Maestro Mischa Semanitzky, one of the founders of Durango’s annual Music in the Mountains classical music festival, has died.
Semanitzky died Sunday in Phoenix. He was 89.
Born Aug. 16, 1928, in Pittsburgh to Russian Orthodox priest the Rev. John Semanitzky and Katherine Jusciscin, Mischa showed early musical ability.
“He actually started his music career conducting his father’s church choir when he was 10 years old,” said his wife, Jenny St. John, whom he married on Aug. 16, 1980.
Semanitzky earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at Yale University, and a doctorate in music at Columbia University. A violist, he performed a recital at Carnegie Hall, St. John said.
After college, he became concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony in Nashville, Tennessee. He began to move into conducting while serving as concertmaster for Nashville and Louisville symphonies, his wife said. In the 1950s, he began conducting full time.
Semanitzky conducted symphonies and ballets, “interestingly, about equally,” St. John said. “He loved the ballet conducting because of the stage aspect of it, having to coordinate with dancers. He really enjoyed that.”
Semanitzky, a prolific conductor, also worked as an associate conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg for several years, conducted the Pittsburgh Ballet, the Grands Ballets in Montreal and the Dallas Ballet, and had a very active career conducting in Europe, St. John said.
Then, in the 1980s, came Music in the Mountains.
At the time, Foxie Mason, a Dallas resident, had just bought a house in Durango and learned that Durango did not have a classical music festival. Mason wanted to start one. It happened that Semanitzky and St. John did too – but in a different place.
“My husband was on the faculty at SMU (Southern Methodist University), and I worked there, too,” Mason said. “I shared an area where Jenny St. John worked. I overheard Jenny and Mischa talking about starting a music festival in Crested Butte. So I just barged in (laughing) and said, ‘If you’ll do it in Durango, I’ll make it happen.’”
Work on the festival began in 1985, and the first performance was held in 1987 – featuring 11 musicians – at Purgatory, which had been looking for an event to fill the quiet summer season.
What started out as a small festival has grown over the past 32 years – encompassing not only performances under the festival tent at Purgatory, but also including Music in the Mountains Goes to School program, the Conservatory in the Mountains for young musicians, a family evening at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College and more.
Susan Lander, executive director of the festival from 2001 to 2012, said that much of what helped Music in the Mountains grow from a festival far beyond a small-town event was Semanitzky’s personality and strong leadership.
“I think it’s his legacy,” she said. “I think because of his passion and because of who he was, he could ask people for money; he could ask musicians to come. He had that strength and he had the vision. He was like the driving force, I think.”
Semanitzky retired as Music in the Mountains’ artistic director and conductor in 2007.
“Mischa was so full of passion and energy, and he loved Music in the Mountains with all of his heart,” said Music in the Mountains Executive Director Angie Beach. “We are so grateful for his vision to grow Music in the Mountains into the organization that it is today. His impact will continue to be felt for years to come.”
Semanitzky and St. John lived in Phoenix for the past 20 years.
“He was a very nice, optimistic, loving man,” St. John said. “As a matter of fact, he said toward the end of his life, he’d had a wonderful life of music and love, and what more could you ask?”