Sad news: Death of an international maestro

Sad news: Death of an international maestro


norman lebrecht

December 23, 2014

We have been informed of the death, early today near Lausanne, Switzerland, of the Polish-born French conductor Jerzy Semkow. He was 86.

A student of Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, and Tulio Serafin and assistant for two years to Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad, Semkow started out in 1959 as artistic director of the Warsaw National Opera. He was principal conductor of the Danish Royal Opera, 1966-76 and music director of the St. Louis Symphony 1976-79. He went on to conduct most of the major US orchs and recorded copiously on several labels, notably Russian repertoire for EMI.



  • Leonard Slatkin says:

    This is sad news indeed. Maestro Semkow was my predecessor in St. Louis as well as a frequent guest conductor in Detroit. Always serious in his approach to music, he brought distinctive interpretations to whatever works he conducted. But his playful nature would also come out in conversation and private moments. He will be missed.

  • Steve Smith says:

    Thank you for sharing the news, Norman. And thanks, too, to Leonard Slatkin, for your kind remarks. I never saw Jerzy Semkow perform, but have warm memories of his St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recordings for Vox, and have just fired up his handsome cycle of the Schumann symphonies on Naxos Music Library in his honor.

  • Kevin Case says:

    When I started out as a violinist with the Rochester Philharmonic in the early 90s, Jerzy Semkov was the principal guest conductor. Some of those performances are seared into my memory — I particularly remember a Beethoven Pastoral that featured slower tempos than I have ever encountered, and was absolutely glorious from start to finish.
    The orchestra adored him. The moment he came on stage for rehearsal, there was dead silence and all the string players sat up ramrod straight at the edge of their chairs. Total respect — and it felt entirely mutual.
    RIP, Maestro.

  • william wolfram says:

    I was fortunate to work with him in Rochester with Beethoven #1 and Schumann concerti..I was in awe !! He turned back the clock to a former time…his freedom and ability to tell a musical story on stage! His holistic style of conducting…his entire body directed you.
    Classical music desperately needs more of his kind !!

    William Wolfram

  • John says:

    I heard him just one time, with the St Louis Symphony, leading a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Krannert Center (Univ of Illinois) with Eileen Farrell and Spas Wenkoff. He was very impressive!

    • Steve Smith says:

      That must have been marvelous to hear. I wonder whether it was documented somehow, legitimately or otherwise? I ask this as I listen to the glow Semkow elicits from the SLSO in their Vox recording of Wagner instrumental music – the prelude to Act 1 of ‘Lohengrin,’ specifically.

      Thank you for your wonderful anecdotes, Kevin and William.

      • David Hyslop says:

        Jerzy Semkov was the music director of the St. Louis Symphony during my first year there as CEO ( 1978) . The Orchestra played the Athens Festival that year with both Jerzy and Leonard Slatkin conducting. I kept the contact up as Jerzy also guest conducted during my tenure as CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra and I visited him both in Paris and while guest conducting in Pittsburgh .

        He was a major talent and, to say the least, one of a kind ! He will be missed indeed .

  • Jules says:

    I saw him several times in Rochester (including the performance Bill mentioned). We just loved the way he walking into the orchestra to invite each chosen player to stand. If the musicians loved and respected Maestro Semkow, the feeling was clearly mutual. He directed one of the finest “Pictures” I have ever heard. An old-school artiste. He will be sorely missed.

  • Peter Donohoe says:

    Very sad news indeed. I was a great admirer of Maestro Semkow.

    I had the honour of working with him in 1989 over a period of three weeks or so in Australia with at least three different orchestras and on Mozart K503, Brahms 1st and Bartok 2nd Concertos. Whatever the style, he was extraordinarily conscientious, sometimes very eccentric, but his faithfulness to the composer was beyond compare. And his orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdammerung in Sydney with the SSO were awe-inspiring!

    The last time we met was in 2008 we were recording Brahms 2 for Polish Radio in Katowice, and he invited me to his hotel suite to ply me with some kind of alcohol – probably Polish Wodka – and to give me a lesson on how to – or rather not to – behave in rehearsal with orchestras. Everything he said was right of course, and I have lived by his advice ever since. I can picture him now, dressed only in a bathrobe, eating nuts and bananas and drinking tea, and explaining to me that banging on about the same rhythmic problem only made it worse, and upset everyone far more than the original worry was worth.

    His personality was very eccentric, but always playful when appropriate, and extremely serious about the job in hand. I wish very much that I had worked with him more frequently; he was an inspiration and a very good man.

  • Andrew Zaplatynsky says:

    One of my most prized possessions is a letter that Maestro Semkow sent me from Paris several years ago. He paid me the supreme compliment by writing “please consider me your friend”. I have vivid memories of our conversations going back to my time with the Detroit Symphony in the mid 70’s. He was an aristocrat in the best sense of the word. Rest in peace, dear Maestro.

  • bruce uchimura says:

    I experienced Maestro Semkow’s genius in his brilliant interpretations of the awkward and sometimes “self conscious” Schumann 4th Symphony many moons ago with the Aspen Chamber Symphony. He looked like Abe Lincoln and uttered wisdom and love for the music that was not to be rivaled. He had a tremendous ear, listening ability and chamber music sense in his rehearsals. His substantial musical contributions will be missed.

  • Stephen Millen says:

    I had the rare priveledge of both performing under Maestro Semkow and creating programs with him. I was a frequent substitute clarinet player with the Detroit Symphony, and performed on a Tchaikovsky 4th with him that has made it difficult to appreciate any other performances. His interpretation seemed “definitive.” Later, I became the General Manager of the Detroit Symphony and relished working with him on programming and spending time with him away from the stage as part of his frequent visits to that fantastic orchestra. He was idiosyncratic (to say the least), but in a way that was totally endearing.

    Jerzy was not only a great conductor; he was a wonderful human-being.

  • Mark Stryker says:

    Some reflections from Detroit, where Semkow first guest conducted in 1971 and returned nearly every year for the next 40.

  • Pier Carlo Acchino says:

    Only today (!) I have learnt the death of Maestro Jerzy Semkow and I am very sad for this.
    I remember as strongly impressive a performance of the Bruckner’s Third Symphony (joined with a horn Concerto of Mozart) in Turin, during the Seventies of thre past century (maybe 1976 or beginning of 1977). He performed it as a guest conductor of the Turin Symphony Orchestra of Italian Radio Broadcasting Society. I started to love Bruckner from that night! I remember as today his clear gesture and the excellent performance he was able to offer us.

  • Klaidi Sahatci says:

    I played under Maestro Semkow in National Orchestra of Lyon , it was some of best concerts of my musical live. His remark about accents I remember still today:
    ” Don’t play here an accent please, it is like a ketchup stain in a white shirt!”
    Rip Maestro

  • Marianda Quadakkers says:

    Did not know him at all but am listening to his Boris Godunov for EMI and was struck by the warmth, elegance and beautifully timed tempi throughout… his spirit lives on!

  • Memories come flooding back. He was complicated, brilliant, and at times, I think, misunderstood….I was a member of the SLS chorus during his tenure and in several recording sessions with him…it was never boring. We were quite close and corresponded for a time after he left. He was a lovely person out of the spotlight…witty and charming, playful sense of humor, such a gentleman. I am thankful I still have our letters…from another place and time…..