Music: José Serebrier—A Double Muse

Jose Serebrier is one of today’s premier conductors. He burst on the scene at a very young age as a protege of Leopold Stokowski, who proclaimed him “the greatest master of orchestral balance.”

Born in Uruguay of Russian and Polish parents, Ser­ebrier started composing music at the age of nine, shortly after he had begun with his first instrument, the ocarina. However, his renown as a conductor has eclipsed his reputation as a composer. Fortunately, more of his music has recently become available. Reference Record­ings (RR-90CD) has issued a stunning recording of Serebri­er’s Partita (Second Symphony), Fantasia, and other works. In the November 2003 issue of Crisis, I reviewed the highly successful Naxos CD (8.559183) of his new Third Sympho­ny, accompanied by other works for strings. Serebrier con­ducts on both CDs. Reference Records also offers examples of Serebrier’s conducting prowess with two double CDs of music by Leos Janacek (RR-2103) and George Chadwick (RR-2104).

Serebrier came to Washington to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and other works with the National Sym­phony Orchestra, which gave me the opportunity of renew­ing our acquaintance and seeing him perform. The next day, we met to discuss his music, his style of conducting, and the contemporary music scene.

Robert R. Reilly: There’s a tradition of conductors who compose, like Wilhelm Furtwangler. Do you consider yourself in that tradition or, first, as a composer who conducts?

Jose Serebrier: I was flattered when a very important music critic on a music Web site,, Dave Hur­witz, wrote a review of my Third Symphony. It said that I am a composer who conducts, not a conductor who com­poses. Even though I may not agree entirely, I was very flat­tered that he said it.

Early in your career, music critic Alfred Frankenstein said you were “the logical successor to the crown of Villa-Lobos and the South American to watch.” Since then, you have added more than 100 opus numbers. However, Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote thousands of works. Do you regret that you didn’t follow, not his style, which you don’t have any relation to, but his path? Were you stopped by the tenor of the times from composing more?

I’m sure.

What was it about the times? Was it the domination of the twelve-tone system?

That and my heart wasn’t really in that kind of purely intel­lectual music, which was the tendency of the times. I always felt that the composer had to communicate. He didn’t write for himself, or his colleagues, but for the public. But dur­ing the period I was composing in earnest it was academia time. There were composers in every university writing for themselves. And so, unconsciously, even though I had every opportunity that any young composer could, I was already composing less because experimental music was what was expected.

You were composing even before you began to study music. What were you listening to? What did you hear that had an impact on you?

The first piece of music I ever heard, I am not embarrassed to say, was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It was suddenly like life opened up and I became immediately interested in music.

Your music brings to mind a number of potential influ­ences, but I’d rather hear from you what they are.

No, I’d rather hear from you. You tell me what the influences are.

I don’t mean this in a stylistic sense, but you remind me of Morton Gould. First of all, because he was a first-class conductor. And the other thing about Mor­ton Gould that you remind me of was his total mastery of musical idioms, both popular and classical. He was kind of an American Malcolm Arnold in the sense that he had this mastery and, therefore, a sense of play in his music. The Fantasia makes me think of British influ­ences. Without knowing your Polish-Russian heritage, the steppes of Russia show up in certain places with Shostakovich as a possible influence [in Winterreise, on the Reference Recordings/Dorian label]. And in something like the beginning of the Passacaglia, I think that you are headed for Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings territory. I don’t know if Barber had any in­fluence on you or not, because you’re not quite that kind of Romantic. Also, you are certainly touched with something in terms of the character of your music that’s meditative, ruminative, and a bit doleful.

It’s a legitimate question. Influences? They are so totally un­conscious. If there are influences in my music, they are not ones that I am conscious of.

I found it hilarious that one critic of your chamber mu­sic CD [on the Phoenix label] said that it’s pure Pierre Boulez in places. If there is anyone who would never come to mind in your music it is Boulez, because you are not a hermetic composer and couldn’t be more open or communicative. You are his antithesis.

Yes, I couldn’t believe it. And those pieces in particular are far removed from the music of Boulez. So much for music critics—[laughter] with great exceptions.

So I don’t know any influences that I’m aware of other than the Slavic spirit that my music has. You can hear it in some pieces in particular, in the second movement of the Partita, the Second Symphony. That is Slavic in character. And my Third Symphony has a Slavic character.

Because of your leadership of the Festival Miami, which you created, you have had the chance to com­mission some works of music, including Elliot Carter’s Fourth String Quartet. I would be very interested in your appraisal of the contemporary music scene. If you were still commissioning, whom would you commis­sion today?

That’s very interesting because there are more composers now in America and in Europe than perhaps ever before, because there is so much more new music being played now in concerts. Let me start with the top one, Elliott Carter. At the age of 96, he is at his best. Each piece of work is supe­rior, and now his Piano Concerto in London was premiered by my friend Oliver Knussen. It’s really audience friendly by Carter’s standards, unlike the string quartets, for which you have to really concentrate. So he would be No. 1. A sec­ond would be a wonderful British composer who should he played more, Simon Bainbridge. He won this great award in Louisville. And third, if you will accept another British com­poser, Oliver Knussen, who needs to be pushed to com­pose, a first-class composer. He’s one of the best composers today and has written relatively little.

You said something very significant about more com­posers today [that] is a bit the opposite of the popular perception. I find it very interesting that the three com­posers whom you chose are not the neo-Romantics. They’re not the audience-friendly composers that have been drawing people back in and have now created the impression that it’s safe to go back to the concert hall.

Yes, you’re so right. That’s interesting. I was going to add a fourth composer to the list, if he were still alive, Jacob Druckman, one of the greatest American composers, whose life was destroyed—literally destroyed—when the Met­ropolitan Opera commissioned him to write an opera and then took away the commission, after Jacob had already fin­ished nearly half of the opera.

What do you think of the American composers who dominate the musical scene today, whether it’s John Adams or Lowell Liebermann?

Lowell Liebermann is completely audience-friendly. His mu­sic is immediately likable because of his clear tonal orienta­tion, but there’s always a touch of originality in everything he writes. And John Adams has managed to be accepted by both the intellectuals and the general public, which is a real accomplishment.

What about your assessment of his work?

I feel very attached to it. Can I say this immodestly? I kind of discovered him. Julliard asked me to do some festivals of contemporary music in New York. So I called John Adams and he sent me the score of his piece called Common Tones in Simple Time. It’s the first time a piece of his was played by an orchestra in New York. It was a premiere, and he couldn’t afford the trip. So he never heard that performance. It was a huge success.

Adams has said some very interesting things—that he learned in school that “tonality died around the same time that Nietzsche’s god died, and I believed it.” And it takes a real shock in your life to overcome that expe­rience. And of course, he’s spearheaded this return to tonality. Do you think that this musical recovery that we’re so privileged to witness over the past years is in some way related to a spiritual recovery?

That’s wonderful of you to put it that way. Let me inter­rupt a little bit before I get to that. John Adams may have spearheaded that movement towards tonality, but it was Jacob Druckman who gave it a name. When Jacob Druck­man was the composer-in-residence of the New York Phil­harmonic, he was given carte blanche to do a festival. He had the nerve in the late seventies to call it the New Ro­manticism. I remember one composer, Ralph Shapey from Chicago, who accosted him in public with a program. He took the program, folded it, and hit him: “How dare you call this a New Romanticism?” It was still the height of the twelve-tone era. Well, the movement was already sneaking in, but no one dared to say it. He was way ahead of his time. And then, before we realized it, it was acceptable to write quasi-tonal music or a combination of tonal music with old techniques.

The arts are usually ahead of the times, so the fact that so much interest in spirituality has been shown of late may well be an indication of a spiritual revival in humanity. It’s not just the highly spiritual works of Part, Gorecki, my friend Rautavaara, Tavener, and even my own new Third Symphony, Mystical Symphony, but many others that reflect a newly found inspiration.

When George Rochberg re-embraced tonality, some­one confronted his sweet wife and said, “What’s George writing beautiful music for? It’s already been done.”

I love it!

Watching you perform, I thought how rhythmically energized you are as a conductor, that any musician who could not follow your beat would have to be blind. I think that, aside from the innate musicality that you bring as a composer to your conducting, the one out­standing thing is the clarity, the clearness of everything in your music making.

When I was trying to characterize your perfor­mance, l put Rene Leibowitz and Toscanini at one end, and Bruno Walter at the other, saying you were more toward the Walter side in your approach to Beethoven. More pianissimo than power, when contrasted to Leibowitz whose interpretation is differentiated only by the varying intensity of the volcanic eruption he cre­ates. You took the music out of the grip of that kind of unrelenting power and freed it in a way, allowing it to breathe more naturally and revealing countless felici­tous details. I was astonished at parts of it. You showed me how beautiful Beethoven is. What conductors do you admire, and which ones had an influence on you?

Obviously Stokowski, but I could never get him to teach me anything, physically speaking, in the sense of saying, “Okay, do it this way.” He never talked about it and, in the years I worked with him, I never approached him with techni­cal questions. Yet I learned more from him than from some of my teachers, by osmosis and by watching him—mostly rehearsal technique. He was businesslike in rehearsal, in the best sense. He was like the CEO of a company, giving ev­eryone the right to control their own departments and yet managing the whole thing perfectly. And even though he appeared like a showman in public life and in performances, he was very methodical, pragmatic.

So I learned from him how to run a rehearsal, which is about 90 percent of the secret to success. He never gave a speech in rehearsals. I heard later on of orchestras be­ing particularly impressed by conductors that don’t give speeches, that don’t use the podium to lecture, but who talk through the music. So I was so lucky to have this mentor who knew how to rehearse an orchestra and didn’t waste time. The worst thing a conductor can do—and there are many famous ones and some so-called great ones who do it—is to stop every few moments to correct things. Even though they are right and the correction is necessary, to interrupt an orchestra is a capital crime. Practical con­ductors save the corrections for the right moment. Psy­chology is a crucial element in conducting: keeping the musicians alert, enthusiastic, and inspired. That’s why it takes decades to become a “real” conductor; it’s a lifetime learning experience.

You can listen to Beethoven’s Seventh by either Toscanini or Furtwangler. Which one do you want to listen to?

You’re talking about the North Pole and the South Pole. They’re both great. How can you choose between them?

Because you have to.

I’ll answer indirectly. If you listened to either today, they would be dismissed because they were so personal, which is what made them great.

What do you hear today as opposed to then?

Today, you hear Xerox performances. There is a piano com­petition sponsored by the Xerox Foundation. I was in the jury and I couldn’t believe it. The poor guy or girl who wins will be the “Xerox pianist.” And unfortunately, this has to do with most performances today, whether it’s piano, violin, or conductor and orchestra.

What do you think led to that condition? Recordings?

I’ll answer your question, again, indirectly. When I was about to record the Mendelssohn symphonies with the

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, I had to confess I had never conducted them in public. So a friend of mine, a very im­portant musicologist and music critic, suggested that he would make tapes of every version ever made of the Men­delssohn Third Symphony. And I thought, “Well, fine. I will listen to a few of them.” I was fascinated—incredible ver­sions that were broadcast from 1910, 1920, that had been kept and other earlier versions. But then by the time you got to 1972, they all started to sound the same. You could interchange one for the other; there was little difference! Recently, a friend sent me an old LP of Furtwangler con­ducting Beethoven’s Ninth. I couldn’t believe it. He was so unusual but so convincing.

Between the North Pole and the South Pole, Toscanini and Furtwangler, where do you live?

I live in the middle, which is the best of both worlds, in the warm equator.

Let me give you another quiz. You can hear Edward Elgar’s First Symphony either by Georg Solti or John Barbirolli. What would you choose?

I would choose both because there are things that are com­mendable in each.

You’re being very kind. If I were to offer an example of what a difference a conductor can make in a particu­lar piece of music, I would give them the Elgar First by Solti, which kept me away from Elgar for years. I listened to this and thought, what the hell is going on in this piece? I don’t understand the attraction. Then I heard the Barbirolli First and all of a sudden this music opened up in a most magnificent way and drew me into what has now been a lifelong love.

Solti was highly overrated, but he had one great thing, his conducting enthusiasm. Love of music too, but technically nothing much there, not really.

You’ve made some 200 records. You conduct all sorts of music. I can’t find a theme in here that this is Jose’s repertoire. What’s going on?

I don’t believe in a specialization because I don’t need it.

Your tastes are that catholic?

Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s also that, when my first re­cord of Charles Ives, his Fourth Symphony, came out, I was being asked to do contemporary American music of that type. But in different parts of the world they think I’m a specialist in different things. In France, they think I specialize in French music, which is very flattering. Here in the States, they think it’s contemporary music with ex­ceptions. But in South America, they think I’m a specialist in Tchaikovsky.

What if a record producer comes to you and says, “Jose, what do you want to record?”

Ah, I wish that would happen. There are several things that I would like to record that I never have recorded, which are very close to my heart. First comes to mind Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. It’s one of the most difficult pieces ever written, technically and in every respect. I’d like to record Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony. Then a complete Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel. I feel an affinity for Ravel’s music and I feel that I can add something of my own, not better than the others, but my own personal version of that.

You need to guide our readers. Which CDs of your mu­sic would you point our readers to first?

The Third Symphony. It’s more approachable, and then I would say the Partita, which is also fun to listen to.

But please say the Fantasia, too, because it’s gorgeous. Which CDs, with you conducting music by other com­posers, would you suggest?

The newest children, my Carmen Symphony and the three Tchaikovsky CDs, all on the BIS label. Also the Glazunov Fifth Symphony, coupled with the ballet The Seasons, my first CD for Warner Classics, a September 2004 release, certainly one of the best recordings I have ever made. Most exciting projects are coming up: a CD of Stokowski transcriptions for Naxos and a second Glazunov volume for Warner Clas­sics. The Stokowski CD is a real challenge, since his own masterful recordings are so far unsurpassed. The challenge with the Glazunov series is to make this great Russian com­poser a household name, something that has eluded him for nearly a century.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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