Gifted, Eccentric Conductor Carlos Kleiber Dies at 74
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; Page B06
Carlos Kleiber, a conductor whose brilliant interpretations of opera and a limited symphonic repertoire were surpassed only by his eccentric, often baffling behavior, died July 13 under a typical shroud of secrecy.
Word of his death was not received until he had been buried in Slovenia, beside his wife, Stanka, who died in December. Mr. Kleiber, 74, lived in Munich, but neither the place of his death nor its cause was disclosed. News reports indicated only that he had had a "long illness."
Widely considered among the most gifted conductors of the past four decades, along with Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti, Mr. Kleiber performed only rarely and was known for canceling appearances at the last minute. Except for a five-year stint leading the Bavarian Opera from 1968 to 1973, he never accepted a permanent musical post, preferring to choose when, where and whether he would step onto the podium.
He appeared often, if at irregular intervals, at the leading European opera houses in Italy, Germany, Austria and England and was a guest conductor of Europe's premier orchestras. Despite having studied in New York as a teenager, he conducted in the United States only four times, leading two engagements with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and two with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
The son of a renowned conductor, Erich Kleiber, the younger Mr. Kleiber embarked on a musical career against his father's wishes. He first studied chemistry before turning belatedly if inevitably to conducting, making his European debut in 1954 under an assumed name to avoid bringing shame to his father.
Mr. Kleiber, a tall, slender man of aristocratic bearing, knew the interior architecture of his musical scores intimately, as if he were stripping away years of encrusted tradition to touch the source of the composer's inspiration.
Conductor Bernard Haitink described Mr. Kleiber as "a genius, an extraordinary man."
Opera singer Placido Domingo called Mr. Kleiber "a wizard" and said, "In my experience there's nothing in musical life better than a rehearsal with him."
His performances of a few select operas, such as Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier" and Verdi's "Otello" were regarded as breathtaking by the performers and critics who heard them. His recordings of symphonies by Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms were considered definitive. A writer for Time magazine said his 1975 recording of Beethoven's Fifth "was as if Homer had come back to recite the Iliad."
Mr. Kleiber was a reclusive, mercurial man who never gave interviews, sometimes went years without performing and rarely recorded. His engagements quickly sold out, even if he couldn't be counted on to show up for them. He often canceled at the last moment and once walked out of a recording studio between movements of a symphony, saying he was going for a Sunday drive.
In 1989, he was supposed to conduct five performances of "La Traviata" with the Metropolitan Opera, but when two of the singers took ill, Mr. Kleiber canceled the engagement after two performances.
He could be alternately sensitive or demeaning toward his fellow musicians. Once, between movements of an opera at La Scala in Milan, the baritone Renato Bruson charged Mr. Kleiber backstage, ready to challenge him to a fistfight.
Mr. Kleiber had an unusually small repertoire for a major conductor, focusing on only a few symphonies, piano concertos and operas, and demanded unusually long rehearsals. Yet he managed to pull the finest efforts from his musicians because he made them believe in the music as much as he did.
He had a poetic way of communicating how passages should be played. In one rehearsal of Mozart's Symphony No. 33 with the Chicago Symphony, he said a slow section should sound "like a parent tugging a child away from a toy-store window as they walk along the street."
Mr. Kleiber was born July 3, 1930, in Berlin, where his Viennese father conducted the Berlin State Opera. The elder Kleiber, opposed to the Nazi regime and its restrictions on modern musical works, left Germany in 1935 and moved his family to Buenos Aires.
Carlos Kleiber learned English from his American mother and from English-language schools in Argentina and New York. He studied chemistry at a college in Zurich, but he had begun to compose music at age 9 and by 20 was studying conducting in earnest.
"What a pity he is musical," his father wrote in a letter in 1954.
Mr. Kleiber, who lived most of his adult life in Zurich surrounded by thousands of recordings and books, was fluent in six languages and had a strong interest in literature and politics.
Von Karajan, the German conductor, said Mr. Kleiber chose to conduct only when his freezer got empty, and he was often rumored to be retired, only to appear for another round of concerts.
In 1995, he led the Bavarian State Orchestra in a concert in exchange for a $100,000 Audi sports car, a deal made over a handshake because Mr. Kleiber didn't like written contracts.
He gave his final performances in Spain in 1999, leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in performances of Beethoven's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, plus the overture to Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company