Remembering Conductor Jerzy Semkow

Polish-born conductor Jerzy  Semkow (1928-2014)
Jerzy Semkow (1928-2014)

Polish-born conductor Jerzy Semkow passed away last week at the age of 86. A longtime French citizen who resided in Paris, Semkow served as principal conductor of the National Opera in Warsaw (1959-1962), the Royal Danish Opera and Orchestra in Copenhagen (1966 to 1976), and as Music Director of the Orchestra of Radio-Televisione Italiana (RAI) in Rome. Between 1975 and 1979 he was Music Director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Semkow enjoyed long associations as a regular guest conductor with American orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony and the Rochester Philharmonic. His mentors included Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter and Tullio Serafin.

As a teenager, I heard the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra perform numerous times under Jerzy Semkow. His concerts left a powerful and lasting impression. Even after many years, I can still vividly recall the music which was performed on each program. His interpretations of Mahler and Bruckner seemed to come alive with an almost supernatural power. He brought a unique warmth and purity to Mozart. It’s likely that he left a subtle imprint on the sound and musicianship of the orchestra which remained beyond his guest conducting appearances.

Audience members and musicians will remember Jerzy Semkow’s slightly eccentric and aristocratic stage presence. Following the orchestra’s tuning, minutes would often elapse before Semkow appeared onstage, wielding his enormously long baton. During the final applause for a large orchestral work, he would often walk throughout the orchestra, acknowledging each section.

Semkow’s deep and inspiring musical vision became apparent in rehearsals. On one occasion, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra offered a solid first reading of the opening of the final movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony, a hushed passage which requires great control. Semkow called attention to the first note, which he found to be lacking in warmth and buoyancy. Immediately, the sound of the orchestra was transformed and the entire movement took shape.

The Detroit Free Press offers this tribute. Also, read comments by Leonard Slatkin, William Wolfram, Peter Donohoe and others at Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped DiscSubmit your own memories of Jerzy Semkow in the comment thread below.

Highlights from Jerzy Semkow’s Recordings

Schumann’s Third Symphony “Rhenish” performed by the Saint Louis Symphony:

Listen to the second, thirdfourth and fifth movements.

Here is a live 1978 performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with pianist Jorge Bolet and the Cleveland Orchestra:

Listen to the second, third and fourth movements.

A complete recording of Borodin’s opera, Prince Igor with the National Opera Theatre of Sofia:

A young Jerzy Semkow accompanies legendary French violinist Zino Francescatti in Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto:

Listen to the second and third movements.

Borodin’s Nocturne

Philadelphia stringsThe music of Russian romantic composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) is filled with stunningly beautiful melodies. One example can be heard in the third movement (Nocturne) of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2. Let’s listen to a recording by the Emerson String Quartet. Consider the unique personality of each voice of the string quartet and notice the way the voices interact, creating a musical conversation. Pay attention to harmony and inner voices. Each time the melody returns, Borodin puts it in a slightly different harmonic package:

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Did you hear the canon between the violin and cello, and later the two violins, in the passage starting at 4:54?

Repeating a melody (often a folk song) in slightly different harmonic and contrapuntal “packages” was a common technique for Russian composers. You can hear this in Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, written in 1881, the same year as the Second String Quartet, and in the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony. 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Ormandy and the Philadelphia Sound[/typography]

Now, let’s hear Borodin’s Nocturne played by the full string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. For many years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive string sound…unusually dark, rich and lush. Some have attributed the origin of the sound to Ormandy’s predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, who conducted without a baton. This 2000 New York Times piece by James Oestreich offers more on the history of the “Philadelphia sound,” and raises questions about the extent to which an orchestra should hold onto a unique style versus adapting to the style of the composer. Listening to the lush, shimmering perfection of this classic recording, it’s easy to forget that debate entirely:

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