Remembering a Famous Conductor

Sergiu Commissiona
When I was grow­ing up in Bal­ti­more, the con­duc­tor of the sym­pho­ny orches­tra was a man with the impres­sive name of Sergiu Com­mis­siona. I found out that he died sud­den­ly yes­ter­day of a heart attack in Okla­homa. He’d been guest con­duct­ing all over the world and I’m guess­ing that when he did­n’t show up for morn­ing rehearsals, they found him in his hotel room.

I’m prob­a­bly what one would call a ‘sym­pho­ny brat’. I used to hang around for rehearsals, and after con­certs, I’d go back­stage to the Green Room and talk to the per­form­ers (some­times get­ting an auto­graph to add to my col­lec­tion). I got to see Mae­stro Com­mis­siona on a fair­ly reg­u­lar basis. It’s not that I was par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to the sym­pho­ny; it was a fam­i­ly affair. My father was the orches­tra’s staff pianist — that’s the pianist who plays the piano parts in non-con­cer­to pieces, includ­ing pieces like Saint-Saën’s Organ Sym­pho­ny and Respighi’s Pines of Rome, as well as the celes­ta solos (like the Sug­ar Plum fairy in the Nut­crack­er Suite and the like). My moth­er was an occa­sion­al vocal soloist with the sym­pho­ny as well, and opened one sea­son singing in the last move­ment of Mahler’s Fourth Sym­pho­ny. If you’ve nev­er heard it, it’s a big part, more a sym­phon­ic lieder than a move­ment from a sym­pho­ny. Between their work with the sym­pho­ny and my inter­est in the music (and per­haps some of the glam­our) I was as reg­u­lar as a 14-year old kid can be at sym­pho­ny con­certs. Com­mis­siona was a good con­duc­tor, if a bit eccen­tric. He could make old chest­nuts like Beethoven Piano Con­cer­ti or Dvo­rak Sym­phonies sound like new again. He was not par­tic­u­lar­ly clear or pre­cise, which made him mad­den­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to fol­low (as my father would have to report after gru­el­ing rehearsals). How­ev­er, when it came time to make the orches­tra give an inspired and grip­ping per­for­mance, you could count on him every time. As the sym­pho­ny brochures would quote from some crit­ic years ago: “Light­ning has struck the podi­um.”. While I would­n’t quite go that far, I’d def­i­nite­ly say that he had inter­est­ing musi­cal ideas, along with a ton of pure charis­ma, and he was­n’t afraid to use it.

Com­mis­siona was an impres­sive man to meet as well. He was from Roma­nia and hence had an accent sim­i­lar to Bela Lugosi’s. He was tall with a hawk nose, wild wavy hair and flashy clothes. He talked fast, and moved swift­ly, almost brusque­ly. He was mar­ried to a bal­le­ri­na (also Roman­ian) and they were cer­tain­ly in every sense, jet-set­ters. As Bar­ry Levin­son shows in his films, Bal­ti­more in the 60s and 70s was a pret­ty provin­cial town, so these Euro­pean cognoscen­ti were quite the celebri­ties for us. Like many, I was part­ly in awe of him, but that changed over time.
When I went away to col­lege in Cincin­nati, Com­mis­siona would some­times come to town to guest con­duct the Cincin­nati Sym­pho­ny. On those vis­its, I would take time off from my class­es and go to many of the rehearsals. What bet­ter train­ing for a young music stu­dent who was even doing a lit­tle con­duct­ing him­self? ( but not much yet, as I real­ly did­n’t con­duct much until grad school) I’d meet him in the morn­ing, go with him to rehearsal (car­ry­ing his scores), and aft­ward we’d go to lunch at his hotel. We talked about music a lot. We were both big fans of Scri­abin, and I was thrilled to hear that he liked his music too. Being a Scri­abin fan is like being in a small secret club; Scri­abin’s music is exot­ic, com­plex and idio­syn­crat­ic. Peo­ple tend to either love it or hate it. Although I played the part of a young and eager aide-de-camp at his side, we enjoyed each oth­er’s com­pa­ny, and I looked for­ward to his visits.
He was kind of fun­ny, too. Once when he was rehears­ing Bar­tok’s Piano Con­cer­to No. 2, he had just fin­ished rehears­ing the first move­ment. As they fin­ished the read-through of the move­ment and took a breath, he imme­di­ate­ly called out ‘Strings too loud!’. The string sec­tion chuck­led; They had­n’t played a sin­gle note. Bar­tok scored the first move­ment of that con­cer­to for piano and winds alone.

With our upcom­ing move to Van­cou­ver, I was look­ing for­ward to see­ing Sergiu again, this time as an adult. He had been the Van­cou­ver Sym­pho­ny’s con­duc­tor until 2000 or so and I was hop­ing that our paths might have crossed again there. It would have been nice.
Instead, I’m left with some nice mem­o­ries of the grande Mae­stro who I got to hang out with as a stu­dent. I’m hap­py I have those, at least.