Conductor Comissiona passes the youth baton

by Rob Gilhooly

When Sergiu Comissiona arrives in Japan later this month to embark on the final leg of this year’s Asian Youth Orchestra tour, it’s likely that the baton he always conducts with will feel a little heavier than usual. This year marks the acclaimed Romanian-born conductor’s eighth season with the AYO. Sadly, it also marks his last.

Conductor Sergiu Comissiona relaxes before an Asian Youth Orchestra concert in Tokyo last year.

“I’m certainly not jumping up and down with happiness at the thought of finishing,” said Comissiona, 73.

“I have worked with the AYO with all my heart, and it’s a chapter of my life I can never return to. I can’t express the joy of relating with these young people and hearing them play. It is like they have injected a huge dose of vitamins into my veins.”

Comissiona took over the podium of the AYO in 1993, the baton passed to him by legendary violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, who, together with artistic director Richard Pontzious, founded the orchestra in 1989.

Yet Comissiona was initially uncertain as to whether he was suited to the task.

“I didn’t know if I would be good or bad with a youth orchestra,” commented Comissiona, who in his 56 years of conducting has worked in some 30 countries and with some of the world’s most reputed professional orchestras, including the London, Berlin and New York philharmonic orchestras and the Boston and San Francisco symphony orchestras.

“I expected the AYO members to be childish and unreceptive, that I would have to close my eyes and ears to their mistakes. I was wrong — it was a real eye-opener. I soon learned that the end results with both a youth orchestra and a professional one are not so different.”

It would seem Comissiona is not alone in his praise for the 100 members of the AYO, selected annually from thousands of applicants from 11 Asian nations with ages ranging from the mid-teens to mid-20s.

Every season the orchestra has been joined by some of the world’s top soloists, including the likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violists Cho-Liang Lin and Akiko Suwanai.

While this is further testimony to the respect the AYO enjoys, Comissiona concedes there are areas he has striven to improve.

“One problem with young Asian musicians is that they sometimes lack the flexibility and the spontaneity needed to make music at this level. I have been fighting to lure them away from robotic playing,” he said.

“Many of them probably never had the chance to hear classical music from childhood, unlike many people in the West, particularly in Europe. I don’t think it’s always a matter of [the age at which] you start playing; [it's] simply whether or not you have the opportunity to bask in the classical musical culture from a young age.”

Comissiona himself hails from a musical family and began playing the violin at age 5. Recruited by the Romanian State Ensemble in his early teens, he made his conducting debut at the tender age of 17 and was named principal conductor of the Romanian State Opera while still in his 20s.

In addition to the plethora of conductorships he has undertaken since, Comissiona has also held many top musical posts, such as those of musical director of the American Symphony Orchestra and Sweden’s Gothenberg Orchestra.

His brush with youth has proved addictive. He currently conducts with a number of youth orchestras worldwide, including several university orchestras in the United States, where he has been a citizen for almost three decades.

The end of his tenure with the AYO, it seems, will scarcely lighten the load of his hectic schedule.

“Actually, I’m on a diet. I used to do 90 tours a year. I’ve reduced that to 70. Anyway, after eight years with the AYO I think it’s only natural to pass on the baton. Any organization after a certain amount of time needs new blood, new ideas.”

However, his stint with the orchestra — whose administration is based in Hong Kong — has furnished some of his greatest memories. One was the AYO’s performance during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the United Nations at the Lincoln Center.

“That was a very moving moment for me, to be able to bring the message of brotherhood that is the very essence of the AYO to such a stage.”

Another highlight, he said, was performing in Nanjing.

“I originally thought that this might be awkward for some of our Japanese and Chinese members, but on the contrary there was a warm friendship.

“It is amazing how music can bridge sometimes gaping voids and pave the way for friendship and unity. That has been the AYO’s message from the very beginning. I hope it continues.”