Conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos dies at 80

Rafael Frübeck de Burgos led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Verdi's "Requiem" in 2002.
Rafael Frübeck de Burgos led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Verdi's "Requiem" in 2002. (AP)
Posted: June 13, 2014

Few conductors have had the longevity, artistic consistency, and frequent-flier miles of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The 80-year-old Spanish conductor, who died of cancer Wednesday in Pamplona, Spain, first led the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1969, after flying into New York City during one of the worst snowstorms in decades. He returned virtually every year thereafter.

"He developed an unparalleled relationship with our musicians, appearing continually for nearly half a century," said orchestra president Allison Vulgamore. "That alone speaks to the depth and to the enduring power of his music-making." With his concerts here in October, he tallied 150 Philadelphia Orchestra performances.

"He realized that the conductor should be part of the ensemble, and I think that's why things jelled so well with us," said violinist Herb Light, a Philadelphia Orchestra member for 54 years. "He trusted the orchestra."

Other players talked about Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos' "old school" way of leading rehearsals, giving musicians extra time to make their points, and enjoying such a friendly relationship that he playfully showed off recent surgery scars.

Despite serious health issues in recent years, he continued a schedule of about 80 concerts a year, and, unlike many senior conductors, made a point of spending time not just with the world's top orchestras, but with second-tier ensembles from Detroit to Sao Paulo, Brazil, often during vulnerable periods when they were between chief conductors.

Though his early career was marked by major appointments with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Montreal and Vienna symphony orchestras, in recent years he preferred shorter stints - with the Dresden Philharmonic in 2004, as "creative director" of the Cincinnati Symphony in 2011, and as principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2012.

Though best known for highly colored showpieces - Falla's El Amor Brujo, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Debussy's La Mer - Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos graduated with honors from the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, which instilled in him a special feeling for the Germanic classics. Retired Philadelphia players were known to return to the orchestra when he conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

His all-Wagner concerts are the ones that principal oboist Richard Woodhams recalls with special delight. "His affection for the music was so deep that it created a warm luster, particularly in German repertoire," he said. "Frühbeck so understood the music structurally, so he knew how to pace it but also how to humanize it. Some of that music can sound so leaden with somebody else."

Though his performances were not radical, they didn't sound like anyone else's. Said Woodhams, "He had a way of having an idea for a phrase that was a little bit different than the way one would think of it but was inevitably correct." As for the warhorses, "he just loved them so much. That's why they were so fresh."

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos was quoted as saying he would never retire. Then last week he issued a statement canceling all engagements: "I have to recognize publicly that I have cancer. . . . I am not able to conduct at my standards." As someone who lived to make music, his retirement was his requiem.

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