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June 5, 2009

Journey from Romania to Canada

A longtime friend and writer pens Vancouver Maestro Sergiu Comissiona's biography.

Cecilia Burcescu, a Romanian-born instructor of English language and literature at Vancouver Community College and the author of the recent book A Romanian Rhapsody: The Life of Conductor Sergiu Comissiona, loves classical music. Through that love, she first met world-renowned conductor Maestro Sergiu Comissiona, when he was the music director of the Vancouver Symphony (1990-2000).

Like Comissiona, Burcescu spent her formative years in Romania, enduring the absurdity and thought-policing of Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship. In 1984, she decided that the situation had become untenable and the only way out was to flee the country. Leaving her two young children behind, she crossed four borders illegally, always looking over her shoulder, afraid someone would shoot at her. Suffused with fear and hope, she finally arrived in West Germany, where she asked for political asylum. Afterwards, Burcescu wrote many letters to the Red Cross, until she and her children were reunited. The family then waited for the permit to immigrate to Canada.

The wait was long, and the living conditions harsh. Fed up with the bureaucratic labyrinth, Burcescu wrote another letter – to England. "When I was a university student of English literature," she recalled, "Margaret Thatcher visited Romania. I was her interpreter for two weeks." Now, in her freezing attic in a small town in Germany, she wrote a letter to the British prime minister's office, asking for advice. "They helped!" she said in amazement. "They sent a recommendation letter to the Canadian consulate in Bonn, with the letterhead of the Queen." She still has a copy of that letter, saying that Thatcher remembered her young interpreter. The next day, Burcescu's family received their longed-for permit and prepaid plane tickets to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, Burcescu soon became a regular subscriber to the Orpheum Theatre. Once, she read an ad about an upcoming concert that promised George Enescu's music had "gypsy flavor." Incensed at the affront to the greatest Romanian composer, she wrote an angry letter to the symphony, demanding to know since when Enescu had "gypsy flavor." To her surprise, Comissiona himself replied to her missive. He apologized, explained that he didn't know about the ad, promised to get it withdrawn and invited her backstage after the concert. The friendship that had started with such a memorable incident continued until the end of the maestro's life. And, no surprise: there was so much in common between the two Romanians.

In 2004, when Comissiona's Vancouver contract was already over, he confided to Burcescu that several people had approached him to write his biography. "I don't know whom to choose," he complained. "Ask every contender to write you a sample chapter," she suggested. She even faxed him an example – a draft of her own foreword – and he immediately hired her as his official biographer.

Burcescu's biography of Comissiona begins with flying. A fitting beginning, as it highlights the conductor's life. While soaring on the wings of music, the maestro was perpetually in transit – from orchestra to orchestra, from city to city and continent to continent. A man on the move, he brought music with him everywhere, spreading it around the world.

The book follows Comissiona in his travels – some desirable, others imposed on him by the postwar communist regime in Romania. From his happy Jewish childhood in Bucharest, through the terrors of Nazism and the crippling restrictions of communism, to the freedom and concert halls of the West, only three things remained constant in his life: his love of music, his devotion to his beloved wife, Robinne, and his adherence to his ethnic roots, both Romanian and Jewish.

The author followed her hero whenever he had an engagement that allowed him to stay in one place for a few days. She recorded his life during their multiple storytelling sessions. Because she went through similar ordeals in her own life, her explanations of the frightening political atmosphere in totalitarian Romania ring true. Despite Comissiona's rising star as a bright young conductor, the climate of fear and censorship suffocated him, both artistically and personally, at last, contributed to his uneasy decision to leave Romania and immigrate to Israel in 1959.

Without embellishment or exaggeration, Burcescu writes about Comissiona's struggle during their first few months in Israel, about his wife's courage and enterprising spirit and her husband's almost-despair at his inability to find a conducting position. Later, Comissiona re-entered his element as a conductor, winning accolades in Israel, Sweden, England and Ireland.

Ten years later, the American chapter of the maestro's life started, when he accepted the position of the music director of the Baltimore Symphony, a position he held for 17 years. Burcescu wrote about this period in Comissiona's life with honest details, listing his concerts, cataloguing his triumphs and disappointments. As he built that orchestra, from its provincial, mediocre status to the rank of one of the best musical ensembles in America, he also continued his "jet conductor" existence.

His reputation for fixing orchestral problems brought him in 1990 to Vancouver, where he pulled the Vancouver Symphony from the brink of financial collapse. Striving for excellence and widening his professional horizons, Comissiona created music that was colorful and picturesque, reminiscent of his Romanian origins. He promoted new composers, regularly performed at several summer festivals and launched many young musicians to stardom. Among his protégés were such international celebrities as Yo Yo Ma and Murry Sidlin.

In 2005, Comissiona died as he lived, making music, leaving behind constellations of orchestras he built, friends he cultivated and young talents he nurtured. His death devastated Burcescu, whose last work session with Comissiona happened in Athens only two weeks earlier. The book wasn't finished, but it became Burcescu's legacy, her labor of love. She had to bring it to fruition.

Her deep, exhaustive research has paid off. Sometimes, the narrative reaches the heights of poetic metaphor but mostly it glides, smoothly and simply, on the waves of Comissiona's extraordinary life, fascinating the readers without gimmicks or frills. Time jumps and places collide, as the biographer weaves the story from its separate strands, producing a rich multi-hued tapestry, giving a glimpse into the life of a musician of the highest calibre.

At Burcescu's request, Murry Sidlin wrote a "coda" for her book, a conclusion passionate and poetic and utterly musical. Only another conductor could write about his mentor with such poignant sensitivity, providing heart-warming little stories, simultaneously touching and funny, that add to the image of the man he admired.

Anecdotes and performance reviews, political overviews and personal testimonials – they all have made Burcescu's book into what it is: a tribute to Maestro Sergiu Comissiona.

Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer.