José Serebrier is better known as a conductor than as a composer, though in the latter 1990s and early years of the new century, he garnered a fair amount of attention for his compositions. His works are written in a tonal and quite approachable style and divulge his mastery of orchestration and deft sense for instrumental color. Serebrier began to study the violin at the age of nine with Juan Fabbri and soon began composing. His earliest surviving work dates to 1948, a Sonata for solo violin, Op. 1. He would later take instruction on the piano from Sarah Bourdillion and became a proficient pianist. Following instruction at the Montevideo Municipal School of Music in violin and harmony, Serebrier enrolled at the Montevideo Conservatory, where he studied composition with Carlos Estrada. He remained active as a composer during his student years, turning out such works as the wind quintet Pequeña Musica (1955).
In 1956, Serebrier won a competition in Uruguay with his orchestral overture La leyenda de Fausto. That same year, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music where he studied composition with Vittorio Giannini. He was appointed apprentice conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1958. This post carried with it the Dorati fellowship, which provided further composition study to Serebrier, this time at the University of Minnesota. It was during this time that Serebrier completed one of his most important works for orchestra, the Partita, subtitled "Symphony No. 2" (1957-1958). He left Minneapolis in 1960 to accept a position as conductor of the semi-professional Utica Symphony Orchestra. The salary was meager, about $2,000 per year, though Serebrier augmented his income by teaching at Utica College. Still, he had to live for a time in a room at the local YMCA. His Fantasia for orchestra dates to 1960 and has proven to be one of his more enduring compositions.
In 1962, he received his first important podium appointment — associate conductor of the New York City-based American Symphony Orchestra — where he worked closely with Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski premiered his young colleague's Elegy for Strings at Carnegie Hall in 1962. Serebrier's Carnegie Hall debut as a conductor occurred around this time, also with the American Symphony Orchestra, and was enthusiastically received by critics and public alike. Serebrier left New York for Cleveland in 1968, serving as conductor of the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra and composer-in-residence at George Szell's Cleveland Orchestra. He left the latter post in 1970 and the former in 1971. Serebrier did much guest conducting in the 1970s and 1980s. He made his first recording in 1974, the Ives Symphony No. 4 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, an effort for RCA that drew high praise from critics in Europe and the United States, where it received a Grammy nomination.
Serebrier was appointed principal guest conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 1982. Two years later, he organized the Festival Miami (now called the Festival of the Americas) and served as its artistic director. He developed a relationship with the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the late '80s, making a highly praised series of Shostakovich recordings with them. Around this time, he also began making recordings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Rome Symphony Orchestra. Among his later works is Winterreise (1999), which he recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the Reference Recordings label. He has won a total of eight Grammy Awards, including one in 2004 for his own Carmen Symphony.