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A life spent taking orchestras to the next level

Stewart Oksenhorn

Sergiu Comissiona says he possesses a certain quality that makes him a bad guest conductor, something that makes orchestras tremble when he rolls into town. “I like to work seriously,” said the gentlemanly, silver-haired 75-year-old, sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Jerome. “I try always to take any orchestra very seriously.”It is easy to imagine, however, those same orchestras becoming quickly appreciative of Comissiona’s dedication. Virtually everywhere he has been – and in a profession where globe-trotting is the norm, Comissiona’s résumé is remarkable for the number of places he has left his mark – the conductor has lifted the level of music-making and raised the stature of the orchestra.The Romanian-born Comissiona has held the directorship of orchestras in Vancouver, Madrid, Helsinki, Houston, the Netherlands, Japan, Israel and Sweden. But it was with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – what he calls “the great musical love of his life” – that Comissiona’s talent and commitment have been most profoundly felt.When Comissiona was appointed music director in Baltimore, in 1968, the BSO was considered a midlevel orchestra. It was so far removed from the top tier of American orchestras, in fact, that upon his arrival, Comissiona had it in his mind that he would spend a year or two there, and then move on to a more-promising situation. At the end of that first year, however, a front-page story in Baltimore’s News American raised the issue of the conductor’s commitment to the BSO, and questioned whether he would return for a second year. Comissiona had a response: “I said, ‘Yes, I will!” he recalled. Comissiona and the president of the BSO’s board came up with a 10-point plan that covered salaries, recordings and more; the last point was the building of a new concert hall. When the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall opened in 1982, it was, said Comissiona, one of the most important moments of his career – but far from the only significant accomplishment in his 17-year tenure in Baltimore. The previous year, the BSO had become the first American orchestra to perform in East Germany. Perhaps most significantly, it was widely acknowledged that under Comissiona, the BSO had entered the ranks of the elite American orchestras.”I like to pave the way for greatness of the orchestras,” said Comissiona. “I’m a good mechanic. It takes time, it takes injecting a love, the commitment to make music, and to convince the musicians that everyone is extremely important. I succeeded with the soft-glove but strong-hand approach.”At 75, Comissiona has slowed down hardly a whit. From his home in the musicians’ ghetto of New York’s Upper West Side, he conducts some 60-70 concerts a year. Though he no longer directs an orchestra, he is principal guest conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony and the University of Southern California’s Thornton Symphony, music director emeritus of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate in Baltimore. He is a national figure in his native Romania: He is the principal guest conductor of the Georges Enescu Bucharest Philharmonic, and last summer, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, he was presented with the Star of Romania in a ceremony at the presidential palace.Comissiona dismisses superlative remarks over his current schedule. “It’s the normal activity,” he said. “I still love music, more than ever, just as passionately. I hope to continue, depending on how many years I get from the boss, from God.”Comissiona says he doesn’t enjoy the traveling so much. But he is driven by the belief that he is a far better musician now than he was years ago. “I like to return to the places I went to when I was young, because when I was there I was not so good, was mediocre,” he said. “So I like to return – to Romania, to Israel, South America – and correct the bad things I probably did, my sins of being young.”The one thing Comissiona misses from his younger days is the regional flavor of the orchestras. “In this millennium, the notion of a national orchestra is disappearing,” he observed. “In Russian, American, Japanese orchestras, there’s a level that’s very good. But I’m still longing to hear the sound of a real French orchestra, or the passion of a Russian orchestra, or the discipline of a German orchestra. That doesn’t exist anymore. “All orchestras are good, technically speaking, but they’re missing the color, the flavor of a nationalistic orchestra, which disappeared long before. When I started, in every country you could feel quite a difference. There were good things and less good things. You knew in Italy or Spain, that they would lack discipline, but there would be a joy. Now they all have the discipline, but not so much of the joy.”In his guest conducting appearance in Aspen, Comissiona is up to his old tricks of frightening the orchestra. The program for his concert on Friday, July 9, with the Aspen Chamber Symphony and violinist Sarah Chang, features Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4 in G major, “Mozartiana.” The piece, never performed in Aspen, features Tchaikovsky’s transcriptions of themes lifted from Mozart sonatas, quartets, children’s songs and more.”The snobs in the orchestra say, ‘Oww, doing Mozart as transcribed by Tchaikovsky,'” said Comissiona. “But after the first rehearsal, they say, ‘Oh, this is wonderful.'”You will be shocked to hear I consider ‘Mozartiana’ a wonderful monstrosity. In this era when you cannot accept transcriptions, when we are purists, and don’t want a Webern transcription of Bach or a Schoenberg transcription of Brahms, we dislike to hear Mozart transcriptions by Tchaikovsky with a sweetness and his style of romanticism and chromatism. With all these reservations, I consider it an exceptional work. I think it’s a wonderful piece to challenge the orchestra, with these melodies.”This week’s lineupAlso on the program for the Aspen Chamber Symphony concert are Smetana’s “Moldau” and Dvorák’s Violin Concerto in A minor. “We put together two Czech composers, to serve as an appetizer for the Tchaikovsky,” said Comissiona. Robert Winter will give a lecture before the concert.A chamber music concert on Saturday, July 10, features works by Goossens, Takemitsu, Debussy, Poulenc and Arensky. The married couple cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han performs a recital that evening, with pieces by Schubert, Strauss, Rachmaninoff and Chopin.The Aspen Festival Orchestra concert on Sunday, July 11, with conductor James DePreist and violinist Joshua Bell, features works by Nielsen and Janácek, and Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major. That night is a recital by the International Sejong Soloists, with violinist Cho-Liang Lin, playing Grieg, Gordon Chin and Mendelssohn.A chamber music concert on Monday, July 12, features pieces by Sydney Hodkinson, Brahms and Bruckner. The program for the American Academy of Conducting Orchestra’s performance on Tuesday, July 13, has compositions by Smetana and Dvorák. That night, the Emerson String Quartet plays a concert of works by Britten, Joan Tower and Brahms.Michael Stern conducts the Sinfonia on Wednesday, July 14, with pieces by Ravel and Brahms. That night, a recital by the International Sejong Soloists, with violinist Adele Anthony and cellist Ani Aznavoorian, features works by Tchaikovsky, Britten, Piatigorsky, Grieg and Copland and Eric Ewazen’s Violin Concerto.Thursday, July 15, opens the Aspen Opera Theater Center season, with the performance of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” conducted by Arnold Östman and directed by Edward Berkeley. That night, An Evening with the Emerson String Quartet features compositions by Janácek, Debussy and Shostakovich.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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