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Too Many Records! José Serebrier Column in International Record Review

International Record Review (IRR) has a monthly column with the title "Too Many Records" and invites recording artists to contribute to the series. Composer and conductor José Serebrier wrote his column for the November issue of IRR.

November 2006

Too Many Records

There was no record player in my childhood home in Montevideo, nor a telephone, which was not unusual. You had to have strong political influence to get a phone in those days. We used the grocery store across the road for those rare occasions when we needed to phone anyone. The first time I became aware of classical music was on the radio at home, and it just grabbed me in such a way that my life, at the age of nine, took a new turn. Until then I thought I was going to be a writer, like my father, which made him furious. I bought my first violin with my own savings, and after my initial lesson I had to walk home for hours because of a bus strike. My parents were quite worried when I was so late arriving and the punishment was no violin lessons for a month, which seemed like a year. For my second lesson I took along my first opus, a solo violin sonata, which really upset my teacher. "You must learn music before you try to compose" was his admonition. Indeed, I had no idea about keys, tonality, harmony, form or anything else. It was pure intuition. That piece was recently recorded, and it is included on a CD of my later orchestral works played by the LPO, a March 2007 Naxos release. Recently I had a letter from the University of Texas, where a composition class actually did a structural and harmonic analysis of this piece, regarding its "unusual formal structure, tonal implications", etc. I was amazed! If they only knew how it was written...on the other hand, it might have prejudiced them.

Soon after, my parents bought me a piano, sent me to a fantastic violin teacher (a Russian émigré who had been one of Leopold Auer¹s star pupils) and they even bought a state-of-the-art record player! In just a few months my LP collection became so large that it invaded every available room in our rather large house. From the start, I found the violin literature limiting, and decided that orchestral repertoire was the future for me. While composing furiously in every format, I organized my own orchestra of young musicians. At 11, I was by far the youngest, but somehow they accepted it. Baroque was my favourite, and our first concert that year consisted of the four orchestral suites by Bach. Today, it seems incredible to me. Not knowing anything about the protocol, I insisted everyone play from memory, which upset them! After several months of rehearsals, and much yelling from the conductor, they could actually play from memory. In pictures taken of the opening concert (attended by the President of Uruguay, Luis Battle) one can see no music stands, but it can also be seen that one of the cellists had surreptitiously pasted pages of music to the chair in front of him. The National Youth Orchestra of Uruguay toured with me for four years, in several countries in South America, and then I organized another group, the Telemann Chamber Orchestra, which specialized in Corelli, Handel, Bach and Telemann: the age of the players ranged between 9 and 16.

By the time I left to study in America, at the age of 16, I had one of the largest record collections in Montevideo, which I had to leave behind. Virgil Thomson arranged for me a special US State Department scholarship to study with Aaron Copland, and also at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. I found Philadelphia boring in those days, and I was anxious to study conducting, which the Curtis Institute did not provide at the time. I condensed the four Curtis years into two, and after graduation I went to study in Minneapolis with Antal Dorati. That was a wonderful experience. Since I was moving about, and the stipend from the US State Department was limited, my days as an avid record collector had to slow down for those years. Two subsequent Guggenheim Fellowships (as composer) helped, and I soon started a new record library. My own first personal experience with recordings was when the Louisville Orchestra called to say that my second symphony, Partita, would be included in its series of new-music recordings. I was in shock. The previous year, having just arrived in the US, Leopold Stokowski had called me at Curtis from Houston asking if he could première my First Symphony, barely finished, to replace the première of the still-unplayable Ives Fourth. While some years later we would actually premiere Ives's Fourth Symphony together in New York, and still later I would make my own recording of it (with the LPO), in Houston I had my first quick glance at the Ives score.

Those first years in America were incredible, with one big surprise after another. A couple of years later, when Stokowski cabled me to invite me to be the associate conductor of his new ­and last ­ orchestra, at Carnegie Hall in New York, it was like a dream. But even then I never thought that one day I would be making my own recordings. That seemed impossible.

My first such experience also came as a surprise. By then I was the composer-in-residence of the Cleveland Orchestra, and one night George Szell called to ask if I would be willing to travel to London first thing the next morning to record with the LSO. Someone had just cancelled. I didn¹t know what I was to conduct until I arrived in London. Picking me up at Heathrow Airport was Stuart Knussen, then Chairman and first bass of the LSO, to take me directly to the recording session. He talked a lot about his son, then 17, Oliver Knussen, a life-time friend ever since. I told Stuart, "please do not tell the orchestra that I will be sight-reading: it would scare them". After a shower at the recording venue, I was able to glance at the scores for the first time: Samuel Barber¹s ballet Souvenirs and the first complete recording of Gian-Carlo Menotti's ballet Sebastian. I had the luxury of half an hour to study the scores.

There was a further surprise the next day, after the last session. The LSO management called the studio to ask if I would make my London début with them. For my début, at the Royal Festival Hall, I conducted Mozart's Symphony No. 25, the UK première of Ponce's Guitar Concerto with John Williams, and Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. Since that time, and some 250-plus recordings later, I feel that I am just getting started. There is still so much music to be recorded, not only works that have yet to be discovered, but new, fresh versions of oft-recorded music. The newly developing technology will help disseminate music far and beyond anything we ever dreamed possible. The fun is just starting.

José Serebrier


Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group