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Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, a former music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, died June 11, 2014, at the age of 80. (PER MORTEN ABRAHAMSEN)
Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, a former music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, died June 11, 2014, at the age of 80. (PER MORTEN ABRAHAMSEN)

obituary

Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos: Musician until the very end Add to ...

In Canadian classical music history, Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos will be remembered as the conductor whose feud with musicians of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra opened the door to Charles Dutoit.

The spat overshadows the fact that Mr. Fruehbeck was a distinguished musician, known for his professionalism, broad repertoire and longevity.

He got his first musicians’ union card in 1947, when he was a teen. Last fall, still an active musician as he celebrated his 80th birthday, he said: “If I die on stage, the better.”

It nearly came to that in March.

He slumped over toward the end of a lengthy program while conducting the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Despite having to grab the handrail and drooping down, he managed to guide the orchestra through the rousing end of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, according to a review in The Washington Post.

His family later revealed that he was suffering from cancer. Mr. Fruehbeck died Wednesday morning at the University of Navarra hospital in Pamplona, his management agency, Musiespana, said.

He had only made his retirement from the stage official a week ago.

His death came less than a month after the passing of his predecessor at the helm of the MSO, the 90-year-old Franz-Paul Decker, who died in Montreal on May 19.

Mr. Fruehbeck was the chief conductor of the MSO for only two years and his tumultuous departure from Montreal forced the orchestra to find a replacement on short notice, who turned out to be Mr. Dutoit.

In a statement, MSO manager Madeleine Carreau said Mr. Fruehbeck’s stint in Montreal was “brief but significant” because it was under his guidance that the orchestra was invited for the first time to play at Carnegie Hall in New York.

“We feel a sense of great sadness … [He] fought his illness bravely, wishing to practise his art until the last moment,” she said.

Despite his setback in Montreal, Mr. Fruehbeck carried on with a lasting career. Even in his eighth decade, he still conducted regularly, though he sometimes had to be seated on the podium.

He attributed his staying power to music, which he said made him forget his ailments whenever he lifted his baton at the start of a rehearsal.

In 2012, a month after he turned 79, Mr. Fruehbeck directed the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve.

“Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos … will be 80 next year, and each time he shuffled from the wings to the [Roy Thomson Hall] podium he looked it. But, at the podium, even seated as he was, 50 years disappeared before our eyes. He became a conductor of clarity, energy, style and grace – a magical transformation,” Globe music critic Robert Harris wrote in his review.

The son of German parents who had immigrated to Spain, Rafael Fruehbeck was born Sept. 15, 1933, in the northern city of Burgos.

The moniker “de Burgos” was added to his stage name to make it clear that, despite his Germanic name, he was a Spanish musician.

According to a profile in Musical America, his father, an optometrist, wanted him to study law but his culture-loving mother nurtured his musical skills.

He learned the violin and at 14 was already the concertmaster at the local theatre. Because the theatre orchestra had no oboe, he also played the woodwind solos on the violin.” You learned quite a lot that way,” he said.

Another unconventional learning experience came during army service, where he directed a military band. He learned many symphonies because he had to transcribe them note by note for the band.

He received more traditional musical instruction at conservatories in Bilbao and Madrid, then at the Hochschule fuer Musik und Theater in Munich.

“I feel like an old-fashioned German Kapellmeister,” Mr. Fruehbeck once told the Houston Chronicle.

He was alluding to a traditional German musical title denoting a serious music director who isn’t flashy but has a solid grounding in the core repertoire and defers to the composer’s wishes.

By 1962, he was music director of the Spanish National Orchestra. He made his first American tour in 1969, starting in Montreal then enduring a 16-hour train ride, because of the famous February, 1969, nor’easter, which paralyzed the U.S. eastern seaboard, so he could debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

While he was in Madrid in 1973, the Montreal Symphony approached him to become its music director. He agreed to assume those duties by 1975.

The MSO had hoped the up-and-coming Mr. Fruehbeck would bring some glamour and recording contracts.

“That magical name was supposed to increase subscriptions, increase the number of services the musicians gave their public and generally trigger a much better response during fund raising campaigns,” music critic Jacob Siskind wrote in 1976.

However, Mr. Fruehbeck’s recording opportunities didn’t involve the MSO and relations with the musicians turned sour.

He was forced to resign after a loose-lipped chat with La Presse music critic Claude Gingras, in which he was critical of specific orchestra members.

In mid-season, the MSO had to scramble to sign six guest conductors to fulfill the rest of its concert calendar, but it turned out to be a serendipitous problem.

One of those guest conductors was the Swiss Charles Dutoit, who made such a favourable impression that he was hired as the MSO’s new music director.

Under the charismatic Mr. Dutoit, the MSO became a world-famous orchestra with a series of best-selling, critically acclaimed CDs, until the orchestra and Mr. Dutoit also had a public falling-out in 2002.

Mr. Fruehbeck, meanwhile, continued in a productive career but one that didn’t match Mr. Dutoit’s in marketing savvy.

Tireless and equally at ease handling Spanish music, the Austro-German symphonic standards or modern Russian and French composers, Mr. Fruehbeck became a frequent guest conductor with major orchestras.

The magazine Musical America named him Conductor of the Year for 2011.

“His manner is courtly. His gestures are sweeping and charismatic. He is a connoisseur of colourful French, Spanish and Russian music. They especially love him in Boston and Philadelphia, where he brings back memories by extracting the ripe, fleshy sounds of their orchestras of yore,” The Los Angeles Times wrote after an L.A. Philharmonic concert where he showed his versatility with a program of Schumann, Debussy and Ravel.

At 79, he became chief conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, marking his first season in Copenhagen by performing Beethoven’s nine symphonies in order.

When he turned 80 last fall, he told the Spanish newspaper ABC that he never had thoughts of retiring.

“I will continue until my body gives up,” he said.

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