By Cecilia Burcescu. Xlibris, 580 pp, $28.20, softcover
At one point in this epic biography of former Vancouver Symphony Orchestra musical director Sergiu Comissiona, the maestro declares: “Unfortunately, the fame of a conductor lasts only as long as he lives. Afterwards, he is forgotten.” Vancouver author and poet Cecilia Burcescu has made a Herculean effort to prove him wrong in A Romanian Rhapsody: The Life of Conductor Sergiu Comissiona.
In 1990, Comissiona, a celebrated Romanian-born conductor, was appointed musical director of the then demoralized and debt-soaked VSO. By the time he left 10 years later, the accumulated deficit had been wiped out, the VSO was in the black, and subscriptions were up substantially.
More importantly, as Burcescu demonstrates, the VSO emerged as a majestic musical force under Comissiona’s direction. The book chronicles numerous successes, including the dazzling 1995 season-opening marathon performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Burcescu also covers a memorable 1997 concert in which the orchestra upstaged legendary violinist Isaac Stern, as well as Comissiona’s final appearance as musical director in 2000, which received effusive praise from critics Lloyd Dykk and Douglas Hughes.
She reveals Comissiona as a man full of old-world charm with a rich sense of humour and an extraordinarily efficient work ethic. Because Burcescu is of Romanian ancestry, she is able to write authoritatively about the maestro’s formative years in Eastern Europe. There are scores of anecdotes, some hilarious and others quite disturbing, including a tale about how he avoided being rounded up by the Nazis because they mistakenly assumed his apartment was empty. In the late 1950s, Romanian authorities imposed horrific financial penalties on Comissiona after they learned that he and his wife, Robinne, had applied to emigrate to Israel.
Classical-music lovers will appreciate Burcescu’s emphasis on Comissiona’s work as a conductor. Comissiona, who died in 2005 of a heart attack, was a master of colour and tempo during his lengthy career, which included stints in Haifa, London, Stockholm, Baltimore, Houston, New York, Madrid, Helsinki, and Bucharest.
The book suffers from some minor editing lapses. On the upside, however, there’s an impressive collection of quotes from more than three dozen people who came into contact with Comissiona over the years, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Radu Lupu. Their words explain why Sergiu Comissiona should never be forgotten.