Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor known for his subtle interpretations, dies at 80

June 11

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a Spanish-born conductor who performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras and who paired technical aplomb with subtle yet lively interpretations in hundreds of recordings, died June 11 in Pamplona, Spain. He was 80.

Doug Sheldon, his manager for North American engagements, confirmed the death, which came a week after the conductor said he was retiring because of a cancer diagnosis.

In March, his frail appearance while conducting Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra visibly alarmed musicians onstage, according to a Washington Post account. Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos physically struggled through Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s vigorous “Pines of Rome” before completing the work.

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos, who had been the NSO’s principal guest conductor in the 1980s, received an ovation by the players and the audience.

Until last week, he was chief conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and maintained a steady schedule of guest-conducting jobs with organizations including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, seen here in 2002, led many orchestras around the world, including the National Symphony Orchestra. (MICHAEL MANNING/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In a career spanning more than five decades, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos became Spain’s foremost conductor and cultivated a devoted following worldwide. Critically, he was known more for unleashing great zest from a score than for groundbreaking interpretation, although there were exceptions.

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos came to prominence as principal conductor of the National Orchestra of Spain in the 1960s and 1970s and for his many effervescent recordings showcasing Spanish composers, such as Manuel de Falla (“The Three-Cornered Hat”) and Isaac Albéniz (“Suite española”).

The conductor’s Spanish repertoire was vast, from modern composers to Renaissance-era choral works, and he frequently collaborated with the Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha.

But in hundreds of recordings and countless performances, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos was not defined solely as a champion of music from the Iberian peninsula. He gained critical attention for his interpretations of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Requiem” and oratorios including Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation.”

He also brought to international stages German composer Carl Orff’s cantata “Carmina Burana” before it became a concert staple — his 1965 recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus is considered a classic — and he continued to champion that piece in the concert hall.

When Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos conducted “Carmina Burana” with the NSO in 1982, Washington Post music critic Joseph McLellan called it “a smashing performance — not perfect but overwhelming and unforgettable.”

“Frühbeck is a complete master of this massive score in all its nuances, as he demonstrated from the opening bars — a thunderous chorus invoking the goddess Fortuna,” McLellan wrote.

As high-spirited as the music could be, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos was not a flamboyant presence on the podium. He said he valued precision and clarity over showmanship.

“If I made unnecessary gestures to impress the audience while I was standing up in front of 100 professional musicians, my face would turn red,” he once told The Post.

Rafael Frühbeck was born Sept. 15, 1933, in Burgos, a city in northern Spain that became a stronghold for Francisco Franco’s regime during the Spanish Civil War and was the capital of the medieval-era Kingdom of Castile.

His German-born parents settled in Spain after World War I. His mother, in particular, was a cultural omnivore and bought her son a violin, which became his entry into a musical career.

By 14, he was concertmaster of the local orchestra, which specialized in zarzuelas. At the behest of his businessman father, he spent much of his youth studying law while attending a conservatory in Madrid.

In 1953, he began three years of compulsory military duty. “I won a competition to direct a military band — the second best job in the army,” he told the music writer David Mermelstein. “The first one I could not apply for, because that meant being a priest.”

He said he developed critical skills in the army band, namely honing a near-photographic memory for hundreds of symphonies that he transcribed note by note. After his discharge, he went to Munich for further training as a conductor and, at 25, was named chief conductor of Bilbao’s municipal orchestra.

He said he added “de Burgos” to his surname when he brought the Bilbao orchestra to a music festival in France and was told by the orchestra’s manager, “We must do something about this German name. I cannot explain to everyone that you really are Spanish.”

In 1959, he married Maria Carmen Martinez. Besides his wife, survivors include two children. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos held positions as music director of the Düsseldorf Symphony in Germany and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra while working for the National Orchestra in Madrid. He began to attract attention in the United States in the late 1960s when Eugene Ormandy, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, invited him to conduct there.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos was a guest conductor at the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo — one of the finest orchestras in Japan. He later served as chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in addition to other jobs with prominent European orchestras.

In 2012, as music director emeritus of Germany’s Dresden Philharmonic, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos led the orchestra at New York’s Lincoln Center for a performance that included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“It would be an exaggeration to say that Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos made the work sound new or surprising,” music critic Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times, “but he made its titanic gestures unfold like an epic drama, with enough freshness and power to draw you in and keep you in its grip.”

In an online interview with the Grammy Award-winning American violinist Hilary Hahn, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos said of a career in music: “We are the most fortunate people on the earth. I mean, we do what we want. If there was not the traveling, it would be the perfect job.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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