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Sergiu Comissiona (Conductor, Violin)

Born: June 16, 1928 - Bucharest, Romania
Died: March 5, 2005 - Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA

The prominent Romanian-born American conductor and violinist, Sergiu Comissiona, began violin studies at the age of 5. He studied conducting at the Bucharest Conservatory, and then privately with Silvestri and Lindenberg. He made his conducting debut at the age of 17, leading a performance of Gounod's opera Faust in the Romanian town of Silbiu.

Sergiu Comissiona’s first professional engagement was as a violinist in the Bucharest Radio Quartet in 1947 and also as a violinist in the Romanian State Ensemble in 1947. Meanwhile, he had debuted as a conductor in 1946 with the Romanian State Opera Orchestra. In 1948 he received an appointment as assistant conductor of the Romanian State Ensemble, which consisted of an orchestra, a chorus, and dancers. He became its Music Director from 1950 to 1955. In 1955, he became Principal Conductor of the Romanian State Opera, which he led until 1959. In 1956, he won the prestigious Besançon Conducting Competition.

His Jewish heritage drew Sergiu Comissiona to emigrate to Israel in 1959, where he was soon appointed Music Director of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra the same year. In 1960 he founded and was appointed Music Director of the Ramat-Gan Chamber Orchestra, which he led until 1967. He began to appear as guest conductor in Europe, including his British debut, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1960. His first North American appearance was taking the Israel Chamber Orchestra on tour in 1963. In 1965 made his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he frequently guest conducted at the Royal Ballet in London's Covent Garden from 1962 to 1966. He became a favorite for his renditions of Tchaikovsky's and Igor Stravinsky's ballets. In 1966, he resigned from the Haifa Symphony, and in 1968 he emigrated to the USA. In 1966 he became Music Director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Sweden (1966-1977), and in 1967 he gave up his chamber orchestra position in Israel to become Principal Conductor of the Northern Ireland Orchestra (Ulster Orchestra) in Belfast (1967-1968/1969).

Sergiu Comissiona held music directorships with some of North America's leading ensembles. In 1969, he was appointed Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and moved his home to that city in the state of Maryland, a historic east coast port city near Washington, D.C. In both cities, he was credited with making immediate continuous and marked improvements in the orchestras' standards. He transformed the Baltimore Orchestra from a little-known ensemble into a nationally respected orchestra, eventually leading taking it on its first international tour and directing it in its first recordings. He stayed in Baltimore for 15 seasons (until 1984). Critic Stephen Wigler of the Baltimore Sun said, "The modern Baltimore Symphony was created by Sergiu Comissiona." When his application to become a naturalized USA citizen was accepted, Comissiona chose to receive his citizenship oath in a historical ceremony held on America's Bicentennial Day (July 4, 1976) at Fort McHenry in Baltimore (famed as the site of the events that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner"). During his tenure in Baltimore, Comissiona also was Music Director of the Chautauqua (New York) Festival Orchestra (1976-1980), music advisor of the Temple University Festival in Ambler (1977-1980), and music advisor of the American Symphony Orchestra in New York (1977-1982). When he left the Baltimore Symphony in 1986, he was appointed Conductor Laureate, and continues to make appearances with them.

Sergiu Comissiona served as Artistic Director (1980-1985), Music Director-designate (1983-1984) and Music Director (1984-1988) of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He became Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Hilversum, Netherlands, in 1982. In 1987-1988 he was also Music Director of the New York City Opera. In 1990, he became Principal Conductor of the Spanish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra in Madrid, the RTVE Symphony Orchestra, a position that continued until 1998, and from 1990 to 1994 he held the same position with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Comissiona was also associated with shorter appointments with several other orchestras. He served as Music Director-designate (1990-1991) and Music Director (1991-1994) of the CBC Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. He was also Music Director of the Asian Youth Orchestra, which he has taken on a major European tour. From 1997 until his death, he was principal guest conductor for the USC Thornton Symphony at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.

Sergiu Comissiona premiered and made the first recordings of a number of modern works including symphonies by Allan Pettersson, who dedicated his Symphony No. 9 to him, as well as works by Michael Jeffrey Shapiro and Elie Siegmeister. Comissiona conducted Siegmeister's An Entertainment for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra at the Merriwether Post Pavilion on July 2, 1976 with Ann Saslav, piano, and Isidor Saslav, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, as soloists. The Saslavs had commissioned the work from Siegmeister.

Sergiu Comissiona and his wife became American citizens on July 4, 1976, at a special Bicentennial ceremony at Fort McHenry on Baltimore Harbor. He was a longtime resident of New York City. He died of a heart attack, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, just hours before he was to perform.

Sergiu Comissiona was one of the leading conductors of the 20th century, particularly respected for his abilities as an orchestra-builder. He is characterized by rich, clear, fiery interpretations and a knack for innovative, wide-ranging choices of repertoire. He was made a Knight of l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France; received a Mus D. honoris causa from the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts; was an honorary member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and founder national competition for young American conductors of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

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Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Wikipedia Website (November 2012); All Music Guide Website (Author: Joseph Stevenson)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (December 2012)

Sergiu Comissiona: Short Biography | Houston Symphony Orchestra | Recordings of Vocal Works | Recordings of Instrumental Works

Links to other Sites

Sergiu Comissiona (Wikipedia)
Sergiu Comissiona (AMG)

Sergiu Comissiona (Find a Grave)
Sergiu Comissiona, 76, Busy Conductor, Is Dead (NY Times)

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