'Seeking the Infinite': New film tells the story of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducts the Minnesota Orchestra during a rehearsal at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, Minn., Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014.MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

October 15, 2015

"Sometimes very great artists who approach their life's work with total selfless devotion, great humility, and modesty remain underappreciated and their legacy undervalued."

Gunther Schuller's words stand as an epigraph to Seeking the Infinite, a new documentary film about Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, his fellow composer and conductor. They point to a surprising truth about Skrowaczewski: he is nowhere near as well-known and celebrated among the global classical music community as he ought to be.

Things are different in the Twin Cities, where over 50 years conducting the Minnesota Orchestra—including 19 years as music director—have earned Skrowaczewski legendary status, and an honored position as Conductor Laureate. Here "Stan" is indeed "the Man," a colossus of Minnesota music-making.

Frederick Harris, Jr. has already written an acclaimed biography of Skrowaczewski, and his new film strikes an appropriately modest, unassuming note in charting the life and career of its subject.

There's fascinating archive footage from Skrowaczewski's early years in Lwów, Poland, at that time part of the Soviet Ukraine. He was born there in 1923, and the family survived both Soviet and German occupations in World War Two.

Post-war, Skrowaczewski continued to build his conducting career in Poland. Then, in 1960, the offer came to lead the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, forerunner of the present Minnesota Orchestra. He was not slow to make an impact, playing an instrumental role in ensuring that a new Orchestra Hall was constructed in downtown Minneapolis, and introducing contemporary music from Europe to Twin Cities audiences.

Together Skrowaczewski and his wife Krystyna raised a family at their new house in Wayzata, and Harris's film is laced with intimate images from home movies and photograph albums. Skrowaczewski was, apparently, a different person away from the podium: relaxing in the garden, entertaining visitors, and piggybacking his children round the living room.

Much of the film, quite properly, focuses on Skrowaczewski's role as a conductor. He's pictured talking about music ("it takes me out of this world, it is metaphysical to me") and there are absorbing clips of him performing with a variety of orchestras. Always there is the same eagle-like watchfulness as he monitors the players, the same intensity of engagement with the inner spirit of the music being conducted.

The Bruckner excerpts are particularly affecting. Skrowaczewski is a great interpreter of the Austrian composer, and it's probably no accident that his forthcoming Minneapolis concerts showcase the Seventh Symphony, a work he first heard on a balmy summer day aged seven, its sounds drifting into the Skrowaczewski residence from a radio in the street below.

That open-window encounter changed his life, and to this day he says that Bruckner is "someone special." Skrowaczewski's complete recording of the Bruckner symphonies is also special, "among the finest cycles available" according to David Hurwitz, one of America's most judicious critics.

His Beethoven symphony recordings are also rated among the very finest, and at the conclusion of this neatly edited, sensitively assembled documentary Gunther Schuller's epigraph is still hanging in the ether. Exactly why is Stanislaw Skrowaczewski not more widely fêted and appreciated?

Perhaps because, in an era of hotshot, media-savvy young conductors he is an unrelentingly serious musician, interested only in the music set before him and its potential for taking audiences to another place, beyond the cares and worries of the present moment. Celebrity, for Skrowaczewski, comes a distant second—you get the impression from Harris's film that he is totally uninterested in its siren voices.

His own music is another issue. Throughout his life Skrowaczewski has also been a composer, with nearly 100 pieces to his credit. The tantalizing snippets that we hear from them in Seeking the Infinite suggest that they too are seriously underrated, and in need of reappraisal.

All that is for the future. For the present, Harris's documentary is essential viewing, a fitting tribute to a consummate musician whose contribution to Minnesota's musical life is incalculable.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra perform Schumann and Bruckner today, Friday, and Saturday at Orchestra Hall. Two free screenings of Seeking the Infinite precede each of the three concerts.


Terry Blain was educated in Northern Ireland and Cambridge, England, and writes for a wide range of publications, including BBC Music Magazine and Opera Magazine. In his spare time he is an avid record collector, and walks his dog Buddy.