Edward Downes, 85

Edward Downes, 85; British Maestro Conducted High-Profile Orchestras

Edward Downes conducted the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Opera.
Edward Downes conducted the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Opera. (Bill Cooper - AP)
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Friday, July 17, 2009

British maestro Edward Downes, who conducted the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Opera but struggled in recent years as his hearing and sight failed, died July 10 with his wife, Joan Weston Downes, at an assisted suicide clinic in Zurich. He was 85, and she was 74.

"After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems," said a statement from the couple's son and daughter, Caractacus and Boudicca.

The statement said Downes, who became Sir Edward when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991, had become almost blind and increasingly deaf. His wife, a former dancer, choreographer and television producer, had devoted years to working as his assistant. British newspapers reported that she had received a cancer diagnosis.

The deaths are the latest in a series of high-profile cases that have spurred calls for a legal change in Britain, where assisted suicide and euthanasia are banned.

Edward Thomas Downes was born in Birmingham, England, and studied at Birmingham University and the Royal College of Music.

In 1952 he joined London's Royal Opera House, where his first job was as prompter to soprano Maria Callas. He made his debut as a conductor with the company the next year and went on to become associate music director. Throughout his life, he retained close ties to the Royal Opera, conducting 49 operas there over more than 50 years.

He also had a decades-long association with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, where he became principal conductor and later conductor emeritus.

Mr. Downes was known for his support for British composers and his passion for Prokofiev and Verdi, on whom he was considered an expert.

In the 1970s he became music director of the Australian Opera, conducting the first performance at the Sydney Opera House in 1973. He also worked with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and ensembles around the world.

-- Associated Press

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