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-SaÃ«n’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.