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.

Pop Meets Classical

Recently, I ran across an interesting post by Kathryn Judd, a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s marketing team, called Rachmaninoff Goes Pop. It showcases famous Rachmaninoff melodies which were turned into pop songs.This got me thinking about how many other melodies from classical music have found their way into pop music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Stranger in Paradise[/typography]

The first music to come to mind was the Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor by the Russian Romanticist, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). First listen to this beautiful melody as Borodin wrote it:

The 1953 musical Kismet adapted Borodin’s music. Here is how it sounds as Stranger in Paradise:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Groovy Kind of Love[/typography]

You wouldn’t think that the Rondo from Sonata No. 5 by Clementi (1752-1832) would be ripe pop song material…

…But it became A Groovy Kind of Love, released in 1965 by Diane and Annita, and later covered by Phil Collins in the 1980’s:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Apocalyptica’s Hall of the Mountain King[/typography]

Here is In The Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907):

The Finnish progressive metal band Apocalyptica created its own version of the Grieg. The descending chromatic intervals in the melody and the chord progression seem at home in the rock genre:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What Do You Think?[/typography]

In the Baroque era and earlier it was common to “steal” melodies. Handel used popular melodies, as well as recycling his own. Later, composers paid tribute to existing music and sometimes influences subconsciously crept into their writing. Leonard Bernstein made a clear reference to the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird in Make Our Garden Grow in Candide.

This kind of musical adaption can work as long as the new creation brings its own unique slant and as long as it’s done with musical integrity. When classical music is dumbed down and sanitized (a melody stripped of its original rich harmony), it is a true desecration. What do you think? Are the examples above musically successful? Should pop musicians look to classical music for ideas? What other pop songs do you know which draw inspiration from classical music?