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Serendipity and Serebrier: A Life of Symphonic Success

Celebrated conductor and composer José Serebrier recently spoke with Naxos on the eve of his European and Latin American tour with the Toulouse National Chamber Orchestra. The maestro, known not only for his two-hundred-plus recordings but also for his notable associations with legends like Dorati, Stokowski, and Szell, created a sensation early in his career with his recording of the Ives Fourth Symphony, once thought unplayable.

Serebrier has also earned a strong reputation as a composer, receiving two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Koussevitzky Foundation Award, and a host of other accolades for his over one hundred compositions.

The maestro has recorded a number of works for Naxos including a disc of music by William Schuman with the Bournemouth Symphony (8.559083) which was nominated for two Grammy awards in 2002, a new recording of Ned Rorem symphonies (8.559149), two of which were previously unrecorded, and a disc of his own compositions (8.559183).


N: Having listened to quite a number of your recordings, I have to say that I find it remarkable that you can pull such inspired and technically impressive recordings out of the numerous orchestras with which you work. As I understand it, you probably only spend a few days with a given orchestra during the recording process. How do you accomplish such wonderful things in a very short amount of time?

JS: It's really very simple. It all has to do with preparation. The actual amount of time that I spend with an orchestra is only the cream on the coffee. If it is a success, what makes it so is the huge amount of time that it takes to prepare beforehand. The preparation includes not just my learning the music inside and out. It also involves preparing the music for the performance. The Ned Rorem symphonies that have just now been released by Naxos are a good example. The actual recording time transpired over two days, but months, maybe a year beforehand, we began the preparations. The first symphony hadn't been played in almost fifty years, for example.

N: I understand that two of the three had never been recorded prior to this project.

JS: Correct! They had been performed very little, as well. The First Symphony had been played several times, the Second, perhaps once. The composer had not heard the Second Symphony performed prior to these sessions. The individual parts, the music from which the musicians perform, were unreadable. The manuscripts were fifty years old. At one time Ned had been a copyist for Virgil Thomson so he had copied his own music. The copying was good but because of the time lapse the music had become dark, brown and abused; it was unusable. I had to redo the whole thing, and that's what really took the most time. When that was completed, I made sure the orchestra got it ahead of time and I pointed out to the solo players the many difficult solos in the work. I gave them about two months’ time to prepare by giving them the music in advance. By the time I got there they had actually looked at it, which is very unusual. These days, most orchestra musicians don't have the time to study their parts that far ahead. Although they try to set aside the time, often they only have enough time to look at the music for the next week’s performances. Because of this, I was very impressed that the first cellist, for example, almost had the work memorized. The percussionist practically had to memorize it as well. The xylophone part in one of the symphonies by Rorem is not unplayable, but very nearly so. Playing the xylophone is not like playing the piano, you know; one has to skip all over the place and so the performer practically has to memorize it in order to play it. The Rorem Symphonies are only one example; I could give you a hundred others. I've made close to two hundred records, and each has been a labor of love.

N: That is very evident. When I say that, I don't want to boil it down merely to precision. I'm talking about passion as well.

JS: Well, passion is certainly the most important aspect. Precision comes only as the servant of passion. I aim not merely to follow literally what is on the score, which of course is very important, but also to make it pleasant. I was just listening yesterday to someone else's recording of a work I need to prepare. The recording is by a very famous orchestra and a very famous conductor. It is an extremely great orchestra, but I was sad to hear so much imprecision. There were so many notes that were out of tune. I know why that happens; people just don't have the time. They don't have the time and they leave it up to the producer to fix things. I don't have the time either, but I make it!

N: Exactly!

JS: It's essential that the final product be of the highest possible quality, so technical perfection is only the first step. Inspiration, or passion, which is a much nicer word, is the crucial element and in a recording that is more difficult than in a performance. In a performance you have the public . . .

N: To energize you, perhaps?

JS: Yes, that's exactly what it is. In a performance, you are playing for several thousand people. I've learned over the course of many recording sessions to automatically imagine, without even thinking, that I'm playing for a much larger audience. In reality, you're not playing merely for yourselves; you're playing for the many people who will be listening to the recording. Without this mindset, a recording can become boring. Some great artists have discovered, because of that phenomenon, that their live recordings are better. Toward the end of his career, Leonard Bernstein would only record live. He told someone that he had discovered his live recordings had something “extra”. After capturing a set of live recordings they usually go back to the studio for an hour or so to fix any technical problems.

N: In my days in the record business, we would call those “punch ins”


JS: Yes! [chuckles] In my case I have made a few live recordings. One of my earliest recordings, about twenty years ago, was the Dvorak Symphony No. 8 for RCA with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It was not intended to be a recording for release; we just made a tape of the performance. When I got back to New York I gave a copy to Tom Shepard, who was at that time the head of RCA Records. I didn’t mean for him to record it; I just wanted him to hear how good the orchestra in Sydney was. He said “there’s no way we can release this recording, we just recorded it with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and it’s already scheduled for release six months from now.” So I left the office and headed home. By the time I arrived at home ten minutes later, however, my phone was ringing. It was Tom. He said, “We are releasing your recording right away and delaying the other recording for a couple of years.” It was a live performance and it had an extra dose of enthusiasm. They were quite interested in releasing it also, I think, because they had been very successful with my recording of the Ives Fourth Symphony.

N: Yes, a momentous recording indeed. As we just now discussed your approach to recording in general, that helped me understand your success with the Ives, when so many others had difficulty putting their arms around that work.

JS: Yes, that’s an extreme case!

N: Oh, my goodness yes!

JS: I learned the process of recording in general through my preparations for that recording in specific. In general, I prefer studio recording. However, I treat it like a concert.

N: Is it true that you sometimes have extra time left over in your recording sessions?

JS: Oh yes, often! It’s because I plan the recording sessions the way a general would plan a war. You have to plan to win, and with something left over, a few men to battle with, so to speak. So if my plans work right, I always have time left over. I never run overtime, which is a crime, of course. [chuckles]

N: The interview you gave to Gramophone about your amazing experiences as an assistant to Leopold Stokowski was such a delight to read. It was apparent in your reminiscences about the great master that he obviously had a great deal of interest in young musicians. It wasn’t a surprise to find that young classical musicians speak glowingly about their experiences with you in the various ensembles you’ve conducted, but finding that some heavy metal musicians listed some of your recordings among their favorites was a treat, I must say.

JS: Heavy metal musicians? [laughs] I am very surprised, but I am delighted to hear it!

N: Evidently you’ve had more influence than you even realized! Was Stokowski’s example part of the inspiration in your working so extensively with young musicians? I realize that you started your career very early in your life [Interviewer’s note: Serebrier began conducting before he was a teenager, and also composingl.] Was that an influence as well?

JS: At the very beginning of my musical career, I had no choice! [laughs]. When I was nine, I wanted to conduct the National Symphony of Uruguay but they wouldn’t consider me. The only ones I could convince were my contemporaries, so I had to start my own orchestra. They were slightly older than me—twelve, thirteen, and fifteen—but at that age the difference in age makes a big, big difference. Presently, my interest in youth orchestras remains. I just conducted this year, with great pleasure, the National Honors Youth Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio. Yes, I do work with young musicians regularly. Stokowski worked with young musicians all the time, but never directly teaching them. I myself never studied with him. He was either not interested in teaching, or the opportunity never arose. But, of course, I learned enormously from watching him as his assistant.

N: I noticed that there is another person in your family who has recently released recordings of Ned Rorem works with Naxos.

JS: Yes, my wife [Interviewer’s Note: Maestro Serebrier is married to the renowned soprano Carole Farley] released a recording of Rorem songs with Naxos, accompanied by the composer himself (8.559084). That’s actually how the recording of the Rorem Symphonies came about. Her record has been enormously successful. I don’t think any of us realized a recording of contemporary songs would sell so well. During the process of their preparations for that release, we discussed the fact that some of his symphonies had not yet been recorded.

N: Yes, Rorem has written so many tremendous songs over the years, and obviously is so well known in that genre. I think some will be surprised to learn of his very remarkable symphonies.

I’m sure many of our readers would enjoy knowing what was it like conducting for a television audience of a billion people at last year’s Grammy Awards.

JS: Very scary! [chuckles] I was scared that I might trip over the podium or knock over a music stand. We had a suitable amount of rehearsal time, but very little on the actual stage where we performed. They had a tiny stage for about sixty musicians, and they had it arranged so a number of them were on very tall risers. When I looked back at the timpanist, she was high in the air and so far back that I really had to strain to see her. She similarly had to look towards her feet to see me. I must have looked like a postage stamp to her; she looked like a dot in the sky from my angle. It was scary indeed that something could possibly go wrong. Fortunately, not only did everything go well, but we also received a standing ovation. We were given a place of honor on the program, appearing just before the announcement of the “Record of the Year” at the very close of the broadcast. It was a long program, so many of my friends in Europe set their alarm clocks for four in the morning so they could watch that segment. [chuckles] It was a great experience, and to this day I don’t know why I was chosen…

N: Well, two Grammy nominations for your recording with NAXOS should have something to do with it! [laughs]

JS: Well, it was great fun. I should mention that they had our dressing rooms organized alphabetically, so Britney Spears was in the dressing room next to mine. We shared the same bodyguard and security detail. [chuckles]

N: You have such a large discography and conduct orchestras all over the world, and somehow you have found time to compose a great deal of music as well. How do you keep these things happening so beautifully? When I look at all the things you have done, I am just amazed.

JS: Well, I am not that organized, either, so I amaze myself! My biggest problem at the moment, looking around my office right now, is finding where things are. [chuckles] I have so many projects going on at once and no matter how many cabinets there are and places to put each one of them, it’s always a challenge. It is an even greater challenge when I am about to travel. I have to make sure to take all of the music I need with me, which is usually about two suitcases’ worth.

N: I know you have more travels on the horizon. What is planned for your next trip?

JS: I am about to embark on an international tour with the Toulouse National Chamber Orchestra. We will first tour in France, and then throughout all of Latin America. We will be playing much of the repertoire of the Naxos recording of my own compositions that we recorded together, which has just been released.

N: As I understand it, the recording features early works as well as some fairly recent compositions, even some from the last few years?

JS: Actually, even more recently than that! One of the pieces slated for the recording was a work for accordion and orchestra, which I wrote while I was working with Stokowski. During those years I had a commission from the American Accordionists’ Association. It’s a great organization and they have commissioned everyone: Hindemith; Creston; Tcherepnin; and David Diamond, for examples. For some reason they took a chance on a very young composer like myself, and I wrote a concerto for them. In Europe, where this recording was being made, I had difficulty finding a real virtuoso accordionist. Finally, at the Royal Academy of Music, I found a wonderful musician, and he fell in love with the score. Two weeks before the recording he called me to say that he was very sorry, but his wife was dying of cancer and he needed to spend time with her. He referred me to a young Chinese student of his, a twenty-one year old girl. I went to London to audition her and I told him “I’m sorry, but this won’t do.” I told him that she was a very talented young student, and I wanted to give her a chance, but that she would be ready to do it perhaps a year from now. So I returned to New York and realized to my horror that the recording would be too short without that work. It was too late, and I had no other option than to write another piece!

N: You do write many of your works quickly, don’t you?

JS: Well, sometimes I have no choice! I really love my Third Symphony, which I didn’t know was going to be a symphony. I just started writing something, and my wife didn’t even know I was writing it. One week later I told her I had just finished a symphony. My publisher was amazed. I amazed myself! At any rate, the Chinese girl contacted me again and said, “Please, Maestro, I have studied it and I am ready to play it”. I told her it was too late for it to be included, but she came over and played it practically from memory. Two weeks later she memorized it, and it was absolutely incredible; she was very talented. That’s how we ended up doing both pieces. As a result, one of the works on the recording was written in January of this year, just before we recorded it. The record also includes my very earliest orchestral work, the Elegy for Strings, which I wrote when I was fourteen.

N: I thought it was very interesting that you were also including a work on this recording that included a double bass soloist and chorus!

JS: Oh, that work has an interesting story as well. For five years I headed “Festival Miami”, a music festival that I organized. There is a great double bass player there named Lucas Drew who for many years taught at the University of Miami. He came up with this idea that we ought to commission twenty or thirty composers, of all styles, to write short pieces. I thought it was a great idea but he also wanted me to write one of the compositions. When he asked me, I hadn’t written music for perhaps ten, maybe fifteen years so I was reluctant to do so. But I agreed, and fulfilled my agreement. That broke the ice. Thanks to that piece, I’ve been writing sporadically ever since. I didn’t want to write a piece like the other composers just for bass, so I added an ensemble that backs him up, but is hidden from the audience so everyone wonders where all these sounds are coming from. They are behind the audience. It is a very evocative piece, and is entitled “George and Muriel”.

N: Is there a story behind the title as well?

JS: George Marek was the president of RCA Records during the golden years of the recording industry. He signed Toscanini, Stokowski, Artur Rubenstein, Jascha Heifetz and many others. By the time I met him, he had been retired for ten years. I met him walking on the beach. He recognized me and introduced himself. I had never heard of him before. He invited me into his home, and we became very good friends for the last few years of his life. I met some great people through him, and read many letters Toscanini had written to him.

N: Talk about serendipity!

JS: It was incredible! Anyway, the story relating to my composing a work for “Festival Miami” happened to transpire in the year he and his wife Muriel celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary. I composed this work as a wedding present. That brief piece took much longer to write than the Third Symphony because, you know, writing music is like exercise. If you haven’t gone to the gym in months, things take time! [chuckles] It takes time to get back into shape, so to speak. By the time I wrote the Third Symphony I couldn’t write it fast enough. I wrote as fast as my pencil would go!

N: Would you like to share any stories about the great conductors with whom you have worked?

JS: With pleasure! First of all, my first mentor was Antal Dorati. I spent two years with him when he was music director of what in those days was the Minneapolis Symphony. I just wish I had been more ready for him in those days; I was very, very young [Interviewer’s Note: Serebrier was just nineteen].

N: Your audition with Dorati was the audition where you had no music at all, no piano or recorded music? I understand you had to project the music to Dorati merely by conducting in silence.

JS: Yes. I had two great years there. We mostly reviewed the scores together. Dorati really didn’t have a conducting technique to speak of. He was left-handed, which is difficult since conductors are expected to conduct with the right hand. However, he taught himself to write with the right hand, so he learned to be ambidextrous. Still, the right hand always felt awkward to him, and his movements were unorthodox, to say the least. What I learned from him was not movement. Primarily what I gained was rehearsal technique, at which he was very skilled, in addition to the study of scores. He taught me many traditions that he learned from the great masters. I was very, very fortunate to study with that great master. Today, people don’t realize what a great conductor Dorati was. He really was one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century.

Then I attended classes by Pierre Monteux. While I had studied privately with Dorati, Monteux had a class of about eighty students. He ran a school for conductors in Maine, in the most beautiful little town. All of the conductors in the school had to play in the orchestra in order to qualify for the class. Every half-hour, one of them stood up and conducted, while Monteux made fun of us! That was his greatest joy; he just laughed his head off watching us conduct. There was always something that we learned, as well. I learned that the trick is to know the score, as simple as that. Finally after three years we convinced him to conduct, and he was actually worried to conduct in front of then-ninety conductors, after criticizing and laughing at us. When we saw him do it, we learned that there was nothing to it. It was the simplest thing in the world, and the essence of it was knowing the music intimately. The other part of the equation was something he couldn’t teach us, which was experience:  doing it over and over. It’s an old cliché: conducting is like wine; it takes time. By the way, that is why I, and many of my colleagues, reject this notion of many orchestras engaging beginner conductors for very important, very exposed positions. They are doing this before the conductors have had any chance to really learn the material. You know, one of the most successful conductors today is Simon Rattle. He, of course, was recently named conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The New York Times interviewed him, and his most memorable quote was that “no conductor below the age of sixty should be taken seriously”. He said this at the age of forty-eight! It is an exaggeration, perhaps, because Mahler was a great conductor of his time who died before the age of sixty. Of course, there were many others as well, but what Rattle meant in principle makes a great deal of sense. It takes forever to learn all there is to know about orchestras:  psychology; rehearsal technique; all the extra things beyond just music making that make up such a strange profession as conducting. I believe these orchestras are misguided when they engage conductors just out of music school, and they are doing a disservice to these conductors as well.

N: Well, I would certainly agree if they are hiring them as music directors, instead of perhaps as an assistant conductor.

JS: It used to be that conductors like Monteux came through the ranks as opera coaches and the like. Dorati was a ballet conductor. In America while I was growing up, conductors matured by conducting amateur orchestras. I had the good fortune of arriving in the States just at the end of an era, to have the opportunity to work with Monteux, Dorati, Stokowski, and Szell. I began conducting youth orchestras as a child, and then later on moved to amateur orchestras or semi-professional orchestras. It was difficult, but a great learning experience.


N: How did you become associated with George Szell?

JS: Szell was in the jury of a conductor’s competition I won, together with James Levine. He invited us both to become assistant conductors in Cleveland. Levine accepted; I didn’t because I was working with Stokowski and I thought that was too great an opportunity to leave behind. In addition, I was being practical. I looked at the list of Szell’s assistant conductors and it reminded me of looking at the telephone book! He had two associates and four assistants, and I knew I wouldn’t get the chance to conduct often.

N: My goodness! I certainly can see your point.

JS: The following year he came back to me and invited me to be composer-in-residence. He knew that my main interest at that point was conducting rather than composing, so to entice me he also offered me the position of conductor of the Cleveland Philharmonic, an excellent semi-professional orchestra. I accepted immediately, especially because Stokowski was already mentioning that he might go back to England, which he did two years later, to spend the last years of his life. He was already in his late eighties.

N: What an orchestra Szell had!

JS: Yes, a great orchestra, and to watch him rehearse for what would be the last two years of his life was a fantastic experience. I learned a great deal by watching him.

N: Surely. I don’t know how you could possibly have many non-musical pursuits, considering your hectic schedule, but when you do get an opportunity to spend time away from your career, what activities do you enjoy?

JS: We take long walks. I love nothing more than to walk on the beach.

N: It has obviously been very good for your work in the past!

JS: [chuckles] Yes, I get many of my ideas on my walks. The whole “Festival Miami”, which was very ambitious, was organized during walks on the beach. The University of Miami sponsored it. Their original idea was to do what most university festivals do: utilize students and faculty members. While walking on the beach, I thought, “Why not do it in a big way?” We commissioned great composers like Elliot Carter, and brought in big orchestras like the Philharmonia from London and the Pittsburgh Symphony. The calm and the peacefulness of walking by the ocean, and the sun, if it’s not too hot, [chuckles] can be very conducive. I also love to read, and I read many books, usually in airplanes.

N: Given your schedule, that’s not surprising in the least!

JS: When I have time, I go to the gym and exercise. My wife does it faithfully every day, no matter where she is in the world. I, on the other hand, feel guilty if I don’t first do the other things that first have to be accomplished. When they are completed, I’ll go to the gym if there is time left over. Usually when I am in hotels, which is about seventy percent of the time, it’s easier, because they all have gyms and I don’t have to travel elsewhere to exercise. I also love to swim. When I was younger, I used to play a lot of soccer. We call it “football” in the rest of the world. [chuckles].

N: Yes, I think we Americans have probably named our game incorrectly. Our game of “football” has so little to do with the foot! [chuckles]

JS: In Uruguay, where I was born, soccer is played with anything that falls to the ground [chuckles]. The moment you are able to walk, you are playing soccer. I still play from time to time, and sometimes the orchestras with which I collaborate will organize a team. We love movies as well, when I have time; and art films in particular. Sometimes movies abroad are played, fortunately, months later than in America, so I get to see things that I missed in the States.

N: That all sounds quite wonderful indeed. Thank you for your time, Maestro. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to speak with you, and all the best on your upcoming tour!

JS: Thank you. It has been a pleasure for me as well.

Interview by Lorrell Holtz-Oxley, August 2003.  This interview is the property of and may not be reprinted without permission. 


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