Israeli-Polish conductor Gabriel Chmura dies at 74

His life was a deeply moving artistic journey that had the merit of rejoining cultures and hearts.

GABRIEL CHMURA (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Lovers of music in Israel and Poland lowered their heads on Thursday to mark the passing of Israeli-Polish conductor Gabriel Chmura at 74. His death was announced in Poznan, where he served as that city’s Great Theater Musical director.
An accomplished conductor, Chmura (the name means “cloud” in Polish) did much for the work of composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Chmura and others labored to offer the Polish-born Jewish composer largely ignored by the Soviet Union a seat at the table next to other greats of his generation, among them Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.
Born in Wroclaw in 1946 to Yechiel and Zusza, Chmura began his musical education at the age of six under pianist Adam Kopycinski. Conductor of the men’s orchestra in Auschwitz, Kopycinski was allowed by the Nazis to recruit Jews to the orchestra in the autumn of 1944. After the war he would go on to found the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra. The Chmura family emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1957 and he resumed his musical training under pianist Natan Mishori and other distinguished teachers.
He was awarded a scholarship to study under French conductor Pierre Dervaux in 1968. At the age of 25 he won first prize in Berlin at the Herbert von Karajan competition. The young man called his parents to tell them they had not sacrificed for his musical training in vain, Maariv reported at the time. Karajan reportedly took an interest in Chmura and advanced his career, inviting him to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of The Firebird by Stravinsky.
Chmura rapidly became a conductor of note, accepting the position of music director of the opera house in Aachen in 1974 and, later, music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa in 1987. He gained a great deal of note in his long artistic path, eventually returning to Poland to serve as music director of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Katowice.
In 2011 he was awarded the Jan Kiepura Prize for Best Operatic Conducting. Working with British Opera Director David Pountney, he produced Weinberg’s opera The Passenger in Warsaw. The musical work is based on the same-titled 1962 novel by Polish Auschwitz prisoner Zofia Posmysz, who worked with Pountney on the production. Chmura was awarded the Gloria Artis Gold Medal for his service to Polish culture three years ago.
As a conductor, his genius was often recorded. His CBS recording of Haydn’s Symphonies No. 6,7 and 8 with the National Arts Centre Orchestra was chosen by the American Record Guide as a “Best Choice” and nominated for the Canadian Juno awards of 1990 for best classical music album. The last concert Chmura conducted was given in Poznan on October 2. His life was a deeply moving artistic journey that had the merit of rejoining cultures and hearts.