Heinz Fricke, the East German conductor who had an unlikely late-career renaissance as the beloved music director of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, died Dec. 7 near Berlin. He was 88.
His family announced the death in a German newspaper, Neues Deutschland, but did not cite a cause.
Mr. Fricke rose to eminence in East Germany after World War II, taking over the helm of the Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper) in 1961, the same year the Berlin Wall was built. He led that ensemble, one of Germany’s most prestigious, for the next 30 years. When he retired in 1992, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 after serving as conductor and professor, the Wall was in the final stages of being dismantled.
That wall circumscribed Mr. Fricke’s movements for much of his career. He was sometimes denied permission to accept guest conducting gigs in the West; when he did take them, the state took 40 to 50 percent of his fee, and often put off issuing travel visas until the last minute.
Not until 1990 was he allowed to come to the United States. A protégé of the noted Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber, he had studied with some of the leading maestros of the 20th century, and continued a grand tradition, but the authorities preferred that he continue it on his home turf.
Still, he was able to lead a huge range of performances, both operatic (his repertory included some 180 operas) and symphonic, including performances with Soviet violinist David Oistrakh and the German bass-baritone Theo Adam.
In 1993, after a successful appearance leading “The Flying Dutchman” with the Washington National Opera, Mr. Fricke — almost entirely unknown in the United States — took over as music director of that company and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. It was two years after Kurt Masur, another eminent East German conductor and a friend of Mr. Fricke’s, came to the New York Philharmonic.
No one was quite prepared for the transformation of the Washington ensemble that followed. During an 18-year tenure , Mr. Fricke improved standards and discipline and replaced more than 20 players, one-third of the small orchestra, with his own hires.
It was not an unusual rate of turnover in that time period, but one that had a signal effect on sound and morale, coming after a period of a couple of seasons during which the orchestra had no music director at all.
The only real fly in the ointment was an incident when he was accused of discriminating against a WNO violinist, who claimed he was fired in 1996 because he was Jewish. Despite the fact that other Jewish players had been promoted at the same time, and support from other WNO musicians, a jury awarded the Soviet-born violinist, Boris Reznikov, $150,000 in damages in 2000.
The incident didn’t diminish the love of players and critics for Mr. Fricke’s work.
“He’s totally calm and makes it look easy,” the flutist Adria Sternstein told The Washington Post in 1997. “You walk out of a rehearsal feeling, ‘This is why I went into music.’ ”
“No conductor has summoned better playing from that troupe’s orchestra,” wrote Post music critic Tim Page of Mr. Fricke’s Washington National Opera tenure in 2005, calling him the best Wagner conductor in the country.
Mr. Fricke — genial, relaxed and communicating warmth and love of music to his players — didn’t seem to care too much about his legacy. And counter to stereotypes of authoritarian Germans, he enjoyed the freedom and the relaxed pace of life in the United States after the Cold War.
“What is marvelous is the relief,” he told The Post in 1992, shortly before taking the D.C. job. “The pressure — can I go or can I not go? — is gone.”
He didn’t overstate the importance of his own role as conductor. The great German-born maestro Bruno Walter, he said, showed that as a leader “you can pose difficult challenges but must never forget that there’s a human being sitting there in front of you. As a conductor, I’m a musician like a violinist or a clarinetist. It’s simply my function that’s different.”
Heinz Fricke was born in Halberstadt, Germany, on Feb. 11, 1927. His father ran a barbershop and made music on the side.
At 17, the younger Fricke was conscripted into the German army in the closing months of the war. Accused of desertion after a visit to some family members, he decided that life as a POW was preferable to court-martial, and he surrendered to an American unit stationed nearby.
He spent a year in a POW camp, where he was able to practice music. American music was, indeed, to prove a stumbling block later in his life: When he took his final exams from music conservatory, he was given failing marks — because, it turned out, his examiners had discovered he had performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at several concerts, a kind of American music that was frowned upon.
It didn’t ultimately hurt his career. He conducted in Leipzig, took over from Masur at the opera house in Schwerin for a year, and then made his way to Berlin and what was one of the best careers available to a musician in East Germany.
He did tour internationally, and he endured the blame when musicians defected on each trip. As a result, he was hardly ever able to bring his wife and son with him. But he led a large repertory with major artists, both from the East and West. Once in America, however, he had no desire to go back to the Staatsoper.
“This orchestra is now as good as orchestras in Munich and Hamburg,” he told Bloomberg News in 2007. “I think we make a good family.”