Sergiu Comissiona

Instinctive and widely travelled conductor
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The Independent Online

Sergiu Comissiona was one of the world's best-travelled conductors, a welcome guest with orchestras the world around - though it was in America that he made his deepest impression. He was, in the words of Stephen Cera, music critic of The Baltimore Sun in the latter part of the 25 years Comissiona spent with the orchestra there,

Sergiu Comissiona, conductor: born Bucharest 16 June 1928; married Robinne Florin; died Oklahoma City 5 March 2005.

Sergiu Comissiona was one of the world's best-travelled conductors, a welcome guest with orchestras the world around - though it was in America that he made his deepest impression. He was, in the words of Stephen Cera, music critic of The Baltimore Sun in the latter part of the 25 years Comissiona spent with the orchestra there,

an instinctive and intuitive rather than intellectual conductor, emotionally generous in big Romantic scores, wonderfully adept at achieving coloristic nuances. He preferred a light, transparent sound; under him, the Baltimore Symphony was the orchestral equivalent of a lovely and warm lyric soprano.

Comissiona was born in Bucharest in 1928, into a musical family, and began studying the violin at five. Conducting beckoned early: he studied with Constantin Silvestri and Edouard Lindenberg and made his début at only 17, stepping in as a substitute to take over a performance of Gounod's Faust in Sibiu. In 1946, as a violinist, he joined the Bucharest Radio Quartet and in 1947 the Romanian State Ensemble. In interview 40 years later he recalled his path to the podium:

From seven years, I started to go to concerts, collecting autographs and preparing the scores for the concert during the week and, of course, dreaming that the conductor would be sick. Then I would jump on the stage, make my début and I would be famous. It did happen, with the Romanian State Ensemble - without poisoning the conductor.

He held the assistant conductorship of the ensemble for two years (1948-50) and was its music director for the next five; from 1955 until 1959 he was principal conductor of the Romanian State Opera.

International attention had come in 1956, when he won the conducting competition in Besançon. Romania was not to hold on to Comissiona for much longer, either: being Jewish, he emigrated to Israel and took Israeli citizenship in 1959. He made his mark in his new homeland, serving as chief conductor of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra from 1960 to 1966. In 1960, too, he founded the Ramat Gan Chamber orchestra, directing it until 1967. During this period he was a frequent visitor to Britain, appearing first with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1960 and then as a guest conductor of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden between 1962 and 1966 - his spirited gestures allying themselves naturally to the choreographic movement on stage.

Comissiona was first heard in his next adoptive country, the United States, in 1963, conducting the Israel Chamber Orchestra on tour; two years later he was invited to appear as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Other invitations began to arrive regularly, the long tenures which resulted giving an indication of how much his secure musicianship was appreciated: he was music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for 11 years from 1966 (with 1967-68 as music adviser of the recently founded BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra in Belfast) and in 1969 he began his long relationship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

He conducted a staggering 874 concerts in Baltimore, 21 of them including world premieres. He took the orchestra on its first foreign tour, to Mexico, in 1979, and two years later they toured the two Germanies, when the Baltimore Symphony became the first American orchestra to be invited to the Dresden music festival. His adventurous programming brought 271 works to Baltimore for the first time, and the BSO made its first recordings under him. Stephen Wigler, music critic for The Baltimore Sun during the early part of his time in Maryland, put it bluntly: "The modern Baltimore Symphony was created by Sergiu Comissiona."

Comissiona and his wife, Robinne, also of Romanian origin, took their American citizenship with style - on the very day of the Bicentennial, 4 July 1976, at a special ceremony at Fort McHenry on Baltimore Harbor, itself a place of particular significance: it was the defence of Fort McHenry against the British in September 1814 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Sergiu Comissiona was active in the opera house as well as on the orchestral podium. He returned to Covent Garden - for Rossini's Il barbiere di Seviglia - in 1975; his New York operatic début came with Puccini's La fanciulla del West two years later. Music directorship of the New York City Opera followed in 1987-88, and in 1989 he appeared at the Metropolitan Opera with Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Further afield, he was the chief conductor of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Hilversum from 1982 and of the Helsinki Philharmonic for three years from 1990 - a position he held simultaneously with the Radio- Televisión Orquestra Sinfónica in Madrid and, from 1991, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 2000 and was described as "the best thing to happen to Vancouver's musical life in a generation".

At the time of his death - in his sleep but also in the saddle: he was in Oklahoma City to give a concert - Comissiona held a number of posts, among them the principal guest conductorships of the Jerusalem Symphony, the George Enescu Philharmonic (Bucharest) and the University of Southern California Symphony Orchestras.

Stephen Cera sums up Comissiona as

a tremendously gifted "born" conductor with a decidedly unorthodox technique that could not have been easy to follow. In many ways he was old-fashioned in the best sense - almost a throwback to an earlier era of conducting giants . . . His acute ear for subtly nuanced orchestral sound distinguished his finest performances: an almost alchemical ability to transform the dry ink of musical notation into bewitching sound-images.

Comissiona's repertoire was huge and is reflected in his substantial discography, which is distinguished by an adventurous taste in repertoire: he was recording little-known composers like the Swedish symphonist Allan Pettersson long before this marginal post-Mahlerian became fashionable.

Martin Anderson

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