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The Hidden Composer: Jose Serebrier

Composer and conductor Jose Serebrier

It's funny. Just when you think you know someone inside out and upside-down, you're hit with the realization that you really only know half the story. That's Jose Serebrier. The 76-year-old, Uruguayan-born Serebrier is one of the best-known and most-frequently recorded conductors of his generation. But, did you know he is also quite a prolific and accomplished composer? He is. So much so that he considers himself not a conductor who also composes, but a composer who also conducts.

Get this: as a composer, Serebrier has won two Guggenheims, Rockefeller Foundation grants, commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Harvard Musical Association, the BMI Award, and more. His First Symphony, Elegy for Strings, and the Poema Elegiaco were premiered by Leopold Stokowski, and several of his more than 100 works have become successful ballets with companies such as the Joffrey Ballet. A recent work, the Violin Concerto: Winter has been performed with brilliant success in New York, Miami, London and Madrid; it was recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Serebrier's Third Symphony and his Fantasia for Strings are amongst his most popular works. His style is energetic, colorful and melodic. One of his most unusual works is Passacaglia and Perpetuum Mobile for accordion and chamber orchestra. All of his works, with the exception of his harp concerto Colores Magicos, have been recorded on various labels. The harp concerto is scheduled for recording this year. BIS Records recently released Serebrier's Flute Concerto with Tango, which they commissioned for flutist Sharon Bezaly.  Many other of Serebrier's works have been released by Naxos and Warner Classics.

Serebrier was born in Montevideo to Russian and Polish parents. He first conducted an orchestra at the age of eleven, while at school. The school orchestra toured the country, which meant he was able to notch up over one hundred performances within four years. He graduated from the Municipal School of Music in Montevideo at fifteen, having studied violin, solfege, and Latin American folklore. That year, the annual composition contest by the National Orchestra, known as SODRE, was announced very late, only two weeks before the deadline. The young musician, thinking that if he won he might be permitted to conduct his work, entered the contest with a hastily written Legend of Faust overture. Serebrier won the contest. But the composer being only fifteen, the premiere was given to Eleazar de Carvalho, who later that same year became his conducting teacher at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home.

He was awarded a United States State Department Fellowship to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, with Vittorio Giannini. Later he studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, and with Pierre Monteux. His first symphony, written at the age of 17, was premiered by Leopold Stokowski, as the last minute substitute for the Ives Fourth Symphony, which proved still unplayable at the time. The recording of that Stokowski performance was recently released on CD. Another recording of this work was recently released by Naxos, with the composer conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Jill speaks with Serebrier about being a composer as well as a conductor, how he balances the two, knowing his composing is a bigger part of him, and plays several of his works.  

Crossover, Saturday at 11:30 am on WRTI-FM, with an encore the following Friday evening at 7 pm on WRTI-HD2. Both airings can be heard on the All-Classical web stream at wrti.org.

It's his parents' fault. For Joe's sixth birthday, they gave him a transistor radio. All of a sudden, their dreams of having a doctor or lawyer (or even a fry cook) in the family went down the tubes.