he would do things over again until they were absorbed, with chamber-like devotion”.
“Szell was a wonderful pianist, but he insisted on putting his own bowings for the orchestra strings. They were unorthodox, not the traditional sort of bowings a violinist would use, but they worked for the music. He didn’t do what was easiest for a violinist. Even the greatest string players tend to do bowings that come naturally to the right arm, down bowings, and up bow sometimes, but Szell didn’t. He did bowings purely from a musical standpoint. The members of the orchestra had a joke, that, when Szell was conducting, they used the ‘favourite bowings of nine out of every ten pianists’.”
“I remember going to the library in Cleveland and copying out many of his bowings, especially of the Dvořák symphonies, because he got such amazing effects. He made the type of points that a violinist would not do because they’re not logical ones – but they work because they are so musical. So much of this tradition is lost now. Orchestral conducting is a very special art, which involves understanding what makes the music work as a whole. I think the conductor’s most important and first task is to make music but in some places what’s more valued is becoming a member of the community, pleasing patrons and so on.” Serebrier has never been one for convention or for compromise. He has long-standing relationships with a number of different orchestras. It means he can focus with each in different aspects of the repertoire. It’s an approach that allows idiomatic specialisation. Conformity and compromise might seem to dominate the music business these days, but Serebrier’s spirit links to a more individualist tradition. It has made it possible to take on ambitious projects like Festival Miami, which he founded in 1984.
His current plans are extensive. In the pipeline is a re-release of Serebrier’s own Second Symphony with his fantasia and a piece ambitiously titled Winterreise. Also ready for release is a third collection of works by Ned Rorem, a composer whom he has worked closely with and has great regard for. Sereberier has a particular affinity for Slavic music and has spent much time studying the works of Janáček, Prokofiev and Shostakovich in detail. The conductors he learned from all subscribed to the importance of knowing a composer’s work thoroughly and in great depth. Being a composer himself also means he has insights into the process of composition, although time constraints limit what he does these days. Writing orchestral suites is a long and respected tradition – Bach was transcribed by no less than Mahler - and Serebrier has Stokowski’s transcriptions of Bach as a speciality. He has written a symphonic synthesis of Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, available on the audiophile label, Reference Recordings. Shostakovich’s opera, film and ballet work fascinate him. Serebrier sees the potential for increasing appreciation of Shostakovich’s commercial work as music: he wants to complete an orchestral suite based on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and to revise the current suite of The Nose. This sensitivity to Shostakovich’s idiom was what made his recent recording of The Golden Age so remarkable. Shostakovich was, in his time, constrained by the specific needs of ballet, and, moreover, by political pressure. Serebrier went straight back to the original score, approaching it on its own merits as music. The result is revelatory. The centenary year may be over, but this remarkable new interpretation fixes The Golden Age enduringly as part of the Shostakovich heritage.
-Anne Ozorio, MusicWeb International
José Serebrier Biography & Discography