Maestro Mischa Semanitzky, a founding member and conductor for Durango’s annual Music in the Mountains festival, died Sunday in Phoenix at age 89.
His influence on the festival was great – this year it will turn 32 – and has grown from 11 musicians its first year to a three-week-long event now. Susan Lander, former executive director of the festival, said that much of what helped Music in the Mountains grow into a world-class event was Semanitzky’s personality and strong leadership – and his lifelong passion for music. He also left an indelible impression on those who knew him:
Foxie Mason, founder, Music in the Mountains“There’s one (performance) we often talk about , that was the ‘1812 Overture’ and having to figure out how to do a cannon without blowing up the tent. The other thing he was really dedicated to do – he had guest-conducted for the Dallas ballet. And he had always wanted to bring ballet dancers to Durango, but you could immediately imagine the problem with that, and that is the terrible problem of them being able to get their breath. We tried a few times, but it was hard for them. He was a very kind person, and from the start, he was very dedicated to adopting Durango. And Music in the Mountains became something he was totally committed to.”
Guillermo Figueroa, music director, Music in the Mountains“The first thing I have to say is how grateful I am to Mischa because he created an extraordinary festival that when it was my turn to become music director of it, it has changed my life. The festival is one of the highlights of my musical life – I look forward to those three weeks in the summer. He had such a great vision: I can’t imagine 30 years ago what in the world would have motivated him to start a festival in Durango! And to have the patience and determination and the vision to continue and keep it and develop it to such a world-class organization, it’s really quite admirable. I feel I am the benefactor, I’m the beneficiary of it, and I will always be very grateful to him and to Jenny (Semanitzky’s wife). … The one thing about Mischa I admired is that he was like a little boy when it came to talking about music … his enthusiasm for music was infecting, and I think part of the reason that he was successful at creating the festival was probably because he communicated that same enthusiasm to other people.
Ann Butler, former Durango Herald staff writer and Neighbors columnist“I have many memories because there were a lot of years while I was writing Neighbors that he was still the maestro. And he was so generous to somebody who was just starting – I mean, I’d always enjoyed Music in the Mountains, but I was just a regular audience person. And then all of a sudden, I was covering it. He was very generous to show me behind-the-scenes stuff and pointing out … before Linda Mack started doing her lectures, he would give me a heads up on what I should be expecting from a concert when I was writing. And that was really lovely, just to have someone do that. He was also an amazing people person; I would just watch him work the crowd. ... I just really appreciated his kind of looking out for me.”
Susan Lander, executive director for Music in the Mountains, 2001-12“He was amazing. (Jim Foster) and Mischa taught me everything. I’d never run a music festival; they approached me to interview, I did the first two interviews, and I sent them a note saying, ‘This is lovely, but I don’t know how to do a music festival.’ They brought Mischa in to meet me. We went to the DoubleTree, and I don’t know if you’ve ever met him, but he had those sparkling blue eyes and that white hair, and he was so passionate. He talked about the schools program and education, the festival and the musicians, and I got to the parking lot, and I called Jim Foster and I said, ‘OK, you can put my hat back in the ring.’ And they offered me the job.”
Gregory Hustis, festival artistic director, conservatory artistic director“I think of him in terms of his openness and his willingness to accept help and direction from anybody at all – anything that would help the festival was what was important to him. Everyone has an ego to a certain extent, but he was always willing to look at the greater good. And that’s what dictated his actions and his decision-making. And that’s why we have a festival today. He was a very sweet man. He was a smart man. He was a kind man.”