INTERVIEW WITH JOSE SEREBRIER, BY ROBERT REILLY
Jose Serebrier is one the premier conductors today. He burst on the
scene at very young age as a protégée of Leopold Stokowski,
who proclaimed him "the greatest master of orchestral balance."
Jose Serebrier was 19 at the time. Born in Uruguay of Russian and Polish
parents, Serebrier started composing music at the age of nine, shortly
after he had begun with his first instrument, the violin. However, his
renown as a conductor has eclipsed his reputation as a composer. Fortunately,
more of his music has become available recently. Reference Recordings
(RR-90CD) has issued a stunning recording of Serebrier's Partita (Second
Symphony) with the LPO, Fantasia, and other works. In the May issue of
Crisis, I reviewed the highly successful Naxos CD (8.559183) of his new
Third Symphony, accompanied by other works for strings. Serebrier conducts
on both CDs. Reference Records also offers examples of Serebrier's conducting
prowess with two marvelous double CDs of music by Leos Janacek (RR-2103)
and George Chadwick (RR-2104).
On July 9th, Serebrier came to Washington to conduct Beethoven's 9th
Symphony and other works with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolftrap,
which gave me the opportunity of renewing our acquaintance and seeing
him perform. The next day, we met to discuss his music, style of conducting,
and the contemporary music scene.
BOB REILLY: There's a tradition of conductors who compose, like
Wilhelm Furtwangler. Do you consider yourself in that tradition or, first,
as a composer who conducts?
JOSE SEREBRIER : I was very flattered when a very important music
critic on a music website, Classicstoday.com, Dave Hurwitz, wrote a review
of my Third Symphony (NAXOS CD). It said that I am a composer who conducts,
not a conductor who composes. Even though I may not agree entirely, I
was very flattered that he said it.
BOB: Early in your career, music critic Alfred Frankenstein said
you were "the logical successor to the crown of Villa-Lobos and the
South American to watch." Since then, you have added more than one
hundred opus numbers. However, Heitor Villa Lobos wrote thousands of works.
Do you regret that you didn't follow, not his style, which you don't have
any relation to, but his path? Were you stopped by the tenor of the times
from composing more?
JOSE: I'm sure.
BOB: What was it about the times? Was it the domination of the
JOSE: That, and my heart wasn't really in that kind of purely
intellectual music, which was the tendency of the times. I always felt
that the composer had to communicate. They didn't write for themselves,
or their colleagues, but for the public. But during the period I was composing
in earnest it was academia time. There were composers in every university
writing for themselves. And so unconsciously, even though I had every
opportunity that any young composer could, I was already composing less
because experimental music was what was expected.
BOB: You were composing even before you began to study music.
What were you listening to? What did you hear that had an impact on you?
JOSE: The first piece of music I ever heard, I am not embarrassed
to say, when I realized - ah, I couldn't believe it was like the first
time you taste a mango or the first time you taste something that you
remember as a special fruit -- was Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. It was
suddenly like life opened up and I became immediately interested in music.
BOB: Your music brings to mind a number of potential influences,
but I'd rather hear from you what they are.
JOSE: No, I'd rather hear from you. You tell me what the influences
BOB: I don't mean this in a stylistic sense, but you remind me
of Morton Gould. First of all, because he was a first class conductor.
And the other thing about Morton Gould that you remind me of was his total
mastery of musical idioms, both popular and classical. He was kind of
an American Malcolm Arnold in the sense that he had this mastery and,
therefore, a sense of play in his music. He could intertwine these things.
Your mastery of string music makes me think British. The Fantasia makes
me think of British influences. Without knowing your Polish-Russian heritage,
the steppes of Russia show up in certain places with Shostakovich as a
possible influence (in Winterreise, on the Reference Recordings/Dorian
label). And in something like the beginning of the Passacaglia, I think
that you are headed for Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings territory.
It's that beautiful. I don't know if Barber had any influence on you or
not, because you're not quite that kind of Romantic. Also, you are certainly
touched with something in terms of the character of your music that's
meditative, ruminative, and a bit doleful.
JOSE: It's a legitimate question. Influences? They are so totally
unconscious. If there are influences in my music, they are not ones that
I am conscious of.
BOB: I found it hilarious that one critic of your chamber music
CD [on the Phoenix label] said that it's pure Pierre Boulez in places.
If there is anyone who would never come to mind in your music it is Boulez,
because you are not a hermetic composer and couldn't be more open or communicative.
You are his antithesis.
JOSE: Yes, I couldn't believe it. And those pieces in particular
are far removed from the music of Boulez. So much for music critics (laughter)
-- with great exceptions.
So I don't know any influences that I'm aware of other than the Slavic
spirit that my music has. You can hear it in some pieces in particular,
in the second movement of the Partita, the Second Symphony (on the Reference
Recordings/Dorian label). That is Slavic in character. And my Third Symphony
(Naxos label) has a Slavic character.
BOB: Because of your leadership of the Festival Miami, which you
created, you have had the chance to commission some works of music, including
Elliot Carter's Fourth String Quartet. I would be very interested in your
appraisal of the contemporary music scene. If you were still commissioning,
whom would you commission today?
JOSE: That's very interesting because there are more composers
now in America and in Europe than perhaps ever before because there is
so much more new music being played now in concerts. Let me start with
the top one, Elliott Carter. At the age of 96, he is at his best. Each
piece of work is superior, and now his Piano Concerto in London was premiered
by my friend Oliver Knussen. It's really audience friendly by Carter's
standards, unlike the string quartets, for which you have to really concentrate.
So he would be number one. A second would be a wonderful British Composer
who should be played more, Simon Bainbridge. He won this great award in
Louisville. He should be played more. And third, if you will accept another
British composer, Oliver Knussen, who needs to be pushed to compose, a
first class composer. He's one of the best composers today and has written
BOB: You said something very significant about more composers
today. This is a bit the opposite of the popular perception because the
popular perception is behind the fact. I find it very interesting that
the three composers whom you chose are not the neo-romantics. They're
not the audience-friendly composers that have been drawing people back
in and have now created the impression that it's safe to go back to the
JOSE: Yes, you're so right. That's interesting. I was going to
add a fourth composer to the list, if he were still alive, Jacob Druckman,
one of the greatest American composers, whose life was destroyed-literally
destroyed-when the Metropolitan Opera commissioned him to write an opera
and then took away the commission, after Jacob
had already finished nearly half of the opera.
BOB: What do you think of the American composers who dominate
the musical scene today, whether it's John Adams or Lowell Liebermann?
JOSE: Lowell Liebermann is completely audience-friendly. His music
is immediately likable because of his clear tonal orientation, but there's
always a touch of originality in everything he writes. And John Adams
has managed to be accepted by both the intellectuals and the general public,
which is a real accomplishment.
BOB: What about your assessment of his work?
JOSE: I feel very attached to it. Can I say this immodestly? I
kind of discovered him. Julliard asked me to do some festivals of contemporary
music in New York. So I called John Adams and he sent me the score of
his piece called Common Tones in Simple Time. It's a complicated
name. It's a half hour piece and we played it. It's the first time a piece
of his was played by an orchestra in New York. It was a premiere, and
he couldn't afford the trip. So he never heard it that performance. It
was a huge success.
BOB: Adams has said some very interesting things, that he learned
in school that "tonality died around the same time that Nietzsche's
god died, and I believed it." And it takes a real shock in your life
to overcome that experience. And of course, he's spear-headed this return
to tonality. Do you think that this musical recovery that we're so privileged
to witness over the past years is in some way related to a spiritual recovery?
JOSE: That's wonderful of you to put it that way. Let me interrupt
a little bit before I get to that. John Adams may have spearheaded that
movement towards tonality, but it was Jacob Druckman who gave it a name.
When Jacob Druckman was the composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic,
he was given carte blanche to do a festival. He had the nerve in the late
70s to call it the New Romanticism. I remember one composer, Ralph Shapey
from Chicago, who accosted him in public with a program. He took the program,
folded it, and hit him, "How dare you call this a New Romanticism?"
It was still the height of the 12-tone era. Well, the movement was already
sneaking in, but no one dared to say it. He was way ahead of his time.
And then, before we realized it, it was acceptable to write quasi-tonal
music or a combination of tonal music with old techniques.
BOB: When George Rochberg re-embraced tonality, someone confronted
his sweet wife and said, "What's George writing beautiful music for?
It's already been done."
JOSE: I love it!
BOB: Watching you perform last night, I thought how rhythmically
energized you are as a conductor, that any musician who could not follow
your beat would have to be blind. I think that, aside from the innate
musicality that you bring as a composer to your conducting, the one outstanding
thing is the clarity, the clearness of everything in your music making.
When I was trying to characterize your performance, I put Rene Leibowitz
and Toscanini at one end, and Bruno Walter at the other, saying you were
more toward the Walter side in your approach to Beethoven. More pianissimo
than power, when contrasted to Leibowitz whose interpretation is differentiated
only by the varying intensity of the volcanic eruption he creates. You
took the music out of the grip of that kind of unrelenting power and freed
it in a way, allowing it to breathe more naturally and revealing countless
felicitous details. I was astonished at parts of it. You showed me how
beautiful Beethoven is. What conductors do you admire and which ones had
an influence on you?
JOSE: Obviously Stokowski, but I could never get him to teach
me anything, physically speaking, in the sense of saying, "okay,
do it this way." He never talked about it and, in the years I worked
with him, I never approached him with technical questions. Yet I learned
more from him than from some of my teachers, by osmosis and by watching
him -- mostly rehearsal technique. He was businesslike in rehearsal, in
the best sense. He was like the CEO of a company, giving everyone the
right to control their own departments and yet managing the whole thing
perfectly. And even though he appeared like a showman in public life and
in performances, he was very methodical, pragmatic. So I learned from
him how to run a rehearsal, which is about 90% of the secret to success.
He never gave a speech in rehearsals. I heard later on of orchestras being
particularly impressed by conductors that don't give speeches, that don't
use the podium to lecture, but who talk through the music. So I was so
lucky to have this mentor who knew how to rehearse an orchestra and didn't
waste time. The worst thing a conductor can do -- and there are many famous
ones and some so-called great ones who do it -- is to stop every few moments
to correct things. Even though they are right and the correction is necessary,
to interrupt an orchestra is a capital crime. Practical conductors save
the corrections for the right moment. Psychology is a crucial element
in conducting: keeping the musicians alert, enthusiastic and inspired.
That's why it takes decades to become a "real" conductor; it's
a life-time learning experience.
BOB: You can listen to Beethoven's 7th by either Toscanini or
Furtwangler. Which one do you want to listen to?
JOSE: You're talking about the North Pole and the South Pole.
They're both great. How can you choose between them?
BOB: Because you have to.
JOSE: I'll answer indirectly. If you listened to either today,
they would be dismissed because they were so personal, which is what made
BOB: What do you hear today as opposed to then?
JOSE: Today, you hear Xerox performances. There is a piano competition
sponsored by the Xerox Foundation. I was in the jury and I couldn't believe
it. The poor guy or girl who wins will be the "Xerox pianist."
And unfortunately, this has to do with most performances today, whether
it's piano, violin, or conductor and orchestra.
BOB: What do you think led to that condition? Recordings?
JOSE: I'll answer your question, again, indirectly. When I was
about to record the Mendelssohn symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra,
I had to confess I had never conducted them in public. So a friend of
mine, a very important musicologist and music critic, suggested that he
would make tapes of every version ever made of the Mendelssohn Third Symphony.
And I thought, "Well, fine. I will listen to a few of them."
I was fascinated -- incredible versions that were broadcast from 1910,
1920 that had been kept, and other earlier versions. But then by the time
you got to 1972, they all started to sound the same. You could interchange
one for the other; there was little difference! Recently, a friend sent
me an old LP of Furtwangler conducting Beethoven's 9th. I couldn't believe
it. He was so unusual, but so convincing.
BOB: Between the North Pole and the South Pole, Toscanini and
Furtwangler, where do you live?
JOSE: I live in the middle, which is the best of both worlds,
in the warm equator.
BOB: Let me give you another quiz. You can hear Edward Elgar's
First Symphony either by Georg Solti or John Barbirolli. What would you
JOSE: I would choose both because there are things that are commendable
BOB: You're being very kind. If I were to offer an example of
what a difference a conductor can make in a particular piece of music,
I would give them the Elgar First by Solti, which kept me away from Elgar
for years. I listened to this and thought, what the hell is going on in
this piece? I don't understand the attraction. Then I heard the Barbirolli
First and all of a sudden this music opened up in a most magnificent way
and drew me into what has now been a life-long love.
JOSE: Solti was highly overrated, but he had one great thing,
his conducting enthusiasm. Love of music too, but technically nothing
much there, not really.
BOB: You've made some 200 records. You conduct all sorts of music.
I can't find a theme in here that this is Jose's repertoire. What's going
JOSE: I don't believe in a specialization because I don't need
BOB: Your tastes are that catholic?
JOSE: Yes, that's part of it. But it's also that, when my first
record of Charles Ives, his Fourth Symphony, came out, I was being asked
to do contemporary American music of that type. But in different parts
of the world they think I'm a specialist in different things. In France,
they think I specialize in French music, which is very flattering. Here
in the States, they think its contemporary music, with exceptions. Last
night (Beethoven's 9th) was an exception. But in South America, they think
I'm a specialist in Tchaikovsky.
BOB: What if a record producer comes to you and says, "Jose,
what do you want to record?"
JOSE: Ah, I wish that would happen. There are several things that
I would like to record that I never have recorded which are very close
to my heart. First comes to mind Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. It's
one of the most difficult pieces ever written, technically and in every
respect. I'd like to record Tchaikovsky's First Symphony. Then a complete
Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel. I feel an affinity for Ravel's music and I
feel that I can add something of my own, not better than the others, but
my own personal version of that.
BOB: You need to guide our readers. Which CDs of your music would
you point our readers to first?
JOSE: The Third Symphony, on NAXOS. It's more approachable, and
then I would say the Partita, which is also fun to listen to.
BOB: But please say the Fantasia, too, because it's gorgeous.
What CDs with you conducting music by other composers would you suggest?
JOSE: Most exciting projects are coming up: a CD of Stokowski
transcriptions, for Naxos The Stokowski CD is a real challenge, since
his own masterful recordings are so far unsurpassed.