Sergiu Comissiona takes up the BSO baton once more

May 12, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Two things concerning Sergiu Comissiona about which there is no doubt: the Romanian-born conductor (along with his patron, Joseph Meyerhoff) created a fine orchestra during his 15-year tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; and, he conducts French repertory -- such as "La Mer," which is featured on his BSO program tonight -- with a subtle flexibility of rhythm and sense of color few conductors can match.

"It could be because I loved French culture and the French language when I was growing up in Bucharest that French music means a lot to me," says Comissiona, the BSO's music director from 1969 to 1984 and now music director of the Vancouver Symphony and the chief conductor of the Radio Symphony of Madrid, in his still-fractured English.

"But [French music] is not easy to do," he says. "It takes a lot of patience from an orchestra. This is not music by Brahms, where you perform completely the statement of the theme. In 'La Mer,' you rehearse slowly because the color and rhythm change with every bar."

So expert is Comissiona in French music that it comes as something of a surprise that this September he will lead the Bucharest Philharmonic in a week of American music, conducting pieces by composers as varied as Barber, Elliot Carter, Copland, David Diamond, Tobias Picker and William Schuman.

And this surprise wounds Comissiona's feelings.

"I took very seriously being an American musician -- I knew it was more than carrying an American passport," Comissiona says, adding proudly that Columbia University honored him with its annual Ditson Prize for the promotion of American music.

"In my years in Baltimore I did over 100 American works."

The American works included BSO commissions of new works by Roger Sessions, George Rochberg and Jacob Druckman.

How did Comissiona find the money to pay for works by composers so important? The answer is always the same.

"Meyerhoff," Comissiona says. "He hated to pay for it. But he said to me, 'If you think it's important, we should do it.' "

Comissiona has been returning to his native city regularly since the revolution that overthrew the Communists in 1991. That year he conducted Verdi's Requiem in honor of those who died in the fight to establish democracy.

The following year, he conducted another symbolic piece -- Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony."

As his country's most famous conductorial export, it was only natural that he would be selected to lead the music of his adopted country. But between his emigration to Israel in 1959 and 1982, he never once returned to Romania.

"When I finally went back, it was a little frightening because I still was not sure I would get out," Comissiona says.

"Joe and Rebecca [Meyerhoff] came along -- partly to reassure me, I think.

"He was a good man," Comissiona says of Meyerhoff, for whom the symphony hall is named. "The results -- which we hear every time we hear this orchestra -- speak for themselves."

MAESTRO RETURNS

What: Sergiu Comissiona conducts Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

When: 8:15 tonight, tomorrow and Saturday

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $16-$45

Call: (410) 783-8000

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