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Ever Upwards, Ever Outwards: José Serebrier talks to Jeremy Siepmann

March 1, 2012

José Serebrier

As befits a man of such restless aspiration, José Serebrier seems rarely to sit still. A roving ambassador for music, with more than 300 hundred recordings to his credit and over 100 published compositions, he began this year with a concert tour of China. His enthusiasm, like his sheer artistic energy, is infectious. And so it always has been. Or perhaps not quite always. However, he points out, he was never a ‘prodigy’.

‘Quite the contrary. I was a late starter by most musicians’ standards. I began studying music—violin—at the age of nine. Most professional musicians start at the age of three or four. But there was no classical music at home—not even a record player. I did hear some things on a tiny radio, though, and immediately I felt “This is incredible! This is for me!” I started to study violin—I bought my own violin with my savings—and I startled my first violin teacher when I took my first composition to him at my second or third lesson. To this day I don’t know how I did it, because I knew nothing about harmony, or counterpoint, or key signatures, or anything like that; it was pure intuition. Yet this piece, my solo violin sonata, is performed all over the world and the publication is in its 5th edition, having been recorded twice, most recently on Naxos. There are articles written about its form and method of composition, all quite incredible to me. So that’s how I began. By discovering music on my own, intuitively.’

Far from late, by contrast, was his start in conducting. To call that precocious is hardly the half of it. Sensational is more like it. Indeed probably unique: ‘I immediately began to investigate the repertoire for violin, which I loved, but I realised it was really quite limited. So I became extremely interested at the age of 11 in orchestral repertoire, but unsurprisingly, and very understandably, the National Symphony wouldn’t let me conduct them. I plainly wasn’t ready at age 11. So I decided to make my own orchestra. I asked for an appointment to see the Minister of Culture, who happened also to be a great musicologist. To my great surprise, he agreed to see me, but he explained to me there was no tradition for youth orchestras in Latin America (they didn’t yet exist; the idea of amateur ensembles was quite unknown). He did, however, give me a piece of paper allowing me to miss classes from my school, so I could go around all the schools in Montevideo, seeking out 12 to 15-year-old musicians. In about a month I had an ensemble of around 80 young players. We set to work at once, our first concert was quite memorable, to put it mildly. Though it still surprises me today, I invited the president of Uruguay and his entire cabinet to the concert. And they actually came! There’s a photograph commemorating the event. In my naiveté I thought that the orchestra should play from memory. I’d seen string quartets playing from memory and assumed it was the same with orchestras. We rehearsed for three months and they had to memorise everything we played—including the Bach Suite No 3—one of the cellists had the music for the cello part cleverly thumb-tacked to the back of the seat in front of him, which of course I couldn’t see. And then we toured for four years—not only in Uruguay but also in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. So that’s how I learned to conduct: the way babies learn to walk—by falling and regaining posture. Later, of course, I had some of the greatest teachers, but this was my beginning.’

Serebrier’s teachers and mentors—great indeed—included some of the legendary figures of the 20th century. ‘First of all, when I was 16 Bohuslav Martinů invited me to study composition with him at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which was a fantastic gesture, as a result of which I got a state department fellowship. By the time I reached Curtis, however, Martinů had left the country so I never even met him. But he was responsible, together with Aaron Copland, for bringing me to America. Copland was my first real composition teacher, and I learned a great deal from him—especially about orchestration. I’m also very much indebted to my first conducting teacher, Antal Doráti. After I graduated from Curtis (in composition), Doráti invited me to be apprentice conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. He never spoke about technique, because he actually had a very strange conducting technique. Though he was left-handed, he conducted with his right (he was self-taught ambidextrous). A very good orchestra could follow his gestures, as he was such a fantastic musician, and I learned a great deal about the tradition he inherited from his teachers, Kodály and Busch. At the same time I studied, during the summers, in Maine, with Pierre Monteux, who had a hundred students. The orchestra was made up entirely of young conductors, and of course it was a great experience to learn from all those people, but truly, the man I learned most from was not my formal teacher. It was Leopold Stokowski, who premièred my First Symphony when I was 17, and still a student at Curtis. A few years later he announced that he was forming what was to be his last orchestra, the American Symphony Orchestra, which was to be housed at Carnegie Hall. When I read of this I wrote him a telegram saying “Can I be of any help?” He answered within minutes, saying “Of course. You can be my associate conductor and you can audition the players for me.” So that was my first job with Stokowski—to audition about 500 musicians. Those five years with Stokowski were fabulous. He never directly gave me any teaching, but I learned enormously from his rehearsal technique. He was the most disciplined orchestral rehearsal conductor I ever saw. Every rehearsal was planned to the last minute. I learned from him by osmosis.

‘And last but very much not least among my mentors, I was again very lucky, when George Szell invited me to come to Cleveland as composer-in-residence (with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation), and at the same time conduct the Cleveland Philharmonic. Going from Stokowski to Szell was like taking a cold shower—a total change of approach. As with Stokowski, though, I never had a word of advice from Szell, but I learned enormously from his incredible technique and music-making. And something interesting to note here: Doráti was a cellist, Stokowski was an organist (who nevertheless understood the strings better than anyone), but Szell was a pianist, and always looked at the orchestra with a pianist’s eyes. He did most of the bowings for the string players, indicating when the bow should go down and when up, and they used to joke that Szell’s were the favourite bowings of nine out of every 10 pianists! Not being a string player, though, he had one great advantage: he never considered ease of execution—he wasn’t interested in that—but strove only to make the best possible phrasing—and his bowings were fantastic. I still use some of them today.

‘Stokowski, by contrast, didn’t use bowings at all. His theory was that the strings should play freely. He was constantly telling players to do exactly the opposite of their partners! And it worked magic. It was the secret of his incredible string sound. The reason is that when the bow goes down, normally the sound diminishes a bit. When the bow goes up, it makes a sort of crescendo. Mix both together and you get the perfect combination of volume. I thought it was a great idea. But not for everything. Stokowski, though, applied it to every piece he conducted. I’ve use it quite sparingly, to get a special effect. I sometimes ask the strings to use free bowings. The results are startling.’

Serebrier’s career as a conductor is divided broadly between two categories. Raised, traditionally, with the baton, he foreswore it for many years and directed with his hands alone. Today he commutes between the two. ‘I always used the baton in my Stokowski years, mostly to show that I wasn’t being influenced! Stokowski regarded the baton as just a piece of wood that had no expression. He preferred the hands, because they communicated expression and character, which the baton, in his view, couldn’t do. Later, I realised he was right, and to this day I think I get my best results without the baton. And even since I resumed using it, I still put it down for some slow movements which require delicate phrasing. The baton, obviously, is an extension of the arm—to make it easier for players who are far away—the brass and the timpani for example—to follow the beat. One major concern when conducting with the baton, however, is the rôle of the left hand. The worst thing a conductor can do with it is to imitate the right hand. Then the orchestra is really confused. The left hand should be used for cueing, added expression and so forth.’

Serebrier’s conversation is so natural, his story and reflections so absorbing, that even the well-intentioned interviewer is easily deflected from his brief. What brought us together, of course, was the imminent release of his two Naxos CDs devoted to the ballet music of Giuseppe Verdi. Many listeners are unaware that this category is so extensive. This has partly to do with the circumstances of its composition: ‘Verdi didn’t originally write ballet music for almost any of his operas. At one point he wondered, when he was already extremely well-known throughout the world, why popularity eluded him in France, especially in Paris. The explanation, he was told, was that he hadn’t included any ballets—an absolutely essential requirement for the production of operas in Paris. So he set to work, and in a surprisingly short span of time he added ballets to many of his operas. Only later did he take to including them from the start.

‘Verdi, obviously, was a very instinctive composer for the stage. Ballet music, once he started, came very easily to him. And most of it he wrote in an incredibly short time. In fact that was one of the problems we faced: the music was written so quickly, and the individual parts were often copied in a single day, so as not to miss the Paris deadline. Many of these were, and remain, full of errors. We spent a tremendous amount of time cleaning them up. And there were some terrific finds. Some of the music we found in the basements of various opera houses—Covent Garden, for instance—had lain undisturbed for nearly a hundred years.’

Would it be viable, I wondered, for Serebrier to compile from the wealth of music at his disposal a ‘new’, full-length, self-contained Verdi ballet? ‘Actually, one big ballet already exists, courtesy of Verdi himself: the “Four Seasons” from The Sicilian Vespers—one of the very few cases where Verdi composed a ballet as an integral part of one of his operas. And that’s almost half-an-hour long. Others which could be put together are the three “Aida” scenes, which would make a perfect ballet altogether. And there are numerous miscellaneous pieces from disparate operas that could indeed be assembled into a single self-contained ballet. Some choreographers, I believe, are actually doing that right now.’

Serebrier’s new recording presents a particular sequence of music never envisaged by Verdi. How did he arrive at his final order? Has he, in effect, already created a new, fully integrated work? ‘As it happens, after some 300 hundred recordings, I almost always leave that question for last, once we’ve already recorded and edited all the material. Only then do I decide what would make the most effective and convincing start, how that should be followed and/or developed, and what would make the most convincing conclusion (obviously this concerns only movements which haven’t already been ordered by the composer). And that’s what I did with the Verdi ballet music. And for the most part it all seemed quite obvious to me.’

And looking over his selection, is there, perhaps, one track which stands out as an especial favourite? ‘Well it may be the standard answer, but nevertheless it’s true: my favourite piece is virtually always the piece I’m conducting at that moment, or in this case recording. At that moment, there’s nothing else that counts. Of course there are certain pieces that appeal particularly to one’s own background, one’s own tastes, but still, I really cannot pick a favourite track. The whole album is my favourite at the time of making it. But if you press me, looking back over these Verdi discs, I think I would choose those three scenes from Aida, which for sheer inspiration would be hard to beat. Especially given the beautiful playing of the Bournemouth Symphony, who were just wonderful to work with. They too were truly inspired. They had a great time with the whole project. And it shows!’

But they were not alone. As always, the conductor had a great time too. His capacity for enjoyment is not the least of his many gifts.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

José Serebrier Biography & Discography

Giuseppe Verdi Biography & Discography


Previous releases by José Serebrier

José Serebrier – the Composer

José Serebrier – the Conductor


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