Interview: Up Close and Personal with Maestro José Serebrier

A new book provides a detailed and delightful examination of the Maestro's life and achievements.

By: Jun. 07, 2021
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There are those celebrities who flash across the public's consciousness like a meteor, leaving a trail of stardust in their wake. Then there are those journeyman artists whose lives are more quietly led and whose art leaves little to no impact on the world (but who are appreciated nonetheless).

José Serebrier falls into neither of these categories. He is unique. One of a kind. And a musician of the highest caliber who just happens to live on New York City's Upper West Side. Sometimes with his wife, soprano Carole Farley, and mostly on his own, Maestro Serebrier has created a massive body of work, has established an international career, and is known as one of the most recorded conductors in history with over three hundred CDs to his credit. He has amassed countless awards, including the Latin GRAMMY for "Best Recording of the Year" and innumerable GRAMMY Nominations. To this day he is one of the very few classical musicians to have ever conducted at the GRAMMY ceremony, which is televised world-wide. His high-intensity compositions retain a slight Latin flavor and have strong hints of Slavic influence.

The Maestro is the subject of an absorbing new book by Michel Faure. José Serebrier, Portraits of the Maestro,to be published by Rowan Littlefield/Amadeus Press in August (and already available on pre-order). Last Tango Before Sunrise, a new CD of his compositions released in May 2021 on Reference Recordings is attaining great critical acclaim.

Serebrier has conducted orchestras all over the world, including the American Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic, London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, Russian National Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Royal Scottish, RTE Dublin, and many more. In the U.S. he has conducted the orchestras of Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and has also recorded with the New York Philharmonic among others. He was the Composer-in-Residence at the Cleveland Orchestra for two seasons at the invitation of George Szell. Serebrier studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, at Tanglewood with Aaron Copland, and privately with Antal Dorati and Pierre Monteux.

This is only a tiny portion of the Maestro's incredibly rich and multi-faceted life. In a recent email interview in advance of the book's publication, Maestro Serebrier offered some fascinating insights into his life and work:

Joanna Barouch (JB): Who are your compositional heroes? Why does their music capture your attention?

José Serebrier (JS): My first discovery was with the music of Tchaikovsky. The melodic warmth, masterful orchestration, sensitivity, reached my heart from the first time I heard it. I recorded the Fourth Symphony, and many other works, and I continue to program Tchaikovsky's music often.

My tastes evolved and I became one with the music of Ravel and Debussy, and later on Wagner, Sibelius, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. In different parts of the world I am considered an "expert" on very different styles. In South America they think of me as an expert on Slavic music, perhaps because I have recorded the complete Dvorák, complete Glazunov, complete Janacek, etc. In the U.S. for a long time, everyone thought of me for contemporary music because one of my first "hits" was the recording of Symphony No.4 by Charles Ives with the London Philharmonic, and previously I had also recorded it alongside Leopold Stokowski and we premiered it together at Carnegie Hall. I do love Ives' music and I have performed and recorded several of his amazing works.

I also champion the music of contemporary American composers. For a while in the U.K., they considered me a Gershwin expert. That's a long story which is in the upcoming book. The most flattering of these conceptions is in France, where for a while I was considered an expert on French music because of my championing the amazingly beautiful Chausson symphony and music by other French composers.

In reality, I love all good music.

JB: Who do you see as the audience for this book? Is it different from its previous publication twenty years ago?

JS: The new book is far more complete than the first one, and for a general readership. Musicians and the general public would enjoy the endless anecdotes not only about musical icons like Copland, Stokowski, Szell, Monteux, Boulez, Bernstein, and in more recent times Ozawa, Mehta, Zinman, Abbado, but also Salvador Dali, other artists, choreographers, writers, etc. For music students I hope it provides an inspiration for hard work and self-confidence.

The French book, published by L'Harmattan, became a best seller and remains available. I was delighted when Amadeus Press approached me about publishing an updated version in English. The book is replete with unbelievable anecdotes, and includes many other interviews with major music publications from around the world, a complete discography, a listing of my 100+ published compositions, and much more. The warm introduction by John Corigliano is very special.

JB: Which of your compositions do you hope will be considered most important in fifty years?

JS: Such an interesting question. How can I tell? So many things play a part in the eventual fate of either the entire opus or any of the works, and that applies to all composers past and present.

I never think in those terms, but your question regards which works I hope will best represent my music in the future, so my answer is really about which works are closest to my heart. Ask a parent which child they prefer most...

I just had a brass quartet in England transcribe my Saxophone Quartet and they asked me about recording it. I wrote it when I was fifteen and it opened many doors, acceptance to study with Bohuslav Martinu at the Curtis Institute, to study with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, my first composition awards including BMI, and my first Guggenheim as the youngest ever to receive it in any field. Shortly after that work I composed my First Symphony in One Movement. By then I was seventeen. By a series of amazing coincidences, Stokowski chose to conduct the world premiere as the last minute substitute for the announced premiere of the Ives Fourth Symphony, long awaited and anticipated. The new book will tell the entire saga!

Perhaps my Second Symphony would be considered more important in the future. That work also has a colorful history, as does my "Fantasia" for strings, which Stokowski premiered at Carnegie Hall.

The new RR CD has several of my early works and also some of my newest ones, like "Last Tango Before Sunrise" (which serves as the title of the CD). Among my newest is my "Candombe", and I'm rather pleased with it. It's fun to play and it's fun to hear it.

The CD traces my music from start until today, and it includes my harp concerto, "Colores Mágicos", first recording. This piece has a colorful history, from its inception while I was Composer-in-Residence of the Cleveland Orchestra to its use by the Joffrey Ballet for one of their big hits with which they toured the country. The CD ends with this piece because after that nothing else could follow. When you hear it, you enter another world.

I am deeply grateful to Maestro Serebrier for his wonderful answers to my questions. He is someone with whom all music lovers should be acquainted and his music is a treat to hear!


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